Rev. Adrianne Meier
December 5, 2021
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Unbaiting the Bait and Switch
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Luke 3:1-6 NRSV, emended
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, while he was in the wilderness. John went throughout all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah’s words:
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' 'Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made level, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough roads made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' "
In the earliest legends of the Holy Grail, the knight Perceval meets the Fisher King. The Fisher King suffers from a debilitating injury that leaves him unable to walk or ride a horse. For enjoyment, he is placed in a boat and trolls the pond on his estate for fish. The King invites Perceval to his castle, and, during a sumptuous feast, Perceval witnesses a procession that includes, of all things, the Holy Grail. Perceval is polite, so he thinks, and doesn’t ask about it. The next day, he meets a woman who tells him of his grave mistake. If Perceval had only asked about the procession, the king would be healed, and the Grail would be Perceval’s. The philosopher Simone Weil takes up this story in a discussion about suffering, she claimed the key question wasn’t about the procession, but, more broadly, “What are you going through?”
What Perceval missed was the opportunity to see the suffered not as a symptom or an object of pity, but as a person. In the Christ-event, God sees the world in this way, sees humanity in this way, not as a collection of symptoms of our sins, not as broken and defiled, but as Beloved.
In today’s gospel reading, Luke situates the ministry of John the Baptizer in relation to the power and politics of the day – the Emperor, the three governors of the fallen, promised land, the high priests of a system Rome put in place to sedate and manipulate the people—don’t hate us, they’re your leaders. Understand that Israel at this time was under the thumb of Rome. It was a system of brutal colonization: Jews in Israel were conscripted into serving in the Roman army while Jews in Rome were cast out of the city under penalty of death. The leaders of the Temple were abused, threatened, and manipulated into keeping the so-called Pax Romana, even when the people starved, even when soldiers forced them into labor, even when the Temple was desecrated. Rome, essentially, presented just these two options: assimilate or be crushed.
Unfortunately, the Church has gotten really good at presenting the same options. A bait and switch. We’re great at saying, “You’re welcome here*!” And then, as soon as someone has really settled in, we reveal the footnote to that welcome: you’re welcome here, if you change.
We know, for example, that more and more congregations claim to welcome queer folk, but in order to join the congregation’s ministry, celibacy is required, or renunciation of supposedly sinful ways. You’re welcome here, but you have to change.
You’re welcome here, if you’re a woman, some congregations say. But if you want to lead or preach or speak up, you’ll need to change those dreams.
You’re welcome here, if you’re poor. But you’ll need to learn how to manage your money better, drive a better car, make better choices. It’s time for a change, just a few adjustments.
If you’re disabled, you’re welcome here, but you might encounter steps, moved furniture, signs placed too high, uneven flooring. You’re welcome here, but don’t expect us to change.
Into the mess of his day, John the Baptizer hears the word of God and begins to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Because the crowds eventually gather for baptizing, we assume this call to repentance is for them—for the people. But the crowds aren’t here yet. The call to repentance is for the systems that held the people captive: the tyrants and despots, the co-conspirators and accomplices, the power gained at the people’s expense, the might made by disabling the people. John’s message is of a changed topography. Creation shifts to make way for the Lord. Valleys fill themselves, mountains level themself, paths are made smooth and straight. Whatever might keep the people from gathering is removed. Whatever obstructs the path is obliterated.
We are not responsible for changing others. The hate and enmity isn’t something inside us, Beloved, it is around us, it is the stumbling block on our path. We are responsible for removing those road blocks. We are responsible for making the road straight and smooth so everyone can travel it. We are responsible for journeying on the way together.
Redemption, John proclaims, is on the way. No, it is the way. Redemption is making the way smooth and straight so everyone can walk it—together. Redemption is a path so even we can see our destination on the horizon. Our destination is the cross. And because we have smoothed the path for one another, we will all arrive there together: young and old, genders, races, ethnicities, abilities of all kinds. Whether we walk, limp, wheel, or are carried. We come together up the straight, smooth road to the cross. Redemption is walking together to the cross.
You see, Beloved, our God is a disabled God. Even in the resurrection, Jesus’s hand, feet, and side still gape with the ever-fresh wounds of his crucifixion. The cross is the source of God’s solidarity with anyone whose body, mind, strength, or perception is ever a source of suffering, and the cross is the source of God’s solidarity especially when disability makes a person an outcast from human community. Our redemption is always in walking the way together, because God walks the way with us.
 This is in Weil’s Waiting for God, but I first encountered her understanding of this story in Stephanie Paulsell’s Honoring the Body, which is a book I treasure.
 In the delivery of this sermon, I said the word walk, which I recognize as privileging a particular ability.