Maybe it’s because I went into the family business.
My grandfather, Milton I, was a preacher. My father, Milton II, was a preacher. I am Milton III. In the spring of my first year at Baylor, I walked down the aisle at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church one Sunday night and told Marshall Edwards that I thought God was calling me to preach, which was the only way I knew how to say it in those days. And I did preach, for a while. The end of my junior year in college, I was called as the pastor of Pecan Grove Baptist Church, a small church outside of Gatesville, Texas. It was between Oglesby and Mound, if you need me to be more specific, along FM 107.
I stayed at that church for a little over four years, until I graduated from seminary. Then I became a chaplain, and a youth minister, and a church planter (of a church that never materialized), and then a high school teacher, and a chef, and an associate pastor, and an Apple trainer, and an editor. Part of what I learned about myself is I’m not built for parish ministry, mainly because I loathe committee meetings and administration. I love to preach, and I feel called to ministry in many ways, but not to pastor. That realization was liberating to me and, I think, disconcerting for my parents—well, that and my moving from Baptist life to the UCC.
So, maybe it is because I went into the family business and then didn’t quite stick with it that I wonder about John the Baptist.
This morning in church, as I was listening to the passage about Mary going to visit Elizabeth, something struck me that I had not considered before. Zechariah was a high priest. He was on staff at the Temple, with a capital T. I don’t know how you would say it in Hebrew, but he was a Big Dog Deal, a member of the tribe of Levi. His son would be born into that lineage, which, I assume came with some expectation that he would carry on the family business. Thanks to Gabriel’s instructions, the boy was not named Zechariah II, but a Levite is a Levite, I suppose.
After Zechariah breaks his silence and blurts out John’s name, we don’t hear anything about the boy until he’s a man dressed in camel’s skin, eating bugs and honey, and shouting in the wilderness for people to repent, acting more like an old school prophet than a downtown priest. There is nothing in the gospels about his relationship with his parents, nor any scenes of them coming out to see what he was up to as he baptized people in the river. But while his father was leading services, he was out railing about repentance.
It is fair to say it is anachronistic to impose our understandings of family systems on those who didn’t know them, and yet the Bible is full of family stuff. Think of the lists of “begats” and how much it mattered who was related to whom. That Jesus was from the house and lineage of David was not a throwaway line. That mattered. Though the story never got told, being of the house and lineage of Milton makes me think it mattered that John was out in the desert and not in the Temple.
Cut to Jesus’ baptism. John dips him in the water and the skies do whatever the skies did and a dove appeared and a voice said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased,” as John stood next to Jesus in the Jordan. We have no mention of any other family being present. We have no record of how well the two cousins knew each other at that point, though there are volumes of speculation. But as a son who didn’t take over the family business as planned, I have to wonder what it felt like for John to hear those words said to someone other than him. And I wonder if Zechariah ever had the wherewithal to say them to his boy, at least somewhere along the way.
We all inherit the family business in one way or another. We all have need of the blessing, as well. The poem below is one I wrote a long time ago, when my friend Burt Burleson called and asked me for a poem for a sermon he was writing. It seems a fitting close for tonight.
The crush of afternoon traffic finds me
in an unending stream of souls staring
at the stoplight. From my seat I can see
the billboard: “Come visit the New Planetarium
You Tiny Insignificant Speck in the Universe.”
When the signal changes, I follow the flow
over river and railroad yard, coming
to rest in front of our row house, to be
welcomed by our schnauzers, the only
ones who appear to notice my return.
I have been hard at work in my stream
of consciousness, but the ripples of my life
have stopped no wars, have saved no lives —
and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning;
I am a speck who has been found wanting.
I walk the dogs down to the river and wonder
how many times I have stood at the edge
hoping to hear, “You are My Beloved Child.”
Instead, I skip across life’s surface to find
I am not The One You Were Looking For.
I am standing in the river of humanity
between the banks of Blessing and Despair,
with the sinking feeling that messiahs
matter most: I am supposed to change
the world and I have not done my job.
Yet–if I stack up the stones of my life
like an altar, I can find myself in the legacy
of Love somewhere between star and sea:
I am a Speck of Some Significance.
So say the schnauzers every time I come home.