The hospital patient asked, “Are you Catholic?” “No,” the chaplain said. The patient
replied, “Then you must be Baptist.” As far as the patient was concerned, the chaplain simply
had to be one or the other: Catholic or Baptist. Mark, the chaplain, was actually an Episcopal
priest. He knew the patient was doing what it’s easy to do - seeing religion in a “binary” way.
For the patient, Christianity didn’t seem all that complicated.
Those of you who listen to me preach - and those who read my sermons, posted on All
Saints’ website - you’ve heard me talk often about the binary, “either-or” way of looking at life.
As I have come to understand it, real life, including religion - life is far more “both-and” than it
is “either-or.” We can easily reduce a choice in our lives to an “either-or,” but life is often much
more complicated than either one thing or the other.
Now, sometimes, life is not both-and. My birthright Baptist wife Eyleen once reminded
me: “Tom, it’s John the Baptist, not John the Episcopalian.” I haven’t forgotten her wisdom.
And yet, sometimes, the ornery part of me wants to argue, “Why can’t John be both? Can’t we
make John an honorary Episcopalian?”
So…are you more high church or low church? These days, are you feeling more like a
sinner or a saint? Are you happy or sad today? In this holiday season, when we hear that song
I’ve come to hate - “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” - I want to shout, “No, it’s not!
Not for some people!” Actually, for all of us, if we’re honest, it can be both the most wonderful
and the most terrible time of the year. Both-and.
Especially if you’ve lost a beloved someone since last Christmas. The people in our lives
who have died and gone to God are both absent from us, no longer living, and yet, they can be
quite present to us, especially at this most wonderful, most terrible time of the year. Both death
and life are all wrapped up together, especially in December.
I suggest “both-and” is also part of being an Episcopal Christian. What do we say every
Sunday in our Eucharistic Prayer? Both “Christ has died” and “Christ is risen.” The story of
Jesus the Christ is about both his dying and his rising, both his death and his resurrection. We
also say “Christ will come again.” He comes, both in Advent and in every other season. Christ,
both crucified and risen, comes again, and again, and again.
Even our Advent Wreath is “both-and.” Today we take a moment to rejoice on what is
called Gaudete Sunday. We take a break from our waiting and watching, from our trying to be
more aware and more awake. Today, let’s rejoice in the fact that Jesus is coming - soon and
very soon! Yes, let’s rejoice - Gaudete! - because we are waiting for both the first coming of
Jesus, the birth of the Christ Child; and the second coming of Christ, at a day and a time we both
do not and cannot yet know; and…
There is a third coming: Jesus comes to us, every day - in ways we both see and don’t
have a clue how to see, without help. The coming of Jesus is “both-and-and-and…
Meanwhile, back in today’s Gospel lesson, John the Baptist is testifying, under oath. An
official delegation of religious leaders has come from Jerusalem to interrogate him. They want
John to tell the truth and nothing but the truth about something truly important. That’s why
they ask him the mother of all questions: “Who are you?” (1:19)
John’s first, second and third answers are all negative. “I am not the Messiah…not
Elijah…not the prophet” (1:20-21). “What, then?” the leaders ask, clearly frustrated with John’s
non-answers. They want a real one. “What do you say about yourself?” (1:22). Finally, John
describes who he knows himself to be: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make
straight the way of the Lord’” (1:23).
When John considers who he is, who he really is, he knows, among other things, that
he’s literally a cousin of Jesus. John tries to live and preach what his cousin believes, what Jesus
will preach. Jesus says the kingdom of God is somewhere between already here and not-yet-
here. It’s another “both-and.” Like the “both-and” in us.
When it comes to following Jesus, when it comes to living a life in Christ, we kind of
know what to do. We have the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, our Baptismal
Covenant. When it comes to those teachings, we already have a pretty good idea of what God is
calling us to do in the living of our lives. But - or should I say and - we’re not yet ready, we’re
never really prepared for what God may call us to do next.
I have been a priest now for thirty-seven years. I already know how to be a priest. But in
six weeks I will no longer be a priest in charge of a church. And while I have an idea, I don’t
really know what being a “priest at large” will actually look and be like. I’m both already and not
yet the priest I’ll become, the priest God is now calling me to be.
There’s a lot more to John the Baptist than what I’ve shared with you today. I suggest
you check out the other side of the “Candle of Hope” insert for another “take”on John. For now,
let me leave you with something from Facebook. It’s part of a post by the Bishop of the
Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. One of the things Bishop Craig Loya says he loves about John
the Baptist is: He “reminds us to keep it weird.” He continues:
Pointing to Jesus, surrendering to God's will, instead of insisting on our own, cuts
against every message we receive from (our popular) culture. The gospel of Jesus is
irrational. It’s revolutionary. It challenges all the ways our sinful souls are wired to think and
act. John is a wild man, ranting in the desert, wearing strange clothing, keeping a
questionable diet. The gospel we proclaim and live together should always have something of
John's wild, weirdness.
Who are you? Are you someone who is both wild and weird - or are you both mild and
wearing a beard? Are you both in charge and at large? Are you both already a follower of Jesus
and not yet the Christian you want or need to be in the new year?
Well, then, relax. And welcome! You’re both in good company…and you’re just in time
to get ready for the coming of the Christ child, both soon and very soon.
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
Priest in Charge
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
1508 South White Station Road
Memphis TN 38117