Let There Be Light (Christmas Eve Sermon)

hubble advent 2018

Did you ever wonder what it was like, at the beginning of the universe? When God said, “Let there be light,”  and there was light?”

I’ve tended to stop in awe at the first verb – God said, “Let there be light.
and there was.  That’s astonishing, isn’t it, that God spoke creation into being?   It should give us pause, I think, to consider the importance of the gift of language.  Perhaps that, language, is the real key to our having been made in the image of God.  Not that we can speak worlds into being.  But the gift of language, of vernal communication, is what distinguishes us from all other creatures.  And language does enable us to create our lives through relationship with others.  As a person who has always found language, and communication, fascinating and meaningful, I have always pondered the creation story from that vantage point – that God spoke, and things happened.

But what happened?  That’s our first question tonight.  That’s one of the things I’ve been pondering for the last couple of weeks – what was it like, 14 billion years ago, when God said, “Let there be light?”

Was it all at once, a sudden, huge, bright, blinding sort of light – like lightning, only wider and thicker and more dense and even brighter, creating an entire dome of brightly lit sky?

it like a tentative sunrise over the sea, with streams of rose and tangerine and violet stretching like wavering threads across the horizon as a small golden orb began to poke its way upward until it finally bounced, a liquid bubble, clear of its seeming bounds and into the freedom of space?

What was it like when God created light??

Perhaps we’ve had some clues this month.  Atlantic Magazine and NASA have conspired to post online images from space, and they have presented us with the magnificent imagination and artistry of our God.

Swirling, sparkling gasses and clouds in a multitude of colors, identified as stars and galaxies and nebulae, which are clouds of gas and dust.

Whole words beyond our sight or experience, unless we happen to operate the Hubble telescope.

Are these extraordinary amalgamations of time and space and matter an indication of what it was like, and what it is still like, when God says, “Let there be light?”

Or . . . and . . . is God’s illumination of the universe like something else?  Like something Noah might have seen: glimmering, glistening rays bouncing off quieted seas after a massive deluge, witnessed by only a few straggledy humans and animals, paired up and peering over the side of a small boat?

Is God’s idea of light akin to the clarity of the words of prophets, incisive and focused, cutting to the bare bone of what it means to walk with kindness and justice and humility?

Is God’s light something now celebrated during Hanukkah, a flickering oil lamp, shining for eight days in a hollowed out and crumbling temple, an insistent sign of hope amid the debris of human warfare?

Or . . .  and . . .  is God’s light a human being, God’s very self and a tiny infant all at once, a reigning creator who can command creation into being with a word and a small baby who can cry only for milk and comfort?  Is that what, or who, God’s light is?

This is a remarkable story, this Christmas story of God and us.

We may be so accustomed to hearing it that the miracle of it eludes us.

We may have so sentimentalized it that the harshness of it fades into the shadows.

We may have so commercialized it that’s if difficult to distinguish the baby at the center from the characters who pass across our screens and into our stores.

But, pared down to its essence, it is a remarkable story.

Dreams and disrupted plans and dislocated people.

The might of political power pressing itself into ordinary lives.

Lengthy and uncomfortable travels, destination unclear.

Uncertainty and fear and hard work and . . .

a tiny, helpless infant born to impoverished parents in an out-of-the-way location.

Is this, too, what it looks like when God says, “Let there be light?”

It’s a remarkable story because it is our story.  And it is our story not simply because its basic elements reflect those of our own lives – the ordinariness and the confusion and the labors and the disruptions of our own – but because the light shining from the sky above and the light shining from the humble birthplace of Jesus illumine our lives – with meaning, and purpose, and love.

Did you ever wonder what is was like, what it IS like, when God says, “Let there be light?”  It’s all from the same source.   It all follows the same pattern.

NASA’s image of the Lagoon Nebula in the sky, a colorful conglomeration of young stars and the hydrogen cloud from which they were formed, looks to me just like Michaleangelo’s painting of God reaching out to touch life into Adam.

The Bubble Nebula, a sphere of sparking blue which happens to be a star in the process of formation , looks surprisingly like Planet Earth.

There’s one called a Colossal Shell of Light which a friend of mine thought looked like a manger.

And paintings of the baby in a manger look like  .  .  .  a baby,  actually,  but the sort of baby who causes angels to fill the skies and sing praises to God.  Like, perhaps, all babies do, because God with us, Emmanuel, rejoices in us and with us, and sends messengers and song and light our way, if we will but look.

The light of Jesus illumines our own lives – just look around.  Look back at the past week.  Consider:

Have you not seen the light of Jesus shining – through your family members and friends, staying up late to wrap gifts, rushing home early to bake and clean, trying to clear desks at work so that colleagues could leave for a few days, knowing that the business of the month had been put to bed?

The light of Jesus shines in places many of us would rather not be – look at the faces of fire fighters and police officers and EMT drivers, of doctors and nurses and convenience store cashiers, of all the people who labor that the rest of us might be safe and cared for and filled with good things.

The light from that stable creeps into the darkest of places – a light flickering and fragile, a light as powerful and wild as a galaxy,

it makes its way into prisons and into migrant camps,

it slips onto the streets and under the bridges where the homeless camp,

it lines invisible battle lines inked between warring adversaries,

it glimmers in hospital corridors and hospice bedrooms.

The light of Jesus illumines even those places, perhaps especially those places.

“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.”

It’s all from the same source: The Love that generates and sustains the universe.  Love that shows itself

in the artistry of all things,

in the majesty of the heavens, and

in the intimacy of a stable.

And so, my friends, on this Christmas night, Look! Look up into the heavens, where colors unknown to us swirl about.  Look out into the world, where faces of all kinds and people in all sorts of situations are lit by the love of God.  Look around this sanctuary, in hope and in expectation.  Look into the face of a small and helpless baby, who takes on human life and gives completely to us the grace of his own being.

And know that God has said, “Let there be light!”

Image: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2018/12/2018-hubble-space-telescope-advent-calendar/577129/

Preaching Politics

Facebook ~ yes; preaching, no.  Friends, yes ~ congregants, no.

That’s been my general approach to political commentary.  On Facebook, I post news articles and, often, my own opinions thereon.  I don’t think that my outlook is lost on my congregation ~ I speak and pray often enough about those who suffer or are disenfranchised ~ but I don’t go all out political.  I’ve been told, and I’m pretty sure that it’s true, that the folks in the pews hold views across the political spectrum, and while I’d like to persuade some of them to move further to the left, that’s not my job in the pulpit.  On FB, I don’t usually feel the same constraints.   I also read posts by friends and family who disagree with me.  I don’t follow their logic! ~ but I read them.  Usually without responding.  Their pages, their posts, their views.  I don’t feel inclined to take up their space with argument.  (They don’t always extend the same courtesy to me.)  Harder, for me anyway, to listen to folks in the church with whom I disagree without reacting.

In the last church I served, after a couple of months, people began to thank me for bringing contemporary concerns into the prayers.  (I did hear of one gentleman who was angry that I had not prayed for a matter he deemed of concern ~ which I would have, actually, had I known about it but, as so often happens, he told other people, and not me.)  But I didn’t push things very far.  When we held a service of music and prayer for the city the day before the Republican Convention opened in Cleveland, we kept it strictly nonpartisan.

Last Sunday, however, I was done with caution and impartiality in the pulpit.  Just done.  Angry at what the American infatuation with guns had wrought.  Disgusted by cowardly politicians raking it in from the NRA.  Devastated on behalf of parents whose lives have been forever altered in a vicious and brutal way.  And inspired by the young people of Parkland FL.

So my sermon on God’s promises of reconciliation through Noah, for the healing and rebuilding of all of creation throughout the Bible, became a sermon on laying down weapons of destruction.  I mentioned AR15s specifically.  I mentioned Emma Gonzalez, specifically.  I said NO to criticizing young people and NO to wringing our hands and saying “there’s nothing we can do,” and YES to the Kingdom of God among us.  And told them about specific ways of taking action.

I wasn’t preaching to the choir, as  would have been in my home church.  A few people thanked me for giving voice to their own thoughts.  Many more were silent, and I’m sure that at least a few of those were critical ~ but not to my face, not yet.

To my astonishment, our secretary asked me to publicize means of communicating with our state and federal representatives.  So we’ll put that information out next week.

There are hundreds, thousands, of pastors more articulate and powerful than I am in preaching what the Spirit tells me is the real good news ~ God’s passionate love for all of creation ~ and political ways of moving on that news.  I write this for all of us somewhere in the middle, trying to figure out how to live with integrity without creating a resistance that prevents people from hearing us.

It’s hard to know when you’re hitting the right balance, and when you’re simply wimping out.

Night Journey (Sermon for Lent 2)

Below you’ll find a sermon I preached three years ago.  I pulled it out a few days ago, as there’s a chance I’ll receive a last-minute call to preach for a friend tomorrow.  It’s a looong sermon, so I’ve been working on a shorter version.  But I do like the corn crake story, which might disappear altogether.  And for tomorrow I’ve written a Nicodemus prayer, so it might be helpful to remember his journey today.

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Several years ago, a group from my home church, Forest Hill, went on pilgrimage to Iona, which is a very small – about three miles long and a mile across – and remote island off the northwest coast of Scotland.  It’s nice to be able to mention Iona during this Lenten season in which we are focusing on the pilgrimage journey, because Iona has been a pilgrimage destination for at least several decades.  It was first inhabited by Christians in the 500s, when St. Columba of Ireland made his way across the sea, landed, and decided to establish a monastery there. Eventually other monks and nuns arrived, and one of the finest libraries in Europe was established on Iona.  It was always a risky sort of place, overrun by Vikings several times and eventually, I am sorry to say, by Protestant reformers, who destroyed the library in the 1500s.  Today Iona is home to a small – very small – village, to farmers and shepherds, and to a restored church which serves as a central gathering place for a worldwide religious community and the home of an extensive summer program.  You know of Iona whether you realize it or not, because we sing songs, such as “The Summons”  (“Will You Come and Follow Me?) which were written by John Bell, a member of the Iona community.

Anyway, a group of us went off to Iona for a week, and one night we went to an evening of Scottish music and dancing. I found that I was more in the mood for solitude than for music and dancing that night, and so after an hour or so I decided to walk back across the island.  It was very late, and very dark – finally!  Iona is so far north that there are few hours of real darkness during the summer months – and as I walked down a road that ran between extensive fields, I heard a raspy, insect-like call: first here, and then there, and then over there a ways.

Corncrake2

I knew exactly what was making that call.  The call I heard was the call of a corn crake, a medium sized-quail like bird, a very secretive bird that runs around at night in fields of vegetation high enough to provide it with cover.  We don’t have corn crakes here, but they are common in western Scotland.  I knew that I was unlikely to see one, but I had hoped to hear one on Iona – and there they were, definitely several of them, calling back and forth as they scuttled about the otherwise silent midnight fields. I wish I could replicate their odd raspy call for you, but I’ll spare you – and tell you that if you go to youtube and search the words corn crake, you can see and hear them, for yourselves.

Now, what does a corn crake have to do with anything today?  We are here today to talk about Nicodemus, who most likely never heard a corn crake.  But Nicodemus did make a famous night journey, a journey out to see Jesus in the dark of night. 

What is it about the night that’s significant?

We often hear about Nicodemus in somewhat disparaging terms.  We hear that he was a leader of the Jews – someone in charge, probably well known around town, and with a reputation as a scholar and as an authority in the community – who slipped out in the night to meet Jesus.  He was curious, apparently, and intrigued by this teacher and miracle worker who was new on the scene – but he didn’t want anyone to known that he might be taking Jesus seriously.   So he went out when he was unlikely to run into anyone.  A well-meaning kind of person, but not a bold one.  That’s what we usually hear.

And maybe that’s all true.  But I’d like to suggest to you that there may be another dimension to our friend Nicodemus, another reason for his journey through the night.

Night is a time, isn’t it? — when we are particularly attentive to our surroundings.  In the dark, we need to look closely as to where we’re going in order that we not stumble.  We tend to listen carefully to the sounds we hear, and often we are out at night with the intention of seeing and doing and hearing things we can’t see and do and hear during the day.   Corn crakes, for instance – the only way you are likely to hear a corn crake is to spend time out in the fields late at night in corn crake country. 

The  song  “The Music of the Night” from the musical The Phantom of the Opera begins with the following words:

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation;/ Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .

Don’t the words describe precisely what it’s like to be out in the night?

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation/ Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .

 Consider other night journeys:

When I was a little girl, living out in the country, many of the hide-and-seek games my brothers and I played required the dark of night as a setting.  We had several acres in which to make small journeys and secret ourselves from one another, and the darkness certainly heightened our awareness of the sounds of night birds, of the rippling waters of the creek, of the breeze through the trees and tall grasses. 

Far from our ordinary lives in southern Ohio, a famous night journey is found in the Islamic tradition, a journey in which the prophet Muhammed is reputed to have been taken from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven on a large white animal, usually imagined as a horse.  On that journey, the story tells us, he met Adam, Abraham, Moses, and many other figures significant to Judaism, Christianity, and, of course, Islam.  He returned to Mecca to tell his followers of his travels, travels in which it surely seems that “darkness stirred and awakened his imagination.”  His night journey is often celebrated in the Muslim tradition – and surely there is something about the night that adds to the sense of its significance.  Events, conversations, encounters, symbols: they stand out in the night.

Darkness, night, is also a time when struggles seem heightened.  In our ordinary lives, don’t we often find that our questions loom larger, our doubts seem sharper, our worries more confounding, in the dark than in the light of day.  And again, to move onto the broader stage, think of Harriet Tubman, guiding hundreds of slaves north to freedom by the dark of night.  While nighttime was her only choice for adequate concealment, don’t you think that the night must have also “heightened each sensation” for those traveling north?   I imagine that those making that journey must have felt both intense fear about what would happen to them if they were discovered, intense hope for the possibilities that lay ahead, and intense awe at the spread of stars in the sky that served as guideposts for them.

And so: Nicodemus.  What is he doing out at night, looking for Jesus?  Maybe he really did feel that it was important that he remain undetected.  Maybe he was convinced that he would lose his position and influence if his friends and colleagues discovered him in conversation with the rabbi from Nazareth – but his motivation doesn’t alter the reality:

Night journeys are different.

Night journeys have the potential to transform us at least in part because they take place at night, because the darkness and the silence and the absence of our daily companions enable everything we encounter to be thrown into sharp relief.  We see differently at night, and we hear differently at night.  We learn differently at night.

And Nicodemus had a lot to learn.

This interchange, this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, is packed with some of the most significant, and also most confusing, claims of our faith.  We could spend weeks on Nicodemus, couldn’t we?  What do all those signs, those miracles Jesus has been performing really mean?  What does it mean to be born from above?  What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit?  What does it mean that the Spirit blows where it will?

What a struggle this conversation must have been for Nicodemus! In one of her poems in the volume Red Bird, the poet Mary Oliver says,

All night my heart makes its way/ however it can over the rough ground/of uncertainties . . .

“The rough ground of uncertainties.”  That’s where Nicodemus is treading in his conversation with Jesus: all night, his heart makes its way over the tough ground of uncertainties.  The things he is hearing are not the things her has heard before.  They are not the things upon which he has staked his life as a leader among his people. How is he ever going to sort of all this out in the light of day?

But – and here’s what I want you to remember: It’s night.  And in the night we hear things differently.  The final words Nicodemus hears are words many of us have heard again and again and again, words that have even become commonplace to us as banners at football games.  But for this moment, I want you to imagine hearing them for the first time, in the dark of the night, in the midst of all of your struggles and questions, as clear as the call of a corn crake across the fields of Scotland:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

In the dark, in the night, Nicodemus is beginning the journey toward being born from above.  In the dark, in the night, the Spirit is blowing its way into the life of Nicodemus.

Maybe Nicodemus only thinks he is making night journey because he wants to avoid his friends and neighbors.  Maybe he’s really making a night journey because God has drawn him into a time and place in which he will be completely undistracted, in which his attention will be entirely focused on the man whom he seeks, a time and a place in which he will be transformed.

Let’s return to words from “The Music of the Night”:

Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar/ And you’ll live as you’ve never lived before . . .

 Let your mind start a journey to a strange new world/ Leave all thoughts of the life you knew before . . .

A new world; a new way of living; a new creation: that’s what Jesus is offering, and promising, to Nicodemus and to us.  A creation in which we do not perish, but have eternal life.  A sphere of rich, full joyous life in which we are not condemned but saved, by love and for love.

Sometimes we can’t see any of that in the light of day.  Sometimes we have to journey by night to know with clarity both the call of the corn crake and the love of God.  Sometimes in night’s “rough gound of uncertainties” we find the answer: the Son who came not to turn on us in anger , but to gather us up into love.

And so: if your journey calls you into the dark of night, go forth!  Our psalm today tells us that “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  Rely upon that promise, and upon the knowledge that the night may reveal God’s love in ways invisible in the daylight.

Amen.

Storytelling and the Bible ~ Part I

When my boys were small, we often spent long summer afternoons crunched together on the front steps, where I would make up long, involved, and dramatically enhanced stories for them.  The stories usually involved anthropomorphized trucks and fire engines, their favorite figures at the time, racing down our street to tackle crises in the neighboring yards and parks.

This past January, I attended a conference on Biblical storytelling sponsored by RevGals and led by the inimitable Casey Fitzgerald, a storyteller par excellence.  We all spent a lot of time making new friends and getting better acquainted with those we had already met,* but our official learning sessions were focused on Biblical storytelling.

feet

How are the stories of the Bible told in your church?  If you are like most of us, they are read, with varying levels of skill, by members and pastors, from a lectern or a pulpit, set somewhat apart from the congregation, during worship on Sunday morning.  Some readers, having not looked at the text until they have begun to read it aloud, stumble over unfamiliar words.  Others read slowly and pause frequently for dramatic event.  Many race through the words in a monotone.  And a few read as they would read a story aloud to children, with changes in voice and speed appropriate to the telling.

But how many of us TELL, or hear told, the Biblical readings as the stories they are?  Casey urged us to learn the stories by heart ~ which, if you give it some thought, is a different proposition entirely from the memorizing of their words.  Learn them as they speak to you in your deepest places, and tell them as the emotional experiences that good stories are.

We learned, and practiced, all kinds of ways of storytelling.  We tried out the same stories in different voices ~ voices of fear, of confidence, of wonder, of skepticism.  We made cartoons and wrote poems and watched Lego movies of stories.  We explored in depth stories about women whose roles and passions are often overlooked in the rush to focus on the male actors.

And we returned home filled with the hope that we could communicate the Biblical story to our listeners in ways that give the stories themselves, rather than our own commentary, pride of place.  I think we all long for our congregations to respond to the stories of the Bible with the same wonder and delight my boys found in the stories of trucks rushing down our street to save the playground.

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If you’re interested in learning more, you can go to the website for the Network of Biblical Storytellers, and you can find Casey Fitzgerald at Faith and Wonder.

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*The photo is a RevGals tradition, born of the days when people were reluctant to post identifiable images online.  (I’m at the bottom.)

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