Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Baby Sheep of God with a Pigeon on His Shoulder

John 1:29-42

"The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)"

    Last Fall I was working sixty hours a week - give or take. I was working two jobs, mostly because we needed the money, but also because they provided some neat opportunities for me in ministry.  But with an infant who refuses to sleep during the night, and a four-year-old who refuses to sleep during the day, and with a husband who is working full time to find a job with things like benefits and stability and a livable wage, needless to say, a few things got lost in the shuffle and chaos. Don’t worry, we managed to keep the boys, and even the pets, fed and watered in the midst of it all. And they all are growing and healthy, but unfortunately, so was that mysterious gunk behind the faucet on the kitchen sink.  So were the piles of boots and coats and hats and leftover take-out containers and pizza boxes and junk mail and the dishes - so many dishes.

    So this year, this new year, I have resolved to keep my house in better order. I even have a schedule. Saturdays are laundry days, Mondays, I vacuum and dust upstairs, Thursdays I clean and organize the toys, and so on. So it’s the third week of January, and I’m proud to say that I’m scoring about a 65% on my new year’s resolution to keep my house a little more orderly, a little more calm.  And hey, if it were a pie, 65% would be a lot of pie... 65% more organized and orderly. 65% more under control. Can’t you just feel the calm radiating out at you from my skin?
    But this week has driven me nuts. We had that “polar vortex” and then, whiplash-like, we had a big thaw, temperatures soaring into the upper 40s and 50s right after we’d had record low wind chills. (It’s almost like the planet is trying to tell us something...)  And into the house from the great outdoors come my dogs, in comes my son, in comes the mud. So. Much. Mud.

I have realized how I’m aging, not because I just turned 35, or because I have counted five more grey hairs, but because I have impure thoughts about how nice it would be to have a mudroom in my house - a place to dump all the muddy clothes, the wet socks, the crazy hyper dogs.  But alas, I don’t have one of those, just a tiny door mat and then a tiny living room, and so, there was mud all over the house.
    Mud. Balls and piles and flecks of mud. Mud from the backyard, mud from the playground, mud from the decaying pile of leaves we walk over to get from our car to the sidewalk and up the driveway.
    So how frustrating. I quit my job, I resolve to have a cleaner, calmer, more orderly house, and all I have managed to do is sigh at my son and curse my dogs as they track mud all over the house. So much for new year’s resolutions.
    There’s just so much to clean, and organize and arrange and keep track of - and it never ends - especially with two little ones in a tiny house. There is always laundry. The kitchen floor gets dirty as soon as I clean it. The dishes pile up even though the dishwasher is constantly running. I know-- The whinings and complaints of a middle class mom. First world problems.
    But, I mean, I really would like to prevent the neighbors from calling a social worker, ya know?
    And what would his preschool teachers think if I sent my son to school in muddy clothes and ratty hair, with dirt under his fingernails? (Well, it’s a good thing they usually keep their opinions to themselves...)
    And then after one more load of laundry and one more emptying of the dishwasher, I sat down to read this week’s lectionary passage - and here he is - the wild man - John the Baptist.
    John the Baptist who wears camels hair tunics and lives in the wilderness and eats the locusts and bathes in a river.  I imagine him with dreadlocks down his back and with sticky hands from all that honey. Dirty knees from all that kneeling and repenting. A hoarse voice from all that proclaiming and shouting and calling for repentance. I’d guess he’d have a some mud caked on his pants, some of that River Jordan silt under his fingernails. I imagine he’d been scolded by a few women for tracking mud through their just-scrubbed houses.
    He’s the one God chooses to point to the messiah? To proclaim who Jesus is? This mess of a man? This filthy rugrat who seems to have rejected any credentials or lineage or rights to the priesthood that he may have inherited from his father. This man who wanders the wilderness without a savings account, or a college degree, or a home address or health insurance?
    But wait. It gets worse. ‘Cause John’s not the exception to the rule. There is dirt and mud and earth and flesh all over this passage.
    But we’ve tried to sterilize it clean. The white dove, descending. The Spirit of God hovering. The Lamb of God, taking away the sins of the world. The images we made for ourselves of Jesus’ baptism are almost cartoonish. All wonder and light. A graceful dove, symbol of purity and submission. Clear water, symbol of cleanliness and renewal.

But, although we’ve whitewashed it and scrubbed the images clean so that they fit neatly on bumper stickers and t-shirts and facebook memes, the text won’t cooperate.

    What we have here is a whole lot of mud. A wandering mess of a man with pruney fingers and a farmer’s tan from hanging out in the Jordan all day. And he describes the scene of Jesus’ baptism: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” He describes Jesus himself: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

    John-the-dirty-and-wandering-mess describes the Son of God as a lamb, with a dove on his shoulder.

    Jesus the lamb. A symbol of sacrifice, surely. But also, a pretty common image. A weak, wobbling baby of a weak wobbling sheep. Sheep who are typically lost and wandering and getting into all sorts of trouble. Sheep who are covered in mud and need to be shown where the new grass is. Sheep who won’t survive away from each other. Sheep who are guided by shepherds, the dirty outsiders of the community, who sleep out in the fields and fight off predators for the sake of their always wandering sheep.

    Jesus the lamb with a dove landing on his shoulder.

    The Dove of the Holy Spirit. A dove which was used most commonly as a purifying sacrifice or as a sin offering in the temple for those who could not afford a whole lamb.
    A dove which was easily caught and killed. A dove which was so trusting and defenseless that they could be scooped up by the most vulnerable in this society and offered as an atoning sacrifice.
    Debbie Blue argues that a better image for a dove would be a pigeon, and indeed, I looked it up in the Hebrew, dove and pigeon are synonymous in the Old Testament. Doves and pigeons are the same breed of bird - of the family Columbidae. Doves were just pigeons bred to be white in color, and because of its association with the Holy Spirit, they became symbols of purity and grace. But essentially, they’re pigeons. A city nuisance. “Rats with wings.” Scavengers who poop all over our statues and monuments to important people.

    Growing up, my dad put bird feeders outside the bay window in our kitchen. And he kept them filled, even though the squirrels would risk life and limb to get at them, and even though the doves and the pigeons would come careening down upon them like B52 bombers, crashing into their plastic sides, knocking out the seed onto the mud below. Have you ever watched a pigeon land? It’s a chaotic fluster of wings flapping and spindly legs stretching and flesh succumbing to the pull of gravity. It’s not quite as graceless as an albatross, but close. And this is how the Spirit of God descends? This is how John sees the Holy Spirit land upon Jesus?

    And if you wait for the bus downtown, or look up to the tops of the buildings in East Liberty, or sprinkle your breadcrumbs on the bike trails on the South Side, you will see them, or trip over them. And the pigeons will come, vulnerable, trusting, ready to scoop up any piece of crackers or Chinese leftovers, or french fries that we have to offer them.
    These creatures we consider a nuisance and we tried to shoot with BB guns as kids and we call “flying rats” and bring peregrine falcons into our cityscapes to “control” are said by the author of our Gospel to be the very Spirit of God. These creatures who are inherently communal, who mate for life, who land with such a force as to upend our bird feeders and were considered easy food and common offerings for the poor and marginalized, these are symbols of the Holy Spirit.

    And Here. Here is Jesus. Here is the weak, muddy, helpless baby sheep of God, upon whom lands the Holy Spirit like a pigeon crashing into the sidewalk to get a piece of stale bread. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, proclaimed to be so first by a wandering mess of a man, sunburnt, covered in mud and river silt, with matted hair and sticky, honeyed hands.

    And this is our God.
    The one who enters the mud and the muck to be with us, to be one of us. The One who is the mud and the muck that we so misunderstand that we want to scrub it out of our houses, out of our cities, off of our sidewalks, away from our rafters. 


    And a few ragamuffins who smell like fish and sun, who have dirt behind their ears and rope burns on their hands are the ones who actually see it. First John the Baptist, and then Andrew, and then Peter. They see the life and power and humanity and vulnerability and the very essence of God in the man who is like a baby sheep, a little lamb, upon whose shoulders crashes a top-heavy pigeon - common, yet overlooked -- vulnerable, yet persistent -- the living and life-giving Spirit of God.

    When they want to know where Jesus is staying, Jesus responds, “Come and See.”

    Come and See where Jesus is staying. In those things that we overlook. In the abundance and mundanity of a flock of pigeons bobbing their heads and cooing on the sidewalk. In those places we consider unclean, a nuisance, in those places of annoying abundance and desperate need. Come and see where Jesus lives, where the Spirit of God has landed -- in those muddy rivers and mud-tracked living rooms where dogs and little boys play together.

Thanks be to God.

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