Dec. 24, 2017 9 a.m. // Narrative Yr. 4.16 Advent IV // First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Set the Table”: John 1:1-18; “People Look East” by Eleanor Farjeon; #WordofLove
If we can take a few moments to reflect, let’s think back on the last year. When in the last year, did you feel the most love? (Pause) Because we can confuse that four-letter word with just the romantic expression of its essence, I want to explain what I mean. What I mean is, when in the last year did you feel most at ease, welcomed, cherished and valued in the totality of who you are?
[time to reflect]
When in this last year, did you feel the most love?
[more time to reflect]
Imagine, at the hospital bed, Helen, herself in her 80s, beside herself with grief and pain and worry because her friend Mary lies in that bed, barely able to breathe. She is the pre-eminent Jungian psychoanalyst in the Midwest. Only her lifelong friend at the bedside is there to know that. She’s there to carry out her end-of-life wishes. And Helen, for her part, stands antsy and weeps easily under so great a burden. She knows what her friend wanted. But it is not what she herself would want. And making the decisions about which medical interventions to continue and which to end it is…. It is so hard.
Picture late one Valentine’s Day, a middle-aged man throws on his coat, tells his wife he’ll be back soon, and then drives off into the snow storm to help his sister with a fender bender, not knowing a drunk driver was going to take his life along that same highway where his sister’s bumper was wrinkled.
Picture a silver-haired man bending down in a crowd to put an ear toward the excited mouth of a 3-foot-tall boy who appears to be sharing a lengthy discourse on the magnificence of Minecraft. And the elderly gentleman smiles, and nods, and says, “Really? Tell me about that.”
And then imagine the couple who have fled the country of their births due to the threat of violence, still not feeling safe in the country of current residences, despite the state of the world, opening their bodies and their lives to conceive or receive or grow and nurture a newborn human life in this world, despite its chaos. (Pause)
Are each of these scenes love?
When we look hard at our lives and ask when we’ve felt the most love, when we’ve seen the greatest love in the world around us, we can understand why Father Zossima, a character in Doestevsky novel, once said, “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
I don’t know about dreadful, exactly, but it certainly is harder in reality than in dreams. There is a lot more sweat and tears. Even if real love is richer and deeper and more powerful than we can dream, Love… love is complicated. Here in this place, and this time, deepening authentic love may be one of our most important project.
Which is why the hymn you heard in that second reading just now seems so evocative:
People, look East. The time is near
of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
trim the hearth, and set the table.
People look East, and sing today:
Love the Guest is on the way.
Love the Guest. Thomas Merton has written that to love someone is to welcome them as guests. “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” Or, as another preacher and pastor once put it, “The beginning of love is to welcome the stranger God sends our way.” Love the Guest is on the way.
Rather than a really sweet nativity story about a baby, and pregnant mothers and people getting ready for the birth of a child, the Gospel of John begins their story about Jesus with a poem. “In the beginning was the Word…” The storyteller connects us to that poem of Creation, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” drawing a picture of the Creative, life-giving Word that is the source of all Life, whom the storyteller sees as with God from the beginning, right there in Genesis 1. The storyteller paints a picture of that Word taking on flesh and blood and moving into the neighborhood.
A little bit later, that same storyteller will write those words you may have seen on placards at football games all over the country, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” That verse continues. The part they don’t put on the placards says, “For God so loved the world, that God sent the Son not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved – made whole, redeemed, healed (“soter” saved) — through him.” The Love that John writes about putting on flesh and blood is that kind of love that welcomes the stranger. Jesus comes born of that love, driven by that love, giving that love in his life, in his death, and in his rising again, where over and over he sets a table to welcome the guests, however they come. However orderly or messy their lives, Jesus keeps setting a table. Love the guest is on the way.
If we do nothing else this Christmas, on this day, I invite us to imagine in the home of our hearts trimming the hearth and setting a table to welcome the guest that is Love, the same kind of love that helped us feel in this last year at ease, welcomed, cherished, valued. As much as Love is this powerful force in the world, over and over we are reminded we can’t strive to make it happen. It is a gift we receive.
Angels, announce to human and beast
the One who cometh from the East.
Set every peak and valley humming
with the Word, our God is coming.
People look East, and sing today:
Love, our God, is on the way.
May we receive this gift. Amen.