Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Baying at the Moon

A fellow pastor told my wife about a cartoon from The New Yorker.  I can’t reproduce the cartoon here because that would cost money, but you can find it here.  A pack of wolves is standing on a cliff baying at the moon.  One wolf says:  “My question is:  Are we making an impact?”  I suspect this question hung behind John the Baptist’s question to Jesus in Matthew 11.  John is languishing in prison because he had spoken truth to power; John told Herod that he should not “have” his brother’s wife.  It appears John thought that Jesus was bringing the final chapter of the Kingdom of God on his coattails; this was going to be the end of the powers and principalities that Paul later will write about.  Now John sits in a jail cell.  Herod still dines lavishly in his palace, and Jesus does not appear to have Caesar, Herod, or even the Sadducees on the ropes.  Small farmers still lose their land under crushing debt. The Romans still tax the life out of the peasantry.  Cynical and self-serving religious leaders still manipulate the faithful for power and gain.   Perhaps John is asking himself:  Have I just been baying at the moon?  He has paid a great price for his faithfulness, and perhaps he senses that he soon will pay with his very head.  That kind of thing can make one weigh the benefit and costs of a chosen course of action.
John sends his disciples to Jesus to find out if he was mistaken; the disciples give voice to John’s doubts. They ask:  “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus does not answer their question directly, rather he replies: 
Go back and tell John what you hear and see:  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf they hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News is preached to the poor.
If you know your Hebrew Bible, that means “no, you need not look for someone else.”  The coming of the Kingdom looks different than what John expected.  He cannot see the deep undercurrents moving across the land as Jesus teaches and heals. He cannot know of the passion and the resurrection to come.   He has no way of imagining that Pentecost celebration in Jerusalem.  I suspect, however, that he is satisfied when his disciples bring back their report.  I suspect he dies in peace, knowing that he was not just baying at the moon when he announced:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' "
John was making an impact.

Sometimes we wonder whether we are making an impact or are simply baying at the moon.  Periodically people would come by my church in Philadelphia with all sorts of problems, some of them generations in the making.  Often folks seemed to believe that their problems could be solved with $50 cash; I knew they could not.  A situation that took 20 years or more to develop could not be solved in an afternoon.  Sometimes I felt as if I were just baying at the moon, leaving my community untouched, unchanged, unredeemed.

One day a young man knocked on the thick wooden door of the church.  The thud echoed through the empty halls.  I answered that thud as I always did.  The young man at the door extended to me his hand; it was red and swollen—deeply infected.  He was in obvious pain.  I offered to take him to the emergency room.  He refused, saying he had no money to pay.  I assured him that they had to see him whether he could pay or not; it was the law.  He replied that they would send him bill after bill after bill, and he would never be able to pay it.  It was 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.  I began looking for a clinic who would see him for free.  I found one 12 blocks away.  They closed at 5:00, and he had to be through their door before they closed.  We raced to the clinic, and I pulled up on the sidewalk to deposit him at the door.  It was 4:55.  He went inside, and I never saw him again.  Not long after that I moved to Ohio.

Four years later I was back at the church, and a woman there came up to me and said that some guy was by the other day looking for me.  He asked about that bald white guy who used to be the pastor.  She told him I had moved away.  He replied: 

Well if you ever see him tell him this.  I came here one day with a messed up hand.  He helped me find a doctor—took me there himself.  Tell him that I’m off drugs; my mother is off drugs too.  I’m married, got two sons; and I’m a deacon in a church now.  I got right with God, and God got my life right.
Like John, we have no idea what God is doing through us and around us and, sometimes, in spite of us.  We cannot know the things we set in motion through acts of faithfulness.  We are not just baying at the moon, whether we ever know it or not.  So keep howling and trust the rest to God.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State