There’s some great material in our two passages today — Amos and Mark —
Material that forces us to talk about the intersection of religion and politics.
…Religion and politics — not necessarily the most popular subject at church.
Who dares speak of politics from the pulpit,
even when the Scripture readings authorize it?
People often look to church, want to come to church for a measure of solace,
some space, a sanctuary even,
from the disappointments and challenges of the world.
Someone asked me recently,
“Do you think people are uncomfortable with Old First these days,
because we’ve become so much more overtly political?
Could people be upset because we’re taken up a much stronger prophetic or advocates role lately?
I don’t know.
What do you all think?
Have we in fact become more political and activist?
If so, I guess I’d suggest the deeper question is more important,
“Are we being more faithful?”
Because, well, religion in America often suffers from a sickness:
it’s can become a privatized religion for personal benefit,
wherein people mistake the pure religion
for something that’s so spiritual it hardly has any worldly implications.
just some sort of feel-good experience,
cut-off from life’s troubles and the world’s hurting —
wherein your insides are — mystically — made so right
that it does not matter what else is wrong in your world
or how messed up your relationships might be with others,
…the extreme version of this is often summed up in the phrase
“my personal relationship with Jesus as my Lord and Savior:”
if only I am in a right relationship with God,
usually signified by some sort of overwhelming spiritual satisfaction,
maybe even smugness,
so that, then, everything else —
the whole world around me and every other living being
and even those unsettled, injured places inside me —
can pretty much be forgotten or just go to hell in a handbasket.
Church, I could use these texts this morning,
the unyielding prophet Amos taking on the King Jeroboam
and the prophet John taken out by King Herod…
to make the case that true religion,
faith worth its salt
drives us right into the messiness and all the hurt and brokenness of the world
where we are called to minister and serve
as the people of God and the body of Christ.
…called to change a world
that produces the poor
and the widow
and the alien
and the orphan.
Or to use a more modern idiom,
… to change a world that is producing students who are not educated,
and way too many dropouts,
And in a more or direct relationship, too many people behind bars.
I could preach a sermon
that religion worth its salt
is faith that says something
about budgets without enough money to educate our children,
but more than enough money to pay others to incarcerate black men,
if they police don’t hurt them first.
Or I could preach a sermon about confederate flags.
So many sermons on where the world meets the Gospel,
sermons that don’t just say something about these sorts of things,
but insists that we who hear do something,
demands something of the world around us,
and of us
or of how we live in the world and with one another and ourselves.
I could warn of America’s false religion
pimped out for Jeroboam’s empire or Herod’s heresies,
I could condemn us for religion that sanctions the political and economic status quo.
But I’m not.
Maybe it’s last week’s trip to St. Louis —
my first time back since last November and my father’s funeral.
St. Louis where I grew up a couple of lifetimes ago,
and where I was headed to meet my newest nephew, Charlie Michael,
with whom my sister-in-law was pregnant at my father’s funeral.
You see, all this had me thinking of life and death and the run of our days.
And in the middle of that visit,
I got word that one of our members, Mark Salisbury, passed away.
Perhaps, all this welcome and goodbye,
right after General Synod where I caught up with a wide array of people for pretty much all the different years of my life…
it’s all left me a little philosophical.
Looking at the longer view rather than in the current moment.
Or, perhaps better,
left me looking at individual lives and how faith can provide a context for them,
rather than focusing on the social, political and economic institutions
that religion either underpins or works to transform.
As the Gospel lectionary offers us the gruesome ending of John the Baptist’s life,
I find myself
thinking back on the all of his life.
Neither focusing exclusively
on the tragic socio-political drama of his execution.
Nor the hopeful theological promise of his birth.
But in thinking about John today,
I’m wishing to take in his life as a whole,
seeing his birth, alongside of his death and his ministry…
and all that was between.
How it began with the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah
to tell him of the longed-for son
who was to bring joy and gladness.
How the joyful John leapt in his mother’s womb
when the pregnant Mary came to visit.
How the neighbors rejoiced at his birth.
How, on the day of her son’s circumcision,
“He is to be called John,”
to the befuddlement of those who assumed he would be named after his father.
How Zechariah, struck mute months earlier
(when he had expressed his incredulity at the Angel Gabriel’s incredible news),
grabbed for a writing tablet to add his 2 cents,
“His name is John.”
It was the name that had accompanied the angel’s stunning news,
the name that Zechariah and Elizabeth believed had been given to their son by God.
I imagine Zechariah writing it for his neighbors in large block letters,
underlined 3 times for emphasis.
His wife had not been mistaken in the name she pronounced.
His name was John.
John, who it seemed, absorbed and lived out
this same insistent clarity
that his parents had displayed in their naming of him.
Their strength of purpose and trust in God
passed into their son.
It was borne in his blood.
It infused everything that was to follow.
When we see him again,
as John re-entered the biblical narrative as an adult,
he was without question that one who was sent to prepare the way.
Not the Christ.
But a forerunner.
The one who was to become known as the Baptist
or as the Baptizer, as our translation had it this morning.
Knee deep in the water.
Caught up in the hands dirty, wilderness work
of washing those who would submit to his call to repentence.
John, who himself, became somewhat of a river,
whose course was not directed only by its banks,
but by something deeper, even if not always visible,
that underlying, inherent current, his sure-ness of purpose.
John the waymaker
does not waver from the course that is his call.
His name was John.
John who had met Jesus in the waters of the womb.
And met him again in the waters of the Jordan.
Who was born along by this sureness of his call
and by the living water he found
in his cousin the Christ.
At the last,
when we meet him again in today’s Gospel,
what flows in John’s life is not water, but blood.
A forerunner of his cousin once again…
Blood spilled out at the feast of a King.
I imagine John going to his death
with the same clarity and steadfastness,
“chesed” in the Hebrew,
that marked his birth and characterized his mission.
I imagine that perhaps he heard again
the voices of the parents who named him.
Or God’s voice calling and confirming his name and his work.
That before the felling stroke,
there came an echo of his father’s song as recorded by Luke,
Zechariah no longer mute,
this song lfted
— or maybe it was God’s voice singing–
on the day of John’s naming:
“And you, child,
will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation
to God’s people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high
will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Death is undeniably the end of John’s earthly work,
his walk in this world of faithfulness.
So too will it be with each of us.
But death does not have the last word in John’s story.
And blood is not the final legacy of the Baptizer.
(And doesn’t this sound familiar —
more foreshadowing of the one who was to come after him)
John had succeeded in making a way for the dawn
sung about at his birth.
The one who the 4th Evangelist identified as he who “came as a witness to testify to the light”
had completed his purpose
and fulfilled his call,
giving himself with complete abandon.
“He himself was not the light,”
yet the Baptist shimmered with steadfast purpose
like sunlight reflecting off the surface of water.
… reflecting the joy
that had marked his life
from the moment he met Jesus in utero
and everytime their lives’ paths brought them back together.
His name was John.
His life was utterly intertwined with the life of Jesus.
something about his love of Christ
and his focus and purpose enabled him to remain so much himself.
Here’s my challenge to each of us this day:
In the fierce rhythms and flow of Johns’ living
and of his dying,
the Baptizer beckons us to reckon with
what it means to divest ourselves
in the service of Christ
without becoming diminished,
to dedicate ourselves completely to Christ’s way,
without giving up the self that God created.
but, in fact, to be more completely ourselves.
His name was John.
And what name is ours?
What are you called and know for?
And me too?
What distinguishes and directs the flow and focus of our lives?
What is the purpose we were born for?
What are we living for?
What would we,
or will we,
And how will we be known —
or at least,
how are we struggling and longing to be known?
How do we,
could we abandon ourselves to a purpose
AND to the One who calls us to it,
and move ever more deeply
into the self that God created us to be?
Beloved, may your life be a river.
May you flow with and towards the purpose
of the One who created and called you,
who directs your course
both at the banks and silently, invisibly deep within.
as that same One turns you slowly flowing ever toward home.
May your way shimmer with the light of Christ
who is above you and somehow also stays with you,
goes with you,
who bears you up, like water in which we float,
and who calls you by name
towards as an ultimate homecoming that is as inevitable as it is gracious.
May you flow with the grace of the Spirit
who brooded over the face of the waters at the beginning
and who will gather you in
no matter how scattered you feel
along your course or at your end.