by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
January 21, 2018
One of my high school friends was different from me and most of my other friends. He was an athlete. Actually, my other friends and I were athletes; we were just bad athletes. We all enjoyed sports, but there wasn’t a crew program in Westport, Connecticut, in the 1970’s, so we had to choose one of the traditional boys’ sports (baseball, basketball, football, hockey, wrestling), and we were mostly miserable failures.
Even those of us who were pretty good wound up losing our most important wrestling matches or getting hurt in a football game at some point.
Losing is OK. It builds character… I guess.
But that one friend, he was much more focused. And he was tall. And he was strong and persistent. And he was driven. I loved to play baseball, but he was a great great baseball player. He was a pitcher.
His freshman year in college, he was in the bullpen, hoping to get into the starting rotation. Sophomore year, same thing. In both of those seasons, he had several chances, but his numbers were mediocre at best.
But… in his junior year, there was an interim coach who believed in him. One of the starters got hurt and he was promoted to the starting rotation. He started eight games that season and won seven, with an era of just over 1. Pretty awesome.
And his batting average doubled; he was one of the best hitters on the team that year.
It turns out that all he needed was to have someone who had confidence in him, someone who believed in him, to help him be his best. And that interim coach was that person.
When a new, settled coach was hired the next year, my friend was relegated once again to the bullpen and his numbers tanked. But that was OK. He knew that he had helped his team. He knew that he had stepped up when the time was right.
In 1968, John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins wrote the song, Son of a Preacher Man. The British singer, Dusty Springfield, recorded it and it became a top 10 hit in both Britain and the US. I am sure that most of you know the tune.
The only one who could ever reach me
Was the son of a preacher man
The song suggests that this son of a preacher man had a certain level of charisma. That he was irresistible.
John the Baptist was the son of a preacher man, too. Or, as the Bible tells it, the son of a priest. And he had all the charisma in the world.
John could have aspired to be what his father was. He could have read and studied and cultivated all of the right connections. As the son of a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, he could have done all his father and family expected him to do.
He could have positioned himself to be a priest.
But… he didn’t. Instead, he invited all who wanted to come to join him down by the riverside, far from the Temple and the corruption there. Far from his father and the other priests who had sold out to the Romans.
He invited the poor and the miserable and the hopeless; he invited the outlaws and the sick and the mentally ill; he invited the religious leaders and the Roman soldiers and the tax collectors. He invited everyone!
Unheard of to do such a thing. Unheard of!
But he did it. And he got a huge response. Thousands of people came.
A carpenter’s son from the north, a house builder, a young man named Jesus, was in the crowd one day. And he came forward to accept John’s baptism of repentance.
Last week, we reflected on the meaning of the baptism that John offered to Jesus. It was a baptism that required incredible humility and a desire to be transformed and made new.
And Jesus went for it! He looked at John and said yes. Let’s do this!
And when he came up out of that water, he was a new person. And when John was arrested by the Roman occupying army and assasinated, Jesus stepped up and became the leader of John’s movement of renewal.
And the amazing thing about both John’s (and then Jesus’) movements was that they were spiritual, but not just spiritual. Yes, they were spiritual movements, but they were physical and behavioral, too.
John’s baptism was an underwater experience. And afterward, when your head broke the surface and you could breathe again, John expected you to not only say you were sorry to God for all the wrong things you had done; he expected you to change and become a new person. And to serve your neighbors in tangible ways.
And, when Jesus took over, he expected — and expects — the same.
Both John and Jesus are asking us in our reading today to become new people. Which requires risk. It means stepping up, like Jesus did when his mentor, John, was arrested and the crowds needed someone new.
The world needs someone new today. We’ve had wonderful leaders and servants in the past, but now it’s our turn to step up. In Jesus’ name.
I love that so many of you and so many of your family and friends stepped up and participated in the women’s marches in Boston and New York and Hartford.
I love how so many of you stepped up and contributed art for today’s showing.
Both require taking a risk. Both are manifestations of God’s passion and creativity coming to life within you.
Along with art by members of our congregation, there are two prints by van Gogh and one by Seurat downstairs. As you may know, van Gogh was rejected for ordination and channeled his spiritual yearnings and insights into his art. Although he suffered terribly from mental illness and wasn’t appreciated during his lifetime, he is now considered to be one of the best artists in history. He stepped up when it was his time, even though he was the only one who believed that.
In what ways is it time for you and me to step up?
How might we come into our own spiritually, professionally, or personally in new ways? Have we been avoiding stepping up to meet a need or fulfill a responsibility to serve or lead?
Is there some leadership role that you might accept here at church or in the community or in your family?
Over and over again, Jesus did what was necessary, even though it was hard. That day, on the banks of the Jordan, he stepped into the water to be baptized. When John was gone, he stepped into a new role as leader. A few years later, he rode into Jerusalem to face those who wanted to take his life.
May his actions inspire us to rise to the occasions of our lives. It’s time for us to step up and be faithful and strong and clear in this moment when our nation and our world need us — and all kinds of people — to be a healing and challenging and inspiring presence.