20221211 Sermon: We Belong to One Another


St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT ¹

Are You Sure You’re the One?
"You brood of vipers!"

Do you remember that phrase from last week? I saw several of you scribbling notes during the gospel reading, so I know you remember!

That was John the Baptist calling out the Pharisees and Sadducees when they came to visit him in the desert. Jesus will ALSO use this phrase against the same team later in Matthew Chapter 12. And both John and Jesus use THIS saying in common: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near". So, there’s a lot of overlap between John’s message and Jesus’,

But in today’s Gospel, something really interesting happens. John begins to wonder whether Jesus really IS the Messiah. He sends messengers to Jesus to ask him "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

A Different Idea
Now, WHY has John the Baptist begun to doubt whether Jesus is the one or not?

You might remember that John also said THIS: "Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." John the Baptist had every expectation that Israel’s Messiah, whoever that might turn out to be, would be the one to pick up that axe and start chopping and burning. And that is NOT what Jesus did.

That’s why Jesus responded to John so enigmatically, paraphrasing Isaiah 35 that we just read a moment ago: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them…." Jesus had a very different idea about what it meant for the Kingdom of God to come near; he saw it as a healing kingdom, a good news kingdom, a kingdom of hope. Its a kingdom that remembers that we belong to each other. Jesus left that axe at the base of the tree; he didn’t pick it up. And this was the thing that John just couldn’t understand.

The Great Comma
You know, I think a LOT of Christians don’t get that about Jesus, even today. So many Christians are expecting him to start swinging that axe around… they WANT him to start swinging that axe around. And I get it; they want justice. I want justice too… I’ve found myself screaming "You brood of vipers!" during the evening news!

The problem for Christians is, many THINK they know the ones who DESERVE to get chopped down. They think they KNOW the difference between righteousness and unrighteousness, the difference between good and evil. And isn’t that part of the point of the Adam and Eve story? Their DESIRE to know the difference between good and evil was stronger than their desire to know God.

This is hard stuff. I understand that we have to know a lot about justice to live together on Earth, but I’m wondering as Christians, if we might put more emphasis on the healing that JESUS was DOING rather than the axe swinging that John the Baptist was hoping for.

We’re about to say the Nicene Creed together in a few moments, and we’ll pause for a split second at what some have called "The Great Comma". "…he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man (pause) For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate…"

That pause was Jesus’ entire life! Everything he did! All that healing and good news and hopefulness! None of THAT made it into our foundational statement of faith! We might have been better off as a church if our creed had paid more attention to what Jesus DID rather than trying to parse out what the Trinity IS. Just sayin’.

A Healing Needed for Today
Maybe we can do more of that Jesus work here at St. Andrews. As a community of faith, we can do what Jesus did… we can leave that axe lying at the root of the tree until the end of the age, and give hope NOW to people who are suffering; we can remember that we belong to one another.

Here’s a specific something I would like us to think about; maybe we can help make housing more affordable in our region. It’s a big problem, and a lot of our neighbors are suffering because of it.

Recently, many of the region’s clergy have raised the alarm about affordable housing, and here is some of what they have to say in a letter to the editor of The Day2:

Low-income and affordable housing construction has lagged since the 2008 recession, and more recently many low–rent units have been bought by investors, given minor make-overs, and returned to the market at rent levels that are beyond the means of most low-income renters, especially seniors living on limited and fixed incomes. While wages have stagnated for decades, the cost of housing has soared.

The recent series produced by The Day’s Housing Solutions Lab laid bare the housing crisis’ human impact in our region, and many clergy are seeing the suffering up close: Our homeless response system is struggling to keep up with increasing demand and too often being unable to address all the need -- we find newly unhoused people sleeping in their cars in the parking lots or in green spaces; more individuals approach the congregations we serve for rent assistance or more common, assistance for paying a hotel bill, as local hotels are increasingly serving as a substitute for permanent housing (Shariya has gotten calls like this). Most of those caught in this web of vulnerable circumstance live paycheck to paycheck in low-wage jobs and are one medical emergency or necessary car repair away from economic collapse.

This may seem unsurmountable; it is not. A key first step toward the community’s well-being is the steepest; more empathy. In the words of Mother Theresa, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."

We have forgotten that we belong to each other. We ask that you hear our plea to remember that we belong to each other, and be assured; this crisis is solvable.

Righting this ship asks us to change systems that prevent progress. One of those systems of greatest impact are zoning regulations. Often these regulations prevent construction of multi-dwelling units, for one. As well, although state law established a target of reaching 10% affordable housing in every community (including Madison), this law has not yet prompted many communities to encourage such development.

We all want our communities to thrive and progress. Providing safe and affordable housing only amplifies that possibility. In recent weeks, clergy all across our region have reminded the congregations they serve about exactly that, as we shine light on this crisis.

The first step in adjusting our collective sails is growing our collective empathy. We witness acts of great kindness and ingenuity in our communities. Let’s apply both, to change the systems that impact our ability to have affordable housing.

That’s what a lot of clergy in our region, including me, had to say about affordable housing.

A Bigger Impact
Now, St. Andrews already does some work on this. Many parishioners help with Habitat for Humanity which builds or renovates houses for new low-income owners. Some of our people sit on local boards that might have an impact on affordable housing. Our two Sacred Grounds groups are learning about many of the systems that have brought problems like this disproportionally to black and brown families in CT.

There are a couple ways for us to have a bigger impact however.

One is to come together with other local communities of faith and pool some of our collective leadership and resources. There are a lot of faithful people in Madison and Guildford, and a lot of them want to put a dent in this problem.

We could join a faith-based community organization like ConeCT, which represents over 30,000 people of faith from more than 40 faith communities from Fairfield to New Haven. They have recently been asking faith communities in Guildford and Madison to join their work. We might consider that.

This kind of work is not trivial, and it takes time and leadership and funding to make it happen; maybe several years are needed. And you can bet that there will be opposition; it is no accident that zoning boards are one of the greatest impediments to affordable housing in CT.

Knowing WHY we might consider something like this is key however. We might do it because Jesus healed the the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf. He raised the dead and brought good news to the poor. He left the axe at the bottom of the tree, and worked on hope instead, much to John the Baptist’s surprise. We can look to see what hopelessness looks like in our own time, and follow his lead to bring something hopeful instead.

Jesus had a very different idea about what it meant for the Kingdom of Heaven to come near. And while there were vipers to be criticized in his culture, just as there might be in ours, Jesus saw the Kingdom of Heaven as a healing kingdom, a good news kingdom, a kingdom of hope. Its a kingdom that remembers that we belong to each other, and that’s where Jesus did his work. We can too. Amen.

  1. Sermon delivered at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT on Sunday, December 11, 2022; 3 Advent
  2. Paraphrased from: Greater New London Clergy Association. (2022, November 20). Together, We Can Find Solutions to Affordable Housing Problem. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://www.theday.com/letters/20221120/together-we-can-find-solutions-to-affordable-housing-problem/