December 29, 2019, Dreams of A New Decade, by Reverend David Tatgenhorst
John 1: 1-14 In the beginning there was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. This Word was present to God from the beginning. Through the Word all things came into being, and apart from the Word nothing came into being that has come into being. In the Word was life, and that life was humanity’s light— a Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness has never overtaken. Then came one named John, sent as an envoy from God, Who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through his testimony everyone might believe. He himself wasn’t the Light; he only came to testify about the Light—the true Light that illumines all humankind.
The Word was coming into the world— was in the world—and though the world was made through the Word, the world didn’t recognize it. Though the Word came to its own realm, the Word’s own people didn’t accept it. Yet any who did accept the Word, who believed in that Name, were empowered to become children of God— Children born not of natural decent, nor urge of flesh nor human will—but born of God. And the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us; we saw the Word’s glory–the favor and position a parent gives an only child— filled with grace, filed with truth.
Let’s reflect for a moment on words that have mattered to us – the time when someone said just the right thing to help us feel loved or renewed. For just a moment breathe in and remember the words of a friend, a mentor or a parent who said just the right thing at the right time.
Compassionate Joy, Dreams of a New Decade
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us; and we saw the word’s glory.”
The Message translation says, “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes.”
I can still remember the words that my summer camp counselor wrote to me the first year I went to camp in Michigan. At the end of the 5 week camp, he wrote me a card in which he appreciated me and let me know he liked me, and he said, “Don’t wait to be a man to be great. Be a great boy.” Those words really touched me – a guy who seemed to me like a grown-up taking the time to say something nice to me, a skinny little runt, seeing me, and letting me know I could be something, right now.
I’m sure that guy doesn’t remember me at all. I don’t remember his name either, truth be told. But I remember the words he sent to me and what a gift they were to me at that lonely time in my life.
I’ll bet if you thought about it, everybody in here could remember a time when somebody said something to you that was memorable, that made you feel special, – or that maybe made you feel hurt. Words matter. Whoever said, “sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words will never harm me” as we all know, was lying. They meant well. They were trying to help you not worry about some of the stupid things that people will say to you in your life, but those things hurt just the same.
So remember the wonderful things people have said to you instead, the encouragement, the love, the help, the inspiration. Remember those words. Write them down and put them on your mirror or in your wallet. The words that make you feel strong; the words that make you know that you matter. Keep those words near you to fight off the words that persist in making you feel worthless or discouraged.
Christianity claims to be a religion of the Word, along with the other major Abrahamic religions. We all value words, in our different ways. I don’t know any more profound statement about the power of words than this passage from the beginning of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God.” This is a most profound recognition of the creative power of words, claiming in fact that God’s Word was the force behind creation from the very beginning. I find it a stunning claim from the first century poet we know as John.
The claim goes even further – starting from the abstract statement that the Word was part of what has created all that is, John goes further to say that the Word – the powerful creative force, has been born into our presence, has been incarnated, and has lived among us. In Jesus, we experience, we hear the power of this spoken Wisdom in our own neighborhood. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, the birth of the Word, the incarnation of God’s very presence, into our lives. It’s an awesome thought.
Protestants have traditionally valued the word in our church services in particular. You can see in some of the old churches how the pulpit is built up high in the center of the sanctuary, so the preacher can be above everyone.
The preached sermons were long and touched on every part of people’s lives – from personal advice to political commentary, to commentary about happenings in the community. Everything was fair game, because the preacher had that much respect, and the word from the pulpit was that authoritative. But really matters it is the gift of life, the word that is alive.
As you know, my sermons are short, and I don’t make super authoritative claims for what I say. I am honored that people here value my interpretation of the word of God, and I take that seriously. Really, it is great honor to spend my life reading the Bible and commentary on the Bible and finding ways to relate that to our lives together. The truth is, though, that I find the whole experience of worship to be important – the experience of candle-lighting and praying together, the experience of sharing Communion together and eating a meal or bagels together, the experience of being with the children in this place and respecting their part in our worship and life together. It’s all important and all part of the celebration of the Word – not just what the pastor says.
As we prepare to cross the threshold into a new year and a new decade, I want us to spend today and this next month or so thinking about our dreams for a new time, a new decade. How do we want the Word to shape us in this new time? What do we want our church to look like in the midst of all the changes going on? Where are we now? What is our vision of where we want to be? and What is our strategy for getting there?
Obviously this coming year is going to be a wild ride – because of the impeachment trial at the beginning and the election toward the end of the year. I regularly listen to sermons from Riverside Church in the New York, the big church right next to my seminary. Almost every week, the pastor makes negative comments about the president. He gets complaints from people in his congregation and he defends himself by saying he is just preaching the gospel and its relation to the world. I am unsubscribing from the sermon series because I find it tiring and not uplifting.
There are some people here who say, “I love it when you talk about politics.” and there are others who get upset if I comment on political subjects. I don’t object to this pastor commenting on anything he wants to, anything that he thinks the gospel relates to. It gets wearing though, complaining about the way things are. I think the gospel has such powerful, hopeful, joyful things to say about our world and it’s a shame to get stuck focused on one person or one phenomenon.
There’s been a fair amount of discussion this week on the news about an evangelical publication Christianity Today editorializing for impeachment. That’s when it gets interesting, when someone you don’t expect tells a particular truth. That’s when the word hits home.
That also happened over the Advent season when Claremont United Methodist church in California put out a political creche scene. I’m going to show it to you now even though I know it is disturbing and some people will say they want to see it and others that it is too disturbing.
But the important thing to notice is that all of us need to be disturbed. And the scene fits with our usual scripture reading for this first Sunday of Christmas – when Jesus is a refugee with his family – in Egypt. Gustavo Gutierrez, the famed Latin America theologian, says that he understands our scripture for today in the same way, as he interprets “the Word became flesh” as “the Word became poor.” Jesus is born into the neighborhood of the poor and the outcast, so we need to understand and be shocked by, Christ’s presence with families separated at the border.
Words matter. My dream for the New Decade in this place is that we will have honest and respectful conversations in this place, digging deep into what the Word means to all of us, and that we will live out our faith in the world, with this fundamental understanding – that God’s Word has been made flesh, has moved into the neighborhood and is present with all of us in all our broken places, with all of us, and especially with those in particular need.
This claim right here in verse 14 is the most important claim of the season, may be the most important claim of all of Christian scripture – that God, the Word of God is born into our midst that we might know God’s nature and God’s love for us all. This is God’s sweet good news. May we know it is so.
Sung Response 242 Love Came Down at Christmas