The first Incarnation

The first Incarnation

This is the sermon the Rt. Rev. Scott Mayer, bishop of The Episcopal Church in North Texas, preached at his visitation to St. Alban’s Theatre Arlington, on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 26, 2021.


St Alban’s Arlington 2021    Creation Season, Mountain Sunday   September 26

I have an all-time favorite New Yorker cartoon. It’s a cartoon picture of two fleas standing on a dog’s back. One flea is speaking to the other. And the flea says (the caption reads): “Do you think there really is a dog?”

Standing on the back of a dog – a flea’s whole world or universe – and one says to the other, “Do you think there really is a dog?” A part of me wants to invite us to take a long moment of reflective silence, end the prayer with “In the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being, Amen,” and then start the Nicene Creed … because everything else I’m going to say is just commentary.

I suspect most of us – if not all of us – have had an occasion to wonder if there really is a God. And just as true, I suspect most of us have – at one time or another – experienced what we sang in the opening procession:

“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder / Consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder / thy power throughout the universe displayed.”

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly through the trees / When I look down from lofty mountains grandeur / And hear the brooks and gentle breeze” …

“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, How great thou art.”

Some of us would call this a religious experience, as creation evokes within us wonder, love, and praise.  I would suggest it’s more than sentimentality. It is, rather, an expression of adoration which is grounded theologically in the Incarnation – the Word made Flesh.

So, let me unpack that.  It is true that when we think of the Incarnation as an event which happened once upon a time in history, we are thinking of the birth of Jesus. We are referring to Christmas: the incarnation as the event which took place in a manger when the Word became flesh.

All of that is true, and I’m not about to say anything to contradict that. So, don’t worry. But, there is more. I suspect many of you are familiar with Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk and theologian. (One reason I suspect that is because Kevin and I have very similar libraries.)

Rohr says that the first incarnation is creation itself. He says most of the World Religions claim something like this: “Everything that exists in material form is the offspring of some Primal Source, which originally existed only as Spirit. This Infinite Primal Source somehow poured itself into finite, visible forms, creating everything from rocks to water, plants, organisms, animals, and human beings – everything we see with our eyes.”

He says that this first self-disclosure of God into physical creation was actually the FIRST incarnation, long before the personal, second incarnation that Christians believe happened with Jesus. “To put this idea in Franciscan language, creation is the FIRST Bible, and it existed for 13.7 billion years before the second Bible was written.”

So, the Incarnation is not only “God becoming Jesus.” It is a much broader event. Long before Jesus’ personal incarnation, Christ was embedded in all things. An incarnational world view sees the presence of the divine in everything and everyone.

This is not a new 21st century innovative idea. The Early Theologians of the Church – in their writings – insist on claiming the presence of the Divine in every human heart. In the second century, a great influential theologian named Justin Martyr, sees “Christ the Logos” (Christ the Word) as the “Cosmic Sower” who plants seeds – who plants “seeds of truth” in the hearts of all human persons – without exception.

Centuries later, Thomas Merton will write: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin …, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God.”

So we are created in the image of God (a fundamental starting point in Genesis), and it is our calling to grow in God’s likeness. Image and likeness. Created in the image of God. Deep within the heart, the Divine spark lives.

And yet, it’s true, obviously, that each heart is greatly distorted by sin, and covered with layers of fear and deception (and we could make a long list). But according to Merton there remains within us this “innermost, secret, uncontaminated chamber of the heart … where the winds of evil spirits do not blow.” And this is “the locus of God’s indwelling.”

So while it’s true that the “Word was made flesh” 2000 years ago in a manger, and it’s true that Christ is the full revelation of God, and Jesus is the ultimate outward, visible sign of God’s grace and love, an incarnational theology insists that the Divine Logos permeates creation and can be found in every human heart.

And furthermore, incarnation is more than a “once upon a time” event. Creation is more than a “once upon a time” event. God is making all things new, always.

We don’t celebrate the Seasons of the Church Year simply because these events happened once upon a time. Yes, Advent, Christmas, the Epiphany, the Crucifixion, Easter, and Pentecost happened once upon a time. That’s true. But the point is, they happen all the time. Christ comes all the time. Christ is born in hearts all the time. Christ is made manifest all the time. Christ is crucified all the time. Resurrection happens all the time. The Holy Spirit moves us all the time.

God is making all things new, always – in each one of us, in this congregation – this small branch of the Jesus Movement, this open, affirming, inclusive community of faith – as well as this diocese, the Episcopal Church in North Texas.

In many ways, you are leading the way.  But, you are not alone.  The House of Bishops meets twice year – these days through Zoom – and, we had a meeting this week. As always, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry preached.

In his sermon on Tuesday, he told us that he had this sudden epiphany that the Church is in a “narthex moment.” Narthex. Unless you’ve been an Episcopalian for a pretty long time, you may not know what a narthex is in the church context. When it was standard practice to build a church in a cruciform design, a church building had a high altar and sanctuary behind an altar rail, then a choir or chancel, then the nave where the congregation sat in pews, and then the narthex. In order to get inside or go outside the church building, one traveled through the narthex.

The narthex was the in-between room, the link between world and church, a threshold, a crossing, a confusing place, a liminal space, the betwixt and between, the familiar and the unknown.

Bishop Curry quotes Rohr, who says this liminal space is “the realm where God can get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world falls apart, and a bigger new world is revealed.”

I find that fascinating, because it’s true whether we are entering the narthex to enter the church, or whether we are entering the narthex to re-enter the world.

Bishop Curry says we are in this narthex moment – a narthex space. I’ve heard St Alban’s leaders describe the same space with another word: permeable; a space that breathes in and out. You want your next space to reflect – even incarnate – permeability.

We are in a narthex moment. We can call it dying and rising. We can call it creation. Whatever we call it, we can have faith that God is making all things new – always.  In the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.