Called to Joy: A Christmas Sermon


Based on Luke 2: 1-14


I might complain (just a little bit) to my pastor friends who serve churches that Christmas, at Monmouth College, comes on December 7th—which means I have to start listening to Christmas music mid-November to prepare myself and my message. There is no Advent in academia, no expectant season of waiting and spiritual preparation.

This year, though, I’m not complaining. Christmas couldn’t come soon enough.

In my message last year, I prayed to God to save us from the darkness which I described as a nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading. Obviously, I’m still praying that prayer.

This year, though, the angels have turned me to joy.

In Luke chapter 2, when the angels proclaim Jesus’ birth as “good news of great joy for all the people”, they do not do so in a time when joy is easy to be found, or to a people whose lives naturally spark joy. The shepherds, whom the angels address, are the poor day laborers, the Unseen, the field workers like those bringing in the harvest here in rural Illinois no matter the weather. As I drive by these field workers in rain, sleet and Halloween snowstorms, with my car heater blaring I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work. These workers, I imagine, do not rejoice in the labor, as much as what the labor provides—food, shelter, a livelihood for the family they love.

It is to these—these head-down, hard-working, don’t-stop-to-think-about-your-life-or-your-life-will-overwhelm-you— that the angels call to joy—great joy, in fact; life changing, necessary joy.

The poet Christian Wiman writes that “joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmosphere like sarin gas.”[1]

I often counsel people who are going through difficult times to intentionally seek joy as they observe the day’s sunset, or listen to their children’s laughter, or receive their spouse’s embrace, or witness a stranger’s random act of kindness.  Seek joy, I advise them, not to demean or downplay their darkness but to help them find their way through it. Joy can serve as a buoy when life’s storms overwhelm; moments of joy are stepping-stones through the darkness and despair.

Perhaps you have come here tonight, to Christmas at Monmouth, seeking such an inoculation of joy—a decision the angels would approve of. Because here among the music, and the beauty, and the love and pride we feel for our students who have worked so hard to pull all this off, the world’s problems do not feel so heavy, or so insurmountable.

We need this. We need the good news of a baby born to turn an oppressive human empire on its head; we need the good news that there is a power greater than human greed and immorality; we need the good news that the arc of the universe bends towards justice; we need to hear Luke’s angels proclaim that this Christmas there is good news of great joy for all the people.

We need this joy not only as an inoculation against the darkness and despair but also as a way to resist it.

The poet Jack Gilbert writes:

“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

Joy resists injustice; joy resists despair and hopelessness; joy resists evil by refusing to acquiesce or accept that darkness is the more powerful reality. The angels call a poor, oppressed people to joy so that they can resist the ruthlessness of their world.

Recently, I was introduced to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam felt a moral responsibility to write poetry for his people during the Russian Revolution of the 1900’s. When the government demanded poets write patriotic poems to inspire obedience among the working class, Mandelstam resisted. He resisted by writing poetry that evoked a violent, upending kind of joy; the kind of joy that can save you when life is insufferable. Mandelstam also wrote a poem mocking Stalin, which got him arrested, exiled and eventually killed.

In this Russian context, Mandelstam’s poems weren’t written down—they were too momentous, too truthful. He composed in his head while walking the streets of St. Petersburg, reciting his memorized poems to his wife, who memorized them herself and only decades later, after Mandelstam’s death, wrote them down.

Even after he was arrested and exiled to a Russian corrective-labor camp, Mandelstam continued to compose poetry. His health declined. He was starving. The last time he was seen alive he was scavenging for food out of a garbage dump. Mandelstam knew full well that he was about to die. Yet, still he resisted the darkness. The last poem he wrote before his death was this, called “And I Was Alive.”[2]

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering
power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel declares, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Embrace the joy the angels proclaim. Rejoice in the hope God provides.

 

 

 

[1] Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University Press, 2017

[2] Read more about Osip Mandelstam in Ilya Kaminsky’s introduction to “Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam” and Christian Wiman’s interview here: https://onbeing.org/poetry/and-i-was-alive/

[Feature Image: Drew Selby]

Adjusting our Eyes: A Christmas Message

What follows is my sermon delivered at the  Monmouth College Christmas concert and worship service.

[A spot light is turned on me, the rest of the chapel is dark.]

Wow. I can’t see a thing.  It’s so dark out there.  I mean I know you’re there—I can hear you breathing, and shifting in your seats, and laughing….but it’s creepy because I can’t see you.

You know what’s creepier, though?  To be in this chapel alone…at night…without any light. I’ve had to come in here sometimes at night and crawl through the pitch black, in heels no less, to get to the light switch behind the stage.  If I were smart, I wouldn’t rush that walk through the darkness, because I’m clumsy, and sure to trip over something or walk into a wall. But I want to get to that light switch as quick as possible. All my life I’ve been conditioned to believe bad things happen in the dark—Edgar Allen Poe things.  Every horror movie I have never watched is set in the dark. Every monster jumps out from under the bed after the lights go out.  It’s scary here in the dark.

Isaiah 9: 2-7 is read by Christians at Christmas because of its reference to the birth of a baby, born to save a people.  But tonight I want to focus on the darkness inherent in this text. The monsters the Israelites were facing were real—the yoke of foreign oppression; the boots and blood of war.  It was not just a dark time, according to Isaiah, but deeply dark.

Our historical context is far from that of the 8th century, but Isaiah’s words still resonate today. I mean, can you remember a darker Christmas than this? Maybe you can.  But this season, to me, seems particularly bleak: our nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; tear gas and rubber bullets used against refugees; the #MeToo movement revealing what we women already knew; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading.  Then, here in Monmouth we’ve got Thanksgiving blizzards dangerously stranding students on the road, friends and loved ones struggling with their mental health—suicide, dementia, cancer, marriages and families breaking under stress—seriously, our list of dark things could go on and on.

Dear God, I pray every day, save us from the darkness. I want to move through the pitch black as quickly as I can, even in heels, because it scares me. Maybe you’re scared too?

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that  “70 percent of our sense receptors are located in our eyes. Those of us who can see rely heavily on our sight.” Darkness is disorienting. It frightens us because we don’t know what to expect of the dark, we don’t know where we are going when we are in its midst, what we will find, or what will find us.

Here in the darkness, though, the prophet Isaiah wants us to slow down; he wants us to give our eyes time to adjust. Even while walking in darkness—he says—there is something to see.

I was recently introduced to contemporary artist James Turrell who uses darkness as his medium. In an essay entitled, “In Praise of Darkness” Heather Lanier describes one of Turrell’s exhibits at a museum in Massachusetts. “You enter,” Lanier writes, “by stepping into a narrow corridor—the only source of light is behind you—which quickly turns 180 degrees to the right. As you get farther along, the walls must be painted black because now the darkness is nearly complete. If you go with children, this is when they’ll start to grasp your hand tighter. If you go alone, this is when you might seek out the handrail, flu season or not. You’ll feel the handrail bend, and you’ll let it guide you through another 180-degree turn. The darkness at this point becomes thick, almost palpable, and if you’re like me, you’ll put your hand out in front of you because you’re certain you’re about to walk into a wall. You’ll follow the handrail until you reach its end, at which point you will have no sense that the space has just opened up into a room. Your hand will eventually find an armrest, which means you’ve arrived at the viewing chair. You sit and wait in the blackness. It can take as long as 15 minutes for the irises to open sufficiently to perceive this work.”

In a James Turrell exhibit, what helps you follow that handrail into the darkness and sit in the black room long enough for your eyes to adjust is the belief that there is something there—something good and beautiful.  You just need to give yourself a little time—you just need to be patient enough and courageous enough to sit in the dark in order to see it. But that’s not easy. Lanier described two college age women who stumbled into the exhibit with her, linking elbows. Standing at the entryway, they whispered that they couldn’t see a thing and refused to take another step. Then one of them drew something from her back pocket, and in an instant the stark light of her cell phone lit up their faces.

Isaiah wants us to know, and believe, that the darkness hold promise, that the darkness is not dark to God, that art and beauty, meaning and purpose can be found even in the bleakest of circumstances. This is, after all, the message of Christmas.  When all that surrounds us feels like death, new life is born. When hate is on the rise, love prevails. When darkness blinds, light illuminates. God is not absent in the darkness. Beauty and meaning are not absent in the darkness. The key is to believe—that something is there—something is here for us—something good and beautiful. Then being patient enough and courageous enough to give our eyes time to adjust.

Eventually, in the Turrell exhibit the art emerges. Heather Lanier describes it as, “A faint, gray amorphous source of light. It’s so faint [at first] you might not be able to place its shape. Circle? Oval? Blob? It’s like a reflection of a reflection of light, like a moon of a moon, like a gray lake’s mirroring of a dulled silver spoon. The art you eventually arrive at varies, according to who you are and how you view the world. But if you wait long enough, there is actually something there.

If we wait long enough and let our eyes adjust something is there…something emerges…

Maybe it’s the dark silhouettes of the people sitting around you, reminding you that you are not alone.

Maybe it’s the exposed wooden beams of this Chapel ceiling, appearing as arms outstretched drawing us closer together as one community.

Maybe it’s a darkness so large and unfathomable that it takes the shape of God.[1]

Maybe it’s a light we hadn’t noticed before.

What we see will vary according to who we are and how we view the world.  But the darkness holds something for us all.

Wendell Berry writes:

To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight, and find
that the dark, too, blooms and sings.

For Isaiah, the darkness blooms and sings about the birth of a child.  God has not forsaken you, Isaiah declares. God has not abandoned you in the darkness. Tonight, let us give ourselves a gift. Let us sit in our viewing chairs, give our irises the time they need to open, and receive what the darkness holds for us tonight. It might…it just might…give us hope.

Now to the God who calls us to this night vision, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

 

[1]This phrase attributed to Sara Miles from her recent Christian Century lecture.

[Feature Image: Billie Grace Ward]