Grace upon Grace | A Sermon on the Incarnation
This sermon was delivered on December 31, 2017, at St. George's Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia. You may click play above to listen to this sermon or read the text below.
I want to tell you about the day that I wept in the street. On a morning in September, I gathered with a large crowd to take part in the March for Racial Justice in DC. I was there, but I wasn’t truly present. I was tired. And hungry. And sort of ready to go before I even started. I’m not proud of that, but its the truth. Marches had become routine. Protests had become rote. Where once I was fed deeply by the sense of defiant community I encountered on the streets, I had fallen into a general state of apathy. But, I showed up that morning. And, I marched. And, I was thinking about the closest metro (the easiest way out and home) before we even hit the final stretch. As it turned out, both the congestion of the crowd and the great weight of apathetic guilt that is the mark of privilege kept me there in the midst of the march for a half hour more than I intended. And, that’s when it happened. In the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue people began to take a knee. In the middle of our nation’s capital there was a pause as a great wave of genuflection rippled out and all around me people kneeled. And, for a moment, there was a profound and heart-rending silence.
I sank to my knees in the middle of our nation’s capitol with the crowd and somewhere between being upright and falling to the hard pavement, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of humility. Of brokenness. Of eternity. My apathy succumbed there on the street to the silence of a crowd on its knees.
Today’s Gospel is a Word on its knees as it testifies to the Word Eternal. Commonly called the Prologue to the Gospel of John, it asks us to pause and allow for an encounter with the Divine.
In the beginning was the Word, it reads, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
Our lectionary places these words at the end of a calendar year, when many of us are anticipating a new beginning. If you are anything like me, you’ve moved into next year already. Perhaps you are already thinking about the easiest way out and home. You’ve written 2017 into the books and have begun to prepare for the year to come. Given the year many of us have had, certainly no one can fault us for wanting to move forward, to move on, to celebrate the new year with cautious optimism. And, yet . . . and, yet . . . the year is not done. It is the 31st. And, we have gathered here. And, today’s Gospel begs a moment of our time. It demands, I suggest, that we take a knee.
Today’s Gospel is Prologue. It pulls what is past into the present so that it may press insistently upon the future in a way that is transformational. As Shakespeare tells us, “the past is prologue.” It sets the context for what is present. What then, is John’s Gospel asking us to consider as context here and now? Nothing short of the Eternal Word made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
In Advent we considered the nativity. We meditated on the humility of Mary, the fragility of her body, and the power of her spirit in its resounding “Yes.” We joyfully anticipated the birth of our Lord almost as parents-to-be “nest” in anticipation of the arrival of their own baby. We raised our voices in song, proclaiming “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel.” And, finally we sang “Joy to the World the Lord has Come!”
I have heard it preached that if the nativity says what happened, the incarnation testifies to what it means. Let us then take a moment, before we move beyond the nativity and headlong into the season we might call post-Christmas, to consider what our reading from the Gospel of John has to say about the incarnation.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
What does it mean that the Eternal Word, the Word that was in the beginning with God, decisively and intentionally entered the human condition, the material world, to dwell among us. What does this mean? What does it mean that the Word spoken at the beginning of the creating of the heavens and the earth, the Word that gave life and was life and is life still, what does it mean that this Word became flesh, became human, made itself proximate to us and to our condition?
It means, my friends, that we are intimately connected to the Eternal. Jesus, in entering human flesh, saw it, knew it and blessed it. Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word, was knitted together cell by cell, like each of us, within the womb. Was birthed fresh and new and tragically and gloriously alive from the body of a young woman. In entering the world in this way, Jesus blessed fragility, powerlessness and vulnerability. In entering the world this way, Jesus transformed us and redeemed us, challenging us, through holy proximity, to see each other and ourselves as mere mortals, flawed and even broken, and, yet, beloved and part of God Eternal.
What has come into being in Jesus was life, is life, and this life was the light of all people. This light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not and could not and will not overcome it.
The Gospel of John’s Prologue provides the context: The Eternal. And, in so doing, it makes clear this truth: What you will read here has happened, and yet it is also still happening because the incarnation is both in time and also beyond it. It is both conceivable in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth and inconceivable in the transcendent eternal Word.
What I mean is this: later, in the Gospel of John, when Jesus encounters that blind man. And, upon encountering this blind man, spits onto the earth, make muds with his saliva, smears it with his Holy hands onto the eyes of the man, and makes him see. This act, this act of touching, of healing, of providing sight, this is an eternal act. When Jesus weeps at the the grave of his friend, Lazarus. Those, my friends, are eternal tears. And, Jesus’ subsequent call to Lazarus to “come out!” That call is meant for our ears too. The Eternal Word issuing of a Word eternal —Come out. See. Live.
It is through a belief in this —in the eternal nature of Jesus the man —that I can say with confidence that God is well aware of our suffering and our brokenness. That God has taken all of it, past, present and future, into Gods-self and upon Gods-self and transformed it.
The Word became flesh and lived among us. And, from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.
I think its time I finish my story about that day in September. That day that I found myself on my knees in the street, struck by a profound sense of humility and brokenness. For a moment, I bowed my head. I looked down. But then, then I looked around. And here is what I saw. For as a far as I could see, there was a field of human color. Heads were bent, but backs were straight. Some held signs and some, some held each other. And I felt the overwhelming urge to grasp the hand of the nearest human being. To both acknowledge the sheer profundity of the moment and to root myself physically because I had the sudden thought that I might just float away or cease to be all together. I was having a moment.
I looked to my closest neighbor and found myself face to face with the incarnate. Because there she was. An African American woman who looked to be in her 70s, on her knees, in the street, one fist in the air and the other hand grasping a portrait of Frederick Douglass. She was weeping. By then, so was I. My emptiness filled to the brim with her fullness. And from his fullness I received grace upon grace.
It was mere seconds before the roar of the crowd went up: No justice. No peace. No justice. No peace. No justice. No peace. And the moment was broken. And, yet, the moment lives on. Past is prologue indeed.
Let us pray: Eternal God, as we sit at the cusp of a new year of calendar time, let us pause to consider the Incarnation —that blessed past event that is the context for all things present and future, not because of what happened then, but because of what continues to happen now. Open our hearts to its eternal truth of the blessedness of our bodies and our lives. Make it so that we can not help but see that truth in each human face that we encounter. You have made it such that every encounter is full of the potential for the Divine. By that grace we are humbled. For that grace we are profoundly grateful. Amen.