Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon: "This Little Light of Mine"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 16, 2012

John 1:1-18; Isaiah 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7

“This Little Light of Mine”

In the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota there’s a natural attraction known as Jewel Cave, which contains 160 miles of underground caverns.
For the benefit of the many tourists that flock there every year, there are guided tours that carefully navigate the forty flights of stairs that descend deep within the cave.  
There are lights that hang on the walls of the cave to ensure that no one loses their footing on the way down, but at various times during the descent the tour stops and the lights are turned out, leaving the group in complete darkness. Not even a shadow or the outline of the person standing in front of you can be seen. This is done to demonstrate how dark it actually is inside an underground cavern, but it also serves as a reminder that without light, even a tiny pinpoint of light, our eyes will never adjust to the darkness.
We could be down in that cave for five minutes, five hours, or five years and never see our hand in front of our face.
But all it takes is the smallest amount of light to allow our eyes to adjust and to eventually be able to see once again.

The season of Advent marks the time that we spend waiting for the light to return to the world.
We await the visible light that comes with the Winter Solstice on December 21st, as the days begin to grow longer and the time we spend in darkness grows shorter.
And we await the spiritual light that we welcome into the world on Christmas day, the day we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

But while we celebrate this time of waiting for the light to return every year, in reality the light of Jesus is always with us. We may dim the lights during Advent, but the light is still there – in the light of the Advent candles, and in the light of God that we carry within us.
 So it may be hard for us to imagine what life would be like in the absence of that light.  To feel the disorienting fear of standing in an underground cave in absolute darkness, trying desperately to see our hand in front of our face.

I suspect that many of us came here this morning hoping to find some sliver of light to penetrate the darkness that has descended upon us over the last several days.
Many, if not all of us, are still reeling from the traumatic event that took place on Friday morning, when a 20-year-old man walked into an elementary school in Newtown Connecticut and murdered 26 people, including 20 children, all of whom were first graders, aged 6 and 7 years-old.

There is no part of this that makes any sense.
There is no motive or rational reason why anyone would commit such a violent and heart breaking crime.

But in the coming days as the media and the behavioral experts pull this young man’s life apart, looking for clues as to what may have caused such darkness to emerge from within him, and as we continue to hear the stories of the heroic acts of teachers and administrators and children who saved the lives of others by sacrificing their own, we’re still left with this numbing, and gnawing pain inside of us that screams out for an answer to the question, “Why?”

Why are 26 families faced with the horrific task of burying their children and their loved ones - at this joyous time of year or at any time of year?

Why would anyone come to believe that their pain, their anger, or their fear provides them with a justifiable reason to take the life of another, let alone the lives of 20 innocent children?

Why wasn’t more done beforehand to prevent this from happening, and why aren’t we doing more to prevent this from happening again?

We demand answers to these questions but we also know that these questions are not easily answered or cannot be answered at all.
In the same way that we scream out to God in times of pain and loss demanding to know why God allowed this to happen, we throw these anguished questions out into the air and watch them dissipate without receiving a satisfying response.

As human beings we know all to well what it is to grieve, to feel awash in waves of sadness, anger, frustration, and disbelief.

Whether we’re grieving the senseless murders of the children, teachers, and staff members in Newtown; or a personal loss caused by the death of a loved one; or the loss of life that our world suffers every day through the forces of violence, poverty, disease, and oppression,
we all have those times in our lives when we feel like we’re standing in a cave with all the lights turned out, and we’re desperate to find something, anything, that will help us find our way out of the darkness.

It may seem ironic that on this third Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy.
It may not sit right with us that the lectionary texts for this Sunday from Isaiah and Paul tell us to “Shout aloud and sing for joy” and “Rejoice in the Lord always” regardless of the sorrows that befall us.

It may leave a bad taste in our mouth in the same way that watching the evening news with its detailed stories of death and destruction leaves us questioning our faith in humanity and in God, and then we change the channel and some earnest television preacher tells us not to worry, that all will be well if we just smile in the face of hardship and hand our troubles over to the Lord.

This “let go and give it up to God” style of faith works for some but not for all.
In the midst of our pain we may feel pressured to prematurely search for reasons to be joyful because we believe it’s what God calls us to do.
But where can we find space for our pain and our suffering if not in the presence of God?

The prophet Isaiah tells us to “Shout aloud and sing for joy” but it may surprise us to know that when he spoke these words, he wasn’t speaking in a time when the Israelites were basking in the glow of the Promised Land.
In fact, he spoke the words in a time of national humiliation.
The people of Israel had been carried off into exile.
Their homeland was gone and their Temple — the visible sign of God’s presence and blessing — had been destroyed.
And it’s probably safe to say that when the Babylonians invaded Isaiah’s homeland, property was plundered, homes and businesses were burned to the ground, and many people were killed, including innocent children.    Yet in the midst of all this pain and suffering Isaiah was singing out with joy.

In a similar way, Paul urged the people of Philippi to set aside their worries and to rejoice in the Lord regardless of the trouble they found themselves in.
And like Isaiah, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians in the midst of very trying circumstances.
Paul was arrested and imprisoned on four separate occasions during his missionary travels, serving a total of seven years in jail, the last of which ended with his execution. Paul wrote his hopeful letter to the Philippians while he was incarcerated.

We can just imagine him sitting on the cold dirt floor of a dark, underground prison cell, chained at the ankles, his back pressed against the rough stone walls, scratching out his words of encouragement on small scraps of papyrus, and using the slim shaft of sunlight that filtered through the bars of a window high above, as his only source of light, and his only source of warmth, at least for a few hours during the day.
But it was when the sunlight moved on, during the hours of dusk and darkness, that Paul turned to his true source of illumination and warmth - the love of God, and the light that God sent into the world in the form of Jesus Christ.

Both Paul and Isaiah experienced tremendous loss and grief in their lives, yet they both had the audacity to speak not only of rejoicing, but also of living in any circumstance with confident hope in a loving and gracious God - a God who is always present even in the midst of the pain, suffering, and tragedy that is part of our human experience.

Rejoicing over the fact that God is present with us in our pain does not mean we are to negate or push aside the very real and deep human emotions we feel in the face of grief, rather the joy we find in God’s presence is meant to be the sliver of light that penetrates our darkness.

It’s not about flicking a switch and moving from sadness into joy, from darkness into daylight. Instead its about finding hope in that sliver of light, finding comfort in its presence, and having faith that it will grow in brightness as our brokenness begins to heal and our pain begins to lessen.

There is no time limit on how long it should take us to begin to outwardly express joy after experiencing a loss, just as there is no right way to grieve.

One thing that we learn about each other in the wake of traumatic events is that we all process these events and our grief differently.
Some of us are prayers and prone to contemplation and we find comfort in coming together in reflective silence and prayer.
Others are doers and activists who find comfort in lifting up the root causes of a tragedy and proposing solutions to prevent it from happening again.
Some of us cry in sorrow. Some of us shout in anger. Some us just feel numb.
Most of us do and feel all three at some point.
Healing comes in finding a space for all the ways in which we grieve, and allowing others to do the same.

Regardless of how we grieve, we never walk through our pain alone.
John’s gospel tells us that God’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will NOT overcome it.
There is no circumstance we might find ourselves in, and there is nothing that can happen to us that will leave us standing completely in the dark.
Even in the darkest of tragedies there is always a pinpoint of light for us to focus on, just enough to allow our eyes to adjust to the dark and find our way out.

In the wake of the horrific shootings in Newtown, one of the most shared inspirational quotes on social media sites on Friday was not from the Bible or from a well-known spiritual leader.  It was a quote from children’s television host Mr. Rogers. In response to the question of how to explain traumatic events to children, Fred Rogers said the following:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.

One of the less talked about byproducts of well-publicized violent crimes is that these crimes raise the level of fear in our already fearful society, and this can warp our perception of the world and cause us to feel like there is more evil around us than good.
We should not minimize these extreme acts of violence when they occur, but there is so much joy and good in this world that often gets overlooked.

On Friday, the actions of one person took 27 lives and sent thousands of others spiraling into overwhelming grief and sadness. But out of that sadness hundreds of police officers, EMS workers, grief counselors, pastors, teachers, and parents stepped forward to help. Hundreds of thousands more have come forward to show their support in solidarity and in prayer. 

Look for the helpers.
Perhaps that's where we find the Joy in this third week of Advent.
Not in the pain, but in the response to the pain.

The light of God flows through us and illuminates the dark corners of our world.

In two weeks time we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, the physical manifestation of God’s light who serves as a beacon and a model for us all.
Our voices will lift up in song, and joy will flow from our hearts,  as we welcome Emmanuel, God with us, who comes to us in the smallest and most vulnerable form possible - in the squealing cry of a newborn baby.

In the meantime, may we continue to find solace in the season of Advent.
As we cling to each other in the darkness, offering hugs and prayers to those who need them, continuing to work for justice, and lighting candles to bring joy, peace, hope, and love, into a world that is in need of them all.

God’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Let us rejoice in the Lord, always.


 Art by Jeremy Collins - Little Red Guy Drawings
"Dear Parents At Sandy Hook"

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