My Soul is Troubled

Sermon for Sunday, March 18, 2018 || Lent 5B || John 12:20-33

Imagine with me the thoughts of Jesus that might have been swirling around in his head during the day of the Gospel passage I just read.

It finally happened. Word of our little movement has reached past the confines of our stomping grounds, past Jerusalem, past Galilee. Philip and Andrew brought some people from Greece to see me. From Greece! Imagine that. I did not set out to become a household name; my name is so common that you’d have to ask which Jesus someone was talking about. But our mission, our movement – that is less common. To be honest, I thought the movement had died last year after so many left me. They were looking for more miraculous signs, sure; but still, I pushed too hard. You’ll never know how it feels to have so much power at your fingertips, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could compel people to stay if I so desired.

But above all else, I want people to be free, not to trade one empire for another. I yearn for everyone to choose the light, to walk in the light, for that is where Truth lives. And the truth will make you free.1 Continue reading “My Soul is Troubled”

Dona Nobis Pacem

Sermon for Sunday, December 10, 2017 || Advent 2B || Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

The second semester of my sophomore year of college, the choir of Sewanee performed in concert an extraordinary piece of music that I bet most of you have never heard of. The Dona Nobis Pacem by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is a work for choir, soloists, and orchestra in a similar vein as something like Handel’s Messiah but with a more eclectic text. The words of the Dona Nobis Pacem come from the Bible, a political speech, the church service, and the poetry of nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. Written in 1936 as fascism was on the rise in Europe, Vaughan Williams work acknowledges the horror and heartbreak of war even as it cries out for peace. Dona nobis pacem: give us peace.

Now, the choirmaster at Sewanee, Dr. Robert Delcamp, programmed the music for the entire school year the summer beforehand. So he could never have known what would happen the same week we sang our song of peace. It was the spring of 2003: Shock and Awe, the bombing of Baghdad, the beginning of the Iraq War. And here we were, a little choir at a little college, tucked away on a mountaintop in Tennessee, singing our plaintive cry for peace while the drums of war sounded both within the music and out in the world. Continue reading “Dona Nobis Pacem”

God’s Glass

Sermon for Sunday, February 9, 2014 || Epiphany 5A || Isaiah 58:1-9a

Before I became a rector, I rarely had the opportunity to preach two sermons in a row. At my last church, my rector and I alternated, and we only got two in a row if the other was on vacation. So I’ve never really had much of a chance to preach a sequel to a sermon. But today, that’s exactly what I plan to do. So, just in case you weren’t here last week, let’s recap.

Previously on The Sermon at St. Mark’s, we listened in to Simeon’s lullaby as he held the infant Christ and named him the “light to enlighten the nations.” I invited you to join me in a mission: to bear witness to the light of Christ and to be vessels of that same light. To see the light and to be the light. We finished the sermon with three words to help us remember this mission: Christof’s command to “cue the sun” from the film The Truman Show.

We also went through a few small examples of what being the light might look like: being friendly in the grocery line, standing up for a victim of bullying, welcoming someone to church. Of course, I didn’t mean to diminish what it means to be the light of Christ by offering such small examples; rather, by the accumulation of small actions, we discover the light shining brighter around us and forth from us.

And here’s where, if this sermon were a television show, the screen would go black for a moment and we’d be in new territory. Is everyone with me? Great.

We’ll get back to those three small examples from last week in a bit, but first here’s the opening action sequence of the new episode to get everyone hooked.

GlassSo – did you know you are made of glass? It’s true! Now, of course, I don’t mean that you’re made of glass in the idiomatic way; it’s not that you’re easily offended or that your baseball career was cut short because you have a “glass arm.” Nor do I mean made from actual glass that once was sand.

Those caveats aside, you and I are made of glass. God spun the molten glass onto that hollow rod and blew, shaped, and molded each us into being. If somehow you were to scour clean all the layers of accumulated grime – all our misplaced priorities, all our missed chances, all our grubbing and selfishness – then you would uncover God’s glass. Indeed, each of us is transparent beneath the grime of everything that separates us from God (which, by the way, is another way to say “sin”).

With God’s help, we can scour clean some of that grime to come closer to being the transparent people God always envisioned, people who are windows through which the light of God shines. First, we need to celebrate the beautiful truth that we are, in fact, God’s glass; that we are, in fact, the vessels of God’s light we mentioned last week; that we are, in fact, the light of the world, as Jesus claims in today’s Gospel reading.

Second, we acknowledge that our glass is covered in grime. It has lost much of its transparency. The light is shining, but the window is obstructed. We cause some of this grime through our actions and inactions. Some of the grime accumulates simply because we are mindlessly complicit in the big and little sins of the world. The rest happens due to apathy, lethargy, and complacency; we haven’t cleaned in a while, so the window gets dirty.

So first we celebrate that we are God’s glass and then we confess that we do not emit nearly as much light as we are designed to do. Third, we participate with God in the act of scouring. This calls for attention, dedication, and practice – not to mention elbow grease. But I assure you there is no greater goal in this life than to be a window through which God’s glory shines. Truth, reconciliation, love, blessing – all the good things in this life and the next spring from this goal.

The prophet Isaiah knew this. He saw in today’s first reading an accumulation of grime due to a willful misinterpretation of the meaning of fasting. First he accuses his generation of going through the motions of fasting – the outward appearance that seems all well and good but is really covering up the light. His accusation comes in the form of several rhetorical questions, for which the silent answer is a resounding “NO!”

“Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Notice that this certainly sounds like a textbook fast. I’m sure people in Isaiah’s day felt like they were on the right track with such outward signs. But Isaiah sees this as more grime accumulating, rather than more light shining. A fast, he says, should be a way to uncover the window beneath the grime. A fast, he says should look like this:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free…
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them…

When we participate with God in this kind of life-affirming service, the grime wipes away and the window is revealed again. And, as Isaiah’s next words say:
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

We are God’s glass. We are covered with grime. But we have every opportunity to partner with God to scour away the grime and shine as God always intended us to do. Recall those three small examples we talked about last week: the grocery line, gym class, and church. Three small examples of partnering with God to shine as light in this dark world.

Let’s look at them again and give them a little more weight. The first was: “In the line at the grocery store when you choose not to be annoyed that the person ahead of you is taking too long.” It’s really just a minor inconvenience after all. Most of the things that send us towards negativity and broken relationships start as minor inconveniences. But by choosing not to be annoyed, by choosing instead to shine with God’s light and let the oh-so-tempting anger pass, we can allow God to turn inconvenience into blessing.

The second has happened every year since the invention of P.E.: “In gym class when you stand up for the kid who’s being laughed at because he can’t climb the rope.” Is this not a child’s first attempt at standing against oppression and injustice? Is this not an elementary school version of Isaiah’s true fast?

And the third, appropriate for this morning: “At church when you see a new face in your pew and you exchange a kind word of welcome.” I can’t think of a better way to be a window of God’s light than to cultivate a welcoming spirit, both here in the safety of our church home and out in the wilds of the world.

Turning inconvenience into blessing. Standing against oppression and injustice. Cultivating a welcoming spirit. These are merely three ways that we partner with God in scouring away the accumulated grime that keeps us from shining. And in so doing we help God’s kingdom shine even brighter here on earth. We can accomplish each of these ways and so many, many more in the small actions of the day and in the big events of our lives if we apply our attention, dedication, and elbow grease to the practice of being God’s glass.

So celebrate that we are, each of us, windows that God has designed to shine God’s light through. Confess that we do not emit nearly as much light as we are designed to do. And participate with God in the act of scouring, in the daily call to return to transparency. “Then,” as the prophet Isaiah says, “your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

*Art Credit: Kelly Cookson, commons.wikimedia.org

Cue the Sun

Sermon for Sunday, February 2, 2014 || The Presentation || Luke 2:22-40

sunriseThis past Thursday morning, Leah and I awakened early to watch the sun rise over the water. We sat on our bed in the house on Groton Long Point looking east, away over the tip of Fishers Island as the velvet dark blue of night softened, as the dawn fire kindled on the horizon, as the stars faded from view – all except one stubborn star up and to the right. With each passing minute the glorious scene displayed before us took on more and more depth and color and vibrancy. The skeletal trees stood out in silhouette, their branches arcing in all directions. The waterfront houses transformed from indistinct rectangles to homes with windows, shutters, and weathered shingles. And the water – the water caught the nascent light, which gilded the crest of each small wave, turning the water from blue to gold and shimmering brighter every minute.

When the sun finally broke over the low clouds, the light of day was fully upon us, and we reveled at the beauty of all we could see out the window, of God’s virtuosity on display in creation, all illumined by the light of morning sun. During the night, we could have gazed out that same window and imagined what the trees and houses and water looked like. By the silver light of the sliver moon, we might have been able just to pick out the shapes of the structures and known the water was there by the dark mass in the distance. But not until the dawn broke in the morning could we truly see the majesty before us and take a few minutes to appreciate it and thank God for such wondrous artistry.

You see, when the sun rose, we weren’t looking at the light itself; we were looking at everything the light illumined – the gilded waves, the quaint New England homes, the backhoe I failed to mention earlier. Indeed, we can’t really see light at all. Rather, because of light, we see everything else. We don’t see light; we see by light.

So keep this image of the dawn breaking over the ocean in your minds as we turn to today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke. Today is a special day, a feast day of the church year. Some feasts – like Easter – always happen on Sundays and others, like today’s, trump the normal Sunday schedule whenever their particular date on the calendar falls on a Sunday. Today we celebrate the event when Jesus’ parents presented their infant son to the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem, according to the law of Moses.

Luke is the only Gospel writer to include this tale. It’s possible he wouldn’t have included it at all if everything had gone as expected, but since we’re talking about Jesus, of course, everything doesn’t go as expected. In the temple, Mary and Joseph meet two people who have been waiting for something for a long time. These two elders, Simeon and Anna, don’t quite know what they are waiting for, but they are in tune with the Holy Spirit, who beckons them forward to meet the Holy Family.

Simeon gathers Jesus into his arms and sings a lullaby of praise, which the Book of Common Prayer renders like this:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For 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.

When Simeon gazes into the face of the infant Jesus, he sees the Light of Christ with his own two eyes and he knows – he finally knows – what he’s been waiting for all these years. With the Light of Christ shining on him, Simeon looks into the future and sees the same kind of beauty, the same kind of virtuosic majesty that Leah and I witnessed in the dawn breaking over the ocean and gilding the waves. Simeon both sees the baby Jesus and sees by the light shining forth from this luminous being before him, this light which enlightens the nations.

We, too, see by this Light of Christ if we allow ourselves to look with the same kind of eyes that Simeon and Anna have, the kind of eyes that see through the lens of the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but we ourselves can be that light of Christ, as well, because as his followers we reflect his light, as the moon reflects the light of the sun.

As this is my first sermon with you, we don’t know each other yet. We start today and, thanks be to God, we will have many years to deepen our relationships – with each other and together with God. I debated how much biographical information to provide during this sermon, and I decided on very little, preferring other venues for such sharing. But I would like to offer this one piece: what I feel God is calling me to do with my life, the life I now get to share with you.

Like Simeon and Anna, God calls me to witness to the Light of Christ breaking through the clouds of this world. And God calls me to be a small piece of the Light of Christ, so that by my words and actions, others may see God’s presence shining throughout this creation. This is my mission, and I hope you will share it with me. I hope it will become our mission. It may seem lofty or too demanding, and it can be.

But more often than not, we live such a mission not in grand gestures like the sun rising over the ocean, but in small ones like gathering a baby into our arms and singing a lullaby. We live the mission to be vessels of God’s light when we are mindful during in the small moments of each day:

In the line at the grocery store when you choose not to be annoyed that the person ahead of you is taking too long;

In gym class when you stand up for the kid who’s being laughed at because he can’t climb the rope;

At church when you see a new face in your pew and you exchange a kind word of welcome.

These small moments gather together, like the minute by minute lightening of the sky at dawn, and soon the sun is shining, soon the light of Christ is spilling from you and landing on everyone around you. This is our mission: to see the light and to be the light.

Near the end of the film, The Truman Show, the main character has discovered that his entire life has been a lie, a scripted life caught on camera for the world’s viewing pleasure, and so he tries to escape. What he doesn’t know is that he’s living in a dome so massive it can be seen from outer space. Even the weather and the movement from day to night are controlled from a room at the top of the dome. When Truman escapes, the entire cast of the town mobilizes to find him, but it’s night in the dome and they can’t see a thing. So Christof, the mad genius creator of the show, says three little words: “Cue the sun.”

And in the middle of the night, the fake sun rises to illumine the search party, a daybreak hours before dawn is supposed to come. Now while Christof might be a misguided man with dubious motives, I invite you to remember those words. Pair them with the words of Simeon, whose eyes see the savior called to be a “light to enlighten the nations.” When you need a reminder that you are, in fact, a vessel of God’s light, remember the shimmering dawn gilding the waves. And ask God to cue the sun/son so you can see what God would have you see. When you are faced with a situation in which you need help being your best self, ask God to cue the sun/son so you can see how best to be God’s light.

Our mission is to see the light of Christ and to be the light of Christ in this world. So I pray, “Dear God – in my life, in each of our lives, and in our life together – cue the sun.”

Vessels of God’s Revelation

A reflection for the Feast of the Epiphany

starsAt the end of the season of the church year that we begin today, we find ourselves standing on the mountain with Peter, James, and John. Countless stars shine in the deep blue sky above, and we find ourselves staring up at those stars in wonder and awe. But then a new light – one that outshines the stars themselves – grows in front of us. It’s so bright that we can barely look at it, yet it commands our vision. Jesus is at the center of the light. It’s not shining on him, but forth from him. He is the light. As we gaze at him, a thought stirs in our guts: this is what Jesus looks like all the time. But in this moment, we are given the gift of seeing him as God sees him: as a luminous being that outshines the sun. We are given the gift of revelation, a sudden and surprising knowledge that we can attribute only to God. We are given the gift of epiphany.

Working backward from this event known as the Transfiguration, we read in the Gospel the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches any who would listen how to be his follower. We meet the disciples as they leave their boats and follow Jesus, as he invites them to “Come and see” where he abides. We stand on the shores of the river Jordan as Jesus comes up from the baptismal waters, and we hear the thunder call of God, within which is hidden special words for God’s beloved Son alone. And thus we backtrack to this evening, in which we hear the official story of the magi’s journey to Bethlehem.

Most often we conflate this story in the Christmas pageant, of course, but it should and does stand on its own. This is a story very much like the Transfiguration, a story of people seeing in a way that doesn’t seem normal. This group of wise people from a distant land is in tune with God’s movement throughout creation. They take upon themselves an arduous trek through the desert to Jerusalem and then to nearby Bethlehem. They find the Christ-child: so humble, so vulnerable. He’s not adorned as a king. He lives in a house, not a palace. His parents are poor. And yet, these wise people see beyond such mundane details.

They look into the heart of this situation, and they see the holy in their midst. Like Peter, James, and John witnessing their illuminated Lord on the mountain, so the magi see and celebrate the sovereignty before them. They look at the child Jesus and see the king he is.

The gift of the magi is not in their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those are mere tokens. Their gift is the ability to see beyond, to perceive the deeper, holier level of existence that most of us are blind to most of the time. They practice the ability to have epiphanies, to resonate with revelation.

You don’t have to be a wise person, a magi, to develop this spiritual resonance. Who knows how often the disciples would have seen Jesus as the luminous being he obviously was if they but trained themselves to see with the eyes of the heart? Who knows exactly what the magi saw when they looked at the young messiah?

There is so much more to see than the merely visible. There is so much that God is revealing to us each day of our lives that we miss because we are looking in the wrong direction or because we are wearing the wrong set of lenses. This is what the Feast of the Epiphany is all about – following the Magi’s example, training ourselves to see into the heart of things, to see what God is always revealing.

This is hard work, I know. God knows we often miss what’s right in front of us, let alone what’s deep within. And so God has given us the light of the world to help us see. The disciples notice the glory of this light on the mountain. The magi adore this light in the humble abode in Bethlehem. And each of us has this light shining both on us and forth from us. This is important, so I will say it again: Each of us has this light shining on us and forth from us. You and I are luminous beings in the eyes of God, like Jesus created to be bearers of God’s light to every place we go and everyone we meet. We ourselves are epiphanies. We ourselves are surprising vessels of God’s revelation.

When we take up this mantle – to be vessels of God’s revelation – we carry with us the joy of the magi as they adore the young messiah. We carry with us the wonder of the disciples as they witnessed the transfigured Jesus. And we carry with us the light of the world, which shines forth from the divine spark that God planted within each of us.

Isaiah knows this. Notice how he begins today’s reading: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Isaiah invites us both to bask in the radiance of the Lord, but also to shine ourselves. In this we are like the moon, which shines by reflecting the light of the sun.

The best way to keep your eyes open for God’s movement in this world is to shine out as a light of that same movement. The more you shine, the more your light will illuminate those things that God yearns for you to see.

As we enter the season after this Feast of the Epiphany, the light will continue to grow. This is a blessing of living in the northern hemisphere. Let the lengthening of days serve as a reminder that the light of the world is growing within you, as well. This world of ours has a way of diminishing us, and the truth we bear can fade away. But the good news is this: even just the hint of flame can keep the darkness at bay. So glow. Let your light shine through. Show the way that God sees you, as a luminous being whose light is a revelation, an epiphany, to others.

Choosing the Light

 (Sermon for Sunday, March 18, 2012 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21)

I’d like to go to a Red Sox game and hold up a sign that says, “John 3:17.” Perhaps, a row-mate would ask me why my sign is wrong and I can say that the sign’s not wrong, but a different verse entirely. The verse after the most famous verse of the Bible says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Now, before we really get down to the business of this sermon, let’s talk about this “world,” a word John uses three times in this one verse. For John, the world is the creation that rebelled against God – the good works, which God made, but which fell into disrepair because of bad human choices. One of the reasons that John starts his Gospel with, “In the beginning,” is so we readers might make the link back to the story of creation in Genesis, in which God created the heavens and the earth. Three chapters into Genesis, things start to fall apart because of Adam and Eve’s dreadful choices.

Fast-forward to John’s time or even to our own, and the broken state of the world is evident – there’s no need to list all of the broken things in relationships or in society or in the environment (for we know them all too well). Much of the brokenness stems directly from bad choices made over and over again. And because these decisions are made again and again, they become part of the system, the machinery of brokenness, and we feel helpless in the face of a crumbling world. Nevertheless, God so loved this world that God chose to send God’s Son into the brokenness in order that he might show us what is broken. And in showing us, he gave us the gift and duty of helping him restore the broken world to wholeness.

But even though John expands the Son’s salvation to include the whole world (literally the “cosmos” in Greek), the restoration starts taking place in the hearts of God’s children – in us and ever other person who has every walked the earth. The brokenness began in the hearts of Adam and Eve; thus, the healing, the saving of the world takes hold at the origin of the brokenness, in the hearts of all people.

Just like Adam and Eve had the choice to obey or disobey God, each of us has a choice, which Jesus names using the imagery of darkness and light: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,” he says. “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

We have a choice to stumble in the darkness or to walk in the light, to be part of the problem or part of the solution, to add to the brokenness or to participate in the healing. And we don’t make this choice just once. Rather this choice is part of every single decision we make. Every decision either pulls us back to the darkness or pushes us further into the light. Perhaps you can remember a choice you made that turned out to be the wrong one – failing to stand up to a friend’s bully or taking out your frustration on your spouse or deliberately not noticing the homeless veteran on the street or knowingly purchasing a product that was fabricated under unbearable conditions, or…or…or — the list is endless. I don’t know about you, but when I make a choice the pulls me towards the darkness, I feel just a little bit unmade, like a little bit of me has eroded away. If I continually choose the wrong path, if I continually embrace the darkness, I wonder — will there be anything left of me?

This question points to the condemnation that Jesus talks about. God does not condemn; rather, we condemn ourselves when we choose the darkness over the light. Indeed, each time the verb “condemn” happens in the middle of our passage, the word is passive. God takes no active part in our condemnation, but only patiently and constantly calls us back to the light. And I firmly believe this call is what keeps us from eroding away entirely, what keeps us from total annihilation (which is another way of talking about hell). God’s constant call back to the light gives us a beacon to turn to, a lighthouse, if you will, that can guide us through the darkness and keep us from breaking up on the rocks. God does not force us to choose the light, but rather invites us to steer toward the harbor of God’s radiance.

As we answer God’s call and choose the light over the darkness, we discover that we can be part of the healing of the world. In our own experiences of the darkness, in our own vulnerability, we find the common ground of brokenness that Christ found when he came to earth and when he was lifted up on the cross. When we choose the light, we choose to be partners with Christ in healing the brokenness of the world even as Christ is healing our own brokenness.

So how do we translate the imagery of walking in the light into our everyday lives? What does choosing the light look like on the ground, in our day-to-day lives, at the office or at school or at home? Everything comes back to inviting God into our decisions, about orienting toward the light in each choice so that we do not feel like we are being eroded away to nothingness.

Here’s one practical way to help make decisions. Margot and I have been participating in a Lenten devotional series done by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Boston. Each day, a brother of the order talks about a piece of their Rule of Life, and about how each of us can benefit in our walks with God by writing a Rule for ourselves. A personal Rule of Life helps you to figure out how to be the best version of yourself, the version that God created you to be. When faced with a choice, remembering your Rule can help you walk in the light.

Writing out a Rule for yourself could be a simple as praying for clarity about the five things that are most important to you, then writing them on an index card and trying to live with those priorities in mind. Or perhaps, you might feel called to write out a longer, more in-depth set of guidelines for how you relate to yourself, to others, to the world, and to God. I’ve been working on my own Rule, and I’d like to share a few short passages with you so you can see how I am, with God’s help, trying to choose the light.

“I will nurture my relationship with God through praying, listening, serving, and loving.

“I will love my family. I will be loyal, honest, caring, and present to my wife and our (future) children.

“I will live my life with an attitude of thanksgiving, always seeking to choose abundance over scarcity, trust over fear, and relationship over isolation.

“I will live my life with an attitude of invitation, always seeking to choose engagement over apathy, encouragement over criticism, and listening over selling.”

In each of these pieces of my Rule, God has given me guidance for how to choose the light over the darkness. Does this mean I will always choose the light? Of course not, but the Rule will help me see when I have failed and help me turn back to the right paths. I invite you to consider making your own Rule, so that you may more effectively choose light over darkness. Please come see Margot or me if you’d like guidance in doing this incredibly fruitful practice.

Speaking of practice, spring training is going on, which reminds me of my sign from the beginning of this sermon (like that segue?). John 3:17 – “God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Christ’s saving of this world began in his life, death, and resurrection, and continues in the hearts of all people. When we choose the light over the darkness, we choose to be part of the healing of this world, we choose to show the world that God is moving in our lives. In this witness, we bring God’s light into the darkness of this world. And do you know what happens when light is introduced into darkness? Darkness flees.

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.

* * *

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.”