What causes you to cry out? Is it physical pain or mental anguish? Anger? Fear? Grief? People cry out in reaction to all these things - and against political, socioeconomic, cultural, and religious divides that seem insurmountable. It was the same in the time of John the Baptist and no different in 1969 when the Vietnam War raged and increasing polarization among the citizens of the U.S. was having a horrifying effect on our children, with the most vulnerable of them falling farther and farther behind in measures of intelligence and competence. It seemed that it would take a miracle to find a way to fight ignorance and instill compassion and a sense of community in our youngest citizens – a miracle made possible by a group of extremely strange but wholly committed bedfellows who formed a different kind of “street gang.” It would take the creators of, “Sesame Street.”
I would bet that there are very few people listening right now who are not familiar with Sesame Street, the fifty-year-old public television children’s program that teaches letters, numbers and much, much more. Few of us, however, probably know the story of how an educational psychologist, a documentary television producer, a disillusioned television director, a late-night comic, and a somewhat desperate federal Department of Education worked together to develop the groundbreaking and incredibly successful television community that has since welcomed generations of children across the globe.
It’s a good story, found in the documentary, “Street Gang,” (streaming), which I highly recommend. It is, more importantly, a hopeful story, one about disparate people working together for a common and noble cause in a time in which the larger world around them was doing its level best to tear people apart. It is a story about people putting aside their anxieties and differences and taking a risk to do something they believed in. It is a story of community and love.
Christians know a lot of these kinds of stories. Yet, strangely, I do not hear them so much anymore. The most recent recommendation for a podcast I received from a priestly colleague was about the rise and fall of a megachurch – which is very interesting, but is primarily a precautionary tale about the potential narcissism of charismatic leaders and the sheep-like desperation of those sucked into his orbit. My daughter’s preferred “religious” listening is podcasts about cults – and very few news stories with the word “Christians” in the headline seem to contain tales illustrating what I was raised to think of as “Christian values” like love, compassion, generosity, and inclusion. We are left to find those in Hallmark Christmas movies – most of which do not include anyone visiting a house of worship.
But there are Christians who not only continue to believe in the teachings of Jesus but do them. I caught the end of one these stories from my office window this week as three of our members sorted, wrapped, and transported gifts and grocery gift cards to twenty-six individuals in eight families as part of the Spirit of Giving campaign this year. I got a small part in one when I made a reservation for a week-long hotel stay for an unhoused friend of this congregation after receiving donations from his church family to cover it. I was reminded of it when I heard about our Episcopal siblings in Oregon who will continue to serve meals to hungry folks four times a week despite the passage of a recent city ordinance restricting distribution of free meals to twice a week. What I wonder is why we are not telling these stories. And so I look back to the Sesame Street Gang, and to Paul’s friends in Philippi who we heard about in today’s second lesson, and all the way back to Baruch and I ask myself what makes their stories more worth telling than ours.
Nothing. When you take away the historical context, the people in our scriptures weren’t that different than us. Their stories, like ours, are about people struggling to exercise their better natures, remain faithful to God, and deal with the circumstances they live in. The difference is that ancient people needed to tell their stories. After all, they didn’t have prayer books or bibles. Telling stories was how they spread and preserved their faith. This involved lots of repetition – something the folks at Sesame Street would recognize as a crucial learning technique and one that Christians employed to teach their doctrine as well. Emotionally powerful shared memories are crucial to community identity. Our stories remind us of who we are. If we don’t tell them, not only do other people fail to recognize us, but we forget who we are too. This is a particular danger when we allow others to take control of our narrative, especially if they are willing to pervert it to their own ends.
The people we read about in our Holy Scriptures lived through times that were just as distressing, violent, and seemingly hopeless as our own. Those who witnessed the naming of John the Baptist lived, as Luke makes clear, in a tense sociopolitical situation where Jewish leaders were in constant negotiation with their Roman occupiers, who “encouraged” worship of the emperor. They valued and shared their stories just as we do, finding comfort in reminding one another of those who had come before them. Imagine their surprise when, instead of saying something familiar, Zechariah suddenly announced that his own child was called to be the first prophet of the promised savior – and that the arrival of that savior was imminent. How amazing that must have been. How unbelievable that must have been. How terrifying that must have been.
Psychologists tell us that it is uncommon but completely possible to experience opposing emotions at the exact same moment. The terror and heart-pumping thrill of the last big drop of a roller coaster. The despair of loss and simultaneous gratitude when a loved one passes from the pain of chronic illness into the peace of God. The almost unbearable pain of labor or the wait for adoption paperwork inextricably linked with the indescribable joy of becoming a parent. These are the powerfully mixed emotions that God’s faithful people must have experienced upon hearing that their promised Messiah had finally arrived.
These contradictory, exhausting, and exhilarating feelings are what it is to feel the presence and truth of God within us and to acknowledge our place in the story of the people of God. How can we know that such things exist, and not share our stories too? Yes, it is a risk. Ours has always been a hard world where it is dangerous to cry out on behalf of the vulnerable, and where it is hazardous to speak truth to power - but when we do these things, we experience tremendous blessing.
Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas -not cooking, buying, and wrapping – but of figuring out why we celebrate it – of what it means to believe that the fact that Jesus lived on this earth is important. So, when you’re out there getting ready for whatever your Christmas tradition is, ask yourself why you do it. What is your part in the story of God’s love for creation? Is it good? Is it hopeful? Is it worth telling? I think it is - and I want you to tell it. I want you to tell it so you can know what it is to be a prophet – so you can feel the thrill of God working through you as you cry out, as you prepare the way of the Lord. AMEN.