Last month, I found myself following and to some extent participating in a twitter conversation or debate about the practice and theology of baptism. A number of people from various backgrounds took part as they discussed the relative merits of adult believer’s baptism or infant baptism, and explored the meaning of the rite—does it wash away original sin? Is it primarily a sign or symbol of membership in a community? Does it transmit grace, but only if the one being baptized makes a mature confession of faith or commitment? Continue reading
As most of you know already, my mother died this past Monday. Her death was expected. In fact, I received word of it just as I was packing up the car to drive six hours to be with her. Her death, and the memories and grief that have filled my thoughts over the last week have certainly recast my experience in this Advent season. But I realized that so much of what I was feeling, the emotional turmoil is consistent with the themes of this season of Advent. Continue reading
I get uncomfortable whenever I hear progressive Christians talking about being prophetic. In my experience, it usually means little more than making political statements that have more to do with American partisan politics than with the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that’s only one of the ways in which Christians misread the traditions of biblical prophecy.
We tend to see the prophets through the eyes of Handel’s Messiah or the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. On this view, the prophets were mostly about predicting the coming of the Messiah, and their importance for Christians lies in the fact that the appearance of Jesus is both a confirmation of their predictions, and that they offer key insights into who and what Jesus is. Continue reading
In these dark days of Advent, as the days grow shorter and the sun’s light grows dim, the mood of our nation and our world seem very much in synch with the season. It’s difficult for us to ignore all that is occurring around us and focus on the season of Advent, and the coming of Christ at Christmas. Sometimes I feel as though the festivities and hoopla, whether it’s the parties we throw or attend, or the glitz of stores and the blitz of marketing are all intended to distract us from what’s happening—global warming, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, the continuing assault on our constitutional liberties, on democracy itself.
It’s hard to find our way through it all, it’s hard for us to find perspective, to keep our faith when there is so much profoundly wrong and unjust, and the forces of good seem impotent in the face of the evil that surrounds us.
On top of it all, many of us struggle to make sense of, let alone, proclaim, the message of Jesus Christ in this context. When Christianity has been coopted by extreme nationalists and white supremacists, when there seems no connection between the message of love, peace, and reconciliation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the dominant voices of Christianity in America, we may want to hide our faith, to keep quiet. We fear being associated with the Franklin Grahams and Roy Moores and silence our voices, out of fear that we might be accused of supporting them. Let me just add, if you are not deeply troubled by the cooptation of Christianity by a certain political agenda in this country, you should examine your beliefs and commitments, for the very soul and future of Christianity is at stake, the gospel is at stake.
Our lessons today remind us of where our focus should be, where and how we should proclaim Christ, where and how we should work for justice.
The reading from Isaiah, the first verses of which provide the text for Jesus first public proclamation in the Gospel of Luke, offer both reassurance and command. As Christians, we read these words as promise of Christ’s coming, of the future reign of God that he proclaimed and for which we hope. We see ourselves as recipients of that good news, and of the promised healing and release.
At the same time, we must see ourselves in this story, not just as recipients of God’s grace and justice but as participants in the coming of that justice. We are called to rebuild the ruined cities—and here we might think not only of literal cities, but of all the ways that human community, the common good, have been undermined and attacked in recent years.
Even stronger are the words from the Song of Mary. It’s always helpful to remember just who she was—a young woman, likely a teenager, mysteriously, shamefully pregnant, as vulnerable in her historical context as a similar young woman would be in our day. Yet from that small, unlikely, reviled person, comes this powerful hymn that witnesses to God’s redemptive power:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
This familiar hymn has suffered for its popularity and familiarity. Its use in worship over the millennia has numbed us to its revolutionary power. We need to reclaim it today, sing it with meaning. We need to do more than sing it, we need to work so that it comes into being. We need to imagine the possibility that God is working in this way, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of all our fears, doubts, and despair. We need to believe that the words of a first-century teenaged single mom can inspire to see God at work in the world around us. For remember, the world in which she lived was unjust and violent as well, and for many people hopelessness and terror were ways of life.
And finally, the gospel…
We heard the story of John the Baptizer from the Gospel of John. It’s a brief excerpt of a larger narrative, and on the surface it’s rather strange, although you might not have thought anything odd about this when hearing it. In the Gospel of Mark’s description of John that we heard last week, the focus seemed to be on his lifestyle, his clothing and diet choices (camel’s hair, locusts and wild honey). According to Mark, he preached a message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Now in John’s gospel none of that is present. While some of his preaching message is consistent, at the heart of John’s portrayal of John is something else, the fact that John was a witness to Jesus Christ. In a rather odd formulation, John writes that “
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”
For that is John’s purpose and role in the fourth gospel—to point toward Christ. John is a witness, the witness. And more than witness, for the Greek word behind the English “witness” and “testify” in the first few verses of the reading is word from which we get our English word “martyr.” John came to bear witness to the light, to testify about Jesus Christ. Later in the first chapter, John sees Jesus passing by, points to him, and tells several of his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The disciples then leave John and follow Jesus.
These are questions of identity and purpose. The priests and Levites asked John who he was, in a scene that is reminiscent of the scene in the synoptic gospels where Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. John directs their attention away from him toward Christ.
John offers us an important lesson, not just about who he was and who Jesus Christ is. He also reminds us that one of the most important things we do, in our words and in our lives, is point to Jesus Christ. It is in and through us that others learn what it means to follow Jesus and also learn Jesus’ message of love, peace, mercy, and justice. In this time, when so many others proclaim a different gospel, and very different message of Jesus, our witness to him is more needed than ever. May we witness, testify, and point, clearly, unequivocally, and boldly, to the Jesus Christ who stands with the poor, the oppressed, the captive, and the God who casts down the mighty from their seats and fills the hungry with good things.
Today’s readings are here
Most of you know that over the last year, Grace Church has begun to develop a relationship with the Dane County Jail. It began with a visit to Grace last January from Christa Fisher, chaplain to the jail, who preached and talked about her work in an adult forum. The relationship has deepened, as Grace offered to host the ongoing tutoring project and participating in the jail ministry’s winter clothing drive.
The jail ministry has touched me on a personal level. It may have begun, not with my first encounter and conversation with Christa, but even earlier. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I found myself reflecting on the familiar and powerful parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46, you know the one in which the King says:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
It struck me at the time, for whatever reason, that in all of my life, I had never set foot in a prison, let alone visited or talked with a prisoner. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I think I’m going to burn in hell for eternity because I never engaged in prison ministry. Rather, I began to realize that prison ministry, especially in this age of mass incarceration, had simply never been of much interest or concern to me. In fact, I probably didn’t even know where the Dane County Jail for the first 3 or 4 years I lived in Madison; that’s shocking to admit, given it’s only two blocks away.
As part of Grace’s involvement with the work of the Madison Jail Ministry, I have challenged myself to take an active role in supporting the work of the chaplains. Last May, I participated in a tour of the jail that is intended for new employees and volunteers. It was an eye-opening, unforgettable experience. It wasn’t just that parts of the jail, the two top floors of the City County Building that could serve as a movie set for a 1930s era prison. That’s the part of the jail where they repeatedly have difficulties opening cell doors and evacuating inmates during fire drills. It was the demeanor of those who were incarcerated. Their body language and demeanor were those of people without hope, living in despair. They were lonely, abandoned by society, living at the arbitrary whims and actions of their jailors.
By now, we should all be familiar with the statistics, so I won’t belabor them. As Michelle Alexander argued with great passion and eloquence in her book The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration targets African-Americans, especially African-American males disproportionately. It’s not just that an unconscionable number of African-Americans are incarcerated in the US, it’s that they are incarcerated for longer sentences and for crimes for which White Americans walk free.
The racial disparities and hopelessness of mass incarceration are on full display in the Dane County Jail. Many of those in the jail are there for parole violations that can be as minor as having used a computer. What struck me during my tour of the jail was that I hadn’t been anywhere that looked quite like the Dane County jail, or encountered such despair and hopelessness in the eyes and body language of the incarcerated, since my visit to East Germany back in 1980. The Dane County jail, like the former East Germany, is the carceral and surveillance state on full display.
All of this came to mind this week as I read and reflected on our gospel. It’s another episode concerning John the Baptist and the contrast between his demeanor here, in Matthew 11, and in the reading from last week, from Matthew 3, couldn’t be more stark. Last week we saw him railing against the religious and political elites for their corruption, and prophesying that the wrath of God would soon come down upon them. He was courageous, resolute, unworried about the response his preaching might arouse in his opponents.
Now, a few weeks or months later, he is in prison, having crossed Herod one too many times. But Herod isn’t quite sure what to do with him; the gospel of Luke suggests even that Herod kind of liked having John around,, he brought him in for conversations. According to Matthew, Herod wanted to have John executed, but feared how the people might respond.
In any case, now John is in prison. It’s puzzling given what we know about John, that he wonders about Jesus’ identity, that he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I mean, how could he not know? They are cousins, for crying out loud (at least that’s what Luke tells us). John baptized Jesus. John told everyone that Jesus was the one sent by God, that he, John, was only his messenger. John may even have heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” How could he have doubts?
Well, there are a couple of answers to this question. First, there’s the issue of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, and what from the gospels seems to be something of a competition between them, perhaps even a struggle between followers of John and Jesus later, after their deaths, over who was the greater. There’s all sorts of evidence, even in the Book of Acts, that John continued to have a following, and that his followers competed with the followers of Jesus for popularity.
There’s also the fundamental problem for the early Jesus movement that Jesus was baptized by John…
Finally, there’s the little detail that the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, agree that Jesus began his public ministry only after John was arrested; that he waited until then to begin preaching publicly and healing people.
So there’s something very interesting going on in the gospels’ depiction of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist.
But I don’t think that’s the only reason that John asks this question about Jesus identity from prison. Prison, in the first or the twenty-first century is a place of hopelessness and despair. Too often, it’s a waiting room for death. Think of all of the people on death row across our nation, and think about the decades many of them have been languishing there.
I think John’s question may come out of his hopelessness and despair and I’m not sure Jesus’ response to him, reassured him. Jesus tells John’s disciples, “‘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 omits something in that response. When that list of things appears in Isaiah, and when in Luke’s telling, Jesus proclaims those words in his first public sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, there’s another group mentioned:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
The blind may see, the lame walk, the poor here the good news, but Jesus makes no mention of prisoners in his response to John’s disciples, no promise of freedom, no freedom for John himself.
John’s doubts and uncertainties were well-founded and it’s an open question whether Jesus’ reply to him did anything to reassure him as he lay in prison and waited for his death.
That should be unsettling for us. It may even raise our doubts and uncertainties. If John couldn’t or didn’t know, and if Jesus’ words offered him no consolation or hope in his particular situation, may our doubts and uncertainties are warranted. Maybe hopelessness, despair, cynicism are appropriate responses in our situation, too. After all, it’s not just John. There is still suffering in the world—the blind, deaf, disabled; and millions upon millions of people who languish in poverty and are food insecure.
So there is cause for despair, cause for doubt, cause for uncertainty. In the midst of all of that, there are also signs of hope—signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign in this dark world. Signs of hope in the work, faith, and spirit of the chaplains at the Dane County jail, signs of hope in the work and witness of our food pantry; signs of hope, signs of God’s inbreaking reign in the coming of Christ in a tiny and distant village in the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. This Advent, may we look for signs of Christ’s coming and signs of God’s coming reign, in our hearts and in the world around us, and when we see those signs, may we know that Christ is coming, that he is the one for whom we are waiting.
Well, it’s certainly good to be back at Grace and in Madison after being away from here for six Sundays. I’ll be sharing some of what I saw and experienced later at our annual meeting which I hope many of you will attend. As is so often the case, the things we set out to do, the goals we make for ourselves, don’t always materialize in quite the way we anticipated or hoped, but such opportunities often lead to quite unexpected things—discoveries about oneself and the world that are powerful and transformative.
That certainly happened to me. The time I spent at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. Arriving there on Election Day, spending four days mostly in silence, the days punctuated by the rhythms of the Daily Office offered a wonderful respite from the noise, anger, and anxiety of the world beyond the monastery’s walls, and an opportunity for me to encounter God more deeply and be a part of a praying community.
At the monastery and as I traveled up the East Coast and in the Pacific Northwest, I re-discovered another important truth. I mentioned before leaving that this time away would be the longest period I would be away from Grace and Madison since coming here in 2009, that it would be the longest period I would be away from an altar since my ordination more than ten years ago. Time away is important. It can be refreshing. It can also help to provide perspective; to give us the opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve been doing, and to plan for the next season of our lives.
But it’s not just the time away. It’s also the distance. I’ve not traveled much since coming to Madison. Indeed, although I was blessed to be able to live abroad for two years, apart from weekends in Chicago, visits to my mother, or a few days spent up north, I’ve not traveled much at all recently.
I discovered in these weeks of travel as I visited cities that were mostly unfamiliar to me, and visited churches I’d never been at, talking with clergy from very different backgrounds and working in very different contexts, that all of this can provide important perspective on my ministry and on our shared mission at Grace Church. We will talk much more about this in the weeks to come—you’ll have an opportunity to hear some of what I learned later at our Annual Meeting. But for now, I want to highlight simply the clarity of vision, the new perspective I’ve gained on our work together here in Madison.
And this may be where what I’ve been about these last two months connects with our gospel reading. As I was beginning to reflect on this text, Matthew’s depiction of John the Baptizer’s ministry, the opening words grabbed my attention.
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea.” John is a wild, crazy figure. He wears camel skins and eats locusts and wild honey. He shouts, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He prophesies doom and destruction, painting images of unfruitful trees being hewn down and useless chaff being burnt in an unquenchable fire. It’s dramatic, powerful, and frankly, somewhat scary.
But all of this takes place in the wilderness, far from the center of power, away from the settled existence of Jerusalem and the towns and villages of Judea. And I wonder whether his message would have had the same impact if he had proclaimed it in the streets, public squares, or the temple mount of Jerusalem. I wonder whether he would even have been able to preach those words if he hadn’t come out into the wilderness.
The wilderness is a place of great symbolic power in the biblical tradition. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness after their miraculous exodus from Egypt. In the wilderness, they grumbled at their plight; the text repeatedly calls them “a stiff-necked people.” Because of their grumbling and their sins; God condemned that first generation who had come out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, they would not live to possess the land promised to them. Even their leader Moses would only see it from a mountaintop just before his death.
For the Israelites, the wilderness was a place of struggle and disappointment; but nevertheless, God was present there with them. It was in the wilderness, at Sinai, that God appeared to Moses and gave the Israelites the Torah, the commandments by which they were to live and order their common life. Throughout their time in the wilderness, God was present with the Israelites as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and dwelt with them in the tabernacle.
In the gospels, the wilderness is where Jesus encounters John, is baptized by him, and then goes away by himself for forty days, where he’s tempted by Satan. In Matthew’s telling of this story, one could imagine that through this time in the wilderness Jesus comes to understand better who he is and what his ministry will be. Rejecting the temptations Satan offers him, Jesus chooses a different way, a different model of Messiahship, a different sort of Kingdom.
The wilderness is a desolate place but in the biblical tradition it can also be a place of personal and communal transformation, a time of preparation for the next stage of life. Time in the wilderness built the foundation for the Israelites’ conquest and occupation of the promised land. Time in the wilderness helped prepare Jesus for his ministry. Time in the wilderness gave John the Baptist the perspective he needed from which to judge the religious and political life of Jerusalem.
Yes, the wilderness can be a desolate, forbidding place. But it can also be a place that helps prepare us for the work we are called to do. In December each year, we are surrounded by the all of the hustle and bustle of the season; the round of parties, the preparations that we make for family and friends, even the typical year-end and semester-end tasks that confront us. It’s hard to find time for ourselves; it’s even harder to find time for God in our over-scheduled lives. I wonder whether it might be helpful simply to carve out a few minutes here or there, to step away from it all, to enter silence, or to create a wilderness for ourselves where we might open ourselves to encounter with God. This Advent, look for, make way for, a place or time of wilderness.
There’s something else about the wilderness that might be helpful. I’m thinking of John, out there, proclaiming his message of repentance, challenging the political and religious leaders of his day. Many of us might be inclined to feel, at this time in our national life, that we are in a wilderness, that we have lost our way, that our hopes for a better future, a more just society have been deferred indefinitely, perhaps even utterly destroyed.
John did not lose hope. Alongside his prophesies of doom and destruction, he saw the coming of God’s reign, its very nearness. Our hope dare not rest in the political process or in the vagaries of history. Our hope rests in God. Our hope lives in the one whose coming we await even now; the one whose coming promises and proclaims the reign of God; the one whose coming in weakness and humility challenges all of the world’s power; the one whose coming in love shows us the way of love and peace. Thanks be to God.
I read the story this week of an Iranian-American woman. She was riding home on the bus after work one day in Chicago when a white man dressed in a suit and tie began to attack her verbally, shouting anti-Islamic names at her. After several minutes during which she quietly tried to get him to stop, he spit at her, told her to get off the bus, leave the country because it wasn’t hers. All this time, on a crowded bus, no one said anything. Finally, she’d had enough. She shouted at him at the top of her lungs. It was then that others intervened and the bus driver stopped and forced her attacker to leave. Continue reading