And…

I just completed a Doctor of Ministry class entitled, “Stop Making Sense: Searching for the Hidden God: Judaism after the Holocaust.” It was taught by a rabbi in Austin who is also an accomplished jazz musician, Neil Blumofe. As you might imagine, the subject was intense, and it brought out lots of emotions and strong opinions.

He had a phrase he used over and over as we discussed topics that were often painful or controversial. Someone in the class would offer a few words, either in response to the professor or to someone else in the class, and he would respond:

“Thank you for sharing that. I really like the way you are coming at this issue…and…”

The and was followed by another way of looking at the issue, another perspective that could be brought to bear, or an alternative voice that might argue with the one just presented. It was his way of reminding us, especially when we became sure of ourselves and our positions, that there is almost always an and

It was our professor’s way of acknowledging that the things we were discussing were complex, with multiple points of view, and no easy resolution. There may be a “right” answer, but it would be hard for us in our human limitations to arrive at one on which we could all agree. So, instead of searching for the right answer, he invited us to consider that there might be more than one right answer, that instead of saying “I heard you, but you’re wrong,” in situations of great change and controversy, we might try saying, “I heard you, and here’s another way to look at it.”

These ands opened up a gracious space where real learning occurred. We valued each voice at the table and together tried to uncover the larger truth we were exploring, while knowing we could never, as limited human beings, arrive at absolute truth.

I thought quite a bit during my time in Austin about our meeting of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee, which occurred on the Saturday before I left for Austin on Sunday. The presbytery took up several amendments to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of which, having to do with the definition of marriage, was complex and controversial. We ended up voting in favor of all the amendments The process we used to arrive at that vote included several small group discussions, worship with communion, and very careful and respectful listening to each other, even when we did not agree. I came away from the meeting encouraged that it is possible for us to address the issues of our day in a manner that models the way of Christ, who built a church marked by reconciliation and peace in the midst of diversity.

Some left the meeting overjoyed. Some left the meeting sad and perhaps even angry. All left the meeting as part of the Body of Christ, committed to living together in the tension and uncertainty of our changing times, knowing that Christ alone is the Head of the Church. In that affirmation, we are freed to say, “Yes, I hear you, you are by brother/my sister…and…”

I left the meeting grateful to be part of the congregation I serve and the denomination to which we belong. In many ways, First Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a model for how people can come together from a variety of places and hold a range of views while still remaining one body. We can disagree, even significantly, and yet we realize that our unity is not an achievement we can boast, but a gift from God, a sign of grace. As we continue on this journey that seems to involve great change all around us, may we be ever mindful of the quiet center that never changes – the presence of Christ, who claims us in Baptism, addresses us in the Word, and nourishes us at the Table. It is only from that center that we are able to speak with each other in honesty and love.

I didn’t realize at the time, but the professor was conducting our class like a jazz concert, unafraid of improvising, welcoming the discordant note, making room for all the instruments, and striving to make of this diversity a unity that reflects, however imperfectly, something of the beauty and truth of God. May it be so for this church that God calls to be a blessing to the world

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The Word of Light – A Sermon Preached January 4, 2015

Barbara Kingsolver writes, “I never knew what grand really was until I saw the canyon. It’s a perspective that pulls the busy human engine of desires to a quiet halt. Taking the long view across that … abyss attenuates humanity to quieter internal rhythms, the spirit of the ice ages, and we look, we gasp, and it seems there is a chance we might be small enough not to matter. That the things we want are not the end of the world. I have needed this view lately,” she writes.”[1]

We know what she’s talking about.

Hiking a trail on the edge of the mountains in the Appalachians in the early morning and seeing the mist hugging the treetops like the smoke from a hundred hidden chimneys, you can feel it.

Standing on a craggy spot high above the Pacific and allowing your eyes to go from the waves crashing along the cliffs to the expanse of sea until the horizon will not let you see any more, you feel it.

I remember standing on the white sands of the beach looking out at the Gulf of Mexico and telling Caleb, then three years old, “As far as your eyes can see, nothing but water.” The look in his eyes; he felt it.

You feel it when you hold a baby sometimes, especially if you witnessed that baby arrive in the world. I feel it every time I hold a baby at this font.

Perspective, some might call it. Holiness is the word others would use. Anne Lamott says in those moments she is inspired to pray with just one word, “Wow!” When we can say it, she writes, it means “we are not dulled to wonder.”[2]

The feeling can come not just from natural expanses of beauty or wonderful experiences. Sometimes the feeling comes to us when those same forces of nature turn brutal. On a quiet Christmas in 2004, tourists and residents along the beautiful beaches of Thailand looked out and saw a wave coming that would eventually kill almost 228,000 people by some estimates. It caused some to ask the same question Kingsolver pondered at the Grand Canyon, that there’s a chance we might be small enough not to matter.

Sitting by a bed while someone you love slowly succumbs to sickness will give you that feeling. I’ve heard more than one person in that situation say that they feel helpless; that the doctors and the nurses and all the technology at our disposal – none of it can stop this thing that is happening, so out of their control. It brings a terrible kind of perspective, but perspective just the same.

What all these experiences force upon us is a widening of the lens, so we can take in the largest possible view.

John – writing some three generations after Jesus’ life, when the church has had experiences of great beauty and tragedy, and the memory of Jesus grows dim – widens the lens as far as possible.

John doesn’t begin with a birth story. There are no shepherds, no manger, no angelic host or wise men. He doesn’t begin with a baptism, like Mark. He has no genealogies like Luke and Matthew, no stories of a young Jesus getting separated from his parents in Jerusalem.

Mark, the earliest gospel writer, starts by saying, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

John, the last gospel writer,  just says, “In the beginning…”

A good Jewish audience would immediately hear echoes of the very first words in the Bible, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” But John wants to widen the lens even further, even before that beginning, there was the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Albert Einstein searched in vain for what he called “the theory of everything,” which he believed if he discovered it, would make the explanation of all things possible. The philosophically-educated Greeks would have called that thing he was searching for the Word. In Greek, the word is translated “logos,” and it was widely used to mean the rational principle of the universe, the thing that holds all other things together and makes them make sense. If there had been a God particle search in the first century, they would have called it the logos particle search.

John takes this Greek word that served as an explanation of all reality and points with it to Christ. Jesus is the one who expresses the Logos of God. The universe makes no sense without Christ, who was present with God at the beginning of all things and who is now the thing that holds all existence together. Christ is the life and the light of the world. That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. This, for John, is the first thing that must be said. It is the largest possible perspective.

And I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel small. How dare I stand in this pulpit and speak about this Word with anything approaching comprehension? It is a theological Grand Canyon, a mountain range in whose foothills I wander while the peaks loom large above, a vast sea stretching out in all directions out of which I gather up a small cup on a Sunday morning and hold it up, saying, “Here…this.”

I heard a Jewish rabbi say recently that whenever someone dies in his congregation, he is called to the house or hospital while the body is still there in order to perform the rites of death. He never knows what he will walk into, what form the grief will take – sometimes the numbness of shock, sometimes denial, sometimes blaming, sometimes anger – often directed at God, sometimes at him as the representative of God. He says, “I always say the same four words: ‘There are no words.’ And then I hug them or find some other way to touch them, because in the touch are the words the mouth cannot utter.”[3]

There are no words. We are so small. In these moments, it seems there may be a chance we might be small enough not to matter.

But John’s story does not end with this beginning and this Word remaining high and inaccessible, a canyon we cannot cross. “The Word became flesh.” God came to us, and the words we cannot speak God spoke to us; God touched us, because in the touch are the words our mouths cannot utter. We cannot grasp God, we cannot speak God – God has grasped us, God has spoken to us life and light which the darkness cannot overcome.

And so what is this Logos? What is the rational principle of the universe, the theory of everything, that which holds all things together? What was that thing that was with God and was God and was the thing that brought all other things into existence?

I think it is what you feel when you look out across the Grand Canyon or over a mountain vista or at ocean that spreads as far as the eye can see. It is what you know when you hold a newborn baby. It is what brings tears to your eyes when you hear of tsunamis or tornadoes or plane crashes or famine or disease, and it causes you to want to help, to give, to serve. It is what you feel when you hold the hand of someone who is dying and you can do nothing to stop it, and yet you continue to hold the hand.

It is what we search high and low to find, it is what gives our lives purpose and meaning, it is what reveals that even though we are small, we matter, and all of this wondrous experience of life matters – ultimately.

The Logos is Christ, and what Christ reveals about God is love.

Love.

Great theologian John Lennon famously said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, but he perhaps unknowingly captured the essence of the Word Jesus is when he wrote, “All You Need is Love.”

The love we experience in this life is in many ways a dim reflection of the love that Christ reveals, but each time we experience it, we catch a glimpse of the mystery of the universe, through which all things were made and which sustains all things – the light that shines in the darkness is love.

It is this Word, Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the Church. Today we ordain and install a new class of ten elders. They come onto our church session at a time of great change and transition in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the church in general of all denominations, change we have certainly felt in this congregation. To say it is an anxious time for many is an understatement. Everyone fears decline, fears conflict over issues as wide-ranging as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to same-sex marriage to worship styles and everything in between. Some wonder if the church can survive at all. I thought I would share that now, just in case any of you want to pull out.

I for one am confident in our future. I am not the Head of the church. The elders we install and ordain today are not the Head of the church. The One who is the Head of this church and all others is Jesus Christ. And he is more than the Head of the church; he is the Word of God. He has shown us that love is the thing that holds all things together, that love will have the last word, that no darkness can extinguish the light of love.

So if I err – and I will – if we as a congregation and a denomination err – and we will – let us err on the side of love. Let us err on the side of grace. In this time of polarization, let us err on the side of cultivating a community of faith that holds within itself multiple perspectives and does not feel the need to set up congregations and denominations of the like-minded.

In a stunning new book entitled Station Eleven which was on the short list for the National Book Award last year, Emily St. John Mandel writes about the end of the world. 99.99% of the population is destroyed by a virus, and all that is left are pockets of humanity. But in contrast to so much writing in this genre, which paints scenes of unrelenting hopelessness, in this book, Mandel bucks that trend by having a group of actors travel the decimated landscape and perform Shakespeare plays. The group is called the Traveling Symphony, and spray-painted on the lead wagon of the group is a line from another group of great theologians, Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.”

When I think about the future of the church, so many voices are asking if we are going to survive. I’m not interested in mere survival. It is insufficient. I want to thrive. And I believe the key to thriving is in the quality of our love – for God, for one another (especially those with whom we disagree), for this world that God loves, and in which the Word has become flesh. We may be small, but we are loved. Amen.

[1] Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder: Essays. (New York: Perennial, 2002), page 22.

[2] Lamott, Anne. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), page 71.

[3] My paraphrase of  a broadcast on NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook, entitled “How We Grieve” http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/01/02/grief-mourning-tom-ashbrook-family. The rabbi on the broadcast is Earl Grollman.