Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sermon: "Who Are You?"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 14, 1014  - The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-9;  John 1:6-8, 19-28

“Who Are You?”

On March 15th in the year 270, a baby boy was born in the Greek city of Patara.
He was the only son of wealthy parents and they named him Nikolaos - which means “victor of the people.”
Tragically, Nikolaos’ parents died in an epidemic when he was still very young, so he went to live with his uncle, who just happened to be the Bishop of Patara.
Nikolaos fell in love with the Christian faith and as a young man he become a priest.   He was a very wealthy priest thanks to his parent’s estate – but one of his first acts of service to God was to give away his family inheritance. He gave to widows and the homeless, but he was especially generous with children.

Legend has it that one day Nikolaos – now a Bishop himself – met a man in his village who lived in a very simple home with his 3 young daughters.  The man told the Bishop that he was worried because he could not afford to pay the expected dowry to marry off even one of his daughters let alone all three. He feared that his girls would spend their lives alone or caring for him, rather than finding joy for themselves.

A few years later, when the man’s oldest daughter had reached the age of marriage, he awoke one morning and found a small satchel of gold laying on the floor below his open window.
It was as if someone had reached in and intentionally dropped it there….and it was just enough to pay for his oldest daughter’s dowry.
The man was overjoyed.

A year later, when the man’s second daughter had reached the age of marriage, the man awoke one morning to find yet another satchel of gold laying on the floor below the open window. Once again, the man was overjoyed. Now his second daughter would find happiness as well.
Another year went by, and the man’s third and final daughter had a suitor who wanted to take her as his wife. And sure enough, the man awoke one morning to find another satchel of gold had been tossed inside his window under the cover of night. This time the satchel was stuffed so full it spilled gold coins across the floor with some landing in his daughter’s shoes that had been set by the fire to warm overnight.

The man had long suspected that the generous Bishop named Nikolaos was behind these nighttime giving sprees and as the man shared his story with others the legend of Nikolaos began to grow.
Parents who heard the stories began to hide coins in their children’s shoes or stockings as a way of demonstrating God’s surprising generosity.
Soon this clandestine practice of gift giving became a Christmas tradition, and Nikolaos, now canonized by the Catholic Church, became known as Saint Nikolaos, or Santa Claus as we know him today.

I tell this story, because it’s quite likely that if any of us encountered the real St. Nicholas in his own time we’d be hard pressed to recognize him.
He was a generous man, but he also had a reputation for being difficult and combative at times.
In fact, at the council of Nicaea in 325 he became so frustrated with the heretical beliefs being expressed by the priest Arius he stood up and punched the man in the face. Nicholas was arrested and thrown into prison for that.

This Nicholas is a far cry from the round-bellied red-suited jolly old St. Nick that we know from the stories we tell our children. The real St. Nick had no reindeer or elves and he’d never been to the North Pole.

In fact, if the real Saint Nicholas ever came face to face with our Santa Claus, he would surely ask in amazement, “WHO are you?”

The man and the legend are very different indeed.

John the Baptist elicited a similar reaction from the people in his time.
He was a radical ascetic who willingly removed himself from society.
He threw off his finely woven clothes and put on rags made of camel hair.
He gave away everything he had and set up camp outside the city walls on the banks of the river Jordan…and he called for the people to join him.

Most people didn’t know what to make of him –
with his talk of God’s impending judgment and the need for all to repent and be made right with their creator.

Then he started baptizing people – he dunked them in the river and declared that they were now made clean before God.
And the people flocked to him.
Wild rumors began to spread. People said he was a great prophet in the same vein as Elijah; some said he was Elijah himself resurrected from the dead to pass judgment upon them. Some even were bold enough to say that he was the Messiah  – the anointed one sent by God to set them free from oppression, suffering, and pain – once and for all.

It’s a good bet that every person who lined up on the banks of the river Jordan to be baptized by John had their own understanding of who this man was.

It was inevitable that the rumor mill would spin out of control to the point where the religious authorities had no choice but to march their way out of the city to confront John… to have him respond to the charge that his mass baptizing was misguided at best, and heretical at worst.

When the keepers of the Temple law set their eyes on John, and saw this wild man pouring water over peoples heads and shouting about repentance, we might understand why they asked,
“Who are you?”

We can grasp from the gospel text that their question was not one of curiosity or amazement,
As in, “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the messiah?”

Instead we can feel the tension in their words and we can hear the mocking and dismissive tone in their voice, as they ask,
Who are YOU? Elijah? A prophet? The “messiah”?
Who are YOU to baptize people before God?
Who are YOU to declare them cleansed of sin?
Who are YOU to elevate yourself above US when you’re not even a priest?
Who are you – and what do YOU say about yourself?

And John answered, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
I am not the light. But I am here to tell you that the one who is the light has finally come…and I am not worthy to tie the shoes upon his feet.”

Asking the question, “Who are you?” is valid, when everything we know about a person comes from second hand information - where we rely on other people’s impressions and opinions, misguided as they can be.

Which is why as much as we may think we know what another person is thinking or feeling, or that we can explain why they act the way they do or why they believe what they believe – as much as we think we know who someone is, because we know what religion they practice, or what political party they belong to, or what city, neighborhood, or country they came from…we don’t know.

We don’t know until we dare to ask them, face to face, “Who are you?”
And then take the time to listen to what they tell us about themselves.

Can we imagine how our world might change if we took the time to listen – to really listen – to what people have to tell us about themselves?

Might we imagine how listening to each other as we tell our stories could lead to greater understanding, increased compassion, more prevalent mercy – and ultimately fewer confrontations, less suffering, and a reduction in the fear we carry in our hearts.

We might wonder how we would respond to the question, “Who are you?”

Are we defined by our heritage? Our economic standing? Our profession?
Would we talk about our children, our interests, our accomplishments?

If any of these qualifiers come to mind we might wonder who we are when we no longer can be defined by them.
Who are we if we’ve lost our job, our home, or our financial safety net?
Who are we if we’ve lost our spouse, our parents, or our child?
Who are we if we’ve lost our health, our independence, our memories?

When the Pharisees confronted John the Baptist and asked him, “Who are you?”  they expected him to respond by claiming an identity,
“I am a prophet, I am Elijah, I am the Messiah.”

But instead he responded by lifting up the one who is all of those things and more.
John said, “I’m not the one who has come to redeem the world. But I can point to the one who is.”

This is who we are as well.
We serve as pointers to the one who embodies everything that we aspire to be.
We are not defined by our money, our past, our loss.
What defines us is our compassion, our mercy, our love.

Whenever we reach out to someone in pain,
seek to understand someone who has been misunderstood,
or respond to fear - our own or another’s - with an open heart,
We are pointing to the one whom God anointed to bring good news to this world.

This is who we are.
Like John, we are not the light, but we reflect the light.
So that others may see that darkness does not rule the world.
So that we may see that darkness does not rule us.

When John the Baptist stood in the Jordan River and pointed to Jesus as the one to follow rather than himself, he likely did not know that his act of humility would be remembered for thousands of years to come, or that we would come to see him as an example to follow as well. 

Likewise, when the man known as Nikolaos dropped three bags of gold in an open window and brought joy to a family in need, it’s likely that he had no idea how his act of generosity and kindness would grow into the tradition that we still follow today.

This is the beauty of the light.
When one person points to it others begin to see it and point to it as well.
And what begins as one voice crying out in the wilderness turns into a chorus of people singing out with joy.

Who are you?
You are a beloved child of God.
You are a receiver of the light….a reflector of the light.
And God is calling you – God is calling us – to shine.

Thanks be to, God.

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