Enfleshment

Keep politics out of the pulpit…we have separation of church and state in this country! Why don’t you spend your time preaching the gospel and growing the church, not talking about current events! My guess is that, if you are a member of the clergy…or even a member of the church, you have heard things like this said more than once.

And I would not dismiss such statements out of hand. There are preachers out there who abuse the “power of the pulpit” to advance partisan concerns either on the right or on the left. And people don’t come to church to hear their minister opine about his or her particular views on the latest news headlines. But such abuses must not cause those of us entrusted with the responsibility of proclaiming God’s word from week to week from applying that word to real the concerns of real people in the real world.

After all, most Christians would agree that the central affirmation of Christmas is that “the Word became flesh.” The most important thing about that first Christmas was not the cuteness of a baby in a manger or the appearance of the Christmas star or shepherds hearing angelic voices singing God’s glory.

These things point to what is the most important thing — that, on “this day,” in the city of David, the wisdom of God, the principle of rationality and order at the core of the entire universe, the self-expression, the “word” of God, what theologians later came to name the “second person of the Trinity,” was made known, came to dwell/tabernacle in a new-born infant who was to be called Jesus.

Christians believe this. We also believe that this in-carnation, this enfleshment, of God, was “simply” the prime example of a principle as old as the creation itself. Namely, that the creator of the world, indeed the mind behind creation itself, makes itself known to us in the very “stuff” of that creation. It is the incarnational principle. The popular Franciscan writer, Richard Rohr, puts it this way:

“… the spirit nature of reality (the spiritual, the immaterial, the formless) and the material nature of reality (the physical, that which we can see and touch) are one. They always have been one, ever since the Big Bang took place 13.7 billion years ago. The incarnation did not just happen when Jesus was born, although that is when we became aware of the human incarnation of God in Jesus. It seemingly took until 2,000 years ago for humanity to be ready for what Martin Buber (1878-1965) called an I/Thou relationship with God. But matter and spirit have been one since “the beginning,” ever since God decided to manifest himself/herself in creation.”

And this incarnational principle itself, in time, is also seen in the sacramental principle. That is, that behind and beneath very earthy signs such as water, bread, wine, oil, and human touch the very power and love of God can be conveyed and received. The two primary Christian sacraments — baptism and the eucharist — show this most clearly. But other sacramental realities such as confirmation, marriage, ordination, healing and reconciliation also celebrate that truth.

Most Christians believe this. So why is it so difficult to accept the fact that God is also involved in the very stuff of life — the everyday events, large and small, which effect to one degree or another our common life? And, since the simplest definition I know of “politics” is “the way people living in groups make decisions,” Christians cannot avoid politics any more than they can avoid religion. The two, in many cases, are one.

I know that, in today’s parlance the word politics most often refers to the way that countries are governed and to the ways that governments makes rules and laws. And, particularly in the last decades, politics most often means partisan politics. It is this latter that Christian preachers must avoid! I used to say that I was often “political” from the pulpit, but never (I hope!) “partisan.” I never encouraged people on how to vote, only that they must vote!

It takes a certain fierce honesty, coupled with hours of prayer and meditation “with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal!) in the other to craft a sermon which faithfully applies the “word of God” as discerned in Scripture to the needs, hopes and concerns of the world, and which challenges the assembly to make an equally faithful response in the way they live their lives in the everyday, workaday, world.

But it is in that very process, in that very encounter, that “the Word becomes flesh” (yet again) and “dwells among us.”

Merry Christmas!

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