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Life Together

The Rev. Joseph Winston

December 13, 2009

Sermon

Grace and peace are gifts for you from God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.1
It takes a lifetime to prepare a sailing ship. Men and materials must come to-
gether in a carefully controlled order before the newly built ship leaves the safety
of the dry dock. In shipbuilding towns along the coast, fathers deliberately pass
down over sixty thousand years of ship making technology to their sons. Ship-
wright fathers instruct their boys in the fine are of making profitable ships. Sail
makers train their sons to turn yards of canvas into sails that power a ship across
the world. The carpenter’s male children learn the use of the plane and saw. And
so, it goes for each trade that brings a ship to life.
The instruction of the boys is identical even though the skills differ widely.
Only a select group of elder men in each family knows all the tricks of the trade.
1
Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, Philippians
1:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:2, Philemon 1:3.

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These master craftsmen train their hand-selected group of apprentices for years.
During this time, the boys start with simple tasks. As they slowly learn them, they
then move to work that is more complicated. Every once and a while, the elders
remind their students of men that hope to steal their hard won knowledge. There
is a reason for this warning. The craftsmen do not want their valuable knowledge
on shipbuilding to fall into the wrong hands.
If you walk down by the dock, you will see the men at their places. They
are proud of what they are doing. The work is good and the ship brings wealth to
everyone. The owners of the ship make their profit by moving goods and materials
from one place of the world to another. The sailors earn a living by guiding the
ship from one port to the next. Each family involved with the construction of the
great ship receives some form of payment for what they do. Money is not the only
reason for their happiness. The men know what will happen. Boys grow up. They
will marry and have a family. This natural progression of boys to men means that
one day soon, they will be able to sit down with the next generation and watch
them learn the trade.
There is strength in numbers. It has always been that way. This brings like-
minded families together into guilds. Each group of men follows their own rituals
learned through years of hard work. The tailors practice the stitches used on the
sails. Riggers study the best way of weaving strands of fiber into ropes. Carpenters
learn all the tricks necessary to make a watertight seal. Every guild working on
the ship follows this practice.
Despite the fact that the other families work together as one, a single ship-

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wright family guides the entire process of construction. This one family is ul-
timately responsible for the final product. If any one of their ships fails at any
time, every port along the seaboard will soon know to stay away from this fam-
ily’s ships. The inverse is also true. If the ship works as advertised, then fame and
fortune rains down on the shipbuilder’s family.
A ship must have sails, rigging, pitch, masts, spars, and wood for the decks,
hulls, ribs, and keel. Out of all these materials, the one that needs the most fore-
thought is the mast. Coupled with booms made of Spruce and spreaders of Ash,
the mast transfers the wind’s energy from the sails into the ship’s forward motion.
All of this energy must be carefully controlled because if it is not, the mast will
snap in two like a toothpick, leaving the ship stranded at sea.
The trees used for the mast have lost and gained empires and fortunes. But
these giant Firs do not grow overnight. It literally takes centuries for these trees
to reach this stature. A few families have the lifelong task of providing only the
strongest and the tallest trees for the sailing ships. These men work in the forest
planted by their distant ancestors. They normally expect a lifetime of tending to
the plants. The daily routine change when it is time to harvest a giant Fir. This
work does not mean that the tree is ready for use. Far from it, it takes over half a
century of careful aging before the trunk becomes a ship’s mast.
For better or for worse, the world no longer works like this. Almost no one has
lifelong employment. Corporations just about everywhere have the ability to fire
people without any cause. The exact opposite is also true. Employees can and do
leave the company whenever they feel like it. Families reflect the changes we see

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all around us and we no longer work in the same trade. Only one of my brothers
has followed in the footsteps of my father. The rest of us do something else. Then
there is the question of guilds. Even if you could find a group of like-minded
people, would you join them? The demise of guilds everywhere clearly says the
answer is no. Individuals, families, and guilds no longer set aside resources for
use five hundred years in the future. Instead, we look to see how much we can
make today.
It is no wonder why today’s Gospel lesson seems so foreign to us. We are
looking back on a way of life that no longer exists. That makes it difficult for you
to see that John is instructing people of the lifestyle of the baptized.
John begins the service with an insult. “Your parents are snakes (John 3:7b).”2
Before the crowd even has a chance to respond to John’s rude comment on their
ancestry, he has a hard question for them, “Why do you want forgiveness?” Now
John does not use these exact same words, but they certainly stand behind his
query, “Who warned you to flee form the wrath to come (Luke 3:7c)?” You do not
hear the crowd’s response to this question but you do have John’s teaching on the
subject. He says, “What is important for the newly baptized is how you live your
life after receiving this gift of forgiveness (Luke 3:8a). You cannot count on your
family to do everything for you (Luke 3:8b).”
Naturally, John’s teaching on the changes required by forgiven followers of
God leads to the follow up question that the crowd asks, “What then do we do
(Luke 3:10)?” John’s straightforward answer to them is to live your life in a man-
2
A better translation of brood of vipers (γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν) would be children of snakes.

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ner that blesses God.3 John believes everyone can live this way. (It was common
for most people to have two changes of undergarments. You can understand why.
You wore one while the other was being cleaned.) John commands, “Give your
extra underwear away (Luke 3:11b).”4 Some people do not have any. He goes on
and tells them, “Never let anyone be hungry (Luke 3:11c).”
This same scene is repeated two more times to drive the point home that all
the baptized, no matter who they happen to be, take care of the less fortunate. This
work shows the world how God acts.
The tax collectors now come for baptism and forgiveness (Luke 3:12). Since
they ask an identical question about what they must do after receiving God’s gift of
grace, John gives this group often known for taking a little bit extra for themselves
the same sort of instruction as before. “Always be fair (Luke 3:13).” That is how
you live life in God’s house. Roman solders make up the third group that arrive
on the banks of the Jordan River (Luke 3:14). John baptizes and forgives them.
Then Q&A happens again. “What do we do?” They ask the prophet on the river.
He answers them, “Do not shake down the people you meet. Be happy with your
salary.”
You should not be surprised that John’s baptismal liturgy falls right in line
with the way families operated for millennia. In this world, membership requires
a proper response. It is a matter of life and death. Your family provides you with
3
Everyone’s behavior produces something. Luke Timothy Johnson; Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.,
editor, The Gospel of Luke, Volume 3, Sacra Pagina, (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: The
Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 65. The question is do these products praise the Lord and His work?
4
The NRSV translation of coat is wrong since chiton (χιτών) means a garment worn next to
the skin.

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housing. Everyone’s work puts food on the table. The able bodied men protect the
house. The women clothe you. Your elders teach you. This much is expected of
you. You must do what you are told. Striking out on your own was unheard. If you
leave, the family might fail. There is one less person helping in the house. This
could mean death for everyone. Strangers do not want you either. They are afraid
of investing their resources in you. You might turn your back on them also and
cause disastrous results.
In the ancient economy, both trades and guilds expect the same loyalty to them
that you show to your family. Giving you a skill for life is very expensive. It takes
not only time but also money. This investment needs to stay in the community.
There you can be a benefit to your family. It is dangerous to everyone if you take
the knowledge given to you elsewhere. Work might not come in. Mouths may go
hungry. Battles may be lost. No other trade or guild wants a defector. You could
be nothing more than a spy.
John holds the same expectations. Family members do what the Father com-
mands. Follower of God behave in the correct manner. There is an important rea-
son for this. God’s children, that is us, provide the world with a preview of the
final event in God’s divine plan. We are given the task of showing how the whole
creation lives in harmony with one another and praises God with every action of
your life.
Most contemporary Christians do not want to hear John’s message that we
must live a life that shows the world which group you belong to. Today, we are
not comfortable with that lifestyle. We offer all types of excuses. I do not have the

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time. I do not know what to say. I did this in the past.
You can see this incorrect attitude has even infiltrated our baptism liturgy.
Rather than giving explicit instructions on how you and your family must live
after baptism, today we only give you vague directions that you need to turn away
from you past involvment with evil and the devil.
No matter how compelling our answers might seem to us, they all fall short
on one basic fact. God expects us to live in the here and now just like we will in
heaven.
Today’s Gospel lesson closes with the statement, John “proclaimed the Good
News to many people (Luke 3:18b).” At first glance, it appears that nothing is
good about John’s teaching on baptism or his prophecy about Jesus that comes
immediately after the three baptism services. It seems as if today’s lesson is noth-
ing more than work on our part and judgment from Jesus. That cannot be good.
No one can do what is required. We all have failed and will pay with our life.
Once again, our world betrays us and tries to hide God from you.
The Good News or otherwise known as the Gospel is an unconditional promise.
Because everything belongs to God, He is the only One that can offer this to you.
Certainly, you are familiar with one important example of the Good News. God
has totally and completely forgiven every one of your sins. Look carefully. The
definition of Good News as a gift without any conditions appears twice in today’s
Gospel. Be warned, however, they are not the simple message of Jesus loving you
that many people want to hear.
John the Baptizer tells us that God can change plain, ordinary stones that you

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can find on the ground into children of Abraham. You and I are these stones. The
promise of a Savior is not ours by birthright. Zechariah’s song of praise makes
that perfectly clear. Listen to what he tells us. Jesus releases Israel from captivity
(Luke 1:68). Jesus saves the house of David (Luke 1:69). Jesus rescues the family
of Abraham (Luke 1:71). We do not belong to Israel and these gifts are not ours
to claim. God had mercy on us and transformed us, the stones, into children of
Abraham. God freely gave us the gift of everlasting life. This is the first example
of Good News.
The second unconditional promise of God is much more controversial. John
paints for us the following picture. The harvest is finished and Jesus is on the
threshing floor with the winnowing fork in His hand. Christ’s job is placing the
wheat in the granary and the chaff in the fire.
Before I go any further, I must tell you that some people believe that the sepa-
ration of the chaff from the wheat is not Good News at all but instead an accurate
description of the punishment that awaits all those people who are not Christians.
There are two major problems with this incorrect interpretation. First of all,
this idea is inconsistent with Luke’s description of Christ. In Luke’s account, Jesus
accepts sinners (Luke 5:30, 32; 7:37-39; 15:1-2, 7, 10, 13; 19:7). When the lost
found, Jesus tells us there is great joy both on earth and in heaven (Luke 15:6,
9). Jesus also bluntly informs James and John that His mission on earth is to save
people not to destroy them (Luke 9:56). In fact, Christ’s eating and drinking with
blatant sinners fuels the charges brought against Him by the Pharisees and the
scribes (Luke 7:39; 15:2; 19:7).

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Then there is the loved parable of the lost son, which gives us the story of the
Father’s enormous joy when His wandering son returns home (Luke 15:11-32).
All of these examples tell you that God will do everything in His power to come
and save you.
Most of us no longer work with grains. This brings us to the second problem
with the interpretation that Jesus is tossing people into the fire. The wrong argu-
ment boils down to a single point that some people are chaff and Jesus discards
them.
The ancient farmer does not invest his time and energy in raising a product that
will be destroyed in the fire. His family’s future depends on him being able to raise
a crop that they can either eat or sell. The farmer’s crop is not chaff but instead is
grain. Each and every grain of wheat is covered with a hard shell of chaff. Christ’s
job on the threshing floor is to remove the hard shell that covers you. He will not
throw you into the fire because you have a hard shell of sin. Instead, this prophecy
tells you that your sins will be removed from what is important to God: you. You
will enter into heaven, not as the hard crusty person that you are here on earth, but
instead as the valuable grain of wheat.
In our day and age, it is difficult for us to hear that Jesus removes the bad from
the good. Our tendency today is to believe we are filled with goodness and our
enemies as totally evil. That is not how the world works. We are not completely
good nor are they only evil.
The men who took raised trees for masts could of told of us this fact. They
worked with the wood every day. They intimately knew each tree’s weaknesses.

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Some tree needed trimming before they could be used for a mast. Others required
a bit of straightening over many years. Brushy trees and crooked trunks are useful
but their value dramatically increases when they are transformed into masts by
constant attention.
Not so long ago, the building of ships took a lifetime. Children learned the
needed skills from their parents. Families grouped together to solve larger prob-
lems. And a single leader was responsible for the overall design of the ship.
For many years, the church functioned in the same way. Children naturally
learned the great stories of our faith from their wise parents and grandparents.
These individual families realized the advantage of coming together as a worship-
ing community and they formed churches. These churches then reported back to
the leaders.
Our world today no longer functions in this way. In the United States and in
our own community, we have children who know nothing about Jesus because
no one told them they about Him and His love. We have churches of all tradi-
tions that are falling apart. Some no longer come together on Sundays because not
enough people. Others have splintered over matters, which seem more important
than Christ’s message. Our national and global leaders no longer speak with one
voice on what needs to be done.
We cannot fix the problems at the international or national level. We do not
have the resources that can keep any fracturing church intact. We only have two
things that we can do. First, we can pray for a renewal of the church. We can
ask God’s Holy Spirit to come and fix everything that we have broken. Next, God

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has given you the opportunity at this place to go and tell others about Jesus who
welcomes sinners like you and me. Go and bring God’s light into the darkness.
“The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and
minds through Christ Jesus.”5

References

Johnson, Luke Timothy; Harrington, S.J., Daniel J., editor, The Gospel of Luke,
Volume 3, Sacra Pagina, (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: The
Liturgical Press, 1991).

5
Philippians 4:7.

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