Sunday, January 03, 2010

Word made flesh

The Nativity by Duccio

Jeremiah 31: 7-14; John 1: 1-18
******** United Church of Christ
January 3, 2010

In our culture and in a faith community, when we look over the past year, one of the more poignant things we do is remember who of our family has died. At a time when we celebrate a birth, we also call to mind the temporary nature of our existence on earth.

This past week NPR has been airing stories from what is called “The Obituary Project: Lives of the Unnoticed”. One was about an 80 yr. old woman in Michigan who wanted to save her family horse farm from development after she passes. Through a progression of proposals and outcomes, at Joan Graham’s death, most of her farm will be preserved by a land conservancy but a small portion of it will become a private, environmentally-friendly cemetery. Joan says she wants to be buried beneath an oak tree because it has deep taproots that may take nourishment from her remains. To her, it would be as if she never really died; she would simply morph into a tree.

Another story was about a man who collects obituaries, clipping them from newspapers and gluing them into notebooks. For over 50 years Nowell Briscoe of Monroe, GA has been filling scrapbooks, over 30 of them, several hundred clippings in each book, gathering as many as 400 obituaries in one month. He began his collection at the age of 7 with his grandparents’ obituaries. He says that even though he does not know these people he feels a connection to them. When he takes a notebook off the shelf, opens it and reads the lives that are there, it’s as though he is bringing them back to life.

On Wednesday there was the heartbreaking yet inspiring story of a small group of WWII conscientious objectors who worked at the Philadelphia State Hospital, known as Byberry. The living conditions of the mentally ill and intellectually disabled patients that they witnessed were horrific. As Quakers and pacifists, they realized that kindness was not enough. They came up with a plan to expose the hospital’s inhumanity and patent neglect. Photographs taken by one of the young pacifists, Charlie Lord, resembled those just released photos of Nazi concentration camps. Though one cannot be equated with the other, when the pictures were published in Life magazine, it created a national uproar, that we, a supposedly superior nation, would treat the least among us so inhumanely. The CO’s started a national organization to train workers at state hospitals, to improve the lives of those they served and others around the country.

God's Hands, Kelley Ryden - Tracy Raver

But the one that made me weep and think of Mary holding baby Jesus was the story of Baruch Levi Blum and his mother Joanna. Baruch lived only 10 minutes. When he was delivered by emergency C-section, his mother had known for months that her son would not survive. In order to preserve his brief life, she had contacted the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation, an organization of volunteer photographers who will come to the delivery room of a troubled birth and memorialize the child with the family. Photographer Ashley Hutcheson not only documented the beginning and the end of Baruch’s life; she became a part of the family in ways she could not begin to understand.

Christmas joy means nothing if it does not recognize the sacrifice of Jesus, that Word made flesh that died and rose again. In these stories we can hear the Word made flesh: words like courage, conservation, remembrance, peacemaker, and hope, faith, love—those things which abide despite life or death.

In the lives of our family who passed this year—Diane V., Marjorie T., Harold W., Cecil R. and Herbert Y.—we have witnessed the Word made flesh in them; words such as wisdom, humor, compassion, caring, chutzpah, determination, discipline, quiet strength, gratitude, service, and again, the three which abide: faith, hope, and most of all, love.

But we the living must also face those words made manifest through us that cause pain and sorrow, leaving behind wounds in our tender flesh. Perhaps there are words you’d like to expel from your bodily lexicon. Jeremiah speaks of redeeming Jacob from hands too strong for him. What words have oppression over you from which you need to be redeemed? Words like shame, guilt, addiction, codependency, control, pride, scarcity, fear can paralyze our souls, inflict damage upon ourselves and others, and wreak havoc throughout generations, not to mention what it can do to obstruct the path of grace and our relationship with the divine. What words of power are yearning to be made flesh through you, like courage, hope, plenty, forgiveness and joy?

What words made manifest through this fleshly Body of Christ need to be examined and exorcised from use? What words need to be lifted up and celebrated? What are the words yet to be lived and spoken, still on the breath of the Spirit who intercedes with sighs too deep for human words?

No one has seen God. We follow Christ, that Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, close to God’s heart, who has made God known to us. That same Word, through which everything was made, including us, resides in us, yearning to be made known. The words that will be used to remember us are the ones made flesh in our lives, starting now. Amen.

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