The New Alchemy: Gold Into Lead
Psalm 45:7-9; Mark 1:4-11
The way it was reported in the newspaper was this. A Korean immigrant named Yu Yong was riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the street in Manhattan. He was stopped by two policemen, pulled from his bike, knocked to the street and beaten. Whether he provoked this in some way is unclear. Some of the people on the street yelled at the police, "Stop it, stop it." Miss Ellen Texira, one of the people who was shouting, was told by a policeman to shut up or she'd be taken in, too. Unintimidated,Miss Texira and a group of bystanders went to the station house and filed charges of brutality against the policemen. Now I'll tell you a second story the way the Bible reports it. There was a man named John the Baptizer. He was dressed like a holy man or prophet, and he did his preaching out in the wilderness. A lot of people came to hear him, and his principal sermon was repent. John also baptized people with water as a sign of the ending of their old sinful ways and the beginning of a more Godly life. Now, let's suppose that we with our lively imaginations brought these two stories to-tether. Let's move John the Baptizer to Manhattan, just in time to see two policemen knock a Korean immigrant from his bicycle and beat him. So here is John watching this and hearing Miss Texira shout, "stop it," and John follows the bystanders to the station house. John is, of course, still preaching his principal sermon—his camel's hair robe flapping at the edges and held in place by a leather belt. "Repent," he shouts. "Repent, and be baptized." If I was present there in that crowd, and you were there, too, my guess is that we'd both be saying, at least to ourselves, "you tell them, John. They have no right to do that. Stop it. Repent. Stop it. Repent." And off we'd go to the station house to file charges or off to the river in case they repented. In case who repented? Well, the policemen, of course. Is it really that simple? At this particular time in this particular event it seems obvious that Miss Texira is a kind of heroine, and the two policemen clearly the ones who need to repent, but is it really that simple?
There is more to all three of them than the newspaper reveals.
Even though we don't know much about either Miss Texira or the policemen, we really know a great deal about them. Let me explain. All three, the heroine and the two villains, were lost once when they were children, lost on a city street, a county fair, and found by a parent's embrace. For each there was a first day of school, the first valentine, a broken toy once and tears. For each a time when they first heard their parents argue in anger, a time when they experienced the birth of a new fear.
For each there was a special tree, a pair of longed for shoes, football shoes or dancing shoes, first real suit or grownup dress, first kiss, dance, election (won or lost), first funeral, moonlight on the water, first lie told, truth told, but unbelieved. They have these things in common, just as we have them in common with them.
On that Manhattan Friday afternoon, there was one heroine and two villains, but you know it's not that simple. The policemen were human beings who had known love, beauty, delight. Miss Texira had told lies, been angry and abusive, just as you and I are nevertheless experienced in the ways of wrath, lust and sloth. From whom then should John the Baptizer demand repentance?
There is even more that we know about these three and that we have in common with them. We are tied by invisible filaments to all the human beings of generations past and through that filament flows and coated all the good and evil of humankind.
These three and we ourselves are the soldiers drowned at the Red Sea's crossing, the calvary at Wounded Knee. We are Jews shot before open pits and the soldiers who did the shooting; all of us cats on hot tin roofs. We are the raped, cheated, degraded and abandoned, and we are also those who burned Dresden, radiated Nagasaki and held the whips which lashed the backs of prisoners and slaves. We are Roland blowing his horn in the Pyrenees, the boy with his finger in the dike, Emily Dickinson, Jacqueline Cochran and Rosa Parks who said she'd no longer ride in the back of the bus. We're Ghandi and Maconnache, the men who finally told the truth about the awesome brutality toward English prisoners in Australia.
We know Miss Texira and the two policemen. We know them hardly at all and little or nothing about one another, but we also know a great deal. We are, each of us, Johann Sabastian Bach, and we can blow your brains out. To whom should John shout his one-word sermon? To whom should he say, "Repent"? So sometimes a heroine is not a heroine and policemen are sometimes not villains. All of us are capable of both evil and good. Then what difference does it make how we happen to behave on a particular Friday afternoon? It made a difference to Mr. Yu Yong, the Korean lying there on the street. It made a difference to him. Two people were beating him and the other trying to stop them. To Mr. Yong it made a difference. And what we do makes a difference, too, whether we smash or heal, steal or protect, are faithful or unfaithful. That makes a difference, but we know that tomorrow in some other setting or circumstance we could either strike or stop it. John's repent is always addressed to us. Of course, in some ways, John the Baptist is just whistling in the dark, shooting the breeze.
I remember many years ago when I was a platoon leader in a naval unit, I really enjoyed it, whipping those others into shape—right face, left face, to the rear, march—everything I could think of. It was ridiculous, but I was sure enjoying it until one of the squad leaders dared to say, "John, what in God's name are you doing?" Well, I was sinning. That's what I was doing. I was enjoying power at the expense of those placed for this time in my command. The only purpose it served after the first twenty minutes was the enhancement of my self image. You've probably done the same thing to your children, spouse, mail carrier, some helpless person who happened to cross your path on a day when you got out of bed on the wrong side. And John says to us, "repent." And I did repent that night. And I suppose I didn't abuse that platoon again, at least for a few days, but I certainly found other ways to enhance my self image at the expense of others. John can preach to me every day, and every day I'll repent, and this can go on day after day after day until I wonder whether this isn't some kind of a sick or dishonest game out of which I ought to extricate myself. Actually, John the Baptizer knew that. Listen to the words of Mark's gospel. John said, "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I'm not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the holy spirit." Repent is just not enough. We can repent until we are blue in the face, until the tears come down our faces, and we are still the person who tomorrow will give grievous offense to God. Even if we reach the point when we can tell a policeman to stop brutalizing a man, we never cease to be bone of the bone of a human family that continues to destroy itself. John knew there had to be more. John knew he was only preparing the way for the more which was to come, and the more was an act of God by which repentant people knew that they were going to sin again tomorrow, who knew that they will never act out of pure motivation—an act of God which allows us to get up off our knees and go to bed.
Most of us really don't want to be forgiven. It's humiliating to be forgiven. We'd rather live life simply. So we say to ourselves, tomorrow we'll be good. Tomorrow we'll be Miss Texira yelling at the cops to stop. Tomorrow we'll treat a platoon nicely. We can, like the little engine, puff our way to the top. It's the new alchemy. In the old days people tried to turn lead into gold. We'd prefer to turn the gold of forgiveness through the compassion of God. We'd rather turn the gold into lead. We'd rather have John the Baptist yelling at us than to allow God to embrace us. But there comes a time when we know in our hearts that we are capable of yelling stop it, and we are also capable of striking a helpless man, complacent in all the evil of humankind and repent as we may, wise enough to know that we will never be able to fully free ourselves from those things in us which we fear and despise. It's then that we tire of being yelled at and know that religion's demand is not enough. Only perhaps when we've come that distance will we hear John's other message. "There comes one after me, an act of God, true gold, forgiveness, springing out of God's compassion to lift you free beyond the simplicities of heroine and villain, to lift you off your penitential knees and let you go to bed in peace. Save us, oh Lord, lest we turn this gold into lead. "
John W. Vannorsdall Protestant Hour—Lutheran Series