January 5

Word Become Flesh In A New Year

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 31:7-14

John 1:1-18

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Welcome to the year 2020!  Today is also the last Sunday of Christmas, and so we begin this year with one of the most famous Gospel readings, all about the Word of God.

Words are tricky things.  They are our major form of communication, and, they compose lies as well as truth.  Their amount is increasing in our lives, and not necessarily for the good.  Certainly in 2019 many of us might have joined with Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady fame as she exclaimed in exasperation, “Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!”

2020 looks to be more of the same, with debates replaced by conventions, an ongoing impeachment process, executive orders, church conferences, broadcast and media news, and legislative decrees.   All of this is in addition to our daily life, here at BU in academic discourse, teaching, and writing, and in our ongoing conversations with family and friends.  Even in our prologue to John’s Gospel, the Word is defined and explained with many words, that make up a number of metaphors, that sound a bit abstract and idealistic.

The use of many words is perhaps understandable, given John’s intended readers both Jewish and Greek.  In Hebrew thought, the Logos, the Word, was God’s action in the world and God’s instruction.  When in worship we say “The Word of the Lord”, and then follow with “Thanks be to God.” after the Scripture readings, it is said in part in this sense of acknowledgement and acceptance of God’s action and instruction.  Here in John’s Gospel, the Logos, the Word, is the medium by which God is made known to human beings, just as human thought and plans are made known and expressed by speech.  Either way, the assumption is that the Word of God is explainable, rational, and logical.  An agent of creation, agent of salvation, life, light, truth, revelation of God.  We’ve got it.

But then there’s that phrase.  “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us …”

Flesh.  Such an evocative word.  Not so explainable.  Not so rational.  Not so logical.  Flesh.  Fleshy.  To say that the Word became flesh is to say that God entered into human life under the ordinary conditions of humanity.  Yes, the Logos could speak to us in our own language of speech and rationality.  And, the message of life, light, truth, and revelation now is seen and recognized through a fleshy veil, with all the capacities, limitations, and vulnerabilities that all of flesh is heir to.  The flesh adds to God’s communication with us and our communication with God and with each other, from a place too deep for words.

Because the word Logos also translates as sound, and sound, not words, is the language of the flesh.  The yips, coos, cries, gasps, laughs, squeaks, hisses, groans, shouts, pants, and moans of the body in pain, grief, or joy escape us, even when we try to control them with  “I’m fine.” or as we ignore them.  We spend a great deal of time and effort with words, that often mislead or lie.  The sounds of the flesh, so often involuntary from that place too deep for words, might equally bear information for our understanding of God, ourselves, and each other.

Theologian and disability activist Sharon V. Betcher considers the realities of embodiment in her book Spirit and the Obligation of Social Flesh: A SecularTheology for the Global City.  “Social Flesh” is a term coined by social theorist Christine Beasley and political scientist Carol Bacchi.  “Social Flesh” describes an ethical and political construct that emphasizes “the mutual reliance of people across the globe” on social resources, infrastructure, and space.  This behavioral approach promotes the development of social virtues out of the realities of our embodied coexistence, and posits that life itself requires social, political, and economic support in order for life to continue, in order for life to be livable.  Given the realities of social flesh, an emphasis on rugged individualism does not adequately recognize the fragility and precariousness of human life or, by my own extension, the fragility and precariousness of the life of the planet.

Betcher builds on the work of philosopher Judith Butler to begin to construct a practical ethic of social flesh.  Butler notes that as human beings we are “of necessity exposed to [one another’s] vulnerability and singularity.  The word “flesh” “names ‘a precarious … vulnerability to the other.’”  Our communal situation thus consists of learning “to handle and to honor” this inescapable and necessary exposure.

Betcher builds on these ideas to begin to develop the idea of the ethics of social flesh with the religious idea of kenosis, a complex term that she here defines as radical openness to the other.  She notes that her book has as a primary source “Christianity’s ancient, though not always obvious or normatively dominant, love of the flesh”, and cites Scholar of Late Antiquities Virginia Burrus in her work on 3rd Century Christian writers to declare that flesh “became the site of a deliberately offensive, counter-cultural faith.”  As Betcher expands on this, our thinking with and from flesh allows us to acknowledge and talk about what is often hidden in our social or cultural agenda but what is true of our fleshy lives:  ecstasy and pleasure, certainly, and also pain, difficulty, aging, disease, error, corporeal limit, interruption, and encounter, and the epiphanies and critical insights that come with them.  Social flesh recognizes that the “anxiety, fear, disgust, … and shame that haunt flesh” can be commandeered by technologies, politics, and advertisement.  It equally recognizes the temptations within ourselves, to aggression towards other bodies, to isolation from other bodies, to the division of bodies into normal or superior versus unnatural or degenerate.

Betcher’s thought assumes humanity’s urbanization as the context for her work.  Within the next 20 or so years, two-thirds of the world’s population of 7 billion and counting will live in cities.  Demographers note that there are clear trends toward 59 cities with populations between one and five million in Africa, 65 such cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 253 such cities in Asia.  Both those who live in cities and those who do not feel their effects:  on bodies, on the land, on dreams, through depopulation with its loss of skills and capital, through the disappearance of generational belonging and through loss of contact with the natural world.  Boston itself has changed from being the human-scale, walkable city to a place of high rises and privatization of public space, the disappearance of neighborhoods to corporate greed and collections of transients, the increasing density of people and their cars, increasing lack of affordability in housing, and the disappearance of practical local businesses and public services.  And Boston is not alone in these developments.  Social flesh and its obligations, if any are acknowledged, is a challenge across the country, as any formerly and currently livable city can attest.

So Betcher lifts up the idea of a secular theology.  The term “secular” here does not mean non-religious.  Instead it is based on the seculars of medieval Europe.  These were uncloistered religious persons.  They carried their spiritual passion and sense of love of God, self, and neighbor into their daily life in the city.  “ … seculars lived in the city, on behalf of the city, but [with] alternate values and attitudes that challenged the city’s materialism and isolation.”  Kind of sounds like Marsh Chapel’s mission statement, doesn’t it:  “A heart for the heart of the city and a service in the service of the city.”  Medieval early capitalism also caused poverty, homelessness, and displacement of the poor and vulnerable.  Seculars – both women and men, gentry and common – worked for the city’s care by setting up alternative  communities that over time became hospitals, schools, retreat houses, and ritual spaces.  Betcher notes that spiritual practices of sowing trust amidst fear, presenting alternative forms of pleasure to those who advance the aesthetics of capitalism, and the offer of  friendship and neighborliness can humanize and renew cities.  Such practice starts by being vulnerable to others, by regenerating the practice of social flesh.

Betcher examines social flesh, its obligations, and the context of urbanism through the lens of disability theory.  She herself experienced the amputation of her leg after a chance fall and wound led to an infection that threatened her life.  For her, the literal set-aside inherent in the category “disabilities” reflects “a history of deeply embedded resentment toward the precariousness of life itself.”  It protects society from the vulnerability of birth and the risk of change.  It marginalizes certain bodies and excludes them from considerations of aesthetic and social value.  Urbanism is currently based, in terms of the ideal populace, on a neoclassical Western norm of male physical perfection, with its assumptions of eternal youth, physical mobility in all situations, and unchanging health.  It also assumes a class structure of economic elites who somehow deserve more of the amenities of the city and determine what those will be, while other people become an embarrassment or an obstacle.  With its injuries and insults of geographical and architectural and thus social inaccessibility, contemporary urbanism excludes bodies that struggle to survive, seeks to control who may appear in public, and seeks to determine whose lives are expendable.

Betcher’s exploration of social flesh and its construct of our mutual reliance on social resources, and the need to develop social virtues based on the realities of human and planetary interdependence, is wide-ranging, complex, and far beyond the scope of this sermon.  With her context of urbanism viewed through the lens of disability theory she does present a number of practices that encourage social flesh, based on the idea of contemporary urban Christians as modern-day seculars.  I would like to lift up two of them here.

The first is an intentional acceptance and exploration of suffering:  for what it reveals of God, of what it reveals about ourselves, and of what it reveals about our common human experience.  Betcher explores the work of Dorothee Soelle, mystic and social activist, who wrote that even in the most comfortable life, “one must come to accept some measure of pain”, to listen to the sounds of the flesh as it were, and to learn from them as a kind of teaching.  Each “act of suffering [becomes] an exercise.”, so that we work through it with perception of the sounds that come through the flesh as pain and grief, because “Nothing can be learned from suffering unless it is worked through.”  Love of God, self, neighbor, and world becomes “a love that avoids placing conditions on reality”, so that the acceptance of suffering is not masochism but is part of a yes to life as a whole.  For Soelle, the only way we might become “those who love the world enough to protest injustice would be by learning to suffer”, to learn the sounds of the language of the flesh and to pay attention and care to them for ourselves and for those amongst whom we live.

The second practice is that of forbearance, that Betcher defines as the acceptance of flaws, moral entanglements, frailties, and faults.  Within social flesh, with its fleshy relations and affects, “Forbearance is not a refusal to [seek or] claim justice.  [It is instead] restraint in the face of provocation, [restraint of] our own worst inclinations” in the face of fear, anger, disgust, or hurt.  Betcher relates her own challenges to this practice as she swims in a public pool with some whose cultural training has instilled a fear that physical injury is contagious, and that leads at least one person to strike out at her as she swims by.  She notes that there is not necessarily any reward for forbearance.  Instead, forbearance assumes that we are always changing and are mutually interdependent with one another.  Forbearance overcomes fear, anger, disgust, or hurt in favor of concern and care.  This does not mean mere tolerance of everything – we cannot deny the need to move for human rights and justice.  It does mean the kind of love of neighbor that does not disappear even in the middle of the defense of justice, even justice for ourselves.

This is not to say that the practice of forbearance in the context of modern urbanism does not have its challenges.  Poverty, violence, the looming results of climate change, and the increasingly felt need of governments to control people threaten to tear apart intimate social relations, the ability to cooperate, and any idea of practical solidarity.  But the practice of forbearance presents another reality, that social flesh can lead to a different way of life even in the challenges.  Betcher quotes theologian Alyda Faber, that Love “means the desire to stay near another person in their disorientation to the world, their wretchedness, their unloveability – the symptomatic excess of always unfinished efforts at social legitimation.”

This is the way that God loves us.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, in our disorientation, our wretchedness and suffering, our unloveability. God loves us by taking on the interdependence of word and flesh to communicate fully, on all of our own terms of our fleshy and soulful lives, to communicate the life, light, truth, and revelation of God’s love for us.  God loves us, and wants us to love them back.  It is a measure of God’s desire for relationship with us that God is willing to trust us enough to become interdependent with us in the taking on of our social flesh:  with its mutuality of vulnerability and limitation, with the common sounds of the flesh in both pleasure and suffering from that place too deep for words.  That is how God loves us, and proves it.

It is a new year.  2020 does promise to provide many, many words.  And we do have obligations to listen to them, with a grain of salt if need be.  And, we also might consider our mutual obligations to listen to the sounds that are the language of the flesh.  These will be our own sounds, as we are to love ourselves and care for ourselves.  They will also be the sounds of others, in places where the social flesh rejoices, and perhaps even more in the places where the social flesh suffers:  the sounds of children and parents torn apart at our border; the sounds of the burning of the trees in the forests and the sounds of panic and pain from the animals and people who live there; the sounds of grief from those who have lost loved ones in our routine of mass shootings enabled by our idolatry of the gun; the sounds of pain from those denied the benefits of social flesh through constructions of economic, social, geographic, and architectural inaccessibility.  Maybe then our communication with God, self, and neighbor will also be complete, as God’s communication with us is complete, word and flesh together.  Maybe then our priorities will become more clear, for ourselves and all those with whom we are mutually interdependent:  God, neighbor, and the planet.

The Holy Gospel, according to St. John:  The Word became flesh and lived among us … .  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

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