Holy Highway Work
Luke 3: 1-6
Scripture and tradition describe Luke as a physician, but I think he was really an historian. When Luke wrote the stories of Jesus, he carefully located them in the context of the day. He gave the historical background that helped explain what the world was like when these events took place.
For example, our reading today begins with a specific time and a comprehensive recitation of the ruling powers: It was “the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee… during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.”
That was when John came, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, reminding people of the ancient words of the prophet: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
John’s prophetic call was rooted in the midst of human history, and it still is. It comes to us even now, in the midst of our history, in the context of our times.
John called for preparation, a preparation for the coming of the Lord. We know how the first coming ends – with a baby in a manger, choirs of angels and adoring shepherds, wise men traveling from afar. And while we spend these Advent weeks preparing to celebrate that coming of Love into the world, our preparation does not end there.
We are also called to prepare for the coming fulfillment of all that God has promised in Christ – a time when the crooked shall be made straight, the rough places smoothed out, and a level playing field created for all.
This gospel version of preparation sets us at odds with our culture. While the rest of the world indulges in holiday frolic, we are called to confront the sins of the world, and -- even harder -- our own sins, to repent, to change our minds about the way we have lived. While the rest of the world dresses itself in holiday red and green, the church wears the purple of penitence. While the rest of the world transforms the holy for commercial purposes, we are called to transform the world for God’s purposes.
And that is hard work.
It is fitting that the prophet speaks of it as road work, building a highway, one that blasts down the mountains, and moves earth into the valleys, a road without crooks and curves and dangerous hairpin turns, a road with no potholes. Building this holy highway is hard and challenging.
Consider this, for example. From a report earlier this year, according the latest census data:
The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year to its largest margin ever…The top-earning 20 percent of Americans – those making more than $100,000 each year – received almost 50 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent made by the bottom 20 percent of earners, those who fell below the poverty line. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 2008 when the recession began, and nearly double the gap in 1968. At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, those who earn more than $180,000, added to their annual incomes last year. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower. [In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.] The largest gaps between rich and poor were in the District of Columbia and three states: Texas, New York … and Connecticut.
(Huffington Post, September 28, 2012)
And can you hear the call of the prophet?
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”
And here is another thing to ponder. Twenty years ago, an author named Jonathan Kozol wrote a book about inequality in public schools. Listen to what one woman, an urban planner who had children the DC schools at the time, had to say:
The D.C. schools are 92% black, 4% while, 4% Hispanic, and other. There is no discussion of cross-busing with the suburbs…There is regional cooperation on a lot of other things. We have a regional airport, a regional public-transit system, and regional sewage-disposal system. Not when it comes to education. Black people, [she says,] did not understand that whites would go to such extremes to keep our children at a distance. We never believed that it would come to this: that they would flee our children…” If you’re black you have to understand – white people would destroy their schools before they’d let our children sit beside their children. They would leave their homes and sell them for a song not to live with us and see our children socializing with their children.” (Kozol, p 184-5)
Hard words, a rough situation. And twenty years later, the D. C. public schools are 7% white, and three-quarters of the students are below the poverty line. Where are all the children of well-to-do parents who work in Washington? Not in the public schools -- not then, and not now.
And this is happening here, too, you know. The goals to desegregate Connecticut schools resulting from the court case, Scheff vs. O’Neill, have never been achieved. The law suit was filed in 1989. Twenty-three years ago….. And the Hartford public schools are still among the poorest and most racially isolated in the state.
But some might ask whether white people -- in Washington DC or in suburban Connecticut– should have to sacrifice their children on an altar of racial desegregation? Do those who advocate for integrated schools mean to say that? I don’t think so. I think they mean to say that no people should have to sacrifice their children– not white people or black people or people who live in the poorest city or people who live in the most affluent suburb.
And if you think this is not a religious matter, think again.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
“All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” This is the promise –all flesh, all people, not just the wealthy, not just the privileged, not just the religious – all flesh.
And in this Advent time, this time between comings, we are called to receive the promise, to proclaim the promise, and to do the hard work of responding to the promise.
As the poet and preacher J. Barrie Shepherd puts it:
Could it be perhaps conceivable that in every human wilderness, the desert of despair, the jungle of imprisonment or addiction, the arctic waste of homelessness and hunger, the scorching inferno of human hatred, warfare, prejudice, and all forms of brutality – could it be perhaps conceivable that a voice is to be heard that cries: “Prepare the way of the Lord?”
Could it be that in our travels through the wilderness of this world, we are called to do that work, the work of preparing the way of the Lord, the work of filling every valley, bringing down every obstacle, calling out the crooked ways, and smoothing the rough places?
If we are to be gospel people, then the words of the prophet call to us:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
And if we are to be gospel people, how will our gospel story be told?
It was the beginning of the fifth year of the administration of President Barack Obama; Dannel Malloy was governor of Connecticut, and Pedro Segarra Mayor of Hartford; when United Technologies Corporation was the largest employer in the city of Hartford and the CEO received almost $24 million in annual pay; and 30 percent of the city’s population was living below the poverty line.
And a voice cries out, in this place, in this time, in this wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Oh God, may it be so.
(c) Martha C. Highsmith