When we have stories that feature
John the Baptist like we do today,
I repeatedly feel the need to pay our respects
to the Mandaeans,
followers of John the Baptist
that continue on in the world today.
There are roughly seventy thousand Mandaeans
spread from Indonesia to Iraq to Sweden.
They have their own sacred text, the Ginza,
and they continue to baptize – every week
rather than once in a lifetime.
Whereas Christians turned baptism
into a once in a lifetime sacrament,
the Mandaeans use it in every celebration
from weddings to funerals.
Many Mandaeans still speak
a unique form of Aramaic —
the language we assume
was Jesus’ first tongue.
But that said, I feel uninspired
by Mark’s peculiar
and somewhat inaccurate review of events
from so long ago.
I must confess that sometimes
I suffer from B.F.S. – Bible Fatigue Syndrome.
It is not a great ailment for a preacher
but maybe a professional hazard.
Sometimes I get tired translating arcane stories
into contemporary meaning.
Sometimes, not too often,
I just look at the readings and say to myself,
“Really? This again?”
Anyway, I know I’ve got Bible-fatigue
when I feel that way
even with one of my very favorite prophets — Amos.
Amos encountered fatigue himself.
You see, early in the short book of the prophet Amos,
Amos talks God out of an angry
and torturous punishment of Israel —
the threat was first a scourge of locusts
and then consumption by fire.
But seven chapters into
the little nine chapter book,
Amos has given up talking God
out of anything.
He silently shrugs in resignation
as he is compelled
to report to the king and false prophets of Israel,
yet another vision of destruction.
The plumb line
and the nation doesn’t measure up…again.
So, Amos warns,
the wall of inequity, Israel, will fall.
Amos doesn’t even try to talk God out of it this time,
and in Biblical literature,
talking God out of smiting people
is a special talent of a prophet.
I forgot to mention that last week
when I was talking about prophets.
They have a special gift
for soothing divine indignation.
But Amos doesn’t use his super power
for calming God this time.
He just lets the bad news hang in the air
because he knows God is right.
He know the people are just going to fail again
to measure up to God’s requirements.
I feel a special relationship to that image
of the plumb line
because I am one of those people
who can’t draw a straight line —
even with a ruler or a square.
When I used to make things,
I couldn’t make a square corner
if my life depended upon it.
I think I just see crooked.
I used to watch my dad work on a project
and build beautiful things
that came out square, level, and smooth.
I’d be the one listening to Amos’ image
of the wall leaning away
from the vertical plumb line, and say:
Yep, looks pretty straight to me.”
But Bible-fatigue has taken hold of my mind this week
and I looked at this personal favorite from Amos
and that terribly interesting beheading in Mark
and shrugged my shoulders.
What’s in it for us?
So I am grateful to Robert Francis
for his more immediately accessible poem.
The punch line of which, is: “Here I sit,
between the known and the unknown.”
“Nothing was far that once was near.
Nothing is hid that once was clear.
Nothing was God that is not here.”
If it does not get me into too much trouble with God,
I am going to play prophet for a moment,
and echo this poem
and leave Amos and Mark
to speak for themselves.
And that may be the kindest
and wisest thing
I ever did for Amos and Mark.
Anyway, here is the wisdom
I want to leave us with today,
because there is no deeper or greater wisdom
that I know of anyway,
about God and the life of the spirit.
God is not available to us
in the past
nor in the future,
but only here,
The past can show us tracks —
the footprint of the holy on human history —
but it is not God.
The future is total mystery
toward which we can only blow a kiss
God exists only here,
only in the present.
Our struggle, as Francis points to,
is that we constantly wander
between the past and the future —
the known and the unknown,
a pinball bouncing off each.
We linger in memories,
pine for how it used to be.
We reach for what is next,
and anticipate with great desire or anxiety
what is yet to come.
But rarely do we sit alone
between the known and the unknown —
present to the moment,
present with God.
I am not wise enough to know
why we are so bad at this,
but I do know that to sit alone
in the present,
can be filled with anxiety,
and all manner of dread.
It is a place we do not go
because to be alone in the present
is to see and hear and feel things
that unsettle us.
And yet there in that place,
in the midst of those things —
and among them —
It is the only place God is.
Sit with that for a moment.
We go looking in cathedrals
and Grand Canyons
when God is present in a diner,
in the recliner,
in the shower for crying out loud.
When we get good
at turning off the noise around us
and listening to the noise within us
and allow it all to settle a little bit —
not trying to get rid of it
but listening through it —
then we begin to notice the presence
of something or someone else.
We cannot find God in scripture
or in nature —
we only find tracks there —
tracks that resonate God’s presence in the past.
But God is not there
in the grand beauty of the natural world
nor in the intricacies of Scripture.
God is here:
in each present moment.
If I were a prophet…
that is the message I would proclaim.
If we seek God in the present moment
we may not only discover God,
but we will discover more nearly