By: David H. May, Rector
I remember when my sons were young, I used to try to describe to them people who were really important to me, family members, friends, but who were gone now, who had died. People like my grandmother or my best friend who died suddenly when he was just 39. It was so frustrating. I couldn’t recreate for them what my grandmother’s presence was like when she was cooking in her kitchen, or the way she hummed as she made pastry crust and the way she smelled blended with the smell of cooking green beans. I couldn’t recreate for them the silly and completely hysterical way my best friend used to poke fun at himself and the crooked smile he had.
Since I’ve been here at St. Mary’s, some of you have tried to introduce me to members of this parish who have died. I hear the stories, but of course I can’t quite grab hold of the person, I can’t really get it. About the closest you can come to meeting someone who is gone is through the special look a person gets in their eyes or on their face, or the change that comes overs their voice when they are talking about that person.
There’s just no substitute for the real thing, for the real presence and experience of another person. You can give the idea of a person, but it’s like trying to describe what a raspberry tastes like. It always falls far short of the real thing.
We need the real thing in the flesh; and there’s just not substitute.
There’s a familiar story of a four-year old girl and her parents who had had a particularly long and trying day. After putting their daughter to bed, her parents collapsed into bed too. But the little girl was too tired to fall asleep and became fearful of the dark.
“Mom! Dad!” she cried out just as her parents were closing their eyes, “come here! I’m scared!”
One of her parents called back, “It’s ok. God is there with you.”
A minute passed.
“Mom! Dad! I said come here! I’m really scared!”
“But sweetie, we told you, God is there with you.”
She called out, “I know he is, but I need something with skin on them!”
So do we. We need the real thing, a real presence. The Bible has a special word for this presence. In Hebrew, the word is nephesh. We translate that as ‘spirit’, but it means much more than that. Your nephesh is that spirit of you, that you that makes you you. And, your nephesh only exists with skin on it.
It’s like all great theological words and ideas we have. They are only real, we only understand them when they have skin on them.
Like the word love. Try to define love. I think it’s pretty much impossible. But when someone tells you they love you, then it’s real. Or even better, my New Testament professor once said: “It’s all fine and good for you to give me this idea that you love me. But better still is for you to kiss me. Give me your kiss, not just this idea that you love me!”
In our world, you can hear people expressing this same longing for the real thing. They know they need empty places filled, they know that they are longing for something. I’m afraid that too often we in the church try to give them an idea of God. But that’s not what they want, not really. They don’t want an idea, they don’t want to hear about ‘how God loves them’. They want love with skin on it.
Which is precisely what the mysterious, radiant words of today’s Gospel reading says has happened: God has kissed the world, because “the Word became flesh and lived among us…and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth”.
Through this Word made flesh, this man Jesus of Nazareth, God has put skin on his ‘I love you’ with a kiss.
Which is still – I have to admit – just sort of an idea without skin on it. Except that here we all are together with each other in-the-flesh. And we are two or three gathered together in his Name so that through the mysterious workings of grace, Christ is by your side even now, making us his Body. All the great theological ideas have skin put on them right here, right now through your lives. No one has to try and tell you about an idea of God. Be that idea with skin on it. Love. Forgiveness. Compassion. Justice. They don’t exist anywhere if people don’t put skin on them for each other, and for all those people with empty places who – (and good for them!) – aren’t satisfied with just some idea of God.
Of course, sometimes – and I don’t want to be too hard with this, but – sometimes we’d rather God just be an idea, something we think about; sometimes we are like a child who pushes a parent away who’s all puckered up and ready to plant a great big one on them. We are reluctant – sometimes – for the real thing. Except that your nephesh, your true self whom God has created you to be will always be restless for God, will always lean forward, will incline your heart to that place where God’s kiss is given and received, the place where the Word becomes flesh, and through whom grace and truth are given.
So it is, then, that whenever you forgive one another, the Word that spoke the creation into being becomes flesh, and Christ is born. Wherever you show love for the world that God loves, the Word that was born in a manger in Bethlehem becomes flesh, and Christ is born. Wherever you offer healing, the Word that brought sight to the blind, becomes flesh, and Christ is born. Wherever you stand with the poor and the outcast, the lonely and the unlovable, the Word that filled up hungry people with bread from heaven, becomes flesh, and Christ is born. Whenever you step across the boundaries we’ve all drawn around each other with a word of peace, the Word that laid down his life for you, becomes flesh, and Christ is born. And whenever you can stop squirming long enough to receive God’s kiss of peace, the Word that raised Jesus from the dead, become flesh, and Christ is born.
It’s not an idea we’re supposed to try to tell people about. It’s not someone who is not here anymore that we’re trying to describe. It’s our own lives, our own selves with skin on it that we are meant to offer as the way that God puts skin on his love for this world to bring healing and hope again. And again. And again, the Word becomes flesh. Amen.