In nomine Jesu!
They were poor, powerless and marginalized, but not all of them; some were also rich, powerful and influential, including soldiers, tax collectors and the religious elite. Together they had one thing in common: a gut feeling that kept them constantly on edge and always afraid. "Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?" John asked them. Good question.
"What then shall we do?" they asked. I hope you're all asking the same question. Here's an example of what not to do from a man β a Lutheran pastor β speaking about 60 years ago, regretting what he didn't do twenty years before that.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out β
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out β
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out β
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me β and there was no one left to speak for me.
We don't know what will happen to Donald Trump β or the rest of the brood of vipers who speak like him β between now and November. There are, however, several things we do know. We know history. We know we must learn from history. We know that there is more history to learn from than just American history. Instinctively, we also know this: Whatever else happens in 2016 and thereafter, those who believe this brood's vitriol and those who are infected by their spewing venom are not going away. They will be with us for a long time: among our friends and colleagues; in our families; engaged with us through FaceBook and Twitter and Vimeo and Vine and Instagram and in a hundred other ways. Today's biblical texts and today's socio-political context along with everything we've learned from 20th Century history compel us to do now what Pastor Martin NiemΓΆller and his 20th Century German contemporaries did not: Speak out. Set aside politeness; set aside being politic; set aside passivity and speak out. To rephrase a 21st Century New York clichΓ©, "If you hear something, say something." The time for silence is now passed.
That is not to say there isn't danger. This is not
to say there isn't "wrath to come." There was for the crowds who came out to hear John; there was for the people of Germany living in the aftermath of the First World War; and there surely is danger for us. But to give up one's faith, to eschew one's faith-based values, to let go of one's faith-propelled life never ends well for anybody. Fear is a powerful motivator, but the behavior fear motivates always ends with death for some and guilt, shame and remorse for the rest.
There is a better way!
John points to that way for his hearers this morning. John points us to a helpless, homeless, infant β the child of helpless, homeless parents β lying in a manger. John points us to an illiterate, itinerate preacher, who in his life had no place to lay his head. John points us to the Lamb of God, who stands faithfully before the might of empire. John points us to a betrayed, bedraggled, condemned criminal, dying humiliated on a Roman cross. John points us to the One who becomes continually accessible to us in water, bread and wine and proclaims to us that, in this Jesus, "The LORD, your God, is in your midst, who gives victory; [who] rejoice over
you with gladness; [who] renews you in love; who exults over you with loud singing." John commends to us Jesus' way of living β a faith-filled, faith-fueled, faith-driven way of living β the way that "shares with those who have nothing," the way that does "not use threats or false accusation" as the most powerful way of living in the world.
We know this! We've known this as long as we've know Jesus Christ! We know this as long as we've known about the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! And less we forget this, in these fear-inducing, politically-driven, media-frenzied times, the One to whom John points appears among us to jog our memory, fuel our courage and rev up our flagging faith.
Our choir, led by the newest theologian among us and utilizing the best of our beloved Lutheran musical tradition, helps us to pray for Christ's empowering presence as they sing:
Kill us through your goodness,
wake us through your grace!
Sicken the old being,
so that the new may live
even here on this earth,
having [Christ's] mind, all desires,
and thoughts for You.
And Paul β dear faithful, proto-Lutheran Paul, writing to his favorite congregation as I speak to my favorite congregaton today β reminds us of the attitude and the stance we are empowered to take and the results such a way of faithful living will achieve even in β especially in β dim and danger-filled days like ours today:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Today, tomorrow, every day!
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York