The most Biblically faithful Christian movie of all time was made by an anti-Catholic, avowed Communist, gay Italian poet and filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini’s 1964 masterpiece called the “Gospel According to St. Matthew” follows closely the Biblical text of the longest Gospel about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Biblical characters—played by ordinary people not professional actors—speak verses of Scripture. And the narrative descriptions in the Bible are rendered through attentive, thoughtful cinematography. Pasolini placed the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of late-post-war Italy, a time of on-going social and economic struggle especially in the south of Italy, where the movie was filmed. By placing the story of Jesus Christ into Italy’s own contemporary social struggle, Pasolini helps us to better see the extent of the social and religious unrest that characterized first-century Palestine and that developed into somewhat of a movement around the reforming and prophetic figure of John the Baptist—who called for spiritual and social renewal founded on repentance and which prophetically challenged both the political power structure—King Herod’s regime—and the Temple-based religious authority of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
It is important to remember, I think, that John the Baptist—like Jesus Christ—was a real, human, historical figure. The Jewish historian Josephus describes John the Baptist in his Jewish Antiquities (book 18, chapter 5) when he tries to explain how it came to pass that King Herod Antipas was defeated by the Romans. That defeat, Josephus suggests, was divine punishment because the original King Herod had imprisoned and slain John who Joseph describes as: “a good man, and [who] commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.” But to Herod and other leaders, John the Baptist posed a threat because, as Josephus notes: “[many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, [so] Herod…feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) .” And so Herod put John to death. Josephus doesn’t link John the Baptist and his popular movement with Jesus Christ, but the Gospels do. John the Baptist is understood by Christians as the one who paved the way for and pointed to not just the coming of Christ but the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist doesn’t just call people to “repent” like any run-of-the-mill prophet trying to get a community to behave properly. He calls on people to “repent for the kingdom of God has come near.” John the Baptist calls on us to prepare for God’s entry in our lives as revealed in Jesus Christ, to prepare for God’s thorough-going action in the name of Jesus Christ in our lives and through our lives.
John the Baptist is about preparation. So let’s talk about what it means to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ. [And I don’t mean just decorating your Christmas tree and baking Christmas cookies.] From time to time, we hire someone to help clean our house because with this full-time job and our volunteer commitments, I don’t have the time and energy to get the housework done. My family laughs at me because often the day before the person comes to help clean I will say: “Straighten up your rooms, the cleaning person is coming tomorrow.” They say: “Why do we have to straighten up BEFORE the cleaning person comes…can’t she just do it? Isn’t that what she is coming for?” And I usually answer with something like: “No, she is coming to clean, not to straighten out your mess.” John the Baptist calls on us to pay attention to those aspects of our life and in our world that are still a mess with obstacles that stand in the way of God’s entry and opportunity to dwell and be manifest in our lives and in the world. John the Baptist isn’t just being a moralist here….or hardline legalistic judge. John the Baptist calls us to repentance—to straightening out the messes in our life—with full understanding that that repentance is imbedded in God’s promise of the Holy Spirit and restoration through Jesus Christ.
So the question before us this morning is this: with 20 days to go before Christmas, what are the spaces in our hearts, in our bodies, in our relationships, and in our world that we need to pay attention to so that we can more fully welcome and celebrate the birth of God in our midst on Christmas? What does each of us need to straighten up to make a better way for God to dwell in our lives? The answer to this question is going to be different for each of us…and takes some honest discernment. It means we have to acknowledge and address those areas of our life that are our conscience flags as out of alignment with God’s vision. If I look at my personal life, some of the preparation I need to do yet before Christmas involves paying a little more attention to my body and its health, paying attention to some friendships and important relationships I have ignored, (and—to name the mundane--straighten up my office so there is more room for the Holy Spirit.) I want us to take a moment of silence and reflect on this question: “what do I need to prepare in my life for God to dwell in it more fully?” [ ] Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to share your answer. But I do want you to remember your answer, and from time to time over the next 20 days remind yourself of how you need to prepare for the birth of Christ.
In my public life as a religious leader in Los Angeles, I have found myself this week engaged in preparations for God’s future dwelling place in a way that I hadn’t really expected. I have spent significant time this week in relationship with our Latino Lutheran brothers and sisters, especially with the pastor and people of Faith Lutheran Church in Canoga Park, our largest Lutheran Spanish-speaking congregation in the Valley. St. Matt’s has a long-standing if slight connection with Latino congregations. Our former Pastor Sue had served at Angelica Lutheran in LA—the largest Latino congregation in the area—and brought Angela, our long-time custodian, on staff here from Angelica. Today, St. Matt’s has a connection with the Latino congregation of Faith; our new custodian, Anna, is a member of Faith and is also an active council member there. Among the people of Faith and Angelica and our other Latino churches is rising fear because of the threat by a new administration in Washington, DC to change how immigration laws are enforced after decades of non-enforcement. Here is the reality: like everywhere in LA, in every Lutheran Latino congregation in LA, the majority of households have someone in them who is undocumented—whether those are young people known as Dreamers, or grandparents who never were naturalized. Many of our Latino brothers and sisters fear that deportation will tear apart their families and their communities. That is our reality.
I also spent time this week meeting with some Muslim religious leaders: they shared that Muslims are under assault, with an intensity greater than after the 9/11 attacks. Even the most mainstreamed and integrated Muslim communities, like the Islamic Center of Southern California here in LA, which has been in existence for 65 years. Like many of the mosques in California, the Islamic Center here in LA also received the letter threatening genocide of all Muslims in America. And even more disturbing, a citizen living in Agoura Hills personally threatened the Muslim worshippers in phone calls and postings on the Mosque’s facebook page. That person was arrested, his home was searched, and he was found to have not only anti-Muslim material, but a large cache of guns and ammunition—that he possessed legally. The man who threatened the Mosque posted bail and has been released. So now the Mosque has armed security and searched my bag as I went in to the Mosque for a meeting. In the face of these realities, of these fears and threats among our Latino brothers and sisters and our Muslim friends, I found myself discerning that God was calling me, along with other Lutheran religious leaders (like Pr. Joseph Castaneda Carrera and Pr. Arroyo and white pastors like Pr. Jim Boline and black pastors like Pr. Tracy Williams who is affiliated with New City Parish) to use these weeks of Advent to do the heavy work of preparation that this reality of fear and threat call for. That work begins with building stronger relationships with our Latino and Muslim partners. But it also may call for concrete actions to stand in sacred solidarity with and even provide sacred sanctuary for Latino brothers and sisters and Muslim friends. This week Bishop Guy quickly—and courageously--established a Synod Taskforce for Sacred Solidarity and Sanctuary and I am working with him and Pr. Alexia Salviaterra to quickly learn what concrete steps we can take to help our Latino and Muslim people—face deportation proceedings without fear, and face the threats of assaults knowing that we stand with them because the Kingdom of God has come near in Jesus Christ and we are preparing to protect them. If you are feeling called to do this critical work of preparation on behalf of threatened brothers and sisters, if you are feeling called to be part of a movement of Sacred Solidarity and Sanctuary, being part of a religious rapid response team when a Muslim friend is assaulted, helping a Latino brother or sister prepare documentation to help secure prosecutorial discretion and forgo deportation. If these alarms are a mess that you feel called to straighten up so that God has more space to dwell in grace in our world at Christmas and beyond, then I invite you to sign up during the announcement time. Christmas is 20 days away. However, God is calling us, let us straighten out the messes and make room for God to dwell and act in our lives and our world.