If you listen to more than one or two of my sermons you know that I like to talk about the Good News that we hear and the Good News that Jesus wants us to proclaim. I feel that this is my task as preacher. But honestly, winnowing fork and unquenchable fire is not what I had in mind for Good News. Especially after our readings this morning from Zephaniah and Philippians, which proclaim with joy God’s presence and the nearness of something wonderful.
I would rather rejoice than listen to someone call me a hypocrite or a viper. Wouldn’t you? I especially feel that way in the glow of last Wednesday’s joyful celebration of new ministry—mine, the four people being confirmed, and yours.
But in this morning’s Gospel John the Baptist does what he is famous for: he gets right up in our faces and gets our attention. He communicates the coming of the Messiah with an immediacy that makes everyone sit up and take notice. Not only that, but even the people who were perhaps the most egregious sinners of his day come to him and ask: “What then should we do?” “And we, what should we do?” Whole categories of people known for their corrupt and exploitive practices—tax collectors and Roman soldiers—came to John and asked “What must I do?” It’s that perennial question of faith: What must I do to be saved?
We don’t usually talk that much about salvation, unless someone presses us. As a new Episcopalian in my twenties I was told, as perhaps many of you were, that when someone came up to me on a street corner with a pamphlet asking if I’d been saved, I should answer: “I was saved 2000 years ago.”
And yet, if we are to appropriate today’s text and others like it as our own, we cannot ride through it using the free pass of Jesus’ saving act on the cross. The gospel asks something of us. John’s instructions to the soldiers and tax gatherers are just a precursor to the work of justice and reconciliation that the One who is to come asks of his followers. Of us. John grabs our attention so we can sit up and take notice, sit up and get ready to act like disciples when Jesus comes.
How do we do this? Where is the Good News in this preachy, almost bombastic gospel passage? I’m going to back up a little bit with a story. In this week of celebrating my official induction as your Rector, I beg your indulgence.
When I was in your search process a team from the search committee came to hear me preach, see me preside and, of course, hear me sing, I was very nervous. Partly, I wanted to make a good impression. I was a temporary priest associate at St. Michael & All Angels were my friend Chris Craun is the rector. I took presiding as a guest in that community very seriously and felt that it was a big deal to be entrusted with this. It wasn't just an “audition” for three visitors; I was leading the sacred actions of the gathered community. And it just so happened we were celebrating Ascension. I still think the proper preface for Ascension is the hardest preface to sing of the whole year.
I said to Chris before the beginning of the service: “I'm so nervous!” And if you were here on Wednesday night and heard her sermon, you might be able to guess what she said in response. She said: “Just stand like Superman.” That was the first time I heard about the “Superman stance.” If you Google “Superman position” you get the yoga pose that looks like this. If you Google “Superman stance” you get a fascinating article in Psychology Today about the relationship between posture and power.
People who put themselves out there, who make themselves big, are perceived as more powerful and therefore more effective, than those who tend to fold in on themselves. This makes sense to me. I’m guessing that John the Baptist assumed the Superman stance when he preached. And if we go into the world to speak out against injustice and hypocrisy, I bet we should also take that stance.
What I wonder about with this Superman stance and the idea of power through posture is how it relates to Jesus’ alliance with the powerless. Jesus, who took the form of a slave and emptied himself, Jesus who invites us to a life of humility and self-emptying. What is that posture? How does it compare to the Superman posture of power?
Most of us are people of privilege and power. Just like the tax gatherers and soldiers who came to listen to John. And yet John makes clear that there is a place for tax collectors and soldiers in the Kingdom of God just as there is a place for each one of us. The challenge for them and for us is to use our power—our superhero power—to come alongside the weak, to stand like Superman alongside the poor, the voiceless, the victims of hate and prejudice.
You don’t have to be a saint to do this or even a superhero. As I continue to get to know you, I am encountering a whole range of gospel superpowers: generosity, hope, wisdom, curiosity, story-telling, sacrifice, courage, and love, to name just a few. When we share our superpowers, we make the reign of God accessible to others as well. Sometimes the answer to the question, what should we do? is that we should reflect upon our own posture, spiritual as well as physical, and find our superpowers.
Think about someone you know, or know of, who has no one to stand beside him or her. This could be a neighbor or a family member or a coworker. Or someone with whom you ordinarily would not mix. Then try this: the next time you hear someone say “lift up your hearts”—maybe even this morning—imagine that part of standing like Superman is lifting your heart and offering it to God, to deploy wherever God needs it. Think about who is standing beside you, in front of you, and behind you. Imagine what a whole gathered community of superheroes with uplifted hearts might do. This is Good News.