In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near...’
Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them,
‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruit worthy of repentance...’
The Gospel of Matthew, 3rd Chapter
Indulge me, if you will, in a brief moment of transparency:
I’m a natural Pharisee. It doesn’t make me a bad guy, but it does mean I sometimes get my priorities screwed up. The mystics had me in mind when they warned not to worship the finger pointing at the moon, but the moon itself. I’ve melted a lot of gold in my lifetime only to reshape it into ecclesiastical forms worthy of my praise and adoration. In clinical language, I’m a ‘loyalist.’ In organizational speak, a ‘company man.’ I love order and control and predictability, which, despite all evidence to the contrary, is why I sometimes love the Church more than I love God—or, to be more precise, why I’m sometimes more faithful to the Church than to the Holy Spirit, which, as you and I both know, blows wherever she damn well pleases—which, as you can imagine, is very disconcerting for a Pharisee like myself.
After three whirlwind years, which included a nine-week application-to-arrival move to Minneapolis, two years of resettling a tender and disoriented family, and a year, now, of excruciating disappointment and discouragement related to long-term property deals, I’m finally taking a much-needed mini-retreat to sort through the myriad ‘lesser images’ on which I’ve set my hopes and dreams and to which I’ve made solemn promises. This interior work is anathema to a Pharisee like myself who’d much rather lean on institutional affiliation as the basis for my life’s integrity. After all, I’ve got Abraham, haven’t I, not to mention Mary and Joseph and Jesus? Surely my nominal commitment and holy order suffice. But John, crying out to us—crying out to me—from the wilderness, wants real fruit, real produce by which the faith God has set in me flows naturally and materially out of me. John wants for us, for me, what Parker Palmer calls an ‘integrated life’—a life in which our inner and outer lives are in sync, in which there is no duplicity or deceit (my achilles heal as an EnneaType-3), in which we are at perfect peace within our own skin. This is lifelong work for all of us, Palmer says, and certainly for a Pharisee in public leadership in an institution he loves dearly.
Like any of us, I need a certain amount of stability in my life—a sure source of safety and security. And, like many of us, I often seek out that stability in the Church—a place of sanctuary and beauty, a people of generosity and good cheer. And these are all good things—we need them to survive. But to thrive, God suggests we need something more. Here enters, at least for me, the person of Jesus—Emmanu’el, God among us—the One who arrives during the darkest of days, seeking space to abide in our hearts and minds and hands and feet. And there’s no small irony in the fact that, while we give high praise to ‘preparation’ for God’s arrival, it’s often those best positioned for good preparation—you know, the ‘insiders’ like you and me—who are least likely to recognize God when she finally shows up: just another annoying knock at the door, just another unwelcome mirror to reflect in, just another unsettling movement to join or to denounce. Yes, we Pharisees despise disruption. Or, at least, I know I do. But I’ve been at this long enough to know what’s coming and to recognize my triggers—it’s the knot in the center of my back, the clenching of my jaw, that signals to me my lizard brain has sprung to action, which, historically, has meant one of two things: fight or flight. So this weekend, having been called a snake just one time too many, I greet John at the Jordan with utter derision and a swift plan to dismiss and disparage him in the public sphere: he’s a quack, a complainer, an activist, a sore loser, a snowflake, a dreamer, a romantic, a ne’er-do-well, a nuisance, a threat, a real and present danger. There. Done. Back to the Temple I go.
Here’s what I’ve discovered, though: John won’t shut up. He keeps coming back—TWO WEEKS each December, for God’s sake. And we’re left to wonder, What’s God up to here? Surely this disruption has a purpose. Surely being called out has a purpose. Surely the time and the place has a purpose.
After my mini-retreat, I’ll be spending this weekend at Standing Rock with ‘the people of Jerusalem and all Judea...and all the region along the Jordan,’ repenting, confessing...maybe. I’m going because, as a Pharisee, I’m running out of excuses for not welcoming God more fully into my life. I’ve said ‘no’ far more often than ‘yes,’ and so I’m compelled to leave the safety and security of my home field advantage to encounter God, instead, in the wilderness—our own tragic thin place where life is sustained by the mercy of God and the generosity of others—a kenotic, self-emptying place, where the clutter is cleared and the dust dispersed to greet, once more, the possibility of God’s moving in and taking up residence. I’m going to Standing Rock because God is up to something there—something important—something life-changing, world-changing—something to do with our collective repentance and return, our inter-personal reconciliation and national redemption. Having demonstrated some of the worst of ourselves these past eighteen months, Standing Rock is illumined as a bright star, beckoning, perhaps, some of our best.
For this Pharisee, it’s about melting my golden calves and returning my gaze to the moon and, somehow, putting God back in the center of things, where God rightly belongs. It’s about laying aside my need to be right, my need to control outcomes, my need to change minds, my need to be seen as successful, my need to be liked. In the end, I guess, for me, it’s about keeping the main thing the main thing—trusting that I can only love and serve the Church well when I love God first and above all else—and knowing, too, deep in my heart of hearts, that the fruits of that Love will disappoint some, delight others. All I can do, as a baptized Christian like you, as an ordained priest among you, as a Dean with you, is to be as faithful as I can be to the same God whose coming we all await with fear and trembling, with joyful hope and great expectations.
Perhaps there are other Pharisees among us. And perhaps I’ll see some of you, this week and the next, somewhere near the water’s edge.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
O Little Town of Bethlehem, Philips Brooks