Incarnational Living

John 1:1-14

Welcome to 2017! I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and an enjoyable New Year’s Eve.  But now it’s back to business. Back to the grind as it were. Back to the realities of life. Back to the good things as well as the more challenging aspects of living in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, Christmas doesn’t fix everything.  Even as we sing of Peace on Earth, we continue to live in a nation that finds itself deeply divided. That statement shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Quite simply, with such a varied array of perspectives on any given issue, and an apparent unwillingness to find common ground, there are very few things that one might categorize as a “universal experience.”  

 Rev. Molly Baskette, however, has perhaps touched on such an experience as she describes the feeing immediately following the opening of her Christmas presents. “When I was a kid, on Christmas morning,” she writes, “there was the ubiquitous tearing through the pile of presents. I always moved slower than my siblings, savoring, because I wanted the feeling of joyful expectation to last. I hated the emptiness that would settle on us when the last gift was opened, and the spell was broken. Inevitably, when we had trash-bagged the riot of wrapping paper, we’d often discover one last present under the tree. True, it was usually for someone else—a family member not yet arrived for our festivities. But even though I knew it was not for me, I could hope and wonder what it was. A fruitcake? A power drill? Cruise tickets? World peace? As long as it remained unopened, it was, in a sense, for everyone. And it could be anything.”[i]

As I read Molly’s devotion this past week, I thought to myself: “What a perfect description of January.” January is the time of year when all the holiday parties are over and all the cookies have been eaten. It’s cold, her days are often shrouded in darkness, and, as I said before, people have settled back into their same old routine. And January is often the month when the house is once again empty. It reminds me of the old hymn In the Bleak Midwinter.

When I was in college I read about another “bleak midwinter” in a powerful book called Night by an author named Ellie Wiesel.  In Night, Wiesel wrote of the year he spent in the Auschwitz concentration camp. A year-long-night which claimed both of his parents and his sister and where he witnessed unspeakable horrors. And in a particularly moving passage, he told of one terrible evening when the whole camp was forced to witness the hanging of three prisoners. One of them was just a child whose crime was stealing bread. Wiesel said the boy had the face of a sad angel. When the three victims were dying on the gallows, a man behind Wiesel asked, “Where is God?” That question haunted Wiesel. It hung in the air like the foul stench of the camp. But suddenly Ellie said he heard a voice within himself answer the question. “Where is God? God is here, hanging on this gallows….”[ii]

Sometimes we wonder, “Where is God?” And I think that’s a valid question; it’s an important question… It’s important as long as we don’t leave it there. Whatever darkness we face in life.  Whatever dark and dreary January may come along, it’s important that we follow up our “Where is God” by actually looking for God.

I mean, consider 2016. For most of us 2016 was a very challenging year to say the least. Facebook is full of stories about celebrities who died in 2016 and the media continues to remind us daily of the uncertain and violent times we live in. There’s plenty to lament from 2016. But, as the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes reminds us, we aren’t the best judges of our own times, for no finite human, the author writes, “can find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” So even as we come to the end of a challenging year and face uncertain times ahead, we have to pause, take a deep breath, and realize that over the course of this past year there were many positive things that took place.    In 2016, the death penalty became illegal in more than half the world’s countries. In 2016, Ontario invested $100 million to curb violence against indigenous women. In 2016, citizens of Mumbai conducted the largest beach cleanup in history, 4,000 tons of trash gone. In 2016, black incarceration rates in the US went down—not far enough but still down. In 2016, Denmark became the first country to stop defining being transgender as a mental illness. In 2016, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels did not grow at all. In 2016, the number of East Asians living in extreme poverty dropped to under 4%. In 2016, wild salmon spawned in the Connecticut River for the first time since the American Revolution.[iii] In 2016, the US Economy completely recovered from the recession of 2008 and jobless rates are at their lowest point in decades. And, maybe most important thing of all, in 2016, the Cubs won the world series!

Yes, there is still a lot of work to do in 2017 and beyond. And yes, there are still many things that divide us – too many things. But what if we were to unify around the hope that 2017 brings? What if we were to really look for God in the face of a stranger or listen for the voice of God among the sounds of nature or rededicate ourselves to being the hands of God to someone in need? What if we were to become a reflection of the hope that the final present under the tree represents by living out the Grace of God with kinder words and more compassionate actions? What if we were to practice the forgiveness and mercy that Jesus Christ taught and preached by doing things like, I don’t know, praying for those with opposing views? And not that they will do a 180 and think as I do on all the issues, but pray that we can find some common ground and that we all may come to realize that our strength as a nation, as a community, as individuals comes through diversity; diversity of thought,  a diversity of experiences, and a diversity of lifestyles.  If we all did that, I wonder how our nation, our world, might be changed? I wonder how each of us, our attitudes, our perceptions of others, might also be changed? I wonder.

[i] Baskette, Molly. The Last Gift Under the Tree.                                      Still-Speaking Devotions, United Church of Christ, 2016.

[ii] Wiesel, Ellie, Night, New York: Bantam Books, pg. 61-62

[iii] Luti, Mary.  From Beginning to End.                                                        Still-Speaking Devotions, United Church of Christ, 2016.

Before the Child

There are experts in nearly every field of human endeavor.  There are expert wine tasters, expert roofers, expert balloonists, expert heart surgeons, experts in everything it seems.  And I would gladly take the advice of these folks, should I find myself in need of it.  So when I was given advice some time ago from an expert it gave me pause.  An expert fisherman offered me this advice: “Your reels should be restrung once a year, and if you fish a lot, twice a year.”  That’s good advice, I guess, on the rare occasion, very rare occasion that I do get a big fish on, I wouldn’t what to lose him because my line was old and I hadn’t taken the time to restring it.

This wisdom also extends beyond just fishing. We have many “lines” in the water.  Lines like the accumulation of a lifetime of wisdom, our faith and our foundational experiences that support that faith, our ability to reason and discern fact from fiction. All these things however, periodically stand in need of reconsideration or restringing.  They need it and deserve it, being the important lines they are, if they are to be preserved.

And one of these lines is the Church. The Church is of course an extension of our compassion and hope to the community and a mirror of God’s grace to the world.  But it also, on occasion, needs to restring its reels.  In other words, the Church reflects the faith of those who are currently a part of it.  As we say in the United Church of Christ, we must “make the church our own in each generation” Not to the exclusion of tradition of course.  We must understand and honor tradition, both our theological tradition and the beloved traditions surrounding the practice of our faith. These traditions are the bedrocks upon which our congregation was built. But there are notions, nuances of the faith, that may have seemed at some earlier point in time to be eternal truths, that must give way to new thoughts and ideas.

The unfolding of the Church’s views of Mary, Jesus’ mother, is a case in point.  Who is Mary?  Well, perhaps when we think of Mary, especially now, in this time of year, we think of the simple portrait the gospel story offers us of a young woman laying her newborn child into a manger.  But who was Mary before the child? What took Mary to the manger in the first place?

Actually, the Bible tells us very little about Mary.  The Gospel of Mark begins at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan as an adult, so nothing’s said of Mary and his birth.  Matthew’s gospel makes a bit more of her.  She’s a character in the story of Jesus’ birth, but Joseph is much more prominent.  In the Gospel of John, she’s never even called by name.  Only the Gospel of Luke paints us a portrait of Mary the mother of God.  And her personality, her wisdom, her faith, is best captured in a single prayer. But what a prayer it was. It’s the text we have before us today and has come to be known as “the Magnificat” Magnificat is the Latin word meaning “magnifies,” used in her opening line, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  The Magnificat prayer has become the basis of gorgeous, timeless music and stunning art.

As a matter of fact, Robert Redman compares it to “an aria in an opera or a duet in a musical”; right in the middle of the story, the characters stop action to sing a song of praise for God’s “greatness and covenant faithfulness.” Yes, “God is great,” Mary proclaims, but that’s not all, for “God is also good,”[i]

This point is further supported in a book called, The First Christmas, by Marcus Borg and John Crossan.  They too offer a helpful musical lens through which we might read this familiar and beloved Nativity story. Matthew and Luke each provide an “overture” to their Gospel.  An overture that tells its story “in miniature,” something like a “preview” of the longer story. Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, is that “overture” to Luke’s Gospel in which he sounds important themes that will appear again and again in his narrative. The emphasis in Luke’s Gospel on the importance and value of women, how we should treat and coexist with the marginalized and the poor and those of other religions, and the Holy Spirit; these things are all first evident in the birth narratives.[ii]

And remember, all of this takes place“before the child.” Before she gave birth to Jesus, Mary, this young woman, probably only 12 or 13 years old, begins her prayer about the nature of God with the beautiful and timeless words:  “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  Curious wording, don’t you think?  Some modern translators want to make it easier for us, if less poetic, by rephrasing it in English as “My soul praises God” or “My heart rejoices in the Lord.”  Now, these translations are all fine, but today, in this season of Advent, I think I prefer the original poetry.  “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

And this is where we come back to the image of restringing our reels. The word “Magnifies” means “to make bigger, make greater, to enlarge, right?  But a magnifying glass has another very interesting potential, besides making things look larger.  A magnifying glass can focus bright light into a tiny, hot point of intensity.  The glass can concentrate light into a single brilliant spot.

Remember trying experiments like that with a magnifying glass when you were a kid?  When I was in elementary school, second grade I believe, I brought a magnifying glass to school. Innocent enough right? Not really.  You see, I had learned how to start a fire with my new glass and I was eager to show off my new skill.  You can see where this is going.  Yes, I made a campfire in the sandbox.  Sticks and leaves surrounded by a circle of small rocks.  The teacher and the principal must have not liked or understood camping, because they took away my new magnifying glass.

The point here is that I found a new purpose for my glass outside of it’s original intent. When Mary said that her soul magnifies the Lord, she’s pointing out a new way of seeing God’s intent for our faith.  Maybe she’s inviting us to “restring” our theology about her a bit.  Maybe what she’s saying is that the depth of who we are, our souls, our very being, can focus reality in certain ways that have the capacity to shine on and affect those around us.

Can you think, over the course of your own life, of people who have influenced you in a positive way? Maybe without even knowing it, they changed the course of your life. I know I’ve experienced this.

I went to work in a garden center once and it was there that I met a man named Fritz. Actually, he was the owner and his real name was Paul Fritz.  But I called him Fritz. Anyway, Fritz was an interesting character.  I can’t remember him ever having an unkind word for anyone.  He was the definition of a gentle soul. But Fritz had an amazing ability to be both gentle and firm at the same time.  He was kind but no one ever took advantage of him.  He didn’t always seem sure of himself, but he carried himself with confidence.  Now, over the course of the two years I worked there, I was discerning my call to the ordained ministry. Fritz had a great influence on the process whether he realized it or not. It wasn’t his words as much as his example that helped me “refocus” on how I treat and speak to other people.

And the same can be said for Mary’s prayer. Mary’s magnification invites us to “refocus” on the good we can do through our lives.  Like Fritz, how we can lead by example. I mean, think of all the experiences you’ve had, all you’ve known, all you’ve had and lost, and gained again, all you’ve loved and learned–and how you can use your life as a lens, like a magnifying glass, to focus it all to a single point of brightness.[iii]  A point of single brightness we call faith. James Whitehead calls this point of singular brightness “…the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way.” How do you “imagine” living out your faith through your life? Is it a faith that’s lived in the service of others? Is it a faith that longs for a God-breathed peace; an inner peace as well as an external peace that crosses borders and boundries? Is it a living faith that will ultimately lead you to the joy of being immersed in that focused light of God’s love. How do you imagine your faith?

While you ponder that question, I have one final thought to share.  Mahatma Gandhi once said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” This is the third Sunday of Advent.  Today we lit the candle of joy.  What if joy, in a gentle way, could shake the world? I mean, imagine it. What if all of us, right now, began to “restring” our reels; began to refocus our words and our actions on God’s love and then radiating that same love out into the world?  Would that not create joy?  And if that’s finally the case, then, wouldn’t Christ continue to be born among us and within us and out from us? If we magnified the grace of God through acts of compassion and justice, wouldn’t the Light of God shine into the dark places of this world? and would that not, also, create joy in the life of another?

In this season of joy, my friends, may the hope, love and light of God magnify your soul, and may that same light guide you to the Peace of the Christ-Child.    In his name.  Amen.

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[i] Redman, Robert. Feasting on the Word Year C Vol. 1.                                                      Barbara Brown Taylor, David L. Bartlett Eds. (Westminster Press. 2009)

[ii] Borg, Marcus and John Dominic Crossan The First Christmas                                 (Harper Collins Publishing. 2009)

[iii] Rev. Dr. Casey Baggott, Learning to Focus A reflection on Luke 1 (DayOne.org 2012)