Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sermon: 1 Lent 2012 Dark of Winter

So I have occasionally been asked to make my sermons more easily available.  This is a good idea but one that I resist because either I must take time converting the sermon from a spoken form to a written form or post my text.  The text is formatted to be spoken.  There are fragmented sentences and no punctuation.  Each line consists of a few words that I can glance at and expect to register in my mind as I deliver them looking out at the congregation.  I actually wite it that way.  The crazy column of words is the original not some essay with nicely formatted paragraphs. I have some time now, however, so here is my first sermon from the Lent recently past...

The Readings were varied and I cannot remember them exactly but (obviously) we read from the first chapter of John and from Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night".  Also I paraphrased something from Thich Nhat Hanh's book "No Death, No Fear" but it wasn't a reading at this service.

Dark of Winter
Rev. Dr. Adam Tierney-Eliot
February 26, 2012
What has come into being in the word was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Today's sermon title, as you know from your bulletins, is "Dark of Winter".  It is an odd title for today, don't you think?  Those folks in the church who managed to experience the Dark of Winter--the icy cold,  the challenges of driving and walking--they certainly didn't do it around here.  They must have been on vacation which--honestly--doesn't really count.  Those of us who stayed home for what we ridiculously call our winter vacation have had a different sort of experience.  It has been warm here--really warm on some days--and sunny...mostly.  Down at the parsonage the bulbs are blooming.  There are buds on some of the trees.  My hop plants seems to be getting excited.  I am sure it is the same for many of you, too.  February is almost over and—at least in a meteorological sense--winter (the classic New England Winter) never really came.

But, of course, there is another darkness.  There is another coldness.   This is the sort of tribulation that is just as likely to come upon us in the warmth of summer than in the depth of winter.  This darkness sticks with us.   Also, in the church, at least, it occupies our thoughts during the season of Lent. .  This darkness is the one that competes with the light of the Gospel of John--the light that was the Word and was life, itself. 

When we are young and full of life with so much of that life still before us, this darkness isn't something we think about all that much.  But as we get older, we cannot help but wonder.  We wonder about death and loss as we find our losses mounting.  Our funerals outnumbering our weddings after a while.  And as we go on through our days we let things drop.  We let things go,  don't we?  There are relationships, there are plans and goals.  There are dreams that die the death of a million obstructions and technicalities and we—whether we like it or not—start to reflect on our own lives in light of the only guarantee we have.  At some point, these awesome lives will end.

Now, we don't talk about death all that much here at Eliot, and the reason is simple; We are part of a tradition that makes few if any claims about what happens next.  We affirm that death is a natural part of the cycle of life.  We remind ourselves that Thich Nhat Hanh tells us our fear of death comes from forgetting that we are all waves on the same ocean--that we are part of one substance, connected in infinite ways with all of life.  Whatever happens after we die--we know or suspect--is what is meant to be.  Still, even if we do not “rage at the dying of the light” like Dylan Thomas, we do wonder. We do wonder and we plan for what we hope is the best life we can lead in the time we have been given.  We hope that our souls will sing that blessed song of love eternal that we heard in our hymn.

So the question that remains for us during the season of Lent is “what should we do with the remainder of the time that we have been given”?

Sometimes the cares we bring with us, the burdens we carry make it hard to  resonate with our responsive reading today, to give thanks for the joy of human life, its wonders and surprises, its hopes and achievements.  We can be so overwhelmed by our cares that the world around us literally grows dim and we struggle to find our way.  Maybe this is why we come to church; to lay those burdens down and remember that we are not alone.

After all, the 23rd Psalm promises us at virtually every funeral we have ever been to that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death God is still with us.  Though the darkness is present and powerful, it cannot overcome that Word of life in John.  Now, as I said earlier, the Word here means Jesus, his life and teachings.  However, it also means wisdom.  That is a concept we can all connect to.  It is something that can grow in us, bring us hope, and help us to connect to the vast diversity of life that exists around us.

It is a diversity of life that now--even after our rather silly winter--is beginning to make an appearance once again.  This is why, on the first week in Lent, people think about those aspects of their lives that aren't working anymore.  They think about what is weighing them down
What--in the face of this amazing journey we all are on—what really doesn't matter all that much after all.  Lent isn't really Its not really about eating less chocolate (thank God) or losing 20 pounds before April or finally getting through Finnegan's Wake.  It is about unpacking and repacking.
It is about carrying as few burdens as possible.  This is what experienced travellers do.

Years ago I wrote an article about the process of ordination.  It is a process that—like the season of Lent--is sometimes described as an act of death and rebirth.  In the article I compared this cycle to trying to get on an airplane at Logan.  The first time, usually we get dropped off late we rush around finding our way to the gates, trailing our stuff behind us and wishing we had worn different socks.  We are lost and confused.  But as time goes on, and we get closer to our departure time we learn that  we are only allowed to bring so much stuff on that plane.  Everything else must be left behind. 

In fact, there are two stops, aren't there?  Whenever I fly (which is rare) I always seem to have some sharp pointy objects  or a bottle of shampoo to donate to the TSA. Then there is the plane, itself where we must show that we can fit everything we need for the trip into smaller and smaller containers.  Usually after we do this a few times what we learn is that we didn't need those things we left and abandoned along the way.
It turns out that--on some level--all we need are the essentials.  All we need is what we can easily carry on.  All we need is that light in the darkness.  It is the beginning of Lent now.  We are packing and unpacking for the journey.  We need to ask ourselves what we much bring with us and what we can give up.  We do this not with an eye toward death but toward life; toward living the best way we can.

I would like to close today with these words
From Rev. William Murray
These are the days that have been given to us
Let us rejoice and be glad in them.
These are the days of our lives;
Let us live them well in love and service.
These are the days of mystery and wonder;
Let us cherish and celebrate them in gratitude together.
These are the days that have been given to us;
Let us make of them stories worth telling to those who come after

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