Homily for Sunday, December 17, 2017
Several years ago [June 9, 2015] on the Diane Rehm show, Rehm interviewed Mark Ribowsky about his latest book, a biography of Otis Redding (Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding and the Transformation of Southern Soul). During the interview Ribowsky told how, before Otis was “Otis,” he had a minor singing career doing covers of fast-moving, high-energy rhythm and blues numbers. Otis was known in particular for doing covers of Little Richard, whose music was best sung not only fast but also at high volume. Of Otis at that time, Ribowsky said:
When Otis started, he wasn’t yet ‘Otis…’ He was Otis in voice but … all he could do was cover Little Richard songs.
His march to fame took a turn one day by happenstance, when Otis drove Johnny Jenkins, another musician, to an audition for the owner of a record company in Macon, Georgia. Ribowsky recalls:
So [Otis] goes in there, leaning against the wall because he doesn’t know what to do. But here’s Otis for you. Even when Johnny is singing, he’s saying to Al Jackson, Jr., the great drummer, “You think they’ve got time for me?”…
They made time for Otis. Otis first sang, “Hey, Hey, Baby,” another Little Richard knock-off. But they said to Otis, “We’re not looking for another Little Richard.” “Sing us one of your own songs.” So—with no rehearsal, no sound check, no multiple takes and no dubbing—Otis let it fly on “These Arms of Mine.” If you don’t know it, it’s a quintessential Soul ballad: slow and melodic, plaintive and full of yearning, with no place for the voice (or the musician) to hide. And there was Otis Redding! Ribowsky said:
[The record company executives]… couldn’t believe it. They could hear the sincerity, the authenticity in the voice… Whole books have been written about authenticity in music, which people have had it and which haven’t, and Otis certainly did… That was the song that knocked everybody out…and…kicked it off for him.”
The audition tape from that day is still the definitive recording. If you were to google “These Arms of Mine,” the recording from that day is the one that comes up.
Today’s gospel lesson contains the first spoken words of John’s Gospel: “Who are you?” the priests and Levites ask John. John is a careful writer who pays attention to every detail. That the first spoken words of John’s Gospel are “Who are you?”, then, is intentional and—because the gospels are not merely about Jesus but about us—John here suggests that the first step on the spiritual journey is knowing who we are.
Because knowing who we are is not easy—we humans are complex, a jumble of desires, fears and emotions, many of which are contradictory—John gives us a little “push” to help us get started: John the Baptist begins by telling the priests and Levites who he is not: “Are you the Messiah?” they ask. “I am not the Messiah,” he says. “Are you Elijah?” they continue. “I am not,” says John. “Are you the Prophet?” “No.”
Coming to know ourselves means discovering who we are not. And coming to know ourselves means not only discovering who we are not, but even more specifically, it means coming to know that we are not the Messiah. And perhaps the most important thing we can learn is that we are not God.
It may seem obvious, to say that we are not God. But the way in which we so often live our lives indicates that we do think we are God. How often do we chafe against human limitation, that we can’t be, do or have it all? How often do we experience frustration, thinking that things should be other than they really are? How often do we experience helplessness, wanting to do something to fix a difficult situation even when there is nothing we can do? How often do we act as though we are in charge, that the world revolves around us, that we are an exception, that we are invincible? Learning that we are not God may be the most important thing we can learn.
Just as Otis Redding, when he stopped trying to be Little Richard, was able to find his own voice, so is John the Baptist, when he is clear that he is not the Messiah, able to find his voice: “I am the voice of one crying out… ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
I wonder if this Advent, as we begin our annual journey through the Church’s calendar, we might ask ourselves, at the beginning of our journey, “Who am I?” Each of us is unique. Each has a particular “voice” given to us by God. Even though each of us has been created to be an extraordinary, unique person, yet each of us, to some degree or another, often tries to be somebody else. Each of us regularly tries to be God. I wonder if we can hear God saying to us this Advent, “Why don’t you sing one of your own songs?”
So I invite us in the week that remains this Advent to ask ourselves, as the priests and Levites asked John, “Who are you?” It’s a question that only we can answer. It important to know who we are, not merely for our own edification and our own self-fulfillment, but for the sake of the whole world. For if God is to complete God’s work of reconciling this world to God’s self, it is important that we first be reconciled to ourselves. Not to be Little Richard, not to be whom we think we should be, and certainly not to be God. But to live more fully into the person God created us to be. For when others can look at us and say, “There is Otis Redding,” or, “There is Todd Miller,” or “There is [fill in your name]”—then we will have found our voice. Then we can not be God. Then we, too, like John the Baptist, will be able to point others, not to us, but to the Messiah, who alone can bring healing and wholeness to our fallen world.