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Sabbath Day

January 26, 2018

Sabbath Day – One Day a Week to Focus on What Really Matters

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I had some errands to run this morning, so I did them on my bike – 6.5 miles on “church business,” on the Bronx River Parkway Path (above) which turned something I ‘needed to do’ as part of my job into something that felt “sabbathy.” I had more errands to run for church, but it was simply too cold to do so on my bike. I headed for home.

On my way, I stopped and ordered too much food from Turkish Cuisine on Mamaroneck Ave, carrying my sampling of middle eastern dishes home on my bike and eating them all while finishing my ‘novel of the week,’ Mornings in Jenin, by Susan Abulhawah. (I was in a section that seemed to mention food on every other page, which made me hungry). I will be in Jenin, Palestine, in little more than three months! The novel is beautiful and tragic and ultimately hopeful. I recommend it.

The school quarter ended today, which left a fairly homework-free evening to share with my son. We spent the usual time together at the nature center with the goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys, pheasants, and rabbits. But our most important time was spent nursing our Jackson’s Chameleon to health. He’s a bit dehydrated and vitamin deficient, which required a visit to the vet, but lots of bathing and ‘force’-feeding are making a difference. It’s a humbling ting to hold such a fragile life one’s hand. Below: a boy, his pizza, and his chameleon. 

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Sabbath Day – O Little Town of Bethlehem

January 18, 2018

Sabbath – One Day a Week to Focus on What Truly Matters

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Conference Poster, Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture

With my morning coffee I finished another book read in anticipation of my upcoming travel to Palestine. Bethlehem: Biography of a Town, by Nicholas Blincoe, was a pleasure to read.  Every page was informative, and often surprising. I did not realize, for example, that the bulk of Jerome’s translation work that became the Latin Vulgate – the scripture of the Western Church for most of its history – was done in Bethlehem. Or when he suggests the Bethlehem may not come from the Canaanite “house of bread” but from the Arabic “house of meat,” on account the local shepherds who processed and sold their product there. His account of women’s leadership in Bethlehem’s Christian history was breathtaking. 

Blincoe provides a history of the locale from the stone age to the present (the little town is much younger than one imagines or the Bible portrays, being settled less than 200 years before the birth of Jesus). Even as he unfolds this history chronologically, it is written like a travelogue. History is read while walking through the city streets or hiking in the surrounding hills, and is found in the physical remains of a rich past. Loose analogies both illuminate the history and make it memorable – as when he described the “island-hopping Philistines,” the late bronze-age, sea-faring settlers of Palestine’s coast, as something akin to “a sea-version of the Hell’s Angels.” The importance of the Bethlehem aqueduct as a source of water for Jerusalem cannot be overstated and was fascinating.

The author is deeply sympathetic with the Palestinian people and their struggle, and writes unromantically of the conflict with Israel. “An open air prison” is how he describes Bethlehem, encircled by settlements which claim every hilltop (unlike any well designed and organic village which clings to the protected sides of the hills). Full disclosure: Blincoe is married to the film-maker Lelia Sansour, and reads something like a company piece to her Open Bethlehem

It looks like I will spend at least four days in and around Bethlehem in May. I am looking forward to seeing my colleague The Rev. Mitri Raheb, Founder and President of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture.

My Sabbath Day was spent working on small projects, reading, some house cleaning, helping August with his homework, a visit to the nature center, and exercise. 

Happy Sabbath

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Addressing Morally Bankrupt Leadership

January 18, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in Epiphany / MLK Birthday Weekend, January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

Thanks be to God for this which is God’s holy word,
And to God’s name let there be praise. Amen.

I offer this prayer every Sunday as I finish reading the scripture. The worship leader often says “The Word of God, for the People of God.”

Before the scripture is read we offer a prayer for illumination. John Calvin introduced the prayer for illumination into reformed liturgy to acknowledge that although the Scripture is the Word of God written, unless the Holy Spirit illumines it, speaks through it, speaks to us, they are just words. The Holy Spirit must make it the Word of God for us. And to us.

These two prayers, before and after the reading, acknowledge that God must speak through God’s Word. They acknowledge that God has just spoken, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

We heard in our scripture today that in the time of Eli, when Samuel was still a boy, “the Word of the God was rare in those days, [and] visions were not widespread.”

Eli was a priest at Shiloh. When Joshua first led God’s people into the land of promise, the road led to this small farming community in the hill country of Ephraim. Shiloh’s relative unimportance made it an ideal place to stake their claim in this new country, and for 200 years it was Israel’s military and religious center. It was in Shiloh that the Ark of the Covenant was kept, where the priests interceded for the people; it was where God’s Word was spoken. Shiloh held an annual festival to which pilgrims would come to make their annual sacrifice. It was as such a pilgrim that Hannah came when she was barren in order to seek God’s blessing. And it was the priest Eli who reminded her that the God of Israel is a God who looks with favor on the downcast, who gives hope to the hopeless, who can make a way when there is no way; It was Eli who told her “Go in peace. The God of Israel grant the petition you have made.” The result was Samuel.

As our story begins, Samuel is a boy serving in the temple in fulfillment of the vow his mother had made. He wore the sacred Ephod during worship, and his mother would bring a little robe to him each year during the pilgrimage. Samuel was, as the scripture says, “growing up in the presence of God.” But Eli, in contrast, has grown old, and we are told that his eyesight has grown dim. This isn’t merely a physical description; it’s a spiritual one. Eli does not desire to see what is going on. He turns a blind eye to what his sons, also priests, are doing.

Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinneas, are priests in the shrine at Shiloh. But they were scoundrels. According to scripture, “they had no regard for God or for the duties of the priest to the people.” Worse than mere negligence, Hophni and Phinneas have corrupted their office and abused the people. Reports of have come to Eli: Hophni is using his position of power in order to have sex with women who come to worship, Phinneas is using his position of power to enrich himself; he looks with “a greedy eye” at all the meat brought for sacrifice, and has had made for himself a special three pronged fork with which he picks out the choicest and fattiest pieces. Eli had reprimanded them once, but they ignored him, and Eli did little more. Eli seems not to have retired, but simply to have abdicated his responsibilities.

No wonder it is said that the Word of the God was rare. Who was going to speak it?

If there is good news in this story, it is that God will not tolerate such faithlessness, particularly among the leaders of the people. And so judgment falls on Eli’s household. Because he would not speak out against his sons, their corruption, and their abuse of the people, the family would be removed from the office of the priesthood. And Samuel would deliver the message.

Our passage from Scripture speaks about God removing Eli from office by the words of the prophet. Standing under judgment, and finally recognizing that this might be the voice of Israel’s God, Eli instructed the young boy Samuel to lie down a fourth time beside the Ark of the Covenant. If you hear your name again, you should say “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

If all we had were the first ten verses of this story (the part that most of us know well) then we would have an almost idyllic story about a young boy who listens when he hears God calling. We would sing “Here I am, Lord,” and remind ourselves to listen, for God still speaks to God’s people. Yes, God calls even us.

But in the second half of the story, verses 11-20, we find something else. When God speaks, God says “See, I am about to do a new thing in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” And that new thing will be the raising up of a prophet to speak truth to power. Samuel’s first message was a tough one to deliver. He had to speak God’s judgment on Eli, to Eli. He had to deliver God’s judgment of Eli, to Eli. And, to his credit, Eli encourages him. Eli may be a poor priest and father, but when it counts, he is able to offer guidance to the young boy Samuel, to prepare him not only to hear, but to speak God’s Word.

Eli recognizes this as “the Word of the God.” He bows his head, accepts the weight of judgment, which has been long in coming; he says, “It is God. Let God do what seems good.”

And this is what we find in the second half of the story: Samuel learns that he must not only listen, be he must also speak; speak up, speak out, speak truth. When the prophets speak, the Word of the God is again present and active in the land.

Listen to this marvelous final sentence again, “As Samuel grew up, God was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-Sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet.” When the prophets speak truth, the Word of the God is again present and active in the land.

The last time I preached on this passage was six years ago. At that time the sermon as an occasion to encourage us to speak out against a series of outrageously racist remarks then being circulated by elected officials in the Republican Party who were setting new low standards for talking about the President of the United States, Barak Obama. I had no idea how much lower our country could go, that white supremacists would soon walk the streets proudly, that outrage could become a daily experience without an end in sight, that the racism would be joined to violence, public policy, and foreign policy. Yes, it was always there, I know, but it was embarrassed in public. Now it is shameless. It is now not controversial to say, “The President of the United States is a racist and a liar.”

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Yesterday our Synod Leader, Harold Delhagen, circulated an open letter to Presbyterian Churches. He begins by writing

As with many of you, I have become weary and sad at the constant flow of hateful speech and racist rhetoric that flows from our president and his followers. The daily barrage of these words, and devastating actions that follow them, leaves me exhausted and wondering how to best use my public voice in ways that don’t simply add to the  constant  flood o f exchanges around them.  

It’s a good question, and one each of us (and we as a congregation) must answer: How can we use our public voice in ways that don’t simply add to the flood of exchanges? Because it is not just the president’s words that matter – all of our words matter at this moment. How do we, like Samuel, not let our words ‘fall to the ground’ but instead ‘be’ the words that God need spoken right now.

God calls us, each one of us, but always to particular work that addresses the urgent needs of the day.

Sabbath Day – Palestinian Walks

January 12, 2018

20150502_145528Photo: St. Georges Monastery, The West Bank, Palestine

Sabbath: One Day a Week to Reconnect with What Really Matters
Thursday, January 11

I have just finished the absolutely beautiful and haunting book, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, by Raja Shehadeh. The author has spent a lifetime walking the hills and wadis surrounding Ramallah where his family has resided for hundreds of years. An activist and land-rights lawyer whose career spans the occupation (he is the founder of the human rights organization Al Haq), Shehadeh has his narrative built around six walks, spanning several decades, which he has taken alone or with friends. On his recollection of these walks the readers is given an intimate an personal tour of the the natural environment of the West Bank and the changes it has suffered through forty years of Israeli control (the book was published in 2007). As local temperatures in White Plains dropped to single digits this week, reading about Raja’s hikes has allowed me to dream vividly of hiking myself in the hills of Palestine, which I have plans to do later this spring.

While I continue to digest the many moving and deeply reflective passages where I have turned the corners down on the pages, making the top corner of the book significantly thicker than the rest of it, I contemplate where this book belongs on my bookshelf in my library. My first inclinations (and its original location) is with my books on Israel-Palestine, books of a historical, political and theological nature. But then I think it belongs on the shelf of books about walking and hiking, in the company of Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust and Kathleen Dean Moore’s Riverwalking, or perhaps with the travelogues of John Muir, Bill Bryson, Jeff Alt and Cheryl Strayed. In its close observation of a specific place, known intimately over time, it perhaps shares the most with my shelf of nature writing, with books like David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. Palestinian Walks has touched me and inspired me in a way that I associate with Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Landscapes, and Jim Corbett’s Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living, although it does not confess any defined tradition of spirituality beyond the land itself. Reading this books has led me both to reflect on my first trip to Israel and to anticipate my upcoming trip to Palestine, and so at present it is shelved with my travel books. Again and again I have paused to remember so many particular walks I have taken in beautiful and so sacred places closer to home. Perhaps it belongs on my shelf of formative, and so uncategorizable, books. 

Much of the rest of the day was spent quietly: exercising, practicing Arabic, drinking coffee, shuttling August to the nature center and to lacrosse practice, and working with him on his homework. I will lay down to sleep shortly feeling richly blessed and a great sense of peace.

Peace be with you.
السلام عليكم   שלום עליכם   Ειρήνη   Pax vobiscum   Pace   Hasîtî   शान्ति   Barış   和平   Мир   ᚠᚱᛁᚦ

The Women Magi Who Visited Jesus

January 9, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Epiphany Sunday, January 7, 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6            Matthew 2:1-12

As a season, the Twelve Days of Christmas mark the time from Jesus’ birth to the arrival of the wise ones on January 6th. After that, Epiphany celebrates God’s showing forth of Christ to the world; the light of the world made manifest.  Epiphany is both a day and a season.  As a day it marks the arrival of the magi. It is always January sixth, which means that Epiphany journeys, or migrates, through the days of the week, much like the magi themselves.  When the magi arrive at the stable, the Christmas season is over and we, together with his mother Mary, settle in for a season of watching this child Jesus grow in wisdom and stature during the ensuing weeks.

Traditioning is a modern term for the ancient Hebrew practice of midrash, or embellishment of a good story. Midrash imaginatively fills in details that are missing; provides information we are not given, asks new questions of a text. It is often occurred to me that many historical-critical readings scripture are also a form of midrash, reading from new perspectives, although now scientific and rooted in fact rather than imagination.

There are many traditions that have grown up around Epiphany. One tradition is theological and holds that Epiphany symbolizes the sharing of the gospel with the Gentiles, who are represented by the magi mentioned in this passage.  The Magi are not Jewish, but foreigners, and come, as the prophets had always imagined, to bow down before a righteous or just king. This may have been one of Matthew’s intended meanings.

To further underscore the universality of Christ, though, early commentators imaginatively reconstructed the physical characteristics of the magi to represent people of different nations and unpacked the symbolism of the gifts brought to the Christ child.  The Venerable Bede, an English monk of the seventh century, first gave the magi names: Melchior was described as ‘an old man with white hair and a long beard’, Gaspar as ‘young and beardless and ruddy complexioned’, and Balthazar as ‘black skinned and heavily bearded’: racial diversity, as understood in the seventh century. Gaspar was later developed with obvious Asian features.

The gifts of the magi are also imaginatively interpreted:

  • myrrh, an embalming spice, foretold Jesus death;
  • frankincense symbolized an offering worthy of divinity; and
  • gold represented an appropriate gift for a king. 

Or, as we will sing shortly, “myrrh and frankincense and gold, grave and God and king foretold.” (Hymn 156, Sing a Song of God made Manifest). Matthew did not intend any of these meanings in his gospel.

By the way, though we like to sing “We Three Kings,” the imagined visitors were definitely not kings. The idea that developed of kings bearing gifts was likely taken from Psalm 72, which speaks of a just ruler who defends the cause of the poor and crushes the oppressor and to whom foreign kings bring gifts and pledge obedience. The use of wise men is a better modern translation, since astrologers of the East were frequently advisors to rulers, though as we will see in a moment, calling them wise men creates a new problem. And Matthew does not says that there are three of them, only that there are three gifts. 

Rather, Matthew tells us the visitors were magi, a term derived from the same root as our English word magic. Magi came from Persia, the area of modern Iran. Magi are a priestly class in Zoroastrianism, the second oldest religion in the world. Zoroastrianism is still practiced in Iran, Iraq, India and South Asia. Magi served as “religious” legitimation for the Persian rulers. They attended to the signs of the natural world to read human events, and particularly the fate of royal dynasties, in the stars, in flames, and in the cycles of the earth itself. They were advisors to the Persian kings, courtly figures who always had access to power – thus their easy audience with Herod. The words of the magi could make or break a king, or emperor. We will not explore further the political significance of magi seeking one born “king of the Jews” while another tyrannical and paranoid ruler claimed that title. We have already done that this season. If will suffice to see today that in Matthew’s story, the magi bring gifts to Jesus, bowing down before him as one would before a just ruler.

Please note: our three epiphany hymns this morning were specifically because they never use the word kings of wise men – in fact, they make no reference to number or gender at all – instead the visitors are more accurately called eastern sages, or magi, which is now the preferred word.

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Could this traveling group of magi have been women? Or at least have included one or more women? This is a subject of great discussion in my home right now. You see, every year our church school performs a Christmas pageant, we have had a one of the magi portrayed by a girl. On Christmas Eve, as we told the Christmas story in a series of first person narratives, for the last two years the voice of the Magi, or Wise Ones, was my wife, the Rev. Noelle Damico. Well this year my eleven-year old son August has protested that we are trying to be too inclusive, writing women into stories where they don’t belong. “Why do you always have to make everything so equal?” he wants to know. (As a congregation, you are welcome to take this up with him).

Noelle and I have taken time to point out that Kings is a later addition (tradition) that has nothing to do with the biblical story. Wise men is an English language interpretation of the Greek word Magoi which is not necessarily gendered. And we have set this in broader ethical terms of culture and representation. Because, as it turns out, there were women magi in the Ancient world, plenty of them![i]

My son’s question got me to do some reading, and I came across an article about the Sarvar Talapolevara, a Parsi woman who was recently initiated as a Magi in Iran, reviving the long-neglected practice of women’s leadership in Zoroastrianism.[ii]

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According to the story, Mobed Soroushpur, who is the current president of the Zoroastrian Moded’s Council in Tehran, brought up the idea of women priests in 2009. (I have no doubt that women brought the idea up first!). “During my research,” he writes, “I was digging deep into the archives, and I found out that the [ancient] school for priests accepted both women and men. I simply thought that I had the duty to write something about it and show it to the council.”

Mobed Soroushpur articulates a concept called frashkat, which means “to refresh and renew our values,” in conversation with the past. “The concepts of equality have always been at the basis of our culture. In antiquity, there were many female priests, politicians, warriors and this even up to the Sasanian time,” he says, which is a reference to a Persian Empire contemporary with the birth of Jesus. It turns out Zoroastrianism did not begin to drive out women priests until the rise of Islam, not too long after Christianity had done the same, removing women from religious leadership.

So, including a female Magi in our pageant turns out not to be politically correct, but historically suggestive, challenging the (exclusive?) association of wisdom and men in the story. Expanding the circle of witnesses, ancient and modern, is a very Epiphany thing to do!

Our sermon hymn this morning is called “Sing of God Made Manifest.” The note in your hymnal states that

“Epiphany” means “manifestation” or “showing forth,” and this text cites key disclosures of Jesus as Messiah: the coming of the Magi, his baptism by Jon the Baptist, the wedding at Cana. All are summed up in the Transfiguration, recalled on the last Sunday after Epiphany.

There are short notes like this below every hymn, and they are always worth reading. Looking them over when you arrive would be a good way to prepare for worship, and they highlight themes and images that likely occur in the prayers and liturgy to enrich our worship.

What the note does not mention is that Carl Daw, who wrote the text, was being intentionally inclusive by bringing together three distinct Christian traditions, each one bearing a gift for our understanding of Jesus.

In Western Christianity, the coming of the Magi has been treated as the essential manifestation or revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. We sing of this in the first stanza. By contrast, in the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Christianity, the primary occasion of Christ’s manifestation is at his baptism by John the Baptist. “As Orthodox icons make clear, this even is also understood as the initial revelation of the Trinity. We sing of this in the second stanza. In the third stanza we sing of the wedding feast at Cana, which the Gospel of John (and subsequent mystical traditions) treats as the first “sign” or miracle: the changing of water into wine. This is the important manifestation of who Christ is. Finally, the fourth stanza takes us to the final reading of the Season of Epiphany before Lent begins, the manifestation of Jesus as God’s beloved on the Mount of Transfiguration. Here, “The revelation to the disciples of the glory that would lie beyond the agony of the cross is intended to prepare them to endure the challenge to their faith” – a nice prelude to our remembrance of the Christ’s Last Supper.[iii]

Together with the mention of healing, teaching, and forgiving in the third verse that flesh out the life of Jesus, the hymn we are about to sing gathers together all the traditional readings for the season of epiphany, and enriches our understanding the light that has entered our world.

Let us sing it together with a richer awareness of our tradition, as we worship the revelation of God-among-us.

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[i] The case be made even more strongly and exegetically: see the succinct presentation in this article from the National Catholic Reporter, which I did not discover until after this sermon: https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/simply-spirit/epiphany-wise-women

[ii] http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/zoroastrian-priestesses-iran-2058029133

[iii] Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion. (Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Sabbath Day – Learning Arabic

January 4, 2018

arabic-alphabets

Today was both a Sabbath Day and a Snow Day in White Plains. My son and I got to hang out all day, which meant a day of games, wrestling, reading, playing in the snow, visiting with neighbors, and watching a movie.

And learning Arabic! I decided last week that I want to learn some basic conversational Arabic before visiting Palestine, so this afternoon I took the first obvious step of memorizing the alphabet: characters and names. I watched a couple of videos on YouTube and traced out pages and pages of letters on lined paper before an Arabic speaking neighbor reminded me of Quizlet.com. That did it: an hour more practice and I was getting a consistent 100% on tests. It was a very satisfying exercise. (And when I got my first 100% my son decided that he, too, would like to memorize the alphabet).

Suggestions for learning Arabic are most welcome.

During my morning coffee I finished reading what was to have been my final book for 2017: Ian Black’s brand new Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel 1917-2017. It took me a little longer than anticipated. Black, a former Middle East editor at The Guardian, synthesizes forty years of reporting on the Middle East in a fast-paced analysis of what he calls (in the final chapter) “The Hundred Year War.” Despite being a page-turner, I didn’t have as much time this week as I had hoped to finish it. The book was grisly reading at times. For example, the litany of back-and-forth violence during the al-Aqsa Intifada brought me right back to the anger and foreboding I felt when Ariel Sharon stormed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the despair I experienced in conversations with Jewish and Muslim neighbors on Long Island during those years, and the helplessness I felt (feel) in the face of the rightward shift of Israel during Netanyahu’s tenure as PM. Reading these pages was like reliving the news for the past twenty years – and the accompanying prayers in worship, peace vigils, hard conversations, other books I have read, and my one and only trip to Israel in 2004 as the Separation Wall was being built.

The book’s publication marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration (1917), fifty years since the Middle East war (1967), the thirtieth anniversary of the First Intifada (1987), ten years since the takeover of Hamas in Gaza (2007) and ends just shy of Trump’s declaration regarding Jerusalem (2017). The author notes the “strange, occult quality” of the seventh year of nearly every decade, including also 1897, 1937, and 1977). It is largely a political history, drawing on a large body of both Palestinian and Israeli writing. Black recounts both the Palestinian and Israeli narratives; holds all parties accountable for their words and actions while acknowledging the great disparity in military and economic power between Israel and Palestine, and allows us to look behind the news stories to the negotiations and candid cynicism of many who claim to seek peace and/or security. Recommended reading.

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August emerging from a tunnel in the snow fort built with the neighbors

The board game August and I played was Medici, about the Renaissance Italian trade in “lush furs, rich grains, exotic spices, colorful dyes, and finest cloth.” We skipped the laundry but wrestled, tickled, did some chores, and built a fort and tunnels in the snow. We practiced (him the flute; me, the alphabet). And we watched the last hour the The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (because yesterday was J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday).

Happy Sabbath.

Darkness Cannot Overcome the Light

December 26, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

 Hebrews 1:1-4          Luke 1:26-38          John 1:1-14

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“The light shines in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome it.”

It can feel like the darkness is growing; that things are getting worse and that any sense of getting better is merely foolhardy delusion, a pick me up tale that diverts but does not deliver; that in the end, the worst in humankind will extinguish the best in humankind; and that the anguish which rises from the suffering all around us and within us will swallow whole any small measure of care, any spark of hope; that the darkness is too massive, too embedded, too powerful…It can feel like the darkness is growing.

And sometimes it is.  That’s the honest truth, isn’t it?  Sometimes the darkness grows.  It grows so dark and its tendrils reach out to touch every corner, penetrating even the tiniest spaces.  A  teenager struggling with mental illness throws herself in front of a train.  The one we love has left and left a mess in her wake.  Our husband of many years continues his decline.  A routine checkup leads to an abrupt diagnosis.  Our old demons beckon toward alcohol, or drugs, or sex. Meanwhile earth’s climate careens wildly toward annihilation. Congress passes a tax law that will crush the poorest among us and catalyze inequality worldwide.   Undocumented mothers are threatened, jailed, deported – separated from spouses and children and communities.  Torches brought terror through the darkness of UVA in Charlottesville this summer; violent cries designed to terrify.  And the numbers of people harmed by hate grow exponentially.  Over 600,000 Rohingya flee their homes as refugees, at least 6,700 slaughtered simply for being Rohingya – children thrown onto fires.  Millions upon millions of refugees displaced from Syria and across Africa scratching for survival in camps and prisons or, desperate for release, hurling themselves out of boats rather than return to their violent homeland.   Truth be told, sometimes the darkness grows.  It does not stand still.  It is hungry and impatient.

I found myself returning over and over to these words from John’s gospel this week.  And I found myself strangely comforted by the fact that the passage never promises that light will conquer.  It never says that the light will win and we will be blinded by the dazzling result.  It resists the temptation to banish darkness.  Instead, it says something more complex, something less triumphant.  It simply says, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The light continues to shine.  The darkness may grow, but the light continues to shine.  It’s not that we may not see the dawn from where we stand – it doesn’t even promise the dawn.  What it says is something more truthful and sure.  The light shines in the darkness.  The darkness has not overcome it.

The light shines in the darkness.  The darkness has not overcome it. We may wonder if the end of that phrase is “yet.”  The darkness has not overcome it…yet.  But the text doesn’t say “yet.”  Nor does it make a nice Disney moment where my “little light” meets your “little light” and together our little lights light the whole world.  Nope.  The light that shines in the darkness is neither this little light of mine nor is it that little light of yours.  It is the light.  It is the source of all light.  And it won’t go out.  It can’t be extinguished.  As one version put is “and the darkness couldn’t put it out.” It is strong.  It persists, even when threatened.  It is the very source of life, all the world came into being through it.

What does that mean?  It means that we shall not fear, even though the darkness grows.  We shall not cower, though we are small.  And most of all, we will not despair.  With eyes open we will face the darkness and seek that light.  We will allow the light to draw us out of ourselves so that we may be for another. We will allow the light to draw us forward; to guide our feet while we run this race.  And we shall not run that race in vain.[i]

O Holy Night, the stars so brightly shining.
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.

 

O Holy Night was then sung by our soprano soloist, Phyllis Worthington, after which The Rev. Sarah Henkel offered the following prayer.

 

Holy God,

On this day we celebrate love that is stronger than death, love come to show us a path to life and life abundant. Into a people suffering under the weight of oppression, Jesus is born, a light growing in the darkness, a prophet of peace and liberation.

We pray that this story of God’s love embodied among us will take hold of our lives:

  • That we, too, will commit to be love that risks greatly. Love that transforms against all odds.
  • That we, too, will sing of the joy of this world though the forces of evil abound.
  • That we, too, will protect the small and the vulnerable for there lies recovery and wholeness for us all.
  • In the presence of the mystery of your love and its continued unfolding in this world.

We pray and we act:

  • For the peace of all the nations of the earth, especially for countries where violence is a daily reality.
  • For comfort of those who are sick or dying, for all those who mourn.
  • For the safety and peace of all who fear returning home during this season.
  • For justice and mercy for people made poor by our national and global economy, for all who lack food, shelter, work, or access to healthcare, for all who are taxed to the point of desperation.
  • For the imprisoned and detained and all who long for freedom.
  • For all who we hold in our hearts who we remember now in silence.

“Gracious God, may courage open us to what is being born anew today in the world and in our hearts. May hope guide us to look for where Love is dawning. May your light shine on within us this blessed Christmas Eve.”

Amen.

 

 

[i] If you are not already familiar with Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. 2nd Edition (Haymarket Books, 2016), I recommend you pick up a copy. Hope is preserved in the stories we tell, and the actions they empower, and not only the ancient stories. This book is filled with stories, and ways of storytelling, we will need to know if we are not to despair. The image at the top of this post is the cover art from her book.