Advent 2 December 6, 2009

Baruch 5:1-9                                                                       

Philippians 1:3-11                                                              

Luke 3:1-16

I had a John the Baptist in my life. His name was Grant Gallup, and he died this past Thanksgiving evening. Grant was a priest who spent his entire active career, as he liked to say “in a fit of absent mindedness,” as vicar of a tiny African American mission in the slums on the West Side of Chicago. In retirement, he went to Managua, Nicaragua, as a representative of the Diocese of Chicago, which had a companion relationship with the Diocese of Nicaragua. There he ran Casa Ave Maria, a house of “pilgrimage and mission” or, as he would sometimes put it, a “halfway house for recovering capitalists.”

Grant, you see, was an unabashed communist. He read the Daily Worker at breakfast on clergy retreats. He admired Fidel Castro and Caesar Chavez. He was blind to the ways in which communism and socialism have failed, but he was very aware of the ways in which capitalism and American consumerism have failed. And in that way Grant Gallup was a John the Baptist to me. He made me look critically at myself and my assumptions.

I came to know Grant through the parish I served in Evanston, which had supported Casa Ave Maria, and I made three visits there. You walked into the house and the first thing you saw was a world map “upside down,” the South Pole up and the North Pole down. Of course, as Grant would point out, in the universe there is no up and down. Our maps put north up because they’ve been drawn by northern hemisphere dwellers.

There was a regular round of Morning and Evening Prayer and Mass at Casa Ave Maria. As we read lessons and sang hymns, we would stop and discuss how they related to what we pilgrims had done and seen that day: a trip to an orphanage, to a health clinic, to a job training project, to a cooperative farm; lunch with a visiting economist from the World Bank; dinner with Jesuit priests teaching at the university; conversation with a drunken beggar at the gate to the house. Grant knew everyone; everyone knew Grant.

Grant was the person who introduced me to what is known as liberation theology. Born in Latin America, among both Catholic and Protestant theologians working there among the poor, liberation theology opened the eyes of people like me from what Grant called the “me first world” to the fact that the Gospel does not have to do just with private or personal morality and salvation. It has to do with public morality, with politics and economics, justice and peace – in other words, with the salvation of the world. It has to do with what came to be called God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Much of this is old hat now, but it was new to me. Liberation theology has not gone over well with people in power. Pope John Paul II clamped down on it in the Catholic Church. You won’t hear about it much in comfortable suburban Episcopal churches. But it’s hard, once you’ve been exposed to it and once you’ve seen parts of the world – or of this country – that have been neglected or exploited by countries like the United States and people like ourselves, it’s hard to go back and read the Bible and not be hit in the face on almost every page by the insights that liberation theology revealed.

Every year when Advent rolls around and we reencounter John the Baptist, I’m struck anew by the fact that he, like all the prophets, was a liberation theologian. He stood in his rough clothing, denouncing the blindness of the rich and powerful, calling for a moral revolution: repent of your sins, prepare the way for the One who is to come. It was this message that catalyzed Jesus, and this message that led in time to the deaths of both John and Jesus, in both cases at the hands of those in power. Keeping in mind the connections between John and Jesus, it seems to me impossible to keep Jesus in the confines of “niceness” or the Gospel he preached in the safe category of spiritual comfort. My career as a priest would have been different if I’d never met Grant Gallup. I might have been more successful in a large suburban parish. But I might also have lost my faith. God bless you, Grant, for preparing for me a different way.

Now having said that, let me circle around 180 degrees. Last Sunday our youth group put on a dramatic presentation of the readings as an “Advent drama of darkness and light.” We had an interesting congregational discussion about where we saw forces of darkness in the world, and where we saw beams of light and hope. Afterwards, I got an email from one of you whom I value particularly for being unafraid of coming “back at” me after sermons with questions and criticisms.

He took issue with what he heard as our tendency to characterize darkness or sin wholly in corporate or public terms: global warming, inadequate health care – as he so beautifully put it: “what other people do that we don’t approve of.” Sin, he said, is “an act of the will attributable to a particular person who is obliged personally to undertake a voluntary commitment to subjugate the tendency to commit such acts.” Liberals in the Episcopal Church, he went on to imply, have gone a long way towards erasing personal moral responsibility by adopting a sociological or therapeutic approach to everything.

I think he makes an important point. To open our eyes to sin and injustice in the world around us can never be an excuse for our failure to take responsibility for our own lives, to repent of those sins we have committed by acts or failures to act of our own will. Both John the Baptist and Jesus spoke in personal not just abstract terms, calling individuals as well as institutions and nations to account. Indeed, neither they nor any of the prophets made a distinction between personal and corporate sin.

Advent is, like Lent, a season of recollection and repentance. If we all just sit around condemning the sins of others – and that’s not a bad description of what goes on in society today – then we all stand under condemnation; we are all to blame for the darkness; we none of us will stand when Christ appears.

The fact that much of the evil and injustice in the world seems to be done by people or forces beyond our control is no excuse. We have only to look at Jesus to see what one person, acting out of moral righteousness, can do to change the world. The gospel passage this morning is a powerful testimony to the fact that God works through the courage and commitment of individuals, of little people. Luke presents us with a two-tiered drama: on the grand stage emperors and governors are rattling their swords and giving their orders, but there on the margins, in the wilderness, a lonely and God-obsessed man, John the Baptist, is proclaiming the coming of a different kind of king, a different order of power. It is for us to choose sides.

For more information about Fr. Grant Gallup, including copies of his wonderful weekly “Homily Grits” sermons and reflections on Scripture and life, go to http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/homilygrits/.

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