There’s been a running story in the New York Times this week about a homeless family with 8 children. They live in a shelter in Brooklyn, and the writer has followed an 11 year old girl in particular – the oldest child who bears outsized responsibility for her younger siblings in this much-stressed family. Her mother named her Dasani, after the expensive bottled water, believing in her preciousness, perhaps hoping for what might satisfy thirst in the desert of hopelessness. Her mother and her step-father lose it and fly into rages when things aren’t going well, and their anger often lights on the tallest child in range. Yet Dasani still has an outsized gift for dreaming bold and creative possibilities for her future – but those hopes keep getting dashed and waylaid by the struggles around her. Asked about God, Dasani says, God “is somewhere around.” She hasn’t seen a lot of consistent evidence. “We just can’t find him.”
On Wednesday, at a service of celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, amid the gratitude for his leadership and the praise for transformation in South Africa, and the hope that he offered the whole world, Andrew Young sounded a somewhat discordant note. He said, ‘Mandela was a prophet, but you don’t have anything to celebrate. Hungry people can’t eat hope.’ Neither can homeless people build houses out of dreams. Those are also prophetic words, and very much in the tradition of Nelson Mandela. They are also in the same tradition as Isaiah and the dream of a healed world that’s variously called the kingdom of God, heaven on earth, the peaceable kingdom, or shalom. Yet words aren’t enough.
John the baptizer is also challenging the people of Judea to hope and work for a world like that, and Herod has heard his challenge as threatening enough to throw him into prison. John is inciting rebellion, or maybe what the Russians have been calling “hooliganism” as they’ve locked up Pussy Riot and Greenpeace folks. Prophets threaten the established order of things because they hold up an alternate possibility – a world where things work for the good of all people, and not just a few.
So when Jesus asks the crowds why they’ve come to hear him, or who they think they’re hearing, he’s pushing them to distinguish between a messenger of transformation and a preacher of the status quo. One wears soft robes, lives in a palace and says don’t rock the boat, the other describes harder work that means the furniture has to move, and systems have to change, and somebody is quite likely to be upset. The kingdom of God we pray for so regularly does not arrive without that kind of transformative shift. John is preparing the road, rocking the boat and stirring things up, for the coming of a different kind of society.
And when Jesus is asked if he’s the one who’s going to generate that different community, he says, “well, what do you see?” Can you believe your eyes and ears, or will you keep denying the evidence in front of you? Is the prophetic word become real, is it taking on flesh?
The child we’re baptizing today is meant to be a partner in that kind of transformation. Nayshawn is both a sign of our hope for that healed world, and a potential leader in making it possible. We’re inviting him and his parents and sponsors to push back the darkness, to wrestle with what’s wrong in this world, to offer their lives for this transforming work: to bring an end to illness and broken relationships; an end to violent responses to experiences of death, deprivation, and division; to ensure that people have full bellies and decent housing instead of hunger and homelessness; to bring an end to war – and peace in our time. Isaiah identifies the obstacles as fear, and the kind of half-hearted, weak-kneed uncertainty that never changes anything. This is going to take all that we are and all that we have. And yes, it requires the same kind of vulnerability as rushing into harm’s way to save a buddy or follow an order in time of war. This is dangerous work, as John the Baptist and Jesus both know.
At the beginning of this service we prayed, ‘stir up your might, O Lord, and come among us, let your bountiful grace and mercy deliver us from all that hinders us from following you.’ This community, and every one like it, exists to help deliver and un-hinder us from that work of transformation. This is God’s way of helping us find the courage we need. We are here to help strengthen the faint-hearted and shore up the weak-kneed, including ourselves. A military community like this one knows quite a lot about that.
Esprit de corps is a phrase often used to describe the strength of the whole unit that helps each member deal with fear and find enthusiasm for its mission. The phrase literally means the spirit of the body. In this place it means the spirit of God made known in the body of Christ, strengthening the weak and encouraging the fearful – and God knows that we’re all in need of that. We’ve had experience of healing strength in the body made up of companions in the faith. We know what it is to be enthused, literally “filled with God.” We are here to join this child to this body. He is a new member of this unit – welcome and guide him, strengthen him when he stands, comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful, raise him up when he falls, and keep sharing that vision of wholeness and holiness the prophets set before us and Jesus himself enacts. We will find ourselves strengthened as a new member is grafted into Jesus’ incarnate body.
Our task is not to lounge around on couches wearing soft robes, but to train for the work before us, and to gather up every possible friend and partner in making the world whole. We’re sent out on that Holy Way that Isaiah speaks of, that John the Baptist came preparing, to live as Jesus’ body in this world. That’s our mission, that’s the corps this child and all of us have been baptized into. So firm up your feeble knees, and go walk that holy road. Strengthen your weak hands to build a world where children like Dasani and Nayshawn can discover the strange and wonderful way they’ve been created, and help them to grow and develop those remarkable gifts. Dream a world into reality where every child and every adult can find abundant evidence of the love of God in this baptized host of holy engineers, binding and building a world of peace. Stir up your power in us, O Lord, strengthen our hands and hearts and backs and knees to dream your dream and help heal your world, that all may be fed and housed and healed and hear good news. And blessed be everyone who takes no offense at that dream.