December 2020

Who Are You, and Why Are You Here?

3rd Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020
John 1:6-8, 19-28

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –

Who are you? We can understand the inquisitive nature of those sent by the Pharisees wondering if John the Baptist were the Christ or Elijah or a prophetic voice their scriptures had anticipated would precede the coming of the Messiah, all of which he denied. But when they further pressed him, he said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” (John 1:23)

Who are you and why are you here? John had to be careful how he answered these questions of the religious leaders, for replying in ways that challenged the beliefs of his day could brand him a heretic and lead to his execution.

Some of the cultural environments of biblical times discouraged too much freedom of thought, while others, such as that the Apostle Paul encountered in Athens, thrived upon it. The Greek culture of the city attracted numerous viewpoints and philosophies to which the apostle contributed his convictions regarding the God of Christ. And we are told that, while some scoffed, others joined him and became believers. (Acts 17:34)

Nowadays, it seems we are discouraged from asking too many questions or thinking freely, for fear of embarrassing ourselves or acting discourteously toward others. And though, at least in our country, there is no legal threat to loss of life for freedom of thought, there remains much intimidation from extreme religious and political factions that could prove fatal if we’re too bold in our expressions.

I arrived in Vermont over twenty years ago as the first African American religious leader of a statewide denomination. About two years afterwards, I started the process of moving the denomination toward welcoming people without regard for their sexual orientation and identity. I made it my role to serve as advisor to both the task force favoring this move and the task force opposing it, since the members of both knew me well enough to trust that I could act as objectively as possible while acknowledging my preference. There were also occasions where both committees met one another in day-long sessions to discover we had more in common than what divided us. However, there were also anonymous phone calls threatening my life and that of my family if I proceeded along this path.

We need only scratch the surface of Vermont’s progressive cover to disclose deep and lingering elements of bias and bigotry, including the Vermont Colonization Society that flourished in the early 19th century discouraging the integration of free African Americans among whites and promoting their emigration to West Africa, supported by luminaries as Vermont’s Episcopal Bishop John Hopkins, the  Rev. John Converse, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Burlington, and the Rev. John Wheeler, president of the University of Vermont; or opposition to the Green Mountain National Park and Parkway proposal of the 1930s that would have protected thousands of acres from private development, opposed partly because of fear many Vermonters had of New York Jews flocking to their sate; or the Eugenics Movement during the first half of the 20th century sterilizing individuals deemed mentally disabled or unfit to function in the general society, directed mostly against poor French Canadians and indigenous Vermonters.

Most recently, during a Racism in America Forum featuring black high school students raised in rural Vermont, they mentioned the prevalence of racist epithets directed against them mostly out of ignorance and the reluctance of white parents to discuss racism and race relations with their children.

Who are you and why are you here? It is a natural tendency to inquire about ideas and individuals with whom we’ve had little or no contact. Such inquiry was the everyday environment of John the Baptist, of early Christians in the Roman Empire, of Jews throughout Europe and the United States, and of African Americans as well, particularly in Vermont, one of the whitest states in America.

As followers of Christ, if we fail to fathom our beliefs and other notions of truth, or refuse to explore the differences and commonalities we have with others, we cannot grow as people of God. We remain trapped and imprisoned within our own ideological bubbles, as it so seems of America following our most recent elections.

Even now, especially now, it is crucial that our voice in this modern-day wilderness is not muffled or muzzled, but is emboldened by the words of the Prophet Isaiah to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, liberate the captives, and free the prisoners (Isaiah 61:1), starting with us. Amen.