For twelve years I traveled the 170 mile stretch of the New York Throughway between Syracuse and Lee, Massachusetts at least fifty times. And it seems, every time I traveled this stretch of highway some part was under construction. More often than not, there were two or three sections of construction. All of this construction validated the fact that upper state New York has only two seasons in the year, winter and road construction.
As I drove through these stretches of highway repair, I developed 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 drove from Syracuse to Lee, I knew 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 each 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 what has been uncovered in this past year’s election cycle. For so long I believed that as a country we had made great strides towards accepting the diversity of what this great melting pot had become. What this year has shown us instead is, how little progress we have actually made in terms of our ability to celebrate the rich diversity of the people who call this land their home. And I am heart broken to learn that even our progressive state of Rhode Island is not immune to the rudeness and animosity that has plagued so much of our country. The highway for God has made great strides in its construction, but sadly we are finding it has developed many pot holes along the way.
Perhaps in the long run this is a good thing. After years of attempting to legislate how to respect the dignity of every human being, the institutional church got lazy, abdicated its role in society to the government. We forgot, that respect and kindness are values we cannot make happen through legislation, instead they need to be taught and experienced. Respect and kindness cannot be externally forced upon us, but must be nurtured and generated from within. And it is we, the body of Christ, the church, who continue to hold the catalyst the world, this country needs to nurture and to build the respect and unity which is still missing in many parts of this nation.
This is God. The source of all love.
At baptism we vow to respect the dignity of every human being. And we are only able to do this because we have been affirmed through the our experience of God’s unconditional love.
Through baptism we are called to proclaim the good news in Christ to the world through word and example. Our words and our example, these are the raw materials we are given to continue building and repairing the highway for God. If we want the world to love, then we must love as Christ has loved us. It is not ours to tell the world how to love or how to respect others, but to be the examples of Christ’s love and respect to the world.
If we are to continue building the highway for our God, then we will need to overcome the darkness which has been exposed this past year by offering the light of God. For this we must find the courage to articulate how our faith is still relevant to this time and to this place. If we are to articulate relevance, then we need to be able to integrate our understanding of the Gospels and our baptism with our everyday lives.
So how does your life connect with that of John the Baptizer? When have you felt as if you were the voice crying in the Wilderness?
In 2003, I believe the house of Bishops demonstrated what it means to be the lonely voice of God when it voted to accept the consecration of Gene Robinson, our first openly gay bishop. The recently retired bishop of Central New York, Skip Adams, tells about the harassment and anxiety he endured the years following his vote. He can 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 house of Bishop’s vote, the church’s decision to pay attention to this issue, not only gave a voice to those without a voice throughout the world, they also demonstrated what respecting the dignity of every human being should look like and what accepting all people as fellow children of God ultimately should be. We need to continue doing the same.
But relevance is not realized through one story. Love is not understood through one experience. As we read and tell the ancient stories of Genesis and 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 and still so needed. 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 join the construction. . .so others can feel safe and follow.