Merry Christmas! I pray that your bellies are full and your hearts as well – with the presence of loved ones, joy of Christmas-tide, and the miracle of our Lord’s birth.
And, I hope you are paying enough attention to be challenged by the celebration of Jesus’ arrival. As we just heard from John’s Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Came to be with us!
For thousands of years, God had been in relationship with humanity. The Hebrew Scriptures give us story after story of God’s covenants with His people. Despite His people’s turning away from him, despite their lack of faithfulness or willingness to follow, God constantly returns to humanity to bind what has been broken. In a move of utter determination or desperation, God shares his very own heart in the annunciation. God’s son will be born of a woman, and come and live among humanity in hopes of communicating the love which God has for us, that we couldn’t quite seem to grasp.
So it is in this being with us that the very nature of our relationship with God is transformed. It’s a curious event – coming to be with us, in the human form. So many questions that come with this virgin birth and Son of God. Yet, I want to propose this morning that we not try and solve this mystery. Rather, that we take a cue from Jesus and wonder about what it’s like to be with people.
Theologian Sam Wells writes, “Being with is about presence, about participation, about partnership.” In Jesus we find presence, participation, and an invitation to partnership.
Beyond invitation to partnership, Jesus (and Mary) provide a model for embodiment of presence and participation. Through the experiences of Dr. Sweet, Samuel Wells explores how this might look in practice today. A physician by the name of Dr. Sweet, set out on a pilgrimage of sorts to explore the true intention of health care. She had reached a dead end when her working assumption that doctors were called to “work for” her patients didn’t hold up. A seasoned doctor, she embarked on a journey to find out what health care truly ought to be. One of the stops on her journey was an alms-house in San Francisco, Laguna Honda. Rather than that which you may think of as a traditional institution, Laguna Honda provided shelter, rehabilitation, transition, and refuge for those who had nowhere else to go.
The doctors and nurses invested in the lives of their patients in ways that would be a clear HIPPA violation, and a perceived encroachment of privacy in our society.
Dr. Sweet’s stories are truly remarkable. Janice Gilroy changed Dr. Sweet’s approach to being present with patients. “Janice was a heavy cocaine, heroine, and alcohol user. She had a stroke on the right side of her brain. It looked like she would require a brain scan, bone scan, and spinal tap. She appeared to need biopsies and extended hospitalization. Although Janice was in a quiet, cool room, she was stark naked on her bed, and refused to cooperate.” After sitting with her for a few moments, and simply observing her behavior, it occurred to Dr. Sweet that the patient was attempting to crawl out of her skin, as though she had been poisoned. Which was precisely the problem. As soon as Janice was off all the medications, her symptoms cleared up. Sitting in the dark, simply listening and watching crystallized what she had otherwise overlooked. Dr. Sweet became a better physician because she was more present as a person.
Centuries of being in relationship with humanity did not accomplish that which transpired in Jesus’ lifespan. God’s character was not changed. The only thing that had changed was God’s presence with us. In Jesus, we understand God’s deep desire to know and love us. Jesus’ presence changed everything.
Lagunda Honda is certainly not anything like what you will find in an ordinary hospital. It is common for staff to use their own money to throw a birthday party for the patients with whom they have developed a relationship. Dr. Sweet discovered the reciprocity required for full participation to transpire, in a patient named Paul. Paul had an unusual host of problems for someone as young as forty-seven – cocaine and alcohol addiction, peripheral vascular disease, and two amputated legs. He was faced with a slow and painful decline from gangrene. Dr. Sweet administered highly concentrated doses of oxygen, and his many wounds began to heal. As Paul regained his physical strength, his vitality for life also returned. While he continued to recover, Paul shared his talent for constructing computers. Quickly, he became a resource for both the staff and fellow patients. When Christmas rolled around that year, Dr. Sweet offered to buy Paul a Christmas gift. He asked for a fishing vest. “He had no legs, so he lacked the pockets that trousers would provide. A fishing vest, with all its pockets, would make up the shortfall.” Giving Paul this vest for Christmas brought Dr. Sweet immeasurable pleasure. Participating in the fullness of Paul’s recoveries was one of her most fulfilling encounters as a doctor.
Jesus’ mother Mary is perhaps one of our most profound examples of participation. As Mary chooses to respond to God’s invitation, she becomes an integral participant of God’s in-breaking into the world.
Without our willingness to step out in faithfulness, God’s initiatives would show up in a very different way. Jesus does not ask of his earliest followers anything that He himself is not willing to go through. Participation is a key component to both Jesus’ own ministry, and the continuation of the Good News.
Finally, Jesus’ presence is God’s invitation to partner as co-creators in building the Kingdom. The recovery community at Lagunda Honda was remarkable, not because of it’s successful interventions, but because of the ways in which the staff and patients interacted. At the funeral of one of the substance-abuse counselors, graduates of the program spoke at length. There was no magic cure that the counselor had shared with his patients. Rather he entered into meaningful and lasting relationships. They were partners in crafting a plan for recovery. On days off, and even after his employment at the facility had ended, this particular counselor continued to check in with those in recovery on a daily basis. His work was transformative because of the engaging nature of the partnerships he created.
Jesus’ ministry begins in partnership with John the Baptist. He quickly enlists the disciples, and the women who fund his ministry and travels. The ministry continues to spread following his death and resurrection because of the willingness of the disciples to stay in partnership with one another. Partnership is the essence of who Jesus was, and becomes a key characteristic of Christianity.
The stories of Lagunda Honda come through the lens of a doctor, yet the implications are important for each of us. As Wells writes, “There is a profound difference between a problem, which one seeks to solve, and a mystery, which one can only enter.” The problem of the incarnation is not one we ought to try and solve. Rather, it is a mystery, in which we are invited to be present, participate, and partner. In the event of Jesus coming to live among us, the nature of our discipleship is transformed.
Come, O Come Emmanuel! Rejoice that God dwells among us today and always.
The Rev. Beth Magill