Matthew 3. 1-12
God’s a god of the margins!
by bishop Erik Gronberg, NT-NL Synod, ELCA
Well, it is great to be out here with you all, again, in Midland. With the people of Midland Lutheran. And I know folks from Christ’s, Odessa, are here. Mark, thank you for your collegiality and coming and being a part of this special day. And Bob, friends and family, and grandkids, and folks from as far away as Tacoma, Washington. I think it’s interesting that your father drives a Tacoma pickup, now, too! That’s a nice little paraphrase! So, it is good to be here with all of you in a very different place than we were the last time I was here. And different from when I was here five years ago. We were at your former location. And when we were in the fellowship hall at that location. And now, here we are, celebrating and giving thanks at the end of – twenty-one years? – twenty-one years of ordained service here at Midland Lutheran. And thirty-nine years? Thirty-nine years … you couldn’t do one more?
We give you thanks, Bob, for your service. On behalf of the synod. On behalf of the bishops that you’ve served with, here and beyond NT-NL. You’ve served in other places around the church. We are grateful for your faithfulness. You have served “out west!” You have served in places that are not always where everybody dreams to go, right? It’s a funny thing. I have learned this as bishop that there are places in our church that there are places that ordained clergy don’t always dream to go! Some of those are in Dallas, actually. That’s a whole other conversation. I live in Ft Worth, so I don‘t want to go to Dallas! But you’ve served! And you and your family have served faithfully. And so, for that, we give you thanks! And on behalf of the church, we give you thanks! And for you his family, we know – I know … I’m a pastor myself, my wife is a pastor and I know my kids, you don’t do this by yourself. You do this with your family and your family comes along for the ride. For good or ill. So, we are glad that you all are here, as well, to celebrate and to give thanks for this ministry and for this place here in Midland which you have served.
I do not thank you for not altering the gospel of the day, though, I have to say. We could have done something different, Bob! I mean, we’re liturgical people! And it’s the Second Sunday of Advent! But you know, you realize, he did this on purpose, so that I had to call you all a brood of vipers! He didn’t want to get up here … What do you have? Like three Sundays, two Sundays left? He didn’t want to have to get up here to call you a brood of vipers! But there it is! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Boy, that sounds like something that might get preached around here, from time to time! Right? There are some preachers who like that a little more than maybe they should. Sometimes, I think, we are very happy to call other people that brood of vipers, right? That’s part of our collective sin, frankly, right now. Especially in our nation, at this time. When we are so divided and divisive. But there you go; I have to do it! But it happens when you become bishop, I guess! Sometimes, you gotta talk about John the Baptist! Right?
But I think it’s somewhat appropriate. Here’s John the Baptist! The guy from the wilderness! The guy from Midland! Out on the plains! The Conference Out West! And here we are celebrating your ministry amongst the people of Midland and we hear about John!
You know, when I grew up, listening to this text, I had this imagination in my mind of the River Jordan. And the River Jordan looked like the Colorado. And I grew up in Austin. So, they dammed the Colorado. So, it’s a big lake! It’s, technically, a river, still. But it’s a lake! And I figured that’s what the River Jordan must look like! So, John the Baptist is on the banks of this big river … with beautiful blue water … and all sorts of things growing around it … flora and fauna … And then, I got to go to Israel! And Jordan of the Palestine!
Have any of you ever been to the Holy Land? Had the opportunity? We are Lutheran! But we can raise hands, y’all! Well, I got the opportunity to lead a group there in 2016. And we went to go to the River Jordan. And we were going to do a baptismal remembrance of the whole thing! And I had this image in my head. It was going to be this beautiful big thing. And we get there, and the reality is that the River Jordan is about as big as from here to that back wall. And it’s muddy. And it’s brown. And it’s not flowing. It’s really not very impressive, at all. And it’s a little bit of a letdown, right? You get there … and this is where Jesus was baptized by John … and shouldn’t it be something more … And yet, I think that’s appropriate. Now that I think about it. Because we always have the temptation. We always have the temptation when it comes to us and our relationship with god, when it comes to us and our relationship to the church, we want things to be big and bold and beautiful and grand. But the reality is that god is in the midst of the muck and the mud. God is in the midst of the little muddy river – stream, really – in a backwater place, called Palestine.
The power’s in Rome. We know that. The power structure? That’s not there. The power is in Rome. And yet where does god come? Where does god live? Our god lives on the margins. Our god lives at the edge. Our god lives with us outside of the palace walls. He’s down in the River Jordan. And that’s where John was. John the crazy man. Locusts and wild honey. Wearing cloth. A belt. I mean anybody listening to this guy has to be a little desperate. A little bit crazy. And yet that’s who god sent to do what Isaiah was talking about when Mark read to us in Isaiah about the coming of the messiah, the one who was going to change everything.
Then god sends John. Out in the wilderness. Proclaiming that god is coming. And the people, they come. Because they’re hungry. Now, they don’t come for the locusts and wild honey feast. That’s not on the table. It’s not like Golden Corral. You know, all you can eat locusts and wild honey. That was a joke. They’re coming because they’re hungry to hear a word. They’re coming because they’re hungry to see god in action. And what they wound up seeing was a crazy man in the water baptizing people. Calling them a brood of vipers.
Bob, you’ve spent your ministry on the margins, right? You’ve been in places that are not the places that everybody seems to want to be. And your congregation – this congregation – has let itself become on the margins. We gave up the building. Because the church was never the building. We let go of that so that we could be free to do ministry in other ways. And you as a congregation and you who are part of this community, now you are going into a new transitional time, a new wilderness time, where we’re working with you all – my associate Kris and I – are working with local leaders to think about how we can do this ministry together. But it’s going to be on the margins. It’s not going to be in big buildings, cathedrals with glory. You’re, probably, not going to make the evening news. I hate to break it to you. You’re going to be out there, in a place that looks a lot like the Jordan. It’s going to be a little muddy. It’s going to be a little icky, at times. Uncomfortable. And yet, that’s where god is. And that’s the god we proclaim. And that’s the god you have proclaimed in your ministry. That’s the god you have lived as this congregation. And that’s what we continue to do to try to support and to be a community that says, quite frankly, in a context and a place, that oftentimes tells people that are not connected to god unless they are something else. We as the Lutheran witness say, “God is for you!” And god is in the midst of the mud and the muck. With you. On the margins. Because that’s who Jesus is.
This whole story is crazy. You know that, right? Like we are absolute fools to believe this is true. That’s what Paul said. We are fools! We’re fools for the one who came as a baby! God doesn’t do that! Think about it! In the time that John was proclaiming that god was coming into the world, at this moment, people weren’t thinking it was going to be some guy walking around, an itinerant preacher in Palestine. If god was going to show up, he’d show up, at least, in the Temple! If not, then Rome! And yet, we proclaim, in this story that we are expectantly awaiting, that god’s gonna get born in a stable! To a mom and a dad who are trying to just figure it out. Who are on the road. Who are on the margins. Who are on the edges of society. And yet, that is where god is coming.
So that’s what we’re gonna keep doing, y’all! Alright? We’re going to keep being that! We’re going to keep proclaiming that! The ministry here – and Bob, I hate to say it about you – but it was never about you! You weren’t the church! The building wasn’t the church! The people are the church! And as long as we have the opportunity, we are going to keep proclaiming that! That god has come … even to a brood of vipers in Midland, Texas! That god has come to you and to me! To say, “I’m with you! Wherever you are!” And I think that’s a god people want to know about!
They now enough about power and privilege, don’t we? We know enough about what happens in all those worlds. We know how that game is played. What we need is to proclaim the good news of a god who comes to the edge! To the broken! To the forgotten! And says, “I am with you always!” So, thanks be to god!
Thank you! For you! For your ministry! For your family! For the work that you have done in this community! For the work you will continue to do! As we said, you’re just going onto the retired roster, man! It doesn’t mean you’re not still a pastor. We got work for you to do, yet! There’re things we need! Places we need to serve! And we know you will help us to do that! But for today, we say, “Thank you! Well done! God bless you!” Amen.