June 24, 2018

John the Baptist, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Luke 1:57-66, 80

Six years ago, this Sunday, I was presiding at worship for the very first time at Gloria Dei.  It was my second Sunday.  I was still learning how communion worked, where I was supposed to sit, who did what part of the baptism.  I felt pretty good that I made it through without a major blunder. In the line at the door, Pastor Paul Tidemann, Gloria Dei member, retired from St. Paul-Reformation, a congregation that was once on the forefront of GLBT rights, said, “You didn’t do anything with Pride in the worship service.  I expected better from you.”

Ouch, and he’s right to call me out.

He was our John the Baptist, a red sport coat instead of camel’s hair. For decades, he was the one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the path.”  Actually, that wasn’t the message.  It was more like, “The path has been TOO straight.  Time to make it wide and colorful, beautiful enough to embrace every single person.” He pointed to the truth, long before the church would change its policies and move in a new direction.

He regularly stopped in to my office to say, “What are we doing about race?  What are we doing about the earth or native peoples?”  He noticed every masculine reference to God in the liturgy and asked us to widen our reference point every time.  He was as tenacious as I imagine John the Baptist to have been, always about three steps ahead of many of us.

He became that tenacious prophet after being called to a gay bar to identify his brother, who drank himself to death because he couldn’t’ come to terms with his sexual orientation. Paul was devastated that his brother couldn’t talk to him, and he became determined that the world needed to change.

The Word of God often comes to those who see injustice and then, rather than be undone by it, reach and grab a future that the rest of us can’t yet see. Elizabeth, a women on the margin in her culture, barren, trusts the ridiculous words of the angel that newness can come when it seems like everything is over.  She trusts that God is bigger than the barrenness in her body, or in the world around her.  Zechariah, the privileged one, the priest, the educated elite, can’t quite believe it. He’s still too embedded in the culture. But, Elizabeth, she knows this child’s name:  John, which means “God has been gracious.”

John grew strong in the Spirit, and he went into the wilderness where he preached at the border. He pointed both to who the people had become AND who they needed to be. This is the work of our messengers.  Simply by showing up, stopping us, catching us mid-press conference, mid-conversation, we have to actually hear what we’re saying, see who we have become.  Then they finish our sentences, changing the direction, pointing us onto a new path that we hadn’t realized was possible.

There are always messengers who come to point us to what is right.  There are voices crying in the wilderness.  This week, it was that girl in the pink shirt, sobbing as her mother was patted down at the border.  Although she wasn’t separated from her parents, that image came to represent the moment.  It said, “Look at who you have become.”

In the midst of all this turmoil, I went to see the Mister Rogers documentary, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” It tells the story of a shy, often insecure Presbyterian pastor who was absolutely convinced that “Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”  When every other television show relied on pies in the face, or superficial comic relief, he gently invited children into T.V. home, put on his sweater and talked softly with puppets about kindness and responsibility.  He sat with his feet in the pool with his friend, the African American police officer, in an era when the races didn’t share swimming pools.  He honestly answered a fearful tiger about what assassination means.

I cried, at least, five times in the documentary.  Of course, it was sweet and touching, but the tears felt like something more. I was witnesses the deepest truth on the planet. In a landscape where kindness banishes you to the wilderness; where vulnerability and honesty are jettisoned for the sake of winning; where people are staged and images are photoshopped to hide reality; Mister Rogers, in those sneakers, on that low-budget set, seemed like a powerful prophetic voice.

It seems so hard to believe that gentle kindness, love of neighbor, and compassion for those of a tender age is the most powerful force in the universe.  There are days when it seems about as mythical as an angel showing up in your work place to say, “You’re going to be part a new era, a new generation of messengers, tasked with mercy and love. You will point to something greater than yourself.”

Laura Willemsen, our new faith formation chair, gave the devotion at church council.  She read parts of an essay by a friend, who commenting on the way that we use words to rip and tear, and then asks if “we as a culture have forgotten how to bless one another?”

She quotes John O’Donohue, “In the parched deserts of postmodernity a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well.  It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another. . .It is ironic that so often we continue to live like paupers though our inheritance of spirit is so vast,”[1]

These words of blessing are as simple as “You did a great job today.”  “You do good work.”  “You have a special talent for this.”  “You make me happy.” “I’m grateful for you.”

On Wednesday morning, I had just finished helping with the Vacation Bible School opening, when one of the kids, ran up, put one arm around me, and said, “I like you.”  It may not have changed the news, or any vote in Congress, but it put me in touch with the power that’s bigger than all those things. That child was the angel Gabriel. He was John the Baptist.  He was the Christ.

We remember John because he pointed to Jesus, where there would be love; where there would be a welcome for children; where there would be a table set with both outsiders and insiders, sinners and tax collectors.  He pointed to Christ where healing touch would create genuine, loving community; to Christ where outrage became creative, rather than destructive; where blessing enemies replaced cursing them.

Christians believe that love, spoken and embodied multiplies.  It flows forward and produces more love.  It makes regular moments pregnant with possibility. It has more power than any empire or any moment in history. Perhaps our way forward has to do with blessing, speaking good words that open, rather than close; words that notice our connections and our gratitude; words that say, “I like you.  I’m proud of you.”  Words on behalf of those who cannot speak.  Words that are true.  Words that come from love.

Make no mistake.  This love is not superficial or trite.  This Love is prophetic.  Jesus was silenced because genuine love always threatens “the powers.”  But Love raised him from the silence, raised him from death, to live on.  Love continues to send messengers through the centuries to this very day.

You may meet John the Baptist before you even get through the line at church.

Perhaps it’s you.