DID YOU MISS CHURCH?
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland
Moosup Valley Church UCC
What’s in a Word?
John 1:1-5, 14
January 21, 2018
John 1:1-5, 14
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
John begins his Gospel with these beautiful words, this wondrous Prologue, as it is called – “In the beginning was the Word,…” It brings to mind the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and is his equivalent of a birth narrative, though without a baby in a manger.
John is introducing themes he will explore in the gospel, dichotomies such as light and dark, heaven and earth, God and flesh. These are questions that were of particular interest to his readers – Gentiles and Greeks, Gnostics and disciples of Plato and Pythagoras. John is making the case to this audience, late in the first century, that Jesus is God’s Word, entering into time and space. In the beginning was the Word . . ..
What’s in a word? Is a word a thing? Something you can hold in your hand? No. But you can think a word, or speak a word, and with that word refer to something of substance or an idea. And with a word, you can communicate that something to another person, and build ideas upon ideas, like a tower of children’s blocks.
The question brings me back to my freshman biology class at URI 60 years ago. The professor picked up a chair and plunked it down on the dissection table. What do you see? We see a chair. No, what do you see? After a while, we caught on: We saw four tall, rounded pieces of wood, about 1inch in diameter, held together at the top on each corner with a horizontal piece of wood. On one side were more pieces of wood, upright,… Or something like that.
The question, “What do you see?” calls forth the greater question: What is the meaning of language? Words are symbols of experiences, feelings, ideas and proposals. Words are not real – but they point to what is real. Simply put, all language is metaphor, code for something else. And words and their multiple meanings certainly can create confusion. For example: A woman goes into the post office to buy stamps for her Christmas cards. She says to the clerk, “May I have 50 Christmas stamps please?” The clerk says, “What denomination?” The woman replies, “God, help us! Has it come to this? Give me 22 Catholic, 12 Presbyterian, 10 Lutheran and 6 Baptist.
What’s in a word? Words can communicate feelings: “I love you.” “I’m sorry.” “I miss you!” “I am so angry…!” “I am afraid.” “I’m lonely.” Words can serve as moments of grace: “I forgive you.” “I’m calling to offer you the job.” “Yes, our church can help with your electric bill.” And, of course, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
What’s in a word? Words can pass judgment; and words can kill: It’s not true, what we learned as children on the playground: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” You know it’s not true if you’ve been called “fatty” or “stupid” or worse. Words can stir things up, like the President’s off-the-cuff remarks and tweets. At the MLK Scholarship Breakfast last Monday, the outrage was palpable over how he had described African countries and Haiti in a meeting about immigration.
These days – the way words fly around on the internet – it’s difficult to know what words to believe, what words to trust, what words are factual, true – and what words are designed to mislead, to undermine trust, to create an alternate reality. I think of Pilate’s question to Jesus during Jesus’ trial, “What is truth?”
Last summer, the University of Rhode Island published an article in their alumni magazine entitled, “The Age of Disinformation,” which highlighted the problem. They noted that identifying credible sources of information – what’s factual versus what’s fabricated – is now one of the core competencies students are required to develop in order to graduate.
The author identified six types of fake news: disinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, satire/parody, partisanship, and inaccuracies in journalism. Honest mistakes always occur, of course, and newspapers are duty bound to correct them as soon as possible.
But this age of disinformation goes further – and it’s not new! Examples of fake news go back as far as the 6th century. And during the American revolution, Benjamin Franklin swayed British opinion by printing fake newspaper stories in London papers. And even the Spanish-American War in 1890 was started by two New York newspapers competing with each other.
As a current example, the URI article begins with a story that circulated on the internet during the Presidential campaign that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a D.C. pizza parlor. Where do these stories come from? This one was conjured out of a WikiLeaks dump on a social media message board, and the idea floated through the internet on sites like InfoWars, picking up details that involved occult practices, and was intensified on Facebook and Twitter. An unhinged story, put together like a puzzle out of whole cloth by a lot of players.
But this made-up story, through repetition, acquired the gloss of truth for some. So much so, that a 28 year-old man from North Carolina showed up at the Comet Ping Pong Pizza parlor with an assault rifle and a handgun to save the imaginary child sex slaves. My mother used to say, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire!”
Where do these stories come from? The URI article cited young tech savvy webmasters in Eastern Europe, where jobs are scarce, who have discovered they can make a good living by creating websites, and they don’t care about their sources. People read these stories, think they are real or funny, and circulate them to their network of family and friends. And a man who cares about kids gets his rifle and gets in his car.
People have always looked for easy answers that confirm what they already believe. And now we are so polarized as a country that we tend to stick with the news that tells us only what we want to hear – and we never listen to those hat offer a different opinion and from whom we might learn.
It doesn’t help that television outlets – like Fox News and MSNBC, opposite ends of the political spectrum – often mix straight news reporting with their opinion. And with the capacity of the internet to spread words across the globe with the click of a mouse, disinformation has become a big problem.
So, what’s in a word? What’s factual and what’s fake? What word can we trust? What word can we believe? John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, . ..”
John is making his case that Jesus is the Word, the one in whom the God “no one has ever seen,” is made known. Jesus, who is close to the Father’s heart – or to use the more accurate translation found in the footnotes, close to God’s “bosom,” evoking mothering images for God. Jesus, leaning on God’s breast, resonating with God’s heartbeat.
This Jesus, who speaks the words of the Torah: You shall love God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. This Jesus, who speaks the word of the prophet Isaiah: I have come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.
This Jesus, says John, is God with us. This Jesus is God’s Word for our lives. And this Word is not fake news. This Word is true and trustworthy. This Word is the Light that overcomes the darkness. This Word is the Word by which we are to judge all other words.
Jesus, making God’s Word known to us, giving us power to become children of God, bringing to life God’s Word in us. What’s in a word? Nothing less than our life. Our truth. Our future.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
January 7, 2018 (Delivered on 14th)
Word spread quickly throughout the town. A large caravan was heading their way. Those in the fields and on the road saw them coming. Children climbed to the flat rooftops to watch their arrival. You could taste the excitement along with the dust. Traders often passed through Bethlehem, situated about six miles S-SW of Jerusalem, near the chief N-S route. They would stop to fill their water bags and buy bread before their final push into Jerusalem, but the size of this group was unusual. And these travelers had an exotic look about them.
Three of them looked to be important by their dress and their bearing, and they were accompanied by all manner of servants – camel handlers, baggage carriers, cooks, and others. Gospel writer Matthew says they are magi, from the Greek, which also can be translated “wise men” or “astrologers.” The word has nothing to do with kings; that was an idea added later to our Christmas story.
The magi are a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams. They are the forerunners of those who compose our daily horoscopes. Last week one read, “Those who fly by the seat of their pants may need a better belt to avoid an embarrassing moment.” Another, “You can’t predict what will be in the center of the one you choose until you take a bite.” And a favorite, “Everyone likes to be right, but most people are annoyed by the person who actually turns out to be.” I take them all with a grain of salt, but I am intrigued by them. Who writes these? How do they come up with these things? By watching the stars, apparently….
These magi are pagans, students of the heavens, not Jews, and they study the skies for a sign of the birth of a new ruler. A star has led them to Bethlehem; and now they have found him! The townspeople don’t know this, of course. Who are they and why are they here? they probably wonder. Why are these important-looking people dismounting in Bethlehem and not in Jerusalem? Stopping in front of a stable instead of a palace? Why are they drawing up their reins in Foster and not in Providence? Before Moosup Valley instead of a downtown cathedral?
According to a standard dictionary, an epiphany applies to any manifestation or appearance of a deity. In Christian history, we capitalize Epiphany to refer to the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ.
But increasingly the word “epiphany” as we use it has come to refer to any insightful or dramatic moment that gives us new vision or perspective. A gathering with loved ones during the holidays might be an epiphany for how blessed we are as a family. The illness of a loved one reminds us that money isn’t everything. Our cataracts and joint pains and forgetfulness announce with clarity that we are getting older – much to our surprise!
When do you suppose the people of Bethlehem had their epiphany that something extraordinary was taking place in their village, just across the way, in back of the inn? When had the birth of a child caused so much stir? When had they felt before that their little town in the backwater of the world mattered – to anyone, let alone these strangers?
When do you suppose the innkeeper had his epiphany about this poor couple in need of shelter whom he had sent to the barn because all of his rooms were rented? Or perhaps he had no stomach for the moans and smells of childbirth.
When do you suppose King Herod the Great had his epiphany that he was not the most important person in Jerusalem, and that, power held through violence will come back to bite him.
When do you suppose that Mary and Joseph had their epiphany that Jesus was an extraordinary child? Perhaps the gifts that these travelers presented as they knelt before the manger were an epiphany in themselves? Gold and frankincense and myrrh.
These were no Fisher Price toys or Legos or computer games, but symbols of what was to come: gold fit for a majestic king, incense for his spiritual worship, myrrh for embalming, after they take his body down from the cross. The magi had been preparing for years to follow the star. Now their discipline and study, their observation and action – all those days in reading, meditation, all those nights watching the heavens – have paid off, and they have witnessed the birth of the future. They also are living proof that perseverance in our spiritual lives pays off.
And the epiphany for the followers of Jesus, for the early church? Hidden in the gospel story – but placed there deliberately by Matthew – is the epiphany that Jesus is born not only for Israel but also for the Greek and Roman world as well. Jesus is born not only for the Jews, who have been waiting for generations for their Messiah, but also for gentiles, like these sages from far away who have followed the star to this forlorn place. As we remind ourselves in the United Church of Christ, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
And what of our epiphanies? What will be made clear to us as individuals and families this year?
To us as a congregation and a Larger Parish? What will be revealed to us? And how can we prepare for our future on this early Sunday in January 2018? What stars do we follow? And where will they lead us?
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Taking the Child in Our Arms
December 31, 2017
Christmas has come. The babe has been born in the manger. Peace and hope and joy and love have been birthed. We sing, “Glory to God in the highest.”
How was your Christmas? Is it what you expected? Or is there a measure of sadness folded in with the joy. No matter how happy we are and how lovely the celebration with family and friends, we are bound to experience some nostalgia. The Ghost of Christmas Past always flickers just on the periphery of my Christmas Present. I can see in my mind’s eye, as if it were yesterday, my father bringing in the tree with my mother baking Christmas cookies; my grandmother playing the piano while my brother and I sing “Silent Night” as if to beam Santa in with our voices; relatives laughing, opening gifts, a fire crackling in the hearth.
How did we get here from there? How could the years fly by so quickly without our knowing, without our being ready? So many of those loved ones are gone now…. and there is the loneliness of loss. My cousin once remarked to me, “It’s not the same without our parents,” and now it’s not the same without my cousin. It’s no wonder that the clothes of salvation swaddle the Christ child. We would have the babe in the manger save us from our own mortality.
In today’s gospel lesson, Mary and Joseph have taken their baby to the temple in Jerusalem. They go for three reasons: First, because they are devout, law-abiding Jews, they go for Jesus’ circumcision and naming, marking his acceptance into the covenant community and giving him an identity. Second, they go for his redemption, the first-born son, through the offering of a sacrifice – probably two pigeons because they were too poor to afford a sheep. And third, they go for Mary’s purification after having given birth.
Luke, of course, is writing this birth narrative years after Jesus walked the earth. He includes it, I imagine, to show that the Messiah has come as foretold, that Jesus is subject to the law which now has been fulfilled, and that Jesus is the One they have been waiting for. Luke also is writing for non-Jews, so Luke makes the point that He has come for all people, Gentiles as well as Jews.
And the writer of Luke gives Simeon the benefit of hindsight: Simeon is an old man, who knows the suffering of his people under Roman occupation. He may remember the old days before Herod put the squeeze on the peasants for his extensive building program. Remember that “all the world was to be taxed” which is why Mary and Joseph had traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the first place.
Simeon has been waiting for this moment all his life: God has promised him that he would not die until the Messiah comes. When he hears that a young couple have come, Simeon rushes to the temple and finds Mary and Joseph – poor, unwed parents, far from home – and he sees, in this baby, the Savior of the world. Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and praises God with one of the most beloved canticles of the church, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The writer of Luke understands that, to use theologian Marcus Borg’s words, “…the birth stories affirm that Jesus is the fulfillment not only of ancient Israel’s yearning, but of the world’s great yearning.” The prophet Anna has been waiting in the wings, and she too appears with praise.
How do you suppose these two elderly Jews knew that Jesus was the One? Or did Simeon take every child in his arms? In hopes? In great expectation? In self-fulfilling prophesy? Perhaps every child is the Savior in disguise. Perhaps every child is God’s gift to the world. Perhaps every child is the Holy One.
UNICEF has just released an end-of-the-year statement about children in conflict zones: 11 million children in Yemen need humanitarian assistance; 700 children killed in Afghanistan in the first nine months of this year; 28 million forcibly removed from their homes in Myanmar; all of it with 50 million kids on the move across the world. Countless numbers recruited and trafficked as sex slaves, used as human shields, made to act as suicide bombers. How does one take those numbers in our arms?
In an interview this week, the head of UNICEF in the U.S., Caryl Stern, told a story about an artist who made a statue which was a replica of a desk in the UN’s General Assembly – but a desk sized for a child. He asked that it be put on the General Assembly floor so as world leaders make decisions, they will consider the impact on children. Stern would like to see that desk in every place where decisions are made, in every company boardroom that is considering manufacturing a product, in every legislature that is voting on policies.
If we knew that, in every child, the Savior has come and is coming, would we cut funding for DCYF and allow children to languish in foster homes? Would we settle for second-rate schools? Would we sit by and let our elected officials cut children from health care rolls?
If we knew that, in every child, the Savior has come and is coming, would we fail to see the children who mount school buses from homeless shelters? Would we deport parents of children who were born in the U.S., i.e., U.S. citizens, but whose parents are undocumented? Would we find a way to get guns and drugs off the street?
If we knew that, in every child, the Savior has come and is coming, would we bless all children with our love and attention? Would we treat all children as our children? Would we take every child in our arms? Then, truly, peace and hope and joy and love would be born in our world today!
May it be so.