Sermon: What does Faith look like Spatially? Daniel José Camacho Delivered at Dwell Church NYC on 10.12.14
I’d first like to say: it’s a pleasure to be here tonight and to be able to worship with your community. I’m grateful that your pastor Pete Armstrong, who I consider a friend and mentor, extended this invitation to me. I come to you by way of the LIRR, from Long Island, or “Strong Island” as some like to call it…now, I don’t know what you’ve heard but just to set the record straight: Long Islanders are authentic New Yorkers, you know, just in case you had any doubts. It’s the folks upstate who raise questions…I’m just kidding. Before I continue, I’d like to say a short prayer.
Dear God, open our hearts to hear your word and allow it to impact every area of our life. And may the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be acceptable to you, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Recently, this movie about the end of the world—with Nicholas Cage in it—came out. Based on a popular book series called Left Behind, the movie depicts one interpretation of the so-called end times. Everybody in the world is going along their merry way and all of a sudden a lot of people vanish. Like woosh. Half of the people on the crowded airplane are now gone. Cars that were being driven are now driverless. Chaos ensues and there’s lots of abandoned clothes everywhere. God is planning to destroy the world in an apocalypse and decides, in the final moments, to snatch up a select group of true believers into heaven. Everybody else who didn’t go up in the rapture is left behind to suffer in a world that will soon be annihilated. That’s the gist of the plot. In case you’re interested, film critics have already slated this movie and Nicholas Cage’s performance to be big winners at the next Razzie awards.
Nevertheless, as fantastic as it may seem, Left Behind is based on an idea that still has a strong hold in many imaginations. The notion that the earth, that this world is collateral business. What really matters is getting into heaven. The spiritual life is about the inward heart and the afterlife, and we shouldn’t get caught up in the politics and mundane matters of the neighborhoods and physical spaces we occupy. Our focus should be on escaping upwards towards heaven.
It’s interesting to note that the prologue to the Gospel of St. John—which we’ve just heard—presents to us almost the exact inverse of this vision. In one of the most profound passages in all of scripture, God comes down to earth. The eternal Word, the source and sustenance of all life, who enlightens all people, takes on flesh and enters into a particular space in time.
“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” In the person of Jesus Christ, we are reminded that God has made everything. People often like to compartmentalize faith and make it a matter of choosing one sector of life over another, of choosing scared affairs over “secular” affairs. But tonight’s biblical passage explodes this neat division. Because God made all things, all things matter—including what’s usually considered the mundane affairs of this world. Indeed, it was Jesus who taught his disciples to pray, in the Our Father: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.” And the most quoted and probably most superficially understood bible verse, John 3:16, reads: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” The problem is not the world as such, or our bodies and desires as such—remember God created everything and it was good—but whether or not these things allow us to love God and our neighbor.
If this world matters, then our specific places and neighborhoods are spiritually significant. Let me tell you a story: I’ve recently been doing some community organizing and social justice work on Long Island. As you may know, Hurricane Sandy really devastated New York when it hit two years ago. Many people are still recovering from the damage. In the south shore of Long Island, there are poor communities of color that have been slow to receive help and slow to receive aid, even for many environmental issues that existed before Sandy. As part of my work, I met with a community advocate from one neighborhood to talk about ways in which we could inform residents about their rights and resources. Needing a space to organize this, I asked her if there was a church that would be open to hosting a community meeting. She told me: “There is a church nearby but I don’t think they’d be open to this. In the past, they’ve been resistant and I think that the pastor is focused on church stuff and doesn’t want to mess with political neighborhood stuff. Look, Daniel, I’m not religious myself, but I wish I could ask him: who are you going to pastor to when your community is swept away?”
Her words have really stuck with me. What does the Gospel that we believe and practice as a Christian community mean if there is no good news that overflows into the neighborhood? John chapter 1 says: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The verb here, lived, is meant in a very strong sense: lived as in to abide, to dwell in (a very appropriate word for this particular church). Jesus Christ is also Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus does not simply push some self-interested mission but is deeply invested in the concerns, celebrations, fears, and hopes of the people, all sorts of people, even people who the disciples and religious authorities considered sketchy or insignificant. Jesus makes food for the hungry and also brings extra wine to the local wedding party. What would it mean for the problems and joys of our neighbors to also become our own?
The Incarnation takes on powerful meaning in our own age of social media, distraction, and loneliness. Now, I’m going to resist the urge to talk about some of the problems that arise with social media. A lot has already been said and viral YouTube videos have been made. But I will say this: I think now, as much as ever, we desperately struggle with our need to be known and loved. Presence really means a lot, especially in the hustle that is New York. Think about it. Some of us spend so much time working, and if you don’t have a fun, loving crew at work, then who’s loving you besides the cat or Netflix? Sometimes it’s not even the words or what you bring, but doing basic things like checking up with people or showing up become a big deal. How can we be present for our neighborhoods and the people in our lives?
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” In the original language, the verb “live” here, literally means “to pitch a tent” or “to tabernacle.” The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. Early Jewish readers would have quickly picked up this reference. The Torah describes God dwelling with the people of Israel in the wilderness after they had been liberated from Egypt. Exodus 33 says: “When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” The tabernacle was a tent in which God’s presence dwelled and followed Israel wherever they went. When John 1 says that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,” it is a reaffirmation of this presence. In the Incarnation, God is dwelling with the Jewish people, who now find themselves not under Egyptian but Roman occupation. Yet, something different is also happening with Jesus.
“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.” Jesus, who is Jewish, extends the mission of God to include all people, including the Gentiles or non-Jewish people. It’s crucial to see that God—in Jesus—is not abandoning Israel but fulfilling the promise that stretches all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, the promise that Israel would be a blessing to all peoples. This is important because those of us who are Gentile Christians need to understand who our faith is indebted to: to the God of our Jewish brothers and sisters.
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” Why does it say this? Become Children of God, but isn't everyone already created as a child of God? Doesn’t the text say that everyone is already enlightened by the light? Jesus reminds us that we must become children of God not because some of us are and some of us aren’t children of God but rather because we are constantly unbecoming children of God, doing things that are unbecoming of God’s image, finding sophisticated reasons for treating certain people as if they are not children of God.
Some of us may laugh at the Left Behind series and the escapist mentality that it represents, but it’s not just a matter of being involved in the world but how we’ll be involved. The history of colonialism, of Jim Crow, of urban planning contains religious people who were very much invested in this world and in the creation and protection of particular communities. Once we realize that places are spiritually significant, the question then becomes: what kind of community do we want and who will we let in?
“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.” There is only one requirement for becoming a disciple of Jesus: faith. Not blood. Not a particular kind of body. Not the desires of a man. But faith. This stands in stark contrast to a world that has often been organized around the blood of nationalism and racism, around particular bodies considered the norm, around patriarchy and the interests of powerful men. But the community of God’s children that Jesus is gathering is different. It is the “Beloved Community,” as Martin Luther King Jr. would describe it.
Right now, I can’t help but think about Ferguson and all of these people recently killed or brutalized by police, and how these situations expose the fault-lines and inequalities that run throughout our country. We desperately need communities where all lives matter, where development benefits everyone, not just the rich, and where our schools, our homes, our hopes, our tears aren’t so dramatically segregated.
Let me not exclude the fact that the new family that Jesus is forming is also connected to the welfare of God’s creation. Romans chapter 8 talks about nature groaning and waiting eagerly “for the revealing of the children of God.” Dealing with some of the environmental issues on Long Island has reminded me that the health of a community is often intertwined with the health of the land, the air, the water, and the creatures around us.
The title for this sermon series has been: “Connecting the Mission of God to the Bowery.” John 1 shows us that God transforms not only our hearts but changes the way we see our neighborhoods and our geography. The Bowery matters. The places close to us matter. God took on flesh, dwelled in space, and—in Jesus—is gathering children of God for communion that transforms space. So, we are invited to explore this question: what does faith look like spatially? Whether it’s town meetings, community gardens, local businesses, sports leagues, advocacy, potholes, streetlamps, knowing a few names in your apartment, the arts, our involvement in the neighborhood is a sacred task. Amen.