As we begin this new year, we carry what was before in the previous year into the new. Recognizing that not all of us carry the same sentiment, especially for those experiencing bereavement, I pray that God may fill you with strength and deep joy in this new year.
In light of the current rising tension in the geopolitical realm, it reminded me of a meeting of two global juggernauts.
Geopolitics is best followed by watching or playing a game of ping pong. Two strong powers were fiercest enemies until in 1972 when an American ping pong team was allowed to enter the communist China for the first time. As soon as two competitive teams were able to gather around small green tables and claim victories of their own, the whole world could breathe more easily through ping pong diplomacy.
For the game of ping pong, Japanese have created the competitive spirit without creating competition. Pico Iyer, a British born novelist and frequent TED Talk speaker, spoke about his experience of living in Japan for over 13 years as a westerner and learning the ways of the East.
As a young boy, Iyer was taught in England that the point of a game is to win. Winning was everything. But in Japan, he was encouraged to believe that the point of a game is to encourage as many people around you to feel that they are winners. So, you are not an individual rising or falling, but you are part of a steady chorus or community moving forward together. In Japan, a game of ping pong, in club and school level, is an act of love. You are learning to play with everyone, and not against someone.
“To think of winning and losing” he writes, “is to impose a binary system on a world and life that is not binary.” If we only think in those binary terms, then the competitive spirit in us will take away the joy of the game when we win, and it consumes us with obsessiveness when we lose. Yet if we think of the game or our life as a community, then we break away from individualism and elevate community.
For this Sunday’s lectionary passage, we have the prologue of the gospel of John. In its poetic and direct theological brilliance, John accompanies other gospel writers who have birth narratives, genealogies, shepherds, angels, virgin birth, wise sages and more by taking a direct aim to the heart of the incarnation of Christ. That is, God becomes one of us. The Word, eternal since the creation that utters, “’Let there be light!’ And there was light,” is now born as a human being. The Word of absolute power, authority, personality, and action is now one of us, fragile, vulnerable, inconsistent, and yet creative, delightful, and ever curious to grow. Listening to a podcast, Matt Skinner shares, “God has spoken a word of love, grace, and mercy into the universe and his name is Jesus Christ. “
During the season of Advent, Tim reminded us to hang our hearts on Christ. As we begin this new year with John’s prologue, we hang on the Word of love, grace and mercy in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.
Just before Christmas, a group of men gathered together to start a new men’s group in our church. Sure, it was a good excuse to get together and have some excellent BBQ. Come to think of it, why not play into the epitome of male, binary, machismo? The only thing missing was us sitting around a fire and beating drums. Oh wait, we did that in the last men’s retreat.
As we gathered and discussed the aim of this group, beyond consumption of large portions of protein, one person shared the desire of his heart to learn and deepen his faith through studies of the scripture and theological reflections. He recounted his time of youth when confirmation was pivotal, and youth ministry was inspirational. Looking around the table, nods and agreements ensued. There was a common sense of hunger for God’s Word to be made real, comprehensible and practical in their lives. There was desire to also gather the rest of their families, spouses and children, and to do a service project together. Habitat or Paint-a-Thon, look out!
When the Word made flesh, Jesus binds us inextricably to both the eternal and mystical powers of God. First, it connects us to the living Jesus as a person of compassion, and then to His teachings of love and justice. The power of the living Word is our faithful guide as we study and practice it.
As the Word made flesh, Jesus also comes to us as our light. The first light that pierced through the dark void is the light that continues to shine. No darkness can overcome it. No darkness can diminish it. Even when darkness seems to have overpowered the light, the light remains. We know this, because it remains in us.
Earlier in the worship, we heard the Meisel scholars testifying to the light. You can read all about the current class of scholars and community activists on the bulletin board right outside Westminster Hall.
One scholar makes the connection of stress on mental health development and its detriment in the early childhood brain. The scholar writes, “My experience at Washburn Center for Children made me realize the importance of community, and the role that everyone can play in contributing to the healthy development of each individual child in a community.” Testifying to the light, she continues with the essential elements of all people working together to reverse trauma and build a better future for those who have experienced distress.
Again, another scholar testifies to the light by utilizing his engineer learning and translates it into community building efforts and clean water projects. Working specifically with a community in Guatemala, this scholar adapted his education to assist in the crucial process to bring clean water to communities impoverished by the lack of clean water.
As we have heard from this morning, we hear the theme of the importance community is for both Meisel scholars. They shadowed pediatric oncologists, worked with naturalists in the parks, and served to test soil sample for not just sustainability but restorative potential.
By testifying to the true light of Christ, the scholars are bearing the light as we face down the darkness with God’s light.
Lastly, when the Word made flesh, it comes in the form of grace. Again, the same podcast with Matt Skinner, he recounted that grace is all over the place in this short 18 verses and then John doesn’t mention it again. Or didn’t he? Jesus was full of grace and truth. We have received this fullness as grace upon grace. Then again, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Then John finishes the prologue by saying, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
God through Jesus has made Godself known to us. We know this because we are all recipients of God’s grace extended to us from someone sharing their light in our moment of darkness. You all know what I am talking about. The important people, expected or unexpected, have touched our lives at a crucial juncture. The “Epiphanous” touchpoints have blessed us on this journey of faith and community. Take a moment and remember all those people and those contexts. Thanks be to God for all of them.
The gift of grace is God giving us the power, the standing, the right to be God’s children. The eternal Word made flesh is a story of adoption of the entire humanity. We are no longer outsiders looking in, but we are all one family of God. Through the gifts of diversity of ethnicities, cultures and non-binary identities, we are all welcomed to the table. No human made barrier will deny you to this community and to share the sacred meal. No denominational decision, as fraught with pain, anger, and brokenness, will deny anyone who seeks to know God from receiving God’s grace.
With this conviction, we pray for our siblings in the United Methodist Church as they begin the difficult journey of separation. We here in the Presbyterian Church know this stony road well. Let us keep them in prayer.
Here in our church, we have an opportunity to extend an intergenerational grace to multiple generations. This goes back to the idea of being a community together. This is not one generation winning or being right over another. This is about being a community that wins together.
The New Old Adventure that we started with intrepid leaders of our congregation focuses on concerns, changes, and the vibrancy of aging. Through its monthly Wednesday noon workshops, the group has lifted up topics such as health care, housing, legacy, spiritual, emotional and physical health and well-being, just to name a few. They are all available for later viewing on our church’s FB page. This is an intergenerational grace we can share in our church to one another as a significant portion of our church community ages. The next generation receives the grace of the previous generation’s wisdom, knowledge and love. They can also express caring compassion and honor to them. For more information, there is a table in the Westminster Commons.
When we dive deeper in learning the Word, we encounter the Word made flesh when the epiphany of wisdom comes alive from the pages of our scripture. When we attend to those who are in need, we encounter a greater depth of the Word through the Word made flesh. When we pray with someone, nurture their growth, visit a member facing loss or post-surgical recovery, we actualize the Christ child’s purpose for coming into this world by embodying the Word made flesh. When we rise up against the drumbeat of warfare, improve someone’s life with clean water, reduce our environmental impacts, dismantle systems of oppression, we are testifying to the light because we have encountered the Word made flesh.
For the coming year, let us as a whole community develop a richer, fuller faith to deepen our knowledge and practice of the Word made flesh. The Emmanuel God is in the sacraments, with us in prayer, with us in our church, with us in our wider community. Let us bear the Word, testify to the light, and extend grace to all.