- Parish House
Sermon for the First Sunday After Christmas
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
My first one was small, the color of rust, a kind of prism shape that let in too much air and water, even with the fly on. They called it a pup tent and it served its purpose, I guess, in helping fashion boys into men through the grueling backpacking trips of my middle school Boy Scout years.
I have had several tents since, large and small, and all of them have memories attached to the flimsy frames, the thin cloth. Like the trip we took to Acadia National Park, camping for a week, and being with Lily for her first extended foray into the wild–seeing alongside her the wonder of the world.
I still have the tent I carried with me the one time I was really lost in the woods when I had my father drop me off at a spot in the Ozark Mountains, far from any cell reception. My plan had been to rendevous with some friends the following day, but after he left I discovered that I’d read the map wrong and that I was many miles from the place we were supposed to meet.
That night, I slept with my tent pitched and I felt both small and vast, vulnerable behind those thin walls, but also a part of some enormous dance of life that was happening all around me, unconcerned with one more creature thrown into the mix.
Tents are moveable and temporary, vulnerable, like skin is vulnerable–easily cut or torn. And yet whenever I sleep in a tent, I feel a kind of closeness with the world, a presence with the landscape and life of a place I could never have behind stone and brick or well built wooden frames.
“And the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us,” says John in the prologue to his Gospel. That is really the best translation of what our reading this morning renders “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Our translation is just fine, but this passage from John is full of Greek words that just don’t translate all that well into English.
It starts with Logos, which means Word, but also so much more than just “Word.” Logos is the root for logic and the suffix -ology. Logos is the thing that makes the world make sense, the harmony and grammar of things, the logic and meaning and reason of the cosmos.
John tells us that this sense and meaning, not only was from the beginning, eternal and Godlike, but also became flesh. Here again, this is more than a mere body–a somos in the Greek. The word John uses instead is sarx–flesh, meat, skin and bones. This is the animal reality of the person, the aspect of ourselves that can be touched and beaten, that can be embraced and bled and crucified.
This thing that makes sense of the world became flesh, came to dwell in vulnerable skin, and not only lived among us, but pitched his tent among us. That is the best and most literal translation of e skēnōsen.
In Christ there came a king that didn’t hide in palaces, veiled by turrets, protected by armies. The reality that makes sense of all and is in all, became flesh and lived a life close to the ground–a life that is with us in connection and yet is also vulnerable, unprotected from the violence of our world.
That God became flesh and pitched a tent in our midst made me think of all tents in the world, the kinds of places God might place that frame of cloth and wood.
Most tents are not boyscout pup tents, or the ultralight, quick release frames of backpackers. More common are tents like those I saw a few weeks ago along a trail in Southwest Little Rock, tatered frames, structures made of tarps or plastic sheeting propped over tree branches. These tents were the makeshift homes of those who have no other place to live, exposed and vulnerable. Poverty and addiction, broken families or minds or bodies–the life of flesh is fragile, like grass the scriptures say.
The Word that became flesh pitched his tent among us, not only on manicured chemlawn yards behind the confines of fences and gates, but also in the woods of Hyndman park among those who are living on the edge in a world that doesn’t seem to make any sense.
There are other tents, tents like those I saw pictured in the pages of the newspaper of Rohingya muslims, displaced for generations, now fleeing for their lives and the lives of their children. They live in tents because they do not fit into some idea of national identity in their homeland, they have no access to belonging. Theirs are the tents of refugees and there are so many refugees due to war or rising seas or drought or economic collapse. These are the tents of UN camps or the tents of Syrians in Parisian parks; people who have left everything behind because they would rather take their chances in a tent than beneath the rubble of a bombed out building.
This past Thursday, three days after Christmas, we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents–remembering the babies and toddlers of Bethlehem that were slaughtered because of the ruthless actions of a king who would allow no one threaten his power, not even a Messiah born in a stable and placed in a manger. Jesus and his family had to flee to another land, Jesus, barely arrived in the world, already pitching his tent with all the other refugees.
Tents and flesh, vulnerable and thin, pitched by those on the margins who cannot afford the protection of solid walls. It doesn’t make sense that people should live this way in a world of plenty where we flip through catalogs or go shopping, simply looking for something to spend our money on. This world doesn’t make sense when ruthless leaders remain in power, crushing their people, just so they can keep the structures of inequality and oppression in place. This world doesn’t make sense when our greed for distance and things fuels the industries that poison our air and our water and create the climate where rains flood more frequently while others starve through droughts. It doesn’t make sense, so often, this cosmos created by the Word that became flesh.
And yet, it was into this world that doesn’t make sense, that seems so often meaningless, that Sense and Meaning came to be with us. And this Meaning came, not to conquer with an army of truth, but to take on the vulnerable skin of flesh, to pitch his tent so that he could be close to us, connected and yet dangerously exposed to the violence all around him.
He lived here in the middle of all the pain, the risk of suffering, the skin that could be cut. He lived in a tent that provided only the barest of protection and he showed us a light, a light that would be invisible from behind a brick wall, but glows brightly in the night of the world from the borders of a tent. It is a light of love that overcame and overcomes the darkness, that can only be seen because it is exposed and vulnerable.
By pitching his tent among us he allowed us all to see the luminous realities of love and he invites us to come alongside him, to risk our selves in order to shine a light in the darkness. Coming among us he said, take up your cross, follow me. Which means that we have to be vulnerable to be connected. Will we come to the light and pitch our tent alongside him? Will we risk ourselves in order to reflect back the light of his love in a world of darkness? Those are the questions I hope we’ll ask as we move into this season of the Incarnation, leaving behind the sweet glow of the baby and journeying into the bright, radical hope of a cosmos where all things once again live in the harmony of God.