‘Little I’ Incarnation

Sermon delivered on August 31st Pentecost 14, by Linda Mackie Griggs, St Martin’s Director of Christian Formation

While it may be tempting to think that we have left behind the Gospel lessons about Jesus as Living Bread, perhaps I should warn you not to get too comfortable. While our text today does seem to have moved on to a new setting, and even a new Gospel writer, we have not left behind the difficult images of incarnation. Only this time we aren’t exploring Jesus’ Incarnation so much as we are exploring our own.

Our story today actually begins much earlier; at the beginning—when God loved Creation into being, clothing countless sparks of life with myriad creaturely bodies—wings, fins and tails; fur, scales and skin; mouths, eyes and ears. The story begins, according to the first creation story in Genesis, as God seeks his first children while walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening, asking, “Where are you?”—three words that embody God’s yearning for relationship.

How do we respond to the ineffable—to that which is beyond physical knowledge or description? There is a spark, essence, a something that God first clothed in physicality—what I like to call “little ‘i’” incarnated. Perhaps James describes it well as “implanted word.” When God first sought out this essence, this little homing device in His children they responded the only way they knew how—through their bodies, their senses, their incarnated selves. They established ritual and worship, marking the men through circumcision, eating certain foods and preparing them in certain ways. Ritual washing of bodies and cooking vessels wasn’t just a matter of hygiene. It was a matter of holiness—of valuing the sacred, and making offerings to God as acts of love and worship. All in response to God’s, “Where are you?”—God’s invitation to relationship. The bodies that humans had been given were used to connect the hearts of the people to the heart of God. This was the gift of their incarnation—heart and body as one.

And this served not only to build relationship with God but with one another. The “statutes and ordinances” that we hear about in Deuteronomy connected God’s people to God and bound the people of God into community—into family. Their physical practices kept them mindful, day by day, of who they were and whose they were. And arguably they would not have survived without it. They wanted to be seen as “wise and discerning people”, distinct from others, as Chosen.

But something happened, and it happened pretty much immediately, as is the nature of fallible humanity. Our beautiful God-given gift of incarnation has a difficult time remaining properly connected to its Source. It’s almost as though there’s a short in the system. Once the idea of sacred is introduced, humans tend very quickly to gravitate toward dualism—to want to pit sacred against that which is perceived to be profane.

So now it’s not just a matter of holiness and relationship, it’s a matter of who is holy, and who is not. Who deserves to be in connection with the sacred, and who does not. I’m worthy, but I’m not so sure about you.

“Hey Jesus, why don’t your disciples wash their hands?” This isn’t an issue of washing up for dinner. It’s a matter of who is worthy of being a member of the family.

And Jesus recognizes this. He knows the stakes are higher than hygiene and conformity. As a matter of fact he has a better idea than the Pharisees of the significance of their simple question. He pegs it as symptomatic of a totally skewed worldview—a misuse of their gift of incarnation and, as a result, of a total disconnection of the heart of the people from the heart of God. “You hypocrites,” he calls them. You have lost touch with the heart of the Law, and you are using rituals to circumvent relationship, not to build it.

And the language Jesus uses shows once again that he is, in fact, probably more comfortable with the concept of embodiedness/physicality than anyone present. It’s amusing that the Lectionary actually leaves out several verses in this passage—perhaps just for brevity in the summer heat, but I’m a wee bit skeptical. These lines, in particular stood out when I curiously went to see what was missing:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.”

Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ indignation about impurity by getting down and dirty about human bodily functions. Jesus had no trouble at all with physicality. He used spit to heal a blind man. He used spit, stuck his fingers in ears AND touched a man’s tongue to heal his deafness. He called a woman with a 12-year hemorrhage, “daughter.” And, as we have heard for the past few weeks, he invited his hearers to eat his body and drink his blood.

Jesus, fully God and fully human, was totally at ease with incarnation, while the rest of us generally squirm.

This discomfort, this uber-focus on bodies as simply bodies, and not as incarnated creatures of God, has resulted in the tendency to devalue others based on various aspects of embodiedness, whether it is practices or physical characteristics. Jesus cited a plethora of sins that issue forth from a heart disconnected from its divine Source: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly”, and he was probably just getting warmed up.

All from a simple question about washing hands.

Jesus wanted to open the eyes of his audience. He wanted them to understand that if they refused to truly see all people as incarnated creatures in the hearts of which burn a God-created spark, they risked devaluing them; they risked Othering them.

How might Jesus respond to our 21st century world? Would he see any change from first-century Palestine? I’m afraid He would see that humans persist with a heart-breaking tendency to discriminate, neglect, subjugate, abuse, and disregard the brothers and sisters whom we deem unworthy because they don’t look or act like us.

And God said, “Where are you?”

Thank God that God is so patient!

One of my favorite Eucharistic prayers is Prayer C. It recounts the history of our relationship with God from the very, very beginning. One of the most distinctive lines is this: “Again and again, you called us to return.” Again, and again. God will never stop waiting for us to remember that we are bound heart-to-heart with God and each other.

How will our hearts respond?


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