Monday, December 18, 2023

Knowing Who You Are Not


John 1:6-8, 19-28

Advent 3 / Year B

When I was in seminary, the first week of January was a thing unto itself.  On our third and final year, you took the General Ordination Exams.  The first year we were taught how to be lectors – a little class we referred to as “Read & Bleed.”  In our middle year we were schooled in the Sung Service; what we called “Rant & Chant.”  Thankfully, this class was pass/fail.  Show up every day for a week then turn in a cassette tape of yourself chanting and you pass.  When I got my tape back it had a post-it note attached to it by the professor.  It read simply, “You may want to practice more before you attempt to do this in public.”  Well, I have never practiced, nor have I ever led chanting in a service.

Here is a question rattling around in my head all week as I have pondered today’s gospel reading: How do you learn what you are not good at?  Put another way, how do you discover who you are not supposed to be?

One of the amazing things about John the Baptist is he knows who he is not.  The John the gospel writer tells us emphatically the Baptizer is not the light.  He is a witness to the light.  John himself says, “I am not the Messiah.”  When asked, he says, “I am not Elijah.”  “I am not a prophet.”  Was there a time when he considered he might be the Messiah or Elijah or a prophet?  Perhaps.  I wonder how he discerned who he wasn’t.  When asked, John famously states, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”  Rather than a statement about humility, this too is a revelation about identity.   

In Levitical law, if a husband dies before his wife gives birth to a son, the husband’s brother is required to marry her in order to sire a son who will carry on the original husband’s name.  The brother is referred to as the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ because he redeems his kin’s name from death.  Now, if the brother refuses to take on this role and another person wishes to do so, that person takes the brother to the public square and in the presence of the elders takes a sandal off the foot of the one who will not do his duty.  By so doing, the willing person announces he will function as the kinsman-redeemer.  So when John says he is not worthy to untie the sandal of the one who is to come, he is saying, “I am not the redeemer, he is.”

Over my tenure of serving as your rector, we have been blessed to have two wonderful Music Directors/Organists – Al Reese and Thom Robertson.  We have not always been as fortunate.  In 1952 we hired Leroy Gross to fill this position.  Often referred to in the Vestry record as “Prof. Gross,” it seems he had a hard time getting along with folks.  He could not hold to spending limits, is divorced by his wife for desertion, takes up residence in the Parish House’s kitchen, and generally makes a pest of himself.  At one point he is told in writing by the Senior Warden to confine himself to the Music Room and not to interfere with the operations of the general offices.  Let your imagination run wild as you ponder what was going on!  In 1956 he resigns his position and the Music Committee hires his replacement – a Mrs. Thomas.  She prepares the choir and is ready to lead the hymns on her first Sunday, only to discover Prof. Gross at the organ bench.  He decides on his own and unannounced to unresign!  Whatever you might want to say about ol’ Leroy, he certainly is not the model of knowing who you are and who you are not. 

It occurs to me the times I have been most ineffective have been when I asserted myself into roles for which I was not well-suited.  It also occurs to me from a very young age we begin to learn who we are largely by weeding out who we are not.  My college chaplain told the story about teaching in a religion class on the Temple’s sacrificial system when a student passed out.  After revived, he said whenever he sees blood or even thinks about it he feels faint.  Then he added he needed to overcome this problem because he wanted to be a surgeon.

When I entered into the search process which eventually led to your calling me here, I considered want kind of church would be best for me to serve.  Out of college I worked as a lay minister at a huge church with three clergy and multiple full-time employees.  The two churches I served at as an assistant had an average Sunday attendance hovering around 300 people.  The two churches I served as rector averaged around 100 folks on Sunday.  I was the only priest and the only full-time employee.  Experts refer to this as a Pastoral size church. 

Now, many clergy in my position would have been looking to “move up”, to seek a bigger parish and the supposed prestige which accompanies it.  I wondered how do I know I would be happy in such place.  What if I don’t like directing staff and clergy?  I discerned I liked working in a Pastoral size church and that I understood its needs and unique dynamics.  And the rest, as they, is history.  Accepting your call has been one of the best decisions of my life.

We often talk about discovering who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do.  Equally important, but often flying under the radar, is ascertaining who we are not and what we are not called to do.  Through his clarity of self and place John the Baptist models this for us.  And because he knows who he is not he is ideally suited to be the voice in the wilderness pointing to the Light.