The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
Dec. 14, 2014
Isaiah 7:13-17; Psalm 139:1-18; Luke 1:26-38
A few weeks ago I did a children’s sermon where we talked about the phases of the moon, and I handed them a calendar that showed what phase the moon would be in during this month. Starting today, that glowing orb in the sky is waning toward “new moon,” which will be on Dec. 22, when the moon’s light disappears. Interestingly, Dec. 21 is Winter Solstice – longest night of the year. So the darkest night of the year will have not have any moonlight either. This is a dark time.We sometimes hear people use that phrase to describe their lives or the state of our world. If someone says “this is a dark time” – what do they mean? I posed this question on Facebook and invited people to respond. The question sparked nearly 30 comments. Answers I got were: a valley of grief, tyranny and destruction running rampant, confusion and fear, lack of knowledge and wisdom. In movies, whenever a war or battle is about to start, someone says "dark times are coming." It’s a time of negativity, injustice, oppression, overwhelming challenges, and depression. For some, this time of year reminds them of losses they have suffered, especially loved ones who have died, with whom they are no longer able to share the holiday. When people say “it’s a dark time,” it can mean what is absent - not much hope or joy.
|Lester Johnson, Three Transparent Heads, 1961|
By these counts, I think the argument can be made that we are in a “dark time.” Racial tensions in our country are as high as I’ve ever seen. We hear news about rapes on college campuses, threatening the safety of our daughters. There are debates about the value of using torture as a means by which to extract information from our enemies. News about worsening pollution and climate disruption from fossil fuel extraction processes. As a friend said in one of her responses to my post: “Watch CNN or the local news and it paints the picture of darkness. Current affairs that we are confronted with daily: Police Brutality, ISIS, War, School Shootings,” the list can seem endless. These are, indeed, dark times.But as we’ve learned in these past few weeks on this sermon series about learning to welcome the dark, it’s important to unpack the stereotypes people have about darkness. Especially since people with darker skin are unconsciously or even consciously demonized simply for their skin’s pigmentation. And when it comes to the feelings of anger, grief and depression that arise in response to these personal, national and global injustices, let’s not push too hastily for people to “get over it,” to swallow their pain and anger and “move forward,” as the saying is so often reiterated.
Because as Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, “The best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread. The best thing to do when sadness has your arms twisted behind your back is to sit down with the saddest child you know and say, ‘Tell me about it. I have all day.’” (Taylor, Barbara Brown, Learning to Walk in the Dark, HarperOne, New York, NY, 2014; 86). But we have to do this without expecting all this to magically cheer us up and whisk us out of our dark emotions. By listening to their words, hearing their stories, and holding those powerful, violent emotions as best we can, we are at least acknowledging that, yes, this has happened, and it is worthy of healing.But of course, many would disagree. You may have noticed the kind of rhetoric that has arisen in response to these events, the kinds of insensitive, offensive remarks jumping off of blog posts and blurted by political pundits that seek to blame the victims, downplay the seriousness of the issues, and divert our attention from the work that needs to be done. Our culture basically pushes two options for us in the face of these massive injustices: fight or flight. Toss nasty verbal grenades into the fray, or turn away and shop shop shop for the best holiday deals.
It is understandable to react to these strong feelings of those who cry out against injustice with either dismissive acidity or detached numbness. Because some of us have never experienced this kind of suffering. We build walls between us and those who suffer a thousand micro-aggressions over the course of their lives due to their skin color. Between us and the ones whose suffering is distanced from us. Between us and the woman who has been raped. We cannot bear such suffering, so we express outrage that such intensity of pain is even voiced. Yet these words of frustration and rage are found throughout the Bible, in the Psalms, in the mouths of prophets like Jeremiah and Habbakuk who says: “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” (Habakkuk 1:3)Here’s what we must do with those enraged by Ferguson, and those standing in oil-slicked soil on their farms, and those whose bodies have been abused and assaulted: we must listen to them, and hear them in the context of prayer. We all know we live in a world marked by violence and revenge - wouldn’t it be prudent to put those feelings into a prayerful context? Wouldn’t it be wise to invite God into these feelings?
That’s just what Mary does in the Gospel of Luke. Mary was a woman who lived in “dark times.” Because the days leading up to Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary were filled with many of the same things identified by the Facebook observations. Her people were oppressed by the Romans and despised in much the same way as people of color are in this country. They lived under military occupation and the soldiers often used violence in their patrols of the villages and cities. Diseases were common, poverty was nearly universal outside of the homes of the wealthy elite, and crime was a constant. Hopelessness and depression could easily settle into one’s heart, and even take hold of an entire community. All this could lay open a person’s mind to the creeping suspicion that perhaps God has finally abandoned us, left us to our own devices, given up on us.The world holds its collective breath, waiting to see if and how God will respond. Will God punish us for these feelings or mutely turn away?
Neither. God chooses a third way. God listens and responds. God responds by effecting a transformation in the darkness. Despite all of the negative stereotypes about darkness, Mary instinctively understood that God works in darkness differently than in light, but God still works in those dark places. It is within Mary’s womb, as dark a place as can be found, that the Messiah is conceived and grows. There in the secret, dark place of a young unwed teenage girl’s shame – there you see, is Mary’s God, the God of our raped daughters, the God of our murdered sons, the God of our desecrated earth. This is the God who sees that things must change, and creates in her a future that causes Mary to burst forth in song: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and rejoices in God, my savior! For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”There in the midst of hopelessness is where God does Her best work. Darkness is as useful for God as light. Because it makes us slow down, rely on our ears to hear, and our hands to feel. Darkness helps us to dismantle those things that keep us from hearing and feeling God. I did an exercise with a group of preachers in a workshop a few months ago where I blindfolded them and guided them into a room of darkness. They lined up, putting hands on shoulders, and became acutely aware of what the floor felt like beneath their feet as they shuffled slowly one step at a time. Without their sight they learned to rely on hearing each other’s voices, and my voice, to tell them where to turn, what was on their left and right. They had a shared experience of smells and textures and sounds that gave them new insights into how God works in darkness.
In what ways might Darkness be trying to effect a transformation in you, in us? What voices are we supposed to hear in the Darkness? Whose hands can we reach for? Especially during this period of waning moon and approaching winter solstice, what Taylor calls “endarkenment,” let’s not be too quick to run to “the light” and miss what Darkness is trying teach us, trying to dismantle in our individual and collective egos.The Darkness is trying to show us that we can do better, that we need to reach out for the hands and shoulders of God’s sons and daughters - no matter their skin color, sexual orientation, culture or economic level – and see them as having inherent dignity, value and worth. The Darkness is urging us to sharpen our senses to God’s created world and recognize that our earth and its precious waters and biotic communities have inherent dignity, value and worth.
So how do we take those first, shuffling steps into the darkness? This afternoon some of us will be taking gift bags and singing carols at Country Comfort Assisted Living. We will be going to what some people think of as a “dark place,” where the elderly wait for the final shroud of death to enfold them, a place where few people go to visit because it’s uncomfortable, and they do not want to be reminded of their own mortality. But we will go and see that even in that dark place, new life grows in unexpected ways.Two days ago I went to another place that people might call “dark.” I went to Haven Ministry, the homeless shelter for our tri-county area. Few people would want to be there, a place where poverty throws its victims, where domestic violence tosses its abused women and children, a place where people only go as a last resort. I only went because I was sent there with the gifts bought by our youth with money from our Rich Huff Fund. So I arrived with clothes, a toy and some diapers for a 5-week-old infant who was there with his mother. I don’t know what her circumstances were, but I could imagine the pain and humiliation she had endured, the hopelessness she must have experienced, the “darkness” that surrounded her. But I asked if I could see the child – and she took me back to her little room. There on the bed the little baby boy was sleeping, as perfect and holy a child as I’ve ever seen. New life in this place of darkness.
In a few minutes, I will hold Laylanya and Koda in my arms and stroke their soft hair with the baptismal waters, a reminder of the dark birth waters of our planet, the dark waters that pillowed them in their mother’s womb. And I pray that when the day comes when they feel lost and abandoned in the darkness, they will be reminded of the words from Psalm 139:Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
God is calling us in the dark to listen and learn and lend a hand even more at this difficult time. Because, as Mary reminds us, God is at work in ways that are not immediately visible to us, but are nevertheless powerfully moving among us:49 For the Mighty One has done great things for [us], and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
God has not abandoned us. God is at work as much now as in the beginning of our dark-shrouded world, as when God’s people cried out for justice and mercy from the depths of the biblical texts. The God of Mary’s womb, and the God of Jesus’ tomb – both places of darkness – is our God: the God of our broken bodies and hearts and communities who comes to bring healing and new life in the darkness. Put your hands on God’s strong shoulders, listen for God’s voice guiding you in the darkness. And take your first shuffling step. Amen.