text :: John 1:1-14
theme verse :: “And 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 1:14)
Preeminent American food writer, M.F.K. Fisher once said, “People ask me: why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way the others do? The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.” We are a hungry people – hungry for spirit and truth and also sandwiches. The mystery of the flesh-embodied spirit confounds us. Paul struggled with a thorn in his flesh. Leprosy was among the unclean flesh designations which had significant implications for community. God, however, Creator of all things, longed to connect to humanity in the flesh – thus he put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood. How do we live in this flesh? How can we see it as gift, holy and beloved, a vessel for transformation and wholeness?
anthem :: 'In the Garden' (arr.S.Reinhart) : Christina Maxwell, vocal; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
reader :: Geoff Brewster
preaching :: Rev Mark Briley
closing :: 'Remembrance' (HillsongWorship) : The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader; Katie Herbert, lead vocal
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And 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.
Most of us don’t like talking about our bodies. In fact, if someone talks too much about their body we start feeling uncomfortable. Some of you are already uncomfortable with the first two sentences of this sermon. “Where is Briley going with this?” Lord only knows. Bodies are weird, you know… with their toes and navels and spleens and all. I get the discomfort. I grew up in a very modest household. We didn’t talk much about our bodies and we certainly kept them adequately covered. It’s not that I was taught that the body was bad. We were just… modest. But much of religious history discouraged any glorification of the body. Barbara Brown Taylor, who has inspired this series with her work, An Altar in the World has a theory about how this teaching took shape in the church.
“Although Jesus was a Jew,” she writes, “many of his earliest interpreters were Greeks, who divided body and soul in ways that he did not. Descartes did not help matters by opposing nature and reason in his philosophy. Then along came the Protestant Reformation, with its deep suspicion of physical pleasure, followed by Freud’s dark insights into human sexuality. Add to that the modern scientific reduction of the body to biological matter, overlaid by Victoria’s Secret ads, and it is small wonder that so many of us are uncomfortable in our flesh.”
And yet here we all sit this morning, our souls tucked away in this marvelous luggage… flesh, blood, bone, brain, heart. Our flesh is the vehicle that got us here today, that addressed our hygiene this morning, that held the door for another fleshy vessel to get his or her soul into this sanctuary moments ago. And of all the differences we have in our lives, our skin that covers our vessels may be the thing that makes us most similar. Preeminent American food writer M.F.K. Fisher once said, “People ask me: why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way the others do? The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.” We are a hungry people – hungry for spirit and truth and also sandwiches.
For all of the theological mystery we find in scripture, perhaps as prominent, if not more so, are the matters of the flesh. Paul struggled with a thorn in his flesh. Leprosy was among the unclean flesh designations which had significant implications for living in community… or not as it were. It was Jesus’ body that he presented as identifying proof to the disciples following the resurrection. He came back from death wearing skin. “Feel the nail holes in my hands and feet. Put your hands in my side.” Jesus knew our bodies were as essential to our make up as our soul. It’s why at the last supper, Jesus didn’t say, “Here’s something for you to think about when you get together after I’m gone.” There were no words instituted that said, “When you discern this theological concept, remember me.” He said, “This is my body. This is my blood. When you gather, do this… embody this… in remembrance of me.” This gift was something so real, so tangible, that the disciples would not be able to intellectualize it… only receive; only embody. But… even respecting such a physical gift as a spiritual practice, everyone has their take on the value of the body.
Even scripture can find itself pushing multiple bodily agendas. There’s the sentiment that says “This body is only a vessel,” as in, ‘it’s not all that critical to the faith’ and then there’s the opposite sentiment that says, “This is the only vessel you have,” as in, “The body is a temple and you better care for it with reverence.” What are we to think about our bodies? We can’t shake them easily, so we might as well consider their value. Whether our bodies are sick or well, irregular or uniquely double jointed, able to grow a handle-bar mustache or… not … there comes a time when it is important for our very spiritual health to look in the mirror and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” (Taylor) Could it be that our bodies are themselves, unique altars in the world?
The prologue, which opens the Gospel of John, is perhaps the most beautifully poetic piece of writing known to humanity. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And John weaves on this beautiful relationship of Word and foretelling and ultimately embodiment: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” Boom! Game changer. This is no ethereal concept any more. This is Jesus, wearing skin just like your neighbor, Norm, who wears cut-off jeans and socks with his crocks to mow the yard. Now we’re dealing with something real, tangible, and honestly unavoidable. You can avoid an idea or a concept – but you cannot avoid real-life, fleshy presence. You may not buy lemonade from the neighbor kid selling warm, half-full cups with a couple of unrecognizable floaties in the mix but you cannot pass her without giving thought to her effort, her dream, her physical presence. This is Jesus, God-made-flesh, in the mix of things… dealing with bullies and puberty and career day in high school. God would take on the practice of wearing skin. And I couldn’t be more grateful because it gives meaning and purpose for our own bodies as well.
Jesus personalized our understanding of God. This incarnation made God relatable and Jesus told us fully-skinned stories so we might remember what truly matters. Harry Emerson Fosdick, in his work, “The Man from Nazareth,” says,
“Jesus had a way of putting things that time does not wear out. He might have discussed neighborliness in the abstract, like a lawyer analyzing in terms of current practice. Had he done so, we probably should never have heard of it. Instead, he personified neighborliness in the good Samaritan, making him stand out in vivid contrast with the un-neighborly priest and Levite, so that not only did his contemporaries grasp his meaning, but we do also.”
Story after story – incarnation. The sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the woman, the man, the old, the young. Skin-stories. And those same incarnations walk the streets of Tulsa as they walked the streets of Jerusalem. This is why Jesus said, “As we you do unto the least of these you do unto me.” You can’t look past the flesh without seeing Jesus manifest before you. The incarnation of God in the flesh of Jesus was God’s way of saying, “I want to really see you and I want you to really see me too.” How often do you overlook this gift? Stuff happens all around us every day that we miss for any number of reasons. But truly seeing another is seeing Jesus.
Peter Lovenheim, a Cornell Law School educated journalist, took this to heart a couple of decades ago – this idea of incarnation that requires relationship and cannot be ignored. It started with a tragedy. We pay greater attention to our flesh when we realize how fragile it can be. The questions we ask about God in Sunday School rarely compare to the questions we ask while we’re in the hospital. For Lovenheim, it was simply a walk in his suburban neighborhood outside of Rochester, New York. A big commotion, television news crews and flashing lights. Just a few houses down from his own, a man took his life and that of his wife. Two little kids left to pick up the pieces. Lovenheim was shocked and deeply saddened by the violence but almost more so realizing how little genuine community existed in his neighborhood. He had waived at this family on occasion, even knew their first names but had no clue any trouble was brewing. And this tragedy was not his fault of course, but he was perplexed, especially as a For Sale sign was propped up in the yard and life appeared to go on as usual. He asked himself, “Do I live in a community or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives are entirely separate?” Maybe we’ve all asked ourselves these questions in moments like this but Lovenheim took it next level. He asked his neighbors if he could sleep over in their homes.
Can you imagine? What would you think if your neighbor whom you know very little or not at all came to your door, bags packed, ready to campout at your place? It’s like the old Saturday Night Live skit where Matt Foley, a motivational speaker, grows weary of living in a van down by the river so he tries to move in with a family who has asked him to come give a pep talk to their teenagers. But this is no SNL skit… this is real life stuff. Lovenheim’s daughter was terrified when she learned of what her dad was going to do… not concerned for his safety but for her social life. She didn’t want her dad or her family to be “that neighbor” that everyone tries to avoid. Surprisingly enough, most agreed to his request to sleepover. He documented his experiences in his book, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. This sleepover initiative revealed all sorts of things about his neighbors. One was a single mother, dying of breast cancer. He and another neighbor he met through a previous sleepover worked together to help her. They installed a light over a dark, dangerous staircase in her home and Lovenheim met the woman’s daughter at the bus stop after school once a week. Other neighbors pitched in to help get her to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store. Another neighbor sleep over was with a man named Lou. Lovenheim described Lou as “a widower with a big belly who enjoys an afternoon cocktail, his dog and his local YMCA support group.” Yet he often feels alone. Lou was one who always reached out to new people who moved into the neighborhood but… nobody ever reached back.
God put on skin so that we might be reached in a new profound way by his love that we might also reach back to him and reach out to others. If these bodies are altars – created by God for life and beauty and purpose – then our recognition of that gift in ourselves and others is worth the focused effort. Such focus can’t help but change our perspectives when we see ourselves and others in this way. Even the old comic George Carlin had an idea to create world peace. He decided every person needed to be formally introduced to every other person in the world. “You look a person in the eye, shake hands, repeat their name and try to remember one physical characteristic,” he said. His theory – you’d be less likely to want to fight them, disregard them, treat them as anything less than a unique gift to the world by the same Creator that breathed life into your own skin. This is where we start to experience the grace and truth that John says is why Jesus came to us in the first place.
That grace and truth starts in your own soul – peering in the mirror at your flesh that holds your very spirit – and recognizing what you see as the altar that it is. I admit this is hard for me. I struggle to see my vessel as an altar to work out of and through to experience God in some holy way. But sometimes, my body can live a prayer far better than I can verbalize one. The day our announcement was released concerning our upcoming move to Columbia, Missouri, was a surreal sort of day. My emotions were close to the surface and it didn’t take much for those emotions to find their way to the outside of my skin from the corners of my eyes. It was a full day of sharing and engaging folks and finding grace in these relationships of a decade that I have cherished more than anything. That evening, I went home and mowed the yard – it didn’t really need to be mowed that night but I mowed it anyway. There was something about the work of the body, my flesh active and sweating and focused on a task that was the most meaningful prayer I could muster at that time. I could have ignored the spirit/body need to be a living altar in that moment. I could have simply accepted I was just mowing the yard. Instead, I made it my prayer, an altar of sorts, to pray with my very flesh; a longing to feel connected to God that would hold my spirit in a place of love and grace. Each swath back and forth across the lawn held your names, your faces, our shared memories, our hopes, our hurts, our laughs, our spiritual growth. And that engine bumbling to a stop when the last blade had been cut was my “Amen.” May it be so, God. “This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.” (Taylor). This is the practice of wearing skin and honoring its participation in the Holy.
My family has been sorting through this physical reality of moving our bodies from this place to another. With so many of you, we’ve talked about our spirit’s connection that is an eternal one. No matter the physical distance, the spirit remains intertwined. Such is a beautiful thing and we will cherish that forever. But our bodies have had its place in this season as well and it has been meaningful to think through the places our bodies have journeyed together. My son, Hayes, didn’t have a body at all until we moved here. I’ve held your new babies in the hospital and held hands of some when they breathed their last. No greater privilege. I’ve joined hands in marriage, placed bodies under the sacred waters of baptism and laid hands in prayer for those commissioned to serve. My body has lost church softball games and even won a few softball games with you… in the name of Jesus of course. I sat on the floor of the airport in Managua, Nicaragua with some bodies that weren’t feeling all that well. I’ve stood on the curb outside of the methadone clinic waiting for one who asked me to show up for accountabilities sake. Our bodies painted expanding church nurseries together and raised the light of Christ on Christmas Eve. I’m so grateful for the places our bodies have taken our spirits and our spirits have taken our bodies. When the church is described as the Body of Christ, this is surely what is meant. We bring hands and feet and hearts together for the sake and in the hope that Christ is transforming us individually and collectively. The incarnation we celebrate in Jesus is an ongoing celebration in us who carry on as his body in the world. Our bodies led us here, to the edge of what our spirits may have imagined possible, and the Divine Spirit took us further yet – making us new, beloved, whole.
As Barbara Brown Taylor so aptly names,
“The practice of wearing skin is so obvious that almost no one engages it as spiritual practice, yet here is a place to begin: with tears, aches, [hugs], goose[bumps], heat. The body knows – not just the individual body, but the cathedral we make when we bend our bodies together over another as good as dead. Doing that, we act out the one thing we know for sure: it is God’s will that these bones live.”
That’s resurrection. That’s the mystery of our bodies and spirits being treasured creations of God almighty and therefore to be revered and treasured ourselves like an altar to God’s glory. Pay attention to where your body takes you this week. See your skin for what it is… holy, sacred, an altar to God’s greatest delight – your very being: body, mind and soul – given to honor one another and the very One who took on flesh that he may dwell among us, look us in the eye and claim us as his own.
 An Altar in the World. Barbara Brown Taylor. Harper One Publishing. 2009. Any quotes from Taylor come from this work and each sermon in this series is inspired by different chapters of the book. Her influence is scattered throughout this message and I am grateful for her insight and the vivid imagery of her writing.
 While there are many stories that cover Lovenheim’s work. Here are two utilized for the message as first discovered via Homiletics Online:
– Howard, Jennifer. “Book review of In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time by Peter Lovenheim.” The Washington Post, April 18, 2010, B7.
– Wilson, Craig. “Where’ve all the neighbors gone? After a murder-suicide on his quiet street, Peter Lovenheim goes looking for answers.” USA Today, April 1, 2010, 7B. usatoday.com.