Today, June 20th, is World Refugee Day. That I was asked to preach on the birth narrative of John the Baptist from Luke’s gospel on this day – when his father Zechariah prophesies that he will be the herald of God’s son, who himself becomes a refugee – is ironic indeed.
John the Baptist’s birth feast day is this Sunday, June 24th. As I prepared this sermon, I was struck how yet AGAIN the lessons in our lectionary are timely beyond anything we could invent. John grew up to speak truth to power, while always pointing to Christ. We are called to do likewise, for such a time as this.
This Saturday I and several other people of faith will join the Families Belong Together march in downtown San Diego. We will bear honest and strong witness to our faith and to our belief that separating children from their families is sinful and inhumane.
In light of the executive order signed this afternoon, we will also bear witness to our belief that indefinitely imprisoning families for seeking asylum is no solution to a complex and urgent problem.
My sermon today explored all this. I hope it gives you hope in these dark days. Blessings.
Feast of St John the Baptist – Mary Shaima, San Diego Conferences Gathering, 6-20-18
Grace, and peace, and the wind of the Spirit to you from our Creator God. Amen.
Today we are dwelling in the space of John the Baptist – specifically, the feast-day of his birth.
And so the gospel today looks not at his adult life or work, but at his birth narrative.
You will recall that when Zechariah was skeptical of the angel’s message to him about his son, the angel took away Zechariah’s ability to speak. And later, when he confirmed the message of the angel by writing “his name is John” Zechariah’s voice was restored, and he responded in praise and prophecy.
Not in anger or righteous indignation.
No, Zechariah had experienced for himself the promises kept by God. And so his song of praise affirms this. His song of praise, the Benedictus, that is the Gospel Canticle in Morning Prayer.
And I find it fascinating that the verb tenses in the Benedictus are past, present, and future. Here is the tension of living in the already – not yet. God has kept, continues to keep, and will keep God’s promises.
As Lutherans, we are all about paradoxes. And the already – not yet is the eschatological one.
But I want to look at another paradox, one that is not found in the text.
John’s feast-day was one of the earliest set in the Christian calendar. It has accumulated fascinating cultural practices around the world. And though we usually hear about John in the season of Advent, his birth feast-day is in June. And not just any day in June, but the day in June that is 6 months prior to Christmas Eve.
If we think about the Annunciation to Mary – March 25 – and Christmas, December 25 – and Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the placement on June 24th might seem like it roughly adds up.
But the placement on June 24th coincides with an occurrence in the natural world: the summer solstice.
And the calendaring of the birth of Jesus happens right around the winter solstice. Neither of these dates are necessarily accurate, and accuracy is not the point here. Rather, the symbolism is the point.
John’s over-arching words about Jesus are that “he must increase, and I must decrease.”
The solstice days float roughly between the 20th and 22nd of June and December. But John’s birth feast-day on the 24th means that the light of day has already begun to decrease. And Christmas, Jesus’ birth feast-day starting on the 24th of December means that the light of day has already begun to INcrease.
Could this be the result of aligning with pagan festivals to either supercede or co-opt them? Well, of course. But it’s hard to deny the pattern and position of the sun. No matter how you spell it – sun or son.
And still – none of this is what strikes me the MOST about this lesson today.
What gets under my skin – what keeps me up at night THESE days – is Zechariah’s language.
Specifically, verses 78 and 79: “To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I am going to make an existential claim, and say that if we don’t think we are sitting in darkness, we are not paying attention.
If we do not think the shadow of death is hovering, we are not paying attention.
Families seeking asylum in the US are now being considered as criminals, in a policy change that has been called out internationally as inhumane. These people are then considered illegal border crossers, so they are put in jail – and by a particular US code, their children are taken away from them.
THAT is darkness.
Referring to refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants as “animals” who might “infest” our country – is to me the shadow of death.
And oh, how we would like to respond in ways that veer off the way of peace.
How we would like to take the low road, and call all the names, and place all the blame. (Elsewhere.) How we would like to dash off a post and retreat.
But we stand at what I honestly think is our Bonhoeffer moment.
“Not to speak is to speak,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Not to act is to act.”
Not only is it our Bonhoeffer moment, it is also a moment in which we are called to be church together for the sake of the world. In the public sphere. With one another, and with countless others, in solidarity for justice and righteousness.
And the distinction that we bring into that sphere is God fulfilling God’s promises: “For he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.”
Dear friends, this distinction is so important. And yet, I struggle with it.
I struggle with seeing God in ANYTHING that’s going on these days. But if I give it some effort, my eyes might be opened. As Leonard Cohen said, “the cracks are where the light gets in.”
The response from so many to this darkness has been a concentration of light. Of organizing around some kind of moral compass.
And so our Bonhoeffer moment calls us not only to speak, but to speak both truth and compassion.
As Jesus did in the gospel a couple of weeks ago, we call out the work of the devil but we also offer that reminder of God’s fidelity to all people. And that reminder is most clearly seen in the actions that we undertake, freed by grace through faith in Christ to serve the neighbor.
Admittedly, calling out the work of the devil is where we step into the riskiest territory.
The devil is NOT stupid. That should be obvious.
When we step into the places where we are called to speak justice, where we are called to preach peace, we are taking risks. Not necessarily calculated ones, either.
That is what John did.
That is what Jesus did.
That is what we are called to do. Be church together for the sake of the world. We’ve given it plenty of lip service, now is when we actually LIVE it. Risks and all.
Mary spoke – words of revolution. Zechariah spoke – reminders of God’s promise-keeping.
John spoke. Jesus spoke.
And we are called to speak – speak God’s peace, and grace, and justice, and LOVE to this world that is convinced it is sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.
John’s gift to us is the call to repent of our desperation, in this and all situations. John points us to Jesus. And in following his direction, we are reminded that this life in Christ is not without difficulty.
I saw a t-shirt the other day that really summed up the full spectrum of the Christian life, even though it wasn’t a “Christian t-shirt:”
It said: Life isn’t easy. Life isn’t perfect. Life is GOOD.
Life is good, meaning that it is rich and challenging and painful and hard and sad and joyous and, in the end, FULL.
In the Benedictus, Zechariah wisely reminds us that God keeps God’s promises, throughout time. An incredibly important thing for us to remember.
For the light shines in the darkness of this day, of this struggle; and the darkness WILL NOT overcome the light that is Christ Jesus.
Walk and march in that light. Amen.