“A baptism of repentance” | 6 December 2015 | Advent II

Texts: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-18

More than any other gospel passage, Luke chapter 3 situates itself firmly within the political and religious landscape of its time.  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas.”  In the ancient world, referencing such leaders was a way of telling time, but it also serves another purpose.  The story I’m about to tell you is no fairy tale, Luke could be saying.  It happened at a specific time, in a particular location, under these circumstances.  There were real people involved, people with names and stories of their own.  People whose daily lives were enmeshed in the kind of world these rulers and religious leaders oversaw.  What I want to tell you, Luke goes on, is that under these conditions, “the word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”  The Word, that life-creating, mind-shaping, path-making Divine force, came, through John, out in the wilderness.  In that wilderness, all around the region of the Jordan River, John proclaimed a baptism of repentance.

In the seventh year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when John Kasich governed Ohio, when Michael Coleman was mayor of Columbus, when Francis was the Pope of the Catholics, and Ervin Stutzman the Executive Director of the Mennonites.  At this time and in this Advent season we gather here, in this place, to listen for that Word – that life-creating, mind-shaping, path-making Divine force which comes to us through song and scripture and speech and the warmth of one another’s presence.

We talk about the wilderness during the season of Lent, but it also comes up during Advent.

When our learning tour group pulled into the Alon Shvut Israeli settlement just southwest of Jerusalem, it felt much more like leaving the wilderness than entering it.  All the Palestinian areas we had seen were almost entirely made up of concrete, dirt, and rocks.  But this settlement was lush with trees and grass.  All the streets were clean, the houses nicely kept.

We were there to meet with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a leader of that community and one of the founders of an organization called Roots, which tries to overcome the fear between Palestinians and Israelis by organizing conversations and joint activities.  We had listened to a number of Palestinians about their reality, and we were eager to hear what Rabbi Hanan would have to say about his.  We were eager to hear a Word of the Lord.

A week before leaving on the trip I had unintentionally created a one-degree-removed personal connection with Rabbi Hanan.  I had breakfast with Rabbi Rick Kellner of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Worthington.  They are a fellow BREAD congregation, and it was important to me to have an American Jewish voice in my head before going on this trip where I knew we would be spending most of our time with Palestinians.  Among other things, Rick noted that his congregation had just hosted an Israeli Rabbi by the name of Hanan Schlesinger, who gives presentations alongside a Palestinian named Abu Ali Awad.

After Rabbi Hanan welcomes us into his home he invites us to go around and say where we’re from.  When I say I’m from Columbus, Ohio he says, Oh, I was just there.  And I smile and say, Yes, I just found that out.  When you’re thousands of miles away from home, it’s a nice feeling to be in the living room of a friend of a friend.

Rabbi Hanan begins his presentation by stating that his identity is made up of three chief components.  He says, “One, I am a Jew.  Two, I am a Zionist.  Three, I am a settler.”  For the Rabbi, being a Jew is not primary a religious label.  It means that he is a part of a people, a people biologically descended from Abraham and Sara, a people who share a common story of deliverance from slavery out of Egypt, a people with historical ties to this very land we are now in.  He says that although he was personally born 57 years ago, he feels as though he was born 3000 years ago, when the Jewish people had their own nation in this place.

For Rabbi Hanan, being a Zionist means that he feels the time has come to restore Jews’ relationship to the land of Israel.  Every year Jews say to one another, “Next year in Jerusalem,” and now, after 2000 years of diaspora, they can actually fulfill this longing.  He sees this moment in history being just as significant as the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt.

For Rabbi Hanan, being a settler means that he feels specifically tied to the parts of the land where biblical events took place.  What others call the West Bank, and what the international community has agreed is Palestinian territory, he refers to with the biblical names of Judea and Samaria.  He notes that an old pilgrim road to Jerusalem goes right near his house.  An ancient mikvah was recently discovered nearby which his ancestors would have used in a water purification ritual before entering the holy city.  The almost-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham happened just outside his neighborhood, just over the way.

After guiding us through these three points of his identity, drawing us into his worldview, the good Rabbi drops this line: “And it was the power and righteousness of this story, that completely blinded me to even seeing that there are Palestinians also living here.  I simply did not see them.”

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance.  Luke and the other gospels tell us that crowds, from the countryside and cities, flocked out to hear John, and be baptized.  Most of us here would probably choose to walk away rather than toward a person who was yelling at us to repent.  Reading through Luke’s account, it appears that John was the kind of person who had little use for verbal filters.  Calling people a brood of vipers, and using metaphors that involve axes chopping down trees and fire burning chaff will most likely not get you invited back as a guest speaker at congregations like ours.

But repentance is a major cornerstone of the spiritual life.  However much baggage that word has acquired over the years, it’s helpful remember what repentance means in the original languages.  Greek is the language of the New Testament, and the word for repentance which appears throughout and here in Luke is metanoia, which literally means, to change one’s mind.  Or to change one’s thinking.  Or, if this works better for you, to expand one’s consciousness.  Or, if John were giving a TED talk these days – repentance, to have one’s neurological pathways rewired so as to experience one’s self and the world in a new light.  Repent, change your thinking, enter the waters of baptism and emerge with a new consciousness.  This, Luke assures us through the words of the prophet Isaiah, is how valleys get lifted up and how mountains and barriers get leveled, and how crooked places get made straight.  And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.  Repentance involves an inward journey of changing the landscape of one’s soul.

Although he didn’t use the word repentance, Rabbi Hanan followed his statement of how we was blinded by telling us the story of how he first learned to see Palestinians, how his mind began to change.  22 months ago he was driving two visiting Christian pastors from Dallas around Judea and Samaria, as he would call it, and he would occasionally pick up a hitchhiker along the road.  The pastors commented how unusual this was in the US to pick up so many hitchhikers, and Rabbi Hanan replied that this is one of the great things about Israel.  There is a sense of family, and people take care of each other.  “We pick up everyone,” the Rabbi had said.  But as soon as he had said it, he knew it wasn’t true.  He had never picked up a Palestinian, even though these West Bank roads are shared by Palestinians and Israeli settlers.  At that point, he told us, he realized that he had been living in the West Bank for 33 years, and had not met a single Palestinian.

He reiterated his earlier line, that he simply had not seen them, and he assured us that people in his settlement don’t have an inkling that Palestinians exist around them.  This change of thinking 22 months ago was the beginning of a journey for the Rabbi and has led to him forming relationships with a group of Palestinians who live a 25 minute walk from his home, and doing speaking engagements with Abu Ali Awad through their Roots organization.  Fear creates a different reality, the Rabbi said.  He is taking steps to move beyond fear.  He is repenting of past ways of thinking.

The Greek word for repentance means “to change one’s thinking,” and one of the Hebrew words for repentance provides the other important dimension.  That word is “shuv,” and it means, simply, to turn.  As if one were walking in one direction, and then one shuvs, one repents, and changes course.  In the Hebrew mind, repentance involves a very concrete change of not just of one’s mind, but also of one’s actions, one’s direction, the trajectory of one’s life.

So John the baptizer goes on to tell the people they need to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Changing one’s thinking leads to changing one’s actions.  This leads directly into the practice-able advice John gives to those who come to him and ask, “What then should we do?”  John’s initial response is “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  To tax and toll collectors who frequently used their position to overcharge and line their pockets, John says, “Collect no more than what you’re supposed to.”  John tells soldiers not to extort money, and to be satisfied with their wages.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely satisfied with John’s replies here.  How is sharing a coat with someone going to bring down the empire?  How are Pontius Pilate and Herod going to feel the earth shake under their feet if people are just sharing food with their hungry neighbors?  I want John to tell those toll collectors to stop collaborating with the empire and not cooperate at all with the occupation of their own people.  I want John to tell those soldiers to become conscientious objectors and hand in their sword and join the peaceful revolution that Jesus is about to inaugurate.

When it’s time for Q and A, someone asks Rabbi Hanan what kind of policy solutions he suggests for Israelis and Palestinians.  He quickly answers that this is not his area.  He’s focused on interpersonal relationships.  I want to tell him about our trip to Hebron just that morning, the most populous city in the West Bank, home to 200,000 Palestinians, but also populated by 1000 Israeli settlers who have moved into the heart of the city, some of them living in apartments directly above Palestinian businesses.  I want to tell him how we walked in those narrow business streets of the old city and saw how they are covered with a canopy of wire mesh to protect people on the street from any objects the settlers may hurl down at them.  I want to tell him that the wire mesh doesn’t even matter anymore because the once thriving businesses are shut down and the streets empty.  I want to ask him how the 1,500 Israeli soldiers in Hebron, there to ensure the safety of those 1000 settlers, is good for Israel or good for peace, or what the 350,000 settlers in Palestinian territory might propose as a peace solution.  I want to tell him how the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron spend much of their time accompanying Palestinian children through a check point on their way to and from school and how the children are often needlessly detained and harrassed.

I want to go turn on the faucet in the kitchen and, as the water runs freely, talk about how the roofs of Palestinians homes all have black barrels on top of them because  Israel controls the entire water supply throughout the West Bank and there are frequent shut offs.  Palestinians aren’t permitted to drill new wells, and even improvised cisterns for collecting rainwater can be demolished under the premise of illegality, so the black barrels ensure Palestinians a reserve of water when the tap is shut off.  I want to mention how trees that once lined Palestinian streets have been cut down by the army because they are considered a security threat, blocking the line of sight for the occupying military.  There’s a reason Palestinian territory looks like the wilderness and Israeli settlements look like an oasis.  Policy.

I want the rabbi to do more than just talk about peace.  I want him to see how his walled off, subsidized, plenty-of-water-for-swimming-pools settlement is entirely wrapped up with injustice.  I don’t want the turning of repentance to be a one or two degree shift.  I want to see a 180 degree reversal of direction.

I pause, in this living room that feels more familiar and like my own than any Palestinian home I’ve been in – and consider how my own life is so tied up in injustice.  I’m way more like the rabbi than I care to admit.  I wonder what and who I have failed to see.  I consider again the meaning of our own number one identity marker, our baptism, a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  “I baptize you with water,” John says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming;  He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with fire.”  I welcome the one who is more powerful than I.  One who is more powerful than all of us.  One who baptizes with Holy Spirit, who immerses us with the Divine Presence and leads our minds and feet down a new path.

At the end of the day when we are doing our group processing together, we ponder the school children of Hebron, and the stories of Rabbi Hanan.  We ponder the dust and black barrels of Palestine, and the green grass and abundant water of the Alon Shvut settlement.  As we each share our reflections on the day, Cyneatha Millsaps, the only African American in the group, says that Rabbi Hanan reminds her of the whites who quietly taught slaves how to read.  They didn’t end the system of slavery, they even kept benefitting from it, but they did contribute to a crack in the wall.

And that evening, perhaps surprisingly, that’s enough for me to hold on to.  However minor a change of thinking might be, however many degree a turn might be.  It was enough for me to end that day with thanks for all the Spirit is doing in our world, and all the people who are participating in the journey of repentance.  Prepare the way, the prophet says, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Part of the 25 ft tall separation wall in Bethlehem.  This artwork portrays a Jewish and Palestinian boy reaching out to touch a crack (also part of the art) forming in the wall.