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A Lenten Reflection

Friday, February 24
Mark 1:4-8

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

The text for this second reading in Lent sent me back over 15 years to a place where we were struggling with our parish priest's partner Edward's death and what it meant for St. Francis. Like an old song, sometimes a reading makes the past present in a way that nothing else can. Perhaps in this sense it is a type of baptism and call to think and act in new ways.

The following is an excerpt from a sermon given at St. Francis in December 10, 1995 updated for Mark's text. The complete text is here: . The poem that follows is one published in 1993.

Prophets and Outcasts

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." He "was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey."

Now here was someone who could make a dull dinner party interesting! Can you picture this? A wild-eyed visionary, passionate about ideals to excess, a strict vegetarian, dressed in leather pants and a camel-haired sport coat. Not bad.

Do you know someone like this? Perhaps there is some distant cousin on the family tree that we don't like to talk about, let alone invite to Christmas dinner. John would definitely qualify for a "black sheep" of the family if I ever saw one.

We have all crossed the paths of a such a character. He's part Christopher Lloyd, the mad professor from "Back to the Future." He's part homeless crazy waving a broken umbrella on Wall Street shouting about the injustices of the subway system, or a Reverend Billy Sol waving a worn Bible at the TV camera. And he's part uncle Albert, who had a bit too much cheer, telling a bad ethnic joke about the Pope's nose just as the turkey is being served at Thanksgiving dinner. This is a person who makes us feel just a bit uncomfortable, someone not like us, someone we'd probably avoid. Can you picture interviewing a John the Baptist to work in your accounts receivable department?

But what is John doing? He's preparing the way of the Lord, calling people to repent. Repent! Frederick Buechner defines repentance as a "coming to your senses," but also as something that "spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry," than to the future and saying 'Wow!'" It is an awakening and a call to the future, to what is coming. Repentance is less about guilt over the past, than about creating the openness to the "Yes" of God. "Prepare the way of the Lord!" shouts John. And we are astounded.

This must be some kind of divine joke. After all, the people who cared about the faith were looking to the scriptures, the Torah or sacred laws, and the learned priests who were its guardians. And here comes this malcontent, brandishing a broken umbrella, telling us the messiah is coming. Who would listen? Who would listen?

The thought that God would speak through an outcast is offensive to our sensibilities. Why would God choose a spokesperson who no self-respecting press secretary would ever put in front of the cameras? But this is how God seems to work, through the least expected avenues -- turning our expectations upside down. After all, Jesus was a carpenter from an unimportant town in the hills of the backwoods of the Appalachia of Israel. And John is calling us to our senses!

What we hear in John's message is a divine "No!" --what Karl Barth calls God's "Halt!" It stops us dead in our tracks and throws into question our beliefs, our sensibilities. Before we can hear the "Yes" of God we are confronted with God's divine "No!" It says we were looking in the wrong place. It is God saying "I have found you"; "I come to you 'like a thief in the night.'" Will you recognize me behind the disguise? So John is crying in the wilderness and washing away sins, the old clothes, like laundry forgotten on the banks of the Jordan.
On this early Friday in Lent, I would like to leave all of us with this thought: Are we willing to hear God speak, even if his voice comes through the outcasts? Will we look to the future, the coming of Easter and redemption, and see the hand of God in the unexpected?

Roots Below

The book jacket said
his poems were accessible,
not the obscure words
and images that dot the fringes
of intelligence and madness.
but the common words,
the ones we might use
to tell a family story,
or what happened
in the movie we saw last night.

It's not surprising
that Emmanuel was often found
in the midst of sinners,
probably drinking a glass
of non-vintage table wine.
no doubt this incensed
the learned folks of the day,
the guardians of the secret knowledge
that takes years of study
to travel to the outer reaches
of logic and appreciation,
finally reaching the holy of holies.

But this cup, this vessel,
stained with finger prints
sitting on the picnic table
of the local pub,
was more apt to quench
the thirst of the gardener.

If the words of the poet
reach you in such a place,
God speaks with His arm
wrapped around your shoulder,
slaps you on the back,
and whispers a word more divine
than all the mysteries of heaven.

--E G Happ

* * *
© Copyright 2012, E. G. Happ, All Rights Reserved.

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