Rev. Sarah Buteux
January 5, 2020
Second Sunday after Christmas/Epiphany Year A
It is words that brought this world into being and sometimes I fear it is words which will bring it to an end.
“Let there be light,” said God, and there was light. God said – just said – “Let the waters bring forth living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth… and let the land bring forth living creatures…and (with those words) it was so.”
Playing off that great mystery, John begins his gospel with a tribute to the Word personified, claiming that the Word made flesh – the one called Jesus – “was in the beginning with God. All things – the sun, the moon, the stars, all the creepy things and the crawly things and the cuddly things (like baby Yoda) – all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
Both John and Genesis are clear: words are powerful and life giving. Words spoken in love and hope are the engine of all creation. And yet, sometimes…sometimes I feel like we are living in a world where words are becoming increasingly meaningless.
I grow weary of the way politicians, preachers, and pundits twist words round and round to mean whatever they want them to mean. I’m tired of living in a country where half the people can hear a phone call as perfect while the other half are sure the exact same phone call represents an impeachable offense. I am tired of all this “sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.”
I went home to N.Y. for Christmas. I talked with family members about current events and it really is like they’re living in an alternate reality. They had viewed the same hearings, listened to the same words, and yet come away with the opposite meaning. I truly do not understand how that is possible, but it is, and it’s enough to drive you to despair. It’s hard not to be snarky or cynical. It makes you wonder if there is any point in trying to communicate or understand one another at all.
But home for me is Rockland County. My parents live less than 10 minutes from Rabbi Rottenberg’s house. My brother-in-law, a Ramapo police officer, patrols that neighborhood regularly. I could walk to the home where five people were wounded in a knife attack as they gathered to celebrate Hanukkah last weekend.
And I know this event has already been pushed out of the news cycle. Who has time for a hate crime in Monsey when we might well be on the brink of war with Iran? But hang in here with me because it all relates. If you dig deep enough, it all connects.
I need to start today with that that horrible, horrible thing that happened back home, because it happened, at least in part, because of words and how we use our words in the coming days my friends may well make all the difference not just in the world, but to it.
If the roots of anti-semitism are fear, hatred, and greed, then words are all the air, soil, and water those roots need to grow… bigoted, othering, words and ideas that never seem to go away…words that can be traced back through countless tirades, pogroms, broadsides, and sermons, back through Christianity’s long and violent history, all the way to this gospel in particular.
If you are familiar with the gospel of John, then you know it is as beautiful as it is problematic. Unlike the other three gospels, which were written earlier, the gospel of John was not completed till the close of the first century. It was written during the time when the Jews who followed Jesus as the messiah were officially breaking away or being cast out of the synagogues and Christianity was becoming a religion in its own right.
Commitment to this new belief system tore these communities apart. Belief in Jesus tore families assunder. It turned brother against brother. It turned parent against child. Which is to say that this gospel was written in the midst of a family feud, a bitter divorce if you will. And as we are all aware, families know how to hurt one another better than anyone in times like these, especially when it comes to words.
The pain of rejection – the anger and disappointment of that early Christian community – is written into John’s gospel right alongside all the hope and wonder.
You can hear it in all the oppositions he plays with: the oppositions between light and darkness, believer and unbeliever, acceptance and rejection, life and death, law and grace. Whenever we read these words on Christmas Eve I feel both a thrill of wonder and a thrill of dismay.
“The law …was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
“He was in the world…yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
Those words are as warm and welcoming as they are chilling depending which side you find yourself on. I want to believe these oppositions are there to fill Christians with grace and gratitude for all we have received from God, but it’s clear that they can just as easily be twisted to fill us with judgment and rancor toward the ones who reject what we hold dear.
And this, as John says, is just the beginning. He will go on to reference “the Jews” 71 more times in his gospel, almost always in opposition to Jesus. He will speak of the “Chief priest and leaders of the people,” who plotted against Jesus. And when Jesus stands trial, though only Rome has the power to crucify him, John will have “the Jews” call for his execution.
What is lost in translation, according to Mary Luti, is the fact that “‘the chief priests and leaders of the people,’” whom John references, were “officials who collaborated closely with the Roman systems of oppression, and were viewed with contempt by much of the Jewish community in their time. They should not be identified with the Jewish people of the past as a whole,” she says, “and certainly not with Jews in the present.”
She goes on to remind us that “All of the Gospels originated from Jewish communities. Jesus himself, was born, lived, and was crucified, a Jew. Any criticism of Jews from Gospel writers should be understood as the expression of differences of opinion among or about their fellow Jews. The gospels’ use of the term “the Jews” therefore, should not be read as a criticism of the Jewish religion, and especially not as a condemnation of an entire people, either then, or now.”
And yet it’s as easy as it is ironic to see how these words could be taken out of context and used to nurture prejudice and incite violence, not just against our Jewish siblings, but against anyone who doesn’t look, believe, or behave like us.
And yes, I’m thinking about the people of Iran as I say this. I’m also thinking of how the opposition of light and darkness in scripture has been used to denigrate people of color. And I’m thinking about how this idea that it is “belief in Jesus” that makes you a child of God has been used to justify untold horrors (genocide, slavery, the “Doctrine of Discovery”) against those who believe differently.
Perhaps the most pernicious idea in all of history is the idea that there is a “them” as opposed to an “us,” and scripture, especially a scripture like this, can provide all the cover we need to take us to that place, that horrible place where we undo with our words what God has made with them. That place where we destroy with our hands those who are made in God’s image as surely as we are.
The words of Scripture, especially this scripture, can take us to that place… but they don’t have to.
John lets us know that the Word needs a witness, and I’ll be the first to admit he is not a perfect one. And were he to stand with us now in the long shadow of history, I have no doubt he would admit that too. But for all the ways his words can be twisted to hurt, they can also be used to heal.
Because, you see, a generous reading of these words reveals a beautiful nuance. A reading in tune with the life giving energy that led God to speak creation into being in the first place, reveals the subtle truth that all of these oppositions require one another to exist.
You can’t light so much as a candle and not cast a shadow. You can’t see the light without the dark. There is no life without death, and certainly no resurrection. The law that came through Moses is vital, in part because it shows us our need for grace.
It is doubt that creates the space for faith; Judaism that birthed both Christ and Christianity. All of it is necessary. We can’t do away with the one if we value the other. We need all of it for any of it to make any sense at all.
And we need each other, the more “other” the better, for how else can we learn what it is to love, welcome, forgive, or understand?
The Word needs a witness, and John was not a perfect one. Either was John the Baptist for that matter with all his talk of winnowing forks and axes. But they both point us to the one who is. The Word made flesh. The One who was fierce with the reality of God’s love not just for his own people or the ones who would come to believe in him, but for all the world.
The Word that brought all of life into being, comes among all of us, takes on flesh and bone, blood and sweat, lives among us and shows us how to continue the work of creation, how to join in the work of God, how to bring light and life to the world…not with force, and certainly not with violence…but with grace.
Grace upon grace. Jesus extends grace to everyone at every turn, and if we are blessed enough to know that grace in our own lives, then our task is to share it with one another.
Henri Nouwen says it like this:
“You are sent into this world to believe in yourself as God’s chosen one and then to help your (siblings) know that they are also beloved (children) of God who belong together. You are sent into this world to be a people of reconciliation. You are sent to heal, to break down the walls between you and your neighbors, locally, nationally, and globally….
Before all distinctions, the separations, and the walls built on foundations of fear, there was a unity in the mind and heart of God. Out of that unity (that set creation in motion), you are sent into this world for a little while to claim that you and every other human being belongs to the same God of Love who lives from eternity to eternity.”
Friends, it is words that brought this world into being and words that may yet have the power to save it. Words spoken with grace. Words spoken with love. The Word lived out. The Word made true. Amen.