Here is a sermon I delivered in First United Church, Salmon Arm on Jan 4th, 2015 based on John 1: (1–9), 10–18. You can either watch the video or read the text, or both. The camera started a bit late so the first two frames supply the missing text.
It’s that time of year. For some months the darkness has been gradually swallowing the light day by day by day. And have you noticed that since Christmas the light seems to linger in the sky just a little bit longer each evening. The Bible doesn’t tell us what time of year Jesus was actually born, but it is no accident that tradition places this celebration at the time of the winter solstice when the darkness is most profound.
Into our darkness comes the marvellous, sacred story of the birth of Jesus, whether history or parable, in humble circumstances, and the responses of those who recognized him, both the humble and the great, the earthly and heavenly. On Tuesday we celebrate the feast of Epiphany – the coming of the great ones from far away, the ones we call wise. That part connects this Jewish and Christian story to the universal human story as well as to the great body of Wisdom literature, ancient and present.
Central to all these elements is the notion of the incarnation, that is, the divine presence becoming embodied, taking form in matter, in flesh, in a real person like you and me. For some that is a miraculous but mechanical thing – God supernaturally impregnated Mary who produced God’s offspring. Other interpretations have perhaps less magic but more depth of meaning
To get at this, I’ll start with the words we just heard from John’s gospel. John does not include a birth narrative. No, John goes much further back to the beginning of time. “In the beginning was the Word (the Logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This is grand language but a bit abstract. The birth stories are more compelling, more charming, more personal, because they are about real things happening to real people – happenings, not abstractions. They are dramatic – stories you can relate to, that you can feel.
However highfalutin John’s language sounds, it affirms the same reality. He writes, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Before Jesus, God was seen primarily as transcendent, that is something other, outside of ourselves – a personal force or power. It would sometimes reach down to communicate with human beings – to Moses in the burning bush, or in prophetic visions, for example. The birth dramas about Jesus are intended to embody something different, something that is implied in Jesus teachings. That central insight is that the divine energy (or God if you prefer) does take form in matter, in cells and sinews and skin and bone and in the heart. Many theologians take it even further, and say that God takes form in planets and stars and trees and rocks and giant sloths, in the whole web of creation.
Cynthia Bourgeault sees the entire cosmos as an electric dance of divine energy. God is not above or outside of the energy, God IS the energy. Our modern understanding of this has been hugely influenced by the frontiers of quantum physics which has shaken up our understanding of the universe and consequently our image of God. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it as a “luminous web” and speaks of the radical shift in her image of God brought about by her exposure to quantum physics:
“Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in them, as if any of these concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationships that animates everything that is.”
The clear implication is that God is incarnate in each of us, too. Jesus is the prototype, a spirit-filled person who was acutely attuned to the divine energy within him and lived it out. But Jesus continually pointed to what was already in us. “The kingdom of God is within you,” he said.
There were hints of this before Jesus, but it was in its time a radical thought that changed the way we understand ourselves and the world. Unfortunately, influenced by the thought of Augustine, the church soon moved away from this notion when it accepted the doctrine of original sin. But the idea is in recovery in our time through the work of Matthew Fox and others who believe that original blessing is the more important, foundational truth.
So what does all this mean on the ground where you and I live? There are many implications but as we don’t have all day, I will focus on one that has had a huge impact on my life.
I was very fortunate to have some wise and skilled teachers who helped me to understand that the wisdom I could trust the most was the wisdom that was already inside me – that in order to know what to do “out there” I needed to look inward in as relaxed a manner as I could, to monitor my own feelings and thoughts. And more often than not the answer would come.
I have had deep discussion with other Christians, fine people whose operative belief is the opposite – that our essentially sinful nature means that we CANNOT trust what was in us, but rather we have to strive – let me emphasize the word strive – to live up to an external set of standards laid out in the Bible or by the church. Often these standards were based on some of Jesus’ words hardened into laws. These friends had a deep distrust of what is within.
To give a more concrete example, I remember when I was working as a counsellor, that sometimes I would have a client in my office talking about his problems. Sometimes the multitude of problems would seem insurmountable and I would feel helpless and have no idea what I could say to be helpful. Sometimes I would get anxious about this and desperately search my mind for theories and practices and techniques to find one that might work. I had to earn my fee, of course, so I had to come up with something.
This desperate, clenched kind of searching was rarely helpful. Eventually I came to realize that if I simply accepted my state of not knowing, if I relaxed and trusted and waited, then after a while something would emerge from somewhere within me (or from outside of me, who knows?) but something productive and useful. The wisdom might emerge as a question in my mind, or a metaphor, perhaps a biblical story, or a personal experience to share. Sometimes I didn’t even know how or if it was relevant. But if the thought persisted I learned to risk verbalizing it to see what would happen. Often the client would see the connection that I couldn’t and the therapeutic process would move forward. I never had the sense that it was only my own wisdom that I was accessing – it was something bigger than me.
This idea of God being incarnate in you and me has another important implication. A deep learning for me in those years was about how people change. As a young man, for example, I often despaired of ever achieving the level of skill and knowledge that I saw in my teachers or in other adults. I would strive – there’s that word again – I would strive so hard to change myself into something more like them, to make myself into some vision of an ideal person or practitioner.
Then, some wise person said, Acceptance of what is, is the quickest way to change. Wow! Acceptance of what is, is the quickest way to change. What a liberating idea that was! It changed my life. Does that mean that the path to change actually comes from a radical acceptance of myself the way I am? Yes, that’s exactly what it means. I immediately began to channel my energies into accepting and loving myself rather than trying to turn myself into someone or something else. And change began to happen, even when I wasn’t looking. And I gradually began to spend more time looking back at how far I had come rather than forward at how far I had yet to go. This time of growth was by no means pain free but it required far less striving.
We tend to think of an interim ministry as a time of change, and, of course, it is. If it weren’t, why would we do it? We went through a rough patch a couple of years ago and we wanted, and still want, to do some things differently as we move into a confident and faithful future. I believe strongly that most personal and spiritual growth comes out of the hard times, just as resurrection comes out of crucifixion. Why would we take the trouble of looking for a new way unless our old way has failed us somehow. Light comes out of darkness. But like the long winter nights, sometimes it takes a while. And for some of us that dark time is difficult.
But the central message for me is this: growth never involves becoming something we are NOT. Real spiritual growth means becoming more thoroughly and authentically who we really are. It is in our striving, our clinging, our clenching, that we go wrong. The answer lies in unclenching, in surrendering to the God within us to the self that God loves like crazy. And that always means coming home to a truer sense of self – not the small self that our ego tells us we are – but that expansive, holy self that lies within each and every one of us.
And because God is incarnate in our physicalness, the path to that coming home is found in our bodies – our sacred bodies, each of which contains the divine DNA. It is in listening to our bodies that we discover where we are clenching, where we are afraid, where we are controlling. And it is in letting go, in surrender, that we find our healing, our wholeness, our sacred self.
Poet, Jane Hooper, has written a beautiful poem called Please Come Home that captures this essential spiritual task of realizing our true selves. I’m going to read it slowly and I invite you to listen to it at two levels – at the level of your own individual self, your personal coming home, and at the level of our corporate, congregational self, because I think the coming home is much the same in either case. You might like to close your eyes and let the words wash over you like a prayer, a backwards prayer where God is speaking to us.
PLEASE COME HOME By Jane Hooper
Please come home, Please come home,
Find the place where your feet know where to walk
And follow your own trail home.
Please come home, Please come home into your own body,
Your own vessel, your own earth.
Please come home into each and every cell,
And fully into the space that surrounds you.
Please come home. Please come home to trusting yourself,
And your instincts and your ways and your knowings,
And even the particular quirks of your personality.
Please come home, Please come home and once you are firmly there,
Please stay home awhile and come to a deep rest within.
Please treasure your home. Please love and embrace your home.
Please get a deep, deep sense of what it’s like to be truly home.
Please come home. Please come home.
And when you’re really , really ready,
And there’s a delectable urge on the outbreath, then please come out.
Please come home and please come forward.
Please express who you are to us, and please trust us
To see you and hear you and touch you
And recognize you as best we can.
Please come home. Please come home and let us know
All the nooks and crannies that are calling to be seen
Please come home, and let us know the More
That is there that wants to come out.
Please come home. Please come home
for you belong here now. You belong among us.
Please inhabit your place fully so we can learn from you,
From your voice and your ways and your presence.
Please come home. Please come home.
And when you feel yourself home, please welcome us too,
For we too forget that we belong and are welcome,
And that we are called to express fully who we are.
Please come home. Please come home.
you and you and you and me.
Please come home. Please come home.
Thank you, Earth, for welcoming us.
And thank you touch of eyes and ears and skin,
Touch of love for welcoming us.
May we wake up and remember who we truly are.
Please come home. Please come home. Please come home.