The Word became flesh and lived among us; yet the world did not know him.
It’s so easy to picture last week’s Christmas manger scene, and it’s easy to bask in the pageantry of the three wise men visiting, but let’s jump ahead – if we can – to the 75 mile journey back to Nazareth. Mary a young mother, Jesus crying. He’s hungry. His parents are tired. The whole gang of them cranky; just wanting to get home. Picture that. Make Jesus real. Crying. Carnate.
Probably because I’m a teacher, I love to think about that time between 0 -12 when Jesus was among the people but they did not recognize him.
Jesus – the boy – rambled upon dusty paths; he heard the calling cry of rabbinical chants. Jesus scraped his knees; he played with clay marbles with his brothers; ate hard dates off a tree. He probably wiggled impatiently at a Seder dinner. He had friends, he had teachers, he ran, he sweat, his feet had calluses. He had to wash his hair.
I always picture Jesus in four iconic poses – swaddled as a baby; arms extended preaching during the Sermon on the Mount; completely still with his head bowed, a white garment draped over his shoulders, contemplating and pensive; and then, of course, hanging during his crucifixion.
But how I have loved picturing him the last few weeks as I mulled this text – moving, running, poking another teenager in the ribs, laughing, turning his face to the sun, sleeping on the flat roof of his house on a hot night, slinging an arm around a friend, positioned next to his father, his hands covered by his father’s hands as he learned how to use a plane-ing tool.
Jesus did not go from being a baby blessed with frankincense to the prophet silencing a raging sea to the savior hanging on a cross in three quick time warps, as my mind so easily is wont to do. He was a boy, a teenager. He sprouted his first chin hair with the same wonderment as any young man we know now.
I also like knowing that Jesus never turned a double play on the softball field at Forest Hill Park, or drove a Volkswagon down the Autobahn. He didn’t celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary. He did not experience the downy beauty of an Ohio winter. Alternatively, he did not bury his mother, or have a spouse leave him. I like knowing that he never watched his child die, or lost his job or felt his body temper with age.
Even Jesus, who became flesh, did not experience what we have experienced…even the One who was God incarnate did not get to know all of the particulars of human living.
That makes me think that each of us gets our own mixture of joy and suffering. Each of us lives our own snowflake life. Nothing like mine, nothing else like yours, no one’s exactly the same. Yet, in these lives, and because God chose to be among us, we all – including God – are part of and understand the more universal pools of beauty and pain. And we all – across an infinite number of conditions in an infinite number of places over an infinite number of years – can speak to a God who actually knows our happiness and actually feels our longing. Because God was here. Dwelling among us.
The second part of the text. Jesus was in the world, but the world did not know.
While this has the implication that we are at fault for our lack of vision and wisdom to recognize Jesus Emmanuel…I think it’s an authentic reality…and still very true today. We only rarely, and in hindsight, recognize God’s movement of mercy and grace within our lives. Likewise, we often don’t know or recognize our own holiness or human acts of mercy and grace. Without backwards reflection, I’d have no way to track what I have done and its meaning. I would not have realized the ripple effects of my actions or the impact of twist decisions.
John [Rev. Lentz] always talks about Micah – how we are called to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God – but so often acting justly and loving mercy are happening between and among us in unconscious or subconscious ways, spontaneously, without planning. Flashes of random grace.
Or they are not happening in conscious and subconscious ways. Through bolts of thoughtless action. Through kneejerk reactions in emotional fire swells.
Years ago, it’s my recollection that a certain student got under my skin because for the 2nd or 3rd week in a row, she did not bring her materials or homework to class. Exasperated, I played “bad cop.” I took her out into the hallway and I am sure I wagged my finger, and got my post-lunch stinky teacher breath all up in her face and I told her how she was lacking and that that just would not cut it in my class. Truly, I do not remember the specifics. But I do know – I vividly remember- the repercussions of that action.
About ten days later, I heard from someone, who heard from someone, who was told by someone who wandered by that I had gone on a tirade with this nine or ten year old child. I had no idea that a string of people knew about my actions, had spoken about those actions, had determined that I was “a screamer” and that others should use caution when having their children in my classroom. I cannot tell you the level of my embarrassment and shame. Even to this day. I did this thing, this thing I did not even recognize, and it had a lasting impact on a child, her parents, and other parents in my community. And on me, thank God, as -since then – I have tried my best to cradle my students in a safe place of love and respect.
Alternatively, and in the same “they know not what they do” vein, there was a young man who came back to visit me and he told me a story about what I had done with him when he was in third grade – I could not remember a drop of this story – it happened in the late 80’s. So he tells me – Antonio was trying out for the student mediation squad at Fernway School and, largely because of a noticeable limp and weak right side, he had been inordinately shy his whole school career. This came to a head when he was thrust into a pretty intense tryout role-playing situation – it’s tough to become a mediator at Fernway School. Well, after a couple minutes of Antonio trying to control me pretending to be an unwieldy kindergartener, he froze, stopped talking, started to cry and slunk from the room, forfeiting his chance to earn a position on the squad.
Then, Antonio told me – again I do not remember any of this – the next day I spotted him by the water fountain, and I invited him to try-out again. I’m sure it was a whim decision, a quick twist of kindness. Well, that time, Antonio nailed it and was invited to become a fourth grade mediator.
Now, here’s where the story gets interesting. Antonio and his twin sister Antoinette left the Shaker Schools, and moved to Cleveland, where Antonio – because of his earlier experience – became a mediator at the MLK School of Law and Justice in the 9th grade, young for that title. By tenth grade he was a team captain, in twelfth grade he was the student head of the program, and that spring he was called by President Clinton to serve as one of three student representatives on a presidential commission about school bullying. Today, Antonio is Coordinator for the conflict resolution program at MLK and does training to spread peacemaking efforts to students across the nation as well as adults through workshops he’s facilitated for the US Department of Labor. In 2004 and 2008 he became a recognized bipartisan voting rights advocate and has been featured in a documentary film.
All that because I happened to be in the hallway, and Antonio happened to be thirsty, and I happened to have the inclination to give Antonio another shot and Antonio had the inclination to trust himself and me. And take a chance to move into the person he was meant to be. We have no idea how or when miracles are lining up – we have no idea.
The Word became flesh – and dwelt among Antonio and me, and we did not recognize it.
The best example of this is an idea that is rooted in mystical Judiasm: Lamed Vav(niks). “Lamed Vavniks” refers to the world’s 36 Righteous People. It is said that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and that, if it were not for them, all of them – if even one of them were missing – the world would come to an end. Their role in life is to justify the purpose of mankind in the eyes of God, and demonstrate and protect holy goodness through the living of their human lives. They are, the Lamed Vavniks, the 36 pillars of humanity. Tradition holds that their identities are unknown to each other and that, if one of them comes to realize her true purpose, his true purpose, then the role is immediately assumed by another person.
I learned about this idea because of my friend, Sheri Grossman. She knew thousands of people intimately and treated everyone of us as if each was her singular best friend. The last time I saw Sheri, about a week before she died – after five years with pancreatic cancer, she smiled at me and said, “Jean, how are you. Tell me about school. Tell me about the poetry play. Tell me about your father. Tell me what it is like now that Carrie is gone.” Her last acts with me were ones that made me know that she knew me, she loved me, and she wanted the best for me.
Suburban Temple was packed the day of her funeral service. All the way back to where they have Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. And after other tributes, Rabbi Eric Bram spoke and explained to us about Lamed Vavniks. He said that he truly believed Sheri was one of the chosen 36 – quite a mighty claim. Sheri Grossman, wife to Ned, mother of Adam and Jenny, friend to Shelly, Mary, Lindy, Sue, Judy, I could go on and on….Sheri Grossman, a Reading recovery teacher in Shaker Heights, OH…One of the chosen 36 known to God as the pillars of humanity? How could that be? But not one person twitched at that notion. Not one person tittered with laughter. We all just nodded our heads. Unflinching in our agreement.
The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us,- and, sometimes, when we are very lucky, we get to know it.
One of my dearest friends in this congregation insists that because she knows what she knows about God’s desires for us, she should do better. Be better. Do more. When one knows what God is asking, every act should be a godly act. I am sure that some of you feel that way too. My friend feels she is never doing enough – which is crazy – because she is already so much that is right and beautiful in the world. She’s amazing.
That is not what God wants – that cannot be what God desires – for you to feel the pressure of expectation.
I want to admit this simple truth.
Despite knowing what I know, and my strong desire to do something worthwhile, and trying to hold an obedience to kindness over a long expanse of time – sometimes I am royally messing up and sometimes I am doing it right, and most of the time I do not recognize the effects I am making at all.
There is no need to judge yourself. If those who were with Jesus, face to face, did not know who they were with, until he started flipping tables, or multiplying water into wine – doing these outrageously huge miracles – then we do not know who is among us. And we do not fully understand and recognize the way God is working in and through us. Do not set yourself up for the mirage – the unattainable goal – of major miracles or of saintly existence.
There’s no need to rush into this New Year proclaiming the significant ways in which you will alter your life – setting resolutions that may lead to failure and self-recrimination. Be gentle with yourself, – be gentle with yourself – simply ask that your life unfold in small beautiful ways. Your life has already had and will continue to have immeasurable affects on those you love and care for.
Be in the world. Be in your flesh. Know that even the smallest light outshines the darkness. You do not have to do anything spectacular. You do not need to change or improve or do things better. Just lean into goodness – muster the Lamed Vavnik in your soul. And, when you can, instead of just receiving someone’s conscious or unconscious grace, make a point to be grateful. Walk up to the people who have tended your soul, and recognize them. Say, “You may not know this, John, but…”, “You may not know this, Karen, but that day we….”, “You may not know this, Kate….”, “George…”, “Ron…”, “You may not know this, but you’ve changed my life.”
We most likely will never fully recognize the way God is meandering through it all. So be in your life, dwell in your life fully. Serve up small grace upon grace, allow grace to ripple into grace.
The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.
Dwells among us.
And for that, the greatest mystery of all, the mystery that moves and changes us and lives among us every single sacred day upon this sacred planet, I give thanks.
I give great thanks.