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Pointing Fingers (Human Rights Sunday)

December 8, 2013

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent / Human Rights Sunday, December 8, 2013

Isaiah: 11: 1-10     Matthew 11: 2-11

During the season of Advent, John the Baptist, draws from the prophet Isaiah to announce, “Prepare the way of the Lord – make straight his paths.”  This announcement echoes through our liturgy and life as together we explore what it means for us, 2,000 years later, to prepare the way for Christ’s coming.


The twentieth century Protestant theologian Karl Barth regarded John the Baptist as the prototype of Christian discipleship. From the time he was a young pastor, Barth kept a reproduction of the Isenheim altarpiece over his desk.  The original alterpiece was painted by Mattias Grünewald around the year 1515. On the left panel, John, the beloved disciple, holds Mary, Jesus’ mother, as she looks in horror at the bloody, pierced body of her son on the cross. To the right, John the Baptist, in bare feet and camel’s hair cloak, holds a book in one hand and raises the long, bony index finger of his other hand toward Jesus on the cross. That, says Barth, is true discipleship: simply to point to all that God has done for us in Christ.


But of course Grunewald was taking liberties in his painting.  For John never made it to the cross.  He never made it out of prison.  No.  In our text today, John is a political prisoner and Jesus is out and about preaching. Presumably the people who once flocked to see John were now flocking to Jesus. Perhaps they thought, with John in jail, that Jesus would be safer, would play it safer.  As much as I like Barth, what is interesting in this passage today is that John is not pointing at Jesus, Jesus is pointing at John.

“And Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John. What did you go out into the wilderness to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”

John came preaching repentance. But he didn’t just preach repentance, he named names: he named the limited vision of religious leaders, the oppression of Rome’s military occupation, the greed of the tax gatherers, and the excess possessions even within the crowd that came to hear him. And of course, John  named the political maneuvering and adulterous affair of Herod Antipas. And for this he was arrested and jailed as a political enemy of Rome and Rome’s representatives. John had preached confidently that God’s messiah was about to usher in an age of personal and social transformation that would lead to a new liberation of God’s people on the model of Moses and David. And now he sits in Herod’s dungeon.

And Jesus places himself in continuity with John’s dangerous, seditious ministry.  The message Jesus sends to John in jail is, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”  The last line underscores the rub – Jesus knew that people would take offense at him just as they had at John.  Because these acts of healing and preaching good news to the poor are neither innocuous nor simply personal stories.  They are acts of empowerment and hope that are knitting together the Jewish people who have been exiled from the Temple system and dominated by Rome.  Jesus characterizes his ministry as fulfilling the jubilee promises of a just and whole society, guided by God’s covenant.  These words describe the dawn of God’s basilea, God’s empire, right in the roiling gut of the Roman Empire.

I wonder what it was like for John to receive that message as he languished in prison, knowing there was little hope for release and facing what was almost certain death.  I wonder what it must have been like for Prisoner 46664 on Robben Island to hear of the growing global pressure against apartheid in the 80s while he was still called an ANC terrorist by many political leaders and not the revered, statesman of reconciliation we mourn this week.[1]


As was fitting, upon learning of Nelson Mandela’s death, world leaders were quick to publicly laud his unique capacity to forgive, to reconcile, to inspire and to lead.  And said something more.  The archbishop asked rhetorically whether Mr. Mandela was “the exception to prove the rule.”  And he answered himself, “I say no, emphatically,” adding that Mr. Mandela “embodied our hopes and dreams, symbolized our enormous potential.” In his death, Nelson Mandela points in turn at South Africa and the world, according to Tutu:  prepare the way, make straight God’s paths.

While Nelson Mandela’s death did not come as a surprise, it was still somehow shocking, wasn’t it; as if the earth shuddered within me and without at his passing.  I heard of his passing while at the Museum of Modern Art on Thursday, when my new iPhone vibrated with the NY Times’s headline.  It was an unusual setting in which to hear this news. Noelle, August, my mother and I were reclining on low-slung couches experiencing a poignant, 9 screen film installation about migration by Isaac Julien entitled, “Ten Thousand Waves.”[2]


The Chinese drumming, boom, and periodic tinkling of bells, the images of displaced people trudging through wilderness to who knows where, the somber, haunting image of a mourning, ghostly mythical goddess, gliding through the air on wires while stretching longingly down towards the desperate migrants who cannot not see her.  Boom: Nelson Mandela, dead at 95.  Boom: murky water.  Boom: towering mountains.  Boom: flies buzzing.  Boom: exhausted men.  Boom: outstretched hand.  Boom: eyes longing.  Boom:  feet moving. Boom: forward, slipping.  BoomBoom. Boom. The work of freedom, yet unfinished.

So on this Sunday, when we celebrate human rights day and we remember people around the world and in our own nation, whose bodies and spirits are branded by the brutality of domination, we gain strength from these words and the signs of Jesus.  We gain strength when we remember the courage and reconciliation demonstrated by Mandela.  We gain strength from the unnamed millions around our world who strive and dare and sacrifice for human dignity yet to be acknowledged.

Jesus reminds us, we who would prepare the way, not to be defeated by the cruelty and injustice of the prevailing systems and structures of our world, nor to be seduced by the priorities or benefits of them, for these are not the final word.  In his words, his deeds and his person, Jesus showed us the impossible made possible; God’s promise of justice and wholeness that concretely transforms our reality without being conditioned by it.  The poor, the lame, the blind are receiving good news and we’re called to be a part of it.  Jesus is pointing toward us. Thanks be to God.

After the sermon, the congregation sang “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” The following prayer, adapted by The Rev. Sarah Henkel from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture prayer for International Human Rights Day, was then offered by a member of our prayer ministry.


God, giver of life in abundance, we offer thanksgiving for the life and work of Nelson Mandela.

We give thanks for his witness, his life’s proclamation of the dignity and equality of all people, his consistent refusal to accept anything less than equal rights, and his courage in the worst of times during years and years spent in prison longing for freedom.

As we recognize Human Rights Day this year, we focus on all who are in prison, especially those who are held in solitary confinement.  We recall the words spoken by Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.  A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

We offer this prayer for who are held in prison in this nation:

“Giver of community, who weaves together our human family, intending us for fellowship with one another, we pray for our sisters and brothers imprisoned in isolation for months and years, denied all opportunity for connection and reconciliation. In place of vengeance, we pray for the courage to create opportunities for healing.

Giver of life, who charges us with the care of the children in our midst, intending for them a future of possibility and potential, we pray for the young people in our community who are locked away, denied access to nurturance, education and guidance. In place of neglect, we pray for the wisdom to create opportunities for growth.

Giver of day and night, of daily cycles of wake and rest, intending for us balance and fulfillment, we pray for all held in windowless cells, with lights left on night and day.  In place of fear, we pray for the strength to create opportunities for restoration.

Giver of dignity and sacred worth in each life, intending for us experiences marked by respect and safety, We pray for all who endure violation in mind, body and spirit. In place of violation, we pray for the boldness to create communities of wholeness.”[i]

Giver of healing, we offer now the prayers of this community for wholeness and peace: (intercessions)

* * *

We pray, grateful to all the witnesses who point us to the peace, justice, and reconciliation embodied in Jesus.  We pray mindful that we too are called to live our lives as bold testimonies to Jesus’ radical love for all. Amen.



[1]   Indeed, one former New York times correspondent reminds us, Mandela was removed from the US terror watch list only in 2008, at age 89

[i] Laura Markle Downton, “A Prayer for Human Rights Day” from The National Religious Campaign Against Torture: Human Rights Day Toolkit,, accessed 12/7/13


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