I wonder if you were one of the 73 million people in the United States who watched the Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964. Did you know that three of every four adults in our country at the time tuned in to hear John, Paul, George, and Ringo—four teenagers from Liverpool, England—sing, while teenage girls screamed? One could argue that Ed Sullivan’s lasting claim to fame is that he was the one who introduced the Beatles to us.
I watched a video clip of that show; Ed was very well-dressed at the time, very mainstream. But did Ed know the message? Ed, turns out, was a Roman Catholic. So he knew the Messenger, Christ Jesus. And Ed supported talent with a passion, regardless of race in an era when racism was overt.
Ed knew the Message, and the Messenger, but did the Beatles? The Beatles sang several songs on The Ed Sullivan Show, including “All my loving” and “I want to hold your hand,” and three others of their soon-to-be hit songs. But did they know the source of love and life?
One more introduction story: In September 2015 President Obama welcomed Pope Francis to the White House. This was the day before the Pope addressed a joint session of Congress and a few days before he visited Philadelphia, where he celebrated Communion for nearly one million people. The Pope didn’t sing, but in a way he DID promise “All my loving” and “I want to hold your hand.” The scene was described by news reports as “a sea of gold, green, and white.” Very mainstream.
So, maybe you can tell, I had a lot of fun this week thinking of who got to introduce important people. But I couldn’t think of or find a single instance where someone like John the Baptist got to make the introduction, got to share the message first.
I know that you know all about John the Baptizer. You know that John wore really strange clothes and that John ate really strange food—desert fare. No Little Free Food Pantry meals for John! If you encountered John today, you would either call him a “survivalist” (if you encountered him in the wilderness) or a crackpot (if you ran into him on an urban street corner). Ho hum, just another twisted person preaching fear, forgettable.
But you may remember that John the Baptizer had a memorable way of getting people’s attention, even way out there in the desert. John was a truth-teller. He didn’t even have Twitter; people had to go to him to hear what he had to say. But people in John’s day, like people today, apparently love hearing “shock and appall” talk, love hearing radically bold truth-telling (even if we don’t agree with the truth being told, and even if what is being told is not truth). The audacity mesmerizes us.
I’ll bet you even know John the Baptist’s mesmerizing message, the one that has kept us enthralled these past two millennia. John said something like, “Reject your indifference to God and live as if God were right here with us.” ACTUALLY, John’s message was much pithier than this version, wasn’t it? Much more Tweetable. John simply said, “Repent!” and “Get ready, Christ is coming,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
See, John knew that people love sound bites. John knew that—whether we consciously know this or not—we all long to live in right-relationship with our maker and with each other. What we often lack is a simple way to get started. We are so far from God’s message, have slipped so far from God, that we’ve gotten lost out there is the wilderness of life. So John created or maybe just popularized a simple way to begin to turn things around in relation to God. John said, “Be baptized.” Which is to say, “Declare your intent in public.” This is the first step to turning to God: Repent and be baptized.
Of course, we have already BEEN baptized, most of us. And yet that doesn’t keep us from wandering away from our intent. With the best of intentions we can slide away from the direction we know we ought to be going. This is why we Episcopalians have the opportunity to “declare our intent” each week to not stray from the Message and from the Messenger. Each and every week we come to this altar and accept Jesus, symbolically and literally, into our lives anew. The challenge each week is to go from this place and “become what we receive,” which is to say, “We go from this place and be new life for others.”
John’s attire tells us that we don’t have to be mainstream to introduce people to Jesus or Jesus to the people. All we have to do is point the way to God.
My message for you today is also simple: Repent. Repeat as necessary. And introduce people to Christ Jesus.