January 20, 2019: What is God up to? by Rev. Beth Hayward (1 Corinthians 12: 1-11)

Introduction

Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? So asks Mary Oliver in The Summer Day. At the end of the day it’s a question that stirs and rises, even troubles us, not just on summer days when we have the gift of leisure and long nights to ponder such existential questions. It also rises up in our wintertime dark nights of the soul, it rises like spring flowers filled with promise and it comes to us too as we let go like deciduous trees in the fall. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Who will you be? How shall I live? How to carve out a path or a way of being that matters, that contributes, that is grounded in something, something worth living for?

This week I’ve found that question holding everything in some mysterious way. As we mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day we’re reminded of someone who lived his one wild and precious life in ways that continue to inspire hope and goodness. As we learned of the death of Mary Oliver, American poet of the people, it’s easy to see how her contributions will live on for generations, inspiring people to see beauty in grasshoppers and fields and so many ordinary things. Some people’s contributions seem so obvious, so significant, so valuable. But most of us aren’t ever to be a Martin Luther King or a Mary Oliver. Most of us are far more ordinary, if we’re lucky. Some us feel like down right failures most of the time. 

It’s shocking really how this letter written to a house church of several dozen people two millennia ago can address something that is so very close to our own experience. That church, which may be better thought of as a loosely knit together community, with slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, an unlikely group to be thrown together, they were arguing over who had the better gifts, who was making a more significant contribution. It seems it’s an ego game as old as time. It would be nice to think we have evolved, that there’s no hierarchy of gifts in our minds but try telling the child who gets picked last for the team that there is no hierarchy of gifts, or the chorister who never gets chosen for the solo. Tell the kid who never makes it on the honour role that all gifts are equal. When did you last see an honour role for the student who stopped in the hall to help a younger child tie shoes?

2000 years on and the idea that every gift is equal is still an elusive ideal more often than an embodied reality. We still live in a world where we are trained young to size up the competition and determine where we stand in the order of things.

Jesus is Lord

It may be easy enough to relate to a community where our insecurities and egos get in the way but with Paul and his letters it sometimes gets more complicated to sort out the heart of his meaning. He tries to explain to the fine folks of Corinth the difference between a spiritual gift and, well, one that isn’t. So he writes: that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Clear right? If you turn it around a bit what he seems to be saying is that the Spirit is working through you when Jesus is Lord in your life. I’m guessing that there are some of us who hear that and think it’s clear as can be but I expect for many of us it causes a little bristling.

Jesus is Lord, in a pluralistic world it’s a bit hard to know what to do with that. It’s messy, because 2000 years on it still tends to elude us, and we think that if Jesus is Lord then we must mean Buddha is an idol and Mohammad a fraud and we can’t reconcile marginalizing, or worse dismissing, so much of the world and their religious beliefs. We’re shy, or we don’t want to offend, or we’re just not sure how it could possibly be helpful to profess that Jesus is Lord of our lives.

We need to remember that this is a statement for the church, it’s not intended to be a judgment on Buddhists or Muslims, and if Jesus is Lord is used as a means to say Jesus should be Lord over everyone’s life, well we are getting into dangerous territory. It’s to a particular community and faith tradition and for Christians Jesus is Lord and that is far more about what has authority in your life than it does about saving a place in some heaven in the sky. 

Jesus is Lord was the very first way that Christians self-identified, professed their faith and it’s hard for us to really wrap our heads around what a daring and powerful statement that was. It was intended as a counterpoint to Caesar as Lord. And to go around in First Century Roman Empire saying anyone but Caesar was Lord, well that could cost you your life. Caesar brought peace to the people but it was a strange sort of peace that was based on fear, and violence. When Jesus is Lord we commit to lives where fear and violence and hierarchies of gifts, these are not the things that inform our lives, our choices. When Jesus is Lord we are committing to a way of life where all life is sacred, where the last are first and where care of one another and earth is paramount. It’s rather counter to culture both then and now.

So if Jesus is Lord and not Caesar then what does that look like today? Where does power lay in our world? When Jesus is Lord it is not at all about what makes us different or unique or better yet what makes us Christian, what do we hold on to and profess? When the church says Jesus is Lord, that this is the way for this community, I think we may have lost sight of the tangible in that statement.

I am more and more convinced that church people, Jesus is Lord people, we are absolutely no better living the love of Christ than anyone else.

Living it

There is this odd paradox these days where we understand so much the value of inclusion of welcoming the stranger of being so open to the other. But we sometimes mistake that for permission or necessity to not stand too firmly for anything. I wonder if we could get our heads around the life changing commitment those first followers made by proclaiming Jesus is Lord, would it change anything for us? Yes, you may need to change the words a bit. It may not resonate to sit back and evaluate how you didn’t live up to your faith when in any given moment by calling yourself out as slipping back into a Caesar is Lord moment. It may not, in our context, be the most helpful thing to invite a friend to church by telling them how Jesus is Lord in your life.

At the same time those in follow in the way of Jesus, at least here in the West, we are in this beautiful moment where it’s okay, it’s expected for us to be thoughtful about who we are. As Christianity becomes ever more pushed aside we have an opportunity to think long and hard about why we’d want to be part of this community. At the end of the day we all long to live our best lives, to have something other than the latest fad or our own impulsive ideas or our own long held beliefs to guide our lives, religion is a container that helps to give a bit of form to the deep and timeless spiritual quest inborn in us all.

We start to practice what it means for Jesus to be Lord within a particular context. Because Jesus is Lord is about relationships, respect, healing wholeness holding more sway over our lives than money or power or people’s opinions of our worth or any of that. This is the model we have with the early church and it still holds some truth today. I think of Paul writing those letters to and just trying to help people stick with it, in a difficult situation and it seems to still resonate so clearly today. We too need the encouragement to stick with the vision that Jesus offered. We need to be continually brought back to trusting that love is more powerful than hate, that deep care for the other will ultimately get us further to peace than violence or fear. And the model given to us all those years ago of sorting all this out in community still makes sense. Church should be a place where we begin to practice living in every arena of our lives, living from this place or love and care and justice.

Go ahead and leave the church after one bad sermon or because they music seems to be in a rut lately or leave because someone at coffee hour said something callous, or because the bathrooms always seem to be out of toilet paper or because we said we were inclusive and then went and piled chairs by the wheelchair ramp or didn’t think to put a potty seat in the bathrooms for your toilet training toddler or we used the word God when you relate better to higher power.  Walk away if you will but you’ll miss the opportunity for the good stuff the stuff that arises from the ruins, the long slow harvest that can’t grow without the mulch and compost. You’ll miss the opportunity to practice, to struggle through to witness that when Jesus is Lord things are by no means easy but by all means worth it.

Jesus is Lord I think we make it more complicated than it needs to be as in a sense we don’t mean a historical figure is Lord but the Christ that which shone through Jesus of Nazareth, was so very much revealed in his life death and resurrection and it stands in stark contrast to all the other things we name as Lord as having power in our lives, In stark contrast to money and fame and prestige and honour roles and getting picked first for the team and what class you are defined by.

As Martin Luther King said: the quality not the longevity of one’s life is what is important. Each day we have opportunity to practice getting the quality just a bit closer to love and care and justice. If you think your gifts are better than your neighbours well you must be having a Caesar is Lord moment. Take that with you this week, not to shame yourself or anyone else but simply to bring to consciousness those times when we slip into comparing our gifts against another’s or determining the value and worth of someone based on stuff that is not core to our faith.  And trust that you too have spiritual gifts and dare to use them. Amen

January 13, 2019: Miracle Machine by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 2: 1-12)

You may remember a news story from five years ago about a couple of experienced wine makers in the Napa Valley. One night after possibly consuming a bit too much wine they came up with an idea. One of them joked to the other “Jesus made water into wine, with all the technology available why can’t we do the same?” When they woke the next morning one called the up and said, you know what, this just may work. And so they put their heads together to come up with an invention that you might agree is rather aesthetically pleasing. This is a Miracle Machine and it’s described like a soda stream for wine. Just add water, yeast, grape concentrate and some finishing powder, put it in the miracle machine, pick up your phone, open the app and choose one of six types of wine, wait three days and boom, you’re good to go.[1] Water from wine, a miracle; technology can do that.

Who doesn’t like a good miracle? People tell me that this bible story, the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, is not actually about miracles, or at least that’s not the main point. But I find the miracle part of it a little distracting. To tell me to not focus on the miracle here is a bit like putting a kid in a candy store and saying you can have anything but the jellybeans. Of course, then all you can think of are the jellybeans.

The miracle bit does give me pause. Could Jesus have really done that, I mean really, without technology? Do people still believe in miracles? Certainly many do. The prosperity gospel is built on it. You know the version of Christian faith that says, if you pray hard enough and live well enough every last one of your prayers will be answered. For prosperity proponents any unanswered prayers are the result of you not living well enough or God deciding he wants his way.

But other people believe in miracles too. Some in this very room swear they have been witness to something akin to a miracle. In fact some theologians make a compelling case that miracles are not the result of human mind games of force of a powerful God out there doing things that go against nature every now and again. Process Theologian Bruce Epperly says that in turning the water into wine Jesus takes his place in a long line of magicians or shaman who are able to change cells as well as souls.[2]

He says too that miracles are not violations of the laws of nature, when God intervenes in how things normally work. Instead they arise from a deep alignment with a deeper wisdom. They aren’t the unilateral action of an omnipotent God, they aren’t fabrications of our minds but part of a “multifactorial context in which intentionality and healing-transforming energy is at work relationally and persuasively within a multitude of other influences.  Divinity is within, not outside of, the normal cause and effect process.”[3] All that is to say, miracles happen but it’s complicated.

Let’s say miracles do exist. More troubling in this story is how frivolous it seems. If you can do something miraculous Jesus, why not heal a child, or feed five thousand with a couple of fish or raise the dead? I mean there’s no indication that the wedding was a flop, they’d already had a good bit of wine. Why waste a miracle on something so lavish and let’s face it unnecessary? What a frivolous luxury. Why water into wine when there are so many others miracles waiting in this world. Why water into wine at a party when loved ones still die too soon and people go hungry and the oceans are choked with plastics? Why not a miracle where it really might have made a difference?

They say the miracle is not the point. John’s gospel tells seven stories that are described as signs. Each sign reveals, sheds light on Jesus true identity, his cosmic Christ, divine presence, his glory. The difference between a sign and miracle is our response. With a miracle you say ‘Whoa, how’d you do that?’ But a sign, that elicits a different response. With a sign you say  “Wow! Who did that?”[4]

What’s infinitely fascinating here is that Jesus did it using ordinary things and the hands of ordinary people. He instructed the servants to fill the huge stone jars with water. And so they filled them to the brim, not half way, to over flowing. Then we instructed them to ladle some out and bring it to the chief steward to taste. That’s it, water to wine, through some old stone jars with the hands of the help. Completely ordinary people doing completely ordinary things, every last bit of it is performed in plain sight, not behind closed doors, not pulled from magic silk caps. Each and every sign in John’s gospel is an invitation away from our gut reaction of how’d he do that to instead ask who is it that can do that?

The host was oblivious to the miracle. The guests attributed it to the generous host. No matter if you knew the how of it you reaped the results of it. Every single person there felt the presence of lavish, overflowing generosity, awash in grace. That is the clue to the identity of this Jesus. One who lavishes us in grace. Why water into wine, why not? This isn’t about scarcity. There isn’t a limited pool of miracles to be had. This isn’t about rubbing a lamp for your three wishes.

Water into wine may well have been the first sign in this gospel because let’s face it, this is the kind of miracle we are least likely to notice and certainly least likely to appreciate the power of. By putting the wine story at the wedding banquet first it reveals a divine presence that relishes in the good things of life, that doesn’t dismiss good food and laughter and company and dancing. Does divine grace understand that these things are core to a life of meaning and abundance? That the material things of our lives might just be the most important in revealing the light of divine love? 

And by placing Jesus’ mother only twice in this entire gospel, first here and later at the foot of the cross, do we catch a glimpse that the entire spectrum of our lives is in fact infused with grace. From wedding banquets to funeral receptions, we are in the presence of the oneness of the divine, in the presence of tangible love.

The first story in John’s gospel after the cosmic introduction is about Jesus baptism, in fact all of the gospels include a story of Jesus baptism. It’s provided the basis for how we understand that sacrament. In one way or another every baptism story at its core is a story about your beautiful, perfect, God given gift/inheritance as a beloved child of the divine. Baptism is about who you are, when you pull back the layers, when you push the ego aside, when you stand there just as you are and the truth is revealed that you are beloved, you are love, enough, blessed, your very existence a testament to the power of love in the universe.

Baptism is not about what you do but who you are. Immediately following his baptism we are gifted with a sign of who Jesus is. He doesn’t do anything extraordinary here, in fact he does nothing at all. Regular ordinary people take all the action here. And Jesus well he’s revealed as the one who helps us bring into fruition lavish abundance. No holds barred love and joy.

I think we sometimes mistake religion, faith as being able to solve the problem of suffering and loss but that’s not its point it is an invitation to join the feast, it’s not a denial of death, we will die, and those we love will die and our dreams will be squashed. It’s not an explanation of why there is suffering in the world any more than it is an excuse. In the natural world, where miracles happen, there is joy and pain, there is hunger and need and there is dancing and laughing, crying and singing, love found and love lost.

This is not a story about the hierarchy of miracles, it’s not about who’s entitled to a miracle or not. It’s not even about why one person’s prayers appear to be answered when another’s land on deaf ears (seem to evaporate into an unresponsive void.

Every sign tells you two things: this is what abundant grace looks like, this is what it looks like to live a life orientated to seeing signs of that grace, more than that participating in growing that grace.  

Turns out we don’t need miracle machines after all, which is a good thing because that Water into wine contraption was a complete hoax! For two weeks the wine makers behind the hoax enjoyed seeing their scam go viral in a 2014 sort of way with “500 million media impressions as more than 200,000 people watched the Miracle Machine video, nearly 600 media outlets around the world covered the story, 6,000 people tweeted about it, and 7,000 people signed up for a potential crowd-funding platform to invest in the faux machine.”[5] 

There was no miracle machine; fake news. Which I suppose confirms that we’re not quite at the place where technology can do the miraculous just yet. But maybe that story wasn’t really about the miracle either. Maybe it revealed something else, something more compelling even than miracles. You see this hoax wasn’t motivated by the egocentric sense of humour of a couple of wealthy wine makers. It was actually part of a well thought out marketing campaign to help lift the profile and impact of a charity called Wine to Water and their simple goal is to provide clean drinking water to those around the world who don’t have it.[6] With every dollar they collect they claim that one person can get access to clean drinking water for an entire year.[7]

Turns out the miracle machine may have brought about some miracles after all or revealed a glimpse of what’s possible when we are attuned to universe.

It’s about who Jesus is and who you are. What if divine love and the Christ shows up in our parties, our celebrations, our family gatherings and wedding banquets, around our dinner tables and funeral receptions? What if God shows up in us? What if all of this ordinary is an opportunity for us to play our part, an invitation in the feast?  Like the wedding at Cana, to fill the jugs to overflowing and dare to taste something unexpected? Maybe we are awash in a universe of abundance – no miracle machine required. I wonder if you can taste it?


[1] https://sojo.net/tags/wedding-cana

[2] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2013/01/the-adventurous-lectionary-reflections-on-the-wedding-in-cana/

[3] ibid

[4] Thanks to Rev. David Ewart for this little gem. https://www.holytextures.com/2009/12/john-2-1-11-year-c-epiphany-2-january-14-january-20-sermon.html

[5] https://www.techtimes.com/articles/4425/20140316/water-to-wine-miracle-machine-revealed-as-hoax.htm

[6] https://themiraclemachine.net/

[7] https://www.techtimes.com/articles/4425/20140316/water-to-wine-miracle-machine-revealed-as-hoax.htm

January 6, 2019: Such a Long Journey by Rev. Beth Hayward (Matthew 2: 1-12)

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey[1]

These opening words to T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Journey of the Magi have a way of making this story personal.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey.

Maybe it’s different in the southern hemisphere but here in the north I’ve always found it a bit of a stretch to muster the socially expected enthusiasm to journey into the new year with conviction and lofty resolutions. It’s the worst time of year for a journey, for any type of movement really. I gave up make New Year resolutions years ago. I’m adverse to failure so why set myself up for it. Besides, there are better seasons to set our sights on journeys. Summer is good, for exploring new terrain geographically or spiritually. And the fall with all of its back to school, return to routine buzz, that’s a good season to explore new possibilities. January’s for hibernating, hunkering down, it’s the time to live off your reserves until the rains stop. I suppose we’re not always called to journey in the season that makes sense to us, if we keep waiting for the right season to set off on a journey, we may be held back by the voices in our heads in perpetuity. If following in the way of Jesus was determined by the ease of the journey few of us would ever set out.

When I speak of journey here I don’t mean a vacation, more of a self- examination, an exposure to something new that may lead us to reflect on what matters, the core values that guide our lives. This is what a journey to Bethlehem invites. These magi came from far away, they weren’t Jewish, there was no conceivable reason for them to go looking for the Christ child. Besides that they didn’t gather their information from Google maps or ancient texts, they followed the skies. They just had to keep observing and responding, adjusting the compass by the ever-changing circumstances, there was no road map. Their journey to the Christ child “was a process of trial and error, of adjusting and readjusting, of being willing to go in a different direction because of the unfolding information of the heavens…. The wise men’s two-year or so journey was probably full of wrong turns, detours and plenty of monotonous days.”[2]  Maybe it was a bit like TS Eliot describes:

Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,…


And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.

There is something about the way things are and the way things were that is compelling. Even if what you’re leaving behind is complicated or suffocating, there is some strange comfort in the rhythm of what we know. So what is it that compels us to the difficult journey of self-awareness, of spiritual deepening? It’s a near impossible task. What is it that takes us from star-gazing to star following? How do you make the leap from dreaming about something to making it happen? Who were these wise guys who set out at the worst time of year for a journey? And what was it that made them follow that star? More than that, what kept them on the journey even as they longed for sunny days with sherbet?

There’s a story about a few rabbis arguing over why it was that the burning bush burned but was not consumed until one rather testy rabbi pipes up: it was burning and not consumed so that one day when Moses walked by he would finally notice. Maybe the star over Bethlehem was always shining or maybe it was a comet that appeared, either way, they had to notice it to follow.

The Magi noticed on that night. They noticed the star in the skies, noticed it at its rising and followed it to the place where the child was found. Is taking notice perhaps the simple place where our journey to the Christ light begins? Here we are on the cusp of a New Year, as the light of our days begins on its slow journey to summer solstice, on the day of Epiphany and we are presented with the challenges of the magi:  what will it take to follow the stars, the calling and the nudging of God and where might that lead? Maybe we should commit to daily resolutions rather than yearly, maybe that’s more realistic and perhaps each morning it is a commitment to attune ourselves to noticing. Maybe that is the place to begin.

Noticing though is just a beginning. The true heart of this story doesn’t lie in the star so much as it does in the manger.

Long before there was fake news there was truthiness.[3] Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the phrase to describe the belief that one’s opinions are true without regard for evidence, logic or facts. I wonder if on that long journey as they arrived at the manger, in their encounter with the Christ child was their own truthiness brought into light. Did they see something they hadn’t seen before. Was something shaken so deep within that their perceptions were forever altered. In today’s language we might think of it as having their core values shaken. What they knew to be true, what they were so certain was true, suddenly came into focus and they had to re-examine the truthiness of it.

No sooner are the extravagant gifts laid round the manger than they turn around and leave town. In one simple sentence the entire truth, the gold of this story gleams brightly. It says:  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:12)

Remember just a few short verses before we read that when Herod heard about the child he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. Remember Herod secretly called the wise men before sending them on their way to Bethlehem. These are the actions of a scared ruler. You don’t call secret meetings unless you have something to hide. Herod is the symbol here of all the ruthless power of the empire, and he, even he, seems to intuit that this baby king is a threat to his way of seeing and being in the world. His power is threatened to the core. And so when these wise ones go home by another road, it’s because whatever the glimpsed in that barn means they cannot in good conscience ever collude with the Herod’s of the world again.

So much is made of Herod here that it seems to  point to the idea that their understanding of power was completely challenged here and they experienced something in the baby, something about the power of God being born in life not in armies or palaces. Did they glimpse the truth that the God shares with us vulnerability and trusts that when we encounter this vulnerability our response will be love?[4] God offers another dream of how reality is actually organized – When you follow a star you run the risk of having the truthiness of your core values rocked, you have no choice, really but to go home a different way.

I ask people sometimes, why do you come to church, why do you invest this time in this place, it’s a vocational hazard I suppose. I hear answers like community, the music. Even now and then people tell me it’s for the sermons. But I wonder if somehow those are the surface answers, those are the answers we can muster in a passing conversation. It’s like when asked how you’re doing and you only have time for “fine thanks,” but given the chance, given the space and a little bit of safety you might really answer and get below the surface to the nuance of how you’re doing. And you might just reveal the joys and the doubts.

I wonder if we took the time to ask one another why’d you come to church today?

Why do you show up in this community on Sunday morning and even sometimes throughout the week? Why do you give any attention to your spirit? I wonder if you might hear just below the surface, just below the community and the music that we come because we noticed, we continue to notice that there is something at work in our world calling us to take the journeys to come and see, to dare to be changed, to examine and reexamine the truthiness of what guides our lives, of what underlies our decisions.

I’m not sure any of us would show up for the work of faith if we knew just how many times it would cause us to have to return home by another way. If we had any idea just how close to the truth the words of TS Eliot would ring.  When he says:

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

Maybe sometimes we choose not to notice the stars in the sky, the whispers in our heart, the blatant calls to journey to places that dare to upend our truth because we have glimpsed that place before where the line between birth and death is blurred, where the new way we are called to live means letting go of long held truths and comforts. Maybe we know the risk of noticing and it scares us. We know that if we dare to find our way to the Christ child, not only will it be a convoluted and unnerving journey, but it just may lead to turning our world upside down.

Maybe it doesn’t much matter what season it is. Maybe the resolutions to keep on following the stars to risky places, is a daily choice not a yearly resolution.

Maybe like the magi we’d be wise to not take the journey alone, because when you’re going deeper into tender spiritual places you will be sure to love your way and go off track, maybe we need to whisper reminders to one another about the baby who shows us again and again that Love is found in vulnerability and it is the most powerful place from which we can learn to love ourselves and the world. It’s the worst time of year for a journey, but let’s do it anyway.  Amen

[1] Read the Journey of the Magi here:  https://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi

[2] The Christian Century. Laura Sumner Truax, Living by the Word December 26, 2013.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness

[4] https://www.georgehermanson.com/2008/01/joy-that-brings.html I am indebted to my dear friend George Hermanson for this paragraph.

December 30, 2018: Being God’s Children by Frances Kitson (Luke 2: 41-52)

As Marion said, this is the only Gospel story we have of the child Jesus. It’s easy to make this child Jesus unearthly and divine, far removed from the realities of our lives, but this story is very near our lives.

First, the search for the misplaced child. Most parents I know have at least one story like this: whether you suddenly realize you left the baby in the car, or both parents meet after a day of errands and realize that neither of them had kid #3. This story is firmly grounded in lived experience.

And then it turns out that young Jesus has been in the temple all along, amazing his hearers with his questions and understanding. Mary, the sainted virgin, has a VERY human response, in which she probably wants to hug and strangle Jesus at the same time: “Where on EARTH have you been? Didn’t you REALIZE we’d be worrying about you?!”

Jesus’ response is really pretty tactless: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” I wouldn’t blame Mary and Joseph if they grounded him for a month.

It’s that response that makes it easy to think of this child Jesus as haloed and shining, somehow living in a different world, but what is interesting is what is not in this story. There were stories of the boy Jesus performing miracles that did not make it into the Bible. Instead, our ancestors in faith decided that this story was the more important one: a story not of a wonderworking child, but a child who inspired wonder because of his questions and his understanding.

We might be tempted to make this story about how divine Jesus was, and how even as a child he had some kind of supernatural understanding of himself. But Jesus, our tradition teaches, was somehow both fully human and fully divine. The church decided long ago that Jesus did not merely assume a shell of humanity, like a costume to disguise his godliness, but was fully human while also fully divine. That teaching brings its own host of questions, but what I want to underline today is that Jesus’ divinity did not exclude his humanity.

We are not told what kinds of questions Jesus was asking, nor what understanding he displayed in the temple, but we are told one thing: he knew that God was his father: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus, fully divine and fully human, is claiming his identity as a child of God. All of him, human and divine, belonged to God, which means that all of us, in our capacity for great good and great evil, our generosity and selfishness, our faith and our fear: all of us belongs to God. We are all of us children of God.

What does that mean?

It means that we are claimed by God. According to Psalm 139, God claims us while we are still in the womb. We come into this world as children of God; we never have to earn God’s love. The Bible is very clear that for both the Jewish and Christian faiths, the first move is always from God. It is always God who initiates relationship.

And then out of love, rejoicing, and thanksgiving, we respond by keeping God’s ways: Jews keep Torah; Christians observe the sacraments and strive to love one another. But we never do any of this in order to earn or retain our identity as a child of God. No, that is always freely given; it is our choice how we respond. If we arrive in the world belonging to God, then that identity guides us as we choose where else and to whom else we will belong.

In an ideal world, our families of birth will welcome us in as we are, and make a space for us to belong exactly as we are, but this is not an ideal world. Sometimes our families tell us we don’t belong, or make belonging conditional. Sometimes the condition is being a parent to our parent. Sometimes the condition is being a replica of our parent, or living out their dreams. Sometimes the condition is loving the right people or fitting the right body.

And because belonging is a fundamental human need, and because as children we desperately need our families, we will do everything we can to belong. Sometimes that will be exhausting, and sometimes it will be damaging. But when we are old enough and ready enough and sometimes just broken enough to hear the good news that we are children of God, then that can be an identity to which we cling

I don’t know that anything can ever fully erase the scar of not belonging in our families. But God can heal the wound. That’s the promise: come to me, God says, for I love you as you are. You belong to me, and when you belong to me, you are enough. You are enough just for being you.

You are beloved.

You are worthy.

This is what we hold on to for dear life, because this knowledge will anchor us, will orient us, will guide us. If we are worthy of God’s love, then surely we are worthy of human love.

Are we not worthy of human love that takes us as we are?

Are we not worthy of human love that recognizes, affirms, and celebrates our strengths and foibles, our gifts and imperfections?

Are we not worthy of human love that helps us grow, that helps us heal, that bring us back to God?

Yes. Yes we are.

This doesn’t mean we have to reject our families; it doesn’t mean we have to choose between God and others. It simply means that if we claim identity as God’s children, then we choose to belong places that affirm and reinforce that. And that is what church aspires to be.

We need each other in order to remember who and whose we are. Being a child of God is not a private affair between ourselves and God. It is not a closed loop. Being loved by God does not stop with you or I, but goes on to embrace the world. The little baby born in Bethlehem was not heralded by angels because he would work miracles, but because a powerful new force of love had come into the world. We are always God’s children, no matter what we do, but if we want to know it and live it and breathe it, then we have to act like it, and acting like it is to see ourselves and see others through the eyes of God: and then treat each other as God’s children.

If we treat ourselves as children of God, then there is no need to put ourselves down or puff ourselves up. We are not better than or worse than; we are worthy, beloved, and enough.

If we treat others as children of God, then there is no need to put them down or place them on pedestals. They are not better than or worse than; they are worthy, beloved, and enough.

How much could that change our lives?

If every person we met treated us like a beloved child of God, worthy of time and respect, how would that feel?

If we treated every person we met like a beloved child of God, worthy of time and respect, how would that feel?

Feeling and acting like a child of God reinforce each other. Sometimes we don’t feel like a child of God, so we act like it in order to remember: we treat ourselves and others as beloved of God. Sometimes we don’t act like a child of God, so we come back to God and to each other in order to remember how it feels. None of us can do this alone; we need to hold on to each other in order to hold on to ourselves and hold on to God.

It is worth it, my friends. We are loved because we are, and we are so that we may love. Let us claim this heritage of the Bethlehem child, and live into it.

Amen.

December 23, 2018: Advent 4 – The Word Born Again by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 1: 1-14)

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,

Word, words… Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me. Who else learned that rhyme in the schoolyard? Maybe you hollered it with false bravado at the resident bully in some vain attempt to protect yourself from words hurled your way with the sole purpose of piercing you in your most vulnerable places. Maybe they were words about your weight, your freckles, your glasses, your gender identity, your general clumsiness, your shabby clothes.

“Words will never hurt me.” It’s a lie, of course, – words can hurt, they can cut, draw blood, they can leave scar tissue. Every one of us, at some time, maybe more times than we’d like to admit, has released a word and instantly regretted putting it out there. But there’s no easy way to take back a word. You can’t reach out and grab it and shove it in your pocket before it reaches the ears and the heart of the receiver. Words are powerful.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Words can also bless and build up, they can plant seeds and inspire growth. They can even heal. I had an uncle who had a real way with words. He was a preacher, a teacher, and a sesquipedalian orator. This sermon is about words after all. I’ll just leave that one there for you – sesquipedalian. Let’s just say he used big words, he was a master of words. He’d say frugal where the rest of us would say cheap, filch instead of steal, capacious when you might just say it was a really big room. His love of words extended beyond the oral, he was a collector of exquisite fountain pens and a ubiquitous writer of letters and so in a very real sense his sesquipedalian words live on. For my uncle Gordon, words mattered. They were chosen carefully, in print and voice because he understood the tremendous power of words and sought to offer the best of them to life. Though I never had the occasion to witness him in the act of making amends, I suspect even his apologies were eloquent.

Of course a theologian would say that words are not the same as The Word, the Word that became flesh. Parker Palmer, a Quaker of some years and wisdom talks about being taken with this line as a child.[1] “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He marveled at how something as airy as a word could take on flesh. And yet it would seem that our words are always in the flesh, even as we gift them or hurl them through the air, words are carried on our breath, transported in waves of sound before being absorbed in the ears of another and landing in their body and soul with anything from a thud to a warm, expansive love.

Parker Palmer says that there is “often a distressing disconnect between the good words we speak and the way we live our lives. We long for words like love and truth and justice.”[2] This year, if you listen to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, apparently we’ve been longing for the word justice more than ever. They’ve named it the word of the year. It’s just that in a violent world says Palmer “it’s risky business to wrap our frail flesh around words like those, we don’t like the odds.”[3]

Throughout scripture God invites us to these words, in spite of the odds, showing us again and again how good words can become flesh.

In Greek, the language of John’s gospel, the word for the Word is Logos but in Hebrew it’s Ruah and it means breath. In Genesis YHWH breathes the Word into the clay and it becomes a living being, Adam – of the earth. In John’s gospel the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples and they receive the Holy Spirit. Here in the beginning of John there are no stars, no angels, no stable, no shepherds, wise ones, no baby in a manger, just the Word, the breath of life. In another telling of the story of Jesus’ incarnation we read that Mary took the words of the angel and wrote them on her heart.

But I’ve not experienced it that way.  I’ve not been able to inscribe words on my heart. I’m not talking about memorizing words like a great orator; anyone can do that. I’m talking about inscribing them on your heart, making them real. I wonder if that’s where the disconnect lies? I wonder if that’s where the mystery of incarnation is to be found?

I had an encounter recently where I longed to do just that, to seize the words, every one of them and shove them into my heart. I was afraid the words would get away and I’d forget or I wouldn’t be able to hold on to the moment.

It was around a simple family dinner table with a couple of dear friends I was gifted with perhaps the most precious gift I’ve ever received. It was a gift that had been cherished in the givers home for many years and here it was being given to me. A person doesn’t give away something so deeply meaningful easily, I knew as it was being given that this gift was both an honour and responsibility. Receiving it with heartfelt gratitude was easy but the responsibility it comes with, that’s weighty. And that’s why I thought if I could just grab the words of the giver I’d be able to sear them in my memory and inscribe them on my heart and call them up again. But you can’t hold onto good words, they just wilt in your hand like a clutch of summer buttercups

I wonder if the Word becomes flesh through breathing it in like a deep diaphragm breath, through ingesting it. It’s no wonder that those who meditate, those who practice yoga, those who’ve learned how to keep anxiety in check all focus on the breath. Words don’t stay words after they’re spoken. Words aren’t like a memory that can be replayed in the minds eye. No a word enters our body and is transformed, metabolized, turned to oxygen to feed our very blood or into energy to nourish our cells. And this I wonder is this where we experience the Word, in the very cells of our bodies, in the breath we breathe?

The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of truth and grace. Those two words are key – The Word, capital W is not any old word, it’s not the word of sticks and stones, it’s a word filled with Truth and Grace. And truth is both gift and challenge. Truth is a call to live by the Word that puts the poor first, that makes room at the table, that dares to see the world through a lens of abundance instead of scarcity, that talks equity not fairness. Truth doesn’t squeeze the life out of the good words, it inhales them and allows those words to grow and take shape in you.

And just as important, the Word, capital W is filled with grace, which is harder to hold onto than truth! Grace is God choosing to come as a vulnerable baby instead of a mighty warrior, even knowing how the story might turn out. Grace is the promise that if we breathe in good words they will be metabolized, they will nourish our cells and we too will share in the risk of incarnating holy love. And that’s far riskier business in our minds than just grabbing enough good words for ourselves and those we love.

For all the talk and reality of the world coming apart, for all the words that seek to take root in our fear there are equally as many words that offer sustenance and hope, good words, powerful words, transforming words. Maybe we should just change the scripture a bit: the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

The Word becomes flesh from the inside out, one cell at a time, emerging in the most vulnerable form possible for a human, an utterly dependent infant – it’s as simple and mysterious as that. Christmas is a call for every one of us to dare to be born again, which is honestly not an absurd ask. Just as our bodies are being born again and again, every cell in our bodies has a life span of its own, dying to be born again. You don’t need to grab the Word tight or even sear it in your memory, you simply need to breathe it in and trust the truth that is grace will transform you from the inside out. How will the Word filled with truth and grace become flesh in you this season? Amen

[1] https://onbeing.org/blog/the-risk-of-incarnation-a-christmas-meditation/

[2] ibid

[3] ibid