The Marks of Faith

AM: Genesis 2:7-9, 15-17, 21-25 The Sovereign God crafted the human from the dust of the humus and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living soul. And the Sovereign God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there placed the human whom God had formed. Out of the ground the Sovereign God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the middle of the garden, along with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. … 15 The Sovereign God took the human and settled it in the garden of Eden to till and tend it. 16 And the Sovereign  God commanded the human, “From every tree of the garden you may eat freely 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” … 21 The Sovereign God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the human, and it slept; then took one of its ribs and closed up its place with flesh in place of it. 22 And the Sovereign God built the rib that had taken from the human into a woman and brought her to the human. 23 Then the human said, “This time, this one is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called a woman, for out of a man this one was taken.” 24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his woman, and they become one flesh. 25 And they were, the two of them, naked, the woman and her man, and were not ashamed.

Psalm 8: Divine Majesty and Human Dignity

Womb of Life, our Sovereign, how exalted is your Name in all the earth!

Out of the mouths of children and nursing babes Your mercy is praised above the heavens.

3You have founded a stronghold against your adversaries, to put an end to the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have established;
What are we that you are mindful of us, woman-born that you attend to them?

6 You have made us a little lower than God; you adorn us with glory and honour;
You have given us mastery over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts of the field,
9 the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever walks in the paths of the seas.

10 Womb of Life, our Sovereign, how exulted is Your name in all the earth!

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 16 Now from this moment, we consider no one according to the flesh;[a] even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh,[b] we know him no longer thus. 17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there[c] is a new creation: everything old has passed away; Look! Everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to God through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to God,[e] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 We are ambassadors for Christ, since God appeals through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.

Luke 2:15-21 15 And it happened when the angels had departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to be, which the Sovereign God has made known to us.” 16 So they came hurrying and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. 17 Now seeing this, they made known what had been spoken to them about this child. 18 And all who heard marveled at what was spoken by the shepherds to them, 19 and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, it was just as it had been told them.  Jesus Is Named

21 When eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child,[a] and he was called Jesus; his name was the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Good Morning, St. Matthew!

We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so we pray.

Holy God, we like to think that somehow, we are all temporary renters of our bodies and that this physical manifestation of life is merely a passing moment, that ultimately isn’t nearly as important as the lives of our higher more spiritual selves. But there is something in this quintessence of dust that makes us who we are – something that is important enough that you poured yourself into a human form and incarnated yourself into the mess and mud, body and blood of humanity should tell us that this flesh in and of itself is part of the story you are telling, in and of itself part of the story we are living and thus, in and of itself, this flesh is a sacred and sanctified creation. Help us Lord to live as you did, fully embodied and fully incarnated in this sanctified flesh, moving through a sanctified creation. In your holy incarnated name, we pray. Amen.

One of the more difficult things about being a pastor, is that sometimes one is exposed to ideas that for whatever reason, rarely make it into the pews. When I first went to seminary, it was nearly a daily thing to have my mind blown open by a new idea or new way to approach the Divine. I wasn’t alone in this; most of my classmates were having the same mind blowing moments as well. The way we came to talk about it was that your faith was built to a certain level to respond to the call of becoming pastor and then the seminary spent four years blowing it all apart and we had to rebuild that faith with the new knowledge and understanding. In a small example, when we were being brought into the world of the Hebrew language, we had to interpret a small section of the creation story. For me, that story had always been very sterile – so many creation stories seem to dance and shimmer with life and liveliness, but the Genesis story as I had encountered it read like a check list. Day one, light and dark. Day two, heaven and earth. Day three, dry ground and sea – and so on and so forth. But in reading the original language, one little word made the entire story transform for me. In Hebrew, God doesn’t call the dark night and light day – no! In Hebrew God calls TO the dark and names it night, calls TO the light and names it day! For me, suddenly the entire Bible had a heartbeat and blood was flowing! God moved from detached scientist to creative artist, and I was just dazzled.

The idea of God as scientist is a very Western Greek one; as I learned in Hebrew class, most of the rest of the world sees God as being a far more personal artist, playing as artists do with colour, variation and not seeing mistakes but happy coincidences. Remember that fuzzy headed guy on PBS? There were no mistakes only the surprise of a happy tree emerging from the background.

The idea of an artist finding happy trees emerging from the mist is powerful when we let go of God as cold scientist and embrace instead a creative God who doesn’t dissect mistakes but instead finds creative inspiration. In our Old Testament lesson, I am sure we all learned that story as one of rules and laws; break ‘em and there’ll be a consequence. But God created us with free will, and in that knowing, gave us the chance to make wrong choices as well as the right ones. But being God, God knew that they could accommodate our mistakes, and figure out how to adapt the story God was telling to make sure the right threads carried through. I was reminded recently that the light of the star that led the Magi to the Christ child could only be seen billions of years after the actual star had died! That means that God had a story planned for that star long before the actual journey took place. Let that blow your mind a bit! So when God gives Adam and Eve the story about what they can and cannot eat, God already knew how to tell their story even Adam and Eve don’t make the right choice!

And God didn’t just take the mud and breath life into it to “trap” a soul – the dirt was and is part of the story that God wants to tell. Now for those of us who were raised with this dichotomy of earth and body being of less value than soul and spirit, this is a revolutionary idea! This challenges us to think that God always planned to tell the story of humanity as a story of mud and blood. That the mud and blood are not part of the fall but were always part of the story! Which then in turn means that Jesus’ incarnation was always part of that mud and blood plan. I will tell you that I was startled by this idea! In Lutheran circles, there is family of theologians known as the Stendahls. Some of you will be happy to learn of their Swedish heritage; the father, Kister, was Dean of the Harvard School of Theology, and his son John followed in his footsteps, becoming a Lutheran pastor and theologian in his own right. John Stendahl recently shared these thoughts about today’s texts:

Visiting an elder retirement community … I noticed among the art chosen for the corridor walls a nice print of this famous “Madonna del Prato” (Madonna of the Meadow) by Raphael and I was once again struck by the way it apparently didn’t occur to the artist, as a Renaissance Italian Gentile, that both John the Baptist and Jesus would have been circumcised.

Discussion around this rather trivial point ensued and I’m now reminded that I eventually offered the following comment:

“The theme of foreskin and circumcision is a striking reminder of the scandal of the Incarnation in multiple ways: its fleshliness, its smallness and vulnerability, its ethnic particularity of Jewishness (Hilaire Belloc’s infamous little verse comes to mind: ‘How odd / of God / to choose / the Jews.’), and perhaps most challenging and problematic for our sensibilities, its gender particularity. Jesus is born into the prison not only of a particular place and time but also of a specific ethnicity and gender. The scandal of such particularity is not so much a distinction as it is a solidarity with us all in the reality and specificity of our own incarnations, male or female. Trans- and fluid-gender identities make that paradox more complicated and interesting, but the underlying reality of our individual “stuckness in particularity” doesn’t seem thereby to change. Paradoxically, it’s only with the limitation of such particularity that this Jesus can bear our universal humanity.

So that’s what I sometimes think of on January First, aka the Feast of the Name of Jesus or, in older tradition, the Feast of the Circumcision.

Did you catch that? There is a Feast of the Circumcision! A celebration of Jesus’ fleshiness that is utterly scandalous! Another colleague, Elle Dowd, shared a painting of the Crowning of Jesus, where the actual birthing of Jesus, emerging from Mary’s body is depicted. It would have been really easy to give my wow emoji and let it stop there, but then I thought back to that seminarian who walked in Philadelphia in 1989. Why should that knowledge of what the Bible says and what God models stay locked into an ivory tower? Isn’t the whole point of becoming a leader in faith to share the wow of the Biblical scandal of incarnation? The God who delighted in the materials of creation – the mud and blood of human existence – who loves it so much that God willing incarnates in that muddy, bloody flesh – this is the God we confess, follow and worship.

Hold that in your heart; God doesn’t love us apart from our flesh – God loves us in our flesh! This flesh that gets battered, bruised, broken scarred and scorned – God hallows that flesh because God created that flesh to tell the story of salvation and redemption. God has already planned for, and accommodated, our wrongheaded choices! God knew in Eden that the story begun there would come to fruition in a manger in Bethlehem, and that the naked bodies drawn from the mud of the garden and the blood of Adam’s rib had a direct link to the mud of the manger and the blood of Mary’s womb! That is why we may talk about the Feast of Circumcision and the birth of Jesus without a blush; why we may lift up the physical elements of bread, wine and water, naming and claiming them as reflections of the Divine  – because we can see that the Sprit of God is not simply washing through them as a vessel, but incarnating in them. To incarnate is to put the meat, the flesh on to something – to take on the breath, the blood, the sweat, the grossness and the glory of having a body. God hallowed that flesh in Eden and in Bethlehem.

So today the challenge comes to us. How do we live in hallowed flesh? We do not live an “either/or” existence, trying to force ourselves into being one thing or the other. The scandal of the Incarnation is knowing we are “both/and” – spirit and body, creator and destroyer, saint and sinner. We live as the embodied artwork of the creator God, who uses all of who we are to accomplish their purpose, who believes in our embodied flesh so much that they share it with us, the creator bonded to the created. There is freedom in that because we are not bound by the brokenness of sin but by the depth of God’s reconciliation.

That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to God,[e] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 We are ambassadors for Christ, since God appeals through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God.

Let’s look at ourselves – body and soul – and live our embodied lives as ambassadors of that enfleshed salvation.