Richard Wagner's epic
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,
being staged this season
at the Metropolitan Opera,
begins with the entire town
gathered at church
to celebrate Saint John's Day.

Such midsummer festivities
— with their warmth and flowers,
and that great big light in the sky we call the sun —
seem terribly far away from us in these shortening, increasingly bleak days near to midwinter.
Many of us Vitamin D-deprived New Yorkers
long for the longer daylight hours
of Saint John's Day.
Today, we must settle with Saint John
simply testifying — pointing —
to the light.
And, with the perennial promise
that those longer days
— welcomed with great festivity
by the people of Nürnberg —
will come to us soon enough.

Yet, there is a starker,
and less naturally resolved contrast than
between our midwinter and Wagner's midsummer;
between the annual patterns
of receding and proceeding light:
in Nürnberg the whole town shows up for church.

Meistersinger may be
an overly romantic view of the 19th century,
but even Wagner's exaggeration
is not far from the mark.
It was a different point in time,
about as far away from our own
as midwinter is to midsummer.
A point in time when communities were
more homogenous,
less diverse and
far less mobile, and by extension,
less malleable than they are today.

Temptation longs for such "good old days,"
particularly those of the Teutonic sort.
But history warns us otherwise.
Warns us against romanticized longings.
Against misuse of art to spur those longings.
Against misuse of scripture to compel and defend them.

Even today, especially today
we must be careful
not to recommit the careless and calamitous
transgression of a prior generation,
all too quick to divide people.
The priests and the Levites and the Pharisees,
the Jews over there,
and the Jesus-believing Christians over here.
Those who stood to their own peril in the darkness,
and those who stood by their own merit in light.
Reduced in our own time simply to dark and to light.

Truth is, societies are never as monolithic
as even the most monochromatic of them
might lead us, or want us,
to believe.
Which ought be caution enough
to eschew policies that
dismiss, downplay or denigrate difference;
and encouragement enough to seek it.
We are wonderfully diverse.
We are blessedly different in religious expression.
We are rich in cultural variety.
We are more fully human
in honoring and valuing who we all are.
Created wondrously distinct
and yet more wonderfully similar
in the ineffable image of God.

The challenge in our day and age is
to bring greater consciousness to this variety and
to strive for a mature celebration of it.

At first glance, with a traditional glance,
John the Baptizer's witness seems un-useful,
if not problematic.
So, too, is much of scripture
where difference between one people and another
is often heightened, exaggerated and unresolved,
generally for rhetorical effect, and
almost always sparking conflict:

Who are you? I am not the Messiah.
What then? Are you Elijah? I am not.
Are you the prophet? No.
Who are you? Let us have an answer!

Ok, I'll quote scripture.

O, how many — too many —
heated conversations
follow patterns like this.

Instead of seeing and using John the Baptizer
as one who divides communities
— who's in the light and who's out of the light,
who's been baptized and who's not —
we can see him and use him
as Saint John the Evangelist sees him and presents him:
as one committed to the wellbeing
of the whole, diverse society.
For Temple priests, Levites, Pharisees,
throw in the scribes, Sadducees,
John the Baptizer himself,
Jesus' and his eventual band of twelve
— they're all Jews.

The point is that John's voice is but a voice of one,
one crying out in the wilderness.
A voice of one, joining precious few other voices
for the good of the many.

One of a few who saw
a small segment of the society
partly in cahoots
with the brutal, occupying Roman force
and partly in cahoots with itself,
to the peril of the many.
A privileged elite,
benefiting over and against the masses.
A powerful group,
lording over the weakest and most vulnerable
in society.
And, seemingly large numbers of people,
who knew not,
or cared not,
who simply stood by.

Saint John cries out not to divide society,
but to remind every segment of society
of its task to honor and value
every member of it.
So precious and reflective
is Saint John the Baptizer's witness
that Saint John the Evangelist
places this proclamation
in the midst of the proclamation
of the incarnation itself:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being
that has come into being.

One — few in number —
Saint John cries out in the wilderness,
cries out for all:
all that has come into being,
all that God has made.
He would not only be dismissed for such a cry,
but beheaded.
And God,
God counted this work as holy, righteous.
How does the Norwegian hymn we sang yesterday
at Thora Rusch' funeral put it?

On earth their work was not thought wise,
but see them now in heaven's eyes.

Yet, we are at a point in time
when those committed
to the goodness of all people,
the wellbeing of society
are waning in number.

The day after the Grand Jury decision was released
in the Eric Garner case,
Jon Stewart offered a sobering opening monologue
on The Daily Show.
He said "We are not living in a post racial society,"
continuing, "I can imagine there a lot of people out there
wondering how much of a society we are living in at all."

Jon's commentary continued in the next segment,
but with his characteristic wit,
in a dialogue with The Daily Show's
then Senior Black Correspondent, Larry Wilmore.

Stewart said the country
needed a conversation about race.

Wilmore replied by noting the country
is in fact having such a conversation;
in churches, black churches
every Sunday.

Stewart, Jewish, said,
"well I don't go to church
but to Temple Beth something, something."

Wilmore's retort:
"It's okay, Jon. I don't go either."

Stewart's is a humoured, yet stinging,
critique of our society and participation in it.
In the 1950s and 1960s
National church bodies organized against segregation.
International church bodies
shutdown apartheid in South Africa.
Whole countries committed themselves
to the cause of the poor and vulnerable.
In this country think of F.D.R., and later, the G.I. Bill.

No such thing today.
Civic participation is at an all time low.
Church, Synagogue, Mosque attendance is similar.
Cultural institutions like the Met, museums,
are funded more and more by fewer and fewer people.
We've largely handed philanthropy
over to corporations.
Wide swaths of people
are prepared to consume society,
— even the few who want to live in it! —
few want to participate in it, to build it.
Or to borrow our own words,
creatively shape life in the city.

The trend is clear:
leaders of today,
leaders of the future,
leaders here at Saint Peter's,
will be fewer in number.
Which means these precious few
must possess an even greater resolve.
Not to build up ourselves.
But to point to others.
To welcome others.
Serve others.
To be church together,
not of our own sake,
but church for others.
For the good of the society.

To give more.
Lead more.
Commit more.
Struggle more.
Which is the heart of the Christian witness.
Giving without return.
Giving for others.
God giving for others.
Even to the point of death on a cross.
Which is power,
power from on high.

This is the light
— the fragile and precious light —
John the Baptizer points to.
Witnesses to.
Washes over those who come to hear him
in the wilderness.

Water which washes us all,
no matter who we are,
as a stream of God's holiness,
springing up before and among nations
and peoples.

Washes us all to the table.
A transformative table.
A table at which friends and strangers,
neighbors near and far,
even enemies
— where two or three —

All to receive the same nourishment
of mind, body and spirit.
A table at which all are,
as Christ,
both host and guest.
A table at which we see each other
illumined by this light,
and cherish each other
face to face.

Jared R. Stahler
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York

Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16–24
Saint John 1:6–8, 19–28