3 Advent: Do you have two shirts?

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Washington National Cathedral

Video version follows the text
Sermon Texts: Isaiah 12:2-6; Theologies for Korah, a poem by Dante Michael; Luke 3:7-18

Alright, how many of you still have two shirts?
That’s what John the Baptist wants to know.
But as for me, as the poet wrote,
“I have learned to keep my head
while speaking the truth.”
That is a pun.

I dare say, there are not many other poems
about John the Baptist,
nor that many sermons.
It is kind of like preaching about John Brown —
another prophet who came to prepare us
but isn’t talked about in polite society.

We like our prophets
in the rear view mirror
after we have enough distance
to pluck the insect wing from their beards
and can no longer smell the musk.

We clean them up and sanitize them
so we can make national heroes of them.
Another word for it is domestication.
If they were alive
we could never get away
with domesticating them
because they just wouldn’t sit still for it.

On the other hand, nobody in their right mind
wants to be a prophet.
Nobody who has other options
ever sits around and thinks to him or herself,
”I think I’ll grow up to be a prophet.”

Whereas once upon a time
there were schools of prophets
and even professional prophets,
it long ago fell out of favor as a profession.

One generation of amazing prophets included
Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Isaiah
and somehow, miraculously really,
we still have their poetry —
lo, these twenty-seven hundred years later.

Decades and decades ago,
at the beginning of my ministry,
I attended a once vaunted institution
now closed, called The College of Preachers.
It was in the nation’s capital
on the grounds of the National Cathedral.
20th century greats like Reinhold Niebuhr
taught seminars there,
and after initially being an invitation-only program,
it came to be more open —
even to punks like me.

I anxiously drove to Washington, DC
from Indianapolis, Indiana
my “real” sermon text in hand
which we were instructed to bring.
Like everyone else, of course,
I brought one I thought was really, really good.
The first full day we delivered our sermons
to a group of colleagues all there for the same thing.

As I recall, I was one of the youngest of the bunch,
with longish hair and a bushy beard,
without a doubt, the least refined.
The feedback was nearly unanimous:
too harsh,
too radical,
too angry.
You can’t get away with talking like that
from the pulpit.

I was downhearted, of course,
but tried to stay open and learn
because that is what I was there for.

Somewhere toward the end of the week,
the faculty gathered us
to watch a video of the retired Presiding Bishop,

John Hines.
I had heard of him but that’s about all,
never read or heard him speak.
We watched as he ascended the tall pulpit
of the National Cathedral,
two canes helping him up the steps.
In the red and white of bishop’s robes,
he also sported a long beard —
at least in my mind’s eye.
I can’t find any photos of him with a beard.

Anyway, he was older in this video,
and clearly had to hold the edges of the pulpit
to remain standing.
But his voice boomed,
and filled every nook and cranny
of that vaulted cave.
As the camera panned the congregation
it was filled with fur coats
and Georgetown black suits
sitting there under the hot breath

of that lion who preach a wildly prophetic sermon.
We were all blown away
at the power of that man’s words
and his very demeanor – resonating as it did
out of a shrunken body that was crumbling.
All around the room,
all of us commented on the sermon
in glowing tones.

Then one of the faculty members
very quietly remarked,
”Isn’t it funny how Cam said nearly the same things,
but he was perceived as an angry young man.”

It is a hard reality to learn
that youth, gender,
race, and class
are robed in countless presumptions
that we cannot get rid of
nor deny.

Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus,
both brown men of color
adorned in the aura of poverty,
would be able to speak to us
in our world and churches,
still segregated as they are by class and race.

We have about as much chance
of changing that reality
as we do making a silk purse
from a pig’s ear.
But you know what?
With God, all things are possible.
(Jesus said that, I didn’t make it up).

There are more ways than poetry
and violent rebellion
to be prophetic.
Whenever we can offer a witness
that could cause other people to stop and wonder —
to stop and ask themselves how or why we did that —
and have their pondering lead
like ant tracks back to God,
we are being prophetic.

Someone remarked to me this week,
about how remarkable it is,
the robust quantity of goods and money
this small congregation
is able to collect and give away.

Indeed, during the pandemic shut down,
we were recognized in the diocese
as one of the few congregations
that were able to keep our outreach going.
In fact, it was then that we really began to accelerate.

This is not meant as a boast of any kind,
just a moment to stop and recognize
that one way we can be prophetic
in this community, is to have an outsized heart.
Like John Hines,
many of us are no longer
in our best physical condition,
and that narrows some of our options.
But because of that very fact,
how and what we can do
is able to boom and resonate
our conviction
that with God, all things are possible.

I also believe
that by choosing to leave our building
when we did
and how we did,
and our dogged persistence
in the face of struggle,
that we can offer hundreds
if not thousands
of congregations around the nation
a prophetic message of hope.

(The congregation voted in 2016 to allow the historic building to become a boutique inn
while it moved into a former wine bar in downtown Geneva).

Being prophetic doesn’t require us
to eat insects
or break into armories
in pursuit of abolition.
We can also be prophetic
by living out a cherished value
in ways that other people begin to wonder
why we did that?

In the darkest moments of his generation,
Isaiah offered the poetry of hope and restoration.
Then, when prosperity made his contemporaries
forget who they were,
his poetry turned radical and challenging.

What he didn’t do
was sit around and fret
that no one would notice
and so be rendered speechless.

It is Advent
and after today
we turn the corner toward Christmas.
Next week the stories and images
we associate with Christmas
begin to leak through the purple curtain.
What we need to know
is that Christmas itself —
the stories we associate with
hot cocoa and silent night, are
at their core, prophetic stories.

More about that next week.