The Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Lawrence
Shepherd-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Gualala, CA
June 24, 2012
Propers for St. John the Baptist
Good morning. My name is ML…
Today we’re celebrating the feast day of St. John the Baptist, that famous old crank who lived in the desert, living off locusts and wild honey and wearing an animal skin for clothes.
I’ve been up here to Gualala only a couple of times before, and this time, to get here, I took a road I’d never been on before – the Skaggs Springs Rd over from Geyserville. [Huge groan of recognition from the congregation.] Now I know that most of you probably know that road like the back of your hand, but for me it was something of a revelation: those first ten miles, heading out of Geyserville? When you start out, it really is one of the most beautiful roads on the planet. It’s so clean and smooth and well-maintained it made me proud to be an American all over again; you swing through those hills with their hairpin curves and those red cliffs and sky breaking out – there are moments when you feel like you’re in the middle of Handel’s Messiah.
I came to that fantastic old bridge over the gulch – you know, the one with the sheer drop you just don’t want to think about - and then some time later I was driving along the very top of that ridge, with the earth falling away on both sides of me, and breathtaking meadows and valleys and mountains in the distance – and not a single person in sight.
I turned on my CD player and suddenly George Harrison was singing “All Things Must Pass” at full volume, and now I’m singing along with him at full volume; I’m singing Hare Krishna and Hallelujah at the top of my lungs; and that’s when I had one of those rare thoughts. I thought, “You know what: if I were to die right here, tonight; if some drunk driver were to come along right now and just take me out, I would die a happy man.”
I felt complete, right then; one of those rare moments when I knew it doesn’t get any better than this, and this is more than enough . If my entire life is nothing more than a means for getting here, to this place of beauty and harmony and gratitude, well, you know what, it’s all been worth it. I could die now and be perfectly happy.
Now listen, I don’t want anyone to get freaked out or anything: I’m not saying I want to die or that I’m having morbid thoughts, or anything like that. In fact it’s exactly the opposite: It’s the kind of thing that happens only a few times, if you’re lucky, in your life – this feeling that this moment is so beautiful that it is entirely sufficient – that you are complete, right here; and that everything else after this is just gravy.
Have you ever been lucky enough to have a moment like that?
I think about how fearless John the Baptist was in the face of death – how he had such incredible courage that he could look King Herod in the eye and tell him he was going to hell. He knew full well that nobody talks to the king like that without losing his head – and I wonder if that fearlessness in him came from the same place that this moment of fulfillment came for me – this sense that your life is so complete that no threat of death can dissuade you – that you are so fulfilled, so complete, that it just doesn’t matter any more – you can die now and be happy, so die with words of truth on your lips.
And then I realize that yes, of course, that’s exactly how John the Baptist and Jesus themselves described the Kingdom of God. It’s all about this sense of completeness. He comes preaching that the Kingdom of God is here, and the metaphor he uses is this one of completeness: The grain is ready for the harvest.
In the Greek world, everyone believed that they had something like a seed within them, which was their essential self – it was called their daimon – it was their essential self in all its potential; and to the Greeks, the point of their lives was to come into completeness, into ripeness, into wholeness; to be ready for the harvest.
That’s exactly what both John and Jesus understood the Kingdom of God to be: When Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”, what he was talking about was this sense of completeness. The Greek word is teleos – it means perfectly ripe, ready for harvest. Think of a juicy red tomato, or a stalk of grain standing golden and ripe in the sun, ready for the sickle. That’s what the kingdom of God was like for John and for Jesus. Everything in all of creation was approaching this moment of perfection, when God would come and reap his harvest.
To feel that your life is complete – that is a rare thing. But maybe that’s what comes from living in the wilderness, as John the Baptist did; and as you do, out here. Because, I’m sorry, after that drive over Scaggs Springs Road, you might be Shepherd-by-the-Sea but as far as I’m concerned, you’re Shepherd-in-the-Wilderness. Not to mention this great wildness that you all live next to [pointing to the Pacific Ocean, visible through giant plate glass windows] – that great ocean out there. There’s nothing more wild and treacherous and lonely than bobbing up and down in that ocean out there. That is the ultimate wilderness.
And so maybe there’s something about living in the wilderness, out here, that makes you particularly compatible with this thing that Jesus and John the Baptist were talking about. Because there are some things that wilderness people know, which the rest of the world is becoming increasingly oblivious to.
So there I was, feeling complete and ripe and whole and driving along with a song in my heart and musing on this sense that I could die right now and be happy…. And then I started getting worried … that maybe God would take me up on this idea. I could imagine him saying, “Ok, clearly you need some kind of challenge. Maybe I will send a truck into your front end – clearly you’re just a little too happy for your own good.”
It was funny because this voice sounded a lot like the voice of my mom, who, if she ever caught you just lying in a hammock on a beautiful summer day staring up at the sky, would just have to find something for you to do. And in that moment I felt a sense of dread – as if this great cosmic balance was shifting toward catastrophe – just because I was clearly too happy in my present condition.
Have you ever had to contend with a voice like that inside you?
And just as I was thinking about that, those wonderful first ten miles of beautiful two-lane highway changed into something more like my driveway. No shoulder, just a crumbly edge that drops away into a chasm [heads nod in recognition]; the road in places not much wider than my car.
You know what I’m talking about: the sky disappears, so that you feel like you’re entering an enchanted forest or something, and you begin to wonder if you didn’t take a wrong turn back there somewhere. And by now the sun had completely set; and I realize that taking this road by night, with no lights along the road, no markers, scant little in the way of assurances that you are not about to drive right off the edge…. I glanced at my odometer and realized I had 20 more miles of this, and I thought, “Oy vey: this little adventure is turning into one big metaphor for my life – and I’m not sure I like how it’s turning out!”
After another ten miles I realized that I hadn’t passed a single car since I had gotten on the road. I realized just how alone you can be out here; I found myself glancing at the gas gauge, and reminding myself that the tires were still good and the car just had its check-up, and I remembered the news article a few months back about how a guy on one of these roads drove off the edge and they didn’t find him for weeks….
A voice said, “You are in the wilderness now.”
And that’s when I started praying.
I think about Maurice Sendak and his wonderful book, Where the Wild Things Are. This is where the wild things are. And as if in confirmation of that notion, a troupe of wild pigs crossed the road in front of me. A few minutes later, an enormous owl flew straight at my car and swooped up over my windshield at the last second. This is not wilderness; this is wild-ness.
This is the place where John the Baptist came from.
So I’m snaking my way through these mountains, and to distract myself from a rising sense of dread, I begin to reflect on the values and virtues that living in the wilderness encourages. These are the virtues that John the Baptist would have known in his bones. We’re talking now about things we know in our bones – because Nature herself has taught us these things.
The first thing is humility and respect for the wildness of Creation. You spend enough time out in the wilderness, you learn pretty quickly that this life is not for sissies. Nature is a strong and ferocious beast and it will kill those who are not prepared. Minnesotans know this too (that’s where I grew up): out there on the edge of the prairie, when the temperature dips below zero and stays there for weeks, you learn to rely on your neighbors, because nature cannot be trusted. Death is never far away. If you see a car broke down by the side of a snowbank you never drive by – of course you stop to make sure everyone’s okay and don’t need your help. Everyone does that – they still do. Because in the wilderness, we aren’t under the illusion that anyone gets through this alone; and in the wilderness, Nature claims us all, eventually.
And now George Harrison starts singing “The Art of Dying”:
There'll come a time when all of us must leave here
Then nothing Sister Mary can do
Will keep me here with you
As nothing in this life that I've been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying
And isn’t that what we’re all learning? The Art of Dying?
We develop a kind of wisdom about how life can beat you up. You’re not so special – this is the Minnesotan’s mantra, actually: don’t think you’re so special. You’re definitely not the center of the universe; you are definitely not the Messiah. You’re an ordinary man or woman trying to live a good and just and ordinary life, and you’re thinking if you can get to just one more of those moments when it all seems complete you’ll be ready for the harvest. Because you come to see that life is all about the Art of Dying.
John the Baptist was like that. He mastered the art of dying. He wasn’t under any illusions that he was the Messiah – he knew his limits, he had given away any thought that he was the One. Despite the fact that he was surrounded by people who wanted to believe that he was the messiah, who were desperate to believe he was the One to rescue Israel. John the Baptist had spent enough time in the wilderness to know better.
And so he told everyone, plainly and clearly – there will be one who comes after me – he I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. He will be the one – not me.
He took one look at Jesus, and knew it right away. He saw it in every gesture and movement Jesus made: Here is the One who doesn’t just have that sense of completeness once in a while; he carries it with him, always, at every moment. He sees it everywhere he looks. The Creation is complete, with him in it; somehow just by walking the earth, he completes it. John could see it; Jesus lived it. And they both knew they could die knowing it was all exactly as it should be.
Well, as you can see, I survived the passage; I have come over the mountain and I stand before you now, a little bit more wisened, a little bit humbled, and opened way up. I pray that each one of you will share with me this sense of completeness that I was blessed with last night; and I pray that you share with me this sense of awe in the face of our great and mysterious God, Creator of the Wild-ness and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our companion along the way, who brings us into unity with the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, now and forever.