Where Do We Go From Here?

September 16, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Deuteronomy 30:11-14; John 1:1-14

One of the chief purposes of religion is to create communities of memory.

We gather each week in worship not merely to hear commentary on the issues of the day, or to find help for self-improvement, or to ensure our salvation in the next life. That is already taken care of.

No, we gather in worship to remember. We have learned from our Jewish sisters and brothers the importance of remembering as a part of religion. Their entire faith tradition is built of the act of remembering the story of their forbears. This week, during the High Holy Days, Jews will remember Yom Kippur and Sukkot on Wednesday and Thursday. They will retell the story of their tradition, and pass it on to their children.

We do the same. We come to worship to remember, to tell the story again and again, to rediscover and re-claim what our forebears in the faith found to be true about life. We come to address big questions, as they did: Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life? How did it all begin?

The gospel of John opens determined to respond to such questions. Instead of starting the story with a birth of a baby in Bethlehem as Matthew and Luke do, John wants to go much, much farther back. All the way back. “In the beginning,” he says, “Was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

This is the story of Jesus, son of Mary, but told through a cosmic lens, with echoes of a deep memory of the beginning of all time. The way John tells the Jesus story leaves behind the details of the other gospels. He has something else in mind. He wants to tell the story of Jesus in a way that remembers things we human beings have long forgotten.

“He was in the beginning with God,” John says of Jesus, the Word. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

This summer we walked the John Muir Way across Scotland, as you may have heard. Muir was born in 1838 in the east coast town of Dunbar. When he was 11 years old he departed for America with his family from the west coast village of Helensburgh. The John Muir Way traces the journey of this immigrant founder of America’s environmental movement – continued in later generations by Sigurd Olson, Rachel Carson, and others who shared his vision of the conservation of the earth – from Muir’s point of departure in the west to his birthplace in the east.

Muir was raised by a strict father, a deeply religious Protestant who insisted his children learn the scriptures by heart. Muir was required as a boy to commit much of the Bible – including the entire newer Testament and much of the older – to memory, with the encouragement of his father’s frequent lashings. We would have called him abusive today.
The retention of that forced encounter with the biblical word stayed with Muir all his life. But it did not lead to conventional religious devotion. That word, the word of creeds and doctrine and institutional rigidity, went missing for Muir. Something else awakened God’s Word for him.

As a boy he used to escape from home to play along the Mid-Lothian coast where he lived, climbing the cliffs and racing with his friends on the hills and scouring the trees for bird nests. This summer as we walked through that beautiful landscape we thought of young John Muir, reveling in the sunlight and the lush green, quieted by clouds and driving rain, drawn into peace by the waves running on the shore.

For Muir, the Word of John’s gospel, present at the beginning, was not brought to life by memorizing it, but, rather, by experiencing it in the natural world. The wonder and beauty of wild places unleashed a deeper memory for him. The created world became for Muir an extension of the goodness about which he learned in the Bible.

The gospel of John connects the genesis of the Messiah with the origins of earth itself. “What has come into being in him was life,” John says of the Word, “And the life was the light of all people.”

This Jesus, as presented by John, breaks free of the limitations of a certain time and a definite place. The Word, in John’s view, is universal, the source of light and life for the entire human family, indeed, for all creation. We should guard against the temptation to shrivel Jesus down to a parochial savior, available to and interested in and working for only a few. There’s a lot of that going around these days in the Christian Church, and it shortchanges Jesus.

In the beginning was the Word, with a capital W. If we search the lines of Genesis for that Word, and listen carefully, we will hear it in the ancient story of God’s handiwork, in the repeated refrain and it was good.

The creator completes a day and delights in the emerging earth’s splendor and declares it to be good. The division of time into night and day. That was good. The splattering of stars across the dome of darkness. That was good. The pushing up of mountains and the shaping of hills through which rivers began to flow. That was good. The first green plants stirred to life by the warmth of the sun and the nourishment of water. That was good. The animals, the fishes and the birds. All of that was good. And then the ones formed in the creator’s own image, the earthlings. That was good.

The word at the start of the story is good, and that goodness permeates all creation and links it, links us, to the Creator. Julian of Norwich said that we should think of ourselves as made not by God, but “of God.” Everything springs from the same, one source.

When the Word becomes flesh all life takes on new meaning and is woven into a singular whole. The Creator and the creation share the same matter, the same life.

We spent a week on the island of Iona this summer before our walk across Scotland. One day we made our way to St. Columba’s Bay, where the Irish saint is said to have landed in the year 563. It’s not a sandy beach, but, rather, is covered in small, ocean-worked stones. The island of Iona has some of the oldest geological land formations anywhere on surface of the planet. We sat on the beach for hours, mesmerized by the smoothness and color and shape and weight of those stones. Among them are some that are two-thirds of the age of the earth. It was almost a sacred experience, as if we were holding the rest of the world and all time in our hands, and remembering.

For Muir, that profound connection happened when he was among the trees.
“The clearest way into the Universe,” Muir wrote, “Is through a forest wilderness. When one tugs at a single thing in nature,” he said, “One finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

The Word of John’s gospel is not so distant that we might not discover it for ourselves in our time. Here the writer of Deuteronomy – many generations, centuries before John – anticipates the fourth gospel.

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.”

God says through the writer of Deuteronomy.

“No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

We need not cross the sea or ascend to the heavens or climb a mountain or recite the Bible to encounter God’s word. Muir understood that. He saw the imago dei – the image of God, the Word of God – in all creation itself. “The sun shines not on us,” Muir wrote, “But in us.”

That’s essentially what John tells us in the gospel: “And the Word” – the Word placed in the human heart at the beginning of all time – “The Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth.” Jesus is the living memory of the goodness of God.

The church is the community in which that memory resides and is carried along. And so the church gathers to remember and reaffirm the baseline of what it means to be human. All our efforts at justice and equity, all our attempts to end racism and alleviate poverty and eliminate disparities begin with that good word – that God word – about every human being, that each of us bears the word of God – the love of God, the image of God, the life of God – within. Each one of us.

The world is acting as if it had no memory, no remembering of ancient truths, no recollection of insights beyond those of our own immediate invention. What are the deep, abiding affirmations about life? They’re found in the religions of the world; for us, they’re found in the pages of scripture, in the stories that have been passed down over the ages, and in the communities that have conveyed those texts and those stories along…that there is a creator…that the creation is good…that each member of the human family bears the creator’s image…that God’s love comes to life in Jesus…that God has already given us all we need to live just, peaceful, and sustainable lives.

When we remember that, then the Word becomes flesh not only once, but over and over again, in your life and in mine, as we let the light that was placed in the human heart at the beginning of all time shine in the world.

A hospital chaplain told me recently about a visit she made to an older patient who had just survived a “Code Blue” – meaning she had almost died. The woman was not formally educated but had wisdom born of faithful living through hard times. The chaplain talked with her about her experience and their conversation turned to a familiar passage from Isaiah:

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

The chaplain said she had experienced in her own life times when she found herself walking through pain and living in difficult times, and yet not growing weary or faint because she found an inner strength.

“That’s the Word of God made flesh!” the woman who had nearly died said from her hospital bed, with a spark of light in her eyes. That’s the Word of God made flesh.

She had remembered. She had remembered that the Word of God – the same Word present at creation – is within each of us.

The Word of God comes to life in many ways.

A few days ago I met a young woman whose company had worked on our wonderful new addition. As we talked about the fresh life at Westminster made possible by our open doors and the new spaces, I asked her if she had grown up in a church.

“I was raised in the church,” she said, “But I don’t attend now.”

Never say that to a pastor – if you think that’s going to be the end of it. It was an opening I couldn’t pass up. I invited her to Sunday morning worship. She smiled and said,

“I’m busy every Sunday morning.”

Ah, I thought to myself. I imagined her sitting in a café sipping coffee and reading the New York Times.

“I volunteer with a woman with a debilitating disease” she went on to say.

“She needs help. So I go every Sunday morning to do laundry for her, and clean house, make meals and visit.”

That’s the Word made flesh. It may not be what we think of as traditional church, but it is certainly the goodness of God coming to life. Serving others as an act of worship on a Sunday morning – if that’s not church, what is?

And yes, I did invite her to Westminster’s new Sunday evening service at 5pm. Her experience of the sacred could happen morning and evening!

What happens when the Word becomes flesh? The light of God, present at the beginning, that light breaks into the world anew. The love of God takes root in our communities and begins to grow. The justice of God becomes more visible. God’s dream for the earth comes a little closer.

That happens most fully in Jesus, but it also happens in each one of us. The light of God shines in the world through us, and through communities like this one.

When the Word becomes flesh we remember. We remember the goodness of God visible in all creation and planted deep within our hearts.

By the grace of God and by how we live, we – you and I – help bring that Word to life, give it flesh, in the world.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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