What did you go out to see?, Video

Matthew 3: 1- 12

December 09, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Interestingly, this text, about John the Baptist, is a fuss about baptism. John the Baptist’s most famous words have him fighting about the true meaning of baptism which is one way of saying that we were born in a fight. So many people think they were born in a harmony, which was then lost, when truth is that most of us were born in a disharmony which then got resolved. I will come back to this.

Christians are used to fussing about theology. It is bread and butter to us. It is mother’s milk. It is meat and potatoes. It is ordinary, not extraordinary. It is what Jews mean when they say there always have to be two synagogues in every town, because one has to break off from the other, or what Baptists mean when they says there have to be at least two Baptist churches in every town, because one has to break off from the other. I even know a town in South Carolina of about 7000 people where there exists the First, Second and Third Baptist Church, each with their own parking lot, pastor and bulletin. You know the multifaith joke: One Jew, two opinions. One Baptist, two opinions.


In honor of these formative fusses and fights, I want to acquaint you with the bones of several quarrels today. They come – and I want to say this without irony -- from John the Baptist, one of the founders of our faith, who founded us in a fuss about the right way to do baptism. I’m going to get to John eventually, but I have to back up a lot to go forward, sort of like parking in New York City.

The first fuss was between early theologians, Origen and St. Augustine. You probably know more Augustinian theology than you think you do. He was the great author of agency, that theological concept that imagines that what you do matters so much that your behaviors will take you either to heaven or hell. If you are bad, you know what happens. If you are good, you know what happens. This powerful weight of agency on the human being has permeated religion, particularly Christianity, for almost two centuries. Augustine won the fight for the church and Origen lost it. Origen not only lost it, he was put to death on the way out. The church can never be too careful.

Another more modern fuss: I’m going to give this one the name of extroversion and introversion. These polarities of personality are a more modern parallel to the fight about being and doing. In a new and good book, called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that Can’t stop talking,” by Susan Cain, we get a very large argument about how extroversion has become dominant and introversion has become submissive, to our peril. She uses remarkable examples, like the commandment at Harvard University that you must collaborate on all your work. This commandment is terrifying to an introvert and pleasing to an extrovert. She even argues that the financial meltdown of 2008 (remember Lehman Brothers?) might not have happened if more introverts had been in charge. She makes some startling claims about Jesus and Paul, arguing that although the two never met, they were a spectacularly generative pairing of an introvert and an extrovert. With my friend Martin Copenhaver, who just wrote a fascinating review of Quiet, I am convinced that Jesus was an introvert. After all, he was a pastor who was always running away from his power and his people to get into the mountains. His ministry was characterized by deep engagement with people in alternation with time alone or with a few close friends. By contrast, Paul was an extrovert. He spread the gospel. He wasn’t even sure it was true if you couldn’t spread around the entire Roman Empire. Martin says, “One can imagine Paul spending time alone only when he was thrown in jail, and even then he would be attempting to convert the person in the next cell with the incessancy of an extrovert.” You are now wondering if you are an introvert or an extrovert. One test is whether you like small talk. For an introvert, it is excruciating. For an extrovert, it is a blast.

Extroverts also tend to be Augustinian and introverts tend to side with Origen. The latter is nicknamed cosmic calm, the former is nicknamed active agency. Yes, these are gross caricatures. Unless you want a longer sermon?
Origen, the son of a martyr, conceived a Christianity that was part of a universe whose serene immensity dwarfed the human scene of agency or action. Whatever might be wrong with the human condition would eventually be set right, by a slow process of purification and detachment that stretched unimaginably far into the future and eventually resolved the universe to a whole or wholeness. He was finally ascetic and aesthetic. He was not an activist. He was not an extrovert. He was a waiter and a truster and a hoper. He believed redemption was so obvious, so very very obvious, that messing around with the universe was absurd. Again, this is a caricature of a great theology that foolishly forgot to get the Roman Catholic Church. Still, it is an important point of view, characterized, not caricatured, by a fierce and fundamental hope in deliverance and redemption. If Origen is full of hope, founded in nothing more than hope itself as an interpretation of Christianity, Augustine is full of dread. He is urgently, claustrophobically preoccupied with human agency. What we do matters so much that we become idolatrously important. Out of this point of view are birthed human agency, autonomy, and a deep despair – not to mention a hegemonic extrovertism.

Perhaps you have heard Augustine whispering to you: If I don’t do it, who will? If I don’t save the world, who will? If I don’t save myself, by virtuous actions, or at least not smoking or drinking, who will? If I don’t save the world by social activism, who will?

I’m going to argue today that Augustine’s theological victory has been our theological defeat. We are driven by a maddening hope that involves only our own bootstraps. Our bootstraps are not enough. They never were enough, and they surely are not now.

Re enter John the Baptist, who was murdered like Origen was murdered. He comes in as neither an extrovert, nor an introvert but in a different archetype of biblical masculinity. He is a Wild Man, not a king but a problem for Kings. It was indeed Herod of Antipas who served up his head on a platter. He is a Wildman, not a warrior. He is certainly not Jesus, although he loved to hang out in the wilderness. And he is certainly not Paul, because he took too many risks and undid institutions instead of building them.

What does a Wildman do? A Wildman picks a fight with institutional power. He is so driven by hope in the obviously wonderful future that he actively doesn’t mind the present. We find John the Baptizer in three of the four synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Not in John. The three reporters from the earliest Christian newspapers give pretty much the same account. He is preaching in the wilderness of Judaea. He is begging the people to repent. Why should we repent? Because the time of God, the kingdom of God, is at hand. Hear Origen. The cosmic calm of Jesus’ presence is here, now. Break off from this world and its kings and its ideas. Come into the new. He declares himself a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare now for the Lord. Make his paths straight. (Always puzzling language, right, especially for whom thing that is straight that is good is Vodka) John barks at us: Get out of the way. Something big and good and new is coming.

He is unusually dressed, reminding many of his animal qualities. Yes, people did wear furs for long periods of history. I will never forget seeing aboriginal people in Australia this summer and noting how hairy they were. John had raiment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle about his loins; he ate locusts (bugs) with wild honey. Hardly the outfit I would wear if I were to go challenge the twittering Pope today but attractive nonetheless. Is this man in the wilderness an extrovert or an introvert? Is he advocating human agency or a more active waiting, a more urgent reception of the new breaking in? He is doing both, of course, which helps us understand why the ascetic and the active, the mystical and the movement are joined at the belt of early Christianity. Whatever happens in this unique combination of wild man and wild animal, prophet and priest, by verse 6, we get a breaking news story, one totally unexpected by what John has done and not done so far. All the region around Judah comes to the river Jordan to be baptized by him! Without even trying, he builds a church and gathers a movement. But then the Wildman does what wild men always do. He rips into his congregation and his constituency. He dumps on his own base. He doesn’t declare success based on his numbers or the superb sale of his product. He attacks the people coming for baptism. “But when he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, “O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee the wrath which is to come?” Translated elsewhere, “What did you go out to see in the first place?” Basicly, what are you doing here?

Now this is a switcheroo on many counts. Most importantly, we are hearing that wrath, not peace, is what is to come. We switch from the Lord’s coming to the wrath’s coming. John has attracted people with good news only to repel some of them with bad news. The passage goes on to become even more complex. He tells the religious leaders who have come that they are faking it. He declares them counterfeit. And he tells them they will have to repent, not just bathe. They will have to change or the ax will be laid to their tree. As is this wasn’t enough, a final shift occurs. John argues that he himself is counterfeit. That his baptism is phony. I just baptize with water but the one who is to come will baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire. I am not worthy to untie his shoes. Referring to Jesus, John has gone from calm to wild to angry to wild to repentance himself. If this passage were a play, we would diagram it with up, down, up, down, up, down. We would see that the very process of baptism is disharmonious in its origin. The one who founds it says he is doing it “wrong.” (Use Quotes.)

What can all this mean to those of us who live deep in new fusses and feuds? Does it matter at all? First I want to say that it matters tremendously. Old fights matter. As Dave Brubek might say, “elementals” matter. “Dialogues” between sounds matter. Jazz is as good a logic as any. These fusses are actually life and death matters. Are you responsible for your own heaven? Or is your heaven guaranteed? How hard should you work for justice? What does it mean that the Holy Ghost baptizes you, with power water born and fired up? Let me make the mistake of applying these great theological fusses to foments of the moment.

Some of you may have heard that the Supreme Court is going to hear the issue of same sex marriage.
We will each respond from deep within our fusses and our proclivities. My first response comes straight from Origen. Of course. How obvious. How certain. How sure. Or in one of my favorite three syllable words, ‘”DUH.” Other responses will come straight from Augustine. We better work really hard, have we worked hard enough, are the arguments coming from the right place, what will we do if they don’t pass it? Let’s get organized, let’s get going, let’s do do do. After that, let’s over do. This is important.

Personally I plan to go with Origen on this one. Why? Because I really do believe with Dr. King and with Origen that the arc of the universe is bent towards justice. I trust it. Am I willing to hit the streets if the Supreme Court makes a mistake? You bet I am. The bent arc sometimes needs my weight hanging on it to keep it bent. That is not my sin so much as my participation in God’s great time, which is at hand. If I need to show, as in put skin in the game, I can also repent. We are all taking the long way home but Home is where we are bound, whether by work or by patience or by patient work or working patiently.

Another example. The great hymn that we are using each Sunday in Advent, O come O come Emmanuel, gives us other ways to participate with our introvert and our extrovert in town, our Origen and our Augustine, our Paul and our Jesus participating. You should note that this is one of the most ancient of Christian hymns, coming from a time during some of these fusses and fights we are discussing. f you read the little blurb at the bottom of the hymnal page, you'll probably see that the song is based on the seven great "O antiphons," a series of responses sung in the days leading up to Christmas in the early church, and in many places still today.  One of them, O Oriens ("dayspring" or "rising sun” is the final word of Origen. To him the sun is always rising. The future is always coming, and it is day’s break.

Finally, I want to comment on the gender biases that prevail in many of the great stories of our great religion. Richard Rohr is my source here and he helps me understand why John was so many things at once. Angry, sure, sure, angry. It has to do with the paradigm of power in masculinity. If a man can’t fix something, he frequently has no idea what to do. I have spoken before about what intimate male partners do when their wife or girlfriend is raped. They often become wild men. They go out to conquer. Yes, I know this first hand and have spoken of it before so I won’t do so again. Suffice it to say that the wounded masculine figure, the king, the warrior, the wild man, show us what happens when power does not prevail. When power loses, it goes nuts. It gets angry. In the anger it becomes impotent. War could be understood from within this paradigm. War is anger gone nuts gone impotent to resolve the situation it created. Herod, the king, had to have the head of John, the Wildman. There was no other way out. Note also that it is said that it is a woman who requests the head from Herod. We don’t have time for that but suffice this to say as we play out the Origen/ Augustine fuss as both introverts and extroverts: If the false masculine relies on power too much, the false feminine relies on relationship too much. Neither the masculine nor the feminine is real. Each is in each, of course. But for the sake of understanding how we are to manage our own life and death matters, how we are to experience our own heaven without having to fight for it, consider the possibility that the false feminine also descends into interpersonal violence. According to Rohr, the wounded feminine is preoccupied with too much inwardness, relationships, and lives in a morass of unclarified and unclarifiable thoughts, resulting in endless self-protections.

Or just consider for a minute, what is great about 94 year old Nelson Mandela, who is currently in the hospital in South Africa? Wasn’t he brilliantly fused as an introvert and an extrovert, a man of hope in the future and an activist? Didn’t he break out of the fatigued masculinity of king or warrior or wild man? Didn’t he find ways for other men to mother him and get him through what Rohr calls the wounded masculine, which needs to be mothered by men? John Milton prayed for illumination. So would Origen. And so must Augustine. And so may we.

A simplistic conclusion for this sermon could be let’s be both like Augustine and Origen, let’s value the inner and the outer, the intro and the extro. As much as I am in favor of both increasing revenues and decreasing spending, such a moderation or compromise won’t work for the Christian gospel. Something larger is at stake here. The best approach to these fusses and feuds in our own history is Jazz. Take five. Take five ways home. When they don’t get you to your destination, take five more. Make them talk to each other, rising and falling, illumining and darkening, thinning and deepening. Jazz gets you all the way home, on the long way home. Your home started in harmony, and ends in harmony. Amen.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844