Over Thanksgiving I had the privilege of being with my family in Flagstaff, Arizona, where my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew live. We spent a few days in a warmer area of the state, where we found ourselves on a hike to and through a slot canyon—this is a canyon of red rock made by ancient streams of water. Think the Grand Canyon but skinny. It’s the kind of formation one does not find too easily (especially in New England), and when you see one, you cannot help but climb through it to explore.
As you may know by now, those in my bloodline seem to have a sort of fascination with rock formations—mountains, crags, and caves, we love them all. And after numerous car trips across this continent, I can tell you that I much prefer geologic diversity to the flat, endless plains of Iowa or Nebraska. That’s why I am a little put off by John the Baptizer in this morning’s lesson from Luke.
John quotes Isaiah when he says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”
I guess my brother can return all of that climbing gear, because if John has his way, we’ll have nowhere to go but sideways.
Of course, John isn’t speaking merely about rock formations, is he? John does speak to a particular audience that would have understood the way that rough wilderness played a role in making the people of Israel who they are. From their captivity in Egypt and Babylon, they made difficult journeys to the promised land. But now, the people of Israel find themselves in a different kind of wilderness. Their religious life is not as it should be, they are occupied by the Roman Empire and it’s tyrannical, militaristic leader, and as a result the people are unable to live fruitfully.
When John comes on the scene, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he does so not merely to change lives on an individual level—he does so to initiate reform. Using the metaphor of building a road in the wilderness, John encourages the people to identify the obstacles and hazards that keep their society from being just and to begin building a road of equity into God’s future.
If John’s message of repentance and forgiveness speaks to us as individuals, it must also speak to us as a society, but what does preparing the way of the Lord look like in 2018?
In October, members of St. Paul’s engaged in a series of conversations with Russell Temple C.M.E. Church in Bridgeport. The conversations, facilitated by Cass Shaw of the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, aimed to engage our mostly-white congregation and their mostly-black congregation in mutual sharing about our experience of race. We broke bread together, we share our stories, and we compared our neighborhoods and towns.
One activity that stuck out to me was called, “Move Forward, Move Back.” In this activity, everyone began in the middle of the room, shoulder-to-shoulder. Our facilitator then read a series of statements with instructions:
- If most of your teachers were from the same racial or ethnic background as you, take one step forward.
- If you were ever called names because of your racial or ethnic identity, take one step back.
- If you expect an inheritance from a family member (property, cash, bonds, etc.) take one step forward.
She continued through about twenty-five statements, and as you might imagine, by the end of the activity, those of us from St. Paul’s were on one side of the room; those from Russell Temple were on the other. Between us was a valley—a difference in the way education, healthcare, and employment was available. Some of the things that set us apart were shocking, and although we were in the same room, the distance between us was disturbing.
It astounds me how people can exist in the same geography and yet live completely different worlds. It surprises me whenever I realize that what seems like a foreign excursion to me is a daily reality for another. And it gladdens me when people like Cass, or prophets like John and Isaiah have the fortitude to call people together in community to address that which keeps us apart.
One member of the group summarized it best during closing prayer one night when she prayed that we would continue to “show up” for one another. What a way to summarize the role of a follower of Jesus—showing up for one another. I think when we talk about “love” in church, we tend to be wishy-washy about what love looks like.
Well how can love happen if we don’t show up for each other?
I will never forget the ways I have felt loved when people have shown up for me. When the entire youth group of my childhood parish came to my hospital room following my knee surgery rather than going bowling or when friends have simply sat and listened when that’s all I needed. We show love for one another when we show up for one another, and if you need someone to show up for you now or in the future, just say so because I guarantee that someone will show up.
But we mustn’t stop at that—being the kind of parish in the kind of community we are, we also must show up collectively where the deeper needs in our society exist. I am proud of the ways we already do that, and I am eager as I imagine the ways we might do that going forward.
Showing up is not always fun; sometimes, quite frankly, it leads us through some rocky conversations and into some slot canyons of anxiety, but showing up is how we prepare the way for God in our lives. We show up in prayer, we show up in song, and we show up in community.
And when we show up, God does too.