Meet John the Baptist. He comes outta nowhere. Matthew doesn’t really introduce him. Suddenly he’s at the river with a huge crowd of followers. He preaches and people confess their sins. They seal that confession with baptism, a pledge to live into a different mindset. What does John do to get such results?
First, he’s picked a good symbolic location in the Jordan River. Israel crossed the Jordan to enter the promised land. The River evokes memories of God’s promise to go with us, and our pledge to follow. It does all that without John having to say a word. John does speak, though. John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We’ve heard that enough that it bears revisiting. The word we translate as “repent” literally means getting beyond or above your old mindset. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” for God’s name. Hebrews don’t speak God’s name, so “kingdom of heaven” is probably John’s way of saying, “you know who,” or, simply, “God.” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This one should be simple enough, only we soften it to mean “closer than before.” But this is the same word Jesus will use to say, “Oh, look, Judas has come near to betray me!” The guy is here, right on top of you. So, John the Baptist preaches, “Get beyond and above what you were thinking, because God is on top of you!” Presumably, God is on top of you as your neighbor. God and Neighbor are joined in the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Get above the situation for a moment and see how what you are doing affects others.”
Let’s give this a shot. Today, when our news isn’t fixating on the still ongoing 2016 election it gives a little attention to the Dakota Access Pipeline and the situation at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Of course, we are all supposed to feel ways about this, and if we’re having trouble knowing how to feel we can consult our own partisan news or fake news sites for help. At the center of it all, though, are the Native Americans who live at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on the Missouri River. We have a curious relationship with Native Americans. (I speak as someone with no Native American ancestry that I know of.) When we want to feel guilty about our past (or want others to feel guilty about our past), we portray Native Americans as peaceful, gentle, nature-loving, spiritual types, contemporary versions of the old myth of the “noble savage.” And we ask, “How could you hurt these perfect, sinless people?” When we don’t want to feel guilty, we just don’t talk about them. They don’t exist. Native Americans are either people we never hurt and don’t want to hear about, or are impossibly pure and good people we should feel ashamed of hurting. Either way, it’s all about us. Our portrayal of Native Americans is about us. It has nothing to do with them. We fail to see them as human beings.
As the Sioux and protesters confront law enforcement at the Missouri River, John the Baptist appears in the middle of the River crying out for everyone to see the humanity of their neighbors. Crying out, “Get beyond and above the mindset that has brought it to this! Those are the faces of God out there!” And he’s not offering a quick fix. John’s not naïve, and we can’t be either. Getting beyond and above the mindset is going to involve some upsetting truths. For one, we wouldn’t be running a pipeline if we didn’t need the oil to gas up our cars and heat our homes. We have chosen to live a certain way, and this is a consequence. Furthermore, there wouldn’t be a “Reservation” if we hadn’t stuck the natives there so we wouldn’t have to notice them. We’ve chosen to take the land and act like nothing happened. Oh, and the Natives are, of course, people. Some may want things which we may not like, or may feel ways that upset or even insult us, just like any other humans. And there are problems on any Reservation. The people there are sinners like you and I, who have problems all their own. If we take John the Baptist seriously, our Baptism at the Missouri is going to bear fruit we’d best be ready to pick. People who demand to be heard. Lifestyles that need to be changed. Ready to have the mindset changed? This won’t work as a superficial change.
The Pharisees and Sadducees are after superficial change. When they come to the River, John famously insults them, but after the insults he says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Let’s see you walk the walk. The Pharisees and Sadducees are at the River for show, to be seen looking like they “get it.” I am sure there are some Pharisees and Sadducees at Standing Rock, there for the photo op or because they want to be associated with “the cause” or because they like being in such places. (There’s always that one guy. “What’s he doing at this protest?” “Oh, he’s at all the protests.” “Oh. Okay.”) We do well to note the humanity of each person at and in the River.
We are in the River. We’re not on the actual Missouri or the actual Jordan, but we are in the River. We have a little piece of it in the back, the water of the baptismal font. We baptize people in it, we confess our sins from it, thank God from it, and are welcomed into membership from it. We gather in the River as John did. For we are people who have passed through the River. Like Israel, we promised to be one holy community, beholding the humanity of our fellow members. More importantly—far more importantly—God promised to be with us always. In this river, Jesus claimed us as his siblings. We prayed, “May we have in us that same Spirit as Jesus, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” And Jesus said, “You got it.” Today, in this River, John the Baptist cries out, “Get beyond yourself for a moment and see how what you are doing affects others!” If this were just a cry of, “You’re awful and you should feel awful!”, it’d be useless. But John calls out from this River of Promise. And from here in the River, the call becomes, “You are being changed. God is moving you beyond yourselves. God is showing you how your life affects others. And God is offering you ways to move forward.”
Those ways forward vary. There are more than I can count. I’ve been asked, “How do you pick what issues to advocate for?” My answer is, “I am Trinity’s pastor; I pick things that touch upon the people of Trinity.” That’s my method. Trinity’s a good place to start, since we’re here. How can we better see each other’s humanity? Most of us members have nametags. As I mentioned at my anniversary party, that one weekend we wore them was great. Wearing the name tag helps more than just your pastor. It means a visitor knows what to call you, how to get your attention and get treated like a human being. It also means that guy you see every Sunday but don’t talk to because you don’t know his name and it’s been like thirty years so it’s awkward to ask—that guy? He becomes for you a human being with a name and a story, and you become human for him.
That’s a place to start. How else do you pick?
I got asked “How do you pick” at a planning meeting for SURJ—Showing Up for Racial Justice—which is an organization chiefly of white Americans who want to fight systemic racism. The idea is to do something useful, something that doesn’t just polarize people, and doesn’t accidentally perpetuate the problem because it’s just white people telling everyone else what to do. Some of us are giving it a shot here in Porter County. We’re meeting here on Thursday. We’re giving it a shot because we recognize that racism dehumanizes us. It dehumanizes non-whites by saying they aren’t as good as whites, and it dehumanizes me (you don’t get whiter than I am) by saying that I derive my worth from racial purity, from being better than a darker skinned man, when really I derive my worth from the God who made all of us. So we’re gonna take the time and do this. One of SURJ’s principles: “Take risks, make mistakes, learn and keep going.” Maybe one of the ways God is moving us forward is by urging us to take some risks in facing the problem, and urging us to be okay with making mistakes along the way as long as we learn from them.
Or maybe we’re willing to give living differently a serious shot. I know New Year’s Resolutions are still a few weeks away. If last January was any indication, las year most of Porter County resolved to use the YMCA primarily during the hours I was trying to use it. But it’s already a New Year in the Church, thanks to Advent. And maybe John’s call from the middle of the River has gotten us to see how our personal decisions do play a role in situations like the standoff at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Maybe we resolve to try figuring out how we could spend less time and money on wasteful things we don’t really need, how we could make our community into a place that takes only what it needs so that everyone has enough.
A stretch, maybe. But we’re in the River, and Jesus is here with us. And John just keeps on preaching.