We are beginning Lent this year amidst the ice and snow of North Louisiana – however our hearts and souls are not empty. Last night my daughter hastily put together a king cake, and we “shrove” the ice storm larders for the makings of Fat Tuesday feast in the midst of this generation’s greatest Winter Storm.
One of our parishoners, Laura McLemore, has done the good deed of putting together this year’s Lenten meditations collected from the members of St Marks. I am very grateful for her efforts and truly appreciate her willingness to do so in the midst of the quarantine. I always enjoy peering through the window at our Lord through the eyes of friends and fellow Christians; I hope that you will share these far and wide in the midst of our your own circles of faith. Simply visit the web address for the booklet:
LAUNCELOT: Nay, indeed, if you had your eyes, you might fail of the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of your son: give me your blessing: truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son may, but at the length truth will out.
Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene 2.
“Truth Will Out . . .” is something that I remember hearing my grandfather and grandmother say when I was a boy. Perhaps they were talking about the latest political scandal, perhaps some piece of gossip flapping about their social circle, or perhaps catching me in one of my childhood fabrications, or approximations, of the truth.
“Truth will out,” speaks to some force, some catalyst, in life which causes our attempts to maintain a falsehood futile; as though there is some ingredient, catalyst, in the universe that makes it impossible for mendacity to exist uninterrupted.
Shakespeare is reminding his audiences that eventually there is no place to hide; Truth Will Out, Truth will always be pressing against whatever compromises we are making with falsehood.
The writer of Mark’s Gospel is setting a stage for truth telling. Jesus is becoming the main character of a new Truth, with a capital T. Having received the baptismal imprimatur from the hands of John the Baptist, having earned his stripes in the Wilderness at the hands of the Tempter, having formed a team, a cohort, an ecclesia, a church on the shores of Galilee, Jesus the truth-talker is now preparing a public “reveal.”
And so Jesus and his new cohort turn toward the bustling village of Capernaum:
Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
When Jesus turns into the local synagogue, the local house of prayer and study, he is a phenomenon to those gathered. It is in what Jesus says and how he says it; his demeanor, his aspect, his comportment. Jesus is a phenomenon in how he preaches, and how he practices what he preaches. It is clear that Jesus internalizes the message that he delivers; and Jesus communicates it in such a way that others are curious to internalize it as well. Jesus speaks as a “source” in and of himself. There is no posturing. There is no conjecture; no empty rhetoric. Jesus is unlike what they have become used to in this line; he is not like “me,” not like the “clergy.” Jesus is something otherworldly.
Hiding within that house of study and prayer is someone else; an interloper. A man possessed. Perhaps long overlooked by the good people come to hear lessons on the Torah and the words of Moses. Hiding in the very place we might think a demoniac might most fear being caught; the place where the words of God are read and heard. Mark is sending a message and a warning.
“For where God built a Church, there the devil would also build a chapel . . . thus is the devil ever God’s ape.” – Martin Luther.
One of the great mysteries and conundrums of the religious life is that sometimes, as we move deeper into holiness and the desire to be near to God, its opposite moves even closer.
And when Jesus steps into the place as the power of God, that is the moment “Truth Will Out.”
Marks is merely describing the world into which the revealed Jesus will walk, live, teach, and preach; it is a world not at one with itself. The cosmos is divided, human consciousness is divided, the religious impulse of God’s children is divided. There is an interloper; there is a saboteur. The Apostle Paul calls them the Principalities and Powers.
Mark is painting with a large brush that Jesus is the one who both preaches and practices; when near – all Truth Will Out. Authority. Power. Presence. In no way is Mark dressing Jesus in some silly costume as a soothsayer, a magician, a trickster, or shaman. This is a plain spoken revelation of facts; and plain spoken revelation of how Jesus is exactly who He says He is.
Jesus does not fall into a trance and mumble an incantation to deliver this man from evil; Jesus simply walks into the room and issues a command; “Be silent and come out of him!”
No posture of authority – simply authority itself. The power over this kind of darkness is immediate and exact. The Master is returning and cleaning his house. God is coming home to dwell.
This kind of present and personal power was revealed to me on a trip to Jerusalem, within the precincts of Christ’s burial tomb – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The Church of The Holy Sepulcher sits within the Old City of Jerusalem. The site is congruent with the place that many, for two millennia, have believed is the place where Christ’s body was laid following his crucifixion. Some would say that it is THE holiest site in the Church. As both the city of Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have grown over the centuries; the various parts of this holiest of holies are shared by various Christian denominations within the Old City.
The Greek, Armenian, Egyptian, Roman Catholic, and Ethiopian Churches all lay claim to different sections of the Holy Sepulcher. The history of this site in some ways reflects the history of our faith – its desire for unity, yet reality of our humanity within our divisions. There have even been lines painted on columns in the church demarking each group’s claim upon this holiest of sites. We might say that it is representative of the lines that have marked Christ’s Body from the beginning – who will sit on your right and your left O Lord?
There have been unclean spirits about the Master’s house from the beginning.
We stood in line for a long time to enter a shrine administered by a certain group of Orthodox Christians overseeing the shrine of the tomb of Christ. Incense burning in golden bowls, huge candles, jeweled icons, and all of the treasure on display as expressions of the Orthodox Church. We waited mostly in prayerful silence for our turn within the tomb; some growing tired, some growing impatient. The somber weight of our journey lay about the place.
Suddenly there was the sound of rusting robes in the silence. A disturbance. And a large man with a great large beard pushed himself through our lines with some officiousness and small grunts. A long string of prayer beads rattling at his side. He pushed to the front of the line, and dramatically knelt before us all whispering his prayers, and kissing the stone marking the spot where the holy body had lain. It was something of a display. And then again with officiousness, a bit imperious, the monk left the shrine, barged through our lines, with the rest of us a bit speechless that our patience and long journey’s had been so tread upon. I remember being angry.
Once our group had paid its respects at the tomb, we were lead out into the sunlight, and invited to climb a series of stairs leading to the rooftop of the famous church. The day was glorious and the sky was blue.
There is a lesser known area of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the rooftop. It belongs to a group of Ethiopian Christians who have always lived in a kind of spiritual and physical apartheid within the city. The Ethiopians have no property in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, only access rights; but they do have a little monastery nearby, known as Deir es-Sultan.
In the mid-1800’s, Anglican bishop in Jerusalem then, Bishop Samuel Gobat witnessed the unholy attitude and behavior of the Armenians and the Copts towards their fellow Christian Ethiopians who were trying to reclaim their rights to the holy places in Jerusalem. He wrote that the Ethiopian monks, nuns and pilgrims “were both intelligent and respectable, yet they were treated like slaves, or rather like beasts by the Copts and the Armenians combined…(the Ethiopians) could never enter their own chapel but when it pleased the Armenians to open it. …On one occasion, they could not get their chapel opened to perform funeral service for one of their members. The key to their convent being in the hands of their oppressors, they were locked up in their convent in the evening until it pleased their Coptic jailer to open it in the morning, so that in any severe attacks of illness, which are frequent there, they had no means of going out to call a physician.’’
There is a long and tangled history of Christian in-fighting at the holiest site in Christendom; and the Ethiopians have largely been the victims in this struggle for power.
For more than 1500 years, the Church of Ethiopia survived in Jerusalem. Its survival has not, in the last resort, been dependent on politics, but on the faith of individual monks that we should look for the vindication of the Church’s presence in Jerusalem….They are attracted to Jerusalem not by a hope for material gain or comfort, but by faith.”
We went into a small room on the rooftop, sat on bare wooden benches, and waited. The room was spare, exceedingly spare – brick and stone – lacking all of the incense, the gold, the ornamentation of the altars just a few hundred yards away, beneath the roof, within the Chapels where we had just been waiting in lines.
No – this was a study in contrasts; the beautiful sky, the sound of birds, no crowds, no lines; poverty, simplicity, purity . . . these were on display in the Ethiopian monastery on the rooftop of the Holiest Site in all Christendom.
From a little doorway on the side of the Chapel came an Ethiopian priest, dressed in a long, black cassock; it was worn, frayed, it did not rustle and bustle when he walked. In fact he could not walk fast, because he was limping, propped up by crutch under one arm – shuffling along, rather than bustling along.
We all simply sat. We sat on the roof of the holiest of the holy sites; the breeze coming through open windows, sounds of the city all around; birds about, singing. And we sat in the silence.
When the moment was right, I guess; the monk with a limp went to a lectern – lifted a golden book in the shape of a Cross – and read with a dignity, a gravity, a power, authority, and presence . . . that reminded me, actually reminded us all, why we had taken the trouble to come all the way to Jerusalem in the first place. To this day, if I sit quietly and return to that moment, I can find the imprint in my soul that this person left on the day that he read before us.
Again – no golden lampstands, no magnificent paintings and hangings, no tapestries and ornate chapels; no, something deeper, something more mysterious, simply the authority and presence and power of the living God . . .
We had come to the Holy Land seeking the master, and it seemed the Master was in our midst in the form of a servant . . .
“Truth will out.”
When I imagine Jesus walking into the synagogue at Capernaum, I recall this visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. When the Master, the living God, is near, “Truth will out.” The light dispels what is hiding in the darkness.
I believe these lessons are true in our own lives of faith.
When everything is rote, and the routine and ritual are firmly in place, perhaps there is an opportunity for the demons, the Tempter, to hide in the folds of our faith. When everything is rote and routine, perhaps our religious project begins to resemble a museum rather than a living faith.
But when we least expect it; in the place that we assume God has overlooked, then comes the sudden glimpse, the reminder; the places where our self-importance are not on display may be the very places where it is more difficult for the demons to play hide and seek. The forgotten place is where the voice of heaven is clear, the Master arrives, and authority is made real.
When Jesus is present, the demons cannot hide because all is light.
Jesus is alive and walking through our world. Perhaps never more-so than when many believe that God is dead, and the house of prayer left empty. There remains a light coming into the world.
The command remains the same; the voice in the presence of the Principalities and Powers remains the same. We recite them in the midst of our own Baptisms. Each of us is a witness to such authority.
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.
Be silent you doubts and fears. Be silent you glamorous and chattering entertainments of the mind. Be silent you murmuring hordes declaring war on heaven. Be silent you clamoring complaints and grudges that would raise a fist against God’s throne. Be silent all who hide in the folds of a gilded and comfortable corners of this house of prayer, the soul, and come out of him, come out of her, because The Master is now in the world.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
There was once a man who lived in Sweden, Nathan Soderblom. He was a high achiever, a good student, a believer in Christ – and he eventually became and Archbishop in the Church; he actually won the Nobel Prize. He was effective, busy, sought after; he was a leader in his field.
However, having achieved the notoriety that comes with a certain kind of ambition, Soderblom went to the King of Sweden and asked him, “Your majesty – there is a little island off the coast of Sweden. A beautiful place. There is one little church, in a town with one street. There are only a few hundred people living on that island. Your majesty, I have grown weary, especially of my duties in Stockholm; now that I am nearing retirement; I would be so honored, as a retired ArchBishop, to offer myself as pastor, and shepherd, to that little congregation.”
The ArchBishop sat quietly, pensive and thoughtful, piously – waiting for the King to see what a humble offering of self and service the Archbishop happened to be making of himself.
The King smiled at the ArchBishop. His old friend. And the King took quite a while before speaking. The King finally said, “Oh yes – Lovely. Lovely. Truly, it is a lovely island. I know that place; I have been there. It has an ambiance. An atmosphere. A feeling. It is almost, for Sweden, like a piece of heaven. And you know – ArchBishop – those people on that island, they need a postman to carry the mail through town once a day. Ahhh . . . how I have thought it would be so nice to be that postman; how I would like to be the postman on that island.”
That is often how we interpret God’s call to us – and yes, even the most pious and professionally religious of us.
Of course The Carpenter comes calling in life – but it must be to the vision that I am carrying around in my own head. Certainly God would take note of the calling that I have imagined for myself; certainly God would know about “my island fantasy.”
A little conversation I might find myself having, “Of course, that is how I will know it is from God; the next call from God will be anything but more of the drudgery of a life grown stale or difficult.”
I sometimes think this is what folks mean when they say that they are spiritual but not very religious. In the “imaginations of our hearts” we create a tableau and then invite God to be our guest, the executive of our own version of peace.
Like the good ArchBishop we have walked the fence lines of our fields, we have found a break in the fence, and we can see that the grass is certainly greener on the other side.
“Ah yes, my friend. How I would like to no longer be King, how I too would put down my duties, and be the postman on that island.”
Jesus is stepping into the world of the disciples with a particular invitation.
“The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the Good News . . . turn around in our life and believe that this good thing is actually happening to you.”
This invitation is not the climbing of our own mountaintops. It is not the identification of our own fantasy island. It is actually a moment of crisis, but also a moment of opportunity. Repentance and belief are being planted like a flag in the midst of the daily drudgery. Following that flag will lead us into fields and forests that we cannot imagine.
At the outset, the beginning of the Gospel, we see a holy teacher out gathering his followers. Jesus is breaking a few Hellenistic, Greek, and Rabbinic, Hebrew, norms. What was expected is that the teacher would teach a bit, others listen a bit, and then the listeners might mull it over a while, and then decide if this teaching and this teacher were worth the trouble of following.
The locus of authority rested with the listener; it was more or less a buyers’ market when it came to following a teacher or a preacher in those days. But Jesus is breaking this pattern. Jesus does not wait for his followers; He goes and finds them. Obviously God is the pursuer. Heaven is declaring, “Ready or not here I come . . .” The time is now.
We know little about these first disciples. The first disciples were prosperous enough to have others working for them; to own and manage their own businesses. They were probably yeoman types; independent, yet well-off enough to have to pay the Roman tax. Obliged to pay the Temple tithes.
I have always found it a blessing to know so little about Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. I don’t have to wonder if they were “enough.” If they had enough intelligence, enough social capital, enough charisma, enough moral fiber, or enough of the “right stuff” to be sought out by God.
Really the only thing that we know they had “enough” of is that they could understand when something profound, and something of God, was happening in their midst. That is something they could do; recognize that God was near. And this gift, of knowing when the important thing is THE important thing, in that moment, is what set the course of the Western world and the entire fabric of our lives.
This particular moment with a teacher and a few followers set the course of human history.
The disciples don’t seem to be One Minute Managers; they don’t seem to have the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon, Andrew, James, and John don’t seem to have any of the outstanding merits that might place them at the top of some class of Who’s Who. There is really nothing that would recommend them as leaders of the most significant revolution of the Western World . . . except this – listening and following.
Standing beside the boats that contain their livelihood, the security and care of their families, these first followers recognize the moment of crisis and opportunity. They know enough to know that God is near. And they know enough to know the difference between a day-dream and reality.
They know enough to follow someone from one way of living into another way of living with God. It is something that cannot be managed, finessed, arranged to our own liking. It is an invitation that can only be accepted, and so they “left their nets.”
In my limited experience of following Jesus, no one truly follows The Carpenter from Nazareth while also carrying their “nets.” Something is always left behind.
The brave and bright German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it so well, “When Christ calls a person, he bids that person come and die.” Leaving what was and discovering what will be.
The rest of the Gospel, the rest of Jesus’ message, is simply a message that this is a death that we cannot live without; we will not save ourselves as we search for God’s heaven and Kingdom.
A great deal of what we call ourselves, or ours, in this world will be given away, and finally taken away. In order to find the Really Real, the reality of God, something of who we are, what we have been, will be left behind as we step into the Great Mystery of what Jesus is calling his Father’s Kingdom.
This profound and deep Mystery of God’s eternal friendship and love for us may only be received when we are turned from the preoccupation of creating our own heaven on earth; accepting the beautiful, yet sometimes crushing, truth that in order to follow The Carpenter into a real paradise, we must leave the nets that have been our safety in this world.
This is not our world, it is God’s. And every day we live and breathe in this borrowed place, there is one who is walking toward us; He says, “I know what you want. I know what you dream; but I have come for you. Lay it down. Lay down the safety of your nets, and come follow me.”
This morning, I would like to draw your attention to our first lesson in 1 Samuel 3. In his comments on this text, Dr. Luke Powery says that the prophet Samuel affirms that prayerful listening leads to prophetic proclamation, that our silence and service are intertwined and that we must always listen before we speak. Since the roots of social and civic engagement are listening skills, I thought we should reflect on the importance of listening in the life of faith.
The first lesson on listening is that God speaks. God speaks and calls Samuel four times, (vv. 4, 6, 8, 10), but three of those times, Samuel thinks it is the elder priest, Eli, who is calling him, suggesting how difficult it may be to discern the voice of God. If we don’t know God’s voice, we may run to the wrong people for advice and guidance. If we don’t know the voice of God, we may only hear our own voice and then confuse it with God’s voice. Sometimes, we can’t hear God because of all of the noise in our lives, “the jangling echoes of our turbulence” (Thurman, Meditations of the Heart). Or, maybe we just listen to the distorted voices that tell us that it is not worth it, we can’t do it, it will never change; voices of defeat that have nothing to do with serving the resurrected Christ; voices that drown out the truth that God is love. It may be difficult to discern God’s voice sometimes but God is patient, continuing to call us even when we don’t answer and even when we might be afraid of what he may ask us to do. It is not until the fourth time, after Eli tells Samuel that it is God calling, that Samuel responds to God’s call with “Speak, for your servant is listening” (v.10). He soon realizes that God is the foundation of his future prophetic work, implying that God is calling, wanting to give us our voice, our vocation. According to Frederick Buechner, “God speaks not just through the sounds we hear… but through events in all their complexity and variety, through the harmonies and disharmonies and counterpoint of all that happens” (Buechner, The Sacred Journey and Listening to Your Life).
In January 1956 God spoke. It was when Dr. Martin Luther King felt he could not continue with the civil rights movement. Recalling the event, he said “I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud, saying, ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ At that moment I experienced the presence of God as I had never before. It seemed as if I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. I was ready to face anything. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.” (King, The Soul of Leadership). I know that some of you have had a similar experience when God has spoken to you and you have found inner strength for outer action. God speaks at a kitchen table, in a living room, in a bedroom, in the car, here in the cathedral, even on a vacation trip; whenever you are tired, weak and worn. God speaks, revealing to us our mission in the world because if God doesn’t speak, we have nothing to say. If God doesn’t speak, we have nothing to do. God speaks, the question is “Are we listening?”
The second lesson on listening is that listening is the first task of a prophet. The term ‘prophet’ is thrown around in society and in the church and usually we think of speaking right away. But what we learn from this call story today is the priority of listening not only in the work of a prophet but also in our life and ministry. Because prayer is vital in listening to God, our prayer should be, “Silence in us any voices but your own, so that we may hear your Word and also do it; through Christ our Lord.” (Prayers for Illumination). Prophetic ministry and all other ministries are propelled by the posture of prayerful silence and listening and yet many of us are uncomfortable with silence. We find it hard to center down in silence because we may not like what we hear from God or our own hearts. Silence may be a corrective path to a word-centered spirituality that believes that the amount of words reveals how deep one’s spirituality really is. Perhaps we need an ear-centered theology that recognizes listening as much as speaking even as we read in scripture such verses as, “Hear, O Israel” (Deut.6:4) and “faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17).
When we listen, we show that we don’t have all the answers and need God’s guidance. Listening signifies our receptivity toward the voice of God that we might discover our own voices in the world; that we might discover what to speak and how to act. Listening is a form of love—we listen to those whom we love, and if we are not listening, we may not love like we think we do. If we are not listening we may not even recognize the voice of the one who loves us to death. Listening is not passive; it is active attention and it may be exactly what you need when the going gets tough rather than getting caught up in the noise of unfruitful activity of guessing.
We pray; we keep silence but there comes a time when we have to act – our third lesson on listening. Listening leads to speaking. We cannot be silent forever. God will call us to speak and “The calling to speak is often a vocation of agony” (King, Speech about Vietnam in 1967). What we may be called to say may not be easy to digest. We may not want to speak it. Others may not want to hear it. But God still calls us to say it and we must break the silence. What Samuel is called to do is not easy. He is called to speak during a time of change, turmoil and impending war (1 Sam 3:11-20). Samuel cannot lie down in the temple (vv.3, 5, 6, 9) forever, but must get up and act upon what he has heard and what he will say will make “the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” As servants and agents of God in the world we follow God’s agenda. Public servants do not just serve the public but God. In the case of Samuel, prophetic action is grounded not even in the wisdom of Eli, the seasoned priest but in God’s voice and direction. Therefore, to act justly in the world is to follow God’s ongoing activity in the world. But to know what God is doing, one has to listen prayerfully. The legacy of those who have been the voice of the voiceless reveals that their proclamations are rooted in theological obedience and prayerful listening to the call of a God of justice who says, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever‐flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). So, to be able to speak, one must pray like The Poet James Weldon Johnson and ask God to “pin [my] ear to the wisdom post” (Johnson, Listen, Lord: A Prayer) that like Isaiah (6:7) my mouth may be touched by the burning coals of God so that like Jeremiah (20:9) God’s word may be like fire shut up in my bones that I can’t help but speak what God desires me to declare. Speak and declare that “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Speak and declare, that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Speak and declare, that “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We are to speak and declare that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and that “only love can drive out hate” (King).
My friends, listening requires prayer, silence and declaring the Word that we hear God speak. This Word is the incarnate Word that dwells among us, fleshed out in the every-day-ness of our own experience. It is possible that God is calling you for the nth time but you are still hesitant. I pray that today your response will be the prayer of Samuel— “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.
I once listened to a friend give a short spiritual auto-biography. He was the proverbial “man in full” – The Southern Edition. Good looking. Charming. Good company and fun for both men and women. Beautiful wife and two lovely children. From a family line whose name you would recognize if you lived in the environs of three states East of here. He ended up with his picture on the front page of the Wall Street Journal eventually.
There was success, there was fun, there were cars and motorcycles and trips to the beach; there was laughter and drinks on the golf course, laughter and drinks on the fishing boat, laughter and drinks at the ball game; and sometimes there was just laughter and drinks; and sometimes there were just drinks, and drinking.
“Weightlessness. Weightless,” is how he described himself. And then he leaned forward and put his head in his hands, and shook his head. “You know, that’s the hardest thing about it. When it was good, it was really good . . . and when it was bad, it was really bad; and not just for me. But for everyone around me.”
“I was just taking one step forward . . . and a heck of a lot more than two steps back.”
Though the balls of the good life were all up in the air, he still felt stuck in something. He talked about waking up every few weeks feeling lost, exhausted, and a little sick. “It was easier for me to stay on the roller coaster, than face life on the ground.” he said.
There was too much momentum, too many balls in the air, too much make-up and pretending to simply stop and have a glance at real nakedness, in the clear light of day. “I knew I should change, I wanted to change . . . or to be changed, but I was pinned beneath this weight,” he said.
He paused in telling his story, and I felt the heavens had opened a bit, he sat up, and said to us, “I finally just got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I got tired . . . of being sick and tired, and so I gave that weight to God.”
This friend made the journey that others have made. He went to rehab. He joined AA. Slowly his erratic behavior and thoughts found their place on a map larger than himself, and God placed a compass in his hand.
His first great outing as a disciple was to join a prison ministry team; it hurt his business, he began to lose his previous largess, but found a community of real friendship. With time he has become one of the most joyful and helpful people that I know in the real lives that others live.
Over the years the telescope turned around, and today he is known first as a Christian, a friend, a fellow traveler and sufferer, someone who comes calling in the name of Christ, and someone who is called upon because of the name of Christ. I believe that he would say that only now he is truly weightless.
He once said to me, “Alston, I have learned something . . . I found with Jesus that I have a lot more coming out than I had going in.”
John the Baptist is out in the Wilderness, out from Jerusalem, helping the people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired. John the Baptist is not so much returning to his family roots, the priesthood of Zechariah and the collegium; rather John is going farther back, to the wilderness voices of Israel’s deep past.
Going back to Elijah, Elisha, those who wander the land, eat the fruit of the land, dressed not in the finer and processed fiber of sheep’s wool, but rather the more common and coarse camel’s hair, fastened with leather belts. It’s the life of the spiritually pure, dressed in the sturdy clothing of those who work the land and day-labor. John will not wear the wool of a sheep, “the lamb’s tunic,” in order to proclaim the coming of the lamb of God. It is a sign of his humility.
As said by Cyril of Jerusalem, “John fed on locusts to make his soul grow wings.”
John lives a simple life, and he brings a simple message: repentance, turning around, changing direction in life, because God is nearer now than ever before. John brings a simple and powerful offering of reorientation, of personal/individual and collective transformation.
Clearly, there must be some resonance to John’s message, because many folks from the Capital, from the Jerusalem area, are coming out to hear him.
And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
I like to think that John has a medicine for their weariness, their own frustration with being sick and tired; a medicine for their lack of honesty about themselves and one another that only God can give.
I am reminded of something Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, once said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.” The medicine for things shallow and complicated that John brings is “Metanoia.” Repentance.
That change in life’s direction, sometimes great, sometimes small, a reorientation that creates the shift in the flywheel of our actions, intentions, and affirmations – perhaps our self-understanding/identity, that will eventually send the entire vehicle of our lives in a new direction. Occasionally, when enough of these adjustments are made in enough lives, even whole peoples and cultures might see a new direction as well.
That walk with Jesus where we find we have a lot more coming out that we had going in . . .Metamorphosis – transformation.
However, this transformation is not a magic trick; it’s not even a new idea among ideas. It is more like a death and a rebirth. It is more like a deep cleansing that might come with the sting of cold water splashed in the face of our self-delusions; something like the way I braced for the vaccine earlier this week – bracing ourselves in the face of our mortality.
It is something like being pushed under the water, holding our breath, and coming up breathing again; yet in a new way with a new purpose. We are immersed as our old, familiar, well-tended and curated, selves . . . we arise as a child of God who now walks by another road.
The fact that Jesus goes out from Jerusalem and offers himself to John the Baptist is confirmation that Jesus believes in John. It is confirmation that Jesus recognizes and honors the medicine, the deliverance, the transformation – the repentance that John is offering to individuals and the people; a life of transformation – perhaps finding that we have more coming out that going in . . .
During the events of the past week in our country, I find myself asking the question and meditating upon this notion: why would I expect a nation, a population, a segment of a population, to spiritually awaken beyond a point that I have not embraced, or arrived at, myself? It reminds me of the bumper sticker: Be the change you want to see in others. Or on this Feast of our Lord’s Baptism – Be the Repentance that you expect to see in others.
The events of the past week are tragic for our shared citizenry; what occurred was wrong.
The definitive explanation and interpretation of these events will become a new battleground; with various outposts of temporal and otherworldly righteousness established on any number of available high places. Thus is the nature of human events; thus the nature of our shared humanity. Hurt, bruised, offended, the various parties retreat to various corners of self-determination; either preparing for another battle, or perhaps finding that they too are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
One of the old Christians, Cyril of Jerusalem, used to liken repentance to a snake shedding its skin, “For every snake puts off its signs of age by pushing through some narrow place, and gets rid of its old apparel by squeezing it off” . . . and he was speaking of all who would deign walk in the name of Christ; we are the snakes shedding our skins. We must break with our old nature and put on the new.
However, we will not walk the path of Metanoia without remembering that we do not get to “have” God without also “having” our neighbor. We are shedding our skins together.
We will not find a pathway, we will not go home by another road, until each citizen, Christian or otherwise, discovers the truth that our desires for the highest and best use of our liberties depends upon the integrity and safety of those with whom we disagree, giving voice to their own vision of what is highest and best. If we cannot grow sick and tired of being sick and tired, together, we must be prepared to live in a long, never-ending version of what we witnessed on The Feast of Epiphany, 2021, when our fragile experiment in American liberty was briefly put in the balance of fate. A visible and sad experience of shared humanity in need of John The Baptist’s transformational medicine.
In our fallen world that is yet to be fully redeemed, Cain is killing Abel somewhere, every day, all of the time. Without external intervention, so it may remain.
However in a world in which the “bat quol,” the “daughter voice” of God is breaking through the heavens and alighting like a dove, there is a medicine from another time, another place, a medicine from the world that is to be, that is breaking through the clouds and saying, “Shuv, Metanoia, Repent, let’s go home by another road together.” Even on Wednesday afternoon this past week, the voice of John the Baptist is crying out in the Wilderness, “Prepare the Way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.”
The voice of God is forever offering a path of redirection:
“God opened the gates of heaven and sent down his Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, lighting upon the head of Jesus, pointing him out right there as the new Noah, even the maker of Noah, and the good pilot of the nature which is shipwrecked.” – Gregory Thaumaturgus.
In lives that are shipwrecked God sends Jesus as the good pilot.
While our shared citizenship may feel like a beautiful piece of fabric that has been torn, or that is unable to cover all those who would seek shelter beneath her, our citizenship in heaven is intact; it will never be adjusted or abrogated by those whose who, for a season, manage the temporal affairs of state.
Jesus’ baptism, our baptism, is a mark made in eternity; regardless of how the heathen doth rage. Heaven speaks on behalf of our leader, our advocate, our guide; regardless of what is shouted in the streets by those protesting that they are sole arbiters of the national vision.
In times of national uncertainty, I find it necessary to recall the certainty of my citizenship in heaven; and our Lord’s command that we walk in that citizenship in such a way as not to become stumbling blocks to those who do not yet believe. I believe that our Baptisms become our compass.
Divine citizenship, collective transformation, personal repentance, standing with Jesus on the banks of the river Jordan, listening to John The Baptist, is something the vicissitudes of this world will never breach. The truth that we read and pray today is a doorway from temporal realities into eternal verities.
And the one who opens that door for us, Jesus who becomes the Messiah, is the one who stands at that door for every human being, every citizen; Jesus is the only leader of a world whose destiny is true freedom and liberty.
Borrowing the words of an old Christian, Hippolytus, “Listen to the Father’s voice: . . . “This is my Beloved Son,” yes, none other that the One who himself becomes hungry, yet feeds countless numbers.
He is my Son who himself becomes weary, yet gives rest to the weary. He has no place to lay his head, yet bears up all things in his hand.
He suffers, yet heals sufferings. He is beaten, yet confers liberty upon the world. He is pierced in his side, yet repairs the side of Adam.”
If it is “freedom” that we seek for ourselves and others, there is a leader, a “cause,” by which to find it; and He is standing on the banks of the Jordan River listening to John the Baptist offer the words of repentance and transformation in Baptism.
There is a story about the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of Communist Party from 1964 until his death in 1982. The Cold War. Vice President, George Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by something he saw there.
We must remember that Communist Russia during that time was very clearly atheist, secular, utterly convinced that religious realities were not simply foolish, but that they were dangerous – opiates of the people. Being religious meant being a self-declared enemy of the State. After a few generations of party rule, any form of religious expression, either collectively or individually, had become anathema and the invitation to suffering at the hands of “those who knew best.”
Brezhnev’s widow stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest.
She took a risk and offered her silent prayer in the last moment that she would be able to touch her husband. She made the sign that we will make on the bodies of our own children; the sign that has been made upon us. It is the sign of the promise. It is the sign of the everlasting covenant.
It is the sign I make on the forehead of baby before saying the old and true words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and you are marked as Christ’s own forever.”
Please stand with me as we reaffirm our own Baptismal Covenant.
The Baptismal Covenant: Page 304
The Baptismal Covenant
Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?