Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
In these shortest days of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway), many of us find ourselves longing for light. I know I’m not the only Seattle resident to find it’s not the winter rainsthat get me down, but the darkness that accompanies me through my morning commute and starts returning already by mid-afternoon. How we enjoy Christmas lights and candlelight and the warmth of fireplaces in this December season! The more light the better.
I also know I’m not the only one feeling the metaphorical darkness in our world right now. We’ve been witnessing far too much hatred, far too much violence for it not to weigh heavily on our hearts and spirits. We’ve had more opponent-bashing and name-calling and truth-bending than we can stomach from political leaders. We’ve also seen too many examples of lives uprooted and lives lost in wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes for us to make our way through the season of Advent this year feeling particularly bright and cheerful about the state of our world.
But for better or for worse, we also know that every era of human history has had its share of darkness. Every individual faces dark times personally too. On any given Sunday morning there are likely to be people in this very room weathering such a season. The challenge then - this and everyAdvent - is to keep the faith, to hang onto hope, to demonstrate courage in the midst of the darkness, whatever form that may take for each one of us.
We’re aided in this effort by words of encouragement from the Scriptures. God’s Word itself has power to uplift us, which is why I included such a range of texts this morning about God’s light shining in the darkness. I remember years ago learning a beautiful prayer that asks God, as we read the Scriptures, to help us “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” Make it so, Lord. Words telling us to take courage, for you are our light and our salvation. Promises that your light will come to those who walk in deep darkness. Reminders that even the darkness is not dark to you. Announcements of Jesus’ entry into the world as light the darkness could not overcome. May these words not simply bounce off our eardrums. Help them, Lord, to make their way deep into our core. Help us so to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that precisely on our darkest days they would come to mind. For even the words themselves can have such power to uplift us.
And sometimes we will find these words of promise – like Jesus himself – are given flesh and blood.
Don’t you love it when you do come across stories of God’s light shining in the darkness? Our book group here at church recently finished reading Tattoos on the Heart, and we’d all commend it to you. Serving in the gang capital of the world in Los Angeles, Father Gregory Boyle (known to the gang members, or “homies,” as Father G) explains his philosophy of battling that particular form of darkness this way: “At Homeboy Industries, we seek to tell each person this truth: they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them – and then we watch, from this privileged place, as people inhabit this truth. Nothing is the same again. No bullet can pierce this, no prison walls can keep this out. And death can’t touch it – it is just that huge. But this much stands in the way of that liberating truth. You need to dismantle shame and disgrace, coaxing out [the] truth in people who’ve grown comfortable believing its opposite.” (Tattoos on the Heart, pp. 192-193)
Father G is all too familiar with tragedy, as you might expect in that setting, yet he also shares story after story of hope and healing, of hearts softened and lives changed. Like the story of “Clever,” a new hire at Homeboy Industries, which he tells this way:
He seems eager to begin at Homeboy Silkscreen, and at twenty-two years old he has assured me he is ready to retire his jersey from the barrio [in other words, retire from gang violence]. He moves with me easily through the factory, shaking hands cheerfully with those printing shirts ... Even enemies he greets and looks them in the eye.
Until he turns a corner and sees Travieso, a twenty-four-year-old from an enemy hood. In unison, they stare instantly at their feet, some mumbling takes place, and there is a great mutual shifting of body weight. They do not shake hands. I think: [But wait,] he’s just finished shaking hands with all sorts of enemies.
I discover sometime later that the hatred they hold for each other is [profound]. Not only is this a neighborhood [issue,] this is also personal. Some[thing] has transpired between them, and the breach is beyond repair. I can sense this much in the moment, even before the details get filled in later.
Their eyes are still epoxied to their [shoes]. “Look,” I tell them, “if you can’t hang working together – please let me know now. I gotta [whole lot] a’ homies who would love to have this [job].” They say nothing, so that’s that. [In other words, they both remain on the job.]
Some six months later, Travieso finds himself surrounded in an alley, greatly outnumbered by members of an enemy gang who beat him badly… [I’ll spare you the gory details but let’s just say it’s one of the more horrifying things Father G had seen, and clearly this kid wasn’t going to make it. But he gets a call from Clever just after he leaves the hospital.]
“Hey,” he begins awkwardly, “that’s messed up… ‘bout what happened to Travieso.”
“Yeah, it is,” I say to him.
“Is there anything I can do?” Clever asks… “Can I give him my blood?”…
This offer sucks the breathable air out of the atmosphere for both of us. We can each feel the other tremble in silence [over the phone]. Clever takes the lead and punctures the quiet, with great resolve and unprotected tears. “He.. was not my enemy. He was my friend. We worked together.”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them [God’s] light has shined.”
I find I’m also drawn, in Boyle’s book, to people sharing God’s light in smaller-scale ways that still make a big impact. Like Michelle and Emily, who work in Father G’s office, making a fuss over a young man who’d just gotten out of prison, ordering in a bunch of pizzas to celebrate, or as Father G puts it, “killing the fatted pepperoni for their prodigal.” Or like Father G’s own sister, who provided plush new personalized bath towels for the two “homies” staying overnight in her house before they attended a big presentation out of town. Think about that – fluffy new monogrammed bath towels to welcome two young men who’d been treated like dirt their whole lives long, who’d been told they didn’t matter to anyone. How beautiful is that?
Stories like these also make me wonder where similar opportunities might present themselves to me, to share God’s love and light in a simple, tangible way. What is the bath towel or pizza party Icould offer, if you will? Surely one great example is the car loads full of toys and clothes, and lovingly handmade hats and blankets, and that pile of cozy quilts and sturdy duffel bags our quilting team put together, all delivered to foster kids at Treehouse this week on your behalf. Way to go, light-bringers!
Also closer to home, I shared in a sermon last month that I attended a Friday night Shabbat service at my neighborhood synagogue, Temple Beth Am; I “showed up for Shabbat,” as the hashtag invitation put it, the week after the synagogue tragedy in Pittsburgh. That whole experience spoke so powerfully of God’s light shining in the darkness that I promised I’d share with you a couple of memories. One that imprinted itself on my heart was when the rabbi invited responses from the congregation to a question: How can we each do our part to share strength and comfort, peace and healing in such a broken world? And a young boy, maybe 10 years old, bravely spoke up in that crowded room: “The voices of hate are really loud,” he said, “reallyloud… So we have to make sure people can hear us speaking love too.” Another moment I’ll never forget was when they came to a place in the regular Friday night service that would normally have them singing joyfully about God saving his people from captivity in Egypt. The rabbi paused the service for a moment and told us they spent some time at their staff meeting that week discussing whether it was really appropriate to sing such a triumphant song following the tragedy in Pittsburgh… they concluded that actually there was no better time, no more important time, that in fact it was absolutely vitalthat their community sing about God defeating oppression at such a time as this, when such a thing had happened. What’s more, this is nota community that’s going to be frightened into silence or deprived of its treasured moments of Sabbath celebration, she declared, cuing the music to begin. What followed, as they sang this magnificent Hebrew song of victory, was that instead of the typical line of people holding hands and dancing their way around the synagogue, suddenly there were two lines and then three lines, and I honestly don’t know how many lines there were in the end, because as I was witnessing this unfold with tears in my eyes, the rabbi and her line danced by my seat in the far back of the room, and she grabbed my hand, and suddenly I was pulled into that gloriously loaded moment, as our line squeezed its way between others circling around the room. What a powerful way to say to the darkness: you simply can’t defeat us. Because we know the truth. Love wins. Light wins. God wins. I’ll never forget it.
Knowing God’s light can shine in the darkest of times, knowing we can even be the ones to reflect and direct that light where it’s most needed … none of this magically remedies all that’s wrong in the world, but it canhelp us make our way through it with courage and with hope.
Remember this, people of God. Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.
The God who promised that the people walking in darkness would see a great light… The God who turned up – the Light of the World himself – as a babe in Bethlehem… That very same God is still busily throwing light our way. In the form of pizza parties for prodigals, and former gang members desperately hoping they can help save the lives of those they once called enemies. In congregations that dare to sing and dance and proclaim God’s saving love in the face of vicious acts of hate.
And here in thiscongregation too. Every time you take on the divisiveness of our world’s darkness by extending the word “family” to include people who don’t look like you or talk like you or vote like you or worship like you. Every time you take on the selfishness of this world’s darkness by reaching out generously and sharing abundantly with those in need. Every time we take on the hopelessness of this world’s darkness by proclaiming together what it means to be people of the resurrection, and children of light and hope.
Just as we watch for Christmas lights as we drive around on a dark December evening, we are called in this Advent season to watch for signs of God’s light that the darkness cannot overcome. We are also called to belight in this dark world, doing our part to bring hope and healing, comfort and peace. May we all be light-seekers and light-bringers in this Advent season. Amen.