Story Made Flesh
In Memphis, my hometown, the Episcopal priest comes down from the altar, walks to the middle of the pews to be with the people, we would all stand and turn our bodies so our shoulders would face the priest and hear the word of God with our whole bodies. Many traditions, including Jewish and Muslim traditions, experience the sacred scriptures in this holy way that enlists all of the senses of the body, heart and mind.
In the limited land of Zoom, I invite you also to receive the word of God with your whole body. Relax, breathe, feet on the ground, Look around, Give thanks, see or imagine something that reminds you that God is near.
From the First Nations translation and from the beloved disciple John, hear the word of God,
1-2 Long ago in the time before all days,
before the creation of all things,
the Word was there, face to face with the Great Spirit.
This Word fully represents Creator
and shows us who he is and what he is like.
He has always been there from the beginning,
for the Word and Creator are one and the same.
3 Through the Word all things came into being
and not one thing exists that he did not create.
4 Creator’s life shined out from the Word, giving light to all human beings.
This is the true Light that comes to all the peoples of the world and shines on everyone.
5 The Light shines into the darkness
and the darkness cannot overcome it or put it out. (pause)
6-7 Into the wilderness of the Land of Promise(Judea) came a man named He Shows Goodwill (John).
He was sent by the Great Spirit to tell what he knew about the Light so everyone could believe.
8 He was not the Light but came to speak the truth about the Light.
9 The true Light that shines on all people was comping into the darkness of this world.
10 He came down into this world,
and even though he made all things, the world did not recognize him.
11 Even his own tribe did not welcome or honor him
12 But all who welcome and trust him
receive their birthright as children of the Great Spirit.
13 They are born in a new way,
not from a human father’s plans or desires,
but born from above – by the Great Spirit.
14 Creator’s Word became a flesh and blood human being
and pitched his sacred tent among us, living as one of us.
We looked upon his great beauty and saw how honorable he was,
the kind of honor held only by this one Son who fully represents his Father
– full of his great kindness and truth.
15 He Shows Goodwill (John) told what he knew about him
and cried out with a loud voice, “The one I have told you about is here!”
So what is the word, the Creator’s word to become flesh for our community in the new year?
And how will that Word, become flesh, walk and talk and act.
Here are some words we have been speaking into existence…
Black lives matter
Listen to the trees
So many words, so many agendas!
In the Jewish language, words are considered more than a sound. Each word had an independent existence and would do things. To quote scholar John Patterson,
“The spoken word to the Jewish people was fearfully alive…..It was a unit of energy, charged with power.”
The Word created the world.
The Word spoke everything into being.
What words does God call us each and as a community to speak into existence?
Will we be exhausted activists, spent and probably in jail?
Or will these same Words carry us?
None of these words are new to our community. I began attending 8th Day in 1993 and remember hearing Wendy calling us to anti-racism in her sermon, Carol inviting us to protest welfare reform at Union Station, Renee reminding us of the Jesuit martyrs El Salvador. Conrad calling us to abolish the death penalty, David Hilfiker calling us to mourn and grieve as a people in exile from this empirical country. Several years later we read the New Jim Crow together. Patti and David preached for the first time about their own personal racism. Many of us attended Friends of Jesus in addition to 8th Day and built some relational solidarity.
After 20 years, I am struck with how rich our story is and how much I forget details. It seems I have fallen asleep in this story only to awaken to hear the story right where we left it. Time feels like it slips by. God’s story feels like a bad internet connection.
Yet our hope as a community is strong, much like the hope Jeremiah speaks of in today’s passage.
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor,
together; a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come & sing aloud on the height of Zion, & they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.
Walter Brueggeman, in his book, Hope Within History, talks of how the Jewish people remember God’s story over and over again. Each new encounter as nomads, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in exile, is re-told to be part of God’s story. To illuminate the hope and change and deliverance that they had already known and to recognize God’s presence in the story. Remembering the promise to Abraham as they left Egypt. Remembering their deliverance from Egypt while in the wilderness, and while in exile. Remembering that Jesus was in the line of David upon his birth. Now we remember Jesus, his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection and his call for us to follow him in solidarity with the poor and in the power of God and not in the power of Empire.
James Baldwin echoes this sentiment “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We ARE our history.”
Empire does the opposite. It lures us with a brand new story, seemingly better than our own, but the cost is to always devalue the story prior that beginning moment. The “holiday” of New Year, is a custom to turn our attention to the right now and what is to come and a leaving behind of the past. Our culture operates that way, in the right now and how much profit can be gained tomorrow. Our ambitious European ancestors who needed to avoid moral reflection in order to continue utilizing human being in slavery to survive and thrive. They made many sacrifices for material success and actually utilized the church to justify their actions. I now live with inherited intergenerational biases, numbness, and cultural voids that are dangerous for others around me if not brought to light.
I was raised that way with no one telling the stories of how and why the private schools existed in Memphis, TN, just that the students would be more successful. Even in public elementary school, no one explicitly explained to me how Memphis schools followed through with the federal mandate to integrate. My family’s idea of museum visits was about 5 minutes on vacations. Places we went to were fun like Disneyworld or skiing or hiking, but they had no stories. Why did we eat oysters in Arkansas at 10 AM on Saturday before lunch at our grandparents? Who were the people in the kitchen making the food? Where did my Dad’s maid live and what did she think of working for my Dad? What was mom doing with the mayor anyway? Even she shielded us to some degree from her activism to keep us focused on our precious here and now. I chose to major in engineering to be successful for the now and later. This curriculum allowed for 2 social science classes (both psychology for me) and 2 liberal arts classes (history of jazz and yoga). Any history beyond jazz was surely a waste of my time.
So my word to become flesh is history, my own hardcore family history and the hardcore history of our nation that many of us do not know. I embrace the difficult journey and hope others join me on it.
James Baldwin echoes this sentiment “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We ARE our history.”
Our spirit knows its deficits. In graduate school at Catholic University, it was not the class on family systems theory that grabbed my attention as much as the history of social policy class and the cultural diversity class. It was not graduate school where I found the depth in my particular social work call to the marginalized but at the Potter’s House, working with and being formed by the marginalized, reading and talking about justice and mercy around the lunch tables with almost anyone. In my current setting, I am required to write psychosocial histories and assessments and I love it. I am getting paid to write a story. I consider it a challenge to hold the task of keeping the necessary medical clinical needs and language, front and center, while soaking it in story that humanizes the person who wears the diagnosis label.
So even in writing this sermon and reading, I feel the nag that learning history will cost me time, the slippery-ness of time. I have written and deleted many paragraphs. As my 16 year old daughter says, “Sounds like a you problem” so I may be the only one who struggles with this empire anxiety of time. I mean why don’t I just DO something? I will feel better. Why am I not planning to engage in peaceful protest for January 6th? Or January 21st? Why don’t I help Georgia’s election by writing postcards at the guidance of the NAACP? I know that will make a difference. For God’s sake, don’t cry about something that happened 100 years ago!
Then I remember reading the Narnia books and how Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and ___ would live a lifetime in 5 minutes. I got the same feeling when I read Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns, a true account of 3 black families out of the millions during the great migration in different parts of the country. In this sense, I am aware of how history effects my now, my present moment in a profound way. Like I have lived a life in one day.
The Creative Word itself, in the gospel today begins outside the limits of time and place but then moves into the time-bound world. “Long ago in the time before all days, before the creation of all things the Word was there, face to face with the Great Spirit….. Creator’s Word became a flesh and blood human being and pitched his sacred tent among us, living as one of us.” One reason we write our spiritual memoirs is to find God at work within our lives and throughout our lives. We find the larger story. The story changes, sometimes a LOT, with new information and we have the opportunity to weave the strands of our story together to see God at work in the whole.
It is a vulnerable and painful journey but it is clean pain. Resmaa Menakem, the African American author of My Grandmother’s Hands talks about clean and dirty pain and how racism is an intergenerational trauma from which we all suffer. Clean pain is primary pain. We feel sad, mad, or fearful in direct response to a situation. Dirty pain is secondary pain. Pain we feel from holding on to dirty pain and making something else out of it instead of accepting it. Dirty Pain is pain we inflict on ourselves or others because of our inability to feel or accept grief, guilt, regret, fear, loss. How long do we actually feel an emotion physiologically? 15 seconds. Not near as long as we normally make it last because of reinforcing thoughts, reframing thoughts to justify, or just thoughts that help us not feel.
The call to be anti-racist for me is to bring what the stories we learn of ourselves in our life, AND in our families, and int the history of our church denominations and areas of the country to our God story – to our spiritual memoir. To remember before God, details that belong to our black American history from 400 years ago is to do penitent and reconciling work toward a new creation, It is profoundly counter cultural.
My dad always encouraged me to discover different people and places. The more different the better. This was one reason I chose Tulane in NOLA, it was 80% out of state students in 1984 and is still 80% out of state students now. New Orleans itself was diverse. I came to DC for social work school and to discover what it is like to live in “the North” or at least out of Memphis. I can now say that I was avoiding the clean pain of Memphis. My father had grown up primarily in New Bedford MA and had lived in South Carolina, Boston, Indiana then landed back in Memphis. Later I discovered that his father had left my great grandfather’s cotton plantation in Greenville, Mississippi, just 2 hours from Memphis, to discover New England. To a certain small, very small degree, I believe Dad was seeking understanding. And the story of my grandfather going north is a story that I repeated and that some others in my family repeated. I have a great, great maternal aunt, buried alongside Florence Parkinson’s parents in Woodlawn cemetary in New York. My maternal grandfather went so far as to leave urban opportunities and back to cotton farming on what he named in 1920 as a “plantation” Privilege brings the option of mobility and I believe that those going back and forth from the North to the South and back again are people searching and then avoiding understanding because it is too difficult and we have the option to be comfortable instead. Resmaa may say that the mobility of the privileged in this country could be seen as an intergenerational trauma response of flight, much like a bunny running from a fox. What are we running from? Probably the truth of our history of slave-owning. In July, I read a VA census log that has a sir name of Meade with 4 humans as his property. Though not a cognitive surprise, my body was frozen. Breathing in, breathing out, crying a little at what was inevitable for me to find, I accepted the clean pain and will always remember, it will now be part of my spiritual memoir which after I am done will read like a John Grisham novel.
Building on Dr. Joy DeGruy’s ideas in the book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Resmaa talks about how white supremacy lives as unconscious trauma in white bodies, black bodies and blue bodies (referring to the police). He hopes that each body will metabolize the clean pain of white body supremacy in each of their communities. “Americans ideally will begin to heal their long-held trauma around race and whiteness will begin to evolve from race to culture and then to community.”
From his chapters “Whiteness Without Supremacy.” Resmaa says, “If America is to grow out of white-body supremacy, the transformation must largely be led by white Americans. This transformation cannot rely primarily on new laws, policies, procedures, standards, and strategies. We’ve already seen how these are no match for culture. For genuine transformation to take place, white Americans must acknowledge their racialized trauma, move through clean pain, and grow up…..Not only is it not my business to lead you out of white-body supremacy but I would do you a profound disservices by trying to do so.”
In this Christmastide, the creative, all-loving God can become incarnate in our bodies, encompassing all time and all stories. If we dare to imagine that incarnation year after year, how can we not imagine an America beyond police brutality, beyond fear-driven politics, beyond race, and beyond mindless use of God’s resources.
Born of Peace – Tom Conry
When all the earth was cruelly held in ancient winter’s grasp
When hope was old and faded or strewn like shattered glass
A universe of promises stretched deep across the sky, and death begun to die.
Born of peace, born of forever, Born of time, born here today
Born of fire, born of light, In the midst of deepest night
Born of bread, born of people.
Restless and uncertain, we journeyed through the night,
Led by common dreaming and a single wand’ring light.
Fed upon our traveling by singing from afar; Hidden in our stars.
Through night-time’s speechless carnival, and windblown crystal sun,
We carried what we had and what we needed to become
Our murdered dreams behind us, weathered, parched and tossed, Starry-eyed and lost.
From foreign lands and alien gods and fixed unwav’ring skies,
Who’s buried secret chaos holds all prisoners inside;
Beyond the restless longing where our desp’rate hopes belong, Nearer to our song.
Who has cupped in hand the waters of the sea,
Who has bound the sky and weighed the mountains?
Who has opened rivers from atop the barren height?
Who has heard the crying of God’s own?
Have you not seen? Have you not heard? Stories told long before remembering
Sheltered on our way, and passed among us all, Singing in the midst of darkling silence.