Sermons That Work

St. John the Baptist (B) – June 25, 2012 John as spiritual massage therapist

June 25, 2012

Today we celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist was many things. He was a first-century apocalyptic Jew. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the forerunner of Christ. But today, on his feast day, let’s think of John as a spiritual massage therapist.

An Episcopal priest tells a story about the first time he got a message. It was a gift from his wife, who thought it would be a nice thing to help him relax and get ready for the holiday season, which was just about to begin. He was a bit nervous. It was a new experience, and as he says, he grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey where guys don’t get massages.

But he went and was met by a well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman who said she was going to be his “massage therapist.” He turned that phrase over in his mind: massage therapist, massage therapy. It had an interesting, almost clinical ring. It couldn’t be too bad, he told himself.

Then his massage therapist told him to go into the room, to take off all of his clothes, and to lie face down on the table. And he got really nervous. Taking off all your clothes and lying on a table, even when you are modestly covered by a sheet, causes a little anxiety. But he said to himself, I’m a priest, and this is nothing that a little faith can’t handle. We are made in the image and likeness of God! We praise God because we are fearfully and wonderfully made! Our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost! Theology to the rescue! Right?

Wrong! It didn’t work. The fact of the matter was that he was lying face down on a table covered by a sheet. He felt uncomfortable and awkward and vulnerable.

The massage therapist came in and got to work. At first, she seemed to be doing some exploratory work. She seemed to know how to find those places where muscles were knotted and tense, places that he didn’t even know were knotted and tense. Not too bad. Kind of nice. Sort of relaxing. But then, after this initial exploratory phase, this nice, well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman somehow changed, and she began to hurt the priest. She dug her strong fingers into knotted and stressed-out muscles, and pain shot through his body. In a soothing voice she said things like, “It feels like you’re a little tight here,” and then she dug deeper into the knot. The pain was both excruciating and exquisite, and for the better part of an hour she subjected the priest’s stressed-out and tensed body to massage therapy.

He describes the experience this way. First of all, it really did hurt. When she dug her fingers into a knotted muscle, pain seared through his body. But mixed in with this experience of pain, there was the deeper experience of muscles loosening and becoming unknotted. As he was lying there, with his massage therapist boring into his muscles, he found his body relaxing and being released from the grip of tensed and stressed-out muscles. At the same time he was saying ouch from the pain, he was also experiencing sweet relief from tortured and twisted muscle fibers. By the end of the massage, he felt wonderful. It was a painful process to endure, but in the end, seized-up and knotted muscles were relaxed and unknotted, and the priest felt like a new person.

On her way out, the massage therapist told the priest to drink a lot of water during the next twenty-four hours in order to flush the toxins out of his system. “Yuck,” thought the priest. Decades of toxins being released into his system. Not the most pleasant of thoughts. He drank gallons of water that day!

John the Baptist is like that massage therapist.

Consider John’s message to us: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” To prepare the way of the Lord is a serious spiritual undertaking. How can we prepare the way of the Lord in our world and in our hearts today? If God is love, then what are those things that are keeping God’s love at bay? If God’s spirit is the spirit of truth and goodness and beauty, what are those things that get in the way of God’s spirit in the world? If God desires human beings to live in harmony and peace, then what are those things that keep frustrating these desires?

And when we ask these questions, there is John the Baptist waiting to greet us, saying, “Hello, I’m John, and I’ll be your spiritual massage therapist. Take off your clothes, wade into the water, and feel yourself naked before the very eye of God. I’ll be right in, and we’ll get to work. And we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

And there are his rough, prophet’s hands, ready to dig into the twisted and knotted fibers in our spiritual lives. Under the Baptist’s hands, we feel the pain of having the spiritual knots in our communal and individual lives identified and worked on.

Has anger over some past injury got your soul in knots? Has malicious gossip torn the spiritual tissue that connects us one to another? Are you still nursing an old grudge against someone that is causing you to cramp up? Has consumerism got you feeling spiritually stressed out? Have fear and prejudice caused knots of hatred and intolerance to form in the body politic?

The strong hands of the Baptist are ready to perform a deep-tissue massage on all the things that are blocking the coming of the Lord. It is a painful, but necessary process.

Yet, even in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the searing in our souls, there is the sense in which we are being relieved, released from the tensed and twisted fibers of our anger and our fear and our prejudice. As we undergo spiritual massage therapy, the toxins that were polluting our system are being flushed out in the waters of baptism.

There are many things that are still blocking the ways of peace and compassion in our hearts and in our world today. Things like anger and fear and injustice. To prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths, we may all need to undergo a little spiritual massage therapy.

We are invited to lay down on John the Baptist’s spiritual message table, and to undergo his treatment. It is difficult to undergo, but in the midst of it, we may experience this process as sweet relief, and we may feel like we are being transformed into new men and women.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.

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