Sermons For These Times
I Have Seen the Lord
“Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord…” (Jn. 20).
Mostly we live on the shallow surface. We usually assume we understand the facts, that the everyday world exists in the way that it appears to us. But at certain moments we the vast depths of our unconscious life startles us. Out of seemingly nothing there arise titanic fears, desires and feelings that we do not understand. These forces grip us. They shape our thoughts and actions. Yes, we are rational beings. But there is so much more. In many respects we are a mystery to ourselves. Karl Barth writes that for us the truth is like a butterfly escaping through the fingers of a child (471).
If you asked me how I was last week, I would have gone on about how I’m adjusting to this totally new form of life, how great it has been to have our children home at various times over the Pandemic, that it won’t be long now until we can be together. But sitting here in the Cathedral this week I saw what was really in my heart. Deep sorrow.
I thought of close family members who almost died of COVID and our niece’s brain surgery. I remembered others who did die during the pandemic: my godfather, the college friend who was godmother of our children, two beloved uncles, another friend from my wife’s high school, a close family friend who I knew from the time he was ten. I helped him prepare for confirmation. He was a member of this congregation. And we still have not buried him. There is so much more that I cannot even tell you about.
But I don’t need to because you still remember: collecting bulk food, the flashing signs saying to stay at home, a spree of buying guns, the sirens in New York City, the people dying alone. Instead of regarding masks as a way that we can all protect the most vulnerable we turned them into another symbol of tribalism and politics. Although Americans make up 4% of the world’s population we account for 20% of the world’s COVID deaths. We have been hating and distrusting each other to death. We see new ways that race and poverty kill people.
We continue to roll from tragedy to tragedy. This week after all the new gun violence and anti-Asian racism we heard the testimony of those traumatized witnesses of George Floyd’s murder. It is enough for us to break. We have made our home in a kind of tomb.
That day here when I looked up past the immense columns I watched the dappled sunlight streaming through the stained glass window of Mary Magdalene. And it was almost as if she looked at me with great kindness and whispered, “I have seen the Lord!” God is God of what we see and of what we don’t see. God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
And Jesus gives us more than just ideas or beliefs. Jesus brings us nearer to God. This happens through practices, rituals, symbols, words, stories and prayers that help us. Jesus takes one of the worst things ever invented, a torture device called the Roman cross, and makes it into the tree of life, a sign of hope that God is with us in the worst suffering we can imagine.
Jesus gives us a way to navigate the depths that we experience in our existence, that mystery that we can only approach through symbols and intuitions. This morning I want to talk about the way John’s Gospel acts as a kind of guide through this world. I am going to talk about the big picture, the focused picture and our picture. So let us enter the world of John’s Gospel together.
- The Big Picture. A mystery lies behind the Gospel of John. We do not know who the author is. But this writer is completely clear about the purpose of the book. He says that it is written, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31). I think this new life is the purpose of Easter.
There are no accidents in John. He uses an elaborate and rigid structure with recurring themes (like the struggle between light and darkness). These connect the various incidents he describes. He uses seven titles to refer to Jesus (like “Son of Man,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” etc.). Jesus speaks about himself using seven “I am” statements (like, “I am the true vine… the bread of life” or “the Good Shepherd,” etc.). There are seven signs or miracles that help the reader understand who Jesus is.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first Jesus teaches and heals people. The second records the last days before his death and resurrection. Between these, two sisters convince Jesus to bring their brother Lazarus back from the dead and out of the isolation of his tomb.
At his later trial Jesus tells the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world” (Jn. 18:36). And indeed it is not. At his last supper he washes he followers’ feet and shares a meal with them. He teaches that it is more important to serve others than to have power over them (Jn. 13). He says I tell you these things so, “that your joy may be complete” (Jn. 15:11). There is a kind of Epilogue to the Gospel in which the disciples are fishing and the resurrected Jesus tells them to throw their nets over the other side of the boat. Suddenly the nets fill to a breaking point. It’s an illustration that Christians are most effective when they listen to Jesus.
- The focused picture begins after Jesus’s body has been broken and laid in the tomb. It begins in the mysterious darkness of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene arrives to find the stone rolled away. She runs to tell Peter and the Disciple who Jesus loved. This Beloved Disciple is the one lying reclining closest to Jesus at his last supper (when Jesus announces who will betray him). Although Peter denies him three times, the Beloved Disciple has a secret power. It makes him fearless in the face of death. And so the Beloved Disciple is present at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
On Easter morning the Beloved Disciple outruns Peter but waits outside the tomb. This is where things get a little complicated. The author uses three different Greek verbs for seeing. First, there is an empirical seeing which can include perceiving something beyond sense experience. This is the word the author uses to describe Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple’s first experience of the tomb. Second, there is a form of detached seeing, as spectator does. This is the way Peter is described as he sees the linen wrappings in one place and the face covering in another. Finally when the Beloved Disciple experiences the same thing, the author writes, “he saw and believed.”
This brings us back to the mystery of John. At the end of the Gospel the author reveals that he himself is the Beloved Disciple. My friend the Bible scholar Herman Waetjen believes that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus who Jesus brought back to life. And that seeing the same kind of face covering in Jesus’ tomb reminded Lazarus of his own resurrection. For Herman that face covering also refers to the one Moses wore in the presence of God. He explains that when it was removed, there was nothing that would conceal the glory of God as it shined through them.
We may be able to learn from someone who came back from the dead, but the abyss of experience that separates us from that person makes it hard. After the two other disciples return home we have Mary Magdalene still waiting at the tomb. When Mary first turns she sees or fails to see Jesus in the same way that Peter did. She mistakes Jesus for the gardener. But when he says her name “Mary,” she understands who he really is. She goes back to the others and says, “I have seen the Lord” (using the same word the Beloved Disciple did).
When we are in the dark, when we are lost or confused or feeling hopeless, Jesus seeks us out like this. Often it happens through the church as the body of Christ on earth. But God can do this work through a friend, a memory, a fresh loaf of bread, the shimmering leaves of a birch tree or a stained glass window.
- Our picture. All my life I have not paid much attention to the role of the face covering in this story or to the way that masks – actual ones and metaphorical ones like race – conceal the glory of God that should be shining in us. But there has never been a year like this. We are nearing the end of a period of unprecedented isolation. Over this time it has become far harder for us to communicate and understand each other.
The preacher Frederich Buechner writes, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.” Rowan Wiliams the former Archbishop of Canterbury writes, “When we say that Jesus is risen, we mean that there is no sense in which he belongs to the past; his life is never over. When we celebrate the Eucharist we do not put flowers on a memorial slab; we meet a living and active presence.”
At Bible study this week a member of the Cathedral congregation talked about being hit as a pedestrian by an SUV and hurled 10 feet in 2010. It seemed almost certain that she would die, and if not doctors expected that she would be just a shadow of herself. But Jesus came to her in the form of another person who had been in a similar accident. She says, “It was not a near-death experience, but an encounter with transcendence. I was pretty devout before but all of a sudden I began to see the peace, unity and love that lies so near and all around us.” That joy and wonder is so tangible in my friend, my sister in Christ.
On my way here today I ran into three congregants at different intersections and I felt that same thing. My heart leapt with joy to see them in person. When we see each other next we are going to look a little older and a little more uncertain and awkward about how we reach out. But the glory of God will really shine through us again, because we have life in His name. His joy is becoming complete in us.
I have seen the Lord. Alleluia, Christ is risen!
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 The Doctrine of Reconciliation tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T & T Clark, 2004) 471.
 Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T & T Clark, 2005) 409-418.
 Peter W. Marty, “The Post-Pandemic Church,” The Christian Century 24 March 2021.
 Rowan Williams, Candles in the Dark: Faith, Hope and Love in a Time of Pandemic (London: SPCK Publishing, 2020) 11.
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- “What are you looking for?” These are the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John. It is a good question for us too. What is making you dissatisfied or causing suffering? What will bring you relief? What do you want?
It could be healing, security, respect or just to hear from your children or feel connected to your friends. Maybe you want your life to make a difference. Or maybe through this time of turmoil you don’t even know what you are looking for. You just want to feel okay again. What we seek tells us something about how we understand God. If nothing else, over the years people who pray begin to finally realize what it is that they really want.
Emblepo is a wonderful Greek word. It describes the experience of looking into someone’s face and really seeing that person. The ancient writer Philo uses it to mean clarity of vision, true insight, a “grasping of transcendent matters.” This word describes how John the Baptist sees deeply into who Jesus is. Then he says, “Behold, the lamb of God” (Jn. 1). Hearing this two of his disciples go to approach Jesus. Jesus asks what they are seeking. Perhaps they are flustered but all they can manage to say in reply is, “where are you (and the Greek word means) staying or abiding or remaining.” Jesus knows what they really hunger for and he says to them, “Come and see.”
On a spring Sunday in 1934 an evangelist came to visit the packed sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. In those days the five year old Martin Luther King, Jr. was known as M.L. His maternal grandfather had founded that church and his father was the Senior Pastor. For the rest of his life he remembered that day – the choir, the clapping, the energy of the moment. When that guest preacher invited people to come up to join the church, his sister Christine was the first one to stand.
M.L. immediately ran ahead of her, not as he was later to say out of some “dynamic conviction,” but because of a, “childhood desire to keep up with my sister.” Even at his baptism King was “unaware of what was taking place.” Hearing God’s call did not happen for him in an single powerful moment but was a matter of gradually taking in what he learned from his family and church.
- Today scripture confronts us with so many different ways of encountering God, of hearing God’s invitation to come and see, to walk through the doorway into a holy life. Samuel is a kind of apprentice to the priest and sleeps in the Temple next to the most sacred object of his people’s faith, the “ark of God” (1 Sam. 3). Three times Samuel is awakened by what he thinks is the priest calling him. Each time he goes to Eli who finally tells him that the next time the voice calling he should reply by saying, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” Samuel does this and God then says to him, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
Have you ever wondered how you can know that it is really God speaking to you, and not just your ego or insecurity? The seventeenth century Puritan Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) wrote a lengthy theological treatise about this subject that I find still helpful today.
This story about Samuel seems to suggest that among other things a calling from God is a prompting or encouragement, an intuition that persists and repeats. We really begin to hear when we make time and space in our life for stillness and reflection. Often another person (like Eli) helps to confirm our interpretation. Finally, at some level of our being we have to want to understand if God’s invitation is going to reach us.
Today’s gospel helps us to appreciate what a different experience each of Jesus’ disciples had. One of the disciples of John the Baptist who went on to follow Jesus is unnamed but the other is Andrew. Jesus invites him to “come and see.” He recognizes who Jesus is by spending time with him (“remaining” with him that day).
Andrew enthusiastically tells his brother. Our state motto is “Eureka” it means “I found it.” This is the word Andrew uses saying, “we have found the Messiah… Christ). Andrew brings Simon to Jesus. Jesus looks into him (in the way I described earlier emblepo), says his name and renames him Cephas or Peter which means rock.
Philip comes from the same town as Andrew and Peter and we don’t know how he first encountered Jesus as the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. He brings his friend Nathanael to meet him. Nathanael is cynical and doubting maybe even derisive. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” But even as he approaches Jesus calls out, “Behold here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit?”
Incredulously Nathan asks, “where did you get to know me.” And Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” The electricity of this connection still shocks us twenty centuries later. Philip replies, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” This foreshadows the sign that the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate hangs at Jesus’ crucifixion.
Cynical, open, doubting, needing to see for one’s self, depending on the testimony of a respected family member or friend. Each of us comes to Jesus in a way adapted to our personality and circumstances. You may be the way by which someone learns about Christ. In these difficult times through your faith you may help to save someone who might otherwise be lost.
- The great preacher and writer Fredrich Buechner famously defines what a vocation is. He writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This sentence has been profoundly true for me. The idea behind it inspires me just about every day. I feel blessed to love what I do. I enjoy preaching, pastoral care and being part of a community that seeks to feed a world that seems so hungry for spiritual nourishment.
But my friend Matt Boulton reminds us that when God calls Moses from the burning bush his first response is to say, “Lord please send someone else” (Ex. 4:13). So Matt gives us what he calls another, and complimentary, truth. He says, “the place where God calls you to is the place where your deep discomfort and the world’s deep blessings meet.”
I believe both joy and discomfort are ways that God moves us and draws us to discover a truer version of ourselves. When I really listen to God these days what I hear is that this is our time to repair the damages to the fabric of humanity through racism and poverty. It is our time to heal the earth. The extraordinary inequality we see in this country, the mass incarceration of African American people, an inadequate response to the AIDS crisis, along with the crack cocaine and opioid epidemics, the rising tide of homelessness, climate change, these all happened on our watch. Why do we tolerate so much human suffering? Is it because we think that some people and the planet must suffer in order to give everyone else the incentive to work? Is it because we really believe there are not enough good things to go around?
Martin Luther King Jr. taught that time is not biased in favor of human progress. Things will not just get better on their own. We are responsible to make things better, to support the dignity of the people around us. This change means that we have to give up the idea that we will always feel comfortable about what is happening.
Some of us will say yes to ministries that bring us right to the edge of what we think we can handle. And yet, just as we receive our calling to act from Jesus, our help comes from him too.
There was a time when Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from reliable sources that there was a plan to have him assassinated. In a speech he talked about his death and asked his supporters to never retaliate with violence. King knew that in an instant his wife and daughter could be taken away from him and the fear kept growing in him. One night he came home late from a meeting. In the late hours of the night he was trying to sleep when the phone rang. An ugly voice threatened to shoot him and blow up the house if he didn’t leave town in three days.
King got up, went down to the kitchen and started pacing as he brewed a pot of coffee. He thought about what he had learned about evil as a theologian. He wondered if there was any honorable way for him to step away from his commitments. Finally, he sat down put his head on the table and prayed. “O Lord I’m down here just trying to do what is right… but I’m weak… I’m afraid… I have nothing left.” Tears came to his eyes.
And then he felt a kind of presence and then an inner voice which said with assurance, “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you until the end of the age.” He later said that that was the voice of Jesus who promised that he would never be left alone. God was no longer an idea, an abstraction, or a “metaphysical category.” The living God was close to him and would never abandon him.
Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?” He knows that the short answer to this is that we deeply desire the one who “has searched us out and known us” (Ps. 139), the one who loved us before anyone else, the one who abides with us forever. Jesus invites us to come and see, to listen for his voice in moments of stillness and to follow where he leads. This will involve the joy of really seeing into who other people are. And it will mean speaking honestly about injustice even when it makes others and ourselves uncomfortable. What are you looking for? Come and see.
Years later on the eve of his death Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd about his own death. He said that like Moses he had been to the mountaintop and had a glimpse of a promised land in which every person was treated with dignity. That night he said, “With this faith, I will carve a tunnel of hope from a mountain of despair… With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day, when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing… in the spiritual of old, ‘Free at last,’ ‘Free at last,’ Thank God almighty we are free at last.’”
 “Grasping transcendent matters” comes from one of the Bauer Greek lexicon editions. See Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 102.
 Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (NY: Harper and Row, 1982) 1-2.
 Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, 1746.
 I asked that Jn. 1:35-42 be added to today’s reading. I hope it’s not too much.
 Matthew Boulton, “Come and See: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Two,” SALT, 11 January 2021. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/1/9/lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-2
 Mitchell Weiss, “We the Possibility: It’s Helping Time,” Harvard Business School, 7 January 2021. https://www.hbs.edu/news/articles/Pages/we-the-possibility-its-helping-time.aspx
 Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (NY: Harper and Row, 1982) 84-5.
 Ibid., 467-8.
“You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1).
“Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction.” Do you believe this is true? I asked you this question in a sermon only days after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. And now it is time to ask this again. This sentence comes from the Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980) as she tried to preserve the poetic legacy of her husband Osip after he was killed by the Communists.
These days we are realizing that technologies that were supposed to bring us together, have more deeply divided us. What has been disrupted is not just the media as we used to know it – the newsrooms, professional journalists, small town papers and local television stations – but the traditions that helped us understand what is true. It is natural to feel afraid as human society becomes unmoored from truth.
How do we respond to “primitive fear” and the powerful lies that subjugate and divide us? How should we face the forces that distort and manipulate us? This week the president threatened the Georgia Secretary of State to overturn the fall election saying, “I just want to find 11,780 votes.” Then on Wednesday he incited a white mob both in person and through social media. They overran the US Capitol building. Five people were killed including a Brian Sicknick, a Capitol police officer.
We all know that far more blood would have been shed if Black people had acted in a similar way. My 70 year old aunt was arrested at the Capitol a few years ago protesting a massive pipeline project. She could not believe what she saw this week.
And so here we are with those persistent images in our consciousness. A confederate flag being waved in the rotunda. A grinning white man with his feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. The doors to the Senate chambers being barricaded by a heavy table as an agent points his gun through a broken window. Shameless politicians telling us that really the mob was a group of liberals impersonating right-wing protesters. Broken glass. Smashed doors. Other nations looking on in horror. The Dean of Canterbury Cathedral sending a video message to America saying that it is darkest before the dawn.
This is the natural culmination of years of hearing people like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh telling us that our own government is the enemy. Beyond the totally unnecessary loss of life, and the ugly desecration of a place that is sacred to democracy, there is such a tragic element to all of this. That crowd really believes a conspiracy theory that is clearly not true. They accept the president’s lie that the election was fraudulent or stolen.
And yet after all that shouting on the Capitol steps that this was their house, once they made it in they hardly knew what to do. All they could think of was to break things, steal some stationary, to take pictures of themselves on the senate floor and post them on social media. Is that it? Is that all that matters these days? Does it really just come down to how many likes we get on Facebook? Isn’t there more to life than this?
After the events of the last few days it is a relief to get back to the truly big picture that encompasses all time and space. The good book says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1). And today we celebrate the ancient Feast of the Epiphany. It’s name comes from the Greek word epi which means upon and phaino which means to shine as when John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).
So we are entering a season of epiphanies, of new insight into our connection with God and the world. Another way to put this is that we will be looking more deeply to see the unveiling of the truth, the longstanding reality, that we only barely apprehended before. My old teacher Peter Gomes used to describe Epiphany as the season when the “identity of Jesus” becomes “clearer to all those who will look and see.” He says that the story begins with the angel’s appearance to Mary and like a stone in a pond ripples out through all the water of time and space even as far as you and me.
Traditionally at Epiphany three stories in particular reveal who Jesus is. The first is the story of the Magi, that group of wise ones from the East who, over great distances follow a star. They suffer in order to experience Jesus and to present their gifts to him. The second is the story from the Gospel of John in which Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus takes our watery life and makes it infinitely more delightful. The final story is what we have before us today.
Mark calls this, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1). He doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ birth and in a way this is his Christmas story. John appears in the wilderness. People who seem vastly different from one another are deeply attracted to him. They come from urban and rural places, from Bakersfield and Santa Monica, from Salinas and Carmel, from Hayward and Belvedere.
They share an understanding that something is wrong in their lives. They suffer in the way that we do when things go badly and there is no one else to blame and we wonder what we could have done differently. John really sees them. Like the best of preachers he helps them to discover a new relationship with God. He baptizes them with water.
Then Jesus comes with all of the power of the Holy Spirit. Mark writes, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1). Immediately after this the Spirit casts Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days by the Devil.
The writers of the most ancient Jewish scriptures saw the ocean and the wilderness as tumultuous places of terrible chaotic forces that threaten human life. I can’t help but think that the wilderness is where we are these days as COVID continues to overwhelm us spiritually, emotionally and physically, as we wonder what the future will bring for our nation and the world.
But again let’s take a wider view beyond our current situation and look very briefly at ideas from three of the most ancient Christians. The first is from the second century figure Justin Martyr (100-165 CE). Justin points out that Jesus had no need of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1). But out of humility and deep desire for solidarity with all people Jesus chose to be baptized. He wants to be with us. Justin says that the spirit descending shows the world that he was “far more than a mere worker of wood.”
Also from the second century Irenaeus (130-202 CE) writes that God anoints Jesus of Nazareth with the “Holy Spirit and power.” Our baptism in his name gives us a share of this same power. This is what renews us even in the face of fear and uncertainty.
Finally I want to quote from a fourth century hymn by St. Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 CE). “See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore you! See, Fire and Spirit in the river you were baptized! Fire and Spirit in our Baptism; in the Bread and the Cup, Fire and Spirit!” Being baptized we become the children of Mary fully participating in the divinity of her Son.
As I said earlier I’ve been wondering if, “Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction.” At my lowest point, after the longest day of worrying about the people of this nation, I decided to go for a run. I was too late and the sunset just looked like a smudge in the western sky. But as I ran alone on the walkway 265 feet above the dangerous currents of the Bay over the Golden Gate Bridge, I received my answer.
Looking East the light blue color of the Bay perfectly matched the blue of the sky. Instantly I knew that although everything appears to be distinct and individual, we are all one in God. We are all God’s children, the beloved ones. Over the last ten months, as we have wandered this desert together we have had Epiphanies: about the importance of being together in person, the value of our human connections, the simple joy we take in singing. What is also being revealed to us is the terrible situation of healthcare and employment insecurity, racism, inequality, the vulnerability of the natural world.
After the last ten months, after the last four years, we see more clearly what we are called to do. These are not tasks that we grudgingly take up. This is the work that we were made for, that gives us meaning as children of God.
Our identity shapes our habits and our habits in turn determine our identity. The crucial question for each of us today is what kind of people will we be going forward? Are we going to be people who live in fear and are therefore habitually outraged, angry and hopeless?
Or will we be children of God rejoicing in our share of Jesus’ spirit and power. How will we humbly and quietly help the people around us who are struggling right now? During this season of epiphanies the truly big picture is that despite all our failings we are beloved to God.
Let us pray: Holy God protect the world from COVID. Bless this nation and its ideal that each person matters and has a unique and irreplicable dignity. We pray for all the political leaders who may not understand any better than we do, the forces we are unleashing, or the demons we are serving in our fear and lack of trust in you. Give us the peace that passes all understanding and through the grace of your son Jesus, let us see the fire and spirit in the river in which we are baptized. Amen.
 26 Pent (11-13-16) 28C. “There is a story about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). As an internationally recognized twenty-nine year old he seemed to have everything. Then on January 2, 1936 the Communist Party officially instructed him to attend his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. The country’s dictator Joseph Stalin himself was in attendance but invisible behind a curtain. Stalin left before the end and although the audience seemed beside themselves with enthusiasm, Shostakovich felt “sick at heart.”
Two days later the official Communist Party newspaper Pravda wrote an editorial about Lady Macbeth entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” It condemned his work as “artistically obscure and morally obscene.” It went on to say that Shostakovich was playing a game that “may end very badly.” In hindsight we know what ending badly meant in Soviet Russia. One could be declared an enemy of the people, publicly humiliated, privately tortured and then executed. Others were sent to prison camps and many more simply disappeared.
Alex Ross writes that, “Shostakovich never shook off the pall of fear that those six hundred words in Pravda cast on him.” Sadly, while he agonized over whether his compositions would cause offense, this had nothing to do with the music. The same editor of Pravda later said privately about this incident. “We had to begin with somebody… Shostakovich was the most famous, and a blow against him would create immediate repercussions…””
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007) 220, 216, 228.
 1 Epiphany (01-07-18) B. Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 30-6.
 I’m grateful to my friend Donald Schell who answered my late night call for help on this sermon with such wisdom. This next section comes from the email he sent me. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies.
 Here are some words from Brian McLaren that give us a sense for how our ministry supports what God is doing in creation, “The universe is God’s creative project, filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge, and meaning. It runs on the meaning we see embodied in the life of Jesus. Newness multiplies. Freedom grows. Meaning expands. Wisdom flows. Healing happens. Goodness runs wild.” Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Jericho: 2015), 11, 12, 14.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . (pls be seated)
In the beginning was the Word.
Ah, at last, there it is, like hint from a long-known but mysterious source, The Word draws us in and brings us closer to known and yet new understanding at each expression.
The Word, the very utterance of God is with us.
This year The Word comes from behind Covid-19 masks in a Christmas season unlike any in recent history . . . It has been a Christmastime in which rather than arriving early to get a good seat at church or celebrating with family and friends, we seek security and safety at home in small numbers instead.
I wondered if we’d be able to encounter Christmas without church as we’ve come to know it. I wondered how dependent I might be on the in-church rituals I so enjoy, the words and movements and music that help me know closeness to the God I so love.
Longing for us to be able to gather together,
I remembered the very first Christmas I spent at Grace Cathedral. Walking in the procession, through the crowded congregation to the choir that year, I could feel the thrilled anticipation in the two thousand people packed shoulder to shoulder in the pews . . . candles aflame, smoke from the incense, the crescendo of brass and strings, it was a liturgical masterpiece . . . the exultancy of the Word among us was palpable.
But this year, we celebrated Christmas online, away from the cathedral, our hundreds of pageant angels, shepherds and magi at home, without choir or symphony or incense.
And despite what seemed long odds, The Word, the baby, the Christ child is here and with us!
There was and still is everything we need.
Knowing God is with us, how does this change things?
And what might we do?
For several years I was lucky enough to help write the Christmas sermons at a university down on the peninsula.
On a normal Sunday, like most college chaplaincies, Memorial Church draws very few children, but the Christmas Eve service there always drew a maximum capacity crowd.
When I was first invited to write for them, I was told the Silicon Valley crowd came expecting “timeliness with a dash of witty innovation.”
It was a tremendously creative and fun experience. Our sermons attended to everything from Starbucks Christmas cup theology to Santa’s Sleigh crashing on the fiscal cliff because his elves were fighting over whether to go to the left or to the right.
One particularly memorable homily that our team wrote in 2011 has come to mind this year . . . If you remember 2011, and I wonder if that even seems almost quaint after the year the world has just had, the issues that came to light that year on Wall Street and around the globe, have proven to be just as live this year.
During that Christmas Eve service in 2011, we set up a tent and sleeping bag around the altar and enlisted the congregation’s help in making our point.
“This is a human megaphone,” someone cried out.
And perfectly on cue, the congregation replied,
“This is a human megaphone.”
“Occupy!” “Occupy” one side responded
“Christmas” “Christmas” the other side called back. “Occupy Christmas” “Occupy Christmas” the two sides of the sanctuary chanted and then the crowd erupted in laughter.
The message was simple. With all the tension around us, amid the wonder of the Christmas season, we just wanted to Occupy Christmas. To stop everything and stay there.
I feel that way again this year again. I’d like to just hang onto the joy of this season, to occupy this feeling of comfort and light forever.
Wouldn’t that be amazing?
The thing is, I can’t. We can’t. Well not for long anyway.
We can’t remain in this place of bliss-seeking forever, not because the liturgical calendar will turn green and all the stores and media will forget about Christmas again.
No. We cannot occupy Christmas forever because if 2020 has shown us anything, it is that we have to act on the Word among us, not simply chew on it forever.
As we turn the corner to 2021 in a few days . . . the issues raised ten years ago by the Occupy Movement of racial, social and economic injustice that formed this country persist and are issues that need the hope this season offers.
These Justice issues demand our best not our comfort.
Beyond the suffering we have all endured collectively, this year has pointed out that for too long, too few have occupied privilege at the cost of others humanity, let alone comfort.
Surely and rightly, we worship in part to know God’s presence with us. We celebrate Christmas and the word among us as sustenance. That encounter, that knowing of God is beautiful and essential.
So let’s enjoy it – listen carefully, breathe it in fully and know this truth of God among us.
And then, let’s get going. Because if we try to stay in this place forever, we will miss an essential point of God with us, that
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5
The Word of God, the presence of God among us beckons us to receive it and to communicate it back out to the world.
With more than 1.75 Million people killed by the Corona Virus, crushing societal inequality, political manipulation and mayhem, and all the loneliness and loss we’ve endured, could there be a time in recent history when we have needed more than we do now the hope that new life, the word among us, promises.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!
John’s brilliant Gospel poetry comes to us again this first Sunday of Christmas offering just what we need– the simple, clear assurance that through it all, God has been, is, and will be with us.
Shielding the joyous, feeding the hungry, sheltering the anxious, and mending the broken hearted, the Prince of Peace bears witness with us, wherever we are.
So where are you?
Are you able to hear the movements of God in your life?
Do you know what to do with the nearness of God?
There was and still is everything we need: The word made flesh reminds us there is and has always been promise. Knowing this, we can be assured that there is more than comfort and Joy to take this season.
There is hope, hope we can act on.
No matter your awareness of God’s presence with you – whether you hear it clearly or wonder how to, I pray you trust enough to open yourself to hope.
God will say what you need to hear and light your pathway forward.
It will be awhile yet before we are able to safely gather in person . . . but although we are separated physically, the promise of God among us has come again.
Together we will come through this difficult time.
So let us pray,
Holy One, fill us with your presence and help us to hear your word. This week as our calendars’ mark time’s passage from one year to the next, bring us ever closer to you.
Giver of Life, occupy our hearts and make us all prophets and doers of your word.
“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1).
These words summarize the entire Gospel of John and perhaps even what it means to have faith. What is this light shining in the darkness?
Al Zolynas writes about the experience of light and darkness in his poem “Under Ideal Conditions. ”Under Ideal Conditions / say in the flattest part of North Dakota / on a starless moonless night / no breath of wind // a man could light a candle / then walk away / every now and then / he could turn and see the candle burning // seventeen miles later / provided conditions remained ideal / he could still see the flame /”
“somewhere between the seventeenth and eighteenth mile / he would lose the light // if he were walking backwards he would know the exact moment when he lost the flame // he could step forward and find it again / back and forth / dark to light light to dark // what’s the place where the light disappears? / where the light reappears? / don’t tell me about photons / and eyeballs / reflection and refraction / don’t tell me about one hundred and eighty-six thousand / miles per second and the theory of relativity // all I know is that place / where the light appears and disappears // that’s the place where we live”
In a recent sermon Stephanie Paulsell describes a painting from 1480 by Sandro Boticelli (1445-1510) called “Augustine in his Study.” She imagines Augustine (354-430) in it trying to figure out how to begin his Confessions perhaps the greatest autobiography of all time. In the end, Augustine decides to start by paraphrasing scripture, Psalm 48. “Great art thou O Lord, and greatly to be praised…” A few sentences later he writes about human sin and pride, but also about the pleasure we were made to experience when we praise God.
She asks where do we begin the story of our life? Do we begin with our grandparents, how our parents met, with a description of the world we were born into? She goes on to ask about the beginnings of this Pandemic. Does this story begin with the defunding of public health initiatives, or patient zero, or the first news reports a year ago, or when London Breed instituted the Stay at Home order in March and the store shelves and streets were empty, or when we lost someone we love? Where did this season of darkness begin?
Stories about beginnings matter. The Gospel of Mark does not even have the Christmas story in it. It starts with words from Isaiah, with John the Baptist and the deepest human longing for justice. The Gospel of Matthew begins in a lengthy genealogy, a jealous king, magi from the East and the prophecies of holy scripture. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of people who are close to Jesus, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph. Luke cares about political implications and asserts that the most important event in history happened in the most obscure corner of the Empire – Bethlehem.
This brings us to the Gospel of John which begins with an ancient hymn whose origins are lost to history. In my early twenties I memorized this hymn and used it as a meditation passage. These are the first passages I ever translated from Greek. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God… The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1).
The word gospel means good news. And from the first syllables John asserts that at the center of all things, at the very beginning of the universe, there is a light which gives us power to become children of God. In English it repeats that the word was “with” God but the Greek is actually much more dynamic. The Word is not static but it is literally moving “toward” God.
Studying to prepare for seeing you today I learned something that should have been obvious to me. I have always recognized that this hymn echoes the first words of the Bible. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1). But I didn’t realize how many other books begin with the Hebrew expression “Davar (Adonai) Jahweh” translated as “The word of God came to…” and then the prophet’s name: Hosea, Micah, Joel, Zephaniah, Malachi, etc. The Hebrew word “devar” means “word, speech, thing, matter, affair.”
The word creates. The word reveals the truth we long to understand. The word cries out for justice in the darkness that confounds us. It is written in Deuteronomy that, “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30).
For Augustine we need Christ because there is a darkness at the center of our being which he calls original sin. According to him our pride always separates us from God. Denise Levertov’s (1923-1997) Christmas poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation” expresses this view.
“It’s when we face for a moment / the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know / the taint of our own selves, that awe / cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart: / not to a flower, not to a dolphin, / to no innocent form / but to this creature vainly sure / it, and no other is god-like, God / (out of compassion for our ugly / failure to evolve) entrusts, / as guest, as brother, / the Word.”
But not all Christians believe in original sin or that darkness is at the core of our being. John Philip Newell has a forthcoming book on Celtic Christianity in which he writes about Augustine’s opponent Pelagius (366-431). He argues that Augustine’s idea of original sin was perfectly suited for an empire that wanted to control bodies and manipulate the earth.
But Pelagius drew on a more ancient tradition. He moved to Rome in the early 380’s and was criticized for teaching women holy scripture and theology. Not only did he believe in the sacred feminine. He also felt convinced that when we hold a newborn child, when we feel the softness and smell the sweetness of the baby’s skin, when we look into that baby’s eyes we are seeing a being from a deeper place. We are seeing God. Pelagius believed that what is deepest in us is “of God not opposed to God.”
After the sack of Rome in 410 Pelagius fled to the Middle East where Augustine sent an emissary (his student Orosius) to accuse him of heresy. Two local diocesan conventions examined Pelagius’ teaching and found him innocent. But after the authorities in Rome who supported him died, he was excommunicated and banned. He returned to his homeland in Wales and continued to write. He had a sense of humor because he sometimes under the pseudonym of “Augustine.”
I’m briefly going to summarize Pelagius’ teaching. First, he believed in the inherent dignity of every person, that a kind of light of goodness burns in each of us. This inner nobility can get what he called “buried” by falseness and delusion. But we are fundamentally good. We experience this light by receiving the gift of illumination, the gift of the present when we see that this goodness is also at the heart of creation and in every creature.
For Pelagius no person or tradition owns the truth. There is wisdom in us but also in other cultures and religions. We can learn from other traditions of experiencing God. Pelagius also taught spiritual practices mainly around discerning the light in us. And finally he understood that what one believes is less important than becoming like Christ who had compassion for all people and all the world.
On Christmas morning we celebrate this light. We thank God for being so intimately involved in the world. In an ecstatic moment the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes about what it feels like to know that Christ is already with us. He writes, “The word became flesh… This is the beginning of all beginnings in Christian thinking… When we say Jesus Christ, that is not a possibility which is somewhere ahead of us, but an actuality which is already behind us. With his name in our hearts and on our lips, we are not laboriously toiling uphill, but merrily coming down…”
My dear friends, where does the story of your life begin? Does it all start in original sin or in the light which does not need ideal conditions in order to shine? We have been through so much darkness this year and we are still here because God has carried us.
The light in our hearts, in every creature and all the world, the light we see in a new baby is not static. It moves toward God. The word creates. The word reveals the truth we long to understand. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Merry Christmas!
 Al Zolynas, “Under Ideal Conditions,” Under Ideal Conditions (San Diego, CA: Latherthanever Press, 1994). https://capa.conncoll.edu/zolynas.ideal.htm
 Stephanie Paulsell is a professor at Harvard University and one of my favorite religious thinkers. This winter she gave a paper at the American Academy of Religion on Virginia Woolf. She is also currently serving as the Interim Minister to Harvard University. Because she mentions broken quills which do not seem to be in this image. I’m not completely sure which painting Paulsell is describing. Stephanie Paulsell, “Searching for the Beginning,” Harvard Memorial Church, 8 December 2020. https://memorialchurch.harvard.edu/blog/searching-beginning
 “Great art thou O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and thy wisdom is infinite. And man wants to praise you, man who is only a small portion of what you have created and who goes about carrying with him his own mortality, the evidence of his own sin and evidence that Thou resisteth the proud. Yet still man, this small portion of creation, wants to praise you. You stimulate him to take pleasure in you. Grant me, O Lord, to know and understand which should come first, prayer or praise; or, indeed, whether knowledge should precede prayer. For how can one pray to you unless one knows you?” Augustine, Confessions tr. Rex Warner (NY: New York, New American Library, 1963) 17 (italics retained).
 My friend Herman Waetjen translates the Greek word “pros” as “towards.” Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 67-8.
 ‹hDkyIm_lRa hGÎyDh r∞RvSa —h∞Dwh◊y_rAb√;d.
 Denise Levertov, “On the Mystery of the Incarnation.” https://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Denise_Levertov_Incarnation.shtml
 John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: A Celtic Guide to Listening to Our Souls and Saving the World (NY: HarperOne, Forthcoming 2021) 22-43.
 “Jesus Christ is the name at whose remembrance the event arises as such, so that if Christian knowledge and Christian life are worthy of the name they can never lose their astonishment at the participation in the act of becoming which – as the Son of God once became man in time – can never become past or cease to be His act. Incarnation is the actuality of this work of God.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2 The Doctrine of Reconciliation tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1958) 46.