Dear Sarah

Sarah Cobb is one of the brightest, most earnest, impassioned, and forthright people I, for the past nearly 20 years, have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend. Sarah is Jewish. She is more than a friend and Jewish or a friend who is Jewish. Sarah, from time to time, serves as…is my external righteous conscience, especially about Christianity’s attitude toward Judaism; in my view, at times, in some lands, and in some sectors of Christendom, rising to the heights or, more accurately, sinking to the depths of antipathy and, historically, largely, I think, characterized by the lethargy of indifference (save, of course, among those Christian evangelists who discern that their primary vocation is to convert all Jews to Christianity).

Over the past few days, Sarah’s various reflections on the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have centered on her searing observation that a particularly putrid element of the platform of white supremacy is blatantly anti-Semitic (who, watching and listening to the news accounts, could have missed the out-in-the-open bearing of the swastika-festooned Nazi flag and the ferociously, transparently intentioned chant of the neo-Nazi demonstrators: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”?) and her eloquent remonstrations about Christians who, at best, have been slow and, at most, have been silent in their, our, my repudiations of the virulent and vile hatred that is anti-Semitism.

Dear Sarah,

I thank you, once again, for reminding me, summoning me to this aspect of my sacred duty as a Christian, as a follower of the Jesus of unconditional love and justice, to denounce any and all anti-Semitic prejudicial hatred and hostility against my Jewish sisters and brothers and in any and all of its forms, cultural and economic, racial and religious.

As one who wills to do, to be unconditional love and justice, yes, I pray that those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs repent and renounce them. Yet, whether they do or do not, I will not be silent or slow to speak again in opposition to anti-Semitism.

One final word, Sarah, for now…

I do not excuse, but rather explain my silence or slowness to speak. What happened in Charlottesville terrified me. And, in my fear, I, as an African American, perhaps barely consciously, narrowed my vision, focused my passion primarily, solely on the issue, the reality of white-over-black supremacy. Anxiety, I feel, always stirs the fires of individual (and often selfish) self-interest. Hence, I thank you again, Sarah, for you, in your reminder, your summons to me, illumine and compel me to see anew something I already know. Enlightened, indeed, truest human self-interest embraces the sanctity and the safety of all people.

With deepest love and highest respect,

Paul

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saving faith

a sermon, based on Matthew 14.22-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Peter sinking beneath the waves is us. For who among us has not known of a time and, as we live, again will know times when we, at the cruel hand of whate’er the cause, are immersed in onrushing waves of anxiety or fear? And who among us, at such grave moments, as Peter, has not cried out, with whate’er the words that burst from our burdened breasts, “Lord, save me!”?

For me, at this very instant, I am stricken, sickened by what has transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all that it says, screams to me about our unresolved American problem about racial superiority and, the truth be more widely told, our American problem about human supremacy of any kind that in its alway deadly ways demeans “the other” as a lesser form of humanity, and, therefore, as all this exists, insidiously, virulently, and brazenly out in the open, our American phobia about the universal equality of all people.

And all this painfully, tragically reminding us that in this life, though, yes, comforted by the joys of sunlit days and starry nights in the blessed fellowship of family and friends with strength of purpose and goodly labor at hand, sorrow is an ever-equal companion; perhaps more than the equal of joy for those among us who daily wrestle with generational cultural, racial, socio-economic deprivations difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome. And, in either case, for them or for us, when immersed in the waves, how many of us most of the time or even once had Peter’s experience of a savior walking across the water, lifting us, saving us from the peril of drowning?

If we haven’t or don’t know of anyone who has, then what more do we make, can we make of this story than a fanciful, ghostly tale? At best, it is a metaphor, a symbol of a common human, though oft vain hope for supernatural rescue from worldly trial and tribulation. Therefore, even at best, it is hardly a worthy foundation for our faith, which is the subject at the heart of the story.

And here’s the irony. Jesus, the miracle-worker, yes, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise. Yet, before inaugurating his ministry, Jesus spurned the temptation of the devil to leap from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was the Son of God, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”,[1] therefore, rejecting miracles as the basis of faith. Rather faith – assurance, confidence, trust – in the presence and benevolence of God, oft in the face of life’s contrary evidence, is the miracle.

This is the faith, however small, unformed and unfocused, that led Peter to test himself: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus, as I imagine him, delighted, thrilled that one of his disciples would dare risk a bold, uninhibited literal leap of faith, said, “Come.” Yet, straightway, Peter, the salt spray spattering his face, the wind tearing through his hair, took his eyes off Jesus. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out and rescued him.

An olden hymn comes to mind:

O love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

that in thine ocean depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.[2]

These words mirror this story. Jesus does not promise nor does our faith in Jesus profess that the storms of life, whether in Charlottesville or anywhere else, will not threaten us, for they do and will; that trial and tribulation will not darken our door, for they do and will; that death to this life in this world will not befall us, for it will. Jesus, in taking our flesh and in his life, death, and resurrection, does promise and our faith does profess that he who is greater than the winds and the waves, greater than trial and tribulation, greater than our anxiety and fear, greater than death reaches out and holds us forever in his saving hands.

 

Illustration: Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.5-7

[2] From the hymn, verse 1, O love that wilt not let me go (1882); words by George Matheson (1842-1906), Scottish minister, poet, and hymn writer.

signs of ambiguity

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Isaiah 7.10-16 and Matthew 1.18-25, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016

King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble.[1] In the late 8th century BCE, Syria and Israel formed a coalition against Assyria, inviting Judah to join them. Ahaz, having no quarrel with Assyria and not wanting to start one, refused. Syria and Israel declared war on Judah, seeking to replace Ahaz with a cooperative royal ally.

Ahaz, as king, is the symbol of national confidence that God will defend the divinely established throne. Nevertheless, he is terrified: “The heart of Ahaz and his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

the-prophet-isaiah-1896-1902-james-tissot-1836-1902-the-jewish-museum-nyc

Enter the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming, “Fear not,” for Syria’s and Israel’s plans will not prosper. Then, addressing Ahaz’s need for assurance, Isaiah encouraged the king, “Ask God for a sign.” Amazingly, Ahaz, with the pretense of pious humility, declined the divine offer. Nevertheless, a sign was given. A young woman would bear a son named Immanuel, meaning “God is with us.”

What did this sign, this birth of Immanuel mean? “God is with us” was no promise that king and nation would be sheltered from harm. Indeed, before the child reached the age of reason, knowing “how to refuse evil and choose good”, Syria, Israel and Judah would be defeated. The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to lead an army in a season of war, signaled new possibilities.

the-angel-appears-to-joseph-c-1645-rembrandt-harmenszoon-van-rijn-1606-1669-gemaldegalerie-der-staatlichen-museen-berlin

Joseph was in trouble.[2] Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant and doubtless adulterous. Observing the law, Joseph could have accused Mary, subjecting her to a trial.[3] “Being a righteous man,” Joseph, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” But “just when he resolved to do this” enter an angel, proclaiming, “Fear not.” Mary’s child, whose origins are heavenly, shall be named Jesus, meaning “God saves.”

What did this sign, this birth of Jesus mean? “God saves” was no promise that the people would be spared from harm. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, King Herod’s fear and fury at hearing the news of one born “king of the Jews” led to the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem.[4]

massacre-of-the-innocents-le-massacre-des-innocents-1824-leon-cogniet-1794-1880-musee-des-beaux-arts-rennes

And today, the children of Aleppo, the latest in history’s egregiously long list of innocents, suffer at the dignity-defying, death-dealing hands of warring, malevolent rulers and powers!

The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to answer difficult questions of moral choice, signaled new possibilities.

At times, we look for signs. Times of uncertainty. Times of anxiety…

Perhaps involving our relationships when things aren’t well. Give me a sign that my spouse, partner, or significant other, parent or child, relative or friend sees the light of what I’ve been saying for years or that I may see more clearly my part, my role in those places where we are “stuck”…

Or involving our financial well-being when we’ve lost a job or when resources for the care of aged loved ones run low, run out or when our movement toward the fulfillment of long established, long invested plans for the future decelerates to the largo tempo of a vacillating economy. Give me a sign of a new way or to clarify my choices or to signal a turnaround is near…

Or involving health, ours and those we love; living through the daily chances and changes of aging and illness or surgery and recovery and adjusting to our body’s new normal…

Or involving national security, whether our sense of peace with a new administration or in relation to America’s role in all the raging wars of this world. Give us a sign that sharpens the line between justice and vengeance, between increased safety and the loss of personal liberty, between self-defense and self-destruction that we will not plant the seeds of radicalized retaliation for generations to come.

At times, we look for signs, which, however, alway are inherently ambiguous; capable of being read, re-read, misread, or unread.

Looking again at the scripture, the sign of the birth of a child is the striking similitude of the prophetic pronouncement to Ahaz and the angelic announcement to Joseph. Either is ambiguous. Neither satisfied the immediate need. Nevertheless, the image of a child, whose is-ness, beingness is now, but whose fullness of being is yet to be alway points to tomorrow.

A fair, faithful interpretation of a sign, paradoxically, clearly rests in our ability and willingness to hold in tension our living in this moment as wisely as we can and our keeping watch on the horizon for what will come…to see this moment as the is-ness of now and to recognize that all that is now is not, cannot be what will be…to give birth today in this moment to an idea, a dream, a vision and to nurture it for a larger life tomorrow.

Seeing what is and envisioning also what might be is an act of hope. And hope is what a sign, however ambiguous, means.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

The Prophet Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The angel appears to Joseph (c. 1645), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Massacre of the Innocents (Le Massacre des Innocents) (1824), Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. Note: I favor this image of this horrific biblical story, for, in its artistic restraint absent in many renderings (e.g., Marcantonio Raimondi, c. 1510, Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1580, Peter Paul Rubens, 1611, Gustave Doré, 1865), it suggests rather than depicts the massacre. The image of the mother is poignant and powerful. Her bare head and feet are signs of vulnerability and though she protects her infant with her body, as they remain cornered, their doom is sure.

Footnotes:

[1] In addition to Isaiah 7.10-16, all references to the Ahaz story are found in Isaiah 7.

[2] In addition to Matthew 1.18-25, all references to the Mary-Joseph story are found in Matthew 1.

[3] See Numbers 5.11-29

[4] Matthew 2.13-18

when Christmas dreams are blue

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

With every Christmas card I write.

May your days be merry and bright

And may all your Christmases be white.[1]

White Christmas is a lovely reminiscence about a long ago holiday setting. It has an abiding appeal. The Bing Crosby version is one of the top-selling single records globally of any time, indeed, of all time. And its sweet, easily sung tune and endearing words are meant as evocatively tender plucks to the heartstrings of human nostalgia.

Still, for many, Christmas is not “the season to be jolly”, thus making this time of year’s widespread societal appeal to be joyful as nonsensical as those meaningless, though, yes, fun to sing syllables, fa-la-la-la-la.[2]

Indeed, Christmas can come robed not in white, bright colors, but rather blue, somber hues. The reasons both vary and are many.

For some, winter’s daily twilight-tinged skies become a visual portent of an increased incidence of seasonal affective disorder, for others, depression, and for still others, a profound existential crisis of despair about life’s meaninglessness of the sort portrayed in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 classic cinematic tragic drama, Winter Light.

Moreover, the seasonal summons to be festive can be a painful reminder of incomparable losses. The loss of loved ones in death. The loss of companionship and the coming of loneliness at the demise of significant relationships. The loss of health and personal or financial well-being. The loss of peace of mind in the harrowing shadows of end-of-the-year reflections on past, seemingly irredeemable errors. The loss of life’s purpose and direction. The loss of a sense of achievement or attainment of goals.

Furthermore, Christmas’ mercantile encouragements to spend money can provoke an anxiety to present the perfect gift, verily, to be the perfect gift-giver, whilst incurring undue debt.

O’er the course of 60+ Christmases, I have encountered in my own life’s circumstances or through the lenses of the experiences of others all of these states of body, mind, and heart, self, soul, and spirit. And I have learned and I have repeatedly re-learned the following:

To seek and to trust competent and caring mental health practitioners so to guide me through the thickets of depression…

To seek and to trust in the truth of my own inner peace with who I am and what I have so to accept my ever-present human imperfections in relation to (indeed, in rejection of) the “perfect” sentimentally-designed-and-commercially-driven images of the season…

Above all and alway to seek and to trust God; my soul oft giving voice in gratitude,[3] personalizing the words of the psalmist:

I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let (my) foot be moved; He who keeps (me) will not slumber.

He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is (my) keeper; the Lord is (my) shade at (my) right hand.

The sun shall not strike (me) by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep (me) from all evil;

He will keep (my) life.

The Lord will keep (my) going out and (my) coming in

from this time on and for evermore.[4]

Footnotes:

[1] The second verse of the song, White Christmas; lyrics and music by Irving Berlin (1942)

[2] References to the carol, Deck the Halls, the English lyrics, written by Thomas Oliphant (1862).

[3] Gratitude, that is, my mindful and humble thanksgiving for who I am and what I have (thus, ceasing to fret or to have fear about who I am not and what I don’t have) and, especially, my thanksgiving that I know God to whom I can pray.

[4] Psalm 121

guns & loss

This morning, following my yesterday’s blog post, gun uncontrol, I continue to think about guns. From what I glean from news reportage, personal reading, and my encounters with gun owners in public and private conversations, a chief motivator for desiring to carry arms is personal security. I accept and respect what I consider a basic, intrinsic human want, need to self-protect, particularly as we live in an era when mass shootings have become sorrowfully repeatable historical events.

On a recent occasion when I probed further and the dialogue went deeper, what I heard from a proud, years-long, law-abiding gun owner was wistful longing, as I perceived it, for “a back in the day time” when safety was a general, almost taken for granted daily aspect of societal life. Reflecting on what I heard, the passion and the pathos, I understood, I felt a sense of the loss of yesterday.

I have a bias against owning a firearm. In my view, my mere possession of it would increase the possibility of my using it and the risk of an accidental injury or worse. I would feel less safe with a gun in the house and at hand.

In confessing my prejudice, I deem not to make too much of one conversation with one gun owning person. I dare not generalize one person’s testimony of loss to speak for anyone but that one.

Still, I wonder.

Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has engendered great enthusiasm among his supporters. I think especially of his appeal to his voter base declaring that “Hillary Clinton will take away your Second Amendment gun rights.” In May, speaking to the National Rifle Association, he advocated that Clinton’s security detail “disarm.” Last night in Miami, following his now predictable pattern of doubling down on what is, I think, at best sarcastic innuendo and at worst demagogic invective, Trump urged that Clinton’s bodyguards “lose their weapons,” adding, “Let’s see what happens to her.” These remarks, always campaign stop rallying points, provoke zealous cheering and booing (on its face, oddly perhaps, both expressions of intense agreement).

So, I wonder. Are there other Americans who make a connection between their sense of security in gun ownership, their fear, I think, irrational of having their guns taken away, and their anxiety at the loss of former times, however defined? Highly probable? I don’t know. At all possible? Of course, yes.

Pondering that possibility, I also wonder whether yearning for the past coupled with gun ownership has anything to do with power; the gun at or in hand being a symbol not only of the restoration of personal security and safety, but also the reclamation of individual control in an out of control world.

Here, I dare not universalize my sense of things, but if I believed that more people were carrying more guns more often in more public places, then I would feel less secure.

“Do not be afraid!”

preaching a sermon, based on Luke 12.32-40 and Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 7, 2016

Jesus breathlessly bombards us with one command after another about giving everything to the poor, “Sell your possessions and give alms,” so to plan for eternity, “Make purses for…(your) treasure in heaven…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” so to prepare for his unpredictable return the timing of which, in another place, he makes clear he doesn’t know,[1] “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Glancing one verse beyond our appointed gospel passage, Peter, doubtless reacting to the extremism of Jesus’ instruction, asks, “Lord, are you (saying) this for us or for everyone?”[2] Equally doubtless Peter and we pray Jesus intends this as a universal message and not aimed directly at his disciples then and us now. But we are included in “everyone.” So, how do we understand Jesus’ crazy demands?

Looking at the immediate context of his opening word, “Do not be afraid,” we may be no less confused.

In our world of international and homegrown terrorism, do not be afraid?

In our country culturally, socially, economically, and racially divided against itself with unity of national purpose far from us, perhaps a lifeless ideal, do not be afraid?

With partisan demonization and vilification of one’s opponent, no matter the issue and no matter on what side of the line of opinion, becoming the lingua franca of our political sphere, spurred by fear and mistrust and sparking greater unrest amongst the populace, do not be afraid?

With whatever is happening in your lives and mine that vexes us, perplexes us, keeps us up at night, do not be afraid?

Really, Jesus?

Yes! Of all scripture’s teachings, “do not be afraid” is one of the greatest. Why? Because it is frequently said. Why? Because our biblical forebears were and we are frequently afraid.

When Abram, ancient of age, despaired of the fulfillment of God’s promise that he would have a son, the first fruit of generations to come, God said, “Do not be afraid, for I am your shield, your very great reward.”[3]

When the Israelites in exodus from Egypt stood terrified, trapped between the raging Red Sea before them and the rampaging Egyptian army behind them, Moses said, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and behold the deliverance the Lord will bring you today.”[4]

When the angel Gabriel told a bewildered Mary that she would bear God’s Son, he said, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”[5]

When Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant before they were married and pondered how to send her away quietly, sparing her from public disgrace, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”[6]

When Jesus gathered with his disciples on the night before his death, he said, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you…Do not be afraid.”[7]

When the women, running in fear from the empty tomb, encountered the risen Jesus, he said, “Do not be afraid, go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”[8]

“Do not be afraid” is a word of consolation and proclamation. For whenever it is uttered, it is the prolegomenon announcing that God is about to do a great thing. So, “Do not be afraid, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Here is the heart of the gospel, the good news of Jesus. God’s pleasure, God’s plan, God’s promise is to give us the kingdom, to grant us God’s life, to grace us with God’s everlasting presence now and forever. To have faith and hope, in the words of Hebrews, “assurance” and “conviction”, not wishful thinking, but trust and confidence in this promise, even more to love this promise is to be unafraid, instilled with a righteous fearlessness, inspired by a virtuous courage through which we dare to live the life Jesus describes, demands. Not impoverishing ourselves for the sake of the poor, but being generous with what we possess, living for not solely for ourselves. Not dropping everything to wait in hyperactive readiness for the coming of Jesus, but waiting, watching in zealous expectation to see what God is doing in human history and in your lives and mine; waiting, watching, as the prayer says, “to behold God’s gracious hand in the world around us, that, rejoicing in the whole creation, we may serve God with gladness.”[9]

Here’s some more good news! God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom already hath been accomplished through the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us and within us. Thus, whate’er the circumstances of the world and in our lives, be not afraid. Rather, in the courage of our faith, hope, and love, let us, in “serving the Lord with gladness,” always:

Come labor on. No time for rest, till glows the western sky,

till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,

and a glad sound comes with the setting sun,

“Servants, well done.”[10]

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory…But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Matthew 24.30b, 36).

[2] Luke 12.41

[3] Genesis 15.1

[4] Exodus 14.13

[5] Luke 1.30

[6] Matthew 1.20

[7] John 14.27

[8] Matthew 28.10

[9] O heavenly Father, who hast filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that, rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (The Book of Common Prayer, page 814; emphasis mine).

[10] Come, labor on, verse 5, The Hymnal 1982, #541; words, Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897)

an Advent meditation – through imagination’s eye, going out to see John

It was about three years ago. Seems like yesterday. That day I first heard about John.

Passing through the market square in Jerusalem, the crowd was abuzz with talk of a man who had come up out of the southern wilderness, preaching about repentance and the kingdom of heaven. Messianic talk, folks said. My people have long understood that repentance, turning around, returning to God, is necessary preparation for the coming of the Messiah, God’s agent who will restore the world as it was at the dawn of creation.

Curious, I went out to see. I wasn’t alone. Throngs of people from Jerusalem, the Judean countryside, and along the Jordan had gathered on the riverbanks.

John the baptizerAnd John was something to see! Short. Thin. Almost gaunt. Yet sinewy. Long unkempt beard.  Dirty hair, ratty and matted. His appearance repulsed me. He looked like he smelled! It didn’t matter though. The crowd was huge and I couldn’t get too close. Nevertheless, my anxiety was stirred. I thought, “Who…what is this?”

He wore a camel’s hair garment and a leather belt. People said, “He looks like Elijah!” I couldn’t figure out how they knew. Elijah had been gone almost a thousand years! But, on second thought, I recalled our sacred history. Elijah is described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” I also remembered our prophetic writings. Four hundred years ago, Malachi foretold that Elijah would return announcing the Day of the Lord, that great moment when God intervenes and overturns the course of human history and sets things right. I finally put two and two together. Elijah. John. Close enough!

Once I figured that out, my hope was aroused, for it wasn’t only how John looked, it’s what he said. “I cry out in the wilderness! ‘Prepare God’s way!’” Isaiah first said that almost six hundred years ago declaring the end of our ancestors’ captivity in Babylon and their return to the Promised Land. And here we were, occupied and oppressed by the Roman Empire in the Promised Land! So, when I heard John talking like Isaiah, again, my hope, long dormant, was awakened!

Some Pharisees, those pillars of righteousness who keep God’s law to the letter, and those aristocratic priests, the Sadducees, were in the crowd, too. Funny to see them together. They don’t agree on much, politically or theologically. Nevertheless, they came out to see John. John saw them. When he did, all heaven and hell broke loose! He pointed his bony finger at them and shouted, “You vipers!” Snakes haven’t had a good reputation since the Garden of Eden. Terrible thing to call someone! No way to make friends! But that’s what John said to the most respectable people of our community. I thought he was crazy! I can still hear him screaming. “Vipers! You claim to be Abraham’s children, God’s chosen! It’s not enough without integrity. If you’re not true to yourself and to God. Vipers!” I’m an extrovert and I love attention, but for once I was glad that I didn’t stand out in the crowd!

Now, in the past, others had come out of the wilderness professing to be prophets. John was different. He didn’t claim to be a prophet, he simply acted like one, in unmistakably authentic ways. Even more, he preached and practiced baptism. (That’s why we called him John the baptizer.) No one baptized except those desert dwelling ascetics, the Essenes. Even so, it was only for the members of their community. John called everybody to be baptized as a sign of cleansing, a mark of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, whose shoes, he said, he wasn’t worthy to carry. John never pointed to himself, but always beyond himself. Wow, what humility!

I tend to be skeptical, but I confess that I was impressed. John had charisma. A gift. Of truth-telling. I responded by wading into the water and out to where he stood. “Baptize me!” He put his hands on my shoulders and plunged me under the water. Held me there for a long time! Finally, he let me go! I came up, gasping for air! At that moment, I wasn’t sure whether or not my life had turned around, but I did see my life pass before me! Funny thing, though. I felt different. Expectant. Prepared for a brighter, better day.

But nothing happened. Well, something happened, but it wasn’t good. John was imprisoned, then beheaded by King Herod. Just before that a man from Nazareth named Jesus came to John. People began to call him “Messiah.” Incredible stories were told about his preaching, teaching, healing, even raising someone from the dead. Many followed him expecting God’s kingdom to come. But not too long ago, the Romans crucified him.

Promises. Hopes. Like all before and since, came to naught. Despairing, I wondered then, I wonder now, why, why did I bother to go out to see John?