How the doubting father’s son became a shouter

A BIBLICAL FATHER-SON STORY: ZECHARIAH & JOHN THE BAPTIST

John the Baptist

John the Baptist

Ever wondered why John comes out of nowhere with a fiery message?

He has a bone to pick. Why? With whom? What’s his story?

The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition preserves a story about John’s father, Zechariah, a Temple priest, sending his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, John, into hiding. Zechariah hides his son to protect him from Herod’s “Slaughter of the Innocents” by which all males below the age of two were to be killed following rumors of a newly-born king, a threat to Herod’s rule.

According to the story told by The Infancy Gospel of James [the mid-Second Century C.E.], John and Elizabeth remain in hiding – far away from their husband and father, Zechariah – until John is five or six years old when Zechariah risks visiting their hiding place. The result is the brutal murder of Zechariah by Herod’s soldiers.

As the son of Zechariah, a Temple priest, and Elizabeth, descended from the priestly lineage of Aaron, John was destined to be a Temple priest.

Tough father-son dynamics are almost always interesting; they become more so when the son’s father is a public religious figure. Zechariah’s son sounds like an angry preacher’s kid.

“When [John] saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Mt. 3:7).

The Pharisees were lay people with a more liberal religious bent than the Sadducees. The Sadducees were Temple supporters, the folks who aligned themselves with John’s father Zechariah and a conservative reading of the Torah. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were in conflict during the time of John and Jesus. Only the Pharisees survived the later destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the Roman-Jewish War of 70 C.E.

By the time the Gospels are written, the Temple had been destroyed. So we have the Temple priests and their supporters, the Sadducees, and John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew scolding both the Pharisees, who will carry on their tradition without accepting one of their likely members, Jesus of Nazareth, as the awaited Anointed One (Messiah), and the Sadducees who have disappeared into history.

But, if the Orthodox tradition is accepted as either historical or mythic truth, John’s real fight was with his father and the Sadducee Temple supporters who had compromised Jewish identity by their accommodations to Rome.

John is certain, bold, and in-your-face. His father, Zechariah, according to Matthew’s Gospel, had doubted the news of John’s conception. As a result of his doubt, Zechariah was struck dumb. He remained unable to speak until Elizabeth named had their son ‘John’, at which point his mouth was opened. “Yes,” said Zecahariah, “his name is John.”

Zechariah had been a doubter; John was no doubter. Zechariah was a hider. John was no hider. He became a shouter out in the open spaces to their faces: “You brood of vipers!”

Baby vipers were said to eat their mother’s stomachs. Israel was the Mother the Pharisees and Sadducees were eating alive from the inside out.

John wanted nothing to do with killing his Mother or with those who had killed his father. In the interest of protecting his Mother from the vipers, he’d run from the Temple into the wilderness, returning to the place where his Mother, Israel, had been born after the Exodus. He did not go into the wilderness to hide, and when the vipers arrived, he shouted in ways his father never had. Yet, in the end he died by the same hands as his father when Herod delivered his head to Salome on a platter.

Like father; like son. His cousin Jesus carried on.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 7, 2015

Planetary Economics

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news, according to John the Baptist calling people out into the wilderness of Nature (Gospel of Mark 1:1-8).

“We must change,” he cries. Only a 180 degree turn can deliver us from the consequences of the actions that have led us here. He sounds like Bill McKibbon.

For John the Baptist the system at issue was Roman imperialism, an economic-political system centered in Rome expanding out, enforced by military invasions, subjugation, occupation, buffered by generous religious tolerance so long as the religious practices did not interfere with Roman prerogatives.

One could repeat the sentence in 2015 with little change: “the system at issue is [American] imperialism, an economic system centered in [Washington] expanding out, enforced by military invasions, subjugation, occupation, and religious tolerance so long as the local religious practice does not interfere with [American] prerogatives.”

It is this spiritual, moral, economic, cultural and political captivity to a global system that cannot satisfy our real needs or the world’s that produces a longing in our hearts, a readiness to make the trip to the wilderness. We are being called to abandon the house built on the quicksands of greed, manifest destiny, national exceptionalism, and the illusion of unsustainable growth.

We’re a weary people in 2015. Wearied and still disheartened 14 years after “Shock and Awe” took down Saddam Hussein on the pretense that he had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that threatened us and the Bush Administration’s persistent mis-association of 9/11 with Saddam Hussein. We’re wearied of lies and 11 years of un-budgeted military expenses, the loss of thousands of American soldiers’ lives and as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians, a military venture undertaken on the assumption that the Iraqi people would welcome our presence as the onset of a new representative democracy and “free market” economy.

That belief in the goodness of American intentions hit the rocks almost as quickly as Saddam’s statue hit the pavement in Baghdad. All the while we were wearied by the earlier invasion of Afghanistan, whose original justification was a quick elimination of Osama bin Ladin and Al-Qaida untempered by realistic knowledge of the long history of the military interventions that mired the invaders in quagmires such as the Soviet Union found itself before leaving in defeat. To the Afghans it didn’t matter whether the troops were Soviet or American. They were the same. They were the occupation forces of an imperial power destined to fail.

In the midst of the weariness about what was happening abroad, the financial system at home took the American economy to the brink of disaster in 2008. Occupy Wall Street rose to the top of the news cycles. Although the movement fizzled over time, as such movements inevitably do, it caught the attention of television viewers, internet surfers, and newspaper and magazine readers. Occupy Wall Street and the spot light it placed on “crony capitalism” became a hot topic around water coolers at work and the table in the coffee shops.

For the first time in recent memory, capitalism was no longer sacred, no longer off limits. Time’s front cover asked the question whether Capitalism was dead. But, as with Occupy, public attention is short-lived. Amnesia sets in when people are weary. How soon we forget…until some new John the Baptist issues the cry for a 180 degree turn for the sake of something better.

Maybe Naomi Klein is a new kind of John the Baptist. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, reviewed here by the New York Times, places the over-riding systemic issue squarely before the general public again. Senator Bernie Sanders, America’s only socialist Senator who names climate action as among his four top priorities, is gaining attention as a presidential candidate. Elizabeth Warren, the Senate’s strongest voice on holding Wall Street accountable, is a bulldog who won’t let go. Put them with Bill McKibbon and 350.org and you begin to hear the echo of John’s recognition of the prophetic hard truth-telling that is the forerunner of good news.

The hard truth that precedes good news is the discovery of the myth that couples democracy with capitalism while viewing socialism as democracy’s opposite. Ideological myopia is to nations and cultures what horse blinders are to horses on a race track: they limit vision to the narrow path of the track they’re on. They prevent their adherents from seeing beyond the track.

When the climate is changing in ways that have begun to compel our attention, and when we ask how we will make it through the changes together, the bigger question of the economic system (the track itself) comes into view by virtue of necessity. It calls us off the track of species supremacy and “man over nature” into the wilderness of Nature itself.

The words ‘economy’ and ‘economics’ derive from the Greek words for ‘house’ and ‘the management of the household’. Their real subject is not about markets, free or otherwise. The issue is what and how the managers manage and why we let them. Economics is every citizen’s business because we all live together in the one house. No exceptions. Economics in the original sense is a spiritual-ethical perspective before it creates systems that support (or contradict) its premise of shared life and responsibility for the planet.

John the Baptist with his axe laid to the root of the tree, reminds us that economics is a spiritual matter of the first order. It is what the Hebrew Bible calls “the Day of the Lord” and John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth called “The Kingdom [i.e. Society] of God”. Economics is not an academic discipline, or the exclusive province of Wall Street traders who understand how the free market works. Genuine economics begins and ends with the philosophical commitment to the wellbeing of the entire household of Nature and its inhabitants.

The planet — this home within Nature without which no person, society or form of life exists — requires different management. The economy for which our hearts long is the one house imagined by the psalmist and announced by John in the wilderness beyond the track of the Pax Romana: the good news waiting for longing hearts to embrace it, an economy where “righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10) and wars will be no more.

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 16, 2015

Good News and Hard News – Nature and Capitalism

Paul Tillich quote in Tillich Park, New Harmony, IN: "Man and nature belong together in their created glory - in their tragedy and in their salvation."

Paul Tillich quote in Tillich Park, New Harmony, IN: “Man and nature belong together in their created glory – in their tragedy and in their salvation.”

A spiritual reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014.

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news, according to John the Baptist, calling people out into the wilderness. “We must change,” he said.  “Repent” by which the Judeo-Christian tradition means a 180 degree turn. “About face!” Only by turning will we be delivered from the consequences of the actions that have led us here.

For John the Baptist and the writer of the Gospel of Mark’s opening paragraph (Mark 1:1-8) the system at issue was Roman imperialism, an economic system centered in Rome, expanding out, and enforced by, military invasions, subjugation, religious tolerance (so long as the religious practice did not interfere with Roman prerogatives) and occupation.

One could repeat the sentence in 2014 with little change: “the system at issue [is [American] imperialism, an economic system centered in [Washington] expanding out, and enforced by, military invasions, subjugation, religious tolerance (so long as the local religious practice [does] not interfere with [American] prerogatives) and occupation.”

It is our spiritual, moral, economic, cultural and political captivity to a global system that cannot satisfy our real needs or the world’s that produces a longing in our hearts, a readiness to make the lonely trip to the wilderness.

We’re a weary people in 2014. Wearied and still disheartened 11 years after the “Shock and Awe” that took down Saddam Hussein on the pretense that he had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that threatened us, the Administration’s manufactured association of Saddam Hussein as the cause of 9/11. We’re wearied of lies and misrepresentations. Weary from budget fights that barely reference 10 years of un-budgeted military expenses, the loss of thousands of American soldiers’ lives and as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians, a military venture undertaken on the assumption that the Iraqi people would welcome our presence as the beginning of democracy and a “free market” economy that would lift them all up.

That belief in the goodness of American intentions hit the rocks as quickly as Saddam’s statue hit the pavement in Baghdad. All the while we were wearied by the earlier invasion of Afghanistan, whose original justification was a quick elimination Osama bin Ladin and Al-Qaida untempered by realistic knowledge of the long history of the military interventions that mired the invaders in quagmires such as the Soviet Union found itself before leaving in defeat. To the Afghans it didn’t matter whether the troops were Soviet or American. They were the same. They were the occupation forces of an imperial power destined to fail.

In the midst of the weariness about what was happening abroad, the financial system at home took the American economy to the brink of disaster in 2008. Occupy Wall Street rose to the top of the news cycles. Although the movement fizzled over time, as such movements inevitably do, it caught the attention of television viewers, internet surfers, and newspaper and magazine readers. Occupy Wall Street and the spot light it placed on “crony capitalism” became a hot topic around water coolers at work and the table in the coffee shops.

For the first time in recent memory, capitalism was no longer sacred, no longer off limits. Time’s front cover asked the question whether Capitalism was dead. But, as with Occupy, public attention is short-lived. Amnesia sets in when people are weary. How soon we forget…until some new John the Baptist issues the cry for a 180 degree turn for the sake of something better.

Maybe Naomi Klein is edition of John the Baptist. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, reviewed by the New York Times – places the over-riding systemic issue squarely before the general public again. Senator Bernie Sanders, America’s only socialist Senator who names climate action as among his four top priorities, is gaining attention as a possible presidential candidate. Elizabeth Warren, the Senate’s bulldog on holding Wall Street accountable is creating a wave of populist momentum. Put them with Bill McKibbon and 350.org and you begin to hear the echo of John’s all to the hard truth that is the beginning of the good news.

The hard truth that precedes good news is the discovery of the myth that has coupled democracy with capitalism in the American psyche, while demonizing socialism as democracy’s opposite. Ideological blinders are to nations and peoples what blinders are to horses on a race track: they limit vision to the straight-ahead narrow limits of the track. Ideological blinders prevent the owners’ horses from thoughts of anything but the track on which they’ve been placed to race each other.

But when the climate is changing our track in ways that compel our attention, and when we ask how we will make it through the changes together, the bigger question of the economic system – the race track itself – comes into view by virtue of necessity. It calls us off the track into the wilderness of Nature.

The words ‘economy’ and ‘economics’ derive from the Greek words for ‘house’ and ‘the management of the household’.  Economics not about markets, free or otherwise, or about the technicians and pundits who monitor investments and predict quarterly outcomes. It is not an academic discipline, the exclusive province of experts on Wall Street or in university Economics departments who understand how the free market works.

Economics is a spiritual perspective like the one on Paul Tillich’s marker in Tillich Park in New Harmony, Indiana. “Man and nature,” he said, “belong together in their created glory – in their tragedy and in their salvation.” There is no humanity with nature; the human calling of our time is to reshape our lives for the wellbeing of the one house in which all life lives.

During this Advent season of longing expectation, John the Baptist with his axe aimed at the root of the tree reminds us that economics is the spiritual issue of the first order. The good news is what the Hebrew Bible calls “the Day of the Lord” and John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth called “The Kingdom [i.e. Society] of God”. The hard news is we’ve been running on the wrong track, or, you might say, barking up the wrong tree.

The planet – this home we call “nature”, without which no person, society or form of life exists – is an economy that requires different management. The economy for which our hearts long is the one house imagined by the psalmist and announced by John in the wilderness beyond the Pax Romana: the good news awaiting our longing hearts to embrace it, a planetary home where “righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10) and wars will be no more.

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 7, 2014

John the Baptist, Jesus, and Mandela

Preached the Sunday after the death of Nelson Mandela, this sermon sought to tie together the first anniversary of the tragedy of Sandy Hook in Newtown, CT (December 15) and the date of Reconciliation Day in post-Apartheid South Africa (December 16), the date in 1977 when Nelson Mandela marked a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in what became known as The Robbins Bible, a complete works of Shakespeare that had been smuggled into the Robbins Prison by an Indian inmate.

Wilderness – Carl Sandburg, Jesus, and Us

Boundary Waters Canoe Areas Wilderness, Minnesota

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Once upon a time a pompous nobleman paid a call to the English Embassy in St. Petersburg, Russia. He walked into the office and demanded to see the ambassador immediately. “Pray, take a chair,” said the young attaché, “the ambassador will be here soon.”

The visitor took exception to the off-hand way he had been treated. “Young man, do you know who I am?” he demanded, and recited a list of his many titles and appointments.

The lowly attaché listened, paused and said, “Well then take two chairs.”

Pride, vanity, greed, self-deception, and illusions of grandiosity are part of the human condition.

We are creatures of the wilderness, wanderers and sojourners in time who have here no lasting city to dwell in. And so, as in the legend of the Tower of Babel in The Book of Genesis (chapter 11), we (humankind) come upon the Plain of Shinar . . . or some other version of it. . . and settle down to rid ourselves of anxiety . . . and we settle there as though we could build something permanent that would be a fortress against the uncertainties of the wilderness and the knowledge of ultimate vulnerability and ultimate dependence. We build our own societies and towers of Babel.

Yet there is something about us that still loves a wilderness. Something in us that knows that refusing the nomadic wilderness – “and as they journeyed, they came upon the Plain of Shinar, and settled there” – is fraught with greater danger and social peril. Something in us knows better than to settle down on the Plain of Shinar to build something impervious to the dangers of the wilderness and time. Something in us knows that the brick and mortar will crumble, that the projects of pride, vanity, and greed will fall of their own weight, and that the high towers we build with the little boxes at the top that presume to house and control Ultimate Reality (G-d) are little more than signs of a vast illusion, the vain act of species grandiosity. For in the Hebrew tale of the tower of Babel with its “top in the heavens,” the joke’s on us. The narrator speaks truth with humor: God has to come down to see this high tower.

Every society and culture has its own version of the city and the tower of Babel. Equally so, in every society there is at least the memory of the wilderness, a sense of call to recover our deeper selves as mortals whose destiny is only found by traveling beyond the politics and religiosity of pride, vanity, greed, self-deception, and grandiose illusions.

Perhaps that is why John the Baptist heads out to the wilderness – “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” – away from delusions and distractions of the city of Babel. Perhaps that is also why, as scripture tells it, the masses also went out to the wilderness and the Jordan River to go under the muddy Jordan waters to rise to the hope of a fresh beginning on the other side of the formative influences of Babel-ing nonsense.

After the authorities imprison John, Jesus asks the crowds what had drawn them to John in the wilderness. “What did you go out to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man clothed in soft raiment? No. Those who wear soft clothing live in kings’ houses. What then, did you go out to see?”

Jesus begins his ministry in the wilderness. He partakes of John’s baptism, and when he did, the Spirit grasped him and called him further into the wilderness, “drove him into the wilderness” – away and apart from all distractions and illusion – back to the place where humankind lives before it “settles” to build the political-economic-religious tower, the impervious fortress and monuments to itself in the Plain of Shinar.

Those who would learn from the Genesis legend and those who wish to follow Jesus are called into the wilderness to restart the long spiritual journey that stopped too early.
For the fact we deny is that underneath all our steel, glass, and technology, we are still animals – mortals subject to the most primitive yearnings, vulnerable creatures who possess nothing.

In his poem “The Wilderness” American poet laureate Carl Sandberg realized a great truth long before it came into vogue.

There is a wolf in me . . . fangs pointed for tearing gashes . . . a red tongue for raw meat . . . and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fox in me . . . a silver-gray fox . . . I sniff and guess . . . I pick things out of the wind and air . . . I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers . . . I circle and loop and double-cross.

There is a hog in me . . . a snout and a belly . . . a machinery for eating and grunting . . . a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fish in me . . . I know I came from salt-blue water-gates . . . I scurried with shoals of herring . . . I blew waterspouts with porpoises . . . before land was . . . before the water went down . . . before Noah . . . before the first chapter of Genesis.

There is a baboon in me . . . clambering-clawed . . . dog-faced . . . yawping a galoot’s hunger . . . hairy under the armpits . . . here are the hawk-eyed hankering men . . . here are the blonde and blue-eyed women . . . here they hide curled asleep waiting . . . ready to snarl and kill . . . ready to sing and give milk . . . waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.

There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird . . . and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want . . . and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians call The Christ, walked in our wilderness to live authentically and faithfully as a human being among all the beasts of the menagerie that were part of his nature and are part of our nature. Immediately after he had gone down into the waters to die to the worlds that would fool and twist him, and just as quickly as the voice from heaven declared him “my beloved Son in whom I take pleasure,” the spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. As the Gospel of Mark narrates the story, he was there for forty days among the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.

By God’s grace and power, may it be so also with us.

Sermon preached by Gordon C. Stewart, Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.