A Sermon on John 1:1-18 (with Ephesians 1:3-14) for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas; preached January 4, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
Eleven years ago this weekend, I discovered first hand that one does not have to be good at Latin dance to be truly accepted among a Puerto Rican community. This is a lucky thing for me, since skill-and-grace for salsa and merengue, bomba or the cha-cha… let’s just say it’s not something I have in abundance.
Many of you have heard me speak before of the year I spent while in seminary interning at a predominately Puerto Rican UCC congregation on Chicago’s west side, La Primera Iglesia Congregacionál de Chicago. Epiphany, the Christian feast day which ends the Christmas season, coming up this Tuesday, January 6th, it’s a big deal in most Latino communities, even among the minority who are Protestant. Tres Reyes, or “three kings day” it’s often called, since the story we remember and celebrate on Epiphany is the coming to the of the magi or ‘three wise men’ to the Christ child, bringing their gifts and guided by that star.
Epiphany was a special celebration each year for the congregation of La Primera Iglesia, too, although not so much in the sense of anything different being done for worship. No, the primary festivities for Tres Reyes happened on Saturday night at their annual congregation-wide Epiphany party. And you know, maybe we New England Congregationalists need to learn a thing or two from our Chicago Puerto Rican Congregationalist siblings about how really to celebrate a religious holiday… as food, music, decorations, and even dancing filled the basement-level gymnasium-hall of the church that night.
I almost didn’t go to the Epiphany party that night. It was later-on in the evening on one of those cold January nights, and the west-side Humboldt Park neighborhood where the church sat laid a half-hour drive—each way—from my apartment near the University of Chicago in south-side Hyde Park. I was just going to have to turn around and drive back out there first thing the next morning for worship, anyway. Truth be told, though, the reality was that, even half-way through my internship experience already with La Primera Iglesia, I was still struggling with my relationship to the community and to my ministry “experience” there. I was helping teach the high school Sunday School class and I was present for worship each week, occasionally trying to contribute a bit musically, but I felt like I could be doing far more… in fact should have been doing far more, if this was supposed to be part of my preparation and training for ministry. Moreover, I hadn’t really felt like I was “plugged in” to the congregation yet—the relationships, the community of its people. There was some sort of distance or lack of connection or something… one of those hard-to-describe, but easily felt sort of things.
So, all of that together, the time, the driving distance, and feeling a little out-of-place more generally, I wasn’t sure I was even going to go to the Epiphany party. But for whatever reason, I did end up going—maybe it was one of those little tugs of the Holy Spirit… who knows(?). I went, and I ate, I tried my best to do a bit of dancing with a few of the church ladies—including, if I remember right, the wife of the old retired pastor emeritus. All-in-all, I had a good time, although I hadn’t thought it too profound.
The next morning, though, by the time I arrived back at the church for worship, something had changed. This was not an “epiphany” in the sense that I’d suddenly figured out something new. No, more of a “transfiguration,” if you will, in that suddenly the whole appearance and sense of things had been changed. Somehow, there was a new ease in relating, a new sense of belonging and connection. My whole place among them simply seemed different; the community itself treated me differently, or at least it sure felt like it.
There was something else, too. Four other classmates of mine from the seminary also had placements with this church. From that morning after the Epiphany party onward, though, I could tell that the congregation treated me differently from the other four. You see, I was the only one of us who came to the Epiphany party. The newfound embrace and connection I began experiencing the next morning was not something the others seemed to receive. And going forward through much of the remaining semester, it felt as though I occupied a different place in relationship to the congregation than my other four colleagues. All because, it would seem, I chose to show up… to be with them, to walk and dance among them. I chose to show up.
Now, I tell you this story which took place while celebrating Epiphany—which this year is coming up in just two days on Tuesday—and I speak of the sudden and tangible shift in relationship as being like a Transfiguration—another stopping point in Jesus’ story, one which we’ll celebrate in mid-February on the last Sunday before Lent begins. But when it comes right down to it, what I began experiencing that weekend some 11 years ago was Christmas. Or, perhaps I should say I experienced the truth, the reality, the gift of Christmas. God showed up. God chose to show up. God chose to be with us, to walk and dance and eat and cry and even to poop and to die with us.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” That’s the truth of Christmas, my friends. It’s a hard thing, I know, to write a Christmas pageant about that, with no wise men costumes to put on or sheep noises to imitate. But behind and beyond and above all our easily-romanticized images of a baby and shepherds and angels is the ultimate truth that God showed up. In the baby in the manger, in the child that would become the man Jesus whose story we gather around each Sunday, in the Word become flesh… God chose to be with us, and moreover, God chose us.
Now, you’d have to admit that if any of us were God, with all that the relationship with humanity had brought thus far, we might have hesitated to go just like I almost didn’t go to that Epiphany party. Disconnected and disobeyed, relegated only to the corners of life and the courts of the temple, any of us might have wondered “why bother?”
But luckily for us, God did show up. God’s face did appear, among us and as one of us, all to prove that God cares and God loves and God saves. And it makes all the difference in the world. It means we do not have to wonder about the character of God, for we only need to look to Jesus. God’s coming to us in the person and work of Jesus, it changes, transforms, transfigures our relationship, humanity to God and God to humanity.
Being present with us. Light shining in the darkness. The mystery gathering everything into life. The very Word that created and still holds the world together, revealed and visible and made known to us. That is who Jesus is. That is the divine mystery we celebrate as the truth of Christmas, regardless of how many magi there were, or whether Jesus was really born in wintertime or not.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” That’s the truth, also, of this feast table which we approach this morning. Set before us for all to see and touch and taste, here at this table the Word becomes flesh among us once again. From this fullness we shall all receive, grace upon grace. In this fullness, grace and truth come again as Christ invites us to see none other than God.
“Love bade me welcome;” the English poet George Herbert writes,
“yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.”
 George Herbert, “Love”, The Temple (1633); reprinted in Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed., The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900, (Oxford, 1919), #286; accessed 3 January 2015 at http://www.bartleby.com/101/286.html.