“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” That last sentence makes me chuckle a bit, given what has come before in our Gospel this morning. “His winnowing fork is in his hand.” “You brood of Vipers.” Don’t brag about Abraham. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” That is good news?
All this may seem a bit much this week. We are getting close to Christmas after all. This week we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of joy. This is joy week. We need a break from all the preparation. We need a pause from all the rush. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us came to church this morning because we needed just a few quiet moments in this busy season. So why today are we dealing with all this extreme rhetoric from John the Baptist?
John the Baptist is a radical, perhaps THE most radical figure in the New Testament. As Canon John Kilgore reminded us last week, in Mark’s Gospel we hear that John lived apart from the community. He covered himself in camel fur and ate locusts and wild honey. John was a little odd. He was all fire and brimstone. I know that some of you at Holy Communion are here to escape fire and brimstone. I know that many people come to the Episcopal church because we eschew such drama. The Episcopal tradition has not historically been a John the Baptist sort of place. Well, I am not hoping to disappoint you, I promise not to start thumping a Bible, but I think our world needs religious radicals.
Our world needs religious radicals, today more than ever. You may be thinking, “Mike, do you know what you’re saying? ISIS is parading across Syria and Iraq abroad. So-called-fundamentalist Christians are attacking civil rights at home. How can you say we need religious radicals?” And I say to you, we need religious radicals, because what passes for radicalism, what passes for religious fundamentalism has almost nothing to do with the faith we share. What passes for religious extremism has nothing to do with the good news, the Gospel.
What we need is the radicalism of John the Baptist. The people ask John, “What should we do?” Listen again to his words: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells tax collectors not to steal. He tells soldiers not to extort the people, to be satisfied with their wages. That was John’s radicalism. Treat one another like human beings, treat one another with dignity because all are created in the image and likeness of God.
The word radical comes from the Latin “radix” or root. To be radical is to be rooted, to know what holds us up, to know what gives us life. Over the past several months, your vestry has been leading a process at Holy Communion asking questions about our roots. What are the values and vision we share?
We’ve been asking three questions of parishioners. We’ve done so in small groups in homes, in forums between the services, the youth group and I even shared a lunch in the park. Vestry members have met one on one for coffee or a meal with members of this parish. We’ve been focused on the same three questions:
1) What brought you to Holy Communion?
2) What keeps you at Holy Communion?
3) In five years, what do you want your neighbors to know about Holy Communion.
The questions were simple, almost deceptively simple. The questions helped us get to our common ground. These questions helped us export our identity, our roots. The answers we received have begun to shape a conversation about our mission as a congregation. We have identified three values we heard above all the others:
We are a congregation rooted in the values of Welcome, Diversity, and Justice.
To me, those values are more valuable because we heard them from this community. The vestry didn’t sit in a room and make them up, they came from our conversations together. Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, these are our roots. Friends, those words are radical.
To be a faith community shaped by welcome, diversity, and justice is a radical calling, especially in our world today. In a culture of fear of the other, welcome is radical. In a city that is divided along racial and ethnic lines committing to a church where we meet on common ground with people of diverse skin colors, economic statuses, gender identities, ages, sexual orientations, among other difference, coming together as a diverse community that’s radical. And in a society that stresses individuality, working for justice for our neighbors is radical.
In the weeks and months that come, we will have a chance to continue this process of dialogue. I have just sketched a few of the things I think we mean when we say we are committed to Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, but I don’t have the last word. Holy Communion isn’t that kind of church. We are asking YOU to dream with us. If welcome, diversity, and justice are our roots, what will we grow together? What ministries, programs, and priorities will we bring to life? How will we live these radical commitments?
There’s a story of St. Francis told by the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff. The year is 1216. The great cathedral of Perugia is the setting. Boff tells us, “Lugubrious Gregorian chants rise [from the choir]…The solemn *Planctum super Innocentium* is being sung.” The body of Pope Innocent III lies in state before the altar. Innocent had risen to become the most powerful monarch in Europe. The Church had become the most powerful institution on the continent, but death catches up with us all.
The pope’s body is clothed in finery “furs, jewels, gold, silver, and every symbol of double power, sacred and secular.” But around midnight, as the deceased pope lies alone in the darkness, thieves break into the cathedral. They strip the pope bare. After they make off with Innocent’s rich clothes, legend tells us, a crumpled figure, rises from a dark corner where he was huddled in prayer. “He takes off his worn and dirty tunic, a tunic of penance that his friend Pope Innocent III had authorized him to wear in 1209… and he covers the naked body of the pope with it.”
Innocent III and Francis were both huge figures in the faith of their time. Innocent was the pope, the most powerful figure the Catholic church had yet known, but save for the medieval scholars in our midst, very few of us could talk about what Innocent valued, what he held dear. What were Innocent III’s roots? I couldn’t tell you. Francis is another story. Children today can talk about his love of animals and his respect of all of creation. People of many faiths today are inspired by his call to care for the poor. Francis was a radical, and his roots speak continue to speak to us today.
When they write the story of Holy Communion, will they write about our silver chalices and our beautiful stone building or will they write about something more radical? Will they tell stories of a community that was rooted in the teachings of Jesus? Will they tell stories of the ways we welcomed the stranger, and even the stranger stranger? Will they laugh as they marvel at the ways we brought such diverse people together to worship and to learn? Will they talk about our work together for justice?
I think our city and our world are hungry for the kind of radical Christianity I have heard described by the people of Holy Communion. We are weary of the visions of religion that are readily available. We are tired of what passes for extremism and fundamentalism. We are hungry for the Good News proclaimed by John the Baptist, proclaimed by Francis, and proclaimed by this unique congregation in University City.
This Advent, how will we be religious radicals?