Christmas in July; “Emmanuel: God With Us;” John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28; July 21, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Emmanuel: God With Us”
John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28
July 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - CalendarThis Sunday on the church calendar is called the “15th Sunday in Ordinary Time.” Sounds exciting, huh? The Christian calendar has a total of 33 weeks of ordinary time,” time that is not defined by Lent or Advent or Pentecost or any other liturgical celebration. The trouble with ordinary time in the church is it can lull us into a liturgical rut. While churches all over see decreased attendance due to vacations and busy summer plans, calling this “ordinary time” doesn’t exactly encourage excitement in worship either. Worshiping in ordinary time doesn’t carry the anticipation of Advent, the loneliness of Lent, or the joy of Easter. Compared to fanfare of the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the horror of Christ’s death at Good Friday and the joy of resurrection on Easter, this in between time can seem, well, ordinary.

SLIDE 2 - Ordinary TimeBut even in our ordinary time, we profess a faith that is much more extraordinary than we often give it credit. Which is why today as we crank up the air conditioning, walk about in shorts and skirts, and fan ourselves off with the order of worship, we are traveling back to the manger, drawing close to the story of a baby born into the world to save us all. We are celebrating Christmas in July not because it feels particularly Christmas-y out in the world, but because even in a week where we’ve hit 90 degrees almost every day, we are called to recognize and bring about Christ’s presence in this world.

SLIDE 3 - NativitySo what can you tell me about Christ’s birth?

[Received responses about Jesus’ birth]

We are used to the story of Christ’s birth and so all of these very extraordinary circumstances seem quite ordinary to us.  Our two scripture lessons today tell us that this could not be farther from the truth. This quaint story of a manger birth in Bethlehem was not just what we see at first glance.

SLIDE 4 - WordOur Gospel lesson tells the story of Christ’s birth not in the story we’re used to hearing on Christmas specials in December, but rather in scope of all of time. Through poetic language John’s Gospel emphasizes the theological implications of Christ coming into the world. In this passage, the manifestation of God is identified as “the Word”: “In the beginning was the Word, 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.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - FootWith Jesus’ simple birth, a greater mission was brought to fruition. Jesus united heaven and earth, by being both God and human, both eternal and temporary. Jesus experienced human pain, happiness, hunger, and certainly the discomfort of 90 degree plus days. He also carried within him the love of a God willing to get his hands dirty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaul’s letter to the Colossians also describes Christ with a long term lens as the “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[2]

While we often think of Christ’s birth as something that happened about 2000 years ago, these two poetic and somewhat complicated passages remind us that Christ is without time and that the Savior who would come to redeem us all was set into motion from the very beginning of creation. Christ as an incarnate living and breathing walking about man was always intended to be a part of how we experience God.

SLIDE 7 - JesusColossians describes Christ as both “firstborn of all creation”[3] and “firstborn from the dead.”[4] While I could probably do a whole sermon on the many times Jesus is described like a zombie, today we can just recognize that Christ was in the beginning with God at creation and also made a way for us to have eternal life with God. Through living a perfect life and enduring the cross Christ brought life to all people.

SLIDE 8 - LightAs John 1 affirms saying, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[5]

SLIDE 9 - Gods ChildrenJesus, God’s only begotten son, was born into the world and died in this world so that we might also become God’s children. So that we might be drawn into the covenant of God’s providence and covered by God’s grace.

Colossians 1:19-20 says, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”SLIDE 10 - Fullness of God

“The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” I love that phrase.  At the great commissioning Jesus passed along the joy and the burden of this calling unto his disciples, and by extension, on to us.

SLIDE 11 - God within“Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[6]

SLIDE 12 - God With UsWhen we gather in worship we are strengthening ourselves for this mission, immersing ourselves in this hope. Since we carry such a powerful message of hope and restoration calling even these in between times in our year “ordinary time” seems a bit inconsistent with this great story we are called to be a part of.

SLIDE 14 - Nativity SetI was reading a story this week by Erin Newcomb, an English professor and author, about her own experience of ordinary time. She writes: “I was struggling with ordinary time this year. Even the weather refused to cooperate, with a brutal heat wave followed by days of downpours that kept us confined to the house for far too long. Our time was getting a little too ordinary, so I rummaged through the basement and brought up some of our Christmas things — a small, artificial tree, a play Nativity set, a box of miniature decorations…We’re listening to Christmas hymns and reading Christmas stories… My daughter and I are talking about what Emmanuel means, and why Jesus bears that name…”

SLIDE 15 - Baby JesusThere’s something about Christmas — the animal stories, the mama and baby — that make it innately more appealing and tangible for small children than the abstract and gruesome theology of Easter. I know the Incarnation is incomplete without the cross and the Resurrection, but sometimes in ordinary time we need a reminder of the vulnerable child who came to live among us.”

She continues, “I am loving Christmas in July, a celebration of the joy and hope of the Christ-child without the surrounding cultural commercialism. As much as I appreciate liturgy, this uncharacteristically spontaneous break from the church calendar is lifting my spirits more than the December season usually does, because this time it’s unburdened by a climate of greed, materialism, and social obligations that often exclude Christ. My departure from liturgy reminds me what liturgy is for: it’s not the dates that are significant but the acts of remembrance, not the calendar itself but the continual effort to walk with Christ throughout the year…Christmas in July assures me that Emmanuel is a year-round gift that transcends liturgy and history and makes all time extra-ordinary.” [7]SLIDE 15 - Walking with Christ

Perhaps your ordinary time has gotten a bit too ordinary. Maybe today, this Christmas in July, this singing of carols and celebration of Christ’s presence on earth will help you to continue to walk with Christ throughout the year.

SLIDE 16 - SurrenderEvery Christmas we celebrate God coming into this world walking and talking among us, but through our witness to God’s power in our world and in our lives Christ is still walking and talking among us, through us. May God become Emmanuel through you this day. Amen.

Here is the song that was sung by the Praise Team after the sermon:


[1] John 1:1-3a

[2] Colossians 1:15-17

[3] Colossians 1:15

[4] Colossians 1:18

[5] John 1:3b-5, 12-13

[6] Matthew 28:18-20

The Lasting Gift of Liturgy and Art

Yesterday I led a time of devotion at West Village, a local nursing care facility in nearby Independence, IA. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect because this was my first time doing this within this context. While I have lead worship at both The Hermitage in Richmond, VA and Swan Creek in Toledo, OH, this was rather different. The services at the Hermitage and Swan Creek were structured like a Sunday morning worship service, with sung hymns, liturgy, and a sermon. I knew my role in that sort of arrangement and was comfortable preaching from those pulpits.

Here in Buchanan county, members of the ministerial association take turns leading a time of devotion in several different facilities in the area. I spoke with the coordinator and asked her what a typical devotion time at these facilities looks like. She said that there’s usually some a capella singing, a prayer, a story read, and some scripture, but that the aim of the time is really to give the residents some personal attention.

So, I looked through my trusty Presbyterian Hymnal, decided to bring along my copy of “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” to read one of my favorite (slightly autumn themed) stories, brought a great booklet of prayers and scripture from Westminister Canterbury (Richmond, VA) and decided somewhat last minute that maybe I’d bring along my “I Believe” book just in case it would come in handy.

Yesterday morning, when I got to West Village I saw that this devotion time wasn’t in a chapel setting like at Swan Creek or the Hermitage, rather about 8-10 residents were gathered in a small activities room in a semi-circle. A woman working at West Village introduced me to each resident and then stepped out of the room. More than half of the assembled group were asleep and those who were awake seemed confused.

Thanks to some great seminary professors and lots of time spent at Swan Creek, I know that one of the most important tools in engaging people with issues with memory and cognition, is to utilize well known songs and liturgy. When experience becomes foggy, recalling common liturgy can become a light of something familiar and comfortable.

So, I began the session with prayer and then started with “Amazing Grace.” Some people looked up for the song and smiled, one woman sang with me. After another song, and a reading from Romans, I read to them one of my favorite stories from “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which you can read at the bottom of this post. Next we prayed the “Serenity Prayer,” and the same woman as before joined in with me on the prayer.

But the best part of this service came next.

Wanting to engage this place of memory and comfort, I decided to read from “I Believe.” The text of this book is simply the words of the Nicene Creed, but it is set up similarly to a children’s book, with few words on each page, and illustrations throughout. The illustrations are done by Pauline Baynes, probably best known for her illustrations in the Chronicles of Narnia books. She published this book in 2003, five years before her death. She was 81 when she completed the book, likely the same age as many of the people I was sharing this book with yesterday. I have no doubt she knew the timelessness of the words of the Nicene Creed, and the impact of Christian symbology in art.

As I read the book, I would read a page and then walk around and show the pictures to the residents, one by one, talking through some of the images of each page. The illustrations are quite detailed, so there was always something more to discuss. Gradually, each resident woke up, and would engage with the book when I came by.

One woman pointed at the book to an illustration of the Nativity and said quietly and firmly, “Jesus, that’s Jesus!” When I came by with a picture of Jesus on the cross, she said it again. And then when the next picture showed Jesus climbing out of the tomb and then surrounded by light, she giggled and said “That’s Jesus!”

Another woman would simply press her finger to the page and then look up at me. When it was a picture of someone preaching she pointed to me. When it was a picture of doves moving out and towards a man and I talked about the picture symbolizing the Holy Spirit speaking to us and through us, she pointed to several of the birds and then pointed to herself.

What an amazing act of worship. Through the haze, the stories of Jesus and an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit were able to speak hope and truth to this small gathered congregation.

I individually thanked each resident for coming and one woman held on to my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” And I told her, “I love you too and God loves you.” She smiled widely.

As the hymn says, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.”

_______________________________

 

As promised, here is my favorite “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” story:

In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide-and-seek. How long since I played hide-and-seek? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. Adults don’t play hide-and-seek. Not for fun, anyway. Too bad.
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide-and-seek-and-yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide to good again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.
As I write this, the neighborhood game goes on, and there’s a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window. He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him over at the base. I considered going out to the base and telling them where he is hiding. And I thought about setting the leaves on fire to drive him out. Finally, I just yelled, “GET FOUND, KID!” out the window. And scared him so bad he probably wet his pants and started crying and ran home to tell his mother. It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.
A man I know found last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.
He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. “I don’t want anyone to know.” “What will people think?” “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
Better than hide-and-seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is It goes and hides, and everybody goes looking for him. When you find him, you get in with him and hide there with him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody gets giggles and somebody laughs and everybody gets found. Medieval thelogians even described God in hide-and-seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think old God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.
“Olly-olly-oxen-free.” The kids out in the street are hollering the cry that says “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all those who have hid too good. Get found, kid! Olly-olly-oxen-free.

An excerpt from “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum