I knew Tyler when he was in his mid thirties. He is from the fourth generation of a banking family in a small Iowa town. Tyler graduated from Stanford University, where he lettered on the school’s exceptional swim team. He is smart, athletic, personable, and well-off financially. On nice days Tyler walks fifteen blocks from his home on Grand Ave. overlooking the Mississippi River to the family bank on Main Street. Not only is it good exercise, but I think the walk does something else important for Tyler: it keeps him in touch with the community he serves. I use the word ‘serve’ very intentionally because Tyler says the bank exists not to make money, but to help the town. He holds that as the community prospers the bank prospers.
Back when I knew him, Tyler’s office was situated by the front door and opened to the teller’s stations. This too was important. Tyler knew who was coming into the bank, both in a particular sense, but also in a general sense. He knew the gas station attendant coming in to make a deposit. He knew the home nursing aid who stopped by to pay a bill. He knew the widow whose life-savings were invested through his institution. His office location and his daily walk keep him in touch with the community’s diversity. He is aware of his blessings, conscious of his responsibilities, and mindful of the impact his life has on many, many people.
Contrast that with this. It has been over a decade now since the Enron scandal broke. It is such a sad tale made possible in large part because its executives lived and worked in isolation and exclusion from the rest of the world. Their offices were located on the top floors of the headquarters. They enjoyed an exclusive food service, private elevators, and a dedicated parking deck. At the end of the day, executives drove luxury cars on superhighways to their opulent homes in gated communities with members only country clubs. Enron’s executives were elitists in every sense of the word. In fact, they were so isolated that they had no idea anyone anywhere lived differently than they did. Greed and corruption were rampant at Enron because that is what executives did to maintain their ‘normal’ lifestyle. When it all came crashing down the executives were stunned that thousands lost jobs and millions of investors suffered financial loss. Whatever their moral failings were before they started working at Enron they were exacerbated by isolation from the rest of the world.
In this morning’s Gospel reading we hear again about the ministry of John the Baptist. He was a curious person with a curious appearance who had a curious diet while engaging in a curious ministry in a curious place – the wilderness. Perhaps the most curious thing about it all was its popularity. Mark’s Gospel tells us that people from all over the Judean countryside and from the city of Jerusalem went out to John’s remote location to hear him preach and to be baptized. Think how different Americans who live in rural areas are from those who live in urban centers. Think about how little people from these diverse backgrounds have an opportunity to interact. What John accomplished, in effect, was the equivalent of getting people from red states and blue states to gather together, to have contact with one another, and to engage one another.
When John saw that corrupt religious leaders were in the crowd, Matthew records him as calling them a brood of vipers who needed to bear fruit worthy of repentance; in other words, it was time for them to change their ways. Interestingly, Luke records it a little differently. In Luke’s Gospel John refers to everyone in the crowd as a brood of vipers. They then ask him what they should do to repent and he gives specific counsel to ordinary folks, to tax collectors, and to soldiers; again indicating the diverse nature of those gathered.
So in addition to encountering a prophet and beyond the religious experience of having your life transformed through baptism, John’s ministry did something else that was very significant. It created contact between groups of people whose worlds seldom mixed. The worth of this is easy to overlook and its value cannot be overstated. Social distance was then, as it is now, a corrosive force in society.
We live in an unimaginable age communication. There are hundreds of ways for us to connect with people all around the world. Yet in spite of this technological revolution social distance between groups and classes of people is expanding. Would you like an example? Earlier in the year I saw this facebook post from a person I know who lives in the Midwest: “I don’t know what the big deal is. I don’t know a single person whose life has been negatively effected by sequestration.” That is social distance. It leads us to believe that if I personally don’t know someone effected by something than it must have no effect on anyone at all. It is the principle is at work with the federal cuts to food stamps. If I don’t know a particular person who hurt by this then no one is hurt by it. Right?
Social distance makes it easier for people to exaggerate small differences between groups and classes while ignoring the more significant ways we humans are related to one another. Thomas Pettigrew, a researcher at the University of California, has done work analyzing ethnic hatred. He has verified that extensive interpersonal contact counteracts prejudice by letting people from hostile groups get to know one another as individuals and even friends. Even in regions where ethnic groups experience significant conflict, those individuals who have close friends in the other group exhibit little or no prejudice. They are not able to demonize “others” because at some level they know them to be “just like me.”
Let me tell you two unlikely people who have stepped out of a world of privilege and isolation in order to learn about the lives of the world’s poor – Bill and Melinda Gates. I’m sure you know that they have put the majority of their considerable wealth into a trust aimed at eliminating poverty around the world. The couple has visited dozens of countries and hundreds of villages were they have met more people than most of us will meet in a lifetime. These contacts have helped the Gates to understand the many, many significant ways we humans are connected to one another. They make it impossible for them to turn a blind eye to the suffering they see and has led them to respond with their wealth and with their lives.
The Gates Endowment releases a yearly report that chronicles the work of the fund. Much of it is aimed at improving agriculture because Gates believes this is the best method of fighting hunger and poverty while making life better for billions of people. The report also criticizes countries and conglomerations that are not doing their part in this work. Bill Gates is on record as saying, “I am willing to be viewed as a troublemaker by people who are happy with the status quo.” That is a quote worthy of John the Baptist himself.
Well, you and I don’t have the wealth of Bill Gates. But here is the thing: it is not how much you have that matters, it is what you do with what you have. At this time of year, with its focus on family and getting together, the annual advent of John the Baptist reminds us to look out beyond ourselves. It calls us to gather in some way with the community in which we live. It encourages us to look around and to recognize the sameness we share with those who might seem different by some other, inconsequential standard. John invites us to close social distance and to step out of isolation. He invites us to have contact with people we about whom we have ieas, but no real experience. From this coming together John knows our hearts will be challenged and changed and we will begin to bear fruit worthy of repentance.