Sunday, December 10, 2017
"Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord": A Sermon on Mark 1:1-8
[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, December 10, 2017 at 5 pm.]
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
One of the strange bits about being well ensconced in middle age is that fewer and fewer people get the pop cultural references that seem natural to me.
Take Godspell, for one. It opened in 1971, when I was five, and was huge in the 1970s, in the brief spring of Vatican II. Even in the early 1980s, my Roman Catholic high school was delighted to do a production, in which I most definitely did not get cast.
But it was pretty much inescapable for a boy growing up Roman Catholic on Long Island, and so, even though the words are different from those used in the NRSV, I can’t hear today's Gospel without translating it back to the King James:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.
That’s how the play opens. First with one voice singing “pre—pare ye the way of the Lord,” over and over again, then with others joining him, until the whole cast assembles with a kinetic burst of energy, singing together.
Don’t worry. I’ll spare you.
We are, after all, Episcopalians. And in Church, too.
So that’s the 1970s version of the baptism of John.
Awash with happiness in the forgiveness of their sins, the slowly coalescing members of what will become the Jesus Movement are playful, silly, free.
The play tells a few parables, has a little drama, a little comedy, and then a surprisingly brutal if abstract version of the crucifixion.
And then, with no dramatization of the Resurrection, we get a different miracle. Voices singing again. The women singing “Long live God”—and no, I have no idea what that might mean, but anyway their voices are enough to encourage the men to sing, too.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” all the men in the cast sing, and the two groups begin re-energizing each other, women singing "Prepare ye," men singing "long live God," trading lyrics, and ending with a rousing version of the show’s breakout song, “Day by Day.”
But that was the 1970s.
It’s a little hard to watch Godspell without thinking it a little bit precious, and dated, but I want to suggest that this ending has something to say to us in 2017, something that John the Baptist would probably endorse.
The history of the Church, of Christianity itself, has been as cyclical as the play is. A burst of enthusiastic disciples have found a new way to live, a new way of being, from their rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. They abandon homes, occupations, their past lives and their old sins, to share this wonderfully freeing enlightenment, this joy that survives despite the fact that they are an oppressed people under the Roman Empire, a highly efficient and brutal example of what John Dominic Crossan called a domination system.
People flock to hear Jesus, and the disciples themselves are sent out to spread the Good News: sins can be forgiven, a fresh start is available, and God loves us, in our crazy, hurt, damaged selves, and calls to us to be at peace and made whole.
They come, and see Jesus heal the broken, laugh with the tax collector, defend the woman taken in adultery, challenge corrupt authority.
The moral and emotional horizon opens out before these followers of Jesus. He has come, he says, that people may have life and have it abundantly.
But the domination system doesn’t give up so easily. In an unholy alliance, the religious authorities collaborate with the Romans, and they move to crush Jesus.
And with skill and courage, and the support of the crowd, he fends them off—for a time.
But ultimately, they get him. Put him to the harshest death the law allows, a traitor’s death, and the disciples scatter, shattered.
The dream has died.
Until the women at the tomb, the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, the Eleven in the upper room, are brought back together by the voice that never gives up, the God who never loses faith in us, faithless as we can be, and calls them together again.
And after reassuring them, comforting them, Jesus breaks the news to them. It’s time to go out on the road again, and spread the word.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
And the cycle repeats again and again, though the characters change, and the contexts. It’s the Eleven original disciples, despite the threats of Saul of Tarsus. Then it’s the reformed Saul’s turn, though he’s now named Paul.
Again and again, this movement called the Church stands up against the world, and the cycle repeats, until the Church is the authorities, and it’s the mystics, like Julian of Norwich, the reformers like Luther, Wesley, or the Quaker George Fox, who bring back to the people of God that light, that Spirit, that we can lose sight of in the mundane day to day of existence.
The cycle repeats again and again, with Martin Luther King showing us how it’s done, with our own James Pike recognizing women deacons as the equal of male deacons, with the Philadelphia 11, the eleven women who burst the limits that male authorities set for them, and were ordained priests, with the help of three retired bishops.
For the record, their names were Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig.
By opening the door for other women, they brought an end to a patriarchal assumption in our branch of the universal church that women were to be governed by men, that men could and should decide what roles in life women were allowed to play, that women were properly controlled by men.
We’re seeing that holy burst of light again, now, as women refuse to accept harassment, abuse, violence and exploitation in the “Me, too” movement, and in the calling to account of powerful men who have abused their positions of privilege to abuse women. And, uneasily, we look around and see that even some of our champions, our heroes, have been guilty, and we are tainted by our loyalty to them over justice for those they have mistreated.
Because we are tempted to excuse those whom we respect, who have affected our lives for good, not seeing them in all their humanity—their fallen humanity as well as the good that is genuinely there. But even worse, we are tempted to excuse them because they are a reflection of us, we think. Whoever “us” is—politically, culturally, by race or gender.
And in that temptation comes another—to minimize the harm done to other human beings, the ones we don’t know. We can dismiss them as “no angels,” as I’ve heard done these past weeks, we can fall back on stereotypes or tropes.
And in so doing, we perpetuate the abuse. And, at the same time, we fail to answer the call to “prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
Because what does it mean to “prepare ye the way of the Lord?” If it’s to mean anything, it must mean to speak up against injustice, to treat others with the kindness and respect we would hope for ourselves to receive in hour of need, to stand with the vulnerable and the exploited.
But also to recognize our own complicity with the order that allows for oppression, to repent of our own sins and offenses against those who have been vulnerable and who we have failed to see, or worse, who we have not treated as we should have, and to recognize the times we have stood passively by when injustice has been done.
And that recognition can be searing.
And painful, too.
But there’s hope, you see, because the cycle starts again.
There’s a point to the Church Year, which started last week, and which really gets under way today. Now. Right here in this Chapel.
Because today is the day when that first voice, that lone voice, sings on a darkened stage. “Pre—pare ye the Way of the Lord,” and we are invited to join in.
To walk what the early Christians called “the Way” and, leaving our sins behind us, start anew, playing our part in the explosive burst of light that can transfigure the world.
Advent gives us the chance to hear that invitation.
How we answer is up to each of us.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.