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The Darkness Did Not Overcome It.

I have a confession to make to you, as I begin this sermon. Over the last week or so as I thought about this text, I had mis-remembered a crucial line. Here is what I was planning on preaching about: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness COULD not overcome it.” Could not.

Then, as I sat down to set down my notes, I re-read the text, and I saw the crucial difference: did. “The darkness DID not overcome” the light.

Well, that’s a different sermon, I thought to myself. The darkness did not overcome the light.

Often, as I was preparing to do in my earlier draft of this sermon, we like to split things into either/or, darkness/light, right/wrong. We set up little contests, or big fights. We live in a digital world, and sometimes I wonder if all of the on or off, this or that, has us playing a zero sum game. We polarize easily today.

The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr says that we are dualistic in our basic inherited theology in the West. That’s what he calls this either/or us vs. them tension we seem to constantly live with: dualism. We set ourself up in opposition, in tension. He argues this causes some of the basic inequities we’ve constructed. When we view the world, especially the people of the world, as us vs. them, we set up a dualism. Women or men. Black or white. Gay or Straight. Republican or Democrat. We have created a lot of “or”s to categorize people. And our categories are failing us.

Which is why this image of the light shining in the darkness caught my attention. The darkness did not overcome it.

What is this light that shines?

The light is John’s version of the Christmas story. Rather than the shepherds and angels of Luke, the beautiful Hallmark/Disney  Christmas, John gives us a theological hymn. Aren’t Hymns some of the best of theology? Aren’t they also sometimes the worst? In this case, the Logos hymn, it’s some of the best. But what does the Logos do?

The Logos Generates. You may have missed this word in the passage as it was printed in your bulletin, because it is not there. Our New Revised Standard Bible translates the Greek word “ginomai” the root for our word “to generate” as “came into being.” I think we are better served by the fullness of the verb “generates.” In the Beginning, John tells us, the Logos was with God and through the Logos all things were generated.

This verb, generates discloses something about the life of God. God is constantly generative. Bring to your mind another descendant word, generator. According to John, the ongoing action, the ongoing work of God in our world is generating, giving power, giving life to all life. All life, note that God does not simply bring human beings into being. God, the Logos, continues to bring all things into being. Unlike our power generators which belch out carbon and limit the life of the planet, God generates ongoing life.

This verb, I posit, may be the best guiding light in determining whether a policy, or a position, or an action is Godly, is Christian. Pope Francis, I think, gets this intuitively. He has mostly left behind the life-sapping fights that have characterized the Roman Church. He has frustrated reporters that want hard-line statements on women, gay people, or non-Catholics. Instead he is busy embracing deformed men, washing Muslim girls’ feet, and playing with children. He’s generating life.

Of course using “generating life” as a guide can get tricky. There are moments when no decision will generate life, but I think this is a pretty good measuring stick. If an action or policy generates life for more people, for more creatures, for the planet, that action could be called “Christian” or “Godly” because it participate in Christ’s action as Logos.

God generates, life and light. But that does not necessarily mean that God is not also in the darkness. From the seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughn:

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

We often associate darkness with loss, with sadness, with difficulty. We talk about the “dark night of the soul” using the words of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross. But do we know what the dark night means?

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor considers John of the Cross’ dark night. She says readers of Dark Night of the Soul are bound to be disappointed if they want John to tell them how to survive hard circumstances and cling to God. “One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped…since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”

I wonder whether this image from John’s Gospel of the light shining in the darkness is less about opposition and more about contrast. A candle shining in the darkness is more poignant that the same flame on a bright sunny day. Light and darkness need one another to make meaning. Christ’s light came to shine, but not to overwhelm.

Last week, on Christmas Eve we lit candles during the services and sang “Silent Night.” Those weren’t the only candles lit at Holy Communion on December 24. There’s a not-well-kept secret in Episcopal Churches like Holy Communion. Almost every service we have is at least a little interfaith. Some of the members of our choir are Jewish. Jews come here just to sing hymns, especially at Christmas. The Anglican choral tradition has admirers in other faiths. They may choose not to receive the bread and wine, but they are more than happy to belt out Christmas carols and descants.

Last week, on Christmas Eve, as the choir and clergy gathered for dinner between the services, two of our choir members lit the first candles on a menorah and sang the blessings of Hanukkah. This year Christmas Eve was the first night of the Jewish celebration of light. That day earlier a rabbi friend, Jack Moline, was quoted in the Washington Post. “Lighting a candle in the darkness — that is something that stands on its own.” Another rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once said that almost all Jewish holidays can be summarized simply: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Note, the goal is not conquering or eliminating the enemy. The goal is survival.

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I was ready, as I was preparing this sermon, to talk about all the ways darkness could not overcome light. Now I’m not so sure. We face the start of a year that brings certain unsteadiness. I am less sure about saying exactly where “darkness CANNOT overcome light.” I am concerned about setting up too many definite opposites this early in the year. In the times to come, I think we need some more room for nuance, which may mean feeling like we’re stumbling around in the dark a little. We may need to let go of our assurances to move forward.

I am sure that in the year to come, we will stand together. We will light candles together, when we need to. Just as in 2016 we lit candles to pray for an end to gun violence with the Moms Demanding Action, to pray for an end to gun violence. Holding light in the dark is an action of hope.

One memory from 2016 stands out clearly for me. In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowd that came together on June 12 last year in the Grove. As the summer sun set the night after the attack on the Pulse Nightclub you could see 1000 faces lit by candles held against the dimming orange sky. I needed those faces that night. I needed those candles. I needed the assurance, after an attack on the LGBT community, that God’s light can still shine. In the year to come we will hold on to light in the darkness. We will pray.

There are times when we live in darkness. God can be found there in the darkness as well. Bringing the contrast, bringing light in uncertainty, that is part of our ongoing work, our ongoing celebration of this Christmas season. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Sometimes I’m still working out what the Gospel means, but even in uncertain times I know: God’s light still shines.

Bread

What nourishes you?

What is your daily bread? What nourishes you? Before we roll into this sermon, know that I wish these lessons did not come up during summer. I’d rather we read all this about bread from John during the majority of the year when we serve a big breakfast on Sunday morning. September can’t come quickly enough. We’d be better able to hear this Gospel on a full stomach. This week I was talking with Ellis about the Gospel, and he summarized it this way: “Jesus said, O ye of grumbling bellies.” The heart of this lesson is hunger, but not physical hunger. What nourishes you? What is your daily bread?

Jesus moves quickly beyond the literal hunger of the people. The Gospel of John leads me to believe Jesus wasn’t a literalist about very much. “You’re here because you’re looking for the loaves,” says Jesus. But the Good News is bigger than food. The Good News is deeper than what you see and touch. God’s bread is what gives life to the world. Jesus wants people to move beyond thinking with their stomachs. Jesus could be singing that old song by the band Cheap Trick, “I want you to want me.” Jesus wants the people to long for God, not for bread. So again, I ask, What nourishes you? What feeds your soul? What gives you life? What is your daily bread?

I want to touch on three streams of soul-nourishment, that I believe are critical in the way of Jesus. These three sources of spiritual food will be no surprise to those of you who grew up going to church, but I ask for you to consider them with me again this morning, in light of the Gospel. Ask yourself whether your belly is grumbling. The three I want to touch on this morning are Prayer, Community, and Worship.

First, prayer. We often practice prayer as a series of petitions and thanksgiving to God. Asking is a form of prayer, indeed. But the Christian tradition of prayer has more to offer than a litany of requests and blessings. Jesus actually doesn’t say much about prayer in The Gospels. The disciples memorably asked Jesus how to pray, and he gives them the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” And in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus complains about the long public prayers of the Pharisees. He exhorts his followers to go into their closet, and to pray in secret.

That advice about praying is secret thickens when we consider Jesus’ own practice of prayer. He may not speak much about prayer, but he teaches by example. We see Jesus draw away for solitude a great deal. He often pulls away to a garden, or the desert, or a mountaintop to pray. Jesus sought peace and stillness. Arguably, such peace did not come easily. We’ve just ridden in boats with a crowd of thousands chasing Jesus as he tries to escape across the sea of Galilee. He was in demand as a healer, a preacher, and a generator of bread. Yet, though he was popular, we often find Jesus seeking a place apart.

Thomas Merton once said, “Prayer is wasting time, conscientiously with God.” Prayer is a return, a relaxing, a slowing down. Many traditions teach that the first step in contemplation is to consider our breath. How often do we need to catch our breath these days?

Prayer understood through the example of Jesus is looking for a time to return to ourselves. Prayer is looking for space between the busy-ness of our life to remember that we are not finally human-doings but human beings. We need time just to be. In that space, God will meet you.

I say these words partly because I need to hear them. Over the years I have had fits and starts at the practice of centering prayer, a Christian practice taught by the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating. The goal of Centering Prayer is to quiet all of the busy-ness of our day, to quiet the busy-ness of our minds. The Buddhists have a wonderful way to describe the human mind as it approaches contemplation. Often when we sit for quiet, we find ourselves running through our shopping lists or picking at an old grievance with a sibling or co-worker. Our mind jumps from topic to topic. The Buddhists call this Monkey-mind. Our thoughts jump from branch to branch like a silly simian.

What practices help quiet your mind and bring you the nourishment of prayer? How do you find the stillness that all of us need? How do you snatch enough quiet to survive the business and busy-ness of our everyday world? Prayer is an important, central stream of nourishment that we need to find that life Jesus talks about. How does your life of prayer feed you, keep you fully alive?

The next stream I want to discuss I have called community. I have to confess, I’m not entirely satisfied with that term. Community seems too easy. We throw the word “community” around in our language, to the point that it can mean very little. Is “community” a geographical region: the “community” of University City? Is “community” a type of education: Community College? For followers of Jesus, “community” describes something more integral.

What is the ecosystem of relationships that feeds you? Just like prayer, I think we have much to gain from being conscious and conscientious about how our relationships are feeding us. Who are the people with whom you break bread regularly? Who informs your worldview? Who is there for you when you are hurting? When you need to celebrate?

Jesus describes his vision of community a bit. He talks about welcoming children and centers the least of these as the gatekeepers to the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ practice again blows these teachings wide open. Jesus’ followers are known as an eclectic bunch. He eats with tax-collectors and sinners. He shares a table with women and outcasts. Notice too, the Pharisees and the Romans are at his table as well. They wouldn’t be complaining that Jesus invited the “wrong people” if the powerful weren’t also gathered. Jesus welcomed everybody.

It’s not that to Jesus those differences didn’t matter. It’s not that Jesus was color-blind, or wealth-blind, or gender-blind. No. Jesus saw diversity. Jesus wanted a diverse community around his table because his table was God’s table. All of these crazy diverse people are God’s people, he says. To God their stories matter. To God their lives matter.

“Black Lives Matter.” That slogan has become forever linked to the movement that began here in the community of St. Louis just short of a year ago. I confess I find the media’s sense of controversy around those words amusing. I’m still waiting for some absent-minded reporter to simply ask one of these absent minded presidential candidates, “Do you think that Black lives Matter?” What are they going to say, “no?”

The talking point for many of the talking heads has been to turn the slogan around. They say, “All Lives Matter.” This is true, but it is a subtle “no” to the movement. The young people, the activists, are asking us to remember that our system has not valued ALL lives. Historically, black lives were sold in this country, in this very state. Still today, Black lives are lost at a disproportionately high rate to violence in our city streets. Still today, in 2015, black lives are ended at a disproportionately high rate by our law enforcement, and by our legal system. Saying “Black Lives Matter” causes us to question whether All Lives REALLY do matter to our community. “Black Lives Matter” confronts the injustice. The words matter.

Yes, all of us have work to do when it comes to integrating our communities. People of every race can work to build a network of relationships that reflects God’s diversity. We can all work to build new friendships. Our souls will all be better fed if we encounter people who look different, think differently, speak differently, vote differently. But we also have to face the systemic nature of exclusion and racism. The power to make a change in our systems rests overwhelmingly with those empowered by those systems. Until we learn to systemically value black lives, we will continue to cut our society off from the potential God has for us. We will continue to waste the gifts God has for us that come from the talented women and men that our society excludes based on race, whose lives end at an alarming rate.

In the midst of all the brokenness in our society, I ask you to consider: what community feeds you? Where do you draw on the multifaceted wisdom and love of God to be found in a diverse community? Where do you find nourishment from people who work to love you fully, and who you work to love fully? Who else could be part of your community?

The final stream of nourishment I want to talk about is worship. Worship is what brings us together this morning. We are part of a tradition that values gathering the community for prayer. See how I just tied the other two streams together? The architects of our tradition were sage when they called the book we share “The Book of Common Prayer.” They acknowledged that something special happens when God’s people hold prayer in common, when we waste time together conscientiously with God.

I admit, coming to worship is not always the easiest thing for me to do. Even though I’m up here in fancy robes, still there are Sunday mornings when I leave my coffee and New York Times behind at my house a bit reluctantly. Yet, almost unfailingly, something about what we do here draws me back. Somehow the fragments of bread and sips of wine become more for me than meets the eyes. Somehow the food that we share, the stories that we tell, the songs that we sing, they become more than the sum of the parts.

When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are fed by God. That’s the faith of the church, and I’ve found it to be true for me. Worship nourishes me, even when I come reluctantly, even when I come tired, and frustrated. Especially when I have come in grief or with anxiety, I have found nourishment in the time we spend together.

When we share Holy Communion, as we are about to do, we encounter Jesus’ invitation to be fed deeply. We are invited to take God into our bodies, into our souls, into our lives more fully. We come to this table to be fed, that through us God might continue to give life to the world.

Where do you draw nourishment? Through Prayer, and Community, and Worship, how does Christ feed you? How could God be your daily bread? Questions to consider for a people with grumbling bellies.

Sermon from St. Albans July 26 More than we can ask or imagine…

More than we can ask or imagine…

I don’t know about you, but our house when I was growing up was known for its leftovers. To this day, when I’m home at my parents place my friends tend to show up to raid the fridge for stray containers of Chinese food, or pizza, or whatever may be on offer. There is always the delicate procedure of opening the container for a cautious sniff. How long has that Kung-Pao chicken sat in the back corner?

We’ve spent many a late night over beers and leftovers in deep conversations about music and life, rehashing old high-school stories. As the night wears on we tend to shift into global politics and theology. By three or four in the morning in my parents kitchen we’ve solved one of the world’s great problems: Poverty, Healthcare, Immigration…if only we wrote down those solutions.

In today’s readings we learn that God is a bit like my friend Drew, who is always the first to the fridge. God is concerned about leftovers.

We read today John’s tale of Jesus’ feeding the multitude. This story is so central to Jesus’ identity that it appears in all four Gospels, in fact in Matthew and Mark it appears twice. In all of the Gospels a figure stands out. After the loaves and fish are eaten, 12 baskets remain behind. There are 12 baskets of leftovers. In 2 Kings we hear of Elisha also feeding a crowd with a seemingly scarce source of food. Again we are assured that there is a remainder, there are leftovers.

The Word in either Hebrew or Greek for “leftovers” for “remainder” is theologically significant. This is the same word which describes the portion of field to be “left over,” not harvested, in order that the poor might have food to eat. This is the word that Isaiah uses to describe the Jewish people “left over” after the exile, the faithful remnant which is the hope of Israel’s future. This is the word that shows God’s concern for those who are left out, and that which is left behind. And so today’s lessons ask us to pay attention, like my friend at home do, like God does, to the leftovers. Leftovers are our way in, our way into the story of God’s abundance.

You all know the general theme of this story. People need to be fed. It appears the resources are too scarce, and yet somehow, miraculously after everyone eats there are leftovers. These stories tell us of God’s overabundance. My guess is that you all know a little bit about both scarcity and God’s abundance. In today’s economy we are aware of scarcity. Unemployment numbers and housing foreclosures continues to rise. Thousands are jobless, homeless, or on the brink. There seems not to be enough.

And yet you all are here this morning, and my bet is that many of you could tell stories about God’s abundance, stories where it seemed like the resources were scarce and yet somehow God provided more than you needed. These miraculous and surprising moments continue, our God is a God of overabundant blessing.

This is a basic tension that is named in the time of Elisha, the time of Jesus, and is still present today. Society and the forces of economics tell us a story of scarcity and God asks us to rely on God’s abundance. 5 loaves feed 5000. In God’s economy ALL are fed, ALL are satisfied. This divine economy of abundance requires a different sort of living, one that asks us to turn over our imagination to God.

Ephesians this morning assures us that God is doing more for us than we can ask or imagine. I don’t know about you, but I can ask and imagine a lot. What is at stake here is the realization that often we don’t really know what is best for us, that we must turn our lives over to the God that knows better than us. The God who, in the Word’s of Thomas Merton, “loves us better than we could ever love ourselves.” We are asked to live not out of what we imagine for ourselves, but out of God’s desire that ALL are fed. We are asked to live not out of scarcity, but trusting in God’s abundance.

St. Alban’s is a community that knows something about this. In your work with the Karin you have imagined with God what it would be to gather up the resources necessary to feed, clothe, and provide for God’s refugee children. This is a powerful witness to God’s care for the refugee, the remnant, to those left behind. With John Conrad you allowed your leftover land to house and advocate for the homeless. Might I be so bold this morning as to ask: Where else is God calling you to care for the leftovers? We are about to participate in a meal that among other things recalls Jesus’ feeding miracles, the bread come down from heaven. This morning, no matter how well the ushers count, there will be leftovers. Who do you still need to invite to this table?

We are asked to turn our lives over to God’s imagination, indeed to imagine with God. I believe it is God’s imagination that turns my parents leftovers into the blessing of a community of friends…it makes you look at your tupperware differently…leftovers are pregnant with possibility.

What will you do with your leftovers?