Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius the emperor of Rome, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Herod’s brother Philip ruled just to the east and a bit to the north…
The word of God came to John in the wilderness. John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He prepared the way for one who was coming after him. “I baptize you with water,” he said, “but the one who is will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John was a commanding orator, and people came out to the wilderness to hear him and to be baptized by him. They asked, “What shall we do?”
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” he said, “and whoever has food shall do the same.”
The tax collectors and the soldiers also came and asked, “What shall we do?” And he said, “Collect only the wages that are due to you. Don’t take money dishonestly.” Live justly.
These were difficult days. It was the time of empire. Rome occupied the region, and Herod Antipas was chosen to rule over Galilee; he was king of the Jews, but he served his own interests rather than his subjects. As is always the case when Empire reigns, there is vast disparity between the few who hold wealth and power and the masses who are poor and destitute.
John had a fiery personality, and he was not afraid to speak truth to power. Herod was corrupt, you see, and he had married his brother’s wife, Herodias, which was strictly forbidden. So John stuck out his neck (both figuratively and literally) and cried, “Foul.” Herod had him arrested and thrown into prison where he was left to languish.
The age-old promise of the prophets was clear: Messiah is coming, and he will deliver the Israel from the clutches of Empire. Messiah will set the captives free and establish them as God’s holy nation once again. But this isn’t happening for John. He has not been set free; he’s in prison. So John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one? Or should we wait for another?”
From John’s vantage point, it seems to be a fair question: Has the world really changed yet? John is still in prison, and the Empire is still oppressing.
We look around today, and we wonder: Has the world really changed yet? People we love – or maybe we ourselves – experience illness. People we love are held captive by addiction, self doubt, debt, harmful relationships. We see people held down by systems of injustice. We live in this time of “already – not yet” when the kingdom of God has been ushered in, and yet, it has not fully come to fruition.
So when they asked, “Are you the one, or should we wait for another?” Jesus showed them the answer right then and there and healed people of diseases and gave sight to people who were blind. Then he said, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard.” Indeed, the eyes of the blind were opened and the ears of the deaf were unstopped. Even a dead man was given new life and his vulnerable mother along with him.
When John’s disciples leave, Jesus talks to the crowds about John. “Was John a prophet?” he asks. You bet. “Has there been a man born of a woman who is greater than John?” No. “And yet, the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” The kingdom of God is not a reversal of power in which the oppressed become dominant and those in power become oppressed. It’s a new paradigm.
Last month, the city of New York lay to rest one of its heroes. A 32-year member of the New York Police Department, Officer Steven McDonald suffered a heart attack and never recovered. Officer McDonald was a third-generation police officer and a proud Irish Catholic.
In 1986, just two years into his service on the police force, Officer McDonald was patrolling as a plain clothes policeman in Central Park when hand his partner received a call that three teenagers were loitering. They went to check it out, and seconds later, a fifteen-year-old boy pulled out a gun and fired three shots, leaving Officer McDonald paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life.
In our country, we honor our public servants who sacrifice in the line of duty, and if that were where the story ended, we would call Steven McDonald a hero. He made a great sacrifice, after all. At just 29 when his career and his marriage had only begun, the course of his life had changed, and all dreams for the future were dashed.
Six months later, Steven McDonald became a father. He would never be able to play ball with his son or pass a hockey puck to him on the ice. He would never even cradle his son in his arms or pat him on the back. And yet, at his son’s baptism in early 1987, he made a statement that was read by his wife. Of his assailant, he said, “I forgive him, and I hope he can find peace and purpose in his life.” A year later, when the young man was convicted of attempted murder, he sent him stamps and a box of stationery and said, “Let’s carry on a dialog.”
A significant gesture, we might be inclined to say that his act of forgiveness freed him from captivity to anger and bitterness for the rest of his life. That might be true, but it would be too simple an explanation.
Forgiveness has the power to change lives, both for the one who forgives and the one who receives forgiveness. I don’t know what transformation took place, but when the young many who shot Officer McDonald was released from prison 8 ½ years later, he died just four days later of head injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident in which he was a passenger on a bike that was doing a wheelie and crashed into a series of cars. Inside one of those cars was a parole officer who was monitoring the young man because of behavior in prison. The audacious act of forgiveness does not always to lead to happy endings.
Officer McDonald stayed on the NYPD payroll for thirty years, and he promoted a message of faith, forgiveness and tolerance. He was sometimes present at roll call, and when tragedy happened, he was at times there to reach out to officers who were struggling. He traveled to Northern Ireland multiple times to promote reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants. He reached across the aisle and spoke at two Republican National Conventions, in 1996 and 2004, even though he was a Democrat.
When Steven McDonald died last month, tens of thousands of people came to his wake and his funeral. A man who had seemed powerless had impacted masses. The power structures as we know them prove not to be what the kingdom of God is ultimately about. God’s strength is shown in weakness. The Apostle Paul says, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1Corinthians 1:25)
Jesus challenged the system, and it led him to the cross. And yet, in the cross, we find our hope. In the cross, God defeated death. In the dark places of our lives where fear and uncertainty take hold, a light shines, a light that reveals another way.
Yesterday about 130 women and girls gathered here for Women’s Day of Service. They rolled bandages, tied quilts, knit baby caps, sorted medical supplies, and packed hospice and newborn kits. They spent the morning doing concrete tasks in the service of others, especially people in need. One of the women came up to me during lunch and touched a cross at the base of her neck. “I’ve had this necklace for a long time,” she said, “but I’ve recently started wearing it regularly. I need a reminder of how to live in these days.”
The cross is a reminder that we are part of God’s great salvation project, that we are to help feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, to clothe the naked and welcome the stranger. The cross is a reminder to care for creation and to be a loving neighbor to all people.
Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 3:18) It’s God’s salvation project, and we get to be part of it.
May we have eyes to see it, may we be bold to shine a light on it, and may we have courage to participate in it. May the light of Christ shine in our lives today. Amen.