Bearing fruit

RCL Year A, 2 Advent

Ah, the cheerful Advent scriptures. Prepare the way, says John in the wilderness. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. This is never a message that strikes an easy chord, but that’s especially so in Christmastime. We’re focused on other things right now, you could say, we’re distracted, just a little stressed. We’re not interested in repentance right now – talk to us in Lent and maybe we’ll listen a little bit more.

And yet this is part of the season in the church, repenting and preparing the way. Repentance, though, doesn’t mean going around thinking glumly about how horrible we are. Repentance isn’t about sin. It’s the translation of the Greek word metanoia, meaning a total change of orientation – starting out afresh on a new path. With New Year’s coming up, we might be readier to think about that. But today I want to talk about this change as a community event. How are we at ECA preparing the way, and what fruit do we have to show for it? What does Advent look like in our own piece of wilderness here in Almaden?

At our diocesan convention last month we heard from several different churches about ways that they are serving their mission. One of them was the church of St Luke’s in Atascadero. Their rector Matt Conrad talked about how they rebuilt the entryway to their church, changing an awkward, cramped, closed-off entry into something more open to the street, with a courtyard and glass windows so you could see into the sanctuary. Curiously, the way he talked of it, they didn’t do this to make their church more inviting – they were just trying to make it nicer for themselves. But then they found that folks in their neighborhood started showing up more, sitting in the sun in the courtyard, waving to them through the windows, even donating a little money to their renovation. Simply improving their entryway opened access for the people around them to feel connected to their church. Without realizing it, they prepared the way.

Preparing the way in our congregation means thinking about things like access. How easy is it for someone to come in to this community? We can forget how hard it is to come into our church building, let alone get to know everyone here in the congregation. Just think of all the questions that arise for someone considering a visit to ECA:

  • Where is the door?
  • Where do I park? Don’t you have visitor parking? Because otherwise I’m parking a long ways away from the door and it’s hard for me to walk to it.
  • Where do my kids go? Are they welcome to be in church with me? Really welcome? What about my child with special needs? Will you welcome her too?
  • I can’t get up those stairs. How do I get in?
  • The altar is beautiful and you say everyone is welcome at it. So why is the altar blocked off with those rails? What if I can’t kneel or don’t want to kneel? Am I really allowed to take communion? Are my kids allowed?
  • The music makes it hard for me to join in. I can’t sing these songs because I don’t know them. How am I supposed to participate?

Any of those might be enough to keep any of you from coming, even you who have been coming for years. And I have been asked every one of them by newcomers or potential newcomers – but who knows how many didn’t dare to ask and never came. We can do something about all of these – but it will require some metanoia. It will require us changing some of our ways and thinking better about our building and facility.

And then there are the more difficult questions, those that really do keep people from coming:

  • Sunday mornings are always scheduled up in our family. Our kids have sports, we’re all exhausted, it’s the only time our family can spend together, and so on. But we so wish we could be part of a community like you have. I wish there was some other time we could come.
  • I’m not a church person and I don’t know what I believe. But I like to serve and help other people. I wish I knew more about your feeding ministry or other things you do and could help out that way.
  • I’m not a church person and I’m not likely to ever come to church on a Sunday. But I’m worried about my kids learning good values and finding better friends than the ones they have now. I wish there was some way you could help me with that.
  • I’m an older person and I’ve lived in my house for decades – I’m all alone now and can’t get out much, and I’m lonely. I wish someone would help.

Every one of these has also been said numerous times. We could do something in response to these needs as well – but it will look very different than expecting people to join us on Sunday at church. A complete change of orientation.

Preparing the way for others and for God takes a lot of active work. It’s not just an internal thing for each one of us in our spiritual lives. It requires changes in our behavior, in our lives and in our community. John told those coming for baptism, Bear fruit worthy of repentance. In other words, don’t just do the spiritual ritual. Don’t just show up to worship. Show in your lives what is happening in your hearts. Show in your community what you say you believe.

What would that fruit look like for us? That’s what we’re discerning now in our house meetings. But I have a few ideas:

  • We would really show our welcome to everyone. We’d get rid of barriers for people joining in activities here – making sure to include children and families in fellowship events, driving people who need rides, going out of our way to talk to others besides our friends at coffee hour. And we wouldn’t save seats at dinners for people we already knew.
  • We’d give generously of our money, time, and energy, to care for others and to make possible events and activities here and elsewhere that really serve the gospel.
  • We’d trust each other – we’d buck the trend in our culture, where now only 1/3 of Americans say they trust most people. We’d presume the best of each other.

We’d show forth in our lives what we profess in our faith, in other words. Some of this we do, some of the time. But we don’t do all of it all of the time. We have some roadwork to do.

Isaiah’s words are to prepare the way in the wilderness – and that is our role too. The wilderness in John’s time was a dangerous place of bandits and wild animals where nothing could grow. We live in a kind of wilderness in our culture, in a time and place where many people fail to thrive and live abundantly. It harms people, the addictions to overwork and novelty and wealth that are endemic to our culture. It’s dangerous to community and a sense of God’s love for us, living in this world. It’s not an auspicious time and place for being a church. But then again, there never has really been an auspicious time and place to be people who try to follow Jesus. All we can do is pay attention: pay attention to hearts and God’s voice speaking to us there. Pay attention to our own behavior to see how well it shows what we believe and think is important. Pay attention to our community to see what fruit we bear together, how well we witness and prepare the way in this neighborhood and this world.

The voice cries out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord. There is so much fruit we can bear in this place. With listening, with attention, we can know God already here in our midst. We can turn and see, and show what we see to others. Again, Happy Advent.