It’s been said John the Baptizer had one foot in the past and another in the future. The foot held in the past was not one of pure nostalgia, but of integrity – integrity that realized the work of God in the lives of God’s people in spite of themselves; and, for that foot in the future, John (like the prophet Isaiah) worked as an artist that envisioned a new age, a new city, a new dawning. This New Way was made explicit in the very location of John’s preaching. Matt. 3:1 reads, “In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.” All you studious Biblical scholars out there can remind us that the Hebrew people appeared in the wilderness, and it was there that God revealed God’s Holy law, or Torah. It was also in the wilderness that the people ebbed and flowed in and out of their faith, and were either judged or blessed by God according to their thoughts, words, and deeds. It was in this wilderness and through its struggles that the Israelites grew in holiness with the help of God and Torah. The people would later be led out of the wilderness into the Promised Land where the great City of Jerusalem would be built, and eventually God’s Holy Temple with it. This new city would be central in the lives of the Jewish people.
Matthew’s Gospel takes this beautiful history of The Exodus, and does a clever role reversal. Instead of the people going into the central city of Jerusalem; instead of the people making sacrifice and confession with the Temple priests; instead of the clergy staying in Jerusalem – Matthew has them all going out into the wilderness. Going out and into the margins where a strange looking artistic, itinerate preacher was preaching repentance and baptism. Like moths to a flame, the people came. Why – Maybe because preaching repentance worked – Maybe because baptism worked? Dare I say both still work today?
It’s in this literary and liturgical structure of repentance and baptism that Matthew introduces a Third Way. This third way wasn’t an act on their part. It wasn’t even a belief. Instead, the third way, the new center, the new city is found in a Person. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (you’ll remember Jesse was King David’s father), “and a branch shall grow out of his roots [and] the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (Isa. 11:1). In Matthew’s Gospel, the family tree of David gets expanded in the person of Jesus Christ, and this tree is firmly planted not in a centralized location, city, or state; but on the outskirts of town, on the margins of society where if you come to see it, it does not discriminate whom seeks comfort among its shade. “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give thee rest” (Matt. 11:28). It is underneath the shade of this tree, and later the shadow of its cross where helplessness found hope, and meaninglessness discovered its significance.
One of Bishop Rob Wright’s favorite lines when he is among clergy is that, “all the answers are not found at 2744 Peachtree Road.” (This is the address of the Bishop’s offices and the Cathedral of St. Philip). Instead, he empowers us all to seek out answers and innovations from one another. There’s a great collective wisdom within the room that is our diocese, and a lot of that wisdom is OtP (Outside the Perimeter). The Church is best when it worships joyfully, serves compassionately, and grows spiritually; when it loves God, self and neighbor (in that order), and understands that going out to the margins and marginalized of society does not necessarily mean going into the big city. There is wisdom in the wilderness. In fact, one of the reasons I personally love this Gospel passage is because of Matthew’s portrayal of John the Baptist. Matthew, I believe, pegs John as an artist. He’s a very talented artist in performance (i.e. preaching repentance) and with his props (i.e. water). And what do good artists do? They draw people to them and to their work; but John was not only a good artist, he was a great artist. And what do great artists do? They point beyond themselves, and even beyond the art, itself. The people from the center of the city go out to John believing they are there to see and experience him and his ministry; but when they show up John tells them, “it’s not about me.” Great art never is; instead, it is a vehicle and vessel that is used for transcendence. That’s some creativity.
As a kid I would go and visit my grandparents quite often. At the time, my Memom and Granddad were attending a small Missionary Baptist church on a farm-to-market-road in East Texas. Getting to this tiny church, where most of the cemetery was made up of my relatives, we would pass by other small churches. Since it was a very rural part of the state with no neighborhoods, I wondered why there simply wasn’t one church? Why did it have to be 3 or 4? It seemed to me that if people pulled their resources together, they could come up with a centralized church that saw one another as family and supported each other in the good times and the bad. (I guess even as a kid, I felt a strong pull to a more centralized church – how very Episcopalian of me). Serving in Douglasville has brought back some of this childlike curiosity. There seems to be a church on every corner in this county. Why aren’t we talking with one another? Or maybe we have, but we haven’t been invited to the party in a while?
Are churches guilty of self-preservation so much so that coming together, and sharing our assets and resources not a priority? I often times wonder what a town like Douglasville would look like if all the churches got together and tackled one major community problem each year? What if we all got together and started asking artistic questions that pointed beyond ourselves, and our egos? I have a feeling that important conversations would get started if we came together around common causes. Perhaps the teenage pregnancy rate would go down? Perhaps the thousands of kids in the foster care system would find homes? Perhaps no family would go hungry, and no child would be left behind to recycle their family history of poverty?
John the Baptizer was a big burly man who revealed simple truths in an artistic way that made God the center of everything no matter where one resided. Of course God was in Jerusalem, but God was also in the margins. Of course God is at 2744 Peachtree Rd, but He’s also at 5400 Stewart Mill Road along with the hundreds of other churches found within this county who have more similarities than differences…who still believe (collectively, and like John) that repentance and baptism work. I do honor the differences in theology, and in worship, and in the reading of scripture (this is good art), but don’t you think God gets tired of the same old arguments denominations and ‘nondenominations’ have with one another? The one thing that brings us all together is not found in a theology, in a city, or in a song, but in a Person – the person of Jesus Christ who Christians boldly claim is God. And if we’re all reading the same book together, I believe God tells us to love. And God tells us to give. And God tells us to serve, and the person of Jesus Christ lived and continues to live out these virtues of the Spirit within all of us.
Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church is a little church on the margins surrounded by other denominations. We’re also a little church that’s part of the bigger Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement. Let’s continue to balance love of self and focus on our parish community, its building and its people alongside the people out there. Let’s get curious with the greater community. I can’t do it on my own. You can’t do it on your own. We need one another. We need to better define our neighbors. We need to repent of apathy, and we need to remind the world it still needs Jesus. This was John’s message. This has always been the Church’s message, and this is society’s message as well as its cry for help out in the wilderness.