Over the past nine and a half years, I have traveled the 170 mile stretch of the New York Throughway between Syracuse and Lee, Massachusetts fifty times. And it seems, every time I have traveled this stretch of highway some part is under construction. More often than not, there are two or three sections of construction. All of this construction appears to validate the comment that upper state New York has only two seasons in the year, winter and road construction.
As I drive through stretches of highway repair, I have to admit, I feel a great deal of respect for the men and women who work these roads. I can’t imagine what it is like to work construction while cars go whizzing by at sixty and seventy miles an hour. I can’t fathom what it is like to be part of a project where progress is measured in miles and it can take weeks, even months to complete just one mile of work.
I am also awed when I begin to think of how many man hours went into the American Highway system which allows us to travel cross country by car without ever having to get off route 90 or the fabled route 66.
As I drive from Syracuse to Lee, I know the path the Throughway follows was not always as flat and as accessible as it is today. There are stretches of roadway that are lined by soaring rock walls on either side. I suspect these areas were tall hills that were blasted through to clear the path that we are now able to drive without a second thought.
As much as we may hate road construction, there is a highway system under construction that we are part of. It is the highway or pathway of our Lord. In this morning’s Gospel, John the Baptizer calls the people of Israel and each of us to open our hearts to repentance and to join him in constructing this highway to God for all to use.
This is not the first time we have heard these words. In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet foretells the release of Israel from captivity with the same words;
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
This morning, as the Baptizer emerges from the desert, those who hear him know their time of waiting is coming to an end, for the messiah and liberator of God is not far behind.
As we listen for these words every second Sunday of Advent we are reminded that we too are a people in wait and like our ancient ancestors we also wait for our own liberation from the evil of this world. And like our ancestors we too are reminded that we are participants in the divine liberation.
As I ponder the 2000 years of Christian history, I realize that much of the road way the baptizer calls us to prepare has been completed. Through the religious freedoms of this country and the church’s work in many areas of civil rights, many of the obstacles that have kept us from living the just life of the Kingdom have been removed. As I survey the roadways of Christendom, I have begun to wonder if we are called to continue laying new roadway for God or to repair the work that has been poorly laid?
I ask this in light of the recent Pew research that indicates most Americans no longer identify themselves as part of any denomination and self describe as spiritual but not religious. I also ask this question after hearing Diana Butler Bass’s observation that over the last decade people have left Christian congregations in droves as they have lost confidence in the institutional church. She believes this phenomenon is the result of 9/11, the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal, our own in-fighting over issues of human sexuality and the politicization of the Religious Right.
These four events of the last decade have left most people afraid and distrustful of the institutional church. They question our integrity as Godly institutions. And we, the modern day divine road crew, are called to do the repair work needed to make the road ready for God.
Restoration is not an easy task, especially where trust has been broken. If we are to rebuild trust, then we must be willing to live the Gospel with integrity, both here at St. Luke’s and in the world. If we are to build trust, we must be willing to admit where we, as an institution, has gone awry, repent and seek forgiveness from those who have been hurt.
If we are to rebuild what has been damaged, then we must articulate how our faith has relevance to this time and place. If we are to articulate relevance, then we need to be able to integrate our understanding of the Gospels and baptism with our everyday lives.
For example, where does your life connect with that of the Baptizer? When have you felt as if you were the voice crying in the Wilderness?
I believe our Bishop served as that lonely voice when he returned to Central New York after voting to approve the consecration of Gene Robinson, our first openly gay bishop. Skip can tell you about the harassment and anxiety he endured the years following his vote. He can also move you to tears when he speaks of why he voted the way he did as he shares stories of the mother who thanked him for telling the world that her gay son was not a monster. . .And how Bishops from developing parts of the world thanked him, because no one else was giving voice to the countless gay and lesbian people being persecuted in their countries. Our bishop’s vote, our church’s decision to pay attention to this issue, gave a voice to those without voice throughout the world, because we were willing to be the voice crying in the wilderness.
But relevance is not realized through one story. As we read and tell the ancient stories of Genesis and the Exodus we need to continually ask ourselves where our lives connect with these timeless accounts. We need to ask and share how we are the modern day Israelites wondering in the desert as we navigate through this politically charged and chaotic time. Or, how our times of crisis and despair relate to the story of Job and then share how these stories tell us how God’s activity is meaningful in our lives today.
It is when we are able to read, connect with and make these ancient texts our own stories that we are able to articulate how Christ is still relevant to today. So once again, as we hear the voice of the one crying in the wilderness to build a highway for our God, let’s be ready to put our construction gear on, and repair the way. . so others can feel safe and follow.