Many of you will remember our dear old friend Sandi Carland.
For those of you who are new enough not to have known Sandi, I can tell you that she spent her life in this church. She brought up children and grandchildren in this church. The teeth marks in the back pew were left there, sometime in the 1990’s by Sandi’s fidgety grandson Kyle.
Those of you who remember her, remember that Sandi sat in that back pew, to the left of the door up until a few weeks before she died. You will remember that she was fiercely loyal and tremendously loving…
but above all…
the ONE thing you are likely to remember more than anything else about our Sandi Carland is that…
she had attitude.
Sandi, will you forgive me for describing you this way when you can’t defend yourself?
You don’t mind, do you?
I feel pretty sure that if you were here, you would probably be the first to agree with me.
You were pretty uppity!
And proud of it.
Sandi was not a large person, but she had an imposing personality. She could strike fear in the hearts of men three times her size. You didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her, because if you did…
she would let you know.
I know this because Sandi was deeply committed to the well being of this church, and hence she was on any and every committee that mattered. If you called a meeting, she would be here, at the table, ready to put in her two cents.
I wish I could remember what exactly was at stake during the meeting that I am thinking of. For the life of me, I can’t. But what I do remember is that Sandi let loose. She did not agree with us… so much so that she seemed to think it necessary to give us all a good telling off. Was that smoke coming out of her ears? She was on fire, and it was an amazing thing to witness.
I am pretty sure I disagreed with her, but who cares. The disagreement itself is lost to the mists of time, so there is no judgment here. I’m not telling this story to demonstrate how unreasonable she was. I tell it, because I distinctly remember the emotions I felt in the aftermath of her outburst. If you climbed into my brain at that moment, you might have heard me say to myself…
“O God! Why is she making such a big deal about this? This is such a pain! It’s hardly worth the effort – this whole thing! I’d rather be home, relaxing over dinner, than arguing about this dumb stuff…”
(I have given you the PG version of my inner dialogue. The more accurate version was, no doubt, peppered with language unsuited to the pulpit.)
I have just taken some pains to characterize our old friend Sandi Carland – a person who was uncompromising in her zeal to be true to her convictions.
But if we think Sandi was a little odd – how about the guy we met this morning, in the gospel reading.
Even by the standards of first century Judea, John the Baptist was not exactly the model of the civilized gentleman. Quite the contrary! If John the Baptist was anything, he was an outsider. He seems to have wandered in from the wild places. Listen to how the gospel writer, Mark, describes him:
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
Isn’t that interesting?
The story of Jesus Christ, as told by Mark, does not begin with Jesus, but rather with this strange person – John the Baptist – who wanders in from the wilderness to announce the coming of the Messiah.
When someone important arrives what do we do?
We roll out the red carpet. (What does that even mean?)
Heads of state are welcomed by an honor guard – rows of fully decked out Military men standing up straight.
When a guest speaker comes, a carefully dressed professional colleague introduces them by listing their achievements.
But when Jesus Christ – the son of God, appears to change the very nature of human history and civilization – who announces his coming?
It’s no red carpet, no honor guard, no professional colleague.
It is this strange man, who looks like an animal (wearing camel hair) and eats like a wild beast (Locusts and wild honey).
It’s curious isn’t it!
And curiouser still, is Mark’s description of the response that the people of Judea have to John’s arrival on the scene. Mark tells us that:
The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.
The gospel writer must have been indulging in a little exaggeration right? – a little stylistic embellishment to make the story more compelling? It wouldn’t be possible for one man to manage all the people of the Judean countryside in addition to the entire population of the city of Jerusalem!
Be that as it may… the point is, a lot of people flocked out to John the Baptist. And they didn’t just come out to hear what he had to say. Many of them allowed him to immerse them in the water of the river Jordon, and Baptize them into a new religious life.
Is this plausible?
I try to imagine what I might do if someone wearing camel hair, with a grasshopper in his teeth, wandered into town from the woods proclaiming the coming of a new age.
Would I let him lead me down to the Contoocook and dunk me in the river and intone some wild mumbo-jumbo over me?
I’m sorry, but I would be sorely tempted to hightail it the other way…
I know for sure that John the Baptist would not get a warm welcome in America today. Even if he got past the strip malls and the jiffy-lubes, it wouldn’t be long before he’d be hauled off to a psychiatric ward. We don’t take kindly to “voices in the wilderness” unless they are safely stowed away in our holy books.
My response to the tongue lashing from Sandi, was my “Bowling Alone” moment.
What on earth does that mean?
If any of you have been following Owen Houghton’s recent “Age-Wise” articles in the Keene Sentinel, you may know the significance of the the phrase “Bowling Alone.”
In one of Owen’s recent Age-Wise articles he discusses the work of Robert Putnam – a Harvard political scientist (who has a house up here in Jaffrey). Putnam, who has been very influential in the last several decades, broke onto the national scene with his 1995 book “Bowling Alone.”
I have been following Putnam with interest since that book came out. In it, the scholar uses sociological data to chronicle the sweeping decline in civic engagement in the United States.
The Elks. The Boy Scouts. The Lion’s Club. Community Chorus’. The Knights of Columbus. Girl Scouts. Car pools. Church services. Book clubs. Bridge nights. The YMCA. Youth symphonies. The Public Library. Bowling leagues.
All of the activities that center around community involvement and gather their meaning from a sense of shared purpose – they are all in active decline.
The fragmentation of our social fabric, which began with the television and the one-person-per-car culture of the 1970’s just intensified in the eighties and nineties – and now with the internet and smartphones, our culture is a perfect storm of alienation.
The results couldn’t be more frightening.
Toddlers who interact with Ipads instead of parents, learn how to swipe across a screen, but have no idea what it means when a person smiles at them.
There is an epidemic of alienation and loneliness among seniors. Giving up going to church made sense years ago, but now… where did everyone go?
Isn’t it ironic? The world is full of people, and yet so many of us are completely alone.
Teen suicide has been steadily on the rise since invention of the cell phone and the growth of social media.
People are staying home for the simple reason that it is much easier than it is to go out and have to deal with other people.
And it becomes a habit.
I get it.
People can be so frustrating.
They can get bent out of shape about the craziest things.
They can be disagreeable.
Some can be downright racist, or horribly sexist. Some people can even be violent.
Yes. People can be all these things.
And more horrible things that we can’t even imagine.
So why go out?
Why go out, when you can stay in?
This morning we celebrate the second Sunday of Advent.
Last Sunday we lit the first candle – the candle of Hope.
Today Jessica and Kerri and Lucy have helped us light the second Advent candle – the candle of Peace.
Next Sunday we will light the third Advent candle, and on Christmas eve (which also happens to be Advent 4 this year) we will light two more candles.
Of course you know all this – we observe this ritual every year.
Still, it’s worth noting that we are doing something a little unusual.
We are doing something together, that takes a while.
We are engaging in something that expresses a shared purpose.
We are envisioning something, as a community.
We are envisioning peace.
And as impossible as peace seems to us, at this fraught moment in human history… we need only remember that all it takes is communities…
communities all over the world,
to envision peace.
We will never achieve peace alone.
The only way that we will ever achieve peace
is by doing it
I always loved Sandi.
She pissed me off, but I never stopped loving her. And I am sure she felt the same way about me.
We humans don’t achieve this kind of mutuality unless we get together and work things out.
We don’t gather in community because it is easy, or because we want to always agree with each other.
We gather in community to nurture the complex and real love that comes from agreeing and disagreeing, along the path toward a shared goal.
John the Baptist came in from outside – from the periphery.
He was a challenge to the civilized mind.
and yet he told of a great change. A transformation.
Let us envision this – this implausible vision… that
The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem…
can create peace