In the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence; in the first year of the governorship of Phil Murphy, and the second of year of Anthony Vanieri serving as chair of the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders; and the first year of Ravi Bhalla serving as Hoboken mayor; and the fourth year of Michael Curry’s presidency as bishop of the Episcopal Church, and the first year of Bishop Carlye Hughes’s ministry as bishop of Newark, a word of God came to…
Luke begins the third chapter of his gospel by rattling off the names of seven powerful people, civil as well as religious authorities, and then drops the name of a nobody who lived in the wilderness.
To whom is God’s word coming today? Who are the prophets crying out in the wilderness? Who are the ones preparing the way, making straight the paths, filling in the valleys, and making low those hills?
Is it not to each of us that God calls? Isn’t it to each of us – nobodies every one of us – whose job it is to prepare the way for God’s reign?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually think of myself in such terms. I don’t know many people who do, and maybe that’s why we don’t really seem much closer to the return of Christ in glory now than we did at the time of the first apostles.
This past Monday, I was on my weekly video-class for my doctoral program at Drew, and the topic of discussion turned to the hot topic on our class discussion board from the week before: the death of missionary John Chau on the Sentinel Islands. You have probably heard about how he wanted to proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ to what is likely the last pre-Neolithic tribe of people on this planet, people vulnerable to diseases, and a society which had made it clear that outsiders were not welcome. I confess that my first thoughts on hearing the news of Chau’s death were less than charitable. This is the kind of evangelism that I find paternalistic and destructive and certainly not demonstrating the respect of human dignity to which we subscribe in our baptism.
One of our professors challenged us, though. He first said that, as pastors and preachers, if our first thought on hearing someone preach were thoughts of critique rather than appreciation, then perhaps we needed to rethink that. He then said that unless our first thoughts when learning of Chau’s death were in admiration that he loved Jesus so much to risk his life, perhaps we needed to rethink our understanding of our calling. I am not convinced that the love of Jesus is reason enough for Chau’s actions, but my teacher’s comment did give me pause.
And then came the death of former president George Bush, and that news was quickly followed by dueling stories honoring his life of service to this country versus the many ways he ignored the AIDS plague that ravaged communities, among other failures of his. This again opened a huge debate, played out in social media and other online media venues among Christian leaders – priests and pastors who are my peers. And one priest’s essay in an Episcopal magazine echoed my professor’s comment from last Monday. This priest wrote:
So, to my fellow priests who have seen fit to dehumanize, even demonize, Mr. Bush on the day of his death and his funeral, I say this: A man is dead. Be a Christian — and, what’s more, a priest. Pray for God’s mercy and the repose of the dead. Pretend for a moment that you actually believe in repentance and reconciliation, and that you are a sinner in need of, and saved by, God’s redeeming love. Pray for those who mourn. I will also pray that when we die, other people will show more grace toward us in their words than I have witnessed from you about our former president.
If my first response as a priest was not to pray for the repose of the soul of one of God’s own, then perhaps I need to reorient myself. This does not mean that I am to ignore Iran-Contra or AIDS or Willie Horton or any of that. What it does mean is that I cannot forget that I, too, have failed to care for those needing care; I’ve been mean-spirited with those needing compassion; in short, I, too, am a sinner in need of God’s grace.
The final cap on all of this was the first-degree murder conviction on Friday of James Fields in a Charlottesville courtroom for plowing his car into a crowd of counter-protesters on August 12, 2017, killing Heather Heyer and wounding three dozen others. This verdict resurrected some trauma for me, remembering the horror of that day, the friends with whom I stood, the aftermath. My first thoughts on hearing the verdict were of Susan Bro, Heather’s mother, who had to sit in that courtroom every day, reliving her daughter’s death in every gruesome detail. I have no sympathy for Fields’s allegiance to white nationalism, his worship of Hitler, his premeditated actions. He is a 21-year-old man who will likely die in prison. And once again, my faith is challenged because even he is not outside the bounds of God’s love and redemption and saving grace.
Friends, all of this has been much on my mind and heart – a dead missionary, a dead president, and a killer – and the ways in which we as a society and, more specifically, as people of faith, respond. And I find myself hoping that when I die, I am not just remembered for those things I did on my worst days. That, no matter what any individual memory might be, someone will still say the prayer that is, in our tradition at least, said at the time of death:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant.Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. (BCP 465)
Next week, we will be combining our two later services into one 10:00am service so that our children can present the annual Christmas pageant. So, unless you come to the 8:00am, you likely won’t get a full-blown sermon on next week’s reading about John the Baptist. There, he isn’t a voice crying out in the wilderness, he’s a fiery prophet warning people that they have forsaken God’s ways, that they must bear good fruit, that their time is almost up. We get a John the Baptist who recognized his own role as the precursor rather than the savior. It didn’t stop him from calling people to repentance. John was not just one thing.
Any more than John Chau was just one thing. Yes, he foolishly and wrong-headedly thought he could preach the gospel to a hostile tribe, but he also professed a deep faith and, contrary to what was reported, prepared for years to encounter and try to get to know the Sentinalese people.
Or any more than George Bush was just one thing. Yes, he did nothing to stem the rising tide of deaths from AIDS, and yet he promoted access protections for millions of people through the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Or any more that James Fields was just a cold-blooded killer. He’s a 21-year-old son with a mother who loves him and who watched and wept as he was convicted of heinous crimes.
And we can argue the merits or lack thereof until the end of time, but what John is trying to tell us is that all that matters is that our redemption is coming. There is not a single one of us who can save ourselves on our own. And the Good News is that God loves us enough to come as one of us to show us the way back to God.
So yes, the word of God is coming to each of us. What kind of prophets will we be? Will we expect some kind of purity of thought or action, some unattainable perfection, some high standard that not even we ourselves can meet? Or will we turn toward the One who is coming into the world and invite others to come, too? It’s a good time to remember that we confess the things we have done and the things we have left undone, and to know that we are forgiven our sins of omission andcommission, and then, by God’s grace, we hope to do better. And even if we can’t manage better, God loves us just the same. Advent is as good a time as any for us to go and do likewise.