“making light of it,” December 6, 2015

christmastreelights

Responsive Call to Worship
The fundamental image
of God as light in the darkness
was originally less a theological claim
than an experiential one—
less an affirmation of faith
than one of assurance.
So in our darknesses
we look for God—
sometimes desperately—
sometimes confidently—
sometimes hopefully—
sometimes angrily—
not even always naming what we look for God,
but experientially aware
that in the darkness,
we need light
to see—
to survive.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Isaiah 9:2b-7
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Pastoral Prayer
Our God,
We pray.
And we pray with hope
for health and healing.
We pray for treatments to be effective
with the fewest possible—
and least painful and inconvenient side effects.
We pray for the resumption of routine—
of normal—sooner than later.

We also pray with hope for wisdom and leadership
in and through times of great danger and opportunity.
We pray for a greater realization
and a more wide spread acknowledgement
that the status quo is unacceptable.
We pray for different priorities and options—
and for resources to work
toward different priorities and options.

We pray with hope
even amidst news we didn’t want to hear—
even within a culture of violence and death—
even hearing the diagnosis—
even within a culture of immediate gratification
that abhors sacrifice—
even within anger and fear.

We pray with hope and with assurance.
But, even so,
there’s a scary place in our praying
where our greatest fears circle and wait—
to pounce—
to devour.
And it needs to be there—
that scary place—
in our praying.
Where else would we want those fears,
but surrounded by the love
that permeates our conversation—
that emanates from You
and is made real day-to-day in our lives

so that we might pray with hope—
pray in assurance—
and pray through love—
in Jesus’ name,
amen.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
This past week, we got the terrible, shocking news about Christy—
diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia
and already into a 30 day chemo treatment at Hopkins.
and Sandy just died—
after multiple rounds of chemo and radiation.
And it feels, we can admit this, right?—
it feels almost—a least a little bit—like Sandy died
in spite of our prayers for healing.
But that’s not true.
That’s not true.
Sandy did not die in spite of our prayers;
she died in the midst of them—
in the midst of persistent affirmations
of her importance to us
and her importance to God—
in the midst of consistent celebrations of those relationships.
And she lived right up to the end
so aware of the love that surrounded her—
the love made manifest in conversations
and presence and food and cards and visits and communion.
She leaned into that love—grateful for it,
and she knew it to be a reflection of God’s own love—
of God’s own self present to and with her always.
And Christy, at GBMC Tuesday night,
not knowing
if this would all turn out to be nothing
or turn out to be bad, said,
“There’s no church with whom I’d rather face this—
whatever “this” turns out to be.”

We’re moving into the deep darkness of winter.
The days are getting shorter,
The nights longer and colder.

I was talking to Susie about this Sunday.
“I’m not finding a lot of light in the darkness these days,”
she said. Maybe you agree.
We’ve had more mass shootings this year
than we have had days in the year.
We have unqualified, dangerously incompetent people
running for president
with enough support that we should all feel foolish.
We have too much money in politics to think
money doesn’t expect too much of politicians.
We have too much stress, too much fear,
too many with too few options—
in this nation and around the world.
We are becoming a nation of the angry and fearful,
the short-sighted and over-privileged,
and there are too many poisonous narratives
lacking in kindness, tolerance, generosity, respect.
And I tell you, my friends, when our narratives—
as followers of God in Jesus, don’t counter the poison—
when they, too, are lacking in kindness, tolerance,
generosity, respect … the darkness deepens.
“I’m not finding a lot of light in the darkness these days.”

Ever since there were people,
they gathered together in the darkness,
and then, gratefully, gathered in the darkness around fires.
“Light in the darkness,”
long before it became a religious metaphor,
meant life—meant survival—
meant needed resources available within the great darkness.

Consider—remember,
our sacred texts, with all their imagery of light and dark,
were written long before there was electricity—
long before there was such a thing as artificial light.

And we can pretend these days—
actually pretend it doesn’t get dark—
that we don’t live in that great darkness.
We can turn on enough lights—
turn on enough lights inside and even outside—
to keep working—to keep playing—
to keep acting like it’s day.

But, as important as the light is—
as vitally necessary as it is,
it’s not in the light—not primarily in the light,
but in the dark—
around whatever light we have mustered against the darkness,
that through countless generations, we have sung—
we have prayed—
that we still huddle together for comfort and assurance—
that we tell our stories—
that we wait for the advent of day—of the great light.

“I’m not finding a lot of light in the darkness these days,”

but in the darkness, even a little bit of light
makes a difference.
But you see, we’ve lost the little lights—
the little lights that you huddle around—
that don’t make the room as day—
that don’t banish darkness,
but that remind you, within the darkness, of light—
a little flickering light.

We are light inundated—
to the point that we take light for granted—
that we don’t think of the dark.

There are places—outdoor shopping areas, mainly—
that strive for what’s called daylight lighting
at night,
to make people feel safer.

So we can even create the expectation, I’m afraid,
that light in the darkness banishes darkness—
think we should be unaffected by the dark—
think we can control the darkness—
that we even talk about light pollution.
We even talk about categories of light pollution:
light trespass, over-illuminating, glare, light clutter and skyglow.

We’ve lost the night
and don’t know how to reckon the cost.
Almost without knowing it,
we’ve lost the ability—the sensitivity
to know the value of just a little light.
We’ve lost the celebration of illuminating mystery,
not certainty—
of more intimated than clarified.

Because the dark is not just what’s bad and therefore scary,
it’s also what’s unknown
that can be scary.

We don’t think so much any more
of what there is not to see—
to see the parameters of what can be seen
drawn in so much closer than we’d like.
We just think, “Hmmm, I need to run some wires
and string some lights out there,”
or, “Where’s my flashlight? The big one?”
What’s the treatment? What’s the cure?
What’s the answer?
What’s the right way?
How do we solve this? Fix this?

And if we pretend these days
that we have more control—
that more is knowable than not—
that more is controlled than not,
if we don’t acknowledge—
if we don’t consider
the great darkness in which light shines,
then we can’t know ourselves to be found in that light,
but surrounded by darkness—
the unknown and the unknowable.

Two remarkable women—strong women—
such vital members of our faith community—
are much on our minds and hearts these days.
Two women who have represented so much of the light
to us and so many others.

Sandy, for whom we give thanks,
long time Armstrong-Levering Sunday School class crab feast host
and Christmas party host.
I remember children and youth in her pool.
I remember being in her pool!
Trustee chair.
First church moderator under our new system.
Someone to trust.
Someone whose leadership was trusted.
A kind person, generous, respectful—
honest, faithful.
In one of our last conversations,
I said, “You know I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
And she said, “I know,”
with what I choose to take as satisfaction!
She, some of you will remember,
was chair of the pastor search committee that brought me here.

And Christy, for whom we pray most persistently,
so involved and invested
in children’s music—
in children in general—
in music in general.
Playing piano.
Singing.
Teaching—
children’s Sunday School,
ESOL.
Making children far from home
feel at home.
So kind, generous, respectful—honest, faithful.
And if you’re friends with her on Facebook—
or go to her CaringBridge page,
you notice—can’t help but notice,
how often she’ll hear back from former students—
so appreciative.

And we pray affirming persistently her importance to us
and her importance to God—
that she will live
so aware of the love that surrounds her—
the love made manifest in conversations
and presence and food and cards
and visits (when appropriate) and communion—
that she will lean into that love—
into what is most whole, most healthy, most true—
into what is most healing—
knowing it to be a reflection of God’s own love—
of God’s own self present to and with her always.

Two women both so aware of the darkness
one who lived—one who lives
in the assurance of faith—
light in the darkness for them—
light in the darkness for us—
even as they are.

The lights I love this time of year
are precisely the little lights against the darkness—
lights in the darkness—
not lights instead of darkness,
and that’s somehow profoundly honest—
deeply true.
And there’s something about that that’s Advent, no?—
whether so called or not.
The white lights against dark evergreen trees in a darkened room—
(how many of y’all, after you turn on your Christmas tree lights
turn out every other light in the room?)—
lights in dark windows—
lights lining dark streets—
each light an affirmation,
there is life here in the darkness.
There is warmth here in the chill.
There is conversation and singing here
against this hushed winter stillness.

Driving through West Virginia and Kentucky this week,
to Pikeville and back,
I noted small communities in the mountains—
houses clustered together
nestled against the base of a mountain—
tucked into a clearing of forest,
and I thought,
“That cluster of houses—that cluster of people—
that community proclaims
there’s light here, come night.
Or, in complete contrast,
we’d pass farmhouses—trailer homes
with no neighbors in sight,
and I thought, “There a family—maybe an individual—
proclaims, there’s light here, come night.”

As long as people gather,
there will be songs sung here—
stories told—
hope claimed—
strength shared—
prayers uttered—
God named—
here with us—
around the light—
in the darkness.

And so we have gathered ever around our lights,
and knowing ourselves surrounded by darkness,
have also known that any answers—
any comfort—
any assurance—
is not out there—
is not somewhere up there above,
but with us—
God with us—
love with us—
around our fire.
And gathered together around our light,
we have known
that what we know
we know not beyond shadows of doubt,
but know precisely in the dancing shadows of doubt—
within the hope, the faith, the assurance
that allows us to live surrounded by the great darkness.

The book of Isaiah is so very interesting
in its use of light and dark imagery—
partially because the book spans so much time
(remember, scholars suppose
there was actually a first Isaiah
also known as Isaiah,
a second Isaiah—sometimes known as Deutero-Isaiah
and a third Isaiah—Trito-Isaiah).
Put them all together into one book
that moves from first Isaiah warning
of the idolatry and injustice of the people—
and the hope of an alternative story—
of alternative choices and priorities in the life of a people,
to second and third Isaiah addressing the darkness of defeat—
the darkness of oppression in exile
and the hope of freedom and homecoming—
an alternative to the realities imposed on them—
the hope that lives in the small glimmers of light.
We keep shining in the darkness—
in the doubt—in the unknown.

So I’m thankful
to be entering Advent with less of an emphasis on Advent,
not just lighting candles and turning on our decorative lights
because the time of the year reminds us to,
but because those little lights
reflect something we find in our sacred texts—
that in the depths of darkness,
light keeps us alive—
sustains the stories of love and grace
that keep us hoping—
that sustain our faith—
not because it’s Advent,
but because it’s true.
Because the light does shine in the darkness,
and the darkness cannot overcome it.

And yes, truth is as much
an awareness of the weight of the darkness
that falls around and upon us
as it is anticipation and celebration of the light.
It’s the balance—
the dance with shadows—
the hope that dances with what scares us
and what we don’t know.
So call it Advent if you want to,
it’s more than that—
more than four weeks preceding Christmas—
more than symbolic candles
representing hope, love, joy, and peace—
more than seasonal decoration.
It is the truth of hope
dancing with God
shining in the darkness.

Most people don’t even know it’s Advent.
Most probably don’t know what Advent is.
And most people don’t care.
But there are lights in many windows.
There are lights on many trees.
The truth is out there—
ours to claim and name.
There’s light here, come night.
Come on in.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Luke 1:76-79
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

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