Do you ever wonder if anyone really cares, I mean really cares, about you, about what you’re going through, about what you’re facing right now, in your life?
Do you ever feel a little lost, a little bereft, even if you have a number of people in your life who truly love you? They do love you, and you know that. You tell yourself that. Maybe you kick yourself a little: come on, you tell yourself. Get a grip. Stop being such a baby. But human beings sometimes feel lonesome and alone in a crowd. We occasionally feel sad even when we have many reasons to be thankful.
And if you’re anything like me, then there are times when you can be very hard to love.
Our feelings of separation and alienation can be mild at times, just a kind of blah day, nothing to worry about really, just a dip in our sense of connection. Other times, we feel existential crisis: we feel painfully abandoned and unloved. And in our more compassionate moments we look beyond ourselves and see a world of aching, back-breaking desperation and need, poverty and grief, separation and alienation, violence and torture and terror.
And sometimes, when we feel this way, we turn to our stories, our big stories, our mythical, mystical, eternal stories, to make sense of all these feelings, to make sense of our predicaments, to make sense of our very lives.
One primary story we Christians like to tell is the story of Creation. In Genesis, chapter one, we find God creating the world, light first, then sky, then dry land and green life, then sun and moon, then swarms of living creatures in land and sea, and finally, humankind. And each time God creates something, God “sees” that something, and proclaims it good. Finally, when humans have taken their place among the rest of creation, God proclaims everything very good.
We know what happens next. God gives Adam and Eve the freedom to choose the evil and choose the good. They do what they do, and then we find God moving through the garden in the cool of the evening, looking for them. “Where are you?” God calls out to them. And so begins the long story of God’s relentless pursuit of human beings. It’s a dramatic, convoluted, and often maddening story: we do what we do, and then God comes looking for us; and then we do it all again. “Where are you?” God asks, today and always.
God cares, then.That’s a pretty basic conclusion we can draw from all this. Why would God move through the garden in the cool of the evening? That’s easy: who doesn’t love a pleasant stroll like that? But God was looking—is looking—for us. God is invested. God cares. God isn’t just on a stroll. God is looking for us.
This is a story we tell each other every year, a story that begins our long list of Easter stories we tell at the Easter Vigil. But it’s a story that turns up at Christmastime too, because Jesus is best understood as the New Adam, the One who came to change everything, even our origin story. Jesus is here to change the whole story.
How sensible, then, for the evangelist we call John to go ahead and literally re-write Genesis itself. John’s Gospel opens with a re-imagining of the creation, complete with the same first words, “In the beginning…” In short, this is a do-over. To begin his lengthy and deeply symbolic portrait of Jesus, John crafts a grand ballad, a sublime poem, that sings a new song of creation.
In this version, God still cares, but his care for creation is much more immediate and personal: “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” John sings. Hold on: let’s look at that again. In the original Genesis story, God makes human beings on the sixth day. Simple enough. But in John’s Genesis story, God does not only create humans, God in Jesus becomes human. A more accurate translation of the “Word became flesh” passage goes like this: “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” To pitch a tent: unpacking your gear, fumbling with the poles, asking your friend to help you roll out the fabric, securing everything. This is what God does when God becomes human.
But it’s even more intimate than that.
If we’re pitching a tent together, that most likely means we’re going to be sleeping in that tent, in our sleeping bags, maybe talking into the night until one of us nods off. We’ll be cooking meals together on the Sterno, boiling coffee, talking about what we’re planning for tomorrow, or maybe pulling our sleeping bags outside the tent to watch the stars.
We might get into a fight. That happens sometimes when people pitch tents together.
And God is doing all of this with us in the new Genesis. God was fairly intimate already, walking through the lovely garden and calling out to God's beloved children, “Where are you?” But now, God is one of us, snug in a sleeping bag.
What an odd story.
And what a delightful, even thrilling idea: I am not alone, someone cares about me, no, not just someone, but God cares about me, God wants to be with me, God wants to talk and sleep and eat and fight and hike and—if it’s a cold night—even hold me so that we both can stay warm.
For this to work, I think we need to see it. We need to experience it. And so if we keep reading the story of Jesus, we will find him instructing his friends about what they should do after he has gone, how they will experience his presence even when he is not physically there. He tells them to love one another; he promises them that in their love for one another, the Spirit will descend on them; he breathes on them and shares his peace with them, and by doing so, teaches them to breathe this peace to one another. He makes it clear that they will not understand him, let alone follow him, if they do not hold and love and care for each other. I find God in my neighbor, and I meet God when I care for my neighbor, and receive that same care.
I am so glad about this. I take great delight in these stories because they give me a simple formula for feeling less alone, for being useful, for understanding who I am and why I am alive, for saving my life.
Today we celebrate God’s relentless pursuit, God’s desire to reach us and connect with us, God’s ability to cross any length of light years and appear among us as a vulnerable child, and then an adult who wept for his dead friend, loved even his enemies, and gave us the basic formula we need to recognize him when he is not visible: “Love one another,” Jesus teaches, and that is how we will find God.
We come to church to remind ourselves of all this, and also to practice it. I falter often in my desire to reach out to my neighbor, who is sometimes a ‘person in need’ in the classical sense—one of our homeless neighbors, say—or other times is, well, you. You are my neighbor. And I need to practice the craft of reaching out to you, extending my hand and opening my heart to you. I need lots of practice. (And sometimes you’re … challenging!)
And if Christmas is about anything, if it means anything or matters at all, it is about this: God doesn’t give up on us, and so we should not give up on each other. God doesn’t give up on the alcoholic; God doesn’t give up on the grieving families of shooting victims; and God doesn’t give up on the school shooter either. God doesn’t give up on Mike Brown or Eric Garner or Black folks living in constant danger; and God doesn’t give up on Darren Wilson, either, and the other cops who are easy to write off as racist wrongdoers, but need and deserve mercy and enlightenment and love just as much as you and me.
God doesn’t give up on anybody. God pitches a tent with everybody, and God will not leave our tent. God is here.
And so, in the spirit of Christmas, I want to say this to you: I am going to work very hard to not give up on you. I know you sometimes feel unloved, unwanted, and alone. And whether our relationship is big or small, long or short, I want to pitch a tent with you.
And—I need you. Can I ask you, in the spirit of Christmas, to pray for me, and more importantly, can I ask you not to give up on me? Will you pitch your tent with me?
Let’s not give up on each other.