Kick the darkness

Th’is the season of darkness, at least in the northern hemisphere. And here on the prairies t’is the season of winter cold, despite our current “balmy” temperatures of -5 degrees Celsius (it’s all relative, right?) But many people’s lives are covered in darkness no matter where they live, no matter what season it is, no matter what is considered cold or hot:
* Desperate families trekking 1000+ miles on foot in dangerous darkness, driven by a wild hope for a better future. 
* Dear friends in their senior years raising a young granddaughter with courage and loving dedication, only to see their best efforts sabotaged by the darkness of her origins.
* Indigenous youth turning to suicide before the icy darkness of addiction and no-future kills them.
* Even in the best of families, discord is spreading darkness through animosity, distrust and betrayal.
* Loved ones grieving deep, deep losses – children, parents, opportunity, spouses, homes, jobs, dreams, a voice, dignity, health, friends – fearing to be buried alive in the cave of brutal and merciless darkness.

For too many among us, darkness is the norm, so much so that we stop screaming in protest. There is nothing more lethal than the loss of hope and love, of peace and joy.

Yet Advent comes each year, inviting correction of the course of events, inviting to level the ground of our heart, to straighten paths of life. Advent, with its honed tradition of lighting candles on a wreath, one more each week, stubbornly insists on piercing the darkness, trying hard to rekindle life-giving dreams and visions. But for too many Advent remains elusive, a vision unrealized, a dream unfulfilled, an illusion only the silly ones buy into. Yet our spirit needs a vision — without a vision of what life can be, ought to be, meant to be, we perish. 

For the Jewish people, Hannukah comes each year, with the ritual of lighting candles, mirroring the Christian Advent practice. This Jewish Festival of Lights recalls the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem. If any city has seen darkness, it is Jerusalem. If any people have lived darkness, pitch darkness, it’s our Jewish sisters and brothers. Hannukah stubbornly comes, bringing light into darkness, hope into despairing hearts. This light is desperately needed for all people, including our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters who are deprived of the very light their Jewish fellow citizens are cherishing.

Sometimes, maybe often even, we ourselves cause another’s darkness. Hurting one another seems to come more easily than loving. It is part of being human, but that does not make it right or excusable. That is why Advent also invites introspection: how have I contributed to the suffering of my sister, my brother?  I had to do this recently in a situation of discord that had resulted in a six-month shunning by loved ones. Swallowing all pride and self-righteousness, I tapped courage and my faith in Jesus to confess and own up to the transgression. It never gets easier, it always makes my insides tremble, and makes me feel vulnerable and exposed. But every time I risk honest contrition and confession and reach out in reconciliation, Advent light shines through, straightening my path, leveling the ground of my heart, and growing me into fullness of love and mercy, preparing my heart to receive the Christ-child. Each time we risk overcoming the darkness in our own heart, the world sees one more candle of hope lit.

The persistence of vision, of seeking light, of crazy dreams of beauty and love, are the surest evidence of the existence of God. Why else would stubborn forces unrelentingly kick at the darkness of the world, if not for their origin in a Divine source stronger and bigger than today’s despair and pain? Can we long for something we have never known? Can we dream and hope for things we have not at one time seen and tasted? 

We have been kicking the darkness forever, because God keeps seeking cracks for the light to break through.

My friend Scott shared the following thoughts at the start of Advent. Scott articulates a vision of light and hope, not by denying or ignoring the darkness, but by squarely confronting it, in a bold attempt to stare down its demoralizing power. His words have bored their way into my heart, fueling vision and dreams against all odds: Christians light candles at the start of Advent, and Jews light candles to mark the beginning of Hanukkah. This is no small thing. We both light our lights to kick at the darkness. Sometimes it is the darkness in our own hearts, and this is always where the push back must start. Sometimes it is the past and present darkness in our communities, including religious ones. Sometimes it is the darkness that seems to loom over so much that goes on in our world. Our candles are not the same; yet the light to which they point most certainly is. May this season of bold resistance and active hopefulness draw Christians, and Jews, and all people together to heal our hearts, reconcile our communities, and mend our world. Amen.

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God’s Heart Goes On

Who remembers the movie Titanic? The Gospel for this Pentecost Sunday brought to mind a scene from that movie. It is the one where Jack and Rose, our heroes in love, find themselves hanging on to life in the ice cold water,  surrounded by drowned and drowning bodies; a gripping sight, showing the ugliness and ruthlessness of death. Jack is talking to Rose, his whole body shivering from the cold. He pushes her into a promise: “Promise me, Rose, that you’ll never give up in life. I’ll be with you always, Rose. Promise, promise…” Rose panics, fearing Jack will die. She says she wants to die too. Jack says no, and makes her promise that she will not give up.

Like Jack drowning in the ice cold water, Jesus sees in his mind’s eye the shadow of the cross, death waiting to swallow him up. Jesus knows the time with his friends is up. Jesus knows that soon pain and loss will rip them apart. Soon the disciples will experience a fear and anxiety, the likes of which will make all their insides shiver like Jack in the water. Jesus tries to prepare them and to strengthen them, before the blow of his death hits…

… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything… When the Advocate comes, the Spirit of truth will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning…  Words of encouragement in the face of an ugly death. Words of love and guidance in the face of the greatest loss the world has ever experienced.These words are for us too, each one of  us;  words of love and encouragement in the face of our loss, in the face of our death.

For if there is anything sure for those who love generously, it is the reality of the losses we suffer. Jesus’ words immediately brought to mind all the horrible recent losses too many of us suffered: the horrible Broncos bus crash and all that has come with it (and still does); the loss of whales and wildlife due to environmental mismanagement; church bombings in Indonesia; a family losing their Habitat for Humanity home to fire; more than 700 bee species declining due to habitat loss and pesticide use; mass floodings in New Brunswick and BC; a friend receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, communities in our own province evacuated due to wildfires; etc. etc.

And then there are all the other losses, the subtle and invisible ones, the blunt and the slow ones: like losing a job, or not being able to find one; or losing a driver’s license because of ill health or old age, or losing our innocence, or our culture, losing our hope, or our self-confidence. At those times we too can feel the deadening chill of the ice cold water, like our two heroes in Titanic. At those times we too can be swallowed up by fear and despair, like the disciples felt after Jesus died.

Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come; but if I go, I will send him to you and the Holy Spirit will teach you many things. In the face of losses that occur way too frequently, what do these words mean? In the face of Jesus’ crucifixion and death,  who is this Holy Spirit that will “teach us everything”?  Often, the answers are not clear until a crisis hits, facing us with the urgent choice between life and death, in whatever form this presents itself in our lives.

In Titanic, Rose was asked that question only seconds after Jack died. She is heartbroken, shivering in the cold, cold water. The question comes to her in the form of the rescue boat floating by at some distance. The men in the boat call out in the eerie quiet of this floating cemetery. They throw a bright light across the water, looking for survivors. At first Rose does not want to be found, and the tension mounts. Then she remembers Jack’s last words, his last wish. She remembers the promise she made to him, and the Spirit of peace and understanding floods her heart. She rips a whistle off a dead body, and blows it with every inch of strength she can muster … Rose is found, and does end up starting a new life, with Jack’s spirit living on in her heart, as Celine Dion sings in the Titanic theme song.

Like Rose in Titanic, the disciples did not really understand Jesus’ words immediately. Insight grew only after Jesus had died, and when they encountered him as the risen Lord. The disciples did not fully take to heart Jesus’ farewell speech, until they were faced with the shocking resurrection light. Then they were seized by a new hope, a hope they anxiously waited for in the Upper Room. That hope filled them with the Holy Spirit, and they boldly began to proclaim the risen Lord, as reported so vividly in today’s account in Acts (2:1–21). With that bold and courageous preaching the Church was born.

For in hope we were saved, writes Paul to the Romans (8:22-27). Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience – how very true. And so for us too, the Spirit of Jesus is ready to help us in our weakness, in our loss, in our fear. The Spirit of Jesus intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. Once we too are filled with that same Spirit, we become bearers of God’s love even in the ugliest and strangest places of life, even in an ocean cemetery such as in Titanic.

Love can touch us one time and last for a lifetime And never let go till we’re gone, sings Celine Dion in the Titanic’s theme song. Jack’s spirit went on living in Rose’s heart. Jesus’ spirit too has gone on living after his death, through the Holy Spirit which makes its home in us, imparting a peace, a vision and a joy the world indeed cannot give but desperately needs. Once Jesus’ love touches us one time it too lasts for a lifetime.

As the apostles experienced on that first Pentecost, God’s Spirit is a bright search light that surprises, leaps over barriers, melts away divisions, calms fears, bringing courage, vision and joy. When the bright light of the Holy Spirit seizes us, joy meets us in the midst of struggle, like an oasis in the desert, or the quiet at the bottom of the ocean, while the storm rages on the surface. This bright light of Christ’s Spirit gives hope in despair, fuels the desire to rebuild in time of destruction, provides the calm haven in time of turmoil. The Spirit of Pentecost is unleashed in joyful witness to Good News, the Good News of God’s love in Christ. That bold and universal Spirit breaks through every time we are seized by Love, healed by Love, united in Love, every time when loves moves us to  tears,  when love hurts until we die…

How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Could it be because God’s native tongue is Love, a tongue everyone can hear and receive each in their own language and culture, each in their own context and situation?  Jesus’ voluntary death out of love for us unleashed the greatest Spirit of all: the Holy Spirit…

Our God is a God of surprises, a God on the move, a God of newness. God’s on the move because God is alive and creating and sustaining. For us as the church, Christ’s body on earth, that same Spirit pushes us out the door, out of our comfort zone, and into new waters and uncharted terrain, just as on that first Pentecost. Love can touch us one time and last for a lifetime … Jesus’ spirit lives on in each of us. Let us trust, believe and rejoice, living our life soaked in the peace and joy of God’s own Holy Spirit. AMEN

Homily preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018.
Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26—27, 16:4—15

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