There was a time when I danced on tables and sang show tunes at the top of my lungs, dressed in outlandish costumes and performed in chorus lines. It was during my high school years in the rural town of Morrilton, Arkansas and those behaviors were as out of character for me then as they are now. The person responsible for getting me to the table top, for inviting me to sing solos, was Ms. D.
She was our drama teacher, but she was far more than the curator of a classroom. Ms. D was a force that could bend the will of superintendents and principals, and inspire everyone from shy quiz bowl players to the quarterback of the football team to be a part of the school’s annual productions. Drama at Morrilton High School was no niche, it was the activity that brought the whole school and community together.
Ms. D, had a frosted perm, once blond. Her office was adorned with pictures of classic movie stars and old show posters, and it always smelled of the cigarettes she smoked in defiance of the administration. She was the regent of her domain and all knew her to be both benevolent and sharp. Yet everyone wanted to meet her expectations not from fear, but from devotion.
“Sparkle, people, sparkle!” was her catchphrase. “Sparkle” for Ms. D. was a term of art. To sparkle was to really act, which meant to make the acting disappear. It was the reality in which the actor was transformed into the character and the audience could live into the joys of the story. The greatest achievement possible at Morrilton High School was not an A in a class, but to hear Ms. D say “you sparkled.”
I earned those words only once, even though I had roles in productions ranging from Oliver to The Outsiders. It was the final semester of my senior year of High School and I tried out, as usual, for the spring musical. This time, though, I didn’t get a role in the chorus or some minor part with a few lines. This time I was cast as the supporting actor, with musical solos and duets opposite a lead who would go on to a professional career in film. It was in the voice of that character that I proclaimed from the stage, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the coming wrath.” The final role of my high school acting career was as John the Baptist in the musical Godspell. I felt a bit of nostalgia, then, as I read our Gospel for today, but not for long.
Vipers running from fire, an axe ready to take down a tree that bears no fruit? These are the kinds of verses that give energy to hellfire preachers and make we mainline pastors cringe. John is a wild character with wild words; he doesn’t fit well with a domesticated religion that wants to be just a little more loving, a little more joyful in the midst of the world as it is. John has not come to carefully sculpt and cultivate, as other teachers might. He has come to clear the brush away with fire and axe, to open up the ground for new life by ripping out the old.
But for all of the language of snakes and fire, John’s aim wasn’t to condemn his audience outright. His harsh word were a kindness because he wanted to free the people from the illusion that simply participating in a life of religious acts, acts like baptism, would somehow magically change the reality of who they were. John wanted the crowds to realize that water wouldn’t save them, being a descendent of Abraham made no difference, only the radical redirection of life toward the ways of God would matter in the world that was coming. His was a call to repent.
What does it mean to repent? It is a word that carries a good deal of baggage and one that would be easy to interpret in a moralistic way. But John has no time for that. “What should we do?” the crowd asks. John’s answers are simple and concrete. “If you have more than you need, you must share it with those who have less than they need.” “If your wellbeing relies on the exploitation of other people, change your livelihood.” He is calling people to live humanly in a world that treats others as objects. It is practical advice that anyone can do in any occupation, any stage of life. But to work out the implementation we must get into the depths of who we are—our fear, our pride, our egos.
We have two coats because we fear that one will not be sufficient. Coats and food were for John what savings accounts are for us. They were backup against disaster and in our fear we prepare for disaster and sanctify it as prudence. But John is saying that while you are saving for a rainy day it is now pouring on your neighbor. You can offer an umbrella, you can fix the leak.
And though we may not be tax collectors or mercenaries, we can’t entirely escape John’s words there either. Most of us benefit from the exploitation of the disadvantaged for our own gain. We participate in an economy that provides us with cheap goods at the cost of workers around the world who are denied any hope of a decent living. Our Christmas trees, if they are typical, will be surrounded by items that came at the expense of the health and welfare of workers not to mention the destruction of the very life systems of the earth we share. And yet, even knowing this, I continue in it because I feel unable to change, or more accurately I’m unwilling to give up the comforts to which I’ve become accustomed. I know that change will come at costs I don’t know if I’m willing to pay.
Repent, says John the Baptist, turn around to a different way. Don’t just go through some religious act–change your life.
Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, in his wonderful book God’s Economy, illustrates what the life of repentance looks like with a story about his friend Jim Douglass. When Douglass graduated from college his father sent him a life insurance policy as a gift. It was meant as a way of protecting Jim’s young family. But Jim returned the policy to his father, thanking him for the gift but explaining that he wanted to live in an “economics of providence” of the kind that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of paying the monthly premiums for a life insurance policy, Jim told his father that he would send a monthly payment to care for the basic needs of a little girl who was in poverty now. It was that choice, early in his life, that helped set about a different way of life for Jim’s family. It has been a way of life that has born much fruit.
The witness of Jim Douglass is what John means by repentance; it is the radical shifting of one’s life into the ways of God, trusting in the economy of God’s gifts rather than the economies of exploitation on which we so often rely. It is risky to live this way. We will feel exposed and vulnerable at times and we will want to run to the security of the masks that make us feel safe. But if we push through the tension; if we accept in our Baptism the death of false selves, or acknowledge that death and vow to live as witnesses to Christ’s way for our children, then we will discover something shining and surprising.
All those plays I’d been in through high school, I’d always held back with the fear that if I occupied the character I was playing I’d make a fool of myself. I went through the lines and the stage instructions worked out by the director, but I never let go enough to really become the character I was playing. But as we all know, the only way an actor looks like a fool is by holding back. Somehow, by my senior year, I finally got that. As I entered the High School auditorium singing “prepare the way of the way of the lord,” I finally let go of the protective layers of my pride and risked authenticity. I became John the Baptist with all I could muster, not as a mask but as a new person I was now embodying. And at the end of the show, Ms. D. grabbed me by the cheeks, looked me in the eyes and said those coveted words: “Tonight, you sparkled!”
That is what repentance is all about; that is what baptism is all about. We must put away all the false selves of our fears; we must forget ourselves so that we can die and become something new, something that sparkles like an immortal diamond in the sun. Amen.