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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On Politics (How the Catholic Church is teaching us how to be Christians…again)

It is rare in our constant barrage of news that a story bursts onto the scene with as much force as did today’s announcement by Pope Bennedict XVI that he would resign at the end of the month. I was in Chile when John Paul II died and the grief was palpable across the land. Therefore, when Bennedict at the age of 85 announced that he was stepping down he took the world by surprise.

Being the news junkie that I am, I immediately went online and started listening to the BBC’s live coverage (When in England…). It is always interesting when “secular” reporters and historians try and understand and analyze the Church, however, the reporting and response to this story seemed to demonstrate how Church politics should interact with the world.

The BBC news anchors wanted to get comments and responses by prominent Catholics in England, so they turned to a group of people who are never known for being camera-shy, politicians. In this case they chose several Conservative MPs who happen to be Catholic. After getting their initial reactions the anchors began to pivot to his motivations in stepping down, and the ways in which his resignation is going to make the church more conservative or progressive. All very standard questions, and ones which I am sure will be analyzed and debated from now until the white smoke emerges from St. Peter’s, however, none of the MPs were going to take the bait. Ann Widdecombe, getting notably frustrated with the questions exclaimed, “Stop talking about this as if it is politics, this is the Church, this is the Holy Spirit” (approximate quote). It was this statement which stuck with me. “it is not about politics.”

As a United Methodist, I come from a church which has a polity defined by democratic processes and a long history of church politics that is made (often embarrassingly) public every four years at General Conference. Just on Sunday I was explaining to a friend of mine at church what the “confessing” and “reconciling” movements were in the UMC. We are a Church where talking church has all too easily become talking politics.

Stanley Hauerwas is quite fond of saying that “A new political alternative began in the belly of Mary.” When I took his ethics course I was confused for the first part because of his use of the word “political.” The way society (and the Church) has trained me to use this word is in terms of Right/Left, Conservative/Liberal, Republican/Democrat. It was impossible for me to fully understand what he meant with this limited definition. I cam to realize that he used political in its purest form which is to describe the interactions between people in community. In his view, we as Christians by necessity must be reconstituted through our relationship with Jesus so that our Christ-shaped lives interact with everyone else in ways that are a radically different than those of other non-Christ-shaped people. In doing this we exist as a Church with a radically different “politics.”

As we enter into a time when our Catholic brothers (and sisters) are beginning the process to select the new pontiff, there will certainly be many news stories, rumors and secular-sounding “politics” which will dominate much of the coverage. However, it is my prayer that the Church will learn to keep its eye and focus on the Holy Spirit’s presence in this political actions, so that our Christian politics may be a witness to the world that even after 2,000 the Holy Church of Christ still operates according to our understanding of God’s will for our lives and not the petty desires of our own.