When God Moves into the Neighborhood

The first thing to say this morning is that it’s still Christmas. The feast of Christmas doesn’t just last for one day, but rather extends over a full twelve days. We’re called to celebrate each of those days like Christmas. The cycle of our liturgical seasons is designed to give us a chance to steep ourselves a little in the major events of our faith so that our lives begin to be shaped in even deeper ways by what God has done for us. So find some way, every day, for the next ten days, to celebrate, even if it’s just in tiny ways.

Every year on the first Sunday after Christmas, our gospel lesson is the opening passage of John’s gospel. There are three very different Christmas stories in the Bible: Luke’s is the one with the shepherds, Matthew’s is the one with the wise men, and John’s is like the art house film version: abstract, experimental, maybe even a little obtuse. In Greek, it is written as a poem, and like all good poetry, it rewards repeated readings, and is most rewarding when you grab just a nugget here and there to chew on for a while. So I would encourage you to take your bulletin with you and just revisit this through this week as you celebrate Christmas and just see what grabs you at different points.

There were two that stuck out for me in particular this week that I’ll say just a few things about this morning:

The first is really the punch line of the whole thing: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Most of us basically hear this as a simple statement of the improbable doctrine that God became human in the person of Jesus. But there’s a lot more going on here than that.

A better translation of the phrase “dwelt among us” in Greek is the “pitched his tent among us.” It doesn’t have the same literary gravitas, but it’s linguistically more accurate. So this isn’t just a one-time event, but rather it’s an ongoing characteristic of God to become one of us. The sense here is that God hangs out with us, God moves into the neighborhood.[1]

At the first Christmas, God moved into the neighborhood of ancient Israel. Today, God is always moving into whatever our neighborhoods happen to be. God is constantly showing up as one of us. That means a big part of the life of faith is not just worshipping Jesus in here, but learning how to spot where Jesus is showing up out there.

And the other real nugget in this poem for me reminds us that whenever God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like light shining in darkness. The earlier punch line in the poem comes as “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like the light of staff and volunteers at the Yates community center working tirelessly to care for and support refugees as they begin to rebuild their lives after fleeing trauma that’s hard for us to imagine. When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like young black leaders in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or wherever pointing out that the sin of racism continues to pervade our national life at every level. When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like the voices of those who are calling our political leaders out on the hateful rhetoric of fear toward immigrants, and refugees, and even Muslim citizens of this country. When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like a meal delivered to a family after a death, like a visit to a hospital bedside, like a marriage healed, or a petty grievance forgiven and let go. It’s happening everywhere, all the time, and we do this in here so that we can spot it, and join God out there in lighting the darkness.

Christmas is also a time when that particular interplay of light and darkness is most complexly mingled and the edges of both become most acute. For all the feasting and rejoicing, the time with family and the warm, sentimental scenes, this is also a time when we feel the absence of loss most bluntly, and the pangs of whatever grief we carry more sharply. In the midst of that, we have this nugget to carry with us this week: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not [will not] overcome it.”

Despite all that is dark in the world, despite all that is dark in our own lives, God is still moving into the neighborhood, light still shines in the darkness, and despite all logic, we are here, together with a few billion Christians around the world who are doing this same thing today, together with angels and archangels and all those lights who have sat in these pews since 1883, those lights who have sat around the table at our Christmas feasts. We are all gathered together in this moment, defying the darkness again, claiming God promise that it doesn’t get the last word. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Amen.

[1] This translation appears in Peterson, Eugene. The Message. NavPress: 2007. Carol Stream, IL

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, 2015

Several years ago, a priest I know in another diocese had one of those small crises that pop up from time to time in churches. Several people approached him during an otherwise typical week with the shocking news that the parish children had been coloring in the prayer books! There followed lots of hand wringing among a group of parishioners, and then discussion at a staff meeting about what should be done. After several rounds of these conversations, my friend got up, walked out of the church office, down the street to the local toy store, and bought about fifty dollars worth of small etch-a-sketches to put in the back of the church for kids to play with while they sat in the service. So all the handwringing and discussing was easily solved with about ten minutes and fifty dollars. Seemingly big problem. Very simple solution.

That feels like the idea in today’s gospel lesson, too. If you thought John the Baptist was wild last week, this week shows us he was just getting warmed up. He shifts into a much higher homiletic gear and shouts at the congregation that has journeyed out into the wilderness: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His message is essentially you have screwed up, your religious credentials aren’t going to save you, and God’s full wrath is about this far away.

The people are unfazed by his tantrum, they’re still right there with him, and they ask: “What then shall we do?” John’s response is shockingly simple. He basically says: “share what you have with people who need it, be honest, and don’t exploit others for your own gain.” All of that impending doom and destruction can be avoided if the people will essentially do the things we teach preschoolers to do.

But if you stop and think for a minute about what it would be like if everyone actually started doing the things we teach preschoolers to do: sharing what we have, being honest and straightforward, not using other people for our own ends—the world would be vastly different. What would it be like if in the midst of the deep divisions in our country, our political leaders just started doing those three things? What would it be like if we really acted like that in our offices and schools and homes, and even at church?

John the Baptist is so passionate and wild in his rant because the gospel of Jesus is about utterly upending the way the world normally works. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution to a world that is comfortable where some have more than they could ever use, and others lie hungry and naked in the street. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution to a world where it’s ok to scapegoat refugees who are fleeing unspeakable violence and danger. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution to a world where it still seems ok to fear and exclude God’s beloved children because of the nation they come from, the language they speak, or the religion they practice. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution when we passively sit by and do nothing while people are massacred every day in schools and offices and clinics. That’s why John is on such a revolutionary rampage.

But the really crazy thing for us is that our job in the midst of this is so unbelievably simple and ordinary: share what you have, be honest with each other, practice compassion and mercy instead of using other people as objects for our own gain.

These weeks I’ve been away from you have been full of news that is hard to make sense of: terror in Paris, shootings in Colorado and California, disturbing rhetoric and even outright attacks on Muslims and immigrants. None of us are really all that powerful in the grand scheme of things, and in the face of all of it, we can find ourselves asking, like the crowds in today’s gospel: what then shall we do?

Generously share what you have. Be honest and straightforward with others. Look at the people around you as sacred and beloved children of God, there for you to serve and love, rather than objects to be feared or used to build yourself up. We may not be able to change a geo-political reality where one country casts off hundreds of thousands of people, and others blame those same people for the very violence they are fleeing, but we all have our little corner of the garden to tend: in our families, in our schools, in our offices, in this city. We join Jesus’ revolution when we are extravagantly generous with what we have, when we are honest with each other, and where we honor our baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Big problems. Simple solutions we are called to.

I came across a 2010 article in Wired magazine this week that detailed a study that determined acts of kindness and generosity and compassion are literally contagious.[1] When we see generosity and compassion, we are hard wired to imitate them. That means the little acts we practice in our own little corners can, little by little, begin to infect the whole world with God’s peace and love.

If you’re wondering why the vestments today are pink, it’s because today is Gaudete Sunday. The word simply means rejoice in Latin, and in the midst of the darkness of the season, and the more penitential character of Advent, it’s a glimpse of light and joy springing up in the darkness.

That’s what all of us who follow Jesus, who claim to be part of his revolution, are called to be in the midst of our dark and fearful world: small points of light, springing up in the darkness.

In the midst of all that is dark and fearful and overwhelming in our world, I can’t think of any better wisdom than today’s reading from Phillipians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. . .Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Commit those thoughts to your memory. Write them down and stick them above your desk or on the dash of your car or wherever. Let them strengthen you in your own corner of the garden to be light in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sorrow, life in the midst of death. Amen.

 

 

[1] http://www.wired.com/2010/03/kindness-spreads/