Sunday, December 11, 2022
Are we the ones?
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Advent 3 2022
John the Baptist seems to have a very large and important question. John is sitting in prison because Herod is upset with him for criticizing Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife saying it went against the Torah. He sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one or are we to wait for another?” This puzzles many people, but I believe there is an explanation that makes sense and in some sense will resonate with some of us who sometimes wonder about this religion stuff.
The puzzlement comes when you pair this passage with last week’s passage and the following passage in Matthew when John baptizes Jesus. A voice said, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased.” John is portrayed as pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, yet now he sends his disciples to make sure. Why the doubt is the question.
This prompts some of those Godly Play “I wonder” questions. I wonder if John heard the voice at the baptism? Somebody did because it is written down in all three synoptic gospels. It does not appear in John by the way. I wonder if John thought that Jesus was the Messiah, why didn’t he and his disciples then become disciples of Jesus? I have no answer for that one, but I do wonder. I wonder if John is confused because Jesus isn’t what he expected as the Messiah. That may be the heart of the issue. Now it is critical to remember that the family connection between John and Jesus only appears in the gospel of Luke, it is not mentioned in Matthew.
We hear a lot of Isaiah in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s gospel is written by a Jewish community that were followers of Matthew. We really do not know if any one person wrote it and it is doubtful that the actual disciple Matthew did since it was written long after Jesus was killed and resurrected. This is written after the temple is destroyed in the Jewish revolt in the late 60s and the message is that Jesus is the Messiah and that the future or Judaism is to acknowledge that he is and follow his teachings. Matthew appropriates a lot of the messianic language from the prophets and applies it to Jesus.
Yet one of the issues was that most of the Jewish world had been expecting a military Messiah. Someone along the lines of Cyrus the Persian who freed the Jews from the Babylonian exile and let them return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the community. John is certainly among that. Listen to the language from last week as he spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees calling them a brood of vipers fleeing the wrath that was to come. John vision of the Messiah was not peaceful in any respect.
In the video I showed the bible study at the start of Advent one person said the Advent is the undoing of wrath. Jesus shows us not a wrathful God, but a God of love. So John the Baptist with his brood of vipers, the axe at the base of the tree ready to cut down all those trees that don’t bear fruit worthy of repentance, the chaff that will be thrown into the unquenchable fire probably doesn’t know what to make of the Jesus that is wandering around caring for the poor and the neglected.
Our readings for Advent start with preparing the way for the Lord, then warnings, now this week with a question about “who is this Jesus” and ultimately ends on Christmas with a baby in a manger in a tiny backwater of a town, who is the savior of the world. What a radical shift in thinking this is! No wonder John is confused. In the incarnation everything changes in the relationship of God and humanity. That is what we are really preparing for in Advent here, right now.
The answer is in what Jesus says to John’s disciples. Going back to Isaiah, Matthew gives the answer as to what the true nature of the Messiah is. “The blind see in Matthew 9:27–31 and in Isaiah 29:18; 35:5; the lame walk in Matthew 9:2–8 and Isaiah 35:6; the lepers are cleansed in Matthew 8:1–4 and are not in Isaiah’s language; the deaf hear in Matthew 9:32–34 and Isaiah 35:5; the dead are raised in Matthew 9:18–19, 23–26 and Isaiah 26:19; the poor are cared for in Matthew 9:35–38 and Isaiah 29:19; 61:1–2; 42:7.1”
The fruits of Jesus ministry are encapsulated in this response. This is what makes him the Messiah and not like anything John or many others expected. So, what does all of this have to do with us today? Let me start with the issue of John’s not be sure not having “faith” that Jesus is the one.
Paul Tillich a theologian from the mid 20th century wrote that doubt is normal for a person of faith. In fact, he has written that doubt is the consequence of a deep faith. Of course, if we embrace the mystery we will have questions and doubts.
On Thursday Richard Rohr had a great reflection that was in part the inspiration for this sermon. ““Faith” is not an affirmation of a creed, an intellectual acceptance of God, or believing certain doctrines to be true or orthodox (although those things might well be good). Yet many Christians have whittled faith down to that. Such faith does not usually change our heart or our lifestyle. I’m convinced that much modern atheism is a result of such a heady and ineffective definition of faith. We defined faith intellectually, so people came up with intellectual arguments against it and then said, “I don’t believe in God.”
Both Jesus’ and Paul’s notion of faith is much better translated as foundational confidence or trust that God cares about what is happening right now. This is clearly the quality that Jesus fully represents and then praises in other people.
God refuses to be known intellectually. God can only be loved and known in the act of love; God can only be experienced in communion. This is why Jesus “commands” us to move toward love and fully abide there. Love is like a living organism, an active force-field upon which we can rely, from which we can draw, and we can allow to pass through us.2
So how does this love pass through us? In part it is how we live in the world, how we treat those that Jesus sought to help. This love as Brenee Brown says is not rainbows, puppies and unicorns, but a fierce love that makes us dangerous because it makes us question and challenge the status quo. It makes us look at and respond to those things in society that take us away from the kingdom that God desires for us to be part of.
As we move into the new church year and the new calendar year showing this love to the world in caring for the last and least is what our outreach efforts are all about. This is both your individual efforts as well as the efforts of this parish. Just this past week we were looking at the money we set aside for outreach support and realized how many groups we are involved with and the list is growing. Beacon homeless ministry, Katy Cares, Katy Christian Ministries including the tutoring work, Gathering Place, Amazing Place (this supports caregivers as well as those needing care for dementia), The Neighborhood Garden, Boy and Girl Scouts, Hutsell and Katy Elementary, Toastmasters. This is quite a list for a parish of our size.
On Thursday I had a conversation with Eric Moen from the Episcopal Health Foundation. This Foundation funded in part by the sale of St. Luke’s Hospital is looking to revolutionize how the church does outreach. Their focus is all about community engagement and we are starting to do that. I’m planning to have him come and work with the vestry in January on how to build a focused and vibrant outreach program. What Episcopal Health is looking at is outreach that goes beyond just handouts although those are important. The reality is that we can never fill the hole of charity. It is important but what the Foundation is focusing on are ministries that build community and relationships that help attack the root causes of poverty. There are 3 types of outreach. Charity, which is giving those in need food, clothing whatever. That is important but we can never do enough. When you build relationships in the community you start to learn what the root causes of the problems are that the community faces. Then you build ministries with that community to address those issues. Many of our ministries are starting to do that.
Our Beacon team recently went down early to see the other aspects of that ministry which includes medical assistance, job search help and other things needed to get people off the streets and stay off the streets. Katy Cares fills not only the immediate need of single parent families but has programs that help support those parents and their children so they do not end up on the street or struggling in school. Parenting classes are important to helping the children as well as the parent escape the poverty cycle. That cycle is so hard to get out of because of the multiple factors that can conspire to trap people. We are just starting out partnership with Hutsell and Episcopal Health is already working with Emanual in their partnership with Rhodes. We are looking at getting involved in that program. That is just the tip of what we are doing and what is possible. I haven’t even mentioned the neighborhood garden and the connections that Josh is building and let me tell you they are amazing.
These are all ways that we answer John’s question, “are you the one.” Yes we are among the ones who are striving to bring the kingdom near, now here in Katy. What I’m striving for is that we do this in the most effective way. This is exciting work, gospel work