(I was invited to be a "guest preacher" last Sunday at my home church. It always seems a bit funny to serve the role of a guest when I'm already part of the family there! Since this month marks the start of the "dark half" of the Celtic year, and since one of this Sunday's lectionary readings talks a lot about light and darkness, it seemed natural to dwell on the interplay of shortening days and lengthening nights.)
Sermon for Proper 28A: In The Dark
(based on I Thessalonians 5:1-11, NRSV)
Every morning, as the light reaches in between the dark spines of the trees on the ridge, we watch and wait. First the rays of pale gold stretch across the dark hollow of our farm to touch the trees on Gloucester Ridge. Then, slowly, the angle of the light changes and dips down to gild the empty branches of the ash tree, the oaks, and the maples on our own land. Finally, the light spreads to the cold earth itself, and the hard edges of the frost begin to melt off the pasture grasses. One of us ambles down to survey the situation, then returns to the wood-fired warmth of the house. Every morning, lately, the other one asks the same question: “how many legs?”
We've been waiting for calves to be born. We know what day the bull arrived, but—I hope you don't think I'm being indelicate here—there are certain other details we seem to have missed. It's just as Brother Arnold warned us last year, when we went over to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community to discuss their own herd of Highland Cattle and get some ideas. We'd told him our tale of woe, about the challenge of finding and affording a vet who could work around those wild-looking, big-horned beasties of ours, to say nothing of the challenge of timing. Brother Arnold nodded his head knowingly. “You won't see many signs of readiness,” he said, “Highland cows are...well, they're very subtle.”
Subtle, indeed. So, here we are, ten months after the bull moved into the pasture. It takes nine months for a calf to be ready, just like a human baby. Ten months have past and our two round-as-a-barrel cows show no sign of imminant calving. So, we wonder. We worry. We ask ourselves what went wrong, and what could still go wrong now. Sometimes, we dream: a new calf could offer so much to our farm: the expansion of our herd, the proof of their capacity for new life, and the promise of another fine full-grown animal to transform into needed income or good, homegrown meat.
So, each morning, we cast hopeful eyes out towards the pasture, and we count legs, looking for a sweet gangly little body tucked alongside one of the cows. “How many legs? Still twelve?” “Still twelve.” There's nothing we can do to hurry it along, and—although there are signs we can watch for—there's no way we can predict the exact moment of the herd's increase. We're kept in the dark about it. It's subtle. We have to keep wondering. We have to hurry up and wait.
This morning's scripture comes from another bunch of people-in-waiting. Paul is writing to the fledgling church in Thessalonica. That little church was caught up in in the fashion and fervor of the day, waiting for the Rapture, the Day of the Lord. There were signs all around them: earthquakes, floods, plagues, riots in the streets, cities being destroyed, governments shifting and falling, and different religions battling it out, each claiming to have exclusive access to the “Truth.” Sound familiar? And if you weren't sure what to believe, there were street preachers to tell you where you'd go and street vendors to sell you just the right handbasket!
It's hard not to be afraid when everyone around you is talking like that. It's hard not to let all the fear-mongerers and doomers get to you. When the loudest voices cry out, “pain and suffering! Death and destruction!” no matter how much you try to laugh it off, it gets a little harder to sleep at night, a little harder to keep peace in your heart.
Remember how the Rapture was predicted by a radio preacher, who declared Judgement Day for May 21st, 2011? Did you hear about this? Did you find yourself checking your calendar? After the day came and went, he recalculated for October. When November came, did you breathe a sigh of relief, or did you get a little nervous, because now we're almost to December, rapidly honing in on the next big date for the End of the World...?
A good teacher once said, “What you contemplate, you imitate.” Whatever stories you tell yourself, whatever dramas or sitcoms you watch on television, whatever magazines you read, whatever ads flash in front of your eyes—all these things echo around inside you, the images shimmer and reflect, until it all becomes part of the way you understand the world. We can't help it—what we contemplate, we imitate. We tend to copy what we see and repeat what we hear. Now, that's one thing when you're a new Christian sorting through the competing tales of Roman politicians and travelling preachers. But there's a whole extra layer of difficulty in an age of mass-media and instant communication.
What if the stories we hear and and the images we see are mostly lies, carefully crafted by marketing experts? What if every commercial is a lie, a message that, by yourself, you're a weak, ugly nobody, but if you buy whatever they're selling, you could be SOMEbody, even somebody strong and beautiful? Bit by bit, the carefully-crafted lies eat away at us. The marketers sling mud until it covers our souls. We lose perspective. We give up our power. We learn to live in doubt and anxiety and fear. What you contemplate, you imitate. Little by little, we forget how to shine. We become children of the darkness.
Writer Jeffrey Pugh imagines a demon, writing a management guide from his basement office in hell. The devil explains his latest strategy:
“As part of my toolbox I’ve always used distraction to deter them from truly considering the world as our opponent wants it. I like it better when they become fascinated with the things that do not feed their souls. In the old days, of course, we had bread and circuses, but in the age of technology we have even more wonders at our disposal...We don’t want them to cultivate ways of living that bring them together. We want them torn apart, polarized, and at each others throats. Any question about how they should live needs to be buried under the scandal of the day... I want an entire planet entertaining themselves to death. No, seriously, I mean it. If they start to think seriously about the world they build and see the possibility that the world could be different, well, it’s time to Release the Kardashians!!”
Now, get that clever devil out of the spotlight and listen to the Good News:
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake...
Children of the light: that is how God made us. There was a beautiful mystic tradition among the Jews and early Christians that God was the first, best and brightest light in the whole universe, and everything God made had God's light trapped inside: flowers, weeds, bushes and trees, rocks, rivers, snakes, salamanders, codfish, sharks, woodchucks, camels, even bugs—all just bursting with God-given light, full of sparks of divine fire.
That's true of people, too—not just the wealthy and powerful, but everybody: the bank president with the elegant shoes and the woman in scuffed sneakers at the laundromat. The construction foreman with the gleaming new truck and the greasy-haired guy who works nights at Gas-n-Go. We are—all of us—children of the light, all created with the potential to shine, to brighten the world with hope and healing, possibility and promise. Most of us maybe don't know it. Some of us start out knowing it, but we forget. We let our minds fall on other things. We dwell on failure and fear. We stop shining. We stop noticing all the other divine sparks around us. Our vision gets hazy. We get drunk. We fall asleep.
...we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
Do you hear that? Wake up! Listen up! WE—We, right here, all of us—are full of divine sparks, stuffed almost to bursting with God's beautiful, radiant, powerful light. Fear and anxiety are not our masters—God is! As soldiers discipline themselves for battle, so should we discipline ourselves for the challenge of making peace. Give the muscles of faith a workout. Build up the stamina of your hope. Get ready to love longer and harder and more deeply than you ever have before. Repent—change your ways—because the Beginning is Near!
For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ... so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
As Paul says, “Build each other up.” In a culture geared to pettiness and appearances, it can be hard to make this change. I suggest an exercise, what they used to call a spiritual discipline: Turn away from the false and intoxicating lights of all the little glowing screens around us. Remember: what you contemplate, you imitate.
In this season of darkness, seek illumination from a different source. Light a candle. Sit with that small flame and pray. Reflect on the light. Make space for God's light to stir and shine within you. Wipe away the mud and clear away the debris until you find the deep smoldering goodness of your own soul. Breathe with it. Feed it. Let the wind of the Holy Spirit stir it, like a sudden gust across the coals of a campfire, until sparks catch fire and dance up into flame. Wake up each morning ready to search the landscape for signs of new life, ready to celebrate the wonders that may be born on this day of New Beginnings. We are Children of the Light. We are brothers and sisters of the Light of the World. Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!!!
(All images copyright Mainecelt 2011 except for Calvin, borrowed from here, and handbasket, borrowed from here.)