Incense & Urine
Advent 3A on Matthew 11:2-11 at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Savannah
+May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
“When John [the Baptist] heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (Matt 11:2-3). You can almost hear the desperation in
this question from John, “Has my life’s work born fruit? Are you the messiah? Are you coming to deliver me and all of us from this time of trial? Are you coming in great power and great glory, Jesus? Or, shall I wait for another? Should I give up on you?”
As Don preached here last week, nobody likes having a John the Baptist in their life. He’s always asking uncomfortable questions, always pointing out difficult truth. Here, John’s doing it to Jesus, “Where the heck are you, Jesus? I’m in prison for this movement, for this Gospel I’m in chains, this forgiveness of sins you’re proclaiming. What are you doing? Are you coming for me and all of us?”
Jesus answers John by saying, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt 11:4-6).
We don’t see John’s response in the Bible, but I’m pretty sure it was something like, “Lovely, Jesus.” //
“The rest of us, in John’s situation, would be more [likely] to say, ‘Good for the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and the temporarily dead. You may notice, however, Jesus, that I am still in prison[!]” In other words, we go looking for God and God doesn’t give us what we’re looking for. We’re still left hungry.
Most of you know I wasn’t raised a Christian and by the time I got to Durham, NC, for seminary, I was a non-denominational evangelical used to flashy churches, contemporary music, large crowds, sleek buildings, and thriving ministry of all kinds steeped in suburban American culture.
When I moved to Durham, though, I had trouble finding a church. I prayed to Jesus, asking him to lead me from Sunday to Sunday, and yet I heard and felt nothing. Similar to John the Baptist in today’s Gospel, I became a bit impatient with God.
But I didn’t notice the continual invitation to join my roommate, Leigh, at her tiny, little Episcopal church on Main Street. My first Sunday in Durham I joined her and twenty three other people for 9 AM worship in the historic greystone church with well-worn wooden pews that felt stifling to me. I was handed a bulletin but didn’t know what The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 was or how to match the numbers in the bulletin to the pages in The Hymnal 1982. Leigh patiently turned my pages for me as I fumbled.
As lost as I was, I noticed the smallness of the crowd, the lackluster singing, the wrong notes played on the organ, the three-person choir belting loudly to make up for their sparse numbers. I noticed that the preaching fell flat -- not motivational, not particularly Scriptural. I noticed the odd white dresses on the ministers up front, the faded silk chasuble, the strange formality and stiff Eucharistic Ministers. I noticed the odd smell in that little church: a faint mixture of incense and urine. I decided these Episcopalians were mad. In my mind, I told myself that God was absent in this place. Despite their faithful presence in worship, Monday through Friday, at Morning and Evening Prayer, despite their family-style meals with the homeless from Main Street, I crossed St. Joseph’s off my list.
Months later, I still couldn’t decide on a church. I didn’t feel the Spirit anywhere. Desperate for community, I followed Leigh to Morning Prayer on weekdays at St. Joseph’s, talking with the ten others over the simple breakfast that followed. Sundays, I’d drag myself to churches and return home disappointed. Sometimes, I’d go with her to Compline at a neighbor’s house. During the brief intercessory period, I’d ask God to show me my church.
Until one day in December, when Justin, a faithful member of St. Joseph’s a few years my senior, pulled me aside. Justin was hard-nosed and had loud opinions that would make John the Baptist proud. I didn’t much like Justin, another reason I didn’t like St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church. But Justin took me aside during breakfast and asked me why I wasn’t coming to St. Joseph’s on Sundays, even though I came for prayer and breakfast throughout the week. Annoyed at his prying, I gave him my frustrated truth. I looked him in the eye and told him, “I don’t feel God here. The church is sad and tiny with only about 25 people in attendance, a quarter-time priest who can’t preach good sermons, a quarter time organist who misses notes, a three person choir who can’t sing, the place smells like all the homeless guys who hang around here. This place is full of problems. I don’t see God at work here. I’m looking for God to show up.” I let him have it and thought, “That’ll shut him up!”
But Justin wouldn’t take no for an answer. Brilliantly, his response was perfect, “It’s true. The church is small and struggling, the priest is only here 10 hours a week, the preaching is bad, the music is bad, the smell is bad. But you’re 100% wrong about one thing: God in Jesus Christ shows up, here, every single time. When we pray, when we celebrate Eucharist, Jesus has promised to be among us. If you, on your high horse, can’t see Jesus despite all the issues, here, then maybe you should move on. But you can’t call yourself a Christian and not see Christ among these people.”
I was dumbfounded for a moment.
Then, I was angry and embarrassed. This is not the way most churches do newcomer’s ministry! I don’t remember what happened thereafter, all I know is that I was furious with Justin’s gall. But, after some time had passed, I realized he was right. That Jesus had promised “where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am among them” (Matt 18:20). Jesus had said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). God was in the wrong notes, the terrible singing, the paltry numbers, the faint smell of urine as we prayed and fed the homeless. How had I missed God’s work among these very faithful people? Who was I to judge them for appearances?
I realized how shallow I had been, how selfish and self-serving it was to judge a church by my feelings instead of the faithful work of Christ in their midst. It wasn’t massive, it wasn’t glitzy, but it was Jesus, for sure. The blind received sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, and the poor had good news brought to them (Matt 11:4-5). And I hadn’t seen it until that moment when my John the Baptist told me the difficult truth I needed to hear. So, wherever you are, thank you, Justin, for telling me the cold, hard truth.
I don’t think this is at all out of place in Advent, this supposedly joyous time of year. Because this time of year isn’t just pure joy. It’s also mixed with dashed hopes and unmet expectations. And yet, the story of John and Jesus ought to remind us that there will be an answer to our prayers, sooner or later. While it’s true that John gets beheaded and Jesus goes to the cross. But there is resurrection, there is Easter, there is New Life beyond the mundane disappointments we know. God was right under my nose, and because I heeded the cold-hard prophetic truth enough to see, I saw the subtle glory of God at work around me.
Thanks be to God, who always comes among us in worship, in service and at Christmas every year, without fail.
May you listen to your John the Baptist. May you stop enough to see God at work, too, this holiday season. Amen.