Incarnation: The Sacred Mundane and the Mundane Sacred

an sermon for Advent II by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, December 8, 2019



When I was in seminary, my required seminar on the Christian scriptures was taught by a Presbyterian minister who was in almost ready to defend her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was rather different from what I had expected a Christian theologian would be – not a dour cerebral academic concerned with minutiae. But she was exactly what I expected a good liberal Presbyterian minister to be ever since I had sat next to the father of my junior high classmate Margo Belote on the eighth-grade trip to Chicago. There he was, Rev. Belote, the most liberal minister in my hometown, sitting next to the fundamentalist kid and talking openly about how it was okay to doubt, that what was more important was how your beliefs and doubts combined to shape your life, the things you did, not just what you said or refrained from saying. At that age it felt very much a grownup conversation that I was invited into – even though my upbringing predisposed me to an absolute certainty that Rev. Belote would be going to hell. He might have been taking the highway to hell, but for the four-and-a-half hours bus ride from my little southern Illinois hometown to Chicago’s Field Museum, he calmly talked about what it is like to look at the world seriously without a requirement that you only think the thoughts you are assigned by your family or your church. He talked about what it might mean to dissent or to fail to heartily endorse your inherited “creed.”


My seminary New Testament instructor and I had some interesting conversations over the course of the semester. But the discussion that rises in my memory above all the others came up around a term paper I wrote for her class. I was writing on the difference between the Beatitudes as written in the Gospel of Matthew and the Beatitudes as written in the Gospel of Luke and the way the focus on one over the other shaped a lot more than ideals. One day I was talking with her about how in the type of Christianity in which I grew up, the Beatitudes were taken to convey a very spiritualized message of the righteousness of personal piety and “right” belief, according to which one could go to hell for thinking the wrong thing. And all this had little to do with what one did in the world. To support that theological position I had never heard a minister or teacher quote or preach from the Beatitudes from Luke. It was all from Matthew that the piety-and-belief variety of Christians relied on. Matthew’s version of these famous sayings are part of a sermon delivered on a mountain, compared to Luke’s placing them in a sermon preached on a plain. Mountain and plain were unavoidably conflicting metaphors for an idealized version of what the spiritual life was all about. It was the Jewish prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew scriptures who wrote of an imagined end of time, saying that:[1]


Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.


The plain symbolized a time of justice, the mountain and valley a time of inequality. And one follower of Jesus presented these sayings in a context of injustice and inequality. The other presented them in the context of overcoming historic injustice.


On the mountain, the itinerant rabbi is reported saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the pure in heart,” nothing really this worldly about it, but all intent and belief and piety and essential goodness. While on the plain, on the other hand, that same anti-imperial agitator said, “Blessed are you who are poor…” NOT poor in spirit but poor. An economic and social state. Blessed are you who are hungry now…” NOT hungry after righteousness but actual hunger of the body for sustenance. And he paired the blessings with woes: “Woe to you who are rich… Woe to you who are full.” On the plain, mountains made low, the person who had much more than their share while others did not have enough was not someone to be admired the way Americans idolize the rich. They were the ones stepping onto the field with a spiritual disadvantage. On the plain, the message was clear: it is not what is in your heart or in your head that truly matters, not what doctrines you subscribe to about what is unknowable, but what you do, how you live in this human world.


At this time of year as nativity scenes dominate some town landscapes, the lessening Christian majority in our larger society turn their thoughts – if only for a while – to narratives of a first-century working-class Jewish family, living in the Jewish homeland under Roman occupation, under the local rule of a corrupt and brutal puppet king in the degraded line of leaders who had once forced the retreat of a different empire. This family’s child is born in difficult circumstances with an expectation told of a meaningful life ahead. Here too, Matthew tells a story of Magi bringing expensive gifts worthy of someone with very high standing. Matthew tells of intrigue in the court of Herod and horrific action against the weak. Luke, on the other hand, tells of a family jumping through unreasonable hoops imposed by their imperial overlords. We see them trying their best to pay their taxes. Luke shows this family in a barn with the animals and has only insignificant shepherds visit, coming straight from work, with no gifts to offer, who share the pronouncement of heaven: Peace to all the people of the Earth, no longer under occupation and imperial domination.


In the year 325 of the Common Era, in what is present-day Turkey, the Roman Emperor Constantine, heir to the empire that oppressed and taxed the first-century Holy Family, called together the leaders of the religion that in various ways was understood as being based on the teaching or the person of an itinerant rabbi some three hundred years before. It was a religion that went a whole lot of directions and did not require theological uniformity. Yet. But Constantine saw how it had grown and become entrenched in his empire. So, looking not with the eyes of a follower of this path but as a ruler intent on increasing his control and power, Constantine decided it would help his imperial ambition to co-opt this religion through endorsing a theologicon, a gathering of the powerful within the diffuse movement. It was a convention where you could meet the Who’s Who of that century’s Christianity. Bishop Nicholas of Myra, the saint who much, much later became the Christian portion of the template for Santa Claus, he was there. As was his theological arch rival Arius. Nicholas believed that Jesus was God while Arius held that Jesus had a special role to which God elevated him but was not, in origin and essence, God. Though the historical record is incomplete, the argument between Nicolas and Arius was so intense that the altercation became physical, and temporarily, Nicholas was arrested as the aggressor. This council was charged with cutting through these disagreements and setting down points of majority agreement that could be enforced throughout the empire and used to maintain order and control. The first-century rabbi, whose life and teaching stood in opposition to empire and control would, through this theologicon, be shaped into a tool of that same empire that he hated.


In the end, this council ended with words of control recited weekly by many Christians to this day. It is a statement of required baseline belief about core theological issues. About God, it states, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.” Of Jesus, it makes assertions of his being the only-begotten of God and of the same substance as God. And here’s the point: this creed says he “came down and was incarnate and was made man.” With this creed, this statement of required beliefs and theological commitments, it became impossible for Christians to find common cause with Jews, and a history of oppression already begun became the entrenched reality that people of good heart are still fighting to overcome.


This new, enforceable, imperial theology has, for many Christians through time, provided beautiful and concrete and ethereal imagery that inspired a good life. About five years ago this late poetic example by Sarah Klassen appeared in the mainline Protestant magazine Christian Century:


God is carnal? Yes! God
has got to be flesh and blood. Bones too
like any one of us. A child
can’t go to sleep in a dark room
unless someone is right there beside her.
Someone with some skin.[2]


For people steeped in orthodox Christianity, this is amazing and inspiring. This is moving. And this God with flesh, blood, bone, skin, who has the same fears and weaknesses as anybody, also came with the cost of division and control and persecution of people who understood God as necessarily beyond the known, building and undergirding it.


The Gospel of Luke tells the story of angels in the night sky telling Jewish shepherds that something wonderful has happened. A Jewish baby has been born. That he is going to be somebody important in the story of resistance. That overcoming empire to bring peace to all is possible. And this Jewish baby became a Jewish man who preached first-century Jewish ideas about living life in opposition to empire and control. It was not a first-century Jewish idea that he could be God. Rather, the idea preached by Jesus was that the work of humanity was divine work, established by God. Incarnation, in the teaching of the working class rabbi from Galilee, was about DOING. It was about bringing a different, better way into being. It was about honoring the image of God in everyone, celebrating and honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person in a society knit together through meaningful action for the benefit of those facing the greatest challenges and pains.


When I was a hospital chaplain at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, the extended cohorts of fellow chaplains across the St. Louis area gathered for a day retreat in a Roman Catholic convent that the resident order of nuns operated as a retreat center open to all. I arrived in the group of five intern chaplains from Barnes Jewish: a Unitarian Universalist, an Independent Catholic, a Reform Jew, a United Methodist, and a conservative nondenominational Christian who had formed deep bonds of respect and love for each other over the course of a year together. We walked into the convent’s modern chapel and looked around before our peers from other hospitals arrived to begin the day with interfaith worship in this very Christian space. I spotted, up high on the walls, just below clerestory windows, a verse from the Gospel of Matthew. You know I earlier said how Matthew often emphasized the world of inequity and spiritualized belief and used the metaphor of mountains. Well here was the exception that screamed out “Incarnation!” to me. It was the verse that goes, “Inasmuch as you have one it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.” I pointed to it and said to my peers who loved and respected me, as I did them, and said, “This is all the gospel I need.”


The writing on the wall was the punchline, if your will, of one of Jesus’ infamous parables – those stories told to convey a meaning and message, often indirectly and in ways that confused many people until they were explained. This was the story of the sheep and the goats. How are the good recognizable? How are the evil, the unworthy identified? So Jesus tells of being unhelped, unaided in times of deepest need.


…Depart from me, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you left me to my despair.


Using the metaphor of final judgment, the itinerant teacher presents a very Jewish lesson about incarnation. It’s not about what you believe about the nature of one special person. It’s not about what you profess. It’s about what you DO as an embodied person in the community of humanity. Incarnation is not about God having skin and bones. Incarnation is about honoring the inherent worth and dignity of those whose condition least shows that inherent worth and dignity. Incarnation is about making the divine you yearn for real in the world.


What we hold most sacred enters the world through our ethical action and does not enter without it. “No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”[3] Or, in the well-known words of twentieth-century anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”[4] The incarnation of ethical action makes the mundane world holy and builds increased possibility of peace on earth. Everything is holy.


Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Isaiah 40:4-5 (KJV)


[3] Deuteronomy 30:14 (NRSV)