The Neighbor

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church on January 12, 2014 by Marci Auld Glass.

John 1: 1-18

Sirach 24

I suspect that many of you are not familiar with the Book of the Wisdom of Sirach, and that is for good reason. It isn’t actually in your bibles. It isn’t considered scripture in the Jewish tradition either.

But it is in the Catholic and many Orthodox bibles. It comes from a group of writings that the Reformers decided shouldn’t be in the Canon of scripture, but you may have seen them in a section in the middle of some bibles called the “apocrypha”, which in this case means books outside the canon.

If you have a Catholic Bible, they are called “deuterocanonical”, or “second canon”, which indicates that while the Catholics consider them to be scripture, they are not found in the Hebrew Bible, or the first canon. You can throw those terms around at the water cooler this week and impress your friends.

This book was written at the end of the 2nd century, so it is actually a younger text, a newer text, than John’s gospel. It is similar to Proverbs, in many ways. It isn’t a narrative story with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it is wisdom instruction set into longer poems.

In the lectionary readings, this is an alternate reading to the assigned Old Testament text from Jeremiah. When I read it, I was struck by its beauty and by its evocative language.

And I thought, “hey, why not. Let’s start 2014 with some deuterocanonical and apocryphal reading!”

Sirach 24
Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
and traversed the depths of the abyss.
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.

Among all these I sought a resting place;
in whose territory should I abide?

“Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.’
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion.
Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place,
and in Jerusalem was my domain.
I took root in an honored people,
in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.

I will again make instruction shine forth like the dawn,
and I will make it clear from far away.
I will again pour out teaching like prophecy,
and leave it to all future generations.
Observe that I have not labored for myself alone,
but for all who seek wisdom.

I think I said on Christmas Eve that only Matthew and Luke have birth narratives for Jesus. But that’s not exactly right. John has one too. Sort of.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” John isn’t interested in telling us about Jesus as a baby. He doesn’t give us the genealogy of Jesus’ family back to King David or even all the way back to Abraham.  John takes us w a a a a y back to the be. ginn. ing.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John’s birth narrative wants us to see Jesus differently than the other gospel writers want us to. John doesn’t want you to dwell on that adorable little baby in his golden fleece diaper. Because babies are comfortable and cute and cuddly.

And, for John, Jesus is none of those things. Jesus is God, and the Word, and Life, and the Light of the World. Jesus was there at the moment of creation. Not one thing came into being without him.

I know that many of you are more comfortable with the other gospel accounts of Jesus, and that’s okay. But as we seek to deepen our faith now that the Christmas decorations have all been put away, try to hold on to both of those images—the sweet little baby in the manger and the divine Word of God, creator of the universe.

John gives us a helpful image to think about God becoming human and living among us. The NRSV says “and the Word became flesh and lived among us”. One of my Greek professors translates this verse as “the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us”. Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases it this way, “the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”

The word translated as “dwelled” or “put up a tent” is the word used to describe God, in the Old Testament accounts, dwelling in the Tabernacle.

The idea of Jesus “living” among us, or pitching a tent among us, or moving into our neighborhood was quite a radical notion in the day. God living in the center of the Temple is one thing.

God living in the late 50’s ranch house down the street is something else.

The Sirach text gives us another image of the Divine moving to our zip code. Wisdom tells us about herself. She had an all access pass to the universe.

“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
and traversed the depths of the abyss.
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.”

But Wisdom’s travel around the universe made her long for a place to call home.  And so God commands her to pitch her tent among Jacob, to be established in Zion.

The way Sirach describes Wisdom evokes for us John’s “birth narrative” of Jesus. But while Wisdom is a characteristic of God, Jesus is God.

What does it mean for us to consider God living in our neighborhood?

Talking about our neighborhoods in 2014 might be different than in previous generations. Growing up, I knew who lived in every, and I mean every, house on our street. And I knew that if I were causing trouble on the boulevard, my parents would hear about it from one of the neighbors. My next door neighbors were my god parents when I was baptized. They hosted our wedding reception when Justin and I were married.

But I don’t have the same connection to my neighbors here. They are nice people, but I don’t know them that well.

We try to be good neighbors. If we have time, we will shovel their sidewalks after we finish shoveling ours, but I just don’t interact with my neighbors the way we did when I was a kid.

So, considering God as a neighbor makes me think I should invest more time in being a good neighbor.

And there are different ways to define a “neighbor”. Our efforts to “meet the neighbors” when we walk through the church’s neighborhood is grounded in this understanding of the God who pitched a tent across the street.

The new community breakfast you are starting at the end of the month grows out of our belief that we haven’t yet met all of our neighbors, yet we know we are still called to help them as we get to know them.

Speaking out in favor of non-discrimination, as 20 some of us did yesterday at a rally at the capitol building, is about caring for our neighbors, making sure none of them face discrimination for age, gender, sexual orientation, race, or any other category that could be used to divide.

Add the Words Rally 2014

Add the Words Rally 2014

And while we should wonder what it means for us that God moved into the neighborhood, I think the other question raised for me in both of these texts is just WHY God pitched God’s tent with us.

Why would Wisdom give up the vastness of the universe to pitch a tent among us?

Why would God submit Godself to the pain and struggles of this world?

Because, let’s face it. While some neighborhoods are nicer than others, none of them are immune from pain and struggle.

People sometimes ask me why they should bother to pray to God, who is far away and off in heaven somewhere, removed from our lives, unconnected to us.
I tell them I wouldn’t pray to that God, if such a God existed.

I pray to God, who came to earth,
lived,
loved,
laughed,
lost,
and died.

Because that is the God who has a clue about our lives. Whatever we’ve experienced, God has experienced too.

The bible doesn’t tell us much about Jesus from the Christmas story to the moment Jesus is baptized and begins his ministry. But in those 30 years, we have a sense of what his life must have been like.

Jesus saw the worry in his mother’s eyes for friends facing illness. He saw his mother take casseroles to friends from church when someone was ill or had a baby.

He watched Joseph struggle with owning a business and providing for the family, seeing how much effort is involved in an honest day’s work.

Jesus walked into the cafeteria on his first day at junior high and worried about whether or not someone would invite him to join them for lunch.

Jesus watched kids get picked last for kick ball teams, and worried about whether or not he’d get in to college.

He saw the anxiety in his parents’ eyes the first time he drove the family’s camel to soccer practice.

Jesus went to job interviews and
worried about paying his bills and
whether his friend’s cancer would come back and
went to dinner with his friends and
laughed over good conversation and
swam in clear lakes and
caught fish with friends and
roasted marshmallows around a camp fire on the beach.

I may be off on some of the details, but the point is this—by moving into the neighborhood as Jesus of Nazareth, the distance between us and the God of the universe shrank from infinite space down to the house down the street.

Because of Jesus, God knows and understands our lives because God has lived.

Last night, I saw the film Her. her

It is a somewhat odd but beautiful film about a man and the relationship that develops between him and the operating system of his computer. Imagine Siri, the iphone voice control feature, but with the ability to learn and interact and be charming.

Anyhow, without giving away much of the film, part of the struggle of that relationship is because the two characters—the man and his computer—could never truly understand each other’s experience. She didn’t know what it was like to have a body. He didn’t know what it was like to be a computer system. There was no way for them to bridge the chasm between their different existences.

“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.”

By moving into our neighborhood, by experiencing life as we experience life, Jesus bridged the chasm. We may not be able to grasp the infinite complexities of the God who created the universe, but we can identify with a man who walked among us, full of grace and truth, teaching us by word and deed.

I heard a story this week about a 23 year old man who bought an abandoned house in Detroit. For $500.

Here’s how he describes why he did it:

I wanted something nobody wanted, something that was impossible. The city is filled with these structures, houses whose yellowy eyes seem to follow you. It would be only one house out of thousands, but I wanted to prove it could be done, prove that this American vision of torment could be built back into a home. I also decided I would do it the old-fashioned way, without grants or loans or the foundation money pouring into the city. I would work for everything that went into the house, because not everyone has access to those resources. I also wanted to prove to myself and my family I was a man. While they were building things, I had been writing poems.

It took him months just to clean the debris out of the house with a shovel and a pitchfork. The wiring and plumbing were gone. The windows were all broken and missing.

Here’s how he describes his experience:

I’ve lived in the house for more than three years now. The neighbors don’t think I’m so crazy. They’ve brought me lemonade while I was working on my house, or they’ve cut my lawn when my mower was broken. They’ve invited me to barbecues and into their homes. I guess they’re happy there’s one more set of eyes looking out. “We’re glad you’re here,” is a refrain I hear often. I’m still very aware I am a young white kid in a mostly black neighborhood, but for the most part people have made me feel welcome. I’m grateful and feel an even deeper sense of responsibility to stay.

The photographs are haunting and beautiful.

I read his story and I thought about God moving into that neighborhood in Detroit. Or this neighborhood in Boise. Or your neighborhood or mine.

It is a risky thing to do. And takes a lot of work. And is beautiful beyond measure and full of gift.

Thanks be to God for being willing to put up with all of the messy moments of our human lives and move into our neighborhood.

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7 thoughts on “The Neighbor

  1. you’re becoming a mystic in your middle age … (I approve)

    historically, in Germany at least, it took Protestants a while to banish the apocrypha. Wisdom of Sirach (or Jesus Sirach as the German reformers called it) was a favorite source for funeral sermon texts at least a century after the Ref. started.

      • you need a sort of practical mystical model. Beguines / tertiaries / St Ignatius of Loyola / Thomas a Kempis, that kind of person. Not like hiding in a cave and receiving the stigmata mystic.

  2. Thanks Marci – just read this waiting to fly back to Malawi in the Dulles airport – great thoughts. Thanks also for preaching from the apocrypha.

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