This is the 3rd sermon in our Gift of the Dark Wood worship series.
In the year 1505, Martin Luther found himself trapped in a terrible thunderstorm. On all sides he was surrounded by flashes of lightning and crashing thunder. Having been caught in a wild thunderstorm on the side of a mountain in New Mexico, I can imagine just how frightening the storm was. Luther once wrote that he was scared that he might not make it out alive.
And, so he did what so many of us do when faced with life or death situations – he made a promise to God. If God would spare his life, Luther promised to devote his life to God. When the storm cleared, Luther began making plans to serve God and soon entered a monastery.[i] Read more…
This sermon is the second in our “Gifts of the Dark Wood” worship series.
(language warning on video below, even though it is bleeped out)
Louis CK is talking about the same thing I read in an article recently. People just don’t know how to be bored anymore. In our day and age we are scared of having nothing to do. We’ve grown to fear empty time.
Case in point – and proof that I’m guilty of this too – many days I am the one to pick up my oldest daughter from Pre-K downstairs. And often when I come I have to wait for her to pack up her lunch and get her coat. What do you think I do while I am waiting? Usually I take my phone out and see if someone has emailed me in the two minutes since I last looked on my computer in my office. Or I’ll hop on Facebook or twitter and scroll through my newsfeed. That’s how I fill the empty time spent waiting.
And I’m certainly not alone in this. At the train station, riders on the platform wait for the train by looking at their phones.
We seem to fear emptiness, and so our first instinct is to fill the space – with anything we can – noise, action, thoughts, plans, people, technology. Emptiness can be frightening. It’s a void, an abyss.
But the Dark Wood gift of Emptiness is not something to be feared. Rather it’s the place where our broken humanity finds its deepest and most intimate connection with the divine and an amazing fullness is discovered within our deepest emptiness.
In Lenten worship this year we’re considering how we might discover unexpected gifts from God when we feel our lives have entered a “dark woods.” That’s the term coined by Dante in his classic work “The Divine Comedy.” He said that when in our lives we experience periods of uncertainty, or when we feel like a misfit, or when we see temptation seemingly at every turn, it can feel like one has entered a “dark woods,” a place where one feels lost and disoriented; the path is hidden, the way forward isn’t clear.
In periods where we’re feeling particularly uncomfortable, our natural inclination is to try to escape, to get away from the discomfort, to run in any direction hoping to get out of the “dark woods.” But the witness of the Bible suggests that God uses those periods when we feel our lives have entered a “dark woods” to reveal a gift that we might not discover any other way. Today we consider how emptiness could actually be a gift from God. Read more…
This sermon is the first in our “Gifts of the Dark Wood” Worship series this Lent.
“You have a place in this world.”
That’s the very first sentence in the book by Eric Elnes that inspired this worship series.
Imagine a place where awkwardness dissolves and you feel fully alive – fully human. You know this place, though you might feel like you’re far away from it. You know this place. You’ve been there before. You might not always know how to get to it, but you recognize it immediately, every time.
Elnes describes it as brief moments of awakening when something deep inside you cries, “home!” when most of the time we feel very far from home. He says we are closer than we realize, but much of the time we feel more like Pinocchio, wandering through life hoping to feel alive one day.
Over the course of Lent we will be talking about finding our place in this world – finding it at the very point where we feel the farthest from it. We will try to figure out how to recognize the beauty and blessings that exist within those experiences that we fear, but just cannot avoid.
As a metaphor, Dark Wood suggests a place to be avoided. Mysterious, unfamiliar, and unfriendly, the Dark Wood is a scary place. It reminds me of the scenes from the Empire Strikes Back on the swamp planet Dagobah. It’s a place where we may feel uncertain, lost, and alone. Yet these feelings turn out to be opportunities for growth because they invite us to probe, question, and discover.
The 14th century poet Dante Alighieri wrote of this in the Divine Comedy, “In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a Dark Wood…” He got that right! You don’t set out, looking for trouble, in the Dark Wood. You awaken there. It may be a life crisis, such as happened to Dante in the midpoint of his life. It may be an unexpected loss, or even a long-anticipated one. But how we got into the Dark Wood is not my point. The important thing is recognizing it when we find ourselves there.
Dante wrote about how the Dark Wood is a place of confusion and stumbling. He considered it to be an evil place. However, ancient Christian mystics had another understanding of this place. They understood that this wasn’t a place of punishment, but a place of revelation. They mystics had different names for the Dark Wood – St. John of the Cross called it the “Dark Night of the Soul,” and Teresa of Avila called it the 5th mansion – but they were all insisting that the Dark Wood was a place where we receive strange and wonderful gifts, and it was a place where we meet God.
The first gift of the Dark Wood we’re going to explore is the gift of uncertainty. Read more…
This week we are skipping ahead several hundred years in the biblical narrative. A lot has happened in those intervening years, so let’s have a quick recap:
When we left off last week we were in aftermath of Israel’s flirtation with the golden calf. Moses convinced God to stay with the people, and God did. But another rebellion soon after results in Israel being banned from the Promised Land. So they spend the next forty years wandering the wilderness – a wandering described in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
After the death of Moses and the entire generation of Israelites who left Egypt, Joshua finally leads the people into the Promised Land. The book of Joshua describes Israel’s conquest of and settlement in the land they had long been promised. Then in the book of Judges, we read about the experience of life in the Promised Land in the early years. This was well before the monarchy was established – the Israelites lived in a loose confederation of twelve tribes.
The stories in Judges usually follow the same pattern. Israel forgets God and slides into idolatry. A foreign enemy oppresses them, they cry out to God, God appoints a leader, a judge – like Deborah and Samson – to rally the nation in the face of the threat, and the people are delivered. Then the whole thing repeats itself again. And again. And again.
Judges ends with this verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right.” Read more…
A sermon for year 3, week 1 of the Narrative Lectionary.
If someone asked you to sit down and tell them the story of God’s relationship to this world and the people in it, how would tell that story – making sure you hit all the highlights? The Narrative Lectionary is an attempt to help us do just that. This morning we are beginning our second year using the Narrative Lectionary to guide our worship planning and scripture reading so we can better understand the story of God and God’s people as we find it told in Scripture.
And so each fall we will begin with Creation. This year the lectionary assigns parts of the second creation story and the story of what is known as the fall. Yes, there are two creation stories in the first chapters of Genesis. The first story, found in Genesis 1.1-2.4, is the great cosmic liturgy of the creation in seven days, where God speaks and creation happens, and God calls it good.
The second story is much different. If the first story shows us the power of an omnipotent God, commanding the world into being from the heavens, the second story gives us a different view of God. One where God is physically present, getting God’s hands dirty in the formation of earth and its inhabitants. Listen now to God’s story and our story:
The first three chapters of Genesis present creation to us in all its goodness and beauty – yet it also recognizes the many complexities and ambiguities of life within that good creation. God creates, calls it good, and puts us into the Garden of Eden. It is a promising beginning.
Our story this morning focus on the creation of humanity. I absolutely love the imagery the writer uses to describe what’s happening. How we are created in the image of God, out of the earth, and filled with God’s spirit – the breath of life.
Adam out of Adamah. Human out of Hummus. God bent down and gathered up topsoil, the fertile dirt, and molded us with God’s own hands.
After forming our being out of the soil, God breathed the breath of life into our nostrils. The Hebrew word for breath – ruach – is the same word for spirit. God breathed God’s spirit into us and brought us to life.
We are made in God’s image and filled with God’s spirit, yet we are also made from the dust of the ground. We are one with God and with the earth.
After God gave Adam life, God created the Garden and put him in it to take care of it. To till and keep it, as some translations put it. As I was looking at the Hebrew words used here, I was struck by the meanings of the words used. The Hebrew words are the same words used for Serve and Protect.
God created the Garden of Eden for Adam and told him to serve and protect the garden. Serve and protect the earth. In essence, God is inviting us in to be co-creators with God in all of creation. Adam’s work in the garden is an extension of God’s work.
Humanity was created with the sole purpose to serve God and the earth. We were given paradise to live in, this fertile land, an oasis in the middle of the desert, with an endless supply of food. We were told we could eat from any tree we wanted, except for one. Read more…
I had the honor and privilege to have been invited to speak at a candlelight vigil last night on behalf of the Stratford Interfaith Clergy Association. The vigil, organized by the First Baptist Church in Stratford and the First Church Congregational in Fairfield, was to remember the victims of violence in the last couple weeks, specifically for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five slain police officers in Dallas – Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens; and for all victims of the violence that plagues this nation. It was a beautiful vigil, with powerful prayers, moving music, great speakers, and over 100 people in attendance.
We had some good press coverage too. You can find a photo gallery here – http://www.ctpost.com/news/slideshow/Stratford-hosts-Candlelight-Vigil-132333.php
and a story on the local news here – http://connecticut.news12.com/news/ct-residents-hold-vigils-for-shooting-victims-in-la-mn-tx-1.12046313
Edit: Adding an article from the Stratford Star: http://www.stratfordstar.com/54501/vigil-promotes-unity-in-aftermath-of-killings/
Here are my remarks:
I bring you greetings on behalf of the Stratford Interfaith Clergy Association, of which I serve as the Vice-President, and the more than forty-five houses of worship located in our town. We represent clergy and religious leaders from many faiths, and we stand in solidarity with you in prayer and grief for the violence and divisiveness gripping our nation.
The plagues of violence and racism and divisiveness are not new to this world. The prophet Isaiah wrote about the struggles the Israelites had with these sins – he writes:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in. – Isaiah 58, selected verses
We gather tonight with prayer and prophetic voice to call for an end to this vicious cycle of violence. We are calling for people of faith to do the hard work of examining our own privileges and confront the sins of our nation. We are calling on our faith communities to lead the fight for justice.
There is just too much violence in this country. Violence against people of color, violence against police officers, violence against the LGBTQ community, violence against anyone who is deemed different. Where does it end?
This violence is only a symptom of the deeper issues we have as a nation, one of which is the sin of racism that has left a stain on this country.
Another is the pride we have in our individualism. As a whole we spend more time looking out for ourselves and our own self-interests, rather than for all of humanity. We pray, give me my daily bread rather than give us our daily bread. And so we create silos that we live in and anything or anyone that challenges our little bubbles becomes a threat. And then we return violence with violence. And violence begets violence begets violence begets violence begets violence begets violence begets violence…
Violence solves nothing. As Dr. King said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding a deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
As Isaiah reminds us, we cannot leave this vigil and consider our work done, having prayed for change. If we only do that we will be choosing the wrong kind of fast – we need to do the work necessary if we are to become Repairers of the Breach, Restorers of Livable Streets.
So when we leave this place today, it is my prayer that God will have softened our hearts, and we will take up the cause of justice and work to eradicate the sins of racism, violence, and divisiveness plaguing our nation.
How many of you remember when you learned the Lord’s Prayer?
I remember I was in probably second or third grade. My dad had typed up the prayer and given me a copy of it. For a month or so we prayed it along with our other bedtime prayers. In no time I had it memorized.
Now, I don’t recall why I was so old when I learned it. Maybe at that time the church didn’t say it in worship before I left for Sunday School, like we do here now. That’s partly why I like to pray it before the kids leave for Sunday school, so they can learn it. Charlotte cannot read, but she knows the prayer because we say it every week. And often, she wants to pray it at home too. Faith is contagious.
Most Sundays, the Lord’s Prayer can be heard echoing from churches around the world, as the faithful recite the well-known words in unison. Many of us feel comforted or peaceful when we recite the words to Jesus’ most famous prayer. But I wonder – do you ever feel challenged by the Lord’s Prayer? Read more…