The Words We Make Flesh
*a sermon on John 1:1-18 for the second Sunday in Christmas*
As a native Nashvillian, I do enjoy a good country music record, but usually nothing recorded after 1980 or so, to be honest. And many of those old records are documents of some really tough times in the lives of the speaker in those songs.
You know what you get when you play a country music record backwards? You get your dog back, your house back, your wife back, your truck back…….
2014 was easily one of the worst years of my entire life. By the end, I had practically become a real-life stereotypical old country song come true. It began with the end of a 10-year marriage, seemingly out of nowhere. Within a couple of weeks of the beginning of our conversation about whether or not we should get divorced, and within days of our wedding anniversary, I was asked to move out of the house we shared together. I was asked to leave the life we had shared for so long. I found myself in a state of utter humility, living in the guest room of some dear friends a few blocks away, but it was not my house. I was, for all intents and purposes, rejected and homeless.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much about those days. Thanks be to God that I had started seeing a therapist, and separately a spiritual director, a few months before my ex-wife and I separated, and had begun trying to sift through so many thoughts and emotions that it felt like I would never get to the bottom of it all. But the real watershed moment for me was when I finally understood the way that I pray.
You see, I am an intellectual person. And I’m not saying that to imply that I’m smarter than anyone else. I just mean that I process everything through my brain. If you ask me on any given day how I feel about something, I’m likely to stop and think about it before I give you an answer. And the adults in my life whom I had entrusted with guiding me through these difficult times kept repeating the same refrain over and over again: “I’m not asking you what you think. I’m asking you how you feel.” I found that I could only answer this question by spending some time with a poem or a song or a painting or a sculpture or a novel or a movie.
The psalmist in the psalm we read today is doing nothing more complicated than composing a poem, a song, for and about God. The psalm runs through all the wonderful things that God has done and will do for God’s people. And for only a couple of those verses we are told what we should do in response to God: praise God, sing to God, make music for God. I want to be careful here to avoid an anti-intellectual sentiment here. There are times to write logical theological essays for God, create Bible studies for God, to journal our straightforward prayer requests in prose for God to hear. But the psalmist suggests that the most fitting initial response to all the graces upon graces that God continues to give us...is to sing.
This is why the first part of John’s Gospel is such a rich piece of writing to me. It is a poem...a hymn. It has its meaning in the words being said, yes, but also in the way that it is said. It suggests that a fuller way of understanding God is not only through the glorious brain and mental capacity that God has given us to understand our existence, but also through the mysterious power of art. Here, in John’s Gospel, Jesus the Christ is not only described in the words of a gorgeous poem, he is also described as words themselves, as THE WORD, as Logos. This concept of the Logos--the simplest translation being simply Word--is quite complex, but the best way to think about it, I think, is to view it as the connection between thought and action, between what we say and what we do, between what we believe we’re about and how we actually live our lives on a day in and day out basis. The Logos is the marriage of an idea and the manifestation of an idea, the hope of a savior and the desperate need for redemption and the actual savior arriving in order to show us how to be fully human in the here and in the now. The Logos is the spectrum of GOD to GOD WITH US.
This grayness is an important one, and I found that I could finally embrace God’s presence with me when I learned to embrace the “in-betweenness”. In reading certain poems or listening to certain music that I loved, I was able to cry, to be angry, to feel rejected, and to feel hopeful. I no longer needed to be my rational self all the time, praying to God as if God were some cosmic vending machine, giving me what I wanted if I had the right intentions and a pureness of heart. I was looking up into the sky, waiting for some idea of a bearded old white man God to show up. And all along, I had been missing the God With Us who had always been present with me from the beginning, in the hip hop beats, in the poorly played punk guitars, in the jazz saxophones, and in the cheesy pop lyrics that allowed me to feel the sacred, the good, the holy, the truly fully human experience.
Jesus in the manger is proof to us that God loves us. But more than that, he shows us that frequently we create divisions between the divine and the human that need not be there. The veil in the Temple has been torn, church, and we can now approach the altar with a boldness and a comfort, the way a child runs with abandon into the loving arms of a caring parent, where we will not be let go. We had been waiting for a savior all throughout Advent. On Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of that savior, and the end of our waiting. Now we must decide how we will respond to God being with us.
Here at Webster Hills, we call each other to know Christ, to serve Christ, and to share Christ with our neighbors and with our world. I’ve always enjoyed this call to action because I think it touches on many ways to engage with God and our neighbors in ways that are meaningful. And yet, in our slogan-filled age of marketing, we must always be careful not to fall into sideline cheerleading for Christ, into praying to the cosmic vending machine to do things for us while we sit comfortably in the stands, where it’s safe. If we believe in the Word made flesh, then we must demand of ourselves and of the church that we connect our words with action, that we manifest our beliefs into actual justice in the real world where God now lives with us.
And so, church, what does it mean when you say that you know Christ? How do you know Christ? How do you serve Christ...in what ways? And how are you sharing Christ? Are you always doing so with words and thoughts, or does your flesh, your body, your real actions share Christ as well?
For those of you who know me better than others who thought you could get all the way through listening to a sermon of mine a couple weeks after Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out and not hear a quote from a Jedi, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Ok, not that sorry. Yoda...everyone’s favorite little green Jedi Master in exile during The Empire Strikes Back tells Luke Skywalker at one point, pointing to the skin on Luke’s arm, that, “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.” With all due respect to Master Yoda, I would contend that we are, in fact, luminous beings composed of crude matter. We are both the beautiful idea in the mind of God AND we are the thing that God created with love in response to that idea. We are spirit and we are flesh. We are art. It is not that the Gospel of John simply has a high understanding of Christ, but it also has a uniquely powerful opinion of human beings, and our role in working with God to redeem all of creation.
Towards the end of my terrible horrible no good very bad 2014, a generous friend in New York City offered to pay for my plane ticket to Brooklyn to visit him and many other friends I had made when I lived there with my ex for four years. By this point in the year, I had finally learned to live in a much more healthy way with all of my emotions, and seeing my old friends helped me quite a bit. But on the weekend after Thanksgiving, I found out that the poet, Mark Strand, had died just a couple of days before. I had never read much of Strand’s work, but there was one poem of his that always resonated very deeply with me, and I had never been able to truly understand why it had this effect on me. As it turns out, I still had some life to live before I would reach that point of comprehension.
Before I move to Strand’s poem, which deals with themes of life and death, I want to honor the fact that we at Webster Hills are no strangers to death. We have lost several people in the last couple of months, and many more in the last few years since I have been part of this church. Death is very much a part of the life of this congregation.
Henri Nouwen, in his book “Spiritual Formation,” discusses his struggle against cancer. And he says that he was finally able to move forward through his illness when he became friends with death. We in the West are taught to be so afraid of death that we practically make it our enemy. But Nouwen challenges this notion, asking, “Are we not called to love our enemies?” We do not fear that which we love. Coming to grips with death is something Jesus certainly knew something about, and learning to die as a spiritual practice...on a daily, moment to moment basis...is intimately bound up in the message of the Gospel. The Logos says, “Life. Death. I am Lord over all of it.”
This Mark Strand poem is called “Lines for Winter,” and it is addressed to an unnamed you, which could easily be any one of us hearing the poem. The speaker’s willingness to accept life and everything that comes with it, even and especially in the face of death, moves me. This, for me, is part of the message of the Logos: God has always been with us, is with us now, and will always be with us in a very real way. But we must learn to look. We must learn to cooperate with God in making the Word flesh.
On this Epiphany Sunday, I invite you to hear Mark Strand’s poem as I close. Listen to the way death and life, creation and humankind, cold and warmth, night and day, darkness and light, intertwine and reconcile with each other. Remember that the light SPECIFICALLY shines in the darkness--this is how we can see that it is Light--and that it has not been overcome.
This is “Lines for Winter,” by Mark Strand. It was dedicated to his friend Ros Krauss.
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.