We Are God’s Thoughts
A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota, by Craig Lemming
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Let us pray:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts and minds of thy faithful servants and kindle in each of us the fire of thy divine love; through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.
Merry Christmas to you all! My name is Craig Lemming and I am very grateful to the clergy of St. John’s for inviting me to preach this morning’s sermon. A special honor indeed this morning: the day after the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist.
As a school boy at St. George’s College in Harare, Zimbabwe, I fell in love with all sorts of rhetorical devices. I would write silly, little, love poems to my harpsichord teacher, chock-full of metaphors, similes, onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, enjambements, and hyperbole. But the poetic device that fascinated me above all was personification. What a marvelous figure of speech! I love the fact that with words, with language, an intangible idea or abstract truth, like love, can be conceived as a human creature. My favorite example of personification is the poem, LOVE (III) by Anglican priest and metaphysical poet, George Herbert:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
If personification is this marvelous, you might understand how much more radically enamored I am with the Christian doctrine of The Incarnation. The Word, Logos in Greek: God’s reason; God’s mind; God’s being; God’s wisdom, grace, love, creative essence; God’s very thoughts “became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is not just some figurative representation or an abstract personification of the idea of God. No. We believe in the actual enfleshment of God’s very being in Jesus the Christ. As the Psalmist sings, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6). For this reason artists have traditionally used the eagle to represent St. John the Evangelist, symbolizing the breathtaking heights to which he soars in the first chapter of his Gospel. St. John’s Gospel does away with the Franco Zeffirelli production of the “Synoptic Christmas”. As much as we love them, John tosses out the whole cast of characters: the angel Gabriel, the virgin, the carpenter; Elizabeth, Zachariah; the inn keeper, cows, goats, chickens, camels, sheep; the heavenly host, shepherds, 3 wise men, and Herod: John will have none of it. Instead, John gets right into the marrow of our faith and unfolds the mystery and essence of the incarnation, not in Matthew or Luke’s three chapters of narrative prose, but with the poetic economy of eighteen verses of what is arguably the most sublime and divine language ever written.
As a minority person surviving on the margins of dominant culture here in America, I resonate deeply with the struggle of the Johannine community of the first century for whom John’s Gospel was originally intended. As a marginalized, minority community under the oppression and persecution of the massively powerful Roman Empire, amidst infighting between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians, and the bitter conflicts between Christians in general and Jews, we come to appreciate the language of today’s Gospel with a new reverence for the sacred words they used to make meaning of their existence as followers of Christ. Desmond Tutu says, “Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” The sacred language of the beloved disciple’s Gospel creates our ultimate reality: “God is with us.” The fact that God, fully human and fully divine in Jesus, suffers the tragic realities of the poor, the unloved, and the forgotten; the least, the last, and the lost means everything to those of us living at the extremity of human finitude. Contemplating the ineffable importance of what the poetic words of today’s Gospel mean to oppressed persons, I stumbled upon a magnificent quote by Caribbean-American writer, radical feminist, womanist, lesbian, and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde:
“… poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
― Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches)
Much like today’s womanist theologians, the ancient Johannine community based their lives on the fact that God makes “a way out of no way” and transforms “never” into “nevertheless.” That paradoxical transformation of “flesh” which represents all that is perishable, by “Logos”: The Word which is divine and eternal, is the heartbeat of our faith. With direct reference to the opening Chapter of Genesis, written six hundred years before him, John honors those priestly writers whose words were of vital necessity to the existence and survival of the ancient Israelites: bound up in Babylonian captivity, dejected, dehumanized, and deeply shamed. Nevertheless out of the tragic rock experience of oppression, their hopes and dreams were predicated on the language of Genesis 1. Unlike the dumb idols of their oppressors, Israel’s LORD God majestically creates order out of chaos; speaks light, seasons, sun, moon, stars, oceans, continents, plants, and every living creature into being, including themselves, enslaved Jews restored to the dignity of personhood by being “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the divine image of their creator. That beautiful chord of Genesis 1 would have been struck and resonated within the Johannine community when they heard: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
That Johannine community, in their rock experiences of poverty, exclusion, and the threat of imminent persecution and death, would have known all too well the meaning behind John’s words, “yet the world did not know [Christ]. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Do our lives reflect Christ’s “true light, which enlightens everyone” in spite of the “gross darkness” of racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, and idolatrous capitalism, all of which threaten to consume us and the entire planet? As today’s Johannine community here in St. Paul, how do the Evangelist’s words illumine our self-understanding as being “very members incorporate in the mystical body of Christ”? As partakers of the divine nature in Christ who gathered into one, things earthly and heavenly, what language do we use to make meaning of our existence in loving relationship with God and with our neighbor? As The Church of the Open Door dedicated to “welcoming all people into this community of faith,” who do we truly welcome, and who do we fail to welcome into Christ’s true light? C.S. Lewis writes, “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date” (The Four Loves). Are we living for what is temporal, or are we living for what is eternal? Are we living lives of mere personification, or are we living lives of Christ’s incarnation? Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). As we strive to live into Christ’s abundance and not the world’s idolatrous extravagance, I close with my favorite quote from the marginalized genius, James Baldwin:
It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Church of Saint John the Evangelist, let us confront with passion the conundrum of life with Christ’s light, and let us always remember that Christ’s “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”