“Make Way”; John 1:1-8, 19-23; December 14, 2014; FPC Holt

“Make Way”
John 1:1-8, 19-23
Rev. Kathleen Henrion
December 14, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2014 12 14 Slide01Wilderness. It is a place where one can get lost, some intentionally, some accidently. It is a place of in between: between Exodus and Promised Land, between an inheritance and a prodigal’s return. It is the place that lies below the mountaintop and precedes the burning bush. It is a place of abandonment and provision; humility and testing. Where manna falls and rocks gush. Even when we enter into it willingly, wilderness is not a place where one intends to stay, but rather the place from which one comes.

2014 12 14 Slide02Wilderness is not restricted to the Biblical narratives. Wilderness can look like the descending cloud of depression coloring all that you experience. Wilderness can be the powerlessness felt when watching the news or reading the paper. Wilderness can look like learning to navigate life after the loss of a beloved spouse, parent, sibling, or child. Wilderness can be the cold plunge into the unforgiving waters of Alzheimer’s. By nature, wilderness isn’t restricted at all, but rather it paints obscurity over that which we think we know, in either our surroundings or our very selves.

2014 12 14 Slide03Jesus was no stranger to the wilderness, both surrounding him and within his own self. We often, and rightly so, associate “wilderness” in our liturgical year with the season of Lent, as Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days proceeding his fateful week in Jerusalem that took him from parade to upper room to cross. But today, we have a different scene of one emerging from the wilderness into the public eye.

2014 12 14 Slide04He had his surprising birth announced by an angel. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. And being that we’re in church, less than two weeks away from Christmas, it seems logical to imagine that I’m talking about Jesus. And of course that biography would be fitting for Jesus, but it also belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, SLIDE 4 - John the Baptistalso known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ, “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

The wilderness is John’s origin in this Gospel, and his persona is notably marked by these beginnings.SLIDE 5 - Saint John the Forerunner  John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man of wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. He comes from the wilderness place of in between.

He comes with the message of Christ coming soon and still not yet.

SLIDE 6 – John Preaching to CrowdAs John stands among a gathered crowd, priests and Levites that the Jews had sent to Jerusalem confront him. They ask him, “Who are you,” and there is a series of back and forth questions and answers between John and these Pharisee representatives. Is he the Messiah? No, not the Messiah. Elijah? Nope, not Elijah. Surely he must be a prophet. No, not a prophet.

As these priests run out of possible suggestions they seem to throw their hands up in the air saying, “Who are you? …What do you say about yourself?” He replies not with his name or credentials, but with scripture he says, “‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

John defines himself by his wilderness context and by his voice that testifies to Christ’s imminent presence among them. We read that John was sent from God and “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

Who John is and what he does are as a function of his role as witness to the light of Christ, in and among the dark wilderness spaces of this world. This light shines in darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorIn his book, “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It,” Robert Fulghum tells this story: “At the last session of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, our instructor (asked), ‘Are there any questions?’ These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence. So I asked. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ He looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was. ‘I will answer your question.’ Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter and said: ‘When I was a small child, we were very poor and lived in a remote village. One day, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept this little mirror, and as I grew up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I am not the light or the source of light. But light is still there, and will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world and help change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.’”[1]

SLIDE 9 - Light in DarknessJohn knew this was the meaning of his life. He was not the light, but he would do everything in his capacity to reflect that light that had touched his life.

What is the wilderness you find yourself in today? Your space of disorientation, confusion, disillusionment, or disconnect?

What could you do with in this wilderness space with just a little bit of light? The good news that John brings for you and for me and for all of us is that the light is never overcome by the darkness.

SLIDE 10 - Christmas Eve Columbia Seminary Professor, Marcia Y. Riggs writes “Like John we live as witness to the light of Christ, for the light of Christ is life. Thus, as we testify to the light, we also embody that light as believers who reveal the life of Christ anew in the world this Advent season. To embody the light and reveal the life of Christ anew means that we are to live so as to nurture our humanity – especially the capacity to love our enemies – and to act humanely, offering compassionate and restorative justice.”[2]

SLIDE 11 - Candle What does this light mean for our own wilderness? Might it be that what we now only see as wilderness is in fact Advent embodied? We, like John, await Christ’s presence in our lives with hope. Through our hope we are making a way in the wilderness for Christ to come again.

Thomas Merton, 20th century Catholic writer and mystic wrote this of our wilderness turned Advent hope, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”[3]

Might we live as Advent people, make a way for Christ’s light to shine in our wilderness. Amen.

[1] “The Meaning of Life”: from It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It by Robert Fulghum ©1988, Ballantine Books

[2] Marcia Y. Riggs, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1

[3] Thomas Merton, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/hope-restoredrejoice-always.html

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