Sermon, The Rev. Kristin Schultz, December 6

Last weekend after church, a parishioner told me he misses good, old-fashioned hellfire preaching, so I told him I’d see what I could do. Lo and behold, the lectionary cooperated, and we get to hear from John the Baptist today. 
John is a good old-fashioned prophet in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. Luke is careful to set the historical scene with the rulers of the time, as many of the prophetic books do.
“The word of God came to John in the wilderness” is a classic statement of a prophet receiving a message from God. And, as with most old testament prophets, John’s word from God is a call to repentance.
John invites people to repent – to turn to God and from sin – to seek God’s forgiveness, and to prepare the way of the Lord.
John is such a familiar figure to us, coming out as he does each Advent with his call to repent and be baptized.
He’s like the eccentric uncle who shows up at the holidays, and everyone nods and humors him.
It may be hard for us to remember what a edgy, difficult person John was.
He lived in the wilderness.
He dressed in skins and ate locusts.
He certainly smelled bad.
He was someone we parents would warn our children to stay away from.

And when he preached, he didn’t mess around.
“You brood of vipers!” he called the crowds.
He was not shy to point out their sins and tell them it is time, now,
to repent and return to God.
His no-holds-barred criticism of Herod and his wife will, in fact, get him killed. 
A commentator I read this week, Pastor Kathy Beach-Verhey, wrote about John:
God spoke to John “in the wilderness, the often scary and confusing place where God had spoken to God’s people in the past and through which God had led God’s people to new and promised life. God’s choice of John and where God spoke to John are indications of what God expects from [John and his hearers – and from] us. Our repentance, our turning around, will likely involve us in looking at structures and the systems and the people of the world around us in new and different ways.                      (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1; p 49)

Here in Albuquerque in the 21st century, in the United States of America, we who are gathered here today at St Michael and All Angels church experience different kinds of wilderness. And I don’t mean the beautiful mountains and parks that surround us and give so many of us joy. There are ways that we, as a people, are lost and wandering, much as the people of Israel who struggled to trust God when they were lost and wandering in true, desolate wilderness. There are ways that we are desperately seeking God, much as the people who followed John into the wilderness and asked for his  baptism were seeking God When we look at the society we live in, we see violence and racism and poverty. We also see, underlying and contributing to all our other ills, a people deeply divided and polarized. Increasingly, in our public discourse, on newscasts and facebook pages alike, division, mistrust, and derision of others holds sway. And most of us are caught up in it in some way. We go along with the polarizations, dividing one another into Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Liberal, White or Black or Latino, Rich or Poor. We stereotype one another, as if all Republicans, all Democrats, all Evangelicals, all Socialists, all Latino women, all gay men, all white people of privilege are the same. We make jokes which draw divisions between insiders and outsiders. We label one another, to avoid actually having to listen to one another. And some people, who live at the margins of society, we don’t see at all. We drive by people who panhandle on street corners, we walk by people sleeping on the streets, without even seeing the human being there. And it is not Godly.  No matter how sure we are that our political and social ideals are based on the gospel – and I hope that we are sure, that we base our political decisions and social behavior on our faith in Jesus Christ – But no matter how sure we are that we are right – that does not excuse prejudice in our thoughts and behavior. And prejudice behavior is something we all share – not just what the “other people” who disagree with us do. When we assume we know all about someone because we have labeled them. When we make jokes at the expense of others. When we assume that everyone around us must agree with us, because after all, we all seem like reasonable people here. This is directly relevant to our life together here at St Michael’s. We like to celebrate our diversity, but that has to mean more than celebrating our inclusion of LGBT folks, or our welcome of people whose minority race or culture enriches us. To celebrate diversity means, precisely, that we are willing to embrace being in community with people who disagree with us. Who share our faith – our trust in God and commitment to peace and justice –   but who may have very different ideas about how to accomplish our common goals. Yet we are called together here to begin our work of love and acceptance – to learn, in this community, to live in love and respect for people who disagree with us, and then to take those lessons into the world. If we follow Jesus, we follow him into table fellowship with all the wrong people – people the scribes and Pharisees called “outcasts and sinners,” but might might label many other ways. Any time we’re tempted to say “those people,” with a bit of a sneer – we’ve found the people with whom we are invited to share the table. Who is the other? people with piercings on their face, people who wear suits, people who ride the bus, people who drive Ferraris;  a straight white man, a woman who wears lipstick, a man who wears lipstick, a Republican; a Muslim, a Roman Catholic, a Southern Baptist;  an anarchist, a police officer, a protester, a jock, a cheerleader, a panhandler, an addict, a social worker, a nerd;  an autistic 50-yr-old, a refugee, a judge, a corporate boss, a banker, a pregnant 17-year-old? I’ve heard it said that whenever we draw a line, we can be sure that Jesus is standing on the other side of it. A preacher and minister of the Gospel I deeply respect, David Martin, preached here at St Michael’s on Thursday morning. David reminded us that following Jesus usually means moving outside our comfort zones. He was preaching about the end of Mark’s gospel, when Jesus says to the disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. David said,

Jesus is telling us to get out of our comfort zone. It is important for us to gather and study, learn, pray and celebrate together. But it can’t stop here. Here is where we find the energy and the information we need to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. It’s a scary world out there. We simply can’t escape what seems like a daily litany of violence [and hate]. It would be so much easier – and maybe safer – to stay locked up in our own little world and hang out with people just like us – people who think like us, behave like us, do the things we want them to do. [But] We have to spread the good news everywhere. It’s scary to go places we don’t understand and interact with people we don’t agree with. But we are commanded to do so – and we are commanded to do it with love, compassion, and understanding.

And it will surprise no one, I think, that David ended by saying,

Think outside your box. Get out of your comfort zone.
So I guess I didn’t really pull off any hellfire and brimstone – but what did you expect? I’m not really the type. But I’m glad that John the Baptist was the type. I’m glad that he appears in the Advent season to remind us that, in order to prepare to receive Jesus into our heart, we need to make room. And making room means repentance. It means turning from sin and turning toward God. And turning toward God means turning towards our neighbors- the ones on our streets and in our pews, and the ones across border and oceans. It means seeing in each person we meet a beloved child of God – and being grateful for what they may teach or give us. Thanks be to God for those who challenge us. Amen.

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