Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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Light in Darkness Sermon

(This sermon was given on Sunday, December 18 at Trinity UMC in Fernandina Beach, for the Memorial UMC Service of Light in Darkness.)

When I was a kid, there was a show on TV called, “Are You Afraid of the Dark.” It was basically a child-friendly version of Twilight Zone. After an episode the night was full of monsters and villains and my imagination would populate the unknown around me with so many forces of evil that I would keep a flashlight beside my bed to ward them off.

There is something scary and unnerving about the dark. In the daytime we can see what is coming. We know what to expect. There are very few surprises during the day. At night, however, everything changes. Familiar streets get cast in unfamiliar shadows. It is impossible to see someone coming your way until they are already next to you. Sounds fill the air all around you, but you can’t see their origins.

Physical darkness, however, is the easiest of the darknesses that fill our world. There is no flashlight that will drive away the darkness of grief. There is no candle to ward away depression or anxiety. There are deeper darknesses in our world which stand in the way of the light and cast long shadows over our lives. These dark places often get lost amid the lights of the Christmas season. With such an emphasis on joy and peace, the realities of sadness, distress, and worry often get pushed to the side. However, if we look at the Christmas story there are both light and dark places.

We see the light in the angelic visions, but often miss the fact that the angels appear to Joseph and Mary in the dark as a dream. The Shepherds are watching their flocks by night when the heavenly host appear in all their glory. And the star the wisemen follow to the new-born King was like every other star, only available to them when the brightness of the sun no longer shone in the sky.

What do we make of this shadow-side of the nativity?

I believe the darkness is there because it is a part of the world we live in. From the very beginning when God separated the light from the darkness, each one was given a name and a space in creation. I remember when I lost my grandmother, in seminary, I was thinking about my grief and tears and I realized that the pain I felt at her passing was rooted in the very love that I had for her when she was alive. Even as difficult as grief can be, I cannot think of anyone who would give up the love they have for the one they lost in order to make it go away.

Darkness can obscure our vision, cast doubts about our future and our purpose. The loss of a job, adjustment to retirement, the change from one way of living to another is disorienting and confusing. Our once familiar life and purpose is covered over by a new reality that remains to become fully present.

Walking with a loved one through the shadow of death can be darker for the caregiver than the one who is in the middle. Watching a loved one slip away, we are forced to live in the tension between how they are now and how they were before. In some cases, our memories of them are stronger than theirs are. With the loss of the spouse, friend, or relative, we also loose the future we had hoped to live with them.

In other ways, darkness has a way of focusing our attention. In the daytime there is a lot of distractions. The myriad of colors and shapes which surround us each day all merge together because we cannot take it all in at once. In the dark, however, those colors mute and the shapes soften. It is then that other things come into focus. The stars, for example do not appear in the evening. Instead, it is only when the brightness of the day has faded that we are finally able to behold their steady beads of light. When life gets difficult, it brings other things into perspective. I have spoken with so many people who have a terminal illness that after their diagnosis they didn’t worry as much about their work, their business, their money, or any of the other things that had previously filled up their lives. They began to cherish the time spent with family, the long chats with good friends, walks on the beach, and spending nights laying out on a blanket gazing into the heavens.

I do not know everything about the darkness that you have brought with you today. But I do know that Scripture is clear, darkness is a temporary phenomenon. Psalm 30 declares that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

In the nativity story, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, sings a song of praise to God which proclaims that:

Because of God’s deep compassion,
The dawn from heaven will break upon us,
To give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.
(Luke 1:78-79)

Before Jesus was even born, the prophet knew that the night was almost over—a light was coming. This can be hard to see in the midst if the darkness. When all around you are shadows, it is easy to forget that there is a light. It is easy to get lost in the darkness, however, the story of Christmas is that a light “did come into our world.” That light did not wait until our eyes had adjusted to the dark. It did not ask us to leave the darkness and come into the light, it came to us instead.

Hear again John’s declaration about the light:

“What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.,,,The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
(John 1:3b-5,9)

This is the core of the story. Even in the dark world the light appeared to Mary and Joseph, to shepherds, to wise men and now to us. And that Light cannot be overcome by our darkness, but instead, that Light enters into where we are and makes his home among us so that we know that no matter how dark our lives get we are not alone.

As you go throughout this holiday season, as you see the lights on houses and trees and everywhere else, I pray that you would be reminded that Jesus has come to be with you in the darkness and lead you forward wherever you need to go.

(Note: I am grateful to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” for being a helpful thought partner and a general good read.)

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From Where Does My Help Come?  [sermon]


(This sermon from was preached on July 17th at Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach, FL. The manuscript is below and the video from the 9:30 service is above.)

Last week’s psalm of lament and this week’s Psalm 121 are both what are known as “psalms of ascent.” You can see that in the titles that the authors have placed before the psalm. Most of the titles you will find in your bible have been added by the translators to make life easier for you when looking for a passage. The notes at the beginning of many of the psalms, however, are in the original text. They can be instructions for the worship leader, descriptions of the content, or other words or phrases whose meaning has been lost over time.  Psalms 120-134 are grouped together with the same title: A Song of Ascents. Scholars suggest that these psalms were used by pilgrims during the festival seasons as they travelled to Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself are on the highest hill in the area and so one literally must “go up” to Jerusalem.

Theses songs would be sung along the road and in services at the beginning of their journey and before they set off. Taken together the psalms are a mixture of different types and themes, but they are mostly short and easy to memorize. Psalm 121 is one of the most popular of the group as well as the whole psalter. It is a psalm of unqualified praise to a God whose protection knows no limits.

It begins with the beautiful question: I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? In the times of the Bible, there were lots of options to turn to for help. Every hill and high place in the area contained shrines and poles in honor and worship of a god for every ailment or problem. If you needed crops to grow, there was a god for that. If you wanted children, there’s a god for that. If you were on a journey, there’s a god for that. Whatever you needed help, you could look to the hills and find an assortment of gods to pray to and worship.

Things are not so different now. When we are in need of help we lift our eyes to the Hollywood Hills and find movie stars selling insurance and credit cards which will solve our problems. We read tabloid magazines and websites which while they may not solve our problems will at least distract us from them long enough to get us by.

When we are unhappy with our country or our community we lift our eyes to capital hill and pray that our candidate is elected or that our law is passed.

When we want to make more money we look to the hills of wall street, or we look uphill and see what job or position might bring us more success.

The psalmist looks at these hills, and knows that true help will not come from the tops of any of them. True help will only come from the Lord who made the hills and who created the rest of earth and heaven.

How often do we set our sights too low. We put our trust in people who promise to make things easier for us, who know a better way, a faster way. And then how slowly it takes us to realize our mistake.

Every election it seems like we all get a messiah complex for our preferred candidate. If our man or woman is elected then things will be better. Inevitably, when that person is elected we realize how wrong we were. As long as they have been doing polls, almost every president has seen their approval ratings consistently drop over the course of their presidency. Once they get into office the reality often fails to live into the rhetoric.

There is a saying, “Never meet your heroes.” So often we put people on pedestals only to discover that the more you get to know the more human you realize they are. Malachi is at this cute stage in life where he is almost sitting up on his own. He is soo close. I will often put him up on my lap and let him practice. He will push the boundaries and bend over and then pull himself back up. But if he goes over too far, my hands are on either side to keep him from falling too far. The other day, we were playing this game and I got distracted by something outside the window. Malachi leaned to far over and bumped his head on the arm of the chair. Fortunately it was not far and he didn’t even really notice, but it reminded me that I am not a perfect parent. I will not always be there when he trips or stumbles. At some point, probably around the time he is a teenager, Malachi will realize this as well. I hope by that point, he has come to learn that God is always there. God never sleeps or gets distracted. The seeming paradox of God is that the One who created the world also cares about each one of us individually. The God who orders the planets is also concerned with our path in life as well and asks us to follow where God leads.
As we know, even when we walk with God, bad things happen. The attack in Nice this week does not mean that God looked away and got distracted. Being in God’s protection means more than physical safety. As I was preparing for the funeral last Tuesday I noticed that Psalm 121 is one of the suggested psalms to be read in the service. Its assurance of God’s protection serves as both a comfort for the ones who are grieving, but also that God’s protection remains with the person who has died.

So often we limit God’s activity and care to the life we know when in reality God moves and works beyond this life. In Jesus Christ God came into this world, experienced death, and then in the resurrection proved that not even death is the end of God’s work in the world. When Paul in Romans tells us that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” there is no caveat there. The original letter did not have a footnote with a list of exceptions. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. This total and complete love of God is beyond our ability to understand, but should encourage us along the way.

One article I read this week suggested that Psalm 121 was used to prepare pilgrims before they set off on their journey. The first two verses would have said by those who were leaving: “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” And then the rest of the psalm was then recited by those who were staying. These words from Psalm 121 would serve as a reminder to the person that God would protect them on their journey.

Travelling in ancient times was difficult and dangerous. The journey to Jerusalem was done entirely on foot without a plane, train, or car. Wild animals and robbers were a constant source of danger. An injury in the wrong place could leave you exposed to the elements, with heat stroke being a real concern. In the face of so much to fear, however, the pilgrim needed to be reminded of their purpose in making the journey.
The opportunity to worship of God at the Temple was a privilege that is difficult to even put into words. For some Jews it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As they prepared to set off and I imagine frequently along the way, they needed to lift their eyes again to the hills and fix their eyes on the hill of Zion.

As the ground became rocky, they needed to remember that God was with them every step of the way and would not let their feet stumble. As the sun beat down and sapped their energy, they remembered that God was their shade at their right hand protecting them day and night. As robbers threatened and animals howled, the remembered that God would keep them from all evil-real and imagined. Through the whole of the journey they needed to remember that the God they would worship at the end of their journey was the same God who was travelling with them along the way.

While we may not be going to Jerusalem, we are also on a journey. When the path becomes rocky, the sun intense, and the evil around us too threatening there is a temptation to look to the lesser hills around us for help. To seek out the hills that feel good at the moment, and will take less effort to climb. However, Psalm 121 is an encouragement for our journey. When we are afraid, we are called to look for help from the Creator of hills. When troubles come and evil threatens, we are to be reminded that God is with us, that God will shade us from the sun and protect us in the night. There is no aspect big or small that is not of any concern to our God. And when at last we reach our final destination, it is Psalm 121 that sends us off with the reminder that the God who is with us in this life will continue to keep us in the life to come. Thanks be to God.


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The Best of It

On December 9, my Grandmother died. When I was born, I was so fortunate to have 11 Grandparents and Great-Grandparents, and before this year I had seven remaining. After I had written my remarks I was reminded that the pain I feel at her loss, is worth the 24 years I was able to have with her. In this season of Christmas, when so many of us miss our loved ones, I wanted to share these words which iI shared at her service.

 

It seems strange standing here behind this podium without Granny’s wheelchair there in the front row. Every time I would preach, she would make Papa get her ready and bring her down. Being a seminary student means that you need need to have a scripture verse for everything, and the one which came to mind is the phrase-“You are the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13). Now I could tell you that is because Granny was a simple girl from Tennessee who loved her family, both real and porcelain family, but I would be lying. I think of salt of the earth because granny loved salt. I loved to eat over at their house when granny would fix green beans where it was almost a one to one salt:water ratio. Her Chex mix a favorite because it was drenched in love, and Worcheshire sauce and almost every kind of salt imaginable. I remember Papa getting onto her for putting salt on her food before she had even tasted it. It is a silly memory, but I think in a way it indicates the kind of person she was. Someone who lived life in abundance and saturated the people around her with salty love. I remember how every evening we would be sitting down for dinner, no matter what time, and the phone would ring. It was her. She didn’t have an agenda, or really any reason. She just wanted to hear her daughter’s voice on the phone, get caught up on the day. I remember the first time I got one of those random calls in undergrad. I was feeling homesick and her call just made everything feel normal. I was in my new home, and she was there with me as best she could.

On the archway leading outside one of the doors at the Divinity school is my favorite quote from John Wesley, “The best of it is, God is with us.” Every time I leave, I look at that quote, and since I have been home and we have all been reminiscing on Granny’s life, it has been stuck in my mind. The best of it is, God is with us. God was with Granny when she was born in Edgemore, TN, God was with her when the Government moved her family to Knoxville where she would meet a dapper young country boy named John. God had to have been with her raising all four of her kids (how else would she have survived?). In Utah as Papa drove those switchbacks as she held her broken neck in place, God was with her. As she kept beating me in our weekly games of Checkers, God had to be with her. In her last moments, surrounded by pictures of everyone she loved, as she was lifted up in prayer, God was with her. And so now as we gather here today, remembering the 80 years God was with her, we celebrate that today, Granny is with God.