Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Lent: Compelled into Wilderness

Lent 2018
Driven by the Spirit - Stanley Spencer
"Compelled into Wilderness"
the testimony of a Judean seeker

Rev. Paul  Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15

I’m still not sure what prompted me to go down to the river. Something was calling to me. I know it sounds unlikely. I’m a respectable man, after all, from a good family. We go back for generations in the same village just a couple of hours walk from the gates of Jerusalem. We met in synagogue and I raised my children to keep the law, just as my ancestors have for generations. We live close enough that we can actually go into the city for all three pilgrimage festivals every year, only missing a day’s work, and be home before dusk. Each time we go, all have the ritual bath, the mikveh. It’s not because we have done anything unclean – but we just want to be sure – to be clean. The quietness and simplicity of the mikveh and the generations that have gone before us make it meaningful each time.
So, as I said, I’m not sure what compelled me to take the trip to see this baptizer that was railing about repentance at the Jordan, on the edge of the dry, empty places beyond the river. The water was surely not cleaner than the spring water in the ritual baths in the city. Despite the Roman occupation the roads are not safe for a simple man like me. In fact, it might as well be a squadron of centurions as a band of bandits that sweeps aside or knocks down a traveler along the way. It’s more than a day’s walk from our village near Jerusalem to the muddy ford where the baptizer happened to be that day. It took me three days to walk each way. It was a week’s worth of anxious, uncomfortable nights amongst the boulders and bushes a stone’s throw from the dusty road. It was probably unwise – and I was not the only one! It seemed like there was a steady flow to and from the towns and villages on the plateau down to the river valley.
John’s message was compelling. And his appearance was fascinating. He sounded like the prophets of old. Were we suffering in our way of life? If so, there was something we could do, and we should do it soon! Despite being so idiosyncratic, he seemed not to want attention or credit for his message or the power that drove it. That’s part of what made it seem authentic to me. He said he was just getting us ready for the one who would come and show us the way.
It wasn’t only Judeans and Jerusalemites that were showing up, either. There was a steady trickle of people coming down the Jordan valley from Galilee also drawn to see this strange man and hear his unsettling message. You could tell the Galileans from the Judeans. They were real country folk – simple people who showed even more clearly that they are under the yoke of military occupation. It figures, since the legion is posted up north and the plains of Galilee are the breadbasket that feeds both the army and the decadent elites in the cities.
One of those peasants caught my eye – and then my breath. He was not unusual in appearance – same height and hair as those around him – shorter than the Romans, like me, and darker too. I wasn’t close enough to hear him speak, but he didn’t look like anything special. I couldn’t put my finger on why he drew my attention. Maybe it was the way he moved – not all cocky and proud like the centurions or temple priests – not like someone trying to prove something – but confident and grounded.
He got in line like the others to be immersed by John in the Jordan – though something told me he had less reason for repentance than I did. When he got to the front of the line, John stopped … and stood … and knew him. They looked alike, as if they could be brothers or cousins.
The rush of the water grew quieter.
The murmur of the crowd grew still.
They may have exchanged words. John seemed to nod in agreement. The Galilean man knelt in the waters – then went under – perhaps for a moment too long.
Did John seem to delay?
Was there a rushing sound – or was that the sound of my own anxious breath?
The man rose from the water, looking toward the sky. Was he taller – or was the riverbed simply uneven? The expression on his face seemed both serene and determined. And then he was gone – as if compelled by an unseen force into the dry, empty hills to the east. Moving faster than he should for a man with bare feet and sodden clothing, but at the same time unrushed and at ease. I wonder what wilderness beckoned him. I wonder what temptations met him – what beasts laid in wait. Did I hear him say follow me? Or did that voice come from somewhere deep inside?
I had intended just to tell the story of a Judean seeker who witnessed a curious and powerful event at the Jordan River, and to let you take from it what you would. I do believe that Jesus sees deeply into each of us who have found ourselves in his path. We are not invisible to him. We are not overlooked or anonymous. We are each the most beloved. The important thing to Jesus is not our loyalty to him, or our devotion, or our adoration, or how many souls we win over, or how adept we are at keeping the rules that he so willingly trampled. In seeing each and every child of God as a manifestation of God’s image and likeness – as an expression of the essence of God’s character and being – how can he not love us. And how can he not mourn for us when we ache or suffer or fail or injure one another. What would Jesus say about the grip that greed and guns have on us? How would Jesus respond to the senseless death of seventeen children and teachers? I have no doubt.
Put the weapons down.
Beat them into plowshares.
I do not believe that God requires, or even desires, that everyone claim the name Christian in order to thrive and love. In fact, I am embarrassed by many who claim the name Christian who seem to have forgotten who they claim to follow.
Politicians have been busy with thoughts and prayers over the last few days. Or at least they claim they have been. It’s strange, because you might say that thoughts and prayers are my business. I am the “thoughts-and-prayers” professional. It’s not a profession that is highly regarded by the world we live in, but politicians who are soaked in blood money seem to envy the sometimes-doubtful moral authority of the lowly preacher. I’ve never thought of myself as a thoughts and prayers professional. If it were entirely up to me and my profession, there would not be nearly enough thoughts or prayers to make a difference. Thoughts and prayers are no more the exclusive territory of pastors, rabbis, and imams than they are of legislators, governors, and presidents. Neither is the business of self-governance the exclusive territory of politicians. Just like thoughts and prayers, democracy is the work of the people. So, I don’t begrudge the politicians of their thoughts and prayers in response to the thoroughly preventable violence that erupted once again this week. If it were entirely up to politicians, there would not be nearly enough legislation and action to address the epidemic of hatred and violence that seethes just below the surface of our society. I’m not excusing them – the senators and representatives that allow their arrogance to cloud their vision and compromise their responsibilities. I’m not excusing them. But I am also not willing to keep to my thoughts and prayers.
Beloved, we can do better. We can be better – we human beings. Gun control legislation is not enough. And we must not claim that this is a mental health problem unless we are willing to admit that our entire way of life is literally crazy. We must turn away from our madness. We must lean into love in every moment – no moment is too small. No gesture is meaningless. We each wield power and authority within our circle of influence. If even some us turn to face the one who sees us as beloved – as siblings in the family of unconditional, self-giving love and radical distributive justice – the one who, “though in the image of God, didn’t deem equality with God something to be clung to – but instead became completely empty and took on the image of oppressed humankind: born into the human condition, found in the likeness of a human being” – if even we few take one step in that direction, I believe we can tilt the foundations and overturn the tables of injustice. It’s not a once and for all kind of thing – but a lifelong journey. And the journey of Lent is a rehearsal of that pivot and shift. It may feel like the wilderness, there may be beasts. But Jesus has already been there, and he is calling.

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