Sunday, December 15, 2002

Living With Limits

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text:John I

The other night our car would not start so I called AAA. Triple A remains one of life’s great good deals. I could think of it as an almost universally useful last minute Christmas gift. Just a thought. It is highly effective, dependable, crucially necessary, and cheap. You know, it is what we can do together, when we eliminate the crushing need for greed. From each according to his automotive ability, to each according to his automotive need. All for $50.00 a year. Think of it. You can insure your driving support, nationwide, for almost nothing.

After 20 minutes the AAA truck arrived. Out tumbled a heavy set middle aged man, in a stubbled white beard and crimson work shirt. His truck was full of packages, piled in the dark. He reminded me of the Santa Claus we had seen the night before. In fact, I wondered if he had two jobs. We walked to the car, lifted the hood, poked around, fiddled, fussed, and started the car. He did his job—automotive medical care. I did mine. So, I asked, “How are you?”

“Terrible. I hurt all over. I am really sick. And my tooth hurts bad. I have a bad toothache. I have no insurance. So I can’t see the doctor.”

But I heard him declare, as he drove out of sight: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Over the next two days I found it troubling that this little scene would not leave my mind. We are all aware of the level of pain present at the holidays. Sometimes a particular incident will illumine the whole landscape; a toothache will illumine a whole world of hurt.

But the trouble with the moment did lie deeper. You have already guessed it. It took me longer, though. Here was a jolly happy elf, in the employ of one of the last truly communal agencies, bringing help in the moment on the cheap, who walked and is probably still walking, in dental pain. The one representing automotive insurance had no medical insurance. We insure our vehicles, efficiently and frugally. But not the human body. We have limits. There are limits to what we find that we can do. Which brings us, by the direction of the lectionary, for the second week to John the Baptist. The lectionary is a set of regularly used readings, collected in a three-year cycle. One year is based on Luke and another on Matthew. The third is left for Mark, with interruptions from John. John takes the older material, similar to that in Mark, and, like a jazz musician, plays a brighter, newer tune. He adds his own riffs. Today’s is a word on limits.

For the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is the master representative of limits. Like a river needs banks to be a river, life needs limits to be life.

In the Gospel of John there is no single way of talking about God’s personal truth, that alone sets us free. The salvation which John preached called for many words, different words, a variety of ways of acknowledging the Lordship of Christ. Maybe John sensed idolatry in ways of thinking that limited people to just one set, and thus deadening, confession. No. There is more than one way to skin a cat. And if what is pointed out is nothing short of a truth fit for salvation, can we blame him for pulling out all the stops on his organ? Bread of Life! Word of God! Good Shepherd! Light of the World! Lamb of God! John dares to try them all. He has to be daring. He is trying to offer those who hear his voice (and now, from this moment on, that includes you) a reason for living, and a way of living with limits.

I take it that “growing up”, if it means anything, at least means learning how to do some things, perhaps even how to do some things well. You are a baker. He is a builder. She is a musician. John the Baptist has a voice that rings with maturity and truth, party because he is assessing what he cannot do. “I am not the Christ…nor Elijah…nor the Prophet…” This too is maturity: learning one’s limits. A river with no banks is a very shallow river. But John’s life has banks to flow through. He knows what and who he is not.

The Baptist is a man who knows who he is not. And while you cannot build a life on whom you are not, you can start there. Part of living is living with limits.

Over time, one begins slowly to hear the rare rhythm of meaning in the Gospel of John. His is a strange cadence, repetitive, and complex. Again and again, in these 21 chapters, the various authorial hands at work in this ancient compilation will return to repeat their various themes. In this text, the theme is limits. And John the Baptist is the representative of the limits of life.

He stands at the edge of the raging Jordan.

He speaks at the end of the long tradition of Hebrew prophecy.

He inhabits the outer edge of the wilderness.

He comes up on the shadow of divinity.

John the Baptist is out there.

But unlike the other Gospels, this one has an extra interpretative point to make: make no mistake, John is not Jesus. I worked with John Kennedy, I knew John Kennedy, I was a friend of John Kennedy, and you are no John Kennedy.

Perhaps because of early religious competition, either between Christians and Jews, or between Christians and followers of the Baptist, this passage hammers away at what John is not. It celebrates his limits.

John was not the light. He bore witness to the light, but he was not the light. He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light.

He said: “I am not the Messiah”. He confessed it. He did not deny it. He confessed it. Do you see what I mean by repetition?

There is a lot more that John also is not. Is he Elijah? No he is not. Is he this figure the mysterious prophet? No he is not.

So, they asked him: You are neither Messiah, nor Elijah, nor Prophet. So why are you here? Why do you baptize.

One has the very distinct feeling that the traditional answer (water\spirit, not worthy to untie thong) falls flat for John.

Do you see the way that the fourth Gospel has jazzed up the story of John the Baptist? This is like Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet and singing with syncopated menace some very old hymn or tune, “America” or “Rugged Cross”. It is like what Frank Lloyd Wright did to houses, for good or ill. It is like Fran Tarkenton or Doug Flutie changing the role of the quarterback. It is like the black church in worship, singing "Marching to Zion," but not in Isaac Watt’s 4/4 time.

I think this is why the lectionary reads us Mark, on the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and then John, on the voice of one crying in the wilderness. John gives us soul.

We get our soul from our limits. The limit line of death makes life frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of evening makes the day frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of failure makes daily struggle frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of winter makes our annual journey frightfully precious and deeply meaningful.

Humility is giving credit where credit is due. But humility is also facing your limits. Have you faced them? John the Baptist seems to have done so. And you? Here are some.

  • You cannot choose your family or genetic inheritance.
  • You cannot reselect another epoch in history in which to live.
  • You cannot add a cubit to your span of days.
  • You cannot force other people to behave the way you would.
  • You cannot become another gender, at least not easily.
  • You cannot determine your children’s lives.
  • You cannot control what the preacher will say next.
  • You cannot single handedly erase a recession.
  • You cannot make it stop snowing.
  • You cannot become a gorgeous blonde or New York Yankee by wishing it so.
  • You cannot choose your choices.

But there is a bit of good news here, too. You can live with limits, by naming them and admitting them and accepting them and accounting for them.

I wonder if this Advent period is meant for a survey of limits in life. I believe there is a limit to the number of gifts we want to give to our children. I believe there is a limit to the number of people we should leave off of the health care roles. I believe there is a limit to what we can do, unprovoked, as a military power. Even in the Wild West they didn’t shoot a man who hadn’t drawn his gun. At least that’s what I see in the movies. I believe there is a limit to what finally we can do for one another. And crossing any of these and multitudes of other limits frequently means idolatry—trying to play God. And we frequently do.

Here is where John the Baptist, in the Johannine version, is so helpful. He says: here is what I am not.

Most of us here today are not musicians. Once a season we live with this limit by sitting still before a group of people who are musicians. They remind us, with their beautiful voices, of what we are not capable of doing. And we do our part by saying quietly, “Thank you, God, for able musicians such as they, for I am not one.”

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