January 1, 2012
Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12
When the Star in the Sky is Gone
Some of you may know that I am a chaplain serving the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition. The coalition serves vulnerable youth in the detention centers in King County. In my capacity as chaplain, I receive many stories that shake my foundation. One particular night, I was sitting at a table playing cards with 3 kids in the detention center. During the card game, it seemed as if a light opened up and surrounded just our little table. In and amidst the clamor of teenage boys in jail, we found a sacred spot. Playing cards. At a small table. When this sacred spot opened while we were playing cards, the boys began to share their stories. One boy, a Muslim from Somalia, told of leaving Somalia when his parents had been murdered in front of him. Another boy told of being the child of drug addicts and gang members. One boy continued to sit silently. As the boys talked, they talked of their lost hopes and their lost dreams. I just sat and received their stories, continuing to deal out the cards. It seemed at that time all I could offer was my ears and my heart.
On the way home that evening, I kept replaying the conversation in my head. All I could do was bounce what I knew about these kids against national statistics. These kids had non-existent or fully dysfunctional parenting, their education was below a fourth grade education, they lived in poverty, and they were people of color. According to statistics, the odds against their success is astronomical.
- 75% of those incarcerated as adults have brown skin
- 68% of State prison inmates did not receive a high school diploma
- A majority of those incarcerated are from low income families
- Being incarcerated is a predictor of continuing to stay in poverty
These statistics and the stories I received from the boys were bouncing around in my head as I drove home that evening. I could not see, logically, how they could possibly escape a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Their future seemed very bleak. And I felt bleak on their behalf. I could not see the light.
I know what you're thinking! This is a very depressing sermon. I just ask that you stay with me a little longer, stay in the darkness for just a little while.
In our scripture from Isaiah today, it seems all light and love and blessings. It is tempting to gloss over verse 2. Verse two says: darkness will cover the earth and a thick darkness will cover the people. Before the promise of the light, comes the promise of darkness.
The darkness is uncomfortable. It demands that we use different senses and see in a new way. It is hard to learn new things so naturally, we want to escape the darkness as quickly as possible.
Parker Palmer asks the question, "are we so eager to get to the light that we fail to dwell in the darkness long enough to learn what it has to teach us? As we know, there are a lot of "longest nights" in life, and some of them seem impossibly long…As one who has spent months in the dark night of depression, I know how important it has been to let darkness become my teacher. The poets know this too.
Theodore Roethke says: "In a dark time, the eye begins to see."
Wendell Berry teaches us:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
And Rilke says, very simply, "I have faith in the night.”
Faith in the darkness. The faith in darkness promised by Isaiah leads us to the light. Isaiah tells us that the promise will come to the light of Israel bringing gold and frankincense, proclaiming the glory of God. For Christians that foreshadows our epiphany story. A story about coming into the light, by the light.
Most of us are very familiar with the story of the Magi or the Wise Men. It is a story of astrologers who studied the stars and studied ancient writings. In the course of their study, which was done without the light of the star of Bethlehem, they began to learn about the light to come. Eventually, they put all the information together and they discovered the light in the sky. Then the star led them to King Herod and then to the young child, Jesus.
This leads to two important things. First, the Magi leave the child Jesus, they leave the light, to avoid Herod. Second, Joseph packs up Mary and Jesus and they leave Bethlehem and go to Egypt in the middle of the night. They go in the darkness.
I imagine that the early followers of Jesus felt like they were in the darkness after Jesus was crucified and after his ascension. They had the living light right there with them and they lost it. We know that many of Jesus' followers isolated themselves from their neighbors, even refusing to disclose their relationship with Jesus. They lived in the darkness.
You can see the progression of how the disciples lived in the darkness through reading all four gospels in chronological order. The order is Mark, Matthew, Luke, and then John. I would suggest that each gospel is trying to answer the question of what to do in the darkness without the living light of Jesus in their midst.
After Jesus' death, Mark points the disciples and Peter to Galilee. That is where they will see Jesus again. If we stick to the original ending of Mark, the resurrected Jesus never appears. The living light never re-enters the world. That is Mark's answer to the question. Go to Galilee, where Jesus ministered and you become the light to the world and I will join you soon.
When Matthew answers the question, he has the promise of the resurrection and ascension to build on. Matthew gets more explicit. Jesus tells them directly, in Galilee, to go among the people and become the light of the world, doing all Jesus commanded. Then Jesus makes the direct promise that he will be with them always, to the end of the age.
Luke's answer is similar to Matthew, although the geography has changed. He says to practice repentance and forgiveness and witness to all people of these things. But first, wait in the darkness between Jesus' ascension and the coming of Pentecost. For Luke, the darkness is then filled with worship and praise in the temple.
John's answer is different from everybody else. He no longer is grappling with the absence of Jesus. He offers us the living Word that was with God before the beginning of the world and stays with us always. The living Word that is the light of the nations. John has no darkness. However, his final statements to the disciples about what to do is clear. He says, "tend my lambs" and "follow me." John's answer is that we are always in the light. But are we? Do we live continually in the light? Probably not. But, we can all lay claim to the promise of the light.
The question is, what do we do in the darkness? What do we do when the star in the sky is gone?
Recently, I was at the Seattle Men's Chorus "Cool Yule" performance. During their performance, I was struck by the lyrics of one of their songs titled, "After the Angels." When I got home, I googled what lyrics that I could remember. I found out that this song was based off of a poem by Howard Thurman.
Howard Thurman was a spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. He introduced Dr. King to Gandhi and to nonviolence. He was the grandson of slaves and became one of the most respected preachers of his time. After serving as the dean of the chapel at Howard University, he surprised many by leaving his tenured post in 1944 to take on the challenge of building the nation’s first intentionally interracial, church—the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. This was remarkably prophetic in a period when race relations were quite strained, and religious differences were pronounced. But that was his style—thinking ahead to a time beyond his own.
In the 50's and 60's, many thought he would be the “Moses” of the Civil Rights movement. But he chose a different path. His path was to live among the people, visibly showing a new way of being in the world. He left active involvement in the civil rights movement for the pursuit of deeper spirituality and mysticism. But, for Thurman, this wasn’t a matter of choosing one over the other. For Thurman, social activism could only be sustained and nurtured by deep spiritual roots—something that King came to appreciate from Thurman. Instead of merely protesting what was wrong with society and fighting the institutions, Thurman sought to build a vision of the realm of God within those institutions that would have relevance to social concerns. As such, he was a light in the darkness as he communicated his vision of the Kingdom of God. Here is the poem that I discovered that day. It is titled, “The Work of Christmas.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
When the star in the sky is gone. When we are in darkness, the work of Christmas begins. Just as every gospel writer has told us, it is our job to do the work of Jesus while we are in the darkness. And the particular promise of John is that even though we are in the darkness, the promise of the light is always present. This is a promise of the light now, but not yet. We learn and work in the darkness while we live into the light.
Looking back to that long drive home after that night in the detention center, when I was living in the darkness of bleak statistics and possibilities, the light that broke in was that each of us has the possibility and promise of resurrection. After all, resurrection is the light returning into the world after three devastating days of darkness. There sits the promise of transformation that is aided by trust in the light even when we cannot sense it. Our job becomes doing the work of Christmas even in the darkest of times. Holding on to the promise of the Light with us now, but not yet. As a community, we are called to return to Galilee and to find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, and to visit the imprisoned.
So, I wonder what the darkness and the light is calling you to do? How will you meet the challenge of the darkness? And how will you hold on to the memory of light?
Shalom and Amen.
 Parker Palmer, Facebook, 12/20/2011.
 Mark 15:7-8
 Matthew 28:16-20
 Luke 24:44-49
 John 1:1-4
 John 21:15-19
 Biographical information summarized from The Rev. Dr. Paul C. Hayes, "When the Song of the Angels is Stilled," January 7, 2007.