"As Simple as Two Bags of Flour"

Date Sunday December 16, 2018
Service Third Sunday in Advent
Text Text: Luke 3:7-18
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "We Need John the Baptist"
Next Sermon "The Sign was a Sign"

     Perhaps you’ve heard about the church in the Netherlands that has been holding a non-stop worship service since October; they have had continuous worship with no breaks for two months. I’ll admit that I was unaware of the story until Pastor Sandy Selby sent me the article from the New York Times.

     The reason for this unusual situation is that an obscure Dutch law prohibits law enforcement from disrupting a church service to make an arrest. Therefore, it is impossible for the police to pursue a family of Armenian refugees who fled to the church for sanctuary in late October. Now, 550 pastors from 20 denominations are taking turns to keep worship in Bethel Church going.

     There are many angles to this story, but here’s the part that captured my attention: the first church in which the family of five (parents and three young adult/teen children) took refuge ran out of resources to help them, so Bethel Church, the present place of sanctuary, welcomed the family after, and I quote, “some deliberation among the leadership.” (Just “some” deliberation?) As well as maintaining round-the-clock prayers and a place to live, the church has provided psychological help for the family and teaching for the children, who can no longer go to school or university classes. The eldest child, who is 21, wrote on her blog: “I often feel the only place I’m safe is the church. It really feels like a refuge.” (1)

     The reason these details particularly interested me is that the church leadership chose to live their faith in a country where Christianity is not thriving, so maintaining a worshipping community was a struggle even before taking on a complicated ministry. Also, obviously, this is a potentially volatile issue, which adds another level of complexity. And, when the decision was made, they had no idea when this commitment would end or that they would receive so much assistance. (Now there are so many volunteers to help with worship that it’s difficult to fit them in the schedule.)

     It’s the type of result John the Baptist was looking for when he prepared the way for Jesus. Some of you may have noticed on FACE Book that I shared a picture of a wild-looking man with the caption, “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!” I then commented on the challenge for preachers of two weeks of readings about John the Baptist during this season of joy, especially since in today’s text he is less than cheery.

     One of the FACE Book comments (I won’t say by whom) accused me of enjoying saying, as I did at the beginning of today’s Gospel, “You brood of viper, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” (I admit, it’s just such a satisfying phrase!)

     It’s interesting that while in Matthew’s Gospel John the Baptist calls only the religious leaders a brood of vipers, in Luke the whole crowd who came out to see him are warned, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham!’ The message is that one’s religious heritage is not enough. Or, for us, being baptized is not the end of the story. Showing one’s faith in one’s actions is vital. In today’s Gospel, John preaches a baptism of repentance leading to forgiveness of sins as the means to prepare for the coming Messiah. And, he spells out what repentance looks like: when peoples’ hearts and minds are changed, their actions change too. He makes it clear that words are empty if they do not result in deeds.

     So, drawn in by his preaching, the crowd asks him what they should do. Let’s read that part again: “In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations and be satisfied with your wages.’” (Luke 3:10-14)

     It’s interesting, isn’t it, as commentator Scott Hoezee points out, that John does not ask them to do major ministry projects, like establishing a social service agency or retreating for a year of meditation and prayer. Instead, he sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life. (2)

     What John the Baptist said, basically, was: Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more generously, do it more honestly, do it with more humility and acceptance. In other words, live out your faith.

     Pastor Austin Crenshaw Shelley tells a great story in “Christian Century” about how he saw his grandmother do this. His grandparents, with whom he evidently lived, were frugal for a good reason. They lived on relatively little inside their 526-square-foot home in rural South Carolina. Papa kept a tight grip on the finances, he wrote, meting out their weekly contribution to the church – ten dollars for the offering plate and one dollar for each grandchild for Sunday School. This was generous in relation to the family’s income.

     But Papa did not review the grocery bill, that was his wife’s domain. So every week Austin and his grandmother shared a secret. When they went grocery shopping on Saturdays, she carefully selected food in duplicate – two boxes of cereal, two jars of peanut butter, two bags of flour. Then, they’d check out – a slow process involving a stack of coupons – load the car and drive straight to the town’s food bank, where his grandmother donated exactly half of everything she’s just purchased. She bought his silence each week with a small candy bar – one chocolate treat for him, and one for the food bank.

     On one of these weekly trips, when Austin was 8 or 9 years old, he asked for a brand-name cereal that he had heard advertised on a commercial. Upon being told that they could not afford it, Austin grumbled under his breath, “We can if we don’t buy two of them.” Now I’ll quote him:

     “My grandmother’s eyes met mine. She put her list down so as to place her hands firmly on my shoulders. She measured her words as carefully as my grandfather had measured the dollars for our Sunday offering: ‘If we can’t afford two, we can’t afford one.’

     He then goes on, “I never asked my grandmother whether our weekly grocery run was a direct response to Luke 3. Given her tendency to interpret scripture more literally that I, the odds are favorable that John’s exhortations laid an unavoidable claim on her heart – a claim that required her obedience through concrete action.” (3)

     John the Baptist would have been pleased, I think, since he connected repentance with action, with our being God’s hands and feet in the world. Sometimes doing so is complicated, but as Pastor Shelley points out, sometimes it’s as simple as buying two bags of flour… or, allowing a church’s sanctuary to live up to its name as a safe place. AMEN


(1)   “To Protect Migrants from Police, a Dutch Church Service Never Ends” by Patrick Kingsley, Dec. 10, 2018, The New York Times

(2)   The Lectionary Gospel – Luke 3:7-18 by Scott Hoezee, December 10, 2018, Center for Excellence in Preaching, www.cpe.calvinseminary.edu

(3)   “Living by the Word” by Austin Crenshaw Shelley, Christian Century, November 21, 2018, pg.20