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In Gratitude for Forerunners

Advent 5 (2B): Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

December 10, 2023

            Good Morning, St. Aidan’s. Welcome to the fifth Sunday of our longer observance of Advent. For several weeks now we have been receiving readings, singing hymns, reflecting together in a posture, a particular practice of anticipation. As I said at the outset of our observance, the season of Advent prepares for, and locates us within, the coming of the divine reign, the dream of God, drawing on Verna Dozier’s phrase.[1]This season is characterized by an acute quality of already and not yet. Already is God’s dream of justice, of peace, of restoration present. Not yet is it fully arrived. Within this threshold space we are called to anticipate, to participate in, to collaborate with that arrival. In Advent that call unfolds within a shift of focus that unfolds over the course of the season (whether four or seven weeks long), from a focus on the second Advent, the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of the divine reign, to an emphasis on the first Advent, the arrival of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem, the mystery of God’s Word made flesh and dwelling among us. This morning we begin to feel that seasonal pivot through the person of John the Baptist. As all of us are called in this shifting Advent in-between space to embrace a practice, a posture of anticipation, of active watchfulness and waiting, John gives us a unique embodiment of that call.

            John is widely known by the title “the Baptist” or “Baptizer” because, as our passage from the Gospel of Mark describes, he baptized people in the Judean desert or wilderness. Another title, less known in Western Christian contexts than in eastern ones, is “the Forerunner.” John was one who ran before Christ, a messenger who actively anticipated the arrival of the anointed one and his ministry of liberation and restoration. John went before Christ in a life fundamentally shaped by the Isaian prophecy we heard in our first reading:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 40:3-5).

Long before John, these prophetic words had originally spoken to the context of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E. In language of a desert highway, of valleys being lifted up and the leveling of uneven ground, of the very landscape shifting to allow for the revelation of divine glory, a yet earlier miracle was being evoked: the Exodus. The freeing of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt through the parted Red Sea had come to be understood as a landscape of liberation.[2] To activate the imagination of the community to anticipate and prepare for a return from exile, Isaiah (technically Second Isaiah, as scholars refer to this author) was drawing upon this imagery of the land itself transforming to open a passage, a way. And so now, stretching back across time to our reading from Mark five hundred plus years after the exile, a further iteration of that imagination is being activated by John. John is embodying this call to prepare the way. He is announcing with his very life the call to anticipate the coming of the Holy One.  

For John, that anticipation is highly active. Do not simply wait, his life speaks, but wait actively. Prepare. John embodies this preparation in part through his memorable garb: he was “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist,” as was the prophet Elijah with whom the gospels closely associate him (Mark 1:6).[3] John’s diet is also notable to modern, western ears— locusts (basically, grasshoppers) and wild honey. He embodies the wilderness or desert terrain in which he makes his way. If by chance you wonder how effectively this idiosyncratic combination of vesture and menu enabled John to answer his call to herald the arrival of “one stronger than [him]” (Mark 1:7) whose sandals he felt himself unworthy to stoop down and untie in a gesture of welcome and hospitality, Mark suggests he did well. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” (Mark 1:5). He baptized them in the river Jordan, inviting them to turn and prepare for the coming One, cleansed by that living water from all that might separate them from the reign of God whose nearness Jesus would shortly announce. “I have baptized you with water,” John went on to explain, “but [Christ] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). Other gospel versions of this story add the word “fire.” These words make me think of our current Eucharistic prayer by Steven Shakespeare: “Christ was promised by those who shared your dream of peace; John the Baptist cleared his way with words of desert fire.”[4]

            John’s forerunning witness makes me wonder: who in our lives and/or learnings have we observed preparing Christ’s way? Who has opened our imaginations to envision what such preparation can look like in our world? What might they teach us about our own call to clear the way for the in-breaking divine dream, God’s holy reign of justice and peace?

            As many of you know, not long after I came to St. Aidan’s, I began to learn more about a pioneering leader in the history of the Episcopal Church who was deeply impactful upon our collective life: The Reverend Phyllis Edwards. I had read brief snippets about her in textbooks about the history of the ordination of women in our tradition, since she became known as the first woman to be a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Already serving as a deaconess at a time when women were not allowed to be deacons, priests, or bishops, Edwards was declared by Bishop James Pike of our diocese to be a deacon in a service at Grace Cathedral on September 13, 1965.[5] The service was covered in the national press, and it caused quite a stir in the wider church.[6] For five years after that, Edwards was in on her own as the only woman deacon in the entire Episcopal church, facing “the wrath of the Church alone,” as one scholar has put it.[7] During some of those same years she served here at St. Aidan’s, including a period when she was in charge of the congregation while the then vicar was on sabbatical – the first time an ordained woman had ever been in charge of a congregation in the history of the Episcopal Church.[8] She advocated with others in a movement to clear the way for women to serve in whatever capacities they were called. In 1970 the General Convention voted to affirm that women could be deacons, even as they refused to lift barriers to the priesthood and episcopate for another six years. Our own Deacon Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain recently shared with me an article she found in the New York Times from just after the historic 1970 vote. In it, Edwards is quoted: “A Bishop with enough courage to face the House of Bishops could ordain a woman to the priesthood without waiting for action from the General Assembly. It could happen. There are now 17 of us willing to begin proceedings, and we feel there are some Bishops who may cooperate. One way or the other, I expect to see a woman priest in my lifetime.”[9]Indeed, she did in 1974 when eleven women were ordained in Philadelphia in an action that spurred the wider church to finally clear the way. We will show the new Philadelphia Eleven documentary about that ordination in January.[10] Yet though she could have been one of the eleven in July of 1974 or the four Washington Four in early September,[11] the Reverend Edwards would wait several more years before joining them when she was ordained a priest in 1980.[12] Edwards was a pathbreaker, a pioneer, a way-clearer. She was one who like John the Baptist prepared the way for actions that spoke far beyond the scope of a single denomination or a specific form of vocation. Her actions responded to God’s call to remove all the barriers that stand in the way of liberation, of justice, of God’s dream of restoration for all creation and all creatures. Her prophetic ministry needs to be remembered where it has been forgotten, to be lifted up as a sign of further possibility, spurring our own ongoing call to be heralds of good news, to be collaborators with God in the in-breaking of the divine dream.

            And so, dear friends, this morning I give thanks for the forerunners in our lives, those who live out the wilderness proclamation of a highway for our God and shape our imaginations for embodying the divine dream. Such lives, such witness urge us to consider how we are called to herald such tidings in this time and place. How might those who have gone before us inspire us afresh to join this ministry of active anticipation?

[1] Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Boston, MA: Cowley, 1991)

[2] Reginald Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1984), 205.

[3] John R. Donahue, “Mark” in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 2000), 904

[4] Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church (New York: Church Publishing, 2009), 144.

[5] Pamela Darling, New Wine: The Story of Women Transforming Leadership and Power in the Episcopal Church (Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 1994),110-111.

[6] “A Step Forward as Mrs. Edwards Invested in U.S.” Associated Press in The Montreal Gazette, September 18, 1965.

[7] Darlene O’Dell, The Philadelphia Eleven (New York: Seabury Books, 2014), 48.

[8] Diocesan Press Service “World Church in Brief,” March 26, 1969.

[11] “4 Women Become Episcopal Priests” in The New York Times, September 7, 1974. Edwards is cited as one of those who had announced via press release with the other four that she would be ordained a priest in Washington D.C. in this Diocesan Press Service article from August 28, 1975:  

[12] This article about Edwards’ 1980 ordination to the priesthood states, “During this period of ferment over the place of women in the Church, Mrs. Edwards chose to let her ‘ministry of being affect the Church,’ rather than seeking early ordination.” “Phyllis Edwards Ordained Priest Declared Deacon in 1964” in Episcopal News Service, July 10, 1980.

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