Digital Disciple Chapter 4: Empty Minds and Disposable Bodies

Here’s the fourth in a six part video series produced to accompany the book Digital Disciple. This video series is designed to be used in a class setting to introduce the material and spur discussion. Of course, watching it by yourself is fine too!

Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page and participate in a little quiz about this video. In a few days, we’ll pick a random winner from those who participate. The winner will receive an autographed copy of the book, the DVD, and a mystery T-shirt, since the one Adam wore in the video is a one of a kind that his then fiancee made him for Christmas because she is awesome.

Fully human

The following post appeared in the Advent issue of Episcorific (a ‘zine for and by the 20s and 30s of the Episcopal Church). You can download the full magazine in .PDF form here.

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The trouble with being human is that most of us aren’t very good at it. We are way better at being couch potatoes or social butterflies or unique snowflakes or chickens. We explain the very act of making more humans by referring to the birds and the bees. A frightened human is a scaredy cat; an insufferable one is a less polite term for donkey. We may exist as humans, but we spend a lot of time filling the roles of other species.

And these other species are darn good at being themselves. Bees fly around collecting nectar and pollinating flowers. Trees keep soil from eroding. Grass scrubs the air of carbon dioxide. Cockroaches allow husbands to feel manly. If evolution teaches us one thing it’s that species thrive when they don’t try to fill the role of some other species.

While we are busy being butterflies and potatoes, we forget that in reality we are human. And who really wants to be human? Our skin isn’t very well adapted to our climates. Our young can’t fend for themselves for at least twenty-two years. Our bodies break down with alarming frequency. And to top it off, I can’t think of another species on this planet that kills its own kind with as much regularity and aplomb as we humans.

But somehow we have survived down through the ages amidst the dangers of saber-toothed tigers, drought, pestilence, war, and deficit spending. We have survived, but, as Tennyson writes, “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven.” I’m not even convinced that we’ve ever been that old strength. I don’t think that we’ve ever lived into our humanity to the greatest extent possible.

And here’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus didn’t come to show us a new way to be human. Jesus came to show us how to be fully human. The Gospel makes a big deal about Jesus’ own humanity. Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus’ birth. John shows Jesus tired, angry, and sad. In all four accounts of the Gospel, he is brutally murdered. And why present God the Son as such a frail collection of bones and tissue and synapses? Well, he couldn’t be the “Word made flesh” without flesh. And he couldn’t be our hope and our salvation without fully identifying with our lives, however “nasty, brutish, and short” they may be (thanks to Thomas Hobbes for those appropriate adjectives).

So Jesus is fully human – not some ghost or apparition or hologram. And he’s fully divine. 100% of both. This 100% of humanity is the real miracle here. It’s impossible for God not to be 100% divine (God wouldn’t be God without the perfect batting average). But it’s very possible (indeed, likely) to be less than fully human. Jesus succeeded in realizing this unlikely full humanity, and that’s one of the reasons he’s so special. His life and his example teach us to be fully human.

If we aren’t fully human now, what takes up the rest of the space? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains this question well. Lewis calls us “toy soldiers.” We begin as automatons – clockwork beings in need of winding and direction. But God doesn’t want toy soldiers. God wants sons and daughters to love and adopt as God’s children. Jesus’ example and his grace enable us to move through the messy, painful, joyous process of outgrowing our clockwork. Only by becoming fully human, can we fully embrace God’s love for humanity. If we can recognize God’s love for humanity, perhaps we can love other humans, as well.

Proclaiming the mystery: John’s first five

The following post appeared Saturday, August 22nd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am now a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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The mystery section was on the back wall of the small independent bookshop at which I worked my last few years of high school. When a customer entered the store, her eyes would glance past the smaller shelving units and fix on the placards proudly bearing the word “MYSTERY.” The shelves containing the mystery section were taller and broader than those holding the other books, and I was the only employee tall enough to dust the top ones without a stepladder. Let’s just say that the manager loved mysteries, so we had a disproportionate number of them. We had humorous mysteries and thrillers, beach reads and stay-up-till-one-in-the-morning nail biters. In those books, a mystery was set forth: say, how did the killer manage to murder someone in a room locked from the inside? The plot revolved around the detective attempting to solve the puzzle. In the end, the detective figured out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub of discovering the body. Mystery solved. No more mystery.

The Gospel according to John begins with a mystery, but it is a mystery that is wholly different from the Whodunnits? on the back wall of the bookshop. The mystery that begins the Gospel cannot be solved, cannot be explained away. It can only be unapologetically presented and then unabashedly proclaimed.

rainbowTake a look at the first five verses that John gives us:In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. 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 did not overcome it. (1:1-5; NRSV)

Here John presents the mystery: somehow the Word (who we find out a few verses later becomes enfleshed in Jesus Christ) is in the beginning with God and is also God. Remember in Algebra class when you had to show your work to get full credit? Well, John skips down to the bottom of the page. There is no balancing of equations or solving for “x.” He states the mystery simply: in the beginning, the Word was with God and was God. This is frustrating at first because I’m conditioned to think that mysteries are all supposed to be like the ones on the back wall of the bookshop. I want to know how it’s possible and I won’t be satisfied until I figure it out and if I can’t figure it out then it must not be true.

But I take a deep breath and look at the words again. I read them slowly and speak them aloud. I notice that the rational part of me is sitting in the corner sulking because “with” and “was” should be mutually exclusive. But I find that the creative part of me sees past such mundane things as mutual exclusivity and begins to roll around in the muck of ambiguity. I squelch my toes in the mud, relishing the notion that God lives in a reality where choosing between alternatives is not the only viable option. Of course the Word can be both with God and was God! The limits of my language do not limit God, only my understanding of God. I realize my language skills are not up to the challenge of describing God. And my rational side joins my creative side in the muck of ambiguity because my rationality has been given the license to imagine.

In a few short phrases, John presents the mystery. Then, he deepens the mystery by retelling the story of creation. It’s no coincidence that John uses the same phrase that opens the book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” All things came into being through the Word who was with God and was God. My creative side connects with these verses because they are about creation. Life is created through him, and because I have been given the gift of creativity, I can sense in my gut or in my bones that the Creator is continuing to create me.

This creative force is the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness cannot comprehend or overcome or understand the light because the darkness has never been a part of creation. The darkness is just the absence of any created thing. It tries jealously to unmake created things but fails to triumph since God never stops creating or calling creation to God.*

In these first five verses, John locates us (“life,” “all people”) within the mystery of God and creation, and he presents the adversary of creation, namely darkness. We have the makings of an epic story here.** The seemingly out-of-place verses 6-8 help me realize my role in this story. The mystery has been presented, and now John the Baptizer steps onstage for a brief scene. He is a witness who testifies to the light. (The words “witness” and “testify” are from the same root in Greek; the English word “martyr” comes from it.) His proclamation points to the light, which is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. So too, my life, which has come into being through the Word, is meant to be a proclamation of the mystery of God and God’s movement in creation.

When I encounter these first few verses of the Fourth Gospel, I feel the enormity of the mystery of God surrounding me, and I rejoice that this mystery discloses itself in light and life and love. If I could explain the mystery, I would be in danger of explaining it away, of shelving it like the Whodunnits? on the back wall. The mystery transcends explanation. It is elusive, and at the same time intimate; it cannot be grasped, but it can be embraced. The intimacy and the embrace happen when the mystery touches the spark of creativity within me, spurring me to proclaim the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Life has come into being through the Word. And my life expands to every pocket and corner of my being when I live to proclaim this good news.

Footnotes

* My apologies for hurling this paragraph at you with no further comment. If it confused you at all, blame Karl Barth.

** I am using the word “story” to convey something that is important enough to be told and retold down through the centuries, something that is about God and about us and is a tale that is never quite finished being woven. Please do not take my use of the word in the sense of “it’s only a story.”

Be-ing

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on a Confirmation class recently, and the lessons keeping popping up here on the blog. Here’s 1000 words on theology, using three phrases from the Nicene Creed as a framework.

nicaea…of all that is, seen and unseen

What I’m about to write ignores the fact that the Nicene Creed was originally written in Greek and then translated into Latin and then translated into English. Don’t panic – the following is about the current English grammatical structure of the phrase, which is influenced by, but not chained to, the original language.

Do you see that little comma between the words “is” and “seen”? Yes? Good. Now, think back to all the times you’ve ever heard the Creed recited during church and ask yourself if anyone has ever acknowledged that comma. No? Didn’t think so. The sentence usually sounds like this: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that-is-seen-and-unseen.” But the sentence actually reads: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, [slight pause] seen and unseen.” I imagine you are now rolling your eyes at my disconcerting attention to inane details.

This detail may seem inane at first, but I assure you, it’s not. For now, let’s ignore the phrase “seen and unseen” because it gets entirely too much attention when Creed-speakers unwittingly barrel through the defenseless little comma. With what are we left? “Maker…of all that is.”

Maker…of all that is. This “is” is the most important linking verb in the history of linking verbs, and probably other verbs, as well. We believe that God made all that is. Put another way, we believe that God is the very ground of our “is-ness” – or, to use a not made-up word, our “being.” [Disclaimer: The rest of this section assumes the reader knows the unwieldy conjugation of the verb “to be.”] In Exodus 3, Moses asks God what God’s name is. God responds: “I AM WHO I AM.” This awkward English rendering of the Hebrew preserves the root of God’s divine name, which is the verb “to be” (hayah in Hebrew). When Moses asks God what God’s name is, God responds with something like, “I have being and I bestow being and that’s all you need to know.” Look at the word “being.” Now add a hyphen: be-ing. The noun “being” is disguised as a present participle verb, a verb of continuing action. This points to the eternal continuity and abiding presence of God, who is the very ground of be-ing.

All grammatical gymnastics aside, the point is this: God created all that is, and creation’s existence depends on God’s continuing presence. As small bits of that creation, we receive our be-ing, our identity, our life from the foundation of that be-ing, the Holy One we call God.

Through him all things were made

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… Through him all things were made.” Okay, since I failed to return to the original Greek in the last section, I feel I must make up for it. John begins his Gospel account with this poetry: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”

You’ll notice that word be-ing from the last section crops up several times in just these few sentences. We said that God is the foundation for be-ing, and now we discover that the “Word” is responsible for translating that be-ing into life. Here’s the Greek bit.

The “Word” is the translation of the Greek word logos, from which dozens of English words take their root. Every time you see –ology at the end of a word (zoology, biology, epidemiology), that ending comes from the Greek logos. “Logic” also springs from this root. When something is “logical” it is ordered, it makes good sense. This is a good entrance into one understanding of logos. John says that the Word was in the beginning with God and through the Word all things were made. This “Word” is the “logic” behind creation, the “organizing principle” through which creation has come into being. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being (“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”). God uses words to organize creation, and John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ.

So, the “Word” is creation’s logic or organizing principle. Creation, therefore, is not haphazard or accidental. You might be tempted to ask a question about “Creationism vs. Evolution.” But the unhappy dichotomy between these two positions breaks down when we see creation as both organized and continuous. My college chaplain was fond of saying: “If God stopped speaking, the world would stop turning.” The implication is this: the “Word,” the logic of creation continues to underpin and give life to all that is.

…he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man

As I said above, John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ. “Incarnate” means “become flesh” (the –carn in the word is the same root as in the word carnivore, “meat-eater”). John’s use of “Word” connects to a strain of thought coming out of the Hebrew Scriptures. The “word of God” appears whenever a prophet is granted a new prophecy (The word of God came to so-and-so…). The Hebrew word for “word” (davar) means much more than the stuffy English equivalent. We think of “word” as something on a piece of paper or something spoken aloud. In Hebrew, however, the “word” is something that happens to people. It is an event, an action that calls for further action. When John uses the Greek form of “word” (logos), he purposefully links it back to this Hebrew understanding. The “Word” becoming flesh and dwelling among us is the ultimate example of the “Word” happening.

Here’s the thing to remember: the “Word,” through which God speaks creation into be-ing, is life-giving. Without the “Word,” life would not exist. When the “Word” became flesh in Jesus Christ, God gave us the gift of seeing how life is meant to be organized, meant to be lived. This means that the words Jesus speaks provide for us the means by which to organize our lives in order to be in deeper touch with God. The “Word” became flesh and lived among us. And now the “Word” continues to speak life into the world, disclosing the glory that is full of grace and truth.

The bedtime story

(Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2008 || RCL || Luke 2:1-20)

Imagine with me the day after Jesus’ Ascension. His followers, including his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, are sharing a meal and remembering all their favorite stories about the one who had died and risen again. The two Marys are sitting in a corner talking when Mary Magdalene asks Jesus’ mother to tell her something about Jesus’ childhood. Mary ponders for a moment and then begins:

As a boy, Jesus had trouble falling asleep. No, he wasn’t afraid of the dark or of monsters under his bed. He just had too much energy. Even a day full of running up hills and building rock forts and fetching water from the well couldn’t tire him out. When he couldn’t sleep, I would sing him a lullaby and run my fingers through his matted hair. Sometimes, after a few notes, he’d say, “Not tonight, Mama. Tell me the story instead.” The story. I was always glad when he asked me to tell him how he was born because, when the story remained silent in my heart, it always threatened to transform into a dream and vanish.

“Before you were born,” I would begin, “I was engaged to your father when an angel…”

Right then, he would interrupt: “You mean Joseph, Mama.” There were no secrets in Nazareth: the town was too small. Everyone knew that Joseph and I didn’t marry until after Jesus was born. Our neighbors knew the truth up to a point — that Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ father, but anything more was speculation. We didn’t want Jesus to hear some maimed version of the events. So, when he was old enough to understand, we told him that Joseph was Jesus’ father because he loved him not because he helped make him. But you know how literal children can be.

“Yes, dear, I mean Joseph. I was engaged to him when an angel from God named Gabriel came right into my room.”

Always a second interruption: “How’d you know he was an angel, Mama?” I’m convinced that he started studying Torah because I could never come up with a satisfactory answer for him. I would say, “Well, he looked like a man, but also like his feet never got dirty or his hair never needed to be combed. More than that, though: it was his voice. When he talked, I didn’t hear his words in my ears. I heard them in my heart. That’s how I knew.” Then Jesus would roll his eyes, the signal for me to continue telling the story.

“Gabriel told me that I was going to become pregnant with you and that I should name you ‘Jesus.’ Do you know what your name means?”

“Yes, Mama. It means ‘God saves.’ ” He would say it matter-of-factly, like there was no disputing such an obvious claim. Then he’d roll his eyes again, and I would continue.

“Even though Gabriel told me what was going to happen, I knew in my heart that it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t want it to. But the moment he said your name — I just knew. I said yes. After Gabriel left, I realized how much trouble I would get into if I got pregnant. I wasn’t married yet, and I thought your father (yes, Joseph) would disown me when he found out. But he was wonderful, and we got married after getting back from Bethlehem.”

Then I would tell Jesus about the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, leaving out the part about how uncomfortable it was to travel nearly nine months pregnant. Mary, I wouldn’t mind if that part of the story would transform into a dream and vanish.

Jesus would always sit up and lean in close when I got to the part about Bethlehem. “Because of the census, all the inns were full and we had no place to go. We were passing by a barn when my water broke. Joseph didn’t know what to do. We went into the barn, and he spread his blanket over the hay. I lay down and told him to go find a midwife. He didn’t want to leave me, but I said that the labor would last a long time and that he’d be back well before anything important happened. By some miracle, the wife of the man who owned the farm was a midwife, and she came with hot water, strips of cloth and no thought to turn us out of the barn.”

One time when I was telling the story, Jesus — he was maybe seven or eight — put his hand on my arm and said: “It was a miracle, Mama. She helped you even though she didn’t know you. I wish more people would do that.”

I remember crying after he fell asleep because his words were so true and yet so infrequently accomplished. The song I sang when I was pregnant with him came back to me that night: “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Was my son really the one to bring about these things, I thought?

After telling him about the midwife coming, I would get to the part where Joseph laid him in the manger. And I would hug him tight to show him what swaddling clothes felt like.

He was twelve years old the last time he asked me to tell the story. We had just gotten back from Jerusalem, and I had had the scare of my life when he wasn’t in the caravan home. I said, “Then your father… (He had stopped correcting me by that point.) Your father placed you in the manger.” When I reached to give him the swaddling hug, he stopped me. For a moment, I thought he was getting too old to hug his mother, but then he said:

“Mama. I know…I know now why I was born in that barn. It was a miracle. It all makes sense. At the temple I was reading the prophet Isaiah.” He jumped out of bed, still talking. “Right at the beginning of the scroll, Isaiah says, ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of its lord; but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood me.’ ”

He was so excited. He pulled me up and grabbed me into his own swaddling hug. “This is what I’m supposed to do. Israel, Mama! Israel will know God because of me. And not just Israel. Everyone everywhere will know God because of me. They will understand what they’re supposed to do. I will tell them to love each other and help each other, and when they do that, they will be loving God. They will be helping me. Everyone everywhere will know God when they see me. Mama!”

We held that embrace for a long time. I remember feeling his tears soaking through my dress. The words of Simeon — that old man in the temple — sprang to my lips and I whispered them into Jesus’ matted hair: “These eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.’ ”

We didn’t finish the story that night. The shepherds coming to see us – always his favorite part as a little boy – didn’t need repeating. When he slept, his countenance was different, older. Then I remembered what Simeon told me next: “A sword will pierce your own soul, also.” I wept that night, too, when I felt a premonition of the sword that wouldn’t pierce me for twenty years yet. But let’s not talk about that now, Mary. We were both there, and I still have no words even though he came back to us, thank God.

Well, I haven’t told the story of his birth to anyone since that night after we lost Jesus in the caravan. (Yes, I can tell you that one next if you like.) But first, my Mary of Magdalene, tell me a story of my son. What was he like when his mother wasn’t around? Has Israel come to know their God? Has everyone everywhere? If you don’t tell the story, it could transform into a dream and vanish. So tell me of my son. Tell me his story. And tell everyone everywhere.

Notes
*Special thanks to Raymond E. Brown, whose study An Adult Christ at Christmas unlocked this sermon for me.

Red sky in the morning…

In the Gospel, Jesus mentions that we can tell when summer is coming by the budding of the fig tree. He recognizes that we’re pretty good at figuring out what’s ahead. Arthritic knees feel the storm before it strikes. “We’ve got to talk” means Friday’s dinner date is off. Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning. If we humans are paying attention (even just a little bit), not much can slip by us.

And so, I pay attention to the signs: every retail store is trying to sell you a Garmin GPS system, pop singers are taking it in turns to butcher “O Holy Night” on the radio, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station can see your neighbor’s decorations. So this is Christmas, I echo John Lennon’s hopeful lament.garmin

Now, I promise this article isn’t going to degenerate into the generic, tired outrage about consumerism during the holiday season, so stick with me for a few minutes. I’m paying attention to the signs, and all I see are discounted LCD flat screens and all I hear is another cover of “Frosty the Snowman.” Ever since the commercial sector replaced black and orange with red and green, we have been living in a winter wonderland of perpetual Christmas Eve. And I’m telling you, I could have weight-trained with the circular-laden Thanksgiving edition of the newspaper.

I’m paying attention, but the luster and volume of perpetual Christmas Eve flash brighter and shout louder than the subtle, increasingly subversive current that charges this holiday with meaning. This subtle event is, of course, the birth of an infant. Not so newsworthy, right? Indeed, the Bethlehem Gazette would have only covered the event because of the odd behavior of a bunch of shepherds.

You see, the people of Israel weren’t looking for an infant born out in the barn. They were looking for a triumphant, well-muscled, military superhero to be their messiah, to be their exterminator of all things Roman. And so they missed the signs because they were paying attention to the wrong thing. They were so busy yearning for pomp and swagger that they missed love and humility. While we don’t have to worry about the Roman Empire, we often fall in the same trap of misplaced attention. By observing some mutated version of Christmas for weeks ahead of time we fail to recognize a truly wonderful season of preparation for Christmas, which the Church has been celebrating for centuries.

Today marks the sixth day* of that season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to the celebration of the birth (or Incarnation, if you want to be technical) of Jesus Christ. During the season of Advent, we pause, we notice our ragged breath, and we take time to catch it. We prepare a place in our hearts to receive once again the love of God in the presence of Jesus Christ and wonder how we let that place get so cluttered since last year. And as we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, we realize just how badly our society has missed the point.

This Advent, drag your eyes and ears away from all that clamors for your notice, all that sound and fury. Pay attention to the true signs of the subtle, subversive event of the presence of Christ in our midst. Your neighbor’s decorations may sparkle and glitter, but they do not shine like the light of the world. That pop singer’s quivering ornamentations might adorn “O Holy Night,” but they do nothing for a world that still lays long in sin and error pining. And that GPS system you bought on Black Friday for $89.95 might give good directions, but it won’t show you the way.

The way, the truth, the life comes. Pay attention and see the signs of Christ’s presence in our midst. And don’t just notice those signs. Be one.

Footnotes

* This post began its life as an article in my local newspaper. Today is actually the ninth day of Advent, and the article actually appeared on the seventh day — so I’m wrong across the board.

Of sandwiches and second comings

(Sermon for November 30, 2008 || Advent 1, Year B RCL || Mark 13:24-27; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9)

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to explain why the phrase “O come O come Emmanuel” is a funny phrase. But first, I want to talk about my parents’ crèche.

During the season of Advent when I was growing up, my family placed a beautiful Nativity scene on the shelf above the TV. The wooden stable had a bark and moss covered roof, above which we suspended angels on fishing line. Inside the stable, a bearded Joseph leaned heavily on a staff and a kneeling Mary pondered things in her heart, while a donkey and a cow looked on. Outside the stable, a pair of shepherds, a woman balancing a jug of water, and assorted townsfolk queued up like bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding photo. Each character was transfixed by something going on at the center of the stable, something that was obviously important if the painted expressions on their faces could be believed. The trouble was that nothing was going on at the center of the stable. An unassuming manger stood in between Mary and Joseph, who stared lovingly down into the empty box.

blakenativity
William Blake "The Descent of Peace"

You see, we waited until Christmas Eve to place the baby Jesus in the manger. (Confidentially, we hid him on the shelf behind the stable until our plastic Mary came to full term.) So, for the entire month of December, our crèche was incomplete. As a child, I might have laughed at the incongruity of the scene if I had known any other Advent tradition. Jesus hadn’t come yet, but the fishing line angels were already fingering their harps, the shepherds were already choosing which lamb to present, and the cattle were already lowing (whatever lowing is).

Without Jesus in the manger, none of these activities made sense. But putting the babe away in that manger a month before Christmas removed the period of expectant waiting that Advent is all about. This is the tension we acknowledge during these next four weeks. By preparing to celebrate Jesus’ Incarnation, we are also preparing for his second coming. To be able to come again, he had to leave. But even as we prepare for his coming again, we remember that Christ abides with us even now in the present.

This incongruity is quite confusing. How can Jesus be coming again and abiding with us at the same time? This makes no sense. If I say I’m going to the kitchen to make a sandwich, I can’t watch football on the couch in the living room at the same time. (I can, of course, pause the football game with the wonderful invention of DVR, but that’s beside the point.)

I can either make a sandwich or watch football. We are used to our world working in this either/or way. We exist in time and space. At this moment in time and at this place in space, I exist in this pulpit talking to you. I can neither make sandwiches nor watch football right here right now. Indeed, many years ago I gave up praying for the ability to teleport and succumbed to the reality of our either/or world.

But we get so caught up in “how things are for us” that we forget God lives outside and above and throughout this reality. We are bound by our either/or perceptions. Our God lives an expansive both/and kind of existence. Both three persons and One God? Yes. Both fully human and fully divine? You bet. Both coming again and abiding with us still? No problem.

The problem comes when we, in all our haste and distraction and busy work, forget that Christ abides with us still. Acknowledging the promise of “coming again” is much easier for us because it takes place in some amorphous future. Now, we humans have developed an awful routine of sloughing the future off on those people who will be alive in the future. This routine has spawned the byproduct of ignoring the consequences of our actions for those unfortunate future people. If we can push those consequences off into an amorphous future, surely we can install Jesus’ second coming there, too.

But when Jesus warns his disciples to “keep alert” and to “keep awake,” he reminds them that the future has a persistent habit of becoming the present. On some day that only the Father knows the Son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory. At some hour the master of the house will come, says Jesus. Don’t let the vague obscurity of the future lull you to sleep or you will miss the promise fulfilled in the present.

The Apostle Paul is aware that there are numerous sleepy followers of Christ in Corinth, the city to which Paul addressed this morning’s lesson. He reminds the Corinthians of Jesus’ promise to come again when he mentions “wait[ing] for the revealing of our Lord Jesus” and being “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the same breath that he speaks about the future, Paul also focuses on how Jesus Christ abides with the Corinthians and impacts their lives in the present. Christ has given them the “grace of God.” They have been “enriched in him in speech and knowledge of every kind.” They are “not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Christ will “strengthen” them even as they wait for the day of his revealing.

With these words, Paul teaches us that the best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is to realize that Christ continues to grace and enrich and strengthen us even now. Forgetting that Christ is present in our lives feeds the delusion that the future happens only to people yet unborn. On the other hand, setting all our desire on Jesus’ coming again blinds us to the presence of Christ in our midst. Thus, we can’t afford to let our either/or world dictate to which alternative we will subscribe. Only by keeping awake to the presence of Christ in our lives today will we be able to keep alert for the coming of Christ tomorrow.

When we come to the altar in a few minutes, we will share that presence of Christ in our midst. We will be nourished in the breaking of the bread and strengthened to go out and enrich the lives of all we meet. We will be given the opportunity to let our haste and distraction and busy work fall away, and for one shimmering moment, we will remember that the grace of God weaves our lives together. And as the body and blood of Christ fills us, the master of our internal houses will wake us up and set us by the door to watch for his coming again.

Okay, I promised that I would explain why the phrase “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is a funny one. Well, “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” So, when we chant that hauntingly beautiful melody, we are saying: “O come someone who is already here.” No matter how nonsensical our either/or world says this line of reasoning is, we still pray for “God with us” to come to us. By asking us to believe that Christ will come again even as Christ abides here, God invites us to join God in a moment of sweeping both/and reality. During the season of Advent, we cultivate the hope for this expansive existence. At the same time, God jostles our faith to make sure both our presents and our futures are full of the love of God. Keep alert for the coming of Emmanuel. And keep awake for the joy of God with us.

A living sacrifice

Paul says to the church in Rome: “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” These two sentences are so packed with key words that we can’t possibly take them all in at one go. I’m going to talk about four of them: bodies, living, sacrifice, and transform. We’ll start with “bodies.”

One of the great heresies that the early church battled stated that Jesus Christ wasn’t really human, wasn’t really flesh and blood. He didn’t really suffer and die. He just appeared to be flesh. He just appeared to suffer and die. He was a spirit or a ghost, not a person like you or me. A modern day expression of this heresy might say Jesus was a divine holographic projection.

You can see the problem here. We are an Incarnational people, meaning we believe that God makes God known in all the beauty and particularity of creation. This includes us, in our embodied, fleshy selves. And this especially includes Jesus, who took on the fleshiness and particularity of humanity in order to bring us back into a right relationship with God. The theologian Irenaeus frequently wrote against these heretics. He summed up his arguments with this theological zinger, “Jesus became like us to make us like him.” We aren’t divine holographic projections. We have bodies— hairy, ungainly, perspiring, cellulite-padded, beautiful bodies. And Jesus became one of those bodies to show us how to use them in the love and service of God.

Paul appeals to the Romans and to us to present these bodies to God as a “living sacrifice.” This phrase is, of course, an oxymoron. In the Jewish tradition, in which Paul and the rest the New Testament writers were raised, sacrifice was an indispensable part of the worship of God. And an indispensable part of sacrifice was killing the animal being offered. You couldn’t get at the blood to dash against the altar without the unfortunate byproduct of a dead sheep or goat or bull. The sacrifice (however bloody and gory to modern Western eyes) was one way Israel affirmed and strengthened its relationship with God. Paul grabs onto this effect of sacrifice—this affirmation and strengthening—while dispensing with the business about dead animals. And for good reason. Earlier in his Letter to the Romans, he says: “We have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (6:4). We have already passed through death, says Paul; therefore, if we are going to be a sacrifice, we must be a living one.

Being a living sacrifice means using those bodies of ours for action. We are built to move and run and hold and high-five and embrace and serve. I love the Olympic games because they showcase some of the amazing things we can do with the bodies God has given us: a smiling wide-eyed teenager flipping and spinning in the air; a sprinter running faster than anyone ever has. Look at Michael Phelps if you need some proof. I mean, really. Of course, we don’t need his 93 abdominal muscles to be a living sacrifice. What we need is a desire to serve. When we present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God we offer back to God all the good gifts God has bestowed upon us. We ask God how we can use these gifts to serve in our community and in the world. We listen for that still, small voice calling us to a ministry, a ministry which matches our deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger.*  And then we act, asking God to make our bodies into vessels of God’s light bound for a darkened world.

This darkened world asks us for our conformity to its misplaced values and desolating agendas. But conformity with these values and agendas leads to the deformity of our actions as God’s living sacrifice. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” We make mistakes. We sin. We put lesser things in God’s place. But Paul knows this doesn’t have to be the whole story: be transformed, he says. Allow change and grow. Remember that we are a living sacrifice, and living things continue to renew, to grow new skin, to flower again next year. Our transformation takes place in the renewing of our minds, in the reorienting of our priorities so they resonate with the will of God. The transformation is possible because we are living. The transformation happens when we realize we are a sacrifice. And the transformation affects the world when we present our bodies to God for action.

Now, that old nagging, itchy feeling crops up. “I’m just one person and this all seems so big—what can I do?” We are all individuals, that’s true—remember the beautiful particularity of the Incarnation—but there is a vast chasm of difference between being an individual and being just one person. None of us is just one person. None of us is alone. C.S. Lewis says, “[Human beings] look separate because you see them walking about separately…If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would not look like a lot of separate things dotted about. It would look like one single growing thing—rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other.”**

Notice that throughout this whole sermon, I have quoted Paul saying that we “present our bodies as a living sacrifice,” not living sacrifices. Paul is not botching his grammar here. Paul intentionally says that we are a singular living sacrifice, meaning we present our bodies collectively to God. Paul continues: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (12:4-5). In the one body of Christ, our individual identities and personalities and gifts find their most perfect expressions. The living sacrifice happens when we affirm and strengthen our relationship with God by sharing our gifts with one another. When the collective body galvanizes into action to do the work of God in the world, transformation and renewal have already begun.

So, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Whether you have 4% body fat or a couple of replacement hips, remember that each of our bodies is built for action, for service, for love. Each of our bodies is designed to fit into the one body of Christ. And this body is alive. This body of Christ knits us together as a living sacrifice, offered up to God to bring transformation to the world.

(Sermon for August 24, 2008 || Proper 16, Year A RCL || Romans 12:1-8 )

Footnotes

* Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking

** C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity