Jennifer and I were worshiping this morning as what we have taken to calling The Church of St. John-in-the-Wilderness, a good Anglican name attached to a number of churches, though the first one that comes up online is somewhere in India.
Right now, it’s just Jennifer and me, using the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer, a slowly expanding of form two of Holy Communion, which we celebrate at home (though honestly, I lobbied for worshippers at Starbucks this morning). We call ourselves Anglicans on purpose. The Lutherans have wounded us too much to go back, we’re not Catholic, and we have yet to find a church here in Moses Lake that takes worship — liturgy — seriously.
Four praise songs and a long, meandering sermon that is more conservative political piety do not a proper worship service make. Nor does the formless, shapeless and very unserious semi-liturgy we’ve experienced in far too many churches in the last few years.
Honestly, the only places where I’ve felt liturgy is taken seriously are Orthodox churches and the Latin Mass. And several of my friends’ ELCA parishes.
At any rate, we’re self-proclaimed Anglicans right now (and not Episcopalians, for reasons I will keep to myself for the time being), until some bishop somewhere decides to follow the lead of two ELCA bishops and toss our asses out as well.
At any rate, I was reading the texts for the Second Sunday of Advent this morning, and noticed two things.
First, in the Gospel reading.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …” (Matthew 3:7 ESV)
So okay, John the Baptist is in the midst of the wilderness, hanging out on the banks of the River Jordan baptizing the rabble when who shows up but “many of the Pharisees and Sadducess?” The religious establishment, following the people out to this wilderness, to take a dip in the water and repent of their sins.
They were coming to be baptized. To repent. I’d never noticed that before.
We don’t know what John the bug-eating, rambunctious holy mess tells the ordinary folks coming to him from Jerusalem and Judea and all around the Jordan, when they show up. But in Matthew’s account, he has special words for the religious leaders. “Who invited you?” he demands, as if somehow they hadn’t been told about to this repentance party at the river on purpose.
He then makes a special demand of them, these uninvited religious leaders. “It isn’t enough merely to speak words as you get ready to go under the water, or live in the confidence that merely being descended from Abraham is enough. Bear fruit.”
To the religious leaders, he tells them — repent, and then live like you mean it. He doesn’t deliver this same warning to the ordinary folks who come the repent, at least not in Matthew’s account. He may very well be the kind of stern, crazy man you cross to the other side of the street to avoid (he always come across that way to me), but from this, it seems he baptized all who came without much question.
And even here, after he warns the religious leaders of his age to take their repentance seriously, and live like they really are penitent, John appears to baptize them.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11 ESV)
When we talked about this at worship, Jennifer looked at me and said, “Even religious leaders. We need to remember that.” Because right now, she and I have almost no patience for religious leaders — bishops and pastors and the like — and I’d just as soon as consign them outer darkness or the fires of Gehenna or some deep, dark part of Sheol as think of them twice.
God’s grace is also for the powerful, for those who have wronged as much as those they have wronged. I think John is right to demand of these religious leaders that their repentance manifest itself tangibly in their lives in ways it may not have to in anyone not given the responsibility of religious leadership.
Which leads me to the second thing I noticed, in the epistle reading, which wasn’t technically part of the reading for the week, but I read it anyway.
1 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Romans 15:1-3 ESV)
I love this, this talk of obligation and self-surrender. I love this because it’s hard and I hate it. I don’t like bearing with the failings of the weak, and there are times when I’m not terribly patient for the failing of those around me. (My poor wife bears far too much of the brunt of this…) I’d rather yell at people to keep up with me, rather than have to slow down and walk with them only as fast as they can.
And the thing that makes this especially tough is that all too often it feels like no one bears with my failings. No one slows down to walk with me, no one builds me up. Certainly not all those rotten bishops and pastors who have glared at me in uncomprehending judgment at who and what I am and sent me away without so much as a “can we be with you and at least listen to you?”.
In fact, I wouldn’t be a self-proclaimed Anglican, leader of the smallest denomination (two) in North America, if the Pharisees and Sadducees I had encountered had somehow actually lived out their repentance in a meaningful way.
I want to live in a world of reciprocity — do unto others as they do unto me. But that’s not what Jesus says, and that’s not what Paul is writing to the church at Rome here. There is no reciprocity in this relationship we have with God — we bring nothing to God and can do nothing for God — and so we model that lack of reciprocity. We listen to those who will not listen to us. (Try this with an abused, autistic 13-year-old girl sometime… ) We walk with those who will not walk with us. We comfort those who cannot and will not comfort us. We love those who will not love us back.
I can no more live in a loveless world than you can, and I know that if I give of myself like this, there will soon be nothing left of me. Our very humanity needs and demands reciprocity, and I need to remember the times when I took and did not give, talked and did not listen, received comfort but did not return it.
But at the heart of this relationship God has with us is self-surrender, in which power and privilege and position are given up, in which the strong use their strength to bolster rather than brutalize the weak. It’s hard, and most days I really hate it.
It’s what God does for us, though.