Whatever it was that John was expecting, it wasn’t this. John’s been out in the wilderness for a while by now, but nothing quite prepares him for when Jesus shows up. John is one of those characters I wish more children’s plush toys and coloring pages were made to depict. Could you imagine that play set for dressing up like John…some gummy locusts to eat, wild honeycomb crackers to crunch on, a camel’s hair getup with a leather belt around the waist? Or maybe a plush doll, his thick locks made out of wool, his beard impressive, ready to dunk our kids stuffed animals. John, in our reading this morning has had it with people, their systems of oppression, so he’s hightailed it to the desert, pulling away from society, before the whole thing goes up in smoke. He’s calling people out, canceling everyone. And he’s got a warning; you think I’m intense? Wait until you meet the next guy. I’ve got water, he’s coming with fire. He’s got an axe, to cut off the rotting limbs of what used to be a tree of life.
If I’m honest, whenever I read this story, at first John always makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s not that I don’t dig his funky getup; that gets points from me. I even appreciate his retreat into the wilderness. I’m someone who finds it much easier to feel close to God under the stars, the sound of flowing water nearby. But John just seems so angry. In my mind he’s a cross between Bernie Sanders, a Hellfire and Brimstone preacher, and Bob Marley. His intensity throws off my balance at first. But when I let myself settle and remember the world he’s living in, when I look at the world around us today, I start to see John in a different way.
In progressive Churches in 2020, especially ones that are predominantly white, folks can get pretty uncomfortable with the S-word, Sin. And as a queer gay man, I’ve had my fair share of experiences having this word lobbed against me. I’ve gotten enough e-mails, Facebook messages, and comments on my TED talk about integrating my Christian and Queer identity that throw around the word Sin, that I have some sensitivity around the word. And yet, as a Pastor and Theologian, the idea of repenting, of turning away from what diminishes ourselves, others, and our planet, still holds power for me. I’ve found ways of reclaiming this key theological understanding that stay true to my values and understanding of whom God is, and Jesus’ dreams for us all. I find it interesting that progressive folks sometimes shrink away from the words Sin and Repentance, and then we talk about it, just using other words. The general idea of Repentance isn’t about feeling guilty about a laundry list of small mistakes that God wants to punish us for. Instead in our reformed tradition, repentance is about recognizing that there are systems that we are a part of, systems that we didn’t create, and yet find ourselves participating in, often without recognizing, that can separate us and others from the way of life God dreams of; systems of poverty and economic exploitation, systemic racism, White Nationalism and militarism, environmental destruction and climate change, Ableism, Ageism, Homophobia, Transphobia, and Sexism. In the progressive worlds so many of us inhabit, we’re talking about the powers that oppose what the world could be all the time, we’re just not calling it Sin. These systems have the ability to oppress and control, exert power and damage on individuals and communities. In our culture, we talk about individuals, who are “Woke,” who see damaging systems, and call them out, to try and lead to change, to a different way of life. John’s undertaking the same task, calling people to turn away from the automatic ways of living, and instead taking a path of intentionally loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves with all of who we are.
I get the discomfort though. Often discussions of Repentance are less about creating a new world, and more about trying to control people in a new way. I’m sure John has moments he’s thinking about this, as he’s leading people down to the water in the traditional Mikvah bathing pool. He’s getting to know people as they come and share about the systems they’re apart of, the ways they’ve not loved their neighbors, the harm they’ve caused. John had to hear the brokenness of the people’s hearts that he’s dunking near the Jordan, and realize how hard it is to be a neighbor, to live with other people, and not get mixed up in systems of power and coercion and control that hurt.
This tension, between wanting the world to be different, and feeling powerless to change it, led many in Ancient Palestine who follow the Living God to conclude that the only way to avoid hurting their neighbors, and be a loving friend, was to pull away from society and create a new community. And so Aesthetic groups started to emerge, out in the wilderness where John would eventually join them. These Jewish communes lived in harsh conditions, and relied on God for survival. They spent their time in prayer and living simply, trying to live a better way. They awaited a Messiah, who would come and bring an end to war, creating a world where the lion lay down with the lamb, nation don’t rise up sword against nation, and no one studies war any more. A Beloved of God who would arrive, who wasn’t tainted with Sin, and create a new Earth, without the problems of the world they had known all too well.
This is the hope and worldview Jesus walks into when he comes to John. In John’s eyes, Jesus is the one, with fire and spirit, who is going to burn it all down, and build something new and beautiful and true. But whatever John was expecting, Jesus isn’t quite it. The Christ arrives, and asks John to baptize him. “What now?” I can imagine John stammering. “You?! No, no, Jesus, I don’t think you quite get what we’re doing here. YOU don’t need to be baptized; you’re free from all of this junk. If anything, you should baptize me. You’re above all of this Sin stuff.” But Jesus is insistent, and the crowd is surprised. But as John submerges this Rabbi from the Galilee, as he’s coming up out of the water, God’s voice speaks to them all. This was the right choice. There’s a dawning realization that God’s not in the business of saying “You’re a mess. Figure it out yourself.” Instead, God is getting involved with all it means to be human; the beauty and the pain, and the crashing waves of uncertainty, of how to live well, in peace, and create a better world. Jesus doesn’t pull back from the world. Instead he jumps right into the fray. This is a part of being Human, and God’s in it with us.
These days, I can feel pretty tempted to be like John, to look around, throw my hands up and say, “Let’s just start over on our own and try to make a better run of this, waiting for Jesus to come back and make all things new.” It’s tempting to just putter in my Garden, love y’all as best I can, and let the world burn. But this story reminds me that our calling isn’t about pulling away, untouched by the troubles of this world. We’re called to love God while also being a loving neighbor. It’s not a call to shrink away. Instead, it’s a call to watch as Jesus enters into our struggle with us, knowing we are not alone, and to see what the Spirit invites us to do.
This kind of life in the world, for a family of faith like ours, is sometimes called practicing incarnational ministry. It’s not creating our own little commune in the woods, but instead being in the world. It’s a call to be a people who gather together and try to figure out how we can, together, move the world from how it is, just a little closer to how it should be. Like John, we can have a part to play. Sometimes we need to Baptize Jesus in our midst. I don’t mean literally dunking Jesus, but recognizing that what we see our neighbors, the parts of our lives and the world that we ourselves are struggling with, these are the places Jesus is showing up.
This kind of incarnational ministry is why our Session and our Ministry Coordination Team puts such a high emphasis on developing relationships. The mission of God is about living together, not being some kind of Holy Consultants who tell people “Here’s what you should do because Jesus says so,” but instead being with folks, and seeing where Jesus already is, on the move with the Holy Spirit. I see this so powerfully through you all. Today, a group from our Stewardship Action Group for the Earth is headed to Columbia, to meet up with our friends from Interfaith Partner and Light and the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. We’re going to be working together to organize advocating for caring for the earth. With people from a wide-range of religious traditions, we’re working to address our climate crisis while creating a path for those working in the coal industry to green jobs. We’re seeing what part we can play in keeping our waterways clean through a Plastic Bag Ban, speaking with those in power in the General Assembly to ban the dangerous pesticide Chlorpyrifos that makes farm workers, bees, and children sick. We could just focus on how to care for our little section of creation here on our property, but instead we’re getting into the mix of trying to gather with our neighbors to care for creation together with our Jewish and Muslim friends. You’re invited to keep an ear out for how you can be involved.
Similarly, there are times we learn about folks hurting our neighbors, and we can use our voices, our power and privilege, to speak out, and push for change. I learned last night that that one of our local Lutheran pastor friends, Rev. Lura, is trying to gather power to change our corner of the world. Lura’s Partner Jesse was denied medical care from St. Joseph’s hospital last week because he is Transgender. Jesse, like many transgender people, has suffered a lot of trauma with doctors, but still tries to access the medical care he needs. He needed a hysterectomy, a procedure that he was anxious about. Then, suddenly Lura and Jesse got a phone call from their doctor, Dr Adashek, informing them that St Joseph’s was refusing to do the surgery. Dr Adashek was not only apologetic; he was upset and angry on their behalf. He told them that he had done hysterectomies for trans men at St Joseph’s in the past, and that there was a new policy coming down from the Vice President of Medical Affairs. The reason why was simple: St Joseph’s had decided that trans care was not a good enough reason to do a hysterectomy, despite it being medically necessary. This was completely devastating for the couple. In her Facebook post about the incident, Lura writes “It’s discrimination, in the purest and most clearly stated terms. Jesse’s life was not worth protecting, according to the hospital.”Last night they shared their experience so that the LGBTQIA+ community would know about this policy so that other trans men and their doctors know not to go there. They also hope that other LGBTQIA+ people, and our allies, can step up. They are encouraging us, as neighbors, to “work together to close the legal loopholes that allow” discrimination against trans people. If you know advocates who have struggled with this kind of discrimination in the past, I can connect you via Facebook or e-mail. Or maybe you know a member of the Board of Trustees for the Hospital, and can reach out to them. If you see a Doctor at St. Joseph’s, let them know that this happened, and see if they can advocate for our neighbors to receive the care they need. Sometimes we have power and privilege we can leverage to empower our neighbors, when systems of oppression try to deny them human dignity.
We can’t save the whole world, but we have surprising moments, like John, where we can be a part of what Jesus is doing. It’s surprising the power we have to recognize Jesus confronting what diminishes us, the systems in our midst that hurt.
Beloved, Jesus is at work in our world. Sometimes we have the power to be a part of the revolution of love and light that is in our midst. Let us be Holy Trouble Makers like John the Baptist, calling out evil, and instead of running away, accepting Jesus’ invitation to do our part. When we find ourselves hurt, let us know that we are surrounded by a community that will join us in the struggle for a new world. Let us act, knowing we are not alone, In the Name of the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah Leah, and Rachel, of Lura and Jesse, the God of Creation, God with us, Emanuel, Amen.