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“Those Holy Fools”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Those Holy Fools”
(Mark 1: 1-8)
2nd Sunday in Advent (December 10, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

The beloved gospel of Saint Luke tells the Christmas story with such childlike enchantment.  Heavenly announcements are made to unsuspecting women like Elizabeth and Mary and the baby Jesus lies in the manger with adoring shepherds and singing angels.  This is the Christmas story we love.

There is another story, though, a more adult one.  The gospel of Mark does not ease us into Christmas; Mark never mentions the baby Jesus, not once.  No sooner has Mark begun, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” than we hear that raving fool, John the Baptist, down at the muddy stream called Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Mark’s gospel does not make for cheery Christmas cards or enchanting nativity scenes above fireplaces.  If you disagree, look at your own home decorations: does John the Baptist appear anywhere in your house along with Mary and Joseph, Wise Men and shepherds, sheep and camels?

Mark’s gospel is not for those obsessed with “merry Christmas” as they stand around the cash register singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus;” the account of John the Baptist has not been read at a single office Christ party in history, those affairs where we prefer singing “Silent Night” with spiked eggnog in hand.

The house lights never soften in Mark’s gospel; we are not offered lovely little candles; there are no sweet carols with lovely harps and strings.  No, dear friends, there is not an iota of sentimentality.  From the very start, Mark’s gospel screams for a change of heart, for repentance of sins, beginning, of course, with each of us.

One of my favorite descriptions of John the Baptist comes from Sara Miles’ book, “Jesus Freak”: “John the Baptist was, not to put too fine a point on it, a total nutcase, sort of like the unwashed guy with the skanky dreadlocks and the plastic bags over his socks who sleeps in the entryway of the library…He railed at decent temple-goers, shouting that their sacred ceremonies were useless, threatening them with damnation if they didn’t repent.”

I have discovered that the people best able to shake us up and get us to change our lives for the better are the ones who have nothing to lose.  They tend not to rub elbows with the big shots in town and rarely are they the pastors of big steepled churches with fat endowments.  They come, instead, from ministries like the Salvation Army where folks shake bells and dress in silly outfits; they are to be found at the rundown Rock of Ages Church with the gaudy neon cross out front.   Most of us sneer at these people and call their ministries irrelevant and yet they invariably say things we don’t want to hear and cause us think in ways we never have before.  Deep down, they make us realize how beholden we are to power, privilege, and the almighty dollar.  You see, these ministries don’t have to impress a soul!

John the Baptist was like that.  He was a Nazirite devoted to God, living in the godforsaken desert far from polite society; he didn’t trim his beard or cut his hair.  Even when he was in prison, he dared tell the ruler and his new wife, who until recently had been his sister-in-law, that his manner of living was shameful…You have noticed, I’m sure, that powerful rulers and important people tend to get hopping mad when their unsavory dating and bedroom habits are critiqued.  Pure and simple: John was a pain in the neck until his neck was loped off and was no more.  John the Baptist had nothing to lose either.

By the way, I have lots to lose when it comes to doing the right thing.  I make all manner of compromises so that I can retain some semblance of being a successful pastor in this city that never sleeps.  I cozy up to people who appear to make a difference in this world and dare not offend anyone who might fill Holy Trinity’s coffers.  It is hard for me to repent, to turn around, to confess my sins.  About the only time I stand up for what matters is when it will make you and me look pretty prophetic without touching my retirement account or Holy Trinity’s endowment.  Do you know what I mean? We prefer pointing fingers at other people’s unsultry habits and tend not to critique our own dastardly behaviors.

Because my life is so compromised—and perhaps yours as well, God sends folks like John the Baptist our way.  They drive us nuts because they are always pointing out how out of whack our ways of living are with God’s ways.

It is why God blesses us with John the Baptist and other holy fools like him.

Think of the Amish communities.  Whenever we talk about such out of step groups, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prove the inconsistencies in their lifestyles and, yet still, as we watch them go down the road in their horse-drawn buggies with their long beards and black dresses, we catch ourselves lamenting how suffocated we have become by our insatiable desires for more and more.  Don’t the Amish folks “foolish ways” cause you to yearn for a simpler life?

On my best days, I thank God for holy fools.

I give thanks for monastic communities where people retreat to faraway places, close the doors for a lifetime, and pray to God for the life of the world.  Did you know we have a Lutheran monastery in Oxford, Michigan, called St. Augustine’s House?  The prior (leader of that community) trained me to be a pastor and spent his entire ministry in our nation’s toughest inner-city neighborhoods before heading off to pray during the autumn years of his life.  This monastery’s very presence makes me wish I prayed and worshiped a whole lot more.

Yes, I give thanks for the foolish ones who do not seem as stained by the incessant desires and demands of the world than I.  They actually try to do as Jesus said: they sell all they have and give it to the poor; they take Jesus’ words seriously, “Love your enemies;” they even pray unceasingly.

They are the gentle fools who invite us to look at ourselves.  They are John the Baptist’s friends who dare to call us to repent, to give up our incessant habits of greed and power-grabbing.  They tell us that if we turn around, even a bit, and look for Christ coming as a little child, our lives will be much better for it.