The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 


"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax 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.”[1]

Lineage isn’t enough. As important as ancestors and family history may be, they do not of themselves qualify a person for anything heavenly. A proud name and a rusty sword don’t amount to a hill of beans until the name and the sword are authentically yours...until they’re yours, because you cannot pass along that which you do not actually own. 

Eleanor Crumbaugh read to me from the Bible before I could read for myself. On more mornings than I can count, Frank Crumbaugh and I did devotional reading on the front seat of the car as we drove to hunt or fish. The tender love for me of my father and his mother communicated faith; as grateful-past-saying as I am for their love, their greatest gift is not their love but my faith. Their love communicated God’s love. I received their love first, and that love conferred the even greater gift- own faith, not faith nurtured in theirs, but mine. 

Or, another example: when Paul writes to Timothy “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you,”[1] the Apostle is inviting Timothy to take courage; he does this reminding Timothy that his ancestral faith means nothing if it does not culminate in the observable expression of Timothy’s own faith. Failing to exhibit one’s own faith dishonors those who taught it to you. Paraphrasing Jaroslav Pelikan: “It is better to embrace the living faith of the dead than to affect the dead faith of the living.” History matters greatly, but it has no effect until we take our place in it...not someone else’s, not an ancestor’s place, but our own place.

There are all sorts of corollaries to this. They include “riding coat-tails” to Heaven; how many households do you know where someone lamely says, “Well, Momma pretty much takes care of the Church stuff for us.” Faith-by-association... dear God, what uncommitted, tepid laziness!  And then of course there are the bet-hedgers- those who figure there’s probably nothing to this God business, but just in case there is, they ought to be seen making the moves. Their lives prove the truth of Billy Sunday ‘s aphorism: 

“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.” 

And perhaps most misguided, uncommitted and tepid of all are those who are “spiritual but not religious,” about whom Lillian Daniel speaks with John-the-Baptist effectiveness when she responds: “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself. Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset [loving] person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead?”[2] Even if one avoids the facile “spiritual but not religious” trap, nominally identifying with the community is an insufficient claim: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”[3] God can make a rock into a child of Abraham, so claiming to be a child of Abraham is not of itself an indicator of anything. The claim takes a huge leap toward the truth when another person would describe the claimant as a child of Abraham. Another’s opinion matters little, but it is momentarily useful at times, and an easy metric to apply- does the World around you see the faith you claim in such a way that you’d be identified as a child of Abraham? It’s a Yes/No question. 

Like a dog with a bone, the Baptist won’t let go...he makes certain that his hearers know what the signs of faith really are. Those signs begin not with hearing the warning but with doing something as a result of that warning- REPENT. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”[4]  Most people figure that their sins are venial...”well Hell, I didn’t kill anybody today” though not committing murder is a notable and praiseworthy accomplishment. Implicit in such an attitude is a self-justifying comparison- “...unlike some others who have, I have not.”  Why are you looking at their sins? Look at your own. 

The Baptist leaves us no wiggle room. We all are sinners, and if we claim Jesus as Savior, we do so acknowledging that “it is a true saying and worthy of all to be received that Christ Jesus came into the World to save sinners.”[5] Sinners like me. Sinners like you. The faith of the Church is faith that is seen one believer at a time. John the Baptist makes clear that the faith cannot be seen without repentance- the first fruit of one’s faith. 

Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 4 December 2016, being The Second Sunday of Advent

[1] Luke 3:7b-9  NRSV​

[1] II Timothy 1:5  NRSV

[2] Daniel, Lillian. “Spiritual but not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” 13 September 2011,  The Huffington Post.

[3] Luke 3:8  NRSV

[4] Luke 3:7 AND Matthew 3:7  NRSV/ I do not know of another place in the scriptures where the same word appear at the same verse in two different books.

[5] I Timothy 1:15  NRSV