Rev. Jessica Palys
Starting the Sermon with a Christmas Joke:
I am the Ghost of Christmas Future Imperfect Conditional, said the Spirit.
I bring news of what would have been going to happen, if you were not to have been going to change your ways.
You know, the story of A Christmas Carol is a very biblical story! It’s the heartwarming tale of how wealthy people must be supernaturally terrorized into changing their ways, valuing their workers, and sharing their wealth - a little like our scripture about John the Baptist today.
It’s Advent, and we’re supposed to be talking about the coming birth of Jesus but instead we’re talking about John the Baptist. Last week, I preached on how Luke has placed Elizabeth and Zechariah in the beginning of the Christ narrative to make sure the reader recognizes the continuation of Jewish tradition within the story - that although this is a story that will alter the world, the thread connecting Mary to Elizabeth to the daughters of Aaron, and Zechariah as high priest is unbroken. The legacy of God’s people is still connected - as AJ Levine put it, the meaning in the memory of Judaism.
And then again, when John is introduced, it takes a very traditional form that echoes the introduction of the prophets of old like Ezekiel. But Luke is doing something else very interesting in this introduction. He is putting a time stamp on it by referencing every single political figurehead that could be historically sourced in history. As theologian Audrey West says it, Luke introduces
“an A-list of Earthly Powers: an emperor, a governor, three tetrarchs, and two high priests - together representing all the rulers of the religious, political and economic powers- collectively all the authority that might, military prowess, or ancestry can command.”
And yet, he ends the recitation of titles with someone unknown.
It’s as if someone said;
In the first year of the reign of Joseph the Biden, when Michael the Parson was governor of Missouri, when Quentin the Lucas was tetrarch of Kansas City, his colleague David the Alvey over County of Wyandotte, his other colleague Carl the Gerlach tetrarch of Overland Park… during the supreme sheriff hood of Chip Hall and Duane Burgess… the word of God came to Benjamin, son of Tony in the wilderness of Grandview. They walked the grounds of their home, preaching of baptism and repentance.
(apologies to Ben Hammel, because of course there are some here in this congregation who know of him - namely his parents and a few others…. but he was a good illustration.)
Luke begins his timestamp at the heights of earthly power, and ends with someone not at all powerful, a strange man living off locusts and honey in the wilderness. It’s like an historical zooming in from all the known rulers of the universe all the way down to the anonymity of Mr. Smith. The political intrigue that Luke is naming here is important. He’s showing that it was a time of domination by foreign powers for the jewish people. He’s mentioning that the power was distributed to everyone but the Jews.
The location matters also. John’s location of ‘the wilderness’ signals the listener. Wilderness appears nearly 300 times in scripture. It represents a place of vulnerability and uncertainty - like when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness without knowing where their food would come from. Hagar was sent into the wilderness with Ishmael, with almost certainty that she would die. The wilderness is a place where people come for change and transformation. Moses saw the burning bush in the wilderness. Elijah heard the still small voice of God after fleeing to the wilderness. The wilderness is also a place of testing, it’s where Jesus went to be tempted by the devil. My friends in the black church are fond of talking about the ‘wilderness experience’ of being lost, or isolated, exiled and tested. The wilderness is where someone goes through spiritual transformation and comes out the other side better for it.
So, after naming every ruler of foreign domination in a story of those dominated, Luke underlines it with a sense of vulnerability and isolation, driving his point home. Luke is trying to tell us that these are not easy circumstances for the Jews. Like so many people and nations today the Jews in Jesus’ time were not protagonists of their own story.
The main characters of our story today, the blessed couple and the miraculous pregnancy, the inspired prophet announcing the word of God, the holy family that will birth the light of world - none of these are the protagonist of their own story. Within this microcosm of Jewish history - like so much of Jewish history and the history of so many other people in the world - what is happening is happening *to* them. They are subjects within a governing system of foreign domination. They are caught in the crosshairs of military clashes, the territory of tempestuous egomaniacal rulers, and the economic gale winds of forces much larger than themselves.
They are not protagonists. They are not driving the story, they are reacting to it. The Jews are reacting to a brutal governmental system that cages them. John the Baptist is reacting to the corruption and greed around him. The people who come to him are buffeted by winds they cannot control. They are reacting, responding, surviving. They are not in charge of their own destinies.
That struck me. What does it mean to be a Protagonists of our own story?
Years ago, in Chicago I had a beau named Noy. Actually, that was his nickname, he was Filipino and as close as I remember, he was nicknamed Noy as a term of endearment for being the youngest (I think.) I knew nothing about the Philippines, and by way of explanation he had me read a captivating book called “When the Elephants Dance” by Tess Uriza Holtha. The book was a fictionalized account of Filipino history - an island country of happy, loving people who were first met and evangelized by Arab Muslims in the 13th century, and then conquered and colonized by Spain in the 15th century, and then given to America after the Spanish American War of 1898. And then, in WWII, they became the stage for fighting between the Japanese and the U.S. when Japan began bombing them the morning after Pearl Harbor and didn’t stop for 6 months. Then, for a 2.5 year interlude, they were under Japanese control until US forces returned, and war of course included concentration camps and death marches and many lives destroyed. The elephants - the US and Japan - were dancing all over Filipino lives. They were not protagonists in their own story.
What does it mean to be a Protagonists of our own story? Can any of us really imagine what it is to not be a protagonist in our own story?
We just did a wonderful thing here this weekend; we pulled together 301 bags for gingerbread houses, cooked and distributed 72 traditional german meals and 40 boxes of cookies (although we had enough cookies for 40 boxes more!) We came together, marshaled our resources, manipulated our technology, recruited and volunteered for our event, and brightened the days of about 400 people. We did that. We were protagonists in that drama - in the vision, the planning, the execution, the enjoyment of it.
I bought a house. You may have heard me say that I wanted to buy a house because after owning my first home, I realized how much I value being able to manipulate my own space - to paint, to build, to plant, to knock down walls and renovate kitchens and such. I enjoy being the protagonist in my own space.
Likewise, this church is a testament to 100 years of history of people having the power and resourcefulness to be protagonists in our own stories. To choose to begin a church, to build this glorious building, to serve on boards and develop our bylaws and do the work of a church; to choose where to worship, how much time to volunteer and how much financial support to offer; to oversee the upkeep and improvement of this monumental structure; these are all decisions made as protagonists in the story of this church.
Many of us know how to be in control of our own story, but few of us know how to be not to be in control. We can do amazing things with our vision, our creativity, and our resourcefulness. It’s a unique privilege and a uniquely American experience. The power, the self determination, the choices and decisions we get to make based on our own desires and reasoning. To be American is, often, to be the protagonist - well, to be a certain type of American, a certain type of American with a certain type of education, resources and a certain type of skin color particularly. But we are the protagonists, not only in our story but, inadvertently in a whole lot of other people’s stories as well. For the people around the globe; in the lives of the people of Afghanistan, in the fields of the farmers in Latin America, in the factories and garbage heaps of the slums of China and India; we are the protagonists in their stories. We are the foreign powers of domination. We are Rome.
And so that phrase caught me - they are not protagonists of their own story. Can we even imagine what it’s like to not be protagonists of our own stories? And yet, what do we do with such power?
What should we do? Asks the crowd of John the Baptist. We see this system that we are caught up in, perhaps not of our own making but one in which we are impacting other people. What should we do? Asks the crowd, those who have enough resources to travel to the wilderness to find John. Give to the needy, says John. What should we do, Asks the tax collectors, the beneficiaries of Rome’s corrupted greed. Be fair and don’t cheat. What should we do? Asks the soldiers, the enforcers of Roman rule. Don’t abuse your power, says John. Be generous, be fair, be judicious, and be humble. Use this baptism as a new beginning that clears the way for grace. You must change your hearts and minds from being protagonists in only your own life to being bearers of good tidings to others.. You must imagine the spirits of the past, present and future to see where you can transform the world around you. You must do a full introspection to repent, to prepare yourself for what’s coming. And what are we to prepare for? For the coming of Love. For the coming of light and love into the world. The coming of the one who would give of himself, freely, generously and humbly, until the powers of domination take his life - and then it is up to us. Until we become the protagonist of the Christian story, the driving force of bearing generosity, humility and love into all the corners of the world.
As the protagonist of your own story, how have you altered your life to show that you bear the baptism of Christ, the mark of Love, into the world? In your story, is it enough? Let us all recognize the capacity we have to be protagonists for good in this time, in this moment in history. Let us make way for the coming of Love into our hearts, our lives, our families and our communities. Rather than that dance of domination, let us, the church, do the work to dance with those in the world whose lives have been affected by the elephants of this world. Let us do it so that we may hear when God’s message comes from unexpected places, unknown faces, the little people who have no standing in the world. Prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.