|Today’s scripture readings:
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Saturday Night Live did a sketch a couple weeks ago called, “The Bubble.” Maybe you watched it. It was hilarious and, like so much of SNL’s satire, spot on. The piece mocks the coastal and big-city elites stunned by the outcome of last month’s presidential election. It envisions a community inside a literal bubble, an entire city underneath a giant dome intended as a haven for people in denial about the election results. The sketch bills the Bubble as a place where life after the election “can continue for progressive Americans just as before.” The actors promoting the Bubble describe it as “a community of like-minded free thinkers—and no one else,” a city with things “everybody” loves—you know, things like hybrid cars, used-book stores, and raw milk from small, local farms. “If you’re an open-minded person,” one actor says, “come here, and close yourself in!”
Like all good satire, the sketch uses humor and irony to expose uncomfortable truths we might otherwise miss or from which we might try to hide. What’s being uncovered here, of course, is the extreme disconnect between city people who believe themselves to be so enlightened and superior, and rural folk in the American wilderness that so many city people perceive to be backward and unsophisticated.
The fact is, we often can’t see what’s actually going on—what’s real and what’s true—until we burst out of our bubbles and journey into the wilderness.
It’s in the wilderness that John the Baptist appears in today’s gospel reading. Anytime “the wilderness” is evoked in scripture, we are supposed to hearken back to a foundational period in Israel’s history. After God worked with Moses to bring the Israelites through the Red Sea out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites ended up in the wilderness, which turned into a 40-year detour on their way to the Promised Land. Those 40 years in the wilderness were formative years for the Jewish people. The wilderness became a place of renewal and revelation. In the wilderness, God established a covenant with the Israelites, giving them the law and promising to love them no matter what.
But the wilderness was also the place where the Israelites tested that love. Do you remember the story where Moses goes up the mountain to talk with God, and meanwhile, down below, the rest of the Israelites make a golden calf, an idol they can worship in place of God? That doesn’t go over very well with Moses, or with God. The wilderness was the place both where God established a covenant with the Israelites and where the Israelites disobeyed and rebelled.
In short, the wilderness was a place where the Israelites got clarity—clarity about who God is, about what God expects of them, and about what kind of world God is bringing into being. In Jewish tradition, the wilderness is the place where God forms a people around a new vision. That’s what we’re supposed to remember every time there’s an allusion to “the wilderness” in scripture.
Now John the Baptist appears in the wilderness. He’s announcing that the kingdom of heaven has come near, that God is about to break into the world and disrupt business as usual. He calls on all those who gather with him to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord by confessing their sins, acknowledging that they’ve been on the wrong path, and choosing a new course.
But here’s the detail in the story that caught my attention this week; it’s in verse five: “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him.” In Jesus time, as in ours today, cities were the centers of power. If you wanted to get something done, that’s where you went to do it. People from the surrounding countryside flocked to the cities, never the other way around; the margins came to the center, not the reverse. But in this story, John remains on the margins out in the wilderness, and those at the center—the people of Jerusalem—go out to him.
It’s hard for us to imagine what a challenge John the Baptist’s ministry must have been to the religious authorities who came from Jerusalem. People came to John confessing their sins and he baptized them; that kind of religious activity was usually reserved for the temple and controlled by the high priests in Jerusalem, the religious authorities at the center (Herzog). That explains the confrontation between John and the Pharisees and Sadducees who go out to examine him. The preacher Tom Long has said that, today, John speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees would be sort of like John speaking to the Democrats and Republicans, or to the liberals and conservatives. Pharisees and Sadducees represented opposite ends of the political and religious spectrums in Judaism, but both groups were part of the religious establishment based in Jerusalem, in the center of power, and they were united in their opposition to John’s ministry in the wilderness. They rarely see eye-to-eye, but on this point the Pharisees and the Sadducees agree: John the Baptist is a threat to the established order and to the systems of power based in Jerusalem. “The kingdom of heaven, come near in Jesus, is so threatening to the powers-that-be that even [these] natural enemies become allies to combat it.”
The point is, John the Baptist realized that the systems of power that controlled everyday life needed to be disrupted and de-centered. The powers concentrated in the religious establishment in Jerusalem made it impossible to imagine anything new, to see what God might be up to now; Jerusalem had become a bubble. Doing his ministry out in the wilderness gave him the distance he needed to shake things up. He knew he needed to draw people out of their bubbles, away from the center of power. They needed to go into the wilderness, the place of renewal and revelation, the place where they could find clarity about what God is really up to in the world.
Since November 8, I’ve been reading every analysis of the election I can get my hands on, trying to understand what happened. There seems to be an emerging consensus that nobody really had a firm grasp on what’s happening in rural America. Pollsters, pundits, and reporters were mostly based on the coasts and in big cities, in a bubble, in the centers of power, out of touch with the reality of life in flyover country. Only since the election have journalists really ventured into the wilderness to capture people’s stories.
Having spent some time talking to people in West Virginia, one reporter said this week that it’s “difficult for outsiders to fathom… the economic and psychological depression that sets in when an entire region loses the only livelihood many of its people have ever known.” Take Kayla Burger, a 32-year-old waitress who has been working three jobs since her husband, a coalminer, lost his. Their household income is now just one-fourth of what it used to be. Her husband has been battling clinical depression; “He just doesn’t feel like a man,” she says. Her father was a miner, too; now he and her mother drive tractor-trailers to get by. There’s a trickle-down aspect to the collapse of West Virginia’s coal economy, too. With coal companies paying less in taxes, there’s less funding for schools. In one district, school bus drivers were forced to take a $4,000 pay cut. What do they think about climate change? When scientists and politicians warn that coal is endangering the planet, people in West Virginia hear that as something off in the future; feeding their families is here and now.
“We’re a forgotten people,” says Natalie Taylor, the executive director of a local Chamber of Commerce. That’s a theme that emerges over and over again. Kathy Cramer, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has spent the better part of a decade traveling around that state listening to stories, asking questions, and trying to identify themes. One of the main things she’s heard is that rural folks feel they’re not getting their fair share of power or attention, that decisions get made in the cities, and nobody is interested in listening to them or hearing their concerns. But here’s the most troubling thing she discovered: Rural folks feel disrespected. “People in cities look down on us,” they say. “They think we’re stupid, that we’re racist, that we’re voting against our own interests,” that we’re a bunch of “deplorables.” Dee Davis, founder of the Center for Rural Strategies, says folks in rural areas have “ears tuned to intonation”; they know when people are talking down to them. And they’re tired of it.
Already there are those offering policy prescriptions to address the economic woes of rural Americans. Maybe what rural folks need most isn’t job retraining or increased government support to meet their basic needs; maybe what they need most is to know they’ve been heard, that they matter, that the big-city elites actually care. This isn’t just an urban-rural divide, though it is that. There are people in the pews next to you this morning with stories like these—people struggling in an economy that has left them behind; people who feel overlooked, disrespected, or talked down to. Maybe that’s you. When was the last time you felt you had been heard, that your story matters? It’s time for all of us to burst out of our bubbles, turn away from the centers of power that cloud our vision, and see what God’s up to in the wilderness.
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea”—not at the center of power, not among the religious and political elites, but in the wilderness, on the margins. We’re called to meet John there, to repent and choose a different course, and to behold the kingdom of heaven drawing near. Let’s burst out of our bubbles.
John P. Burgess, “Matthew 3:1-12: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Helene Bottemiller Evich, “Revenge of the Rural Voter,” on Politico.com, November 13, 2016, accessed December 2, 2013, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/hillary-clinton-rural-voters-trump-231266.
Michael Cruse, “What Trump Voters Want Now,” on Politico.com, November 18, 2016, accessed December 2, 2016, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/donald-trump-voters-pennsylvania-blue-collar-214466.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Trump’s Promises Will Be Hard to Keep, but Coal Country Has Faith,” in The New York Times, November 28, 2016, accessed December 2, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/us/donald-trump-coal-country.html.
William R. Herzog II, “Matthew 3:1-12: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).
Sommer Mathis, “The Reality of Rural Resentment,” on CityLab.com, November 15, 2016, accessed December 2, 2016, http://www.citylab.com/politics/2016/11/the-reality-of-rural-resentment/507659/.
Saturday Night Live, “The Bubble,” November 19, 2016, accessed December 2, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKOb-kmOgpI.
The featured image for this post is from Saturday Night Live’s “The Bubble.”