In the Name of the Father, and of + the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few days ago Troy Davis was executed in the state of Georgia. I do not claim to know his innocence or guilt. I do know that a great deal of uncertainty surrounded his case. And conservatively speaking such uncertainty should have been enough to grant Troy clemency. And I do know that in these United States men of color inordinately bear the brunt of incarceration and the death penalty. That under conditions of a racist society, the death penalty cannot be but a racist act, an act of desecration.
I know we do not like to speak of encountering God in our white-washed Churches, but as the news announced his execution and broadcast pictures of him, for a moment, a flash, I saw pictures of Troy Davis, and his spectacled face was the face of Christ. And I wept.
Yesterday, Wangari Maathai died. She had championed the planting of nearly 30 million trees to restore her Kenyan homeland. Many women joined Wangari in her work, and planting trees came to also highlight the plight and dignity of women in her country. Wangari did all of this in the face of early scorn and even government opposition. Late did she receive the Nobel prize for her work. In “Redwood Cathedral,” a poem dedicated to her life’s work, the poet tells of an encounter with the Living God among the Redwood forests of Northern California:
I enter the house of your praise
without thought of worship
stumps and needles cense
the heated air in late day
you still even my heart
at columns holding the sky
I touch my lips to rot.
I dip my fingers in decay
forgetting pious decorum
a salamander red-tailed
lingers in the last warm rays
you turn me again to dust
by pillars of silence keeping
I walk your dwelling place.(1)
I know we do not like to speak of encountering God in our sanitized Churches, but in the poet’s telling of smelling sweet decay and kissing rot and delight in a lone salamander, I am awed by a sense of God’s walking among us just as God does in the Garden in Genesis. I do not claim many such encounters for myself. But I do know that in these United States of late capitalism, creatures great and small bear the brunt of our insatiable use that now threatens all life. That under such conditions, to hug a tree destined for mansion-building is laughable, if not heresy.
“Because of the Incarnation, I reverence all remaining manner.” St. John of Damascus wrote these striking words in defense of icons during the struggles over iconoclasm in the Sixth Century. For many of us today, his words may seem outrageous if not outright heretical or even pagan.
Yet, at the heart of the controversy over icons rests this question, Is matter, created existence, made for and to show forth God? That is, in questioning the implications of the Incarnation, the icon, the Incarnation himself is at stake. Is matter, created existence, made to bear, to birth God? And finally, Do we dare hope in the Incarnation fully leavened in every creatures and all of creation, when in all transparency and fullness, God shall be all in all? Do we see? Dare we act as if?(2)
Let me reframe St. John’s maxim for the iconoclasms of our time, among them racism and sexism and ecological devastation: Because God became one of us, human, clay, creature, flesh, matter, Jesus Christ, I reverence every creature and all of creation. I will be so bold to say that in matters of racism and sexism and ecological devastation, the Incarnation is at stake for you and me and us. In the words of 19th Century Anglican theologian, F.D. Maurice, “the Incarnation may be set aside in acts as well as words.”
Maybe it’s easier for us to imagine matter showing forth God in proclamations written on gold leaf backgrounds in vibrant egg tempura strokes of cinnabar and cobalt? And perhaps it’s easier for us to believe that a mother tender and mild, holding an infant, ancient of face and robed in dazzling array, reveals matter bearing forth God? Though perhaps the controversy on Facebook last year over censoring pictures of women breastfeeding suggests otherwise?
Yet to gaze upon the doxa, the glory, the beauty of the Nativity, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Sending of the Spirit without paying attention to the Crucifixion is to finally miss the Person Whom they proclaim: The Word became flesh and dwelled among us all the way.
No, the Incarnation hymn we heard proclaimed from Philippians this morning is itself an icon written with strokes of iron on parchment and meant to be proclaimed as song. Just as with every icon of the Incarnation, this hymn brings us to encounter with a Living Person, God become Human, Jesus Christ. For hear, we encounter the God who so identifies with us as flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, that in Christ Jesus, God willingly experiences humiliation, enters abandonment, and risks annihilation for you, for me, for us.
Make no mistake, this Incarnational hymn at the heart of St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi contains within it the Personal, that is Christological, seeds of social, cultural, and I dare say, economic and ecological, reorientation and reordering, starting not with general society out there, but with we who sing and hear the hymn, Christ’s own Body.
So, just as we would gaze closely at an icon written in paint, let us listen attentively to a few stanzas of this hymn. Hear and meet again, God’s own Self-Word given to us:
Though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
This God enters fully into the midst of us as one of us. And God does so not in glorious array and imperial might on clouds of thunder and lightning, but in the words of St. Martin Luther, “There in a stable, without man or maid, lay the Creator of the world.” This Jesus, God’s own Self-Word does not grasp at his divinity, but having identified himself with us as one of us in the flesh, he gives over his Person fully to us. Jesus does not hold back entering into the fullness of human life and experience. And the fullness of God is found as a newborn infant crying in a cave adored by those considered of low or no estate, shepherds, sheep, oxen, donkeys, and chickens.
Oh, the innkeeper had done his best. The inn was full. Full of a questionable crowd, raucous on beer and wine, some women without any other means to support themselves than prostitution, some men thieves and murders taking refuge for the night from the very roads they made unsafe. So a place of quiet and relative safety seemed a gift. Yet, here in the midst of these, a child is born. And for a few moments of calm, at least, the Human One nurses as cattle bend their knee and donkeys bray loud rejoicing and sages sneak in with gifts of kings and angels sing out glorious Peace. But already the Cross looms as Herod slaughters the innocent.
No, this God does not ignore the vicious realities of human existence, of Herodian monstrosities and Caesarly usurpations and the banal, everyday cruelty toward one another and the use of creation for profit and gain. This Jesus is born into particularity, smack dab in the midst of that viciousness, as a slave among a people who have known slavery and live under to the boot of a new Pharaoh, Caesar Augustus. Not a servant as some translations give us. Servant, after all, sounds so genteel and civilized doesn’t it? No, God who is perfect Love, and therefore, perfectly free, comes among us as one without freedom, a slave. A slave, one who unlike the sons into today’s gospel proclamation, is sent out into the vineyards without a choice to break his back in hard labor in scorching heat. A slave, a class deemed of no account in the societies of Jesus’ day, a class deemed without personhood, a class worthy only of supporting the scaffolding of an exploitative economy through daily burdensome labor, and often, through physical, verbal, and sexual abuse at the whim of those who claimed ownership over their lives.
And in the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, “by means of Himself,” by means of his very Person, as one in the flesh, as one bound in chains, Jesus binds Godself to us precisely where the most wretched inhumanity to inhumanity shows itself. Indeed, precisely as one whose very treatment and station or lack thereof is representative of humanity gone awry, a humanity of siblings turned against God and one another and all of creation, God becomes one of us. And it is this One enslaved that the hymn dares name human, person. Do you hear a social revolution?
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross.
This God enters fully into the midst of us as one of us, holding back not at all, not fleeing from being body and blood, but experiences himself the most terrible death of torturous suffocation at the hands of the state with only vinegar for comfort and dogs and vultures for company as his body begins to rot alive! Here on a tree, without friend or family, hangs dead the Creator of the world.
The fullness of God is found in this One condemned alongside thieves and murderers, as one of us. Precisely here, surrounded by thieves and highway robbers, this Jesus, muscled by hard labor and long walking, now broken and beaten, of late age at 33, hangs from a cross, an instrument of torture and death for criminals. And it is this One hanged that the hymn dares name human, person. Do you hear a social revolution?
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Christ Jesus is Lord,
to the Glory of God the Father.
Do we imagine still, even now, after all of that, flame orange angels and gold foil? Of triumph and might? To encounter in this hymn God Crucified in the flesh spoils our quick reverie and flight from this life and engagement with all that desecrates.
Again at this Table we shall receive this Lord Jesus in his Body given for you and me and us and his Blood shed for you and me and us. This Jesus, true to the Incarnation, does not run off to the far heavens to bask in the unapproachable light of Godself adulation. But, true to Love’s self-identification with all creatures, by means of his humanity, bends a knee to every creature and speaks a name. Above every name is a Name who surprisingly bends his knee to us.
This Lord Jesus freely shares the dignity of his Person and Name with you, and with you, and with me, with us, and with every creature and the whole of creation. Above every name is a Name who surprisingly confesses us. In Prof Carol Jacobson’s paradoxical completion of St. John Damascene’s words, “Because of the Incarnation, God reverences all remaining matter,” you and you and me and us and every creature and the whole of creation. Amen.
(1) Christopher Evans, “Redwood Cathedral,” Unpublished manuscript.
(2) This emphasis on the Consummation is characteristic of Anglican theology and is reflected in Anglican ascetical theology that we act as if the Consummation were already. Dr. Carol Jacobson in her explorations of eschatology also notes that we are called to act in the subjunctive, as if.