December 11, 2011
Scripture: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Who Are You?
Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
I’ll never know the name of the woman who made it. It came to me by way of bus route 217, Quincy Center via Beale Street. A woman I know rides this route to work and back each day and has for fifteen years. It’s not a lonely ride, she has told me. She has a riding buddy, a friend whom she met some years back on bus 217 through an impromptu conversation shared over a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn. They have a lot in common, my friend and her riding buddy, they’re both in their mid-70s, they ride the same bus to work everyday, and they share a mutual love for knitting. They have a lot in common, my friend and her riding buddy, except that her riding buddy is blind.
When this woman who I know called me last week to tell me that she had heard the news of my expecting through her church in Wollaston, she told me that her riding buddy had knit my baby a blanket.
It came to me wrapped in a colorful gift bag, pinks and greens and blues and whites. When I reached inside and pulled out the blanket the intricate and careful handiwork of a knitting master was revealed. The touch and feel and concentration required for a person with no sight to create something so detailed and beautiful is inconceivable to me.
I’ll never know the name of the woman who made it. She wishes to remain anonymous to me. My friend assures me that her riding buddy finds joy in knitting and joy in giving her creations away, particularly at the occasion of new life being brought into the world.
I wondered if I could ever toil over something so carefully for so many hours and create something so magnificent and not demand to be recognized for my labor, for my effort, for my skill, for my gift.
* * * *
Several Christmas’ ago, my parents neighbor gave them a copy of a beautiful book entitled Churches, by a relative of theirs named Judith Dupré. The book is quite large and its cover opens right down the middle, as do the doors of most churches. Inside are breathtaking images and descriptions of hundreds of the world’s greatest architectural creations, from the Pantheon in Rome to Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square.
As I began flipping through the pages of this book, I noticed that the names of most of the architects and builders of these prodigious works are not known. Page after page I read, Builder: unknown, Builder: unknown. The Gothic cathedrals of Europe took hundreds of years to build and yet, in large part the hands and minds responsible for their magnificent existence are not known. For the men who devoted their lives to climbing scaffolding and laying stone at what would be the site of Reims Cathedral, Notre-Dame, Westminster Abbey, or the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, they would not live to see the completion of their own life’s work and their names would not be credited as having contributed to its creation. For them, it was enough to know that perhaps their grandchildren or even their grandchildren’s children might one day walk into and worship God in the awe-inspiring structure that their mind envisioned and hands constructed.
In the book, Judith Dupré recalls a legend that one of the builders of a great cathedral was carving a tiny bird inside a beam that would eventually be covered up by a roof and someone came along and asked him, “Why are you spending so much time building something that no one will ever see?”
And he responded, “Because God sees.”
* * * *
“Who are you?” is the question that the priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask John the Baptist when they hear his testimony of the coming of Christ.
Instead of answering in the affirmative, John responds, “I am not the Messiah.”
Still confused, these men ask him, “Who, then, are you Elijah?”
“I am not.” John answers.
They continue to question him, “Are you the prophet?”
“Who are you?” They ask him again.
John skirts their question and begins reciting a verse from the book of Isaiah,
“I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness,
Make straight the way of the Lord.”
These religious authorities want him to say who he is, but all he will say is who he is not, all he will do is quote some long ago prophet, all he will do is tell of the one who is coming far greater than he, all he will do is point to Jesus.
From 1921 until his death in 1968, Karl Barth kept a copy of Matthias Grunewald’s painting “The Crucifixion” hanging above his desk where he produced some of the greatest theological writings of the twentieth century, including Church Dogmatics and The Epistle to the Romans. In fact, to this day, a reproduction of Grunewald’s medieval masterpiece is kept over Barth’s desk where it is displayed on the main floor of the Barbour Library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
The painting portrays a dark scene at the center of which is Jesus on the cross, his head, wrapped in a crown of thorns droops low, his bleeding hands and feet nailed to the cross. To the right of Jesus is his mother Mary, and with her Mary Magdalene. To his left is John the Baptist with a long brown beard and wrapped in red cloth. Of all that is depicted in this image, Barth’s interest was always with the figure of John. John whose arm, bent at the elbow, protrudes from his cloak and whose index finger is distinctly pointing toward the bleeding wound on Jesus’ side.
In Church Dogmatics Barth writes, “Could anyone point away from himself more impressively and completely?” (p.112). For Barth, this image was the visual expression of his faith and theology, a constant reminder that our life and our work is not in and of itself righteous, worthy, or credible. Our labors, our efforts, our skills, our gifts should be used to point toward God rather than to inflate our own sense of pride or self-importance. John exemplified such witness to Christ, devoting his life to pointing toward Christ.
As the gospel story goes, John the Baptist was arrested just as Jesus was beginning his ministry and ultimately beheaded so that his head could be served on a platter before King Herod’s wife. John the Baptist gave his life to building something that he would never see completed. Taking no credit for himself in the construction of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but offering all the glory to Jesus.
Of all the lessons we can learn from John in this season of advent where he is so readily visible in the scriptures, how to serve as such a witness to Christ on this earth may be among the greatest. Utterly selfless, humble, and sincere.
For all of those times you’ve felt unappreciated, invisible, taken for granted - for those things that you have done for which you will never be thanked, for those of your works that will never be credited to you, for those creations made by your hands that will never bare your name - whether they be simple gestures of kindness toward a friend, care toward a child or grandchild, fixing something broken in this old, sacred building, knitting a prayer shawl, or giving a gift to a child in need at Christmas, rest assured that God has seen. And, rest assured that God revels in the fact that you have not done these things for the sake of your own glory or satisfaction but as witness to God’s kingdom on earth.
 Dupré, Judith, Churches (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001) 32-33
 Davidson, James E., “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” in Panorama, vol. XLV, no.3 , Spring 2006