Monday, March 23, 2015

Sermon: "Garden or Clockwork?" John 1:1-18 (December 28, 2014)


Merry Christmas!

So I know I might be preaching to the choir here, so to speak, but I feel like my first responsibility as a pastor is to remind you all that this is not the first weekend after Christmas, but the beginning of the actual liturgical Christmas season, which lasts until Epiphany on January 6th. It’s really easy for us, as Americans, to buy into the idea that Christmas begins the day after Thanksgiving and ends on December 25th. But as Christians, we know this isn’t the case. Our culture often looks at December 25th as the culmination of something. But our God isn’t about endings. Our God is about beginnings.

Who is this God that rejects our earthly timelines in favor of a heavenly one? This God who doesn’t settle in, but continuously moves and works among us? And what does this God expect from us? Even though we talk about “comfort and joy” around Christmastime, complacency isn’t the type of comfort that God is interested in. God invests in hope and promise, and we see this most clearly through the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ. This week we have the opportunity to examine a very different account of who this Christ-child is. The gospel of John explains Jesus to us in a way that is wholly unique from the other three versions in scripture. We need this separate account to remind us that the story of Jesus does not begin in the manger in Bethlehem, and it certainly doesn’t end there.

The first chapter of John describes Christ using incredibly symbolic language. It has to. The purpose of this gospel is not to give a historical account—which Matthew, Mark, and Luke presumed they had done—but a theological account. The author is going out of his way to reflect the divinity of Jesus, and because any description of God is a pale approximation of the divine reality, the best he can do is describe the divine Christ using metaphors.

Most of us are familiar with the first symbol that the gospel uses, and can easily recite John 1:1 from memory: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Christ isn’t literally a word, of course, but by using this image, the author of John evokes the creation account of Genesis 1, where God used words to bring all things into being. In scripture, the word has creative power. The benefit that Greek has is that it adds layers of meaning to this metaphor that English-speakers miss: specifically, the Greek word “logos” (translated here as “word”) conveys a sense of both something external to oneself (speech) and something internal (like an idea). All of this gives us a deeper glimpse into Christ’s true nature. Christ begotten as human, external from God, and simultaneously encompassed by the divinity of God. Christ as word.

But the gospel doesn’t end its description of Christ there. John offers us yet another symbol to aid our understanding of Christ’s true nature: Christ as light. This isn’t the only time that Scripture uses light as a symbol, but it is arguably the most profound. Again, the Greek adds more dimensions to this metaphor: the word “phos” refers not only to the light itself, but to the source of the light.

Before we go any further, we really should stop to appreciate this symbol of Christ more fully. Light brings vision, a fuller view of reality. The light of the sun brings warmth. Light provides food for plant life, which in turn provides oxygen and food for other creatures. Truly, light is life, and serves as a beautiful illustration of who Christ is.

The metaphor of Christ as light resonates particularly strongly at this time of year. Last Sunday was the winter solstice—the longest night of the year—and yet we respond defiantly to the darkness by celebrating the birth of light. We need this light more than ever right now.

And this life-giving light isn’t given to us for its own sake. We’ve all heard someone say, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” a pithy reminder that Christmas isn’t about commercialism or parties or “stuff”. And that’s certainly true. But it’s not quite the bottom line. As a friend of mine reminded me on Friday, Christmas is, at its core, about God’s love for us in the cold and dark. Creation and life is freely given as a gift to us even in the bleakest part of the year; perhaps especially in the bleakest part of the year.

One aspect of this gift is the creation of a people through Christ. Just as God created a people when God called Abraham, Christ created a people when he became human in order to reconcile us to God. All of humankind has been welcomed into God’s original promise to Abraham, creating a brand new covenant. And we call this new people “the Church.” Yes, Jesus is the reason for the season, but God’s plan goes far, far beyond Bethlehem. So, then, as we continue journeying through the Christmas season, we aren’t just celebrating the birth of Christ, but all that it represents: the fulfillment of God’s promise, the hope of our reconciliation with God, and the creation of a new people through our inclusion in the Abrahamic covenant.

Through God’s act of giving a son, we have been created as a people, but we have also been given the gift of determining how we live into our created-ness. Following the lead of John’s gospel, let’s consider this idea using metaphors to aid our understanding. If Christ is the light, then one way of choosing to be the Church is to be like a garden. God plants the seeds, Christ provides nourishment, and we, with the help of the Holy Spirit, grow and blossom.

A church that chooses to live like a garden is alive and vibrant. It’s full of different colors and shapes, always changing, always growing, always becoming something different than it was. Each flower, vine, and even weed is an integral part of who the garden is, and when one sprout changes, the entire garden joyfully becomes something new. But it doesn’t cease to be a garden if a bush is pruned or a flower is replanted. It is still what it was created to be, just in a new form.

In a garden, a flower cannot be bad at being a flower. Even a misshapen bud or a discolored petal has something to contribute. Indeed, the four-leaf clover, which is really a mutation of the common shamrock, is valued above its homogeneous companions. And so it is in a garden-church. Each of its members is a valued child of God, and none are ridiculed or dismissed because of their unique ideas or talents. When such a flower is removed from the garden for whatever reason, the garden-church doesn’t seek an exact replica to replace it—that would be impossible. Instead, it welcomes a new flower, perhaps very similar to the old one, but with its own quirks. Or, it remains at peace with the vacant space, and allows its emptiness to shape what the garden is to become.

In a garden-church, all of the flowers are interconnected. They drink from the same soil and grow in the same space. Sometimes, they even become tangled up with one another. The flowers will not always work together perfectly—sometimes, one might alter another’s growth pattern or compete for resources—but this is a sign that the garden is a living body that is changing and growing together, as a whole and not as individualistic and self-serving parts.

A garden-church is also not restricted to a particular timeline. Sometimes, ministry seedlings sprout up right away, yielding blossoms almost immediately. Other times, the growth is negligible, even seeming to stop altogether. But whether the vegetation grows quickly as is hoped or takes a lot longer, the garden is fulfilling its purpose.

Finally, a garden-church not only allows the light in—it needs the light. The light both sustains it and allows its beauty to be seen by the world. It is comfortable being dependant on its life source.

But this isn’t the only way for the Church to operate. Some communities take this beautiful thing that God has begun in Christ and twist it into something different. They’re uncomfortable with the freedom and unpredictability of a garden, so they replace the flower petals with gears, the stems with levers, and the dirt with metal. They turn the Church into clockwork.

This doesn’t sound so bad, right? After all, when we say something “works like clockwork,” it’s a good thing. Well, it is…when something is intended to work mechanically. And I contend that this is not what our God of creativity, messiness, and subverted expectations—of gardens in the winter and light in the darkness—intends for us.

So then what does a clockwork church look like? Well, the clearest sign is that this church doesn’t tolerate change or deviation. After all, one change throws off all of the cogs, and causes this type of church to grind to a halt. Everything must be the same as it’s always been, and if something doesn’t fit neatly into the pattern, it is discarded and replaced. This is easy to do, of course, because the cogs aren’t valued for their unique talents or skills, but by how well they fit into the pre-determined design. The only camaraderie in a clockwork church is among the gears who are in immediate proximity to one another. The cogs in charge of the hour hand never interact with the cogs in charge of the second hand. It’s just not done. It would be scandalous.

Perhaps the worst part of a clockwork church, though, is that it is determined to operate according to its own timeline. Everything is planned precisely, exactly as it has always been, and there’s no room for variation. Counting the seconds, minutes, and hours is what it’s always done, and it does it well, so why mess with it? It finds its value in being predictable. Not even its creator has any right to mess with such perfection.

The clockwork church is so insular, so self-contained, that the light can’t get in. It’s sealed off. The clock relies only on itself to continue to run. The light plays no role in a clock’s life; the clock is indifferent to it.

Now, to be honest, most churches are neither purely gardens or purely clockwork. They’re usually some sort of hybrid, and even then, the balance between the two extremes sometimes shifts. But most churches tend one way or the other a majority of the time. The good news is that we have some say as to which we’d like to be. God created us with free will to choose.

Full disclosure: I’m pretty clearly biased here. I believe that God created us to be a garden, not a clock. That Christ is light because we need light. We may want to think that God has put the gears of the church together just so, and that our job is to maintain the status quo in order to honor Christ in perpetuity, but God is a creator, and the “status quo” is not what creating is about.

The reason I’m bringing this up now, on the first week of the Christmas season, is to remind us that we’re at the beginning of something new—again! We’re not at the end; we’re not finished, and we’re not stopping! We’re still at the beginning of the Church year, so it’s time for a new year’s resolution!

God’s plan is already in motion: God is with us—Emmanuel. We’re no longer in hoping and anticipating mode. It’s go time. And now, today, this very moment, we have the opportunity to respond to the incredible thing that God has begun in the birth of a tiny child. So we have a decision to make: are we going to choose to be a garden, to grow and learn and act, and to respond to the light, or to be a clock, and consider our work done?

If you’re wondering how to do this, I don’t have any answers to give you. Each community needs to discern the best way to respond to God’s gift for itself. But I find that Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas”, is a good place to start. If we decide that we want to be a parish of growth, connection, and purpose—a garden parish—these are words that we need to deliberately write on our hearts in these days after December 25th. I sang them with the seminary choir in my first year of theological education, and they have haunted me (in the most wonderful way possible) ever since.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Brothers and sisters, let’s choose to plant our roots and make music in the heart. Amen.

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