The imprisonment of John the Baptist, the carceral state and Advent hope: A sermon for Advent 3, Year A, 2016

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.







An Advent Wilderness: A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, 2016


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.







What then should we do? A Sermon for Advent 3, Year C


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

Pointing to Christ: A Sermon for Advent 3, Year B

Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_024The cover art on today’s service bulletin is a detail from one of the great works of art-Matthias Gruenewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. Created for a hospital and designed so that the patients could see the altarpiece from their beds, the center panel of the altarpiece depicts the crucifixion. Standing beneath the cross is the image of John the Baptist, with the lamb of God, a small lamb carrying a cross, by his side. Gruenewald was a master of perspective and artistic technique, so what stands out to me in this image is John’s index finger, pointing at the crucified Christ, which is all out of proportion with his hand. Continue reading

Lectionary Reflections on Advent 3, Year B

This week’s lectionary readings.

The contrast between the presentation of John the Baptizer in Mark and the Gospel of John’s portrayal of him is striking. For one thing, in the fourth gospel, John doesn’t actually baptize Jesus. In addition, Jesus begins his public ministry before John’s arrest. There are other differences, too.

In this week’s gospel reading, we learn about who John is not. He is a witness, or testifier to Jesus Christ, but when asked who he is, whether he is the Messiah, or a prophet, or Elijah, he replies, “I am not.” Later in chapter 1, when John sees Jesus, he points to him and says twice, “Behold the Lamb of God.”

The gospel writer is concerned to heighten the difference between John the Baptizer and Jesus, to make clear that John is less important, but by writing in this way, he presents us with questions that, in a sense, we struggle with as Christians. Who is Jesus Christ? For all of the doctrinal formulations that attempted to fix and define Jesus Christ’s identity for all time, the question of who he is, for us as individuals and for our congregations presses itself on us.

How do we experience Jesus Christ? How does he come to us? How do we encounter him in our lives and in our world? We are often tempted, just like those who defined the doctrines of Jesus Christ’s nature, to fit him into a certain philosophical or theological framework. We are tempted, like those who asked John who he was, to try to fit our experience of Jesus Christ into certain pre-defined categories or terms. That’s the case all of the time, but it may be particularly true in this season, when we look for Jesus Christ’s coming in a manger in Bethlehem, and ignore other ways in which Jesus Christ comes to us.

The Gospel of John consistently asks, “Who is Jesus Christ?” As often as not, those who ask Jesus the question, “who are you?” have questions asked back of them, or experience Jesus shattering the categories they use to ask him.

Who is Jesus Christ? To ask that question in Advent is to invite two very different, and in some ways contradictory responses. He is the babe who is born in Bethlehem, but he is also to one who will come to usher in a new age. Those two answers force us to open ourselves up to contradictory and unsettling ways in which Jesus Christ comes to us. To be open to his coming, however it is he chooses to come, is one of the disciplines of Advent.

Fear Not: Advent 3, Year C

Advent 3, Year C

Grace Episcopal Church

December 13, 2009

What is it you fear most? Death, debilitating illness, loss of your job? Homelessness? Are there things you are so afraid of that you cannot even think of them? And how do you deal with those fears? Do you examine and analyze them? Or do you push them away, repress them, ignore them, or try to develop ways of avoiding or not noticing them?

For those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties, we can remember fears of nuclear war. The threat was always there, lurking under the surface. Occasionally it broke through our ordinary lives, during the Cuban missile crisis, for example. But we came to live with it as a reality and as a backdrop to everything we did. More recently, the fear of terrorist attack has played some part in our lives; though again, that fear has receded dramatically since 2001.

Still, it sometimes seems as if fear is everywhere. Certainly, those of us who have been driving in Madison the past few days know the experience of ordinary, common activities becoming fear-inspiring. But it goes much beyond the lingering effects of this week’s snow storm. If like me, you tend not to pay to close attention to the news, it’s because you don’t really want to know what’s going on in the world, it’s all just too scary and depressing.

It’s often the case that when the world seems to be a threatening place, that the future is uncertain, people turn to religion. In fact one common refrain by detractors of religion is that religion both preys upon people’s fears, and survives by inciting fear. People turn to religion when or because they fear death, so it is said. Many people argue that religion creates supporters by inciting fear in people, fear of damnation, fear of hell.

Among the fears that religions, specifically Christianity, (or some forms of it) exploit, is the fear of the end of the world. Advent confronts us with that fear as we hear lessons that promise destruction and the second coming. Such fear drives the perennial popularity of movies like the recent 2012 that try to depict the future according to some religious text, in this case from the Mayan tradition. There was also the recent phenomenon of the Left Behind series that sold millions upon millions of copies. There is biblical precedent for such beliefs; we have heard over the past two weeks imagery of death, destruction, and rebirth that was used by Jews and Christians to make sense of the violent and oppressive world in which they found themselves.

John the Baptizer was an apocalyptic prophet. He foretold doom and destruction, and we hear part of his message in today’s gospel:


John preached what used to be called “fire and brimstone” sermons, promising hell to everyone who didn’t repent of their sins and amend their lives. John is one of those biblical figures toward whom few contemporary Episcopalians feel any sympathy. We like our religion nice and tidy, and usually not too emotional. We certainly don’t want to be pressured, whether it be to repent, or to give money. That’s all too unseemly. And many of us came from Christian traditions where, like John the Baptizer, preachers pulled out all of the stops in order to effect conversions. Some of us may still carry emotional scars from those day, scars that make it more difficult for us to find our way in faith.

And even if you come from a different religious background, or even none, you may have read Jonathan Edwards famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” where he describes “natural men held in the hand of God over the pit of hell” or if not that, perhaps you recall James Joyce’s wonderful description of a sermon preached at a retreat in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. The notion of religion, of Christianity inciting fear and wreaking havoc on the psyches of individuals, and even whole communities, that notion is something with which we are all too familiar and perhaps turned off by.

So we hear the story of John the Baptizer and we hope to get over it and through it, and to the much better story of the birth of Jesus, which we are still waiting for. Yet Luke provides us with detail concerning the Baptizer’s message that shades the image of John as a fearsome prophet.

John delivered those frightening words, “The axe is laid to the tree, everyone who does not bear fruit will be cut off and cast into the fire.” We hear those words and imagine ourselves terrified, caught between fear of eternal punishment, the wrath of almighty God, and our own weaknesses and sin. We wonder about John’s listeners, how did they respond? Why did they come out into the wilderness to hear him preach?

We don’t notice what Luke tells us about those listeners. They don’t fall on their knees in terror, begging forgiveness. They don’t run away in fear. They engage the prophet, they ask him, “what then should we do?” Unlike the televangelist or revivalist, John doesn’t answer, “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”

No, John gives his listeners advice. He tells them what to do. But his advice isn’t the obvious. He doesn’t tell those who ask him to come out and join him in a counter-cultural movement. Instead, he gives them rather straightforward, and not at all that radical advice. “If you have two coats, share with someone who has none. If you have food, do likewise.” That’s what John says to the crowds, to all those who ask. Luke has other people, specific groups come to John and ask the same question. And to them, John responds in much the same way. Tax collectors ask him what they should do, and he replies, “collect more than the amount prescribed to you.” And to soldiers, John says, “Do not extort money from anyone, be content with your wages.”

Now, as you probably know tax collectors and soldiers in the Roman Empire were not simply government workers. Tax collectors made their income by taking a percentage of what they collected. Soldiers supplemented their meager wages by extracting money from the people they protected. In other words, they were both part of a deeply oppressive, and profoundly unjust system. Yet John did not demand they leave that system.

Instead, he gave them relatively simple and easy-to-follow advice. Don’t game the system, he said. Do what you can. In fact, it’s not a message of fear at all, but rather of hope. He gives to his listeners a way of living in a corrupt and evil society. The only options are not to either flee from it or to make your peace with it. Instead, you can live within it and do our best. It’s a message many of us might find appealing as we try to make our own way in a difficult world. How many of us find us in situations, in jobs that present us with difficult alternatives, in jobs that are dehumanizing or exploitative, making decisions that are far removed from the ethic of love espoused by Jesus.

Our response is often to ignore the ethical implications of those decisions, to say to ourselves that what matters in the end is keeping the job and taking care of our families. But such decisions, such jobs, can eat away at us. In such cases, John offers us a way through. Do what you can, act as justly, as ethically as possible in this corrupt and evil system.

John’s preaching offers us one set of messages for this third Sunday of Advent. Caught between God’s judgment and the ethical demands of the gospel, we waver uncertain. There is yet another, very different message in today’s lessons. Paul, writing to the Philippians says, do not worry about anything. The rich language of Zechariah includes the advice, “Do not fear, Oh Zion.” More importantly, each time an angel appears in the gospel of Luke, whether announcing the coming of John the Baptizer, or the birth of Jesus, or even the resurrection, each time, the angel says, “Fear not.”

Our faith is not a faith created or sustained by fear. Rather, our faith is a faith that has no fear. Our God offers us salvation, love, not death and destruction, we need not worry about what might happen to us tomorrow, at death, or when Christ returns in majesty.

Fear not, the angel said, fear not the prophet Zechariah said. As we go forth from this place, let us go, rejoicing in the coming of Christ who offers us hope and love in a harsh and fearful world.