June 24, 2018
Birth of John the Baptist
Pr. Craig Mueller
Tilting Toward the Sun
It’s all about the tilt. I’m talking about the summer solstice that occurred on Thursday. The northern hemisphere dipped toward the sun and there were more hours of daylight than any other day of the year. We have solstices because the earth doesn’t rotate up and down like a spinning top. It doesn’t revolve on its side like a rotisserie chicken. No, it leans 23.5 five degrees on a tilted axis. This is the reason for the four seasons in most parts of the globe. And astronomers wonder whether the earth’s tilt toward the sun is the sweet spot between extreme cold and extreme hot. The tilt creates the conditions necessary to sustain life.
And how cool. Today is exactly six months before Christmas Eve which is near the winter solstice. In December we celebrate the birth of Christ amid cold and dark days. In June we celebrate the birth of John amid the oft hot, sunny days of summer.
We’ve lost those cosmic connections to St. John’s Day. We’ve heard of Midsummer—at least the Midsommarfest in Andersonville. But we don’t know that Midsummer is the same as St. John’s Day in many parts of the globe. And that Midsummer is the not the middle of summer, but the midpoint between the fall and spring equinoxes. It comes at the beginning of summer!
Too many clouds and overcast days can tilt our spirits downward. But then the sun comes out! Just in time for the Pride parade today. And who doesn’t want a sunny day for the picnic, the baseball game, the day at the beach?
So today’s liturgical feast allows us to have some fun with images of solstice, sun, the births of Jesus and John.
John the Baptist, the Advent saint, makes a summertime appearance! His birth brings great joy. He is the forerunner of the morn, as our first hymn put it. He is the messenger who prepares the way. And as icons and pictures of him show, he is always pointing to Jesus. Tilting toward Jesus, the light.
Remember John’s famous words? He must increase and I must decrease. And for the next six months the days will get shorter, minute by minute!
Many of us love the long, bright sunny days of summer compared to winter cold. Of course, the sun can be too hot at times, and we have to wear sunscreen to protect our skin from burning. There is a yin to every yang, isn’t there?
What are stories from your life that revolve around the summer sun? Last August 21 we journeyed with thousands to see the total eclipse of the sun. We were at Shawnee National Forest in Southeast Illinois, not far from Kentucky. It was a day for looking up into the sky. We wore our special glasses. We kept watching the clouds and when they would cover the sun people would boo. But then the clouds blew away. And finally, we had two minutes and 40 seconds of totality: the moon covered the sun. What you do see looks like a ring of fire around the moon! And it is eerie and primal and mystical. People cheered. Cicadas started singing. Some were stunned into silence and others swore with awe. Tears filled my eyes. And somehow, for a moment we tilted toward mystery and realities more profound than our typical worries and obsessions. Side bar: I’m already planning to be in Indiana for the next total eclipse on April 9, 2024.
So powerful the presence of the sun in our lives. No wonder Jesus is called the sun of righteousness. No wonder we talk about the brightness of God.
Yet the state of the world and our country feels anything but sunny in recent weeks and months. One commentator suggests that as religion’s importance subside we are tilting toward a spirit of competition, toughness, strength, righteous indignation. At the expense of humility, love, mercy, and compassion.
At the border, under the hot summer sun families await decisions that affect their destiny. As is often the case, those most vulnerable are the ones burned by the inequities and injustices of life. Most of the time we tilt our view away. But in recent days there has been a bright humanitarian counter-response, often prophetic in nature. John the Baptist was a fiery prophet, not mincing words when he spoke truth to power with the sound bite, “you brood of vipers.”
And so, our presiding bishop put out a statement on family separation. Radical Catholic sisters challenged the notion that it is biblical to obey unjust laws. Our own Cardinal Cupich may have had the most pointed statement these long, ironically dark days: “There is nothing remotely Christian, American, or morally defensible about a policy that takes children away from their parents and warehouses them in cages. This is being carried out in our name and the shame is on us all.”
Two of our pastors and eight of our youth will take an action at the ELCA Youth Gathering next Thursday in Houston. They will take a stand against the inhumane treatment of migrant children and families seeking asylum and refuge.
Over the years, the Pride Parade has been its own march for the rights and dignity of all people, especially sexual minorities. As part of a recent tilt toward fear, surveys are showing less acceptance for LGBTQI+ people now than several years ago.
We gather today seeking signs of hope. Sure, we can sing the words from Annie: the sun will come out / Tomorrow / Bet your bottom dollar / That tomorrow / There’ll be sun.
Yet on St. John’s Day we recall the words of the canticle sung by John’s father, Zechariah. In God’s tender mercy and compassion, the dawn from high breaks upon us. This sun tilts toward us, shines on us. And not just us, all people—migrants and protestors, perpetrators and marchers, bigots and victims.
We pray, we yearn, we trust that this tilt is none other than the arc of justice, the mantle of divine grace, the sun of righteousness that is the sweet spot—the source of life itself.