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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Liberating Darkness - 11/29/2020

Darkness.

I have been thinking a lot about darkness lately. Maybe you have too, because of the time of the year. As we approach the day when this part of the world will be the farthest is gets from the sun each year, I feel like I must relearn how to track time. I’ll look up from what I’m doing and think for sure I worked on something right through to the middle of the night, only to realize it’s 7:30.

This is our darkest time of the year and even though it can be a bit unsettling at times or throw my sense of time off kilter for a while, I rather like its quiet and intimate nature.

Often darkness is a theme in Advent too. Our short days and long nights in the northern hemisphere winters lend themselves well to contemplating and anticipating the birth of the Christ Child once again … a birth marked by an enormous and brilliant star in the night sky, among other unexpected forms of praise and welcome.

And the concept of darkness is something that has been on my mind because of a book study going on in our Wednesday night adult forum. The book is “Dear Church, a love letter from a black preacher to the whitest denomination in the U.S.” That’s us, the ELCA. In the United States, mainline Protestant churches are comprised of about 89% white folks. In the ELCA, it’s 96%.

The book, or love letter, is written by ELCA Pastor Lenny Duncan who loves this church and expresses it in ways I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before. Listen to this:

I’m a pastor, but if you looked at my life story, I think we’d both agree I was more likely to end up in prison than the pulpit. In fact, it’s a miracle I’m still alive. I’m a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen and felon. How the hell did I get here? I got here because I met Jesus when I met you, Church. Whenever I think of my first experience in the ELCA, I get goosebumps. (The pastor) stood at the Communion table and declared, “This is Jesus’s table; he made no restrictions, and neither do we.” …

In one sentence, ELCA, you had done more for me than any church had ever done. I approached the table with my head held high and love in my heart. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t filled with the fear that I was dragging to the Communion rail everything that I had ever done. Of course, I still carried those things, but somehow you welcomed me anyway. You showed me that my past didn’t make me unworthy to receive the nearness of God in the elements. I could stand before the table of grace a whole person – deeply flawed and still incredibly valued, handmade by a loving God.

You loved me. I loved you. (Duncan, Lenny. Dear Church, a love letter … Fortress Press, 2019, pg 1ff)

This truly is a love letter. Much as the letters of Paul to the Corinthians or Galatians were letters of love, celebrating the ways their fledgling communities of Jesus followers were making the world a better place. Letters of love often include hard truths too, and Pastor Duncan certainly does that in this letter.

It is in that way, the hard truth way, that Pastor Duncan scrutinizes the use of darkness in our liturgy. Listen to what he says …

Over and over again in our music, liturgies, displayed artwork, and language and word choices, we have reinforced the idea that white is holy and black equals sin. These passive suggestions have created an entire subconscious theology of race. For example, most pastors wear a white alb or surplice while they lead worship – using whiteness to represent baptism, purity, and closeness to the creator. We’ve never stopped to ask why we equate the color white to goodness. Every day we sit in church we are being subtly fed this narrative about whiteness – a narrative that is at work in all of us consciously or subconsciously. The person who administers the sacraments: clothed in white. The colors of resurrection and ultimate victory: white. The candle you light at the anniversary of your child’s baptism: white. The message is clear, whether we realize it or not. White equals pure. And the inverse is also true: the absence of white – darkness or blackness – equals bad or evil. (Ibid. pg 67)

It can be a difficult perspective for many of us to fully understand, but let’s just say, even if you are only a child of color, it doesn’t take too long before you begin to wonder what all this black vs white, light vs dark imagery means about your skin tone compared to 96% of the others in your beautiful and broken ELCA faith community.

And that matters, right? Every last sheep, our Great Shepherd says ... Or how about what we heard last week? “Lord, when was it that we saw you …” (Mt 25.37,44) hungry, thirsty, a stranger, shivering, naked and vulnerable, sick and oppressed?

It matters.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot about darkness and about liberating its imagery to mean something new for all of us, something full of hope and creation, something full of God, something closer to what our Gospel writers meant, something that embraces the vast diversity of God’s creation, maybe even something that can help us look more like the rest of the world and less like a pocket of whiteness in a world the color of the rainbow.

I’ve been thinking about darkness in new ways. Advent gives us some rich opportunity to do this together, as a community. So, this concept of the goodness of darkness is the frame I’ll ask us to try and place around our scriptures and liturgy in this season of the promised Christ Child.

And we start today with this rather odd mix of ideas, as we do each First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new church year.

It is Advent. We have entered the season in which we anticipate reliving the memory of the Christ Child born into a human family.

And we also have been warned to keep alert – at any time Jesus will return “coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (Mk 13.26) Because on this first Sunday of the year we also look to the promised return of Jesus and the complete revelation of God’s glorious realm. They are book ends of a sort.

And that is not all.

We also have allusions to Jesus’ last days on earth. The gospel writer is foreshadowing what is about to happen. Jesus said, “Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening (the time of the last supper), or at midnight (when Jesus was arrested in the garden), or at cockcrow (when even Peter denied Jesus) or at dawn (the time of Jesus’ trial) …” (Mk 13.35)

Add to all this our own context …  a year like no other – 2020.

This is the landscape of our first Sunday of Advent – it is setting the tone for the weeks to come – in Jesus, what has happened, is happening and will happen is complex, unsettling sometimes, unexpected and guess what? … much of it unfolds in the magnificent glory, effectiveness and inclusiveness of darkness.

Darkness. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and in new ways. So, I made a list. It’s called “Some of the reasons darkness is good.”  It is my “Hello Church” column for the December newsletter. It will also serve as a guide for us in this season of the church. And so, I invite you to think about darkness in new ways too. Where do you find comfort and goodness and God in darkness?

One of the items on my list of the goodness of darkness is “Darkness requires focus.” I believe that is what the dark corners of this First Sunday of Advent call us to as well. It is in those dark corners God is at work. The messengers of God come to announce Mary’s pregnancy in dreams and quiet personal spaces. The baby comes in the darkness of the night, in an unlit stable and under the radar of the hard-hearted King Herod. The sacrifice of that same baby years later would begin in the cover of darkness as well. When he took his last breath, the skies darkened, and he was laid in the darkness of a tomb where the real point of this God-story begins. And when Jesus comes again, we are told it will come upon us quickly, perhaps in the darkness, surprising like the first labor pain, like something that wakes you suddenly from sound sleep.

In all those darkened places, we realize, God is at work mightily, in ways that are unusual, in ways we’ll miss if we don’t look at it for a while, long enough for our eyes adjust anyway. Our eyes adjust and we focus and then we see it, the goodness – of the manger, the cross, the tomb – the goodness of the darkness.

Advent blessings of darkness and focus and discovery to you. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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