Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Individual Faith, Divine Gift

January 16, 2018 - The Confession of St. Peter, transferred

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Human beings have been attributing spiritual significance to life for at least 40,000 years. Throughout human development, we have learned new ways to describe the sacred and have gained new insights into the divine will for humanity. We have found names for God, even if they are sometimes unnamable. We have produced images of God, even if they are sometimes forbidden. We have adapted the stories of God and God's people to fit our modern understanding, even if they are supposedly unchangeable. But, throughout it all, through each of our intellectual developments, despite all of our advancements in the psychology of religion, God is not what we make him but who God reveals God's self to be.

Although it's on the calendar for Thursday, in our parish, we are celebrate the feast of the Confession of St. Peter. Not the feast of St. Peter, which is observed in conjunction with St. Paul on June 29. It's the feast of Peter's confession--the moment when Peter said to Jesus, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!" There are other occasions in the life of the church when we celebrate not an individual but an event, and the feast of Peter's confession gives us the opportunity to think about the nature and content of our faith.

In Matthew 16, during a period of intense conflict with the religious elites of his day, Jesus steps aside with his disciples and asks them, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they reply, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Then, Jesus changes the question, sharpening it, and asks, "But who do you say that I am?" to which Peter replies, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." To us that might seem obvious. By this point, we've made it through 15 and a half chapters of Matthew's gospel account. We've watched the disciples watch their master do the sorts of things that no ordinary human being could do. But Peter's insight--this confession of faith--is more than just a connecting of the dots. This is God reaching down and speaking to and through Peter so that humanity might finally see what God is doing through God's Son.

Jesus' response to Peter makes that clear: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." God is the one who showed Peter the truth. Sure, the epiphany involved Peter's intellect and experience. But the inclination to trust God--to believe that God was doing something particular in the life and ministry of Jesus--came from above. God pulled the veil back. God spoke to Peter's heart. God showed him who Jesus was, and God does the same for us.

God is not what we make God to be. God is who God is, and we see that which God has revealed to us. "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Jesus asked his disciples. Well, who do people say that he is? Some consider him a wise teacher. Some lean on him as friend. Some think of him as a spiritual guide. Some make him out to be their personal champion. Some use him as the poster child for their own cause--their moralism, their charity, their crusade against other-minded people. And you might find some sympathetic connection between what matters to you and the gospel of Jesus, but the Son of Man is not the prophet you want him to be. He is the Lord. And to follow him means to confess him as Lord of your life. He's in charge, not you. He isn't what you make him out to be. You are the one who was made through him.

We might like to believe what we want. We might decide to leave aside those dogma that we find unattractive. We might want add those twists of our own creation. Our understanding of who God is and our articulation of what God wants may be grounded in our own context, but the truth of the gospel is not relative. It's more than doctrine or dogma. It's more than right or wrong. It is God who is God. And the faith that we confess is not the application of our minds to a specific set of beliefs but the yielding of our lives--our hearts and souls and minds and bodies--to the Lord. May we, like Peter, find the gift of faith. May God give us the ability to set aside our own constructions and cling to God alone.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Speaking the Truth of Love

January 14, 2018 – Epiphany 2B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? It’s not the kind of question that most of us would ask in mixed company, but Nathaniel was only speaking to his good friend Philip, so that kind of prejudice could be overlooked. Nazareth was a Galilean town about forty miles southwest of Bethsaida, where Nathaniel and Philip were from. Those boys had grown up on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and, although we do not know exactly what they had against the people of Nazareth, we can imagine that it was the sort of resentment and rivalry that grows between small towns in a rural community. Maybe those who made their living on the sea looked down on those who lived their whole lives on dry land. Or maybe they didn’t like the fact that Nazareth was so close to the border with Samaria, close enough for the despised half-breed Samaritans to sneak across. Whatever it was, Nathaniel didn’t like Nazarenes, and he wasn’t afraid to say it.

Perhaps we shouldn’t fault Nathaniel for his out-of-hand dismissal of Jesus. When Philip came and announced to his friend that they had found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, the added detail that he had come from Nazareth clashed violently with all of Nathaniel’s expectations. The anointed one wasn’t supposed to come from Nazareth. The prophets made it clear that the leader of God’s people was to come from Bethlehem, the city that had produced David, Israel’s greatest king. Nathaniel didn’t need to hear any more than that. He knew enough about that filthy place to make up his mind. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asked with an incredulous sneer on his face. Those were tough words, the kind of words that cut off communication, but Philip wasn’t willing to give up. “Come and see,” he said to Nathaniel, so they set out to find this notorious Nazarene.

We can imagine what sort of expectations Nathaniel had about this forced encounter, and Jesus seems to have taken advantage of them. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus said to the reluctant Bethsaidan as he approached. The words shocked Nathaniel. They were the spear of truth thrust right into his heart. Older English translations like the King James Version help us understand what Jesus really meant. In them, Jesus identifies Nathaniel as “an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Guile is a word which means “deceitful cunning.” In other words, before Nathaniel could get out a single dismissive epithet, Jesus said to him, “You’re the kind of Israelite who says exactly what you think and hides your true feelings from no one.” Jesus wasn’t interested in pretending for the sake of polite company either. He called him out, taking a jab at Nathaniel’s prejudice, forcing him to bring it out into the open.

“Where did you get to know me?” the astonished brother said. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus replied. Was this some sort of supernatural insight—an instantaneous sizing-up-from-a-distance that only the Son of God could make? Or had Jesus simply walked past Nathaniel when he wasn’t looking and heard him utter the kind of short-sighted rhetoric that the Bethsaidan often used? Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Jesus had spoken the kind of veneer-shattering truth that opens the door for real transformation: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathaniel declared.

Something powerful happens inside of us when the depths of our soul become fully known and we discover that we are loved anyway. This is the profound truth of the gospel, and it is transformational precisely because it is the perfect antidote to our human nature. But it cannot work its power within us if we refuse to listen to the truth. We don’t like truth-telling. We don’t like it when the cracks and faults in our personality are brought into the light. We would rather hide from that truth than encounter it face to face. It is hard enough to have the mistakes that we have made pointed out to us, but it is paralyzing to have our intrinsic flaws put on display.

Whenever someone speaks of our prejudice and privilege and racism, we shut down. We clam up. We lash out. “Not me,” we protest. And our fear of finding ourselves in the crosshairs of righteousness makes us reluctant to speak the truth to those we love. That’s what happened to Eli the priest, who knew that his sons were defrauding the people of Israel when they brought their sacrifices to God but who did nothing about it. Ours, too, is a culture of polite silence. We laugh at friends’ off-color jokes and quietly delete their e-mails because we worry that speaking out might cost us our friendship. But doesn’t that mean that we value their affection more than we value the truth?

Samuel reminds us that God’s judgment is coming upon those who refuse to speak the truth and that God’s harshest judgment is reserved for those in positions of religious authority who choose silence over the disquieting, unsettling, relationship-threatening words of truth. As the custodian of the Holy Spirit, the church is God’s agent of transformation in the world. If the leaders of the church will not speak the truth, then we are guilty of a grave sin. We are guilty of robbing the gospel of its transformative power because the only way that we can be changed into true citizens of God’s kingdom is if we allow God’s truth to confront the depths of our brokenness, our sinfulness, our prejudice, and our racism. Only then can we know what it means to be loved despite our sin. Nathaniel’s example gives us hope because the radical transformation that he underwent shows us what happens when we encounter the Son of God and allow his truth to penetrate our heart. Only then can we leave our prejudice behind and say to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!”

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Haiti? Do you know what is the largest diocese in The Episcopal Church? It’s not Texas or Virginia or New York. It’s Haiti with its 84,000 members. I’m not talking about the Anglican Communion; I mean right here in our very own Episcopal Church. That’s what comes out of Haiti—our brother and sister Episcopalians who seek to love God with their whole hearts, strengths, souls, and minds and to love their neighbors as themselves. Because racism denies the God-given equal value of every human being, it is antithetical to the Christian faith, and you don’t have to watch the evening news to find it. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of West Town? Can anything good come out of East Acres? Jesus sees the truth inside of all of us, and he loves us just the same. He knows our prejudices, yet he loves us despite them. And a true encounter with that love takes those prejudices away because love like that has no limits. If God knows the depths of our sinfulness and loves us anyway, who is it that God doesn’t love?
As followers of Jesus, we are people of that indiscriminate love. God’s love knows no race or color or nationality. It leaves no room for prejudice or racism. If we are going to be the people of God, we must hear the truth about that unconditional love and speak that truth to those in positions of power and to those whom we call family and friend. Now is the time for God’s love to transform our lives. Now is the time for God’s love to transform this world. Will we stand up and speak out in the name of love, or will we be silent and allow evil and hatred to persist where love yearns to take root?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Eli, His Sons, and Organized Religion

I am planning to preach on 1 Samuel 3 this Sunday, and I've heard from several of my colleagues that they plan to do the same. The calling of Samuel is a rich story. This boy had been dedicated to the Lord's service by his mother Hannah, who brought him to Eli when he was barely weaned. One night years later, the Lord stood in the temple while Samuel lay in his bed and called to him. After missing the significance of the Lord's voice three times, Eli suggested that his young assistant invite the Lord to speak. As I wrote about on Tuesday, the lectionary gives us the option of stopping there with Samuel's invitation to the Lord to speak, but to me it seems that the church needs to hear the rest of the story.

But, before we can hear the part about the prophecy against Eli and his sons being fulfilled, we need to know what they did to deserve the Lord's judgment. I spent some time this morning rereading 1 Samuel 1-4, and I was reminded of the tension that the author presents between the leadership of Eli and Samuel. We read in 1 Samuel 2 that Eli's sons were stealing from the Lord. People would bring their sacrifices to the tent of meeting (no temple yet), but they would remove some of the meat from the boiling pot for themselves and take some of the burnt offering before it was burnt, insisting that it be given to them raw or else they would respond with violence. Later on, we read that they were having sex with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting, which, given the power differential between the sons and the women, is not unlike a boss pressuring an administrative assistant to have sex with him. And, throughout it all, Eli knew what was going on and he did almost nothing.

Like our contemporary experience of sexual harassment and clergy sex scandals, the narrative here is complicated. The Bible tells us that Eli spoke to his sons about their misdeed, saying, "Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad." In other words, everyone knew what was going on. But, when Eli spoke to his sons, they refused to listen to him. As the reason for their refusal, the narrator adds the complicating detail that "it was the will of the Lord to kill them," which opens up the need for another post that attempts to make sense of the post hoc perspective that allows a theology of causality, but, again, that's for another day. Another complicating detail comes at the beginning of Eli's response, when the narrator introduces Eli's culpability by letting us know that he "was very old." Later on, the narrator will let us know that Solomon's advanced age becomes a mitigating factor for his decision to turn away from the Lord and serve the gods of his many wives, and this detail seems to be placed here to let the reader know that Eli wasn't as sharp as he once was, suggesting that his ability to curtail his sons' wickedness may have been diminished. These factors may increase our sympathy for Eli, but they do not excuse his guilt.

At the end of 1 Samuel 2, an unnamed "man of God" comes to Eli and delivers the prophecy of his family's upcoming destruction. We don't hear Eli's response until the end of this Sunday's reading, when Samuel confirms the prophecy and Eli says, "It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him." This faithful response, a further complicating factor, offers a fruitful direction for a sermon this Sunday.

Eli, as far as we can tell, was faithful in his service to the Lord, but, in his management of his sons, he was negligent. He knew the problem, and he was the only person in a position to correct it, but he was weak--in body, in mind, and in spiritual constitution. He spoke the truth to his sons, but he did not go further than that. Even his words to them--"it is not a good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad"--suggests that Eli was more concerned with public relations than rooting out the source of the evil. In his address to his sons, he names for the reader the reason this is such a problem: "If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the Lord; but if someone sins against the Lord, who can make intercession." These sons were priests. They were responsible for helping God's people set things right, but they themselves were the problem. How can those whose job it is to fix the problem fix the problem when they are the problem?

What happens when the police officer become the criminal? What happens when the firefighter becomes the arsonist? What happens when the general becomes the traitor? What happens when the clergyperson becomes the apostate? What happens when the church becomes the golden calf?

We need a Samuel. When those whose job it is to bring God's people back to God through the proclamation of the gospel and its invitation to repentance and new birth through Jesus Christ stand up for themselves instead of God, exist for their own sake instead of the salvation of the world, and confuse the unadulterated theology of grace for a system that edifies itself instead of the lives of those it serves, we need a prophet to speak the hard truth to us. I'm not sure that Sunday's sermon is the time for that. I've never been confident in my ability to speak the truth as Samuel does. But I'm listening to God's word, asking God to speak to me the way that God spoke to Samuel and Samuel spoke to Eli.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tough News

Doctors have to give heartbreaking news to patients and their families all the time. Advisors to business and political leaders have to disappoint their bosses on a regular basis. Sometimes attorneys have to tell their clients that they need to prepare for the worst. Clergy, on the other hand, are rarely bearers of bad news.

I have a colleague who has had to tell children that their parents have died. Sometimes rectors have to tell their vestries that there isn't enough money in the bank to pay the utility bills. As a boss, I have had to fire people before. For the most part, however, clergy are in the business of sharing good news. God has given us good news to share: the truth of God's unconditional love and the promise of salvation through God's Son, Jesus Christ. Still, that good news requires truth-telling, and truth-telling can be tough.

In 1 Samuel 3, we hear the dramatic story of the Lord speaking to young Samuel as he lay awake one night. "Samuel, Samuel," the Lord called. Not knowing what it meant to hear the Lord's voice, Samuel thought it was Eli, his master. After mistaking the Lord's voice for Eli's three times, finally, at the invitation of his master, Samuel responds the fourth time by inviting the Lord to speak.

On Sunday, we have the option of stopping there: "Speak, for your servant is listening." But the richness of the call that shapes Samuel's life into that of a great prophet isn't disclosed until the verses that follow--optional verses for this Sunday. What does the Lord say to young Samuel? "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end...I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."

That made for an interesting breakfast conversation the next day. When Eli asked Samuel to tell him what the Lord had spoken to him, Samuel didn't want to say. He was afraid to disclose the vision he had been given. No one likes to bring bad news--especially to someone who has cared for us the way that Eli had cared for Samuel. But, at Eli's insisting, Samuel told him everything, and Eli accepted it.

God loves each one of us without condition or reservation. That's true for the holiest saint and the wickedest sinner. That love has the power to transform us from broken, self-serving people into shining servants of God. But we cannot know that love or its transformation without hearing the truth: we are sinners. Although made in God's image, the evil within us has corrupted our nature. We may not sin as dramatically as Eli and his sons did, but we cannot please God without God's help--without that love that God is already bestowing upon us, the love that has the power to shape us into the children God has created us to be. We may be good, but we are not good enough. The good news of God's unconditional love evaporates if we pretend that we are good enough to deserve it. We aren't. And God's love is even more amazing because of it.

No one likes hearing the preacher deliver a sermon about sin and wickedness, but we can't hear the message of forgiveness and love until we've confronted the truth. Now the preacher has to figure out how to deliver the bad news in a way that opens our ears to hear the good news that always follows it.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Illumined not Enlightened

On Monday mornings, I take my first look at the readings for the upcoming Sunday, and, if I'm preaching, I can usually tell what direction the sermon will go. This morning, however, when I turned to the propers for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, I didn't make it past the first half of the collect before I started scratching my head: "Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory..."

The website I use to read the lessons is lectionarypage.net, and they always post the contemporary form of the collect. Sometimes, when I get to the early service having not practiced the traditional form, I stumble on a word like inestimable, which has been replaced in the contemporary version with something like immeasurable. So, this morning, when I saw the word "illumined," I did a double-take. That seems like the sort of antiquated word that Thomas Cranmer would have used but that the editors of the 1979 BCP would have changed. I so rarely use illumined in a sentence. Isn't a word like enlightened more familiar? Doesn't it mean the same thing? Well, sort of but not really.

Before looking the words up, my sense was that enlightened, though based on a luminous referent (i.e. "light"), has a stronger tie to the spiritual, mental, or metaphorical sense of shedding light on something. In other words, enlightened has more to do with the immaterial than the physical. I supposed that illumined, although certainly applicable to mental or immaterial subjects, connoted a more literal, physical sense of light shining upon something. For example, one would normally not say, "I wish this dark path through the woods were more effectively enlightened," while a peculiar sort of person might say, "I wish this dark path through the woods were more effectively illumined." Sound right?

Then I went and looked the words up. It turns out that the oldest recorded English use of the word illumine, which came around 1340, meant "to enlighten spiritually; to convert; to inspire" (see the Oxford English Dictionary). The more common definitions in contemporary English, however, are as I expected: "to light up, shed light upon; to shine upon or into" or "to give light or sight to (the eyes)." As we would expect, the most common definition for the verb enlighten is "to give spiritual knowledge or insight to" and the OED notes that, when the word means "to remove dimness or blindness" it is chiefly figurative.

In this season after the Epiphany, we celebrate the light that has come into the world and pray that God would make us instruments of light. The rest of the collect for Sunday asks that we "may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth." But, in that same prayer, we acknowledge that the light comes to us (at least in part) from God's Word and Sacraments, which illumine--not enlighten--us. Why the difference? And here's my point.

The faithful disciple of Jesus Christ need not been fully enlightened in order to reflect the light of life to the world. All she needs is to have her life illumined by God's gifts of Word and Sacrament. That's where I am. As a student of the Bible, as an individual who has been baptized into the body of Christ, and as a regular recipient of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, I am having the truth of my life illumined bit by bit. There's still a long, long way to go. Were we to pray "...enlightened by your Word and Sacraments," we might give ourselves the impression that only when we have reached full understanding are we ready to shine the light of Christ to the world, and that's not true. To the extent that God's Word and Sacraments are shining light into our life, we have begun to glow. This is about the light of God peering unto the depths of our souls in a process of deep self-examination. We don't have to reach the mountain top in order to show others the light that has reached us. Today, I'm thankful for a peculiar word choice, and I pray that God would continue to shine God's light into my heart every day, bringing more and more from darkness into light.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Children of God

January 3, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

One day during high school, a friend walked up to me and said, "Hey, your dad is here looking for you." "Thanks," I said and started to walk away before turning around and saying, "Wait, how do you know my dad?" My friend paused and smiled and said, "I don't, but there's this man standing outside the office who looks just like you, and I knew he must be your father." Actually, we don't look that much alike. I'm a pretty good mix of both of my parents, but the resemblance between me and my father is pretty clear.
People seem to enjoy telling me whom each of my children looks like. Everyone gets into the game when a child is little. When a baby comes into the world, even before her body has taken its post-partum shape, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles delight in saying that she has her mother's eyes or her cheeks are just like her great-grandfather's. I read somewhere that, as a biological remnant of our genetic ancestors, all newborns look like their father so that the father won't eat them when they're born. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that sinful pride that comes from seeing how children have inherited qualities from me and my family.
I bet the author of 1 John had a big family because he seems to understand at a deep level that children look and act like their parents. Like a receding hairline or a pronounced paunch, he takes for granted the fact that children will turn out just like their parents in almost unavoidable ways. His epistle is mostly about love, and, in the third chapter, he exhorts his readers to be loving children of their loving, heavenly father. In a way that is so simple as to escape our understanding, John reminds us that, as children of God, we are children of love.
At Christmas time, we celebrate God's adoption of the human race through the incarnation. Yesterday, Steve Pankey reminded us of what Athanasius wrote: "God became man so that man might become God." John believes this deeply. His faith is built on it. John writes, "Beloved, we are God's children now...Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning...Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God." Don't overthink it, John seems to say: "Let no one deceive you." It really is that simple: "The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters." The implication, of course, is that those who do what is right and who love their brothers and sisters are children of God.
Can it be that simple? Those who have been born of God do not sin? News flash: we're all sinners. Does John really mean that anyone who sins isn't born of God and is a child of the Devil? Not quite. I think John has an understanding of sin and what it means to belong to God that twenty-first-century Christianity could really use. Instead of reversing his words and applying after-the-fact logic to John's description of life in Christ, let's use his approach--his belonging-first, behavior-second model--for describing the life of God's children.
"Beloved, we are children of God." John knows this is true. It's a part of who he is. In the same way that I know that I am my parents' child, John knows that he and the Christians to whom he writes belong to God as God's children. Sure, this community has its ups and downs. John hints at some false teachers and conflict within the community. He wouldn't stress the importance of loving one another if he wasn't concerned that they might have forgotten what love like that looks like. But John doesn't say, "If you want to be children of God, then you'd better love one another," the way that so many contemporary law-peddling, false-gospel preachers say. John starts with the most important premise: you are a child of God. Because of that, you are a child of righteousness and love--not the other way around.
Even in my worst, most frustrated moments, I never say to my children, "If you want to be my child and belong to this family, you must..." Instead, I say things like, "Because you are my child and because you are a part of this family, you must..." To an exasperated six-year-old that may not sound like a big difference, but, theologically speaking, I believe that they are worlds apart. Why do my children do chores? Why are they respectful to adults? Why are they nice to others? Why do they share with those who do not have anything? For the same reason that they will someday have the same mannerisms and characteristic quirks that their parents do: because they are our children. That's how we behave because it's who we are--not the other way around.
We are children of God. That means we look like our heavenly father and act like our heavenly father. We haven't always been this way. The seed of divinity has been planted within our nature through the incarnation of the Son of God. We still have some growing up to do. But we shouldn't undermine the power of God's redemption by making it conditional on our behavior. Instead, as John writes, our behavior is conditional on our identity as God's children. You are God's beloved child. Because God has claimed you, called you, and adopted you as God's own, you are shaped by that divine parenthood. The invitation is to know your identity as a child of God so fully that you and everyone around you knows it. May the world take one look at us and know who our father is.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fame That Does Not Compute

January 2, 2018

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Since New Year's Eve was on a Sunday, by the time 8:30pm rolled around, I was ready to call it a night. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), I was with friends who wouldn't let me retire early. I wasn't the only one flagging before nine, so, to keep the energy up, we decided to play Balderdash. Do you know the game Balderdash? One player reads a clue from a card, and everyone else makes up an answer to the clue. If it's a word, we all make up a definition. If it's an acronym, we all make up what it stands for. If it's a movie title, we all make up a plot description. My favorite category was the names of not-so-famous people.

Was Ted Anderson the first person to play table tennis for twenty-four consecutive hours? Was Ted Anderson the inventor of the cathode ray tube? Was Ted Anderson a dishonest senator from Idaho? Was Ted Anderson the husband of the first female firefighter in New York City? Was Ted Anderson a back-up singer for James Taylor? In Balderdash, there are hundreds of game cards, and on each of them is a different person who has accomplished something notable almost without being noticed. The game wouldn't work if anyone at the table actually knew who any of those people are. Imagine trying to create the game by sorting through a long, long list of accomplishments to pick out the distinctive ones that everyone would recognize as significant even though no one would know who the people actually are.

John the Baptist was wildly famous but almost disappeared into obscurity. Hundreds--perhaps thousands--of people were leaving their homes in the city to travel out to the countryside to hear him preach. He had disciples of his own, people who had given up their career to be with him every day. His message of repentance and renewal was so invigorating that unnumbered multitudes left their familiar religious contexts to seek his strange but captivating method down on the banks of the Jordan River. And, when the religious authorities came to pay him a visit and verify the phenomenon that he had become, he side-stepped stardom as quickly as he had found it.

"Who are you?" they asked. "Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet we've been waiting for? And, at every turn, he denied it. "I'm not like that," he said. "I'm not a great figure that follows that kind of pattern. I'm just out here preaching, crying out that it's time to get ready for something new."

"But baptism is about conversion," they replied. "Why are you trying to convert these people through the waters of baptism if you're not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet?" And John answered them, "Because this isn't about me. It was never about me. There is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I would not even presume to be his slave. All I am and all I do is about preparing for the one who is to come."

A move like that just doesn't make sense. Human nature is too strong. John had a good thing going. He had a successful ministry. Huge crowds were coming to hear him preach. They would happily have given over their wealth to receive the hope that he offered. He had a steady income stream. He could milk this for long, long time. The local paper would be happy to have him write a weekly column. Maybe he could write a book or two. After a while, he could travel to other parts of the Empire and charge a speaker's fee wherever he went. All he had to do was give these authorities a convincing answer. As Winston famously said to Ray when the Ghostbusters were confronted by Gozer the Gozarian, "When someone asks if you're a god, you say yes!"

But that wasn't John. John was in the real repentance business. John was all about letting go of those things that lead us away from God, dependence on God, knowledge of God, fellowship with God, and that means letting go of ego. John was in it for Jesus even though Jesus hadn't shown up yet. Ironically, that's what he became famous for--for not wanting to be the center of attention. John the Baptist is the perfect setup man, the one whose spotlight is always promised to someone else. Without the one to whom he pointed the crowds, it didn't matter how good his preaching was.

What about us? What will the obscure accomplishment of our ultimately obscure life be? Will we yield center stage as consistently as John did? Whether as lawyer, doctor, athlete, stay-at-home dad, scientist, teacher, or preacher, will we use the attention we receive to show the world ourselves or the one whom we are still getting ready for?