homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
The Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 2015
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80
|Jacopo Pontormo, Nativity of St. John the Baptist|
The last time I preached on John the Baptist, it was the season of Advent, a time when John is featured prominently in our Sunday lectionary for two weeks in a row. Now here we are at the opposite end of the year, celebrating John’s birth. Why do we celebrate John’s birth on June 24? Simply this: Mary found out she was pregnant, and she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant. That would make John six months older than Jesus. Christmas Eve is December 24, so naturally, we observe John’s birthday on June 24.
Today’s readings play well together, giving us a broad perspective on John’s place in our faith. You may have come away from the Isaiah reading with one or more melodies from Handel’s Messiah running through your head. Isaiah speaks to the Jews in exile in Babylon: the exile is over, and the Persian king Cyrus has given them permission to return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem and their temple. This motif of exile and return features prominently as a precursor of the liberation Jesus brings us from sin and death. So in the same way that John prefigures Jesus, the return from exile prefigures eternal salvation.
Likewise, the psalmist looks to times in the past when God has liberated the people, and he prays for another restoration as soon as possible. From whatever situation he is writing—probably the Babylonian exile—the psalmist’s perception is that God is punishing the people for their sins. God has every right to do so, but could it please end soon? Yes: there is a quiet confidence that justice and mercy will win the day, because this is how God’s world works. As it says in another psalm, “Weeping may spend the night, but there is joy in the morning.” And Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, lays out a very brief version of salvation history and announces that the descendants of Abraham living in his day are beneficiaries of God’s salvation in Jesus.
Finally, we have the Song of Zechariah. You may remember that John’s father Zechariah, when he first heard that his wife was pregnant, did not believe it, so he was struck dumb for the duration of the pregnancy. We hear today the first words he speaks once his lips are loosened—a canticle of praise to God for continually delivering God’s people. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And so there is the biblical history into which all these pieces fit. But who are those who “sit in darkness and the shadow of death”? And how will our feet be guided “into the way of peace”?
The last time I preached on John the Baptist, it was the season of Advent, and a grand jury had just decided not to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. I preached about racism and white privilege, and while my sermon was generally well received, there were those who felt that politics are best left out of the pulpit. Others felt I was just wrong about some things, and that led to some good, respectful conversation.
But here are we again. It’s a different situation in a different state, but once again the focus of attention can be summed up in three words: “Black Lives Matter.” And once again, to say “all lives matter,” while well intentioned, is merely a distraction from what we need to be talking about.
This week I pray especially for the members of Mother Emmanuel AME Church, and for all other predominantly black churches. I pray for those whose skin color makes them targets for the rage of irrational people, people who were raised with a twisted view of the world. These black churchgoers may indeed feel that they are sitting “in darkness and the shadow of death.” I cannot fully understand what this is like.
This past Sunday, Marsha preached an incredible sermon about the shootings in Charleston. It is on our website, and I commend it to you. But racism cannot be preached away. We each have to address it ourselves. When I look back on my life, I find all sorts of times when I could have spoken out against racism but chickened out, when I could have educated myself, but found other things to do instead. As I have matured, I have become more forthright in this matter, speaking up against injustice and going out of my way to learn from those whose experiences I cannot ever share.
Many voices in our country are calling for white people to be idle no longer in the face of racism. The disease cannot be ignored away. It needs to be talked about, and those of us who are white have a duty to listen humbly, not to rush to conclusions or to explain away the experiences of others. We need to educate ourselves on our own history. We need to know about the shameful actions of our ancestors and our contemporaries. This does not mean crippling ourselves with guilt. It means opening our eyes to a wider reality, and then moving through that reality bearing and receiving the merciful love of Christ.
This can happen through books, and websites, and movies, and conversation. It can happen in little ways, like by removing the Confederate flag from all public spaces. It can happen through public action, as it did several days ago when hundreds of white people marched near the Confederate Museum in Charleston to protest racist terrorism. It can also happen around the dinner table with extended family, by stepping into the discomfort with words of truth.
Friends, nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ were murdered last week because of the color of their skin. Many white people want to do something about it. We want to fix the situation. But here’s the thing: very often, because of our limited experience, our efforts to fix things are misguided. The number one action we can take is to listen to the voices of black Americans, to spread their words around, and not to remain stuck in a white people’s echo chamber. That means that my preaching and your listening to me don’t count, because a white man is preaching. It’s up to each of you to seek out black stories, black experiences, black perspectives.
As for me, I’m reading a book right now by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a work of fiction called Americanah, and its two main characters are Nigerians, one of whom moves to the U.S., and the other to London. The experience of having black skin, but not sharing a common history with other black-skinned folks around them, is one the author clearly understands and communicates beautifully and heartbreakingly, and it explores the scourge of racism in a number of enlightening ways.
This week, how will you honor the lives of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson? Please pray for them. Please pray for the man who killed them. And please, together, let’s find new ways to listen and to learn, and to speak out boldly against the evil of racism.
This is our work to do; God cannot do it for us. We have the prophets of old, including John the Baptist, to teach us what justice is. Let us listen to them. Let us follow Jesus our Savior in giving our very souls to the work of reconciliation. And all the while, let us trust that God can and will guide our feet into the way of peace. Amen.