"Wackos in the Wilderness" - Matthew 3:1-12
In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one about whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight.’ Now, John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist and he ate locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all the people of Judea were going out to him, and all the along the region of the Jordan, to be baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John the Baptist was a strange bird… an odd duck… out there in the wilderness, dressing weirdly, eating differently, baptizing some people, barking at others. A lot can be said about his words, and his ways, and his wardrobe, of course. But I’m always fascinated by how all of it made him standout as unique… as special… as chosen, perhaps… as someone worth listening to… as someone worth heeding, and following, and affording our attention.
Above all else, I think, John the Baptist – Jesus’ crazy cousin – was a Truth-Teller. He was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, as the prophet predicted. He knew a thing or two about the reign of God and his life was all about preparing for the coming of that kingdom, by way of Jesus. John knew that, in Jesus – through his life and ministry and death and resurrection – God’s reign of love and justice and mercy and grace was about to break into the world and onto the scene in a way that it never had before. And John was on a mission to preach and teach and warn and welcome whoever he could about what that could mean for the world.
For what it’s worth, I’m not as scared of John the Baptist’s preaching as I used to be. I think he’s impassioned and he’s frustrated and he’s angry, even, about what he sees in the world around him, and all of that talk about axes and trees, threshing floors, chaff, and unquenchable fire is evidence of that. But, truth be told, each of us has something like the “chaff” of sin in our lives that’s worth repenting, worth changing, worth letting God burn away, if you will, by the refining fires of grace, if we’ll let that be.
So, while it may be tempting to write him off as some kind of crazy, carnival barker out there in the wilderness, John the Baptist is a model… a poster child… an example… for anyone with a Truth to tell; for anyone who prepares a path; for anyone who makes a way; for anyone crying out in the wilderness of injustice and sin and ugliness and despair.
So when I think of John the Baptist, then, I think about the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa - passionate, patient, hope-filled tellers of the Truth and doers of justice. And just this week, in honor of World AIDS Day, on Thursday, I learned about another lone voice in the wilderness I’d never heard of before. Her name is Ruth Coker Burks. (And I owe the meat of this story to an article I read, which was written by David Koon and first published in the Arkansas Times. You can read it in full here.)
Ruth Coker Burks found herself in the wilderness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, in our country. In fact, she was so early on the scene that the then-mysterious affliction was still being called GRID, for “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.” We’ve come a long way, baby!
The short version of a much longer, beautifully sad story, is that – in 1984 – while visiting a friend with cancer in an Arkansas hospital, she overheard nurses arguing about who would have to care for the patient in a room down the hall – a room with a big red bag covering the door. While the nurses argued and avoided it, Ruth Coker Burks snuck into the wilderness of that patient’s room to find a dying, skeleton of a man, who told her he just wanted to see his mother before he died.
When she told the nurses, they assured her his mother wasn’t coming, that he’d been in the hospital for six weeks, that no one had come – and that no one was coming. This pushed Burks even further into the wilderness of what was about to become her new life’s work – whether she knew it or not – because after getting her hands on the phone number of the dying young man’s mother, she found out the nurses were right. No one was coming.
The dying man’s mother told Burks her son was a sinner, that she didn’t know what was wrong with him, and that she didn’t care. His mother said she wouldn’t come and that her son was already dead to her, as far as she was concerned. And the icing on the cake? This mother didn’t even want to claim her son’s body after he died.
And she wasn’t alone, this mother. Ruth Coker Burks worked with over a 1,000 people dying of AIDS in those days and she says a mere handful of families refused to turn their backs on their loved ones. A mere handful of families cared enough to visit, or comfort, or memorialize or even collect the remains of their loved ones, after they had died.
“You brood of vipers!”
When Ruth Coker Burks returned to that dying man’s bedside, he was sick and deluded enough to mistake her for his mother. And she let him believe that, while she held his hand, bathed and consoled him, until he died 13 hours later.
“… prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Because of a strange, rather amusing, family history, Ruth Coker Burks had been promised the inheritance of a cemetery when she was a little girl – a half-acre portion of red dirt on a hill in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where her family had been buried since the late 1800s. There were something like 260 vacant, waiting plots there, and she had always wondered what she was going to do with a cemetery for an inheritance. “Who knew,” she wondered sarcastically, “there’d come a time when people didn’t want to bury their children?” “Who knew there’d come a time when people didn’t want to bury their children?”
But, “God is able, from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
In a chipped cookie jar she got from a friend’s pottery store, then, Ruth buried that first man’s ashes, near her own father’s grave. And over the next few years, she would do the same thing for more than 40 souls, most of them gay men whose families refused to claim them. With a post-hole digger, her daughter’s help, more chipped cookie jars, and some prayers of her own, this lone voice, crying in the wilderness of her very own cemetery (in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for the love of Jesus!), and she prepared the way for some lonely, forgotten, but beloved children of God.
“Then the people of Jerusalem and all the people of Judea were going out … and all the along the region of the Jordan…”
Because after she cared for that first man, people started calling and asking for her help. “They just started coming,” she said. And according to her, “Word got out that there was this kind of wacko woman in Hot Springs who wasn’t afraid. They would tell them, ‘Just go to her. Don’t come to me. Here’s the name and number. Go.’ I was their hospice,” she said. “Their gay friends were their hospice. Their companions were their hospice.”
And that’s how she became the voice of one, crying out in the wilderness, not just in sadness and despair over the LACK of compassion and love and grace she witnessed from parents and families, but crying out in the wilderness WITH compassion and love and grace that too many were unable to muster. With the help of drag queens and gay clubs, she raised money for funeral costs and drug treatments, travel expenses and more. (I wonder if any of those drag queens dressed in camels’ hair, with leather belts around their waists…)
She prepared a way… she created a path… she proclaimed the kingdom…
Which is God’s call for each of us in John the Baptist – and through people like Ruth Coker Burks – these wackos in the wilderness. In these Advent days of waiting – and every day, really – our call is to get about the business of proclaiming and promising and practicing the radical acts of justice and love, mercy and grace we are also waiting on, and expecting from, and hoping for, at Christmas.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
(If you want to contribute to a memorial some are working to set up at the cemetery, you can add your two cents - or more - here. And/or visit GoFundMe.com and search "Ruth Coker Burks." You'll see there that some of the donated funds will also help Ruth with expenses she's incurred following a stroke.)