Our Christmas in This July
Today, I want to invite you into what we might call “dislocation.” This is not a medical condition, or something that causes joint pain, I promise. The dislocation I’m talking about is something you’ve probably already sensed in the music: a misplaced theme, an unhinged hymn. Joy to the World was misplaced from its wintery surroundings. The resounding joy of that hymn was unhinged from its snowy season. It was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was Christmas in July.
It was unaccompanied by the anticipation, unencumbered by the multi-layered traditions; untethered from the green and red, the reindeer and wreaths, the family stress and the family joy. Christmas, when dislocated, is free to be a gift apart from the gift giving season. Christmas, when dislocated, might move us in a new way. Dislocation means reading scripture out of sync with its normal rhythm. Dislocation opens your ears.
For example, have you ever heard First Corinthians 13 read somewhere other than at a wedding? What might it sound like in a traffic jam on 90/94? You’re sitting there, hands at ten and two, knuckles white from the bumper-to-bumper growing frustration, and you hear: Love is patient. Love is kind. It is not envious or boastful or rude. Can your body relax then? Can your road-fever die down? Can your hands unclench the steering wheel, as you remember patience and kindness?
Or what about this: have you ever read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me to still waters.” Have you ever read Psalm 23 while actually sitting in the grass beside still waters? Or what would it sound like in the middle of a drought, when the slow gentle flow of water is desperately needed? Or what about in the middle of a deluge, like last night’s storm?
Wendell Berry says that scripture is truly an outside book, a book to be read far from the rumble of the air conditioner, or the glow of the television. “It is a book open to the sky,” he says, and “it is best read outdoors, the farther outdoors the better.” I can remember once sitting at the foot of Mt. Rainier with a friend, and a hymn based on Psalm 121 came to us without warning: I lift my eyes up, to the mountains, where does my help come from? Singing that scripture passage while actually lifting my eyes up to the mountains brought something divine into focus, if just for a moment. So, here’s today’s hope: that, in the dislocation of Christmas in July, if only for a moment, these familiar tunes and this familiar passage [and the familiar ritual of candle light] might allow God’s presence to dwell among us again.
Together, let us listen for God’s word, a word to us and for us, and for all the world, here in John, chapter one:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
This passage, from John chapter one, is the beginning of a sermon series that Jo Forrest and myself will be leading between now and Labor Day weekend on the gospel of John, and so we begin today with Christmas and we will end with Easter, and we will find our way through the gospel of John throughout the weeks in-between. That is your road map for the coming weeks. And this is your road map for today: My hope today is to unpack this passage of scripture by way of Alexander Hamilton and tent camping. Now that we have our maps in front of us, we can begin.
First, the gospel of John is like Hamilton, the musical. Wait, what? The gospel of John is like Hamilton, the musical. Okay, hear me out: Hamilton, the musical, winner of 11 Tony Awards and a Grammy and the Pulitzer Prize, retells the story of our nation’s history through the eyes of Alexander Hamilton. It is set up to be the most boring musical on the face of the planet: Hamilton is the first secretary of the treasury, for God’s sake. But instead, Lin-Manuel Miranda dislocates, or at least relocates Hamilton and Washington and Jefferson into hip-hop rap battles to illustrate the intense debates between and decisions made by the founding fathers.
Ultimately, Hamilton, the musical, translates US history into a musical language that bridges the divide between then and now. The cast is made up almost entirely of men and women of color—African American, Latino, and Asian American men and women who portray historical figures who were historically, as one might say it, white.
One of the cast members, Renée Goldsberry, who plays Hamilton’s sister-in-law, says that at its core “Hamilton is a story about America, and the most beautiful thing about it is [that] it’s told by such a diverse cast with diverse styles of music.” In Hamilton, she says, “we have an opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own.” It is an immigrant history. A protest history. A creative history. A renewing history. A game changing history. Hamilton, the musical, arrived on Broadway last year in the midst of an era when the racial majority in the United States was about to be majority no longer; it emerged in an era when racial minorities were, in so many cases, still considered outsiders to the American Tale, despite generations-deep family histories on American soil: it arrived in an era when race and racism and racial tensions were and still are at the forefront of the national news on a daily basis. At its core, Hamilton re-invites the whole nation into the American Dream in a way that can be heard by everyone, in a way that can be dreamed by everyone.
And the gospel of John works to do the same thing. It rewrites history in a way that can be heard by everyone, dreamed by everyone. Although, in this case, the gospel of John is writing the story of Jesus, not the story of the American Dream, but that is probably self-evident. The gospel of John was written decades after Jesus. Jesus’ followers had spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth—across the Mediterranean Sea, all the way to Greece and Rome—it was like Pokémon Go, spreading far and wide across cultures and continents at a speed unimagined by those who were there from the beginning.
The gospel of John sought to retell the story of Jesus in a way that could be heard and understood, this time not just through the lens of the Jewish community from which the Christian movement launched, but now, by those in the ever-expanding community of Christ that encompassed many cultures across the known world. That is why the gospel of John begins the way it begins.
Unlike Matthew, with a genealogy of biblical characters, who would have been important to the Jewish community (yes?) but obscure and unknown to the rest of the world; and unlike Luke, with its orderly account of a baby born in Bethlehem, detailing names and places that would have been so central to people in Jerusalem, but again, would have been obscure and unknown to those in Rome or Greece or elsewhere; and unlike Mark, who just starts, promptly and abruptly, with Jesus as a grown man being baptized; the gospel of John begins at the beginning.
The gospel of John begins at a beginning before time, a beginning before the beginning, because it is seeking to find common ground across cultures. It begins “the Word was with God” because in Greek culture, the Word, the Logos, was at the core of Greek philosophy. Logos was not just the root of words like logic or logical, or any subject that ends in ology—like biology, psychology, oncology—but Logos was knowledge and wisdom and revelation, the thing that was and is at the very heart of God. Logos was reason and purpose and creative power. And so, the gospel of John begins, “the Word was God,” because Greek philosophers could hardly argue against this statement that the Word, the Logos, was God.
The gospel of John, then, begins as an inclusive gospel, a biography of Jesus that doesn’t just hesitantly open the door a smidge to let in a few outsiders, but a story that flings aside all barriers, tears down all fences, removes all walls, and fearlessly gives access to everyone—anyone and anything in all creation that has ever been. All things came into being through the Word, the logos, and without this logos, this logic, this creative power of God, not one thing came into being.
This is a wide open gospel. It is a gospel of welcome. At Christmas time, we might be ready for a gospel of welcome. It is dark. It is cold. The world seems just that much more dangerous to venture out into. Without a place of welcome, you freeze. At Christmas time, too, we might be more primed for this gospel of welcome because of the ever-reinforced Christmas cheer; the spirit of generosity, the toys for tots, the mitten drives, the special charity campaigns. We’re ready for the gospel of welcome. But today, in the midst of summer, when we might be able to easily scatter to our own corner of creation, hopping on a bike to escape, or running off to our favorite vacation destination to get away from the worries of the world, this gospel of welcome might be challenging.
Today, in the midst of this particular July, when racial tensions are amplified by police shootings—shootings of police and shootings by police—this gospel of welcome might appear radical. Today, in the midst of this particular July when religious tensions are amplified by international terrorism—and the Islamic State can trigger an ideology of destruction online in places as near and far as Kabul and Nice and Orlando—this gospel of welcome might push up against the human instinct to shelter and protect our own.
And yet, in this particular July, maybe we hear the wide open welcome of Christmas in a new way: a way that might transform us—individually and together—for the sake of the shelter and protection of all.
Let me end with this: with camping in tents. I am about to head out into the wilderness with the youth of Kenilworth Union Church. Pray for us. In all the ways that you pray. We leave at what I might call stupid-o-clock in the morning this Saturday to catch an early flight north to Minnesota where we will camp and canoe for the week. We will sleep in tents. We will carry all the food we need for the week with us on our backs. We will rely on one another for encouragement and daily bread. And we will read scripture. We will read it outdoors, and for some, farther outdoors than they have ever been.
As I was preparing for this sermon today, I came across a translation note that stuck out to me in a different way because I am preparing to leave for this wilderness journey. The dislocation of this text in summer was powerful. In verse 14, the gospel writers say, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Or, as translations say, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” or “took up residence among us.” The translation note says that literally this phrase can be translated “set up a tent in our midst;” “God camped out among us.”
Where are the places in our world where we might need, again, God to camp out in our midst? Where might we ask God to set up a tent among us? In this gospel of welcome, God is willing to travel anywhere, to hike far and wide, to set up camp near us. Is it in Munich? Is it in Nice? Is it in Dallas? Is it in Baton Rouge? Is it in Baton Rouge or is it in Kabul that we need God to set up camp? Or in the unknown depths of the world wide web that can be host to innumerable kinds of darkness?
Do we need God to set up camp in our living room? In our dining room? In our office meeting room? In our hospital? In our community centers? In this very sanctuary? Do we need God to set up a tent within the unknown depths of our very hearts? Where our worries hold court and our fears secretly outnumber our hopes? I don’t know the answer to where you need God to set up camp.
All I know is that in the gospel of John, there is a sense of hope, a promise that God might set up camp anywhere across the many corners of the universe, and that the door to God’s welcome has been flung wide open, so that the invitation is for you and for me and for all who might hope to let light shine in the darkness, so that the darkness might never overcome it.
In the past months, we have lit candles several times, to mark the loss of life that comes within a world that has darkness. The light has served to be a reminder that there is, indeed, a light that shines ever brighter, and that God’s dwelling place is among us, between us, through us, for us.
Today, you have each been given a candle upon entering the sanctuary. In a moment, as we sing Silent Night, we will come down the center aisle to light your candles, and so you can pass your light down the pews to your neighbors. But notice the dislocation. Notice how the light is already streaming in the windows. How the light of summer looks distinctly different than the quiet light of winter. Notice how we sing Silent Night in the midst of the day. Notice how the calm of summer is full of cicadas and birds, unlike the frosty calm of a snowy winter day.
Notice the disruption of singing Silent Night in the midst of July, without the burden of having heard Christmas carols for months blasted from every corner store, the tune and lyrics meld together in a new way. Notice the way that God sets up camp in our midst, as we take the familiar rhythm of candle light into the troubles of this July.
I do not know what is on your heart as the candle light shines in your midst, but I do know that God’s welcome has been flung wide open, and that the God of light and life has set up camp among us, and that light is for you and for me, and for all who might need God’s light to shine in the darkness, so that the darkness might never overcome it.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
 Why History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton’s Diversity. Adam Perez and Salima Koroma. Time Magazine. December 15, 2015 http://time.com/4149415/hamilton-broadway-diversity/
 Adam Hamilton. John: The Gospel of Light and Life. 2015