Sunday, June 24, 2012

Homily for the Nativity of St John the Baptist

During Ordinary Time (the Season after Pentecost), when a major holy falls on a Sunday, parishes for whom it is the feast of title may celebrate it in place of the numbered proper (Proper 7, in this case) that would otherwise be observed.

Luke 1:57-80
St John the Baptist, Mount Carmel 

 Do you realize how widespread the name John is, and how many forms it takes in different languages? In French, it’s Jean; in Spanish, Juan; in Italian, Giovanni; in the Germanic languages, Johann or Johannes; in Russian, Ivan; in Dutch, Jan; in the Celtic languages, Sean or Ian. And then there are the feminine equivalents: Jean, Janet, Jeanette, Juanita, Yvonne, Shawna, and on both counts, I’m probably forgetting more than I’ve remembered. All these names, and more, come from the Hebrew Yohanan, which means, literally, “the LORD is generous.”

The LORD is generous.

In view of this, we do well on this feast day of St John the Baptist, celebrated in the parish church of St John the Baptist, to raise the question: How should a community called by the name of John conduct itself? One obvious answer immediately becomes apparent: With generosity. A community that bears the name “the LORD is generous” is certainly going to be an icon to the surrounding world of the generosity of God. You do know that in a particular and special way here at St John’s. God has been materially generous with you, and you, in turn, have been materially generous with others. You are good at living into your name!

 But how else was John the Baptist generous? We see in the gospels that John generously pointed to Jesus. He did so relentlessly and courageously. This was the whole purpose of his life, from the time he was in his mother’s womb. Remember the incident when a newly-pregnant Mary pays a visit to her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John, and John does a sort of fetal back flip in recognition of the presence of the incarnate Son of God. John kept up with this ministry of pointing to Jesus until the moment he turned over his ministry, as the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant, to the One to whom all those prophets point, the One who is in his own person the New Covenant.

I was excited when I first looked at the readings for this feast day, and discovered that the gospel narrative we just heard never occurs in the Sunday cycle, so I’ve never had to study it wearing my “preacher’s hat.” It’s actually kind of a warmly humorous story. The priest Zechariah, John’s father, had an unexpected encounter with an angel while going about his priestly duties in the temple, and he’s been temporarily rendered unable to speak during the entire period of his wife’s pregnancy. (Of course, one could go in some interesting directions with that particular factoid, but … not now!) Now it’s eight days after the child has been born, the time when a little Jewish baby boy was circumcised and formally given a name. So everyone is gathered around, and they’re about ready to name his Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth says, “No, it’s going to be John.” The extended family doesn’t quite believe her, since nobody in the family has ever been named John, so they ask his father, who, of course, is still speechless, so he scrawls with a piece of chalk on a slate, “His name is John.”

And at the moment, Zechariah is able to speak again, and he breaks out into what looks for all the world like a song, though we don’t have the original music for it, and that’s the way the church has always thought of it, as a song to be sung during morning worship. You can find it in both the Prayer Book and the Hymnal. We call it the Benedictus, which is its first word when translated into Latin.

Zechariah’s song concludes with, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High … knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins …to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death … guide our feet into the way of peace.” Again: How should a community called by the name of John the Baptist conduct itself? By pointing generously and relentlessly and courageously, in deed and word, to Jesus, and by doing so in language that Zechariah’s canticle points to.

We generously point to Jesus when we give people knowledge of salvation—which is to say, the experience of wholeness, true humanity; the knowledge of redemption, of being delivered out of darkness into light, out of sickness into health, out of death into life—and all by the forgiveness of their sins. We do this, in part, by modeling forgiveness in our own lives, by being forgiving of others in the larger community, by naming Jesus as the ultimate source of all forgiveness.

We generously point to Jesus when we give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, when we see those who fall through the cracks and who are rendered invisible to the world, when we remember those who would otherwise be forgotten, pointing them to Jesus as the One who makes their lives worth living. We generously point to Jesus when we guide both our own feet, and the feet of others, into the way of peace, when we experience reconciliation in Christ among ourselves, being ministers of reconciliation in our lives beyond these walls, when we stand as a sign of reconciliation, particularly with others who claim the name Christian.

A community called by the name of John the Baptist has a particular vocation. It is my joy to announce it to you, and it is your joy to embrace it on this wonderful feast day.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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