Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon: The One Word

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The
Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

Christmas Day, 2016
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Merry Christmas!

Listen here.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines unusual factors that contribute to high levels of success.[1] Why are most Canadian ice hockey players born in the first few months of a year? How did Bill Gates achieve his extreme wealth? How did The Beatles became one of the most successful musical acts in human history?

Throughout the book, Gladwell attributes success to the “10,000-hour rule.” Gladwell claims that the key to world-class expertise in any skill is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way for a total of around 10,000 hours. 

And, although this is a bit tangential, stick with me for a moment.  Did you know that…There are approx. 470,000 words in the English dictionary? A college-educated English speaker might have a vocabulary of 80,000 words? Typically, people have about 10,000 words in written and 5,000 words in common spoken vocabulary.[2] 

With all these words flying around, have we become world-class experts in their use? What are words for, I wonder?  Some say “as we speak, so we create.” Words matter.

Imagine….what if there were no nouns?[3] Would our world still be composed of distinct and separate things? What if our only language for describing the world was dance?  Would we constantly move around in conversation? What if there were no pronouns, would you and I cease to exist?

Consider a visit to the zoo.  The mother stops before an enclosure and points out the animal to her daughter.  “See the zebra? Zebra. Zebra. That is a Zebra.” The girl, puzzled, looks at the shape and says, “horse.” “No,” the mother replies, “not a horse. A zebra.” Slowly the girl repeats, “zebra.” Her mother replies, “Right! Now you have it, Zebra! See the stripes?”

And in that moment, words have changed their world. Before this, the world had only horses. Through this exchange, Zebras have been born. Words matter.

The Hebrew term for word is dabar, which actually means both word and deed.[4]  So, to say something is to do something.  Words have the power of creation and of discovery. Words and deeds enflesh our airy ideas that can dwell with us, and can change our reality. Words elicit responses that can never be unheard.  To say “I love you” Or “I forgive you” Or “I’m afraid of you,” To say these things, we create a new reality. Something that is hidden - is launched -  through speech into time and is given substance; is created; is made real.  

And how many times did God try to create a world of Love, Truth and Justice? How many times did God try get across to us? 

At least 10,000 times, word after word, God tried saying it to Noah, saying it to Abraham, saying it to Moses, saying it to David. And finally, toward the end of God’s rope, maybe the 9,999th time, God tried John the Baptist with his locusts and honey and hellfire preaching. And it almost worked. So God tried once more.  The exact Word of God - Jesus.

And in this flesh, Jesus, God finally manages to say what God is and what human is.  In this flesh, Jesus, God knows what it is like to be human and we know what God is like. In One Word, God’s own self – God’s everlasting commitment to and love for the whole world – took shape in and through an ordinary and finite human. In One Word, in Jesus, we see the human shape of God.

In One Word, God’s own self became flesh so that all who are flesh may know what it means to be God’s beloved children. So that all who are flesh may know God’s love for all of creation So that all who are flesh may also embody in word and in deed God’s world of Love, Truth and Justice.

What was hidden in the heart of God, with this One Word, was irreversibly released through speech into time and was given substance. And this is good news! Because out of all the possible 470,000 words, through this One Word, God reinvented, rebirthed and renewed all of creation and restored a fresh world for us and for those to come. Yes, we, too, are changed by this new Word.

For by God coming in the flesh and dwelling among us Shines in us a ray of light that previously we did not see, Sews in us a word of hope that previously could not grow, Surrounds us by a world of Love that previously we did not claim. Sustains us with the success of a beginner’s mind that cannot be achieved or earned but only lived with wonder.

And there are not enough words to express or embody that kind of grace upon grace upon grace. Except maybe one: Thanks.

Perhaps it takes 10,000 practices to make perfect, but in God’s One Word, perfection was made in the image of God, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.

For in God’s One Word, we are made new every day. And as God’s own beloved children, we receive God’s promise to be with us into the New Year & all that might bring: through all our living and struggling and yearning and loving and dying. 

In God’s One Word, God promises, today, to be with us now and forever.  That is the heart and the promise of Christmas!

May we, today, embody the many words of the prophet Isaiah that announce peace and good news of God’s reign. And may all the ends of the earth see the salvation of God’s One Perfect Word in human shape.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon: Immanuel is God-with-us

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

The 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A
18 December 2016

Listen here.

Restore us, O Lord God of Hosts *

show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved. Amen

A few summers ago, my partner and I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Being church geeks, we went to visit the Loretto Chapel,[1] at the end of the Santa Fe Trail.  We toured the beautiful little church, which was patterned after Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. It claims to be the first Gothic structure west of the Mississippi. We learned that in completing the Chapel, the architect did not offer any access to the choir loft, some 22 feet above the sanctuary.  For the sisters running the convent, all the options were undesirable: a conventional staircase would interfere with the already small space, a re-built balcony would be too expensive, and a ladder would be too dangerous for the nuns to climb up and down.  So the Sisters of the Chapel did what you and I would do: they prayed. 

This dilemma reminded me of Joseph’s situation: difficult to get out of – bad options all around.  It seems that Joseph’s options were undesirable: to divorce her publicly would disgrace her or to divorce her quietly and disgrace himself. 

Either way, he would have to divorce her.  No possible way to redeem the situation. Only pain.

It did not cross his mind that Mary’s unbelievable story might be God’s truth.

He could not imagine that. Only the truth, embraced, would transform the situation.

What do we do when our situation seems difficult to get out of? When it seems there are only undesirable options? We over function:  We torture ourselves. Overeat. Complain. Take it out on people we love.  Or we under function: Isolate. Sleep. Have someone else decide so that we can blame it on them. We know this feeling when there are only bad options all around.

Don’t you just feel for Joseph?  His human mind was only capable of knowing

negative options.  Biblical Scholar Alyce McKenzie suggests Joseph’s self-talk:

 I cannot believe that she has done this to me…For one fleeting moment, I even considered the possibility that she was telling the truth, but it is more than I can swallow…I believe I will divorce her and save her the public humiliation of accusing her of adultery… I confess I feel somewhat betrayed by God as well as by Mary…now  the sun is setting, and I am filled with pain. I will go to bed with my pain, and hope for sleep. Tomorrow I will send a message to Mary

letting her know of my decision.[2]

Well, we all know how *that* dismissal went.  We see Joseph in every crèche scene.  Joseph is portrayed in many artist’s work, at Mary’s side on the night of the birth, hair tousled, face lined with concern, protective stance over mother and babe.  Something dramatic *must* have happened in that sleeping conversation with the Angel.  The story reveals what happened: it was “…a night of birthing just as real as Christmas eve: this was the birth of a father for the Son of God.”[3]

In his sleep, with his mind out of the way, Joseph opened his soul to God. And in that opening, in the whispering of the Truth, God offered a resolution to Joseph’s dilemma: one that human reason could not detect.

On that night, prefiguring Christmas Eve, the angel invited Joseph to imagine a different future: one of an intimate birth in a manger, a rambunctious boy with many gifts, a young man with a prophetic purpose, and himself as a proud parent.  The possibilities made him giddy with excitement.

The angel revealed to Joseph a key to his dilemma: belief. Belief in an impossible story.  Belief in himself as the father of God’s child, belief in himself as one who can nurture the boy and honor him with a name: Immanuel – God-with-us.

The angel explained that to save the people from their sins, “you know that the boy will need examples.  He’ll need you to teach him to take risks like the one you are taking now, to teach him how to withstand severe disapproval like the kind you will experience, and to believe in the unbelievable good news when it seems all hope seems lost & only pain remains – like they way you feel now.

You know that the boy will need you to walk to Bethlehem so that he can walk to Calvary.”

In that moment, the angel mid-wifed the birth of a father for the Son of God.

Waking from his sleep, perhaps he thought, “not my will but your will be done.”

Jesus is not the only one who needs examples like Joseph. We all struggle with dilemmas and situations that seemly only have bad outcomes.  We need people to assure us when we take risks. We need people beside us when we get disapproval. We long for assurance from someone who knows from experience that God’s unbelievable good news is true! 

Maybe you are that light-bearer being birthed this advent. Maybe you are the one who is to offer assurance in God’s unbelievable good news of God’s love and reconciliation for all humanity is possible, despite what appears to be an irredeemably broken world.

This is why Joseph whispers to you today: to know that God will work in us

as God worked in him. God is with us – Immanuel.

Which brings me back to Loretto Chapel.  How did the sisters resolve the choir loft access? Well, one night while the sisters were praying, a man appeared at the door of the convent with a donkey and a toolbox, asking for work. When the nuns told the man about the predicament, he offered to build a spiral staircase.   That staircase was, and is to this day, an engineering feat: thirty-three steps and two complete 360-degree turns, made of only wooden pegs and no nails.  Once the miraculous staircase was completed, the carpenter disappeared. Many believed it to be St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters' prayers. 

Maybe it’s just a legend, but I like to think that St. Joseph is out there this Advent, with his donkey and toolbox at hand, hoping to re-craft imaginative resolutions to hopeless dilemmas. And, whispering God’s love to you with unceasing hope, imaginative dreams and unbelievable possibilities.

This advent, may our hopes and fears of all the years be met by the hope of the birth of an infant savior, Immanuel.


[1] Cited at on December 14, 2016.
[3] Ibid., McKenzie