Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Let us pray: O God, you challenge us to recognise your presence in everything we meet on land, in the liquid life which flows around us in this part of your creation, and in the air which we breathe and which is home to so many of your winged creatures and the clouds and sunshine which are vehicles of your creativity in our lives. May we be up for the challenge. Amen.
I would respectfully submit that as people who live north of sixty that we know something about light and dark. Am I right?
A few years ago I was introduced to the hymn writing of Brian Wren. He has written many wonderful hymns with words of depth, beauty and insight.
This is not, however going to be a reflection which pays homage to Brian Wren other than to make mention of only one of his hymns, and then only as an introduction to that opening comment I made to this reflection.
I first heard and loved Wren's hymn: Joyful is the Dark sometime after it was published in our Voices United hymn book, but it only took on its complete significance when I moved to Yellowknife six years ago.
There is a large preponderance of material – written and anecdotal, scriptural, theological and devotional, that would suggest that God's presence is experienced as light. How many times have you heard the phrase: Jesus Christ – the light of the world? How often do we celebrate sunrise – especially at Easter – as the dawning of a new understanding of God's presence in the world? When we read scripture we pray that God will shine light on the words we read and that God will be a lamp for our feet as we journey. The Christian holy day of Epiphany is a celebration of the coming of the light.
All good. I have no problem with any of these metaphors or this idea of opened eyes and opened understanding to God's presence in the world. But, I believe that one of the most important messages that Jesus brought for us was to look at things from different perspectives. And therefore, when any concept, idea or method becomes the “standard” or “usual” or even “orthodox” way of understanding or interpretation, then I believe we are called by the example and teaching of Jesus to think again, to see what new insights can be gleaned from a different way of thinking.
That is what Brian Wren invites us to do with his hymn: Joyful is the Dark. Light may be the predominant metaphor to describe God's presence, but what can we learn when we think a different way? What insights can we gain from reflection (no pun intended) on the dark side of things?
Well, it turns out that I was invited to do that kind of reflection on air a few months ago. CBC Yellowknife was invited to do a co-production with the national CBC network for the show Tapestry. The series was called “Soundtrack of the Soul” nationally, but locally it was called “God's Own Jukebox”. Guests were invited to reflect on a piece of music that spoke to their soul. I was one of the people invited to be a guest. The task was daunting – to try to pick just one piece of music, especially for someone like me who has an extremely eclectic taste – ranging from the likes of Stompin Tom Connors to the operatic prowess of someone like Ben Heppner with everything – folk, rock, pop, indie, blues, instrumental, classical, sacred and secular in between. I had to choose and it turns out that the Yellowknife producer, Kirsten Murphy, had a plan to wring the music out of me. We met for an initial conversation and she asked me about my time in the north – when it was I came here, and what the experience of being a northerner has had on my understanding of the faith journey. That's when I mentioned Brian Wren's hymn – Joyful is the Dark. It speaks much more to me now that I live in a land of light and darkness – where those two realities are separated not so much by day and night as by winter and summer.
I would invite you to think of the many places in the bible where insight and understanding comes during the dark of night. I would also invite you to reflect on your own lives and I bet you can think of times in the dark when important decisions or insights came to you. You see we talk about light, but I think that God is especially present in the dark times – physically dark, or spiritually and emotionally dark. The famous “Dark Night of the Soul” phrase – probably first coined in Spanish by St John of the Cross – while it has a negative aspect to it – as a metaphor for the absence of God's presence, or at least a time when someone is experiencing the absence of God, can also be a vehicle by which we open ourselves to the often surprising ways in which God's presence becomes known to us. By way of example, just think of how many times biblical characters receive insight from a dream. I think you might be surprised at how often darkness is a source of insight and revelation.
Today's reading from the Hebrew bible is a case in point. Jacob is on the run – probably as much from God as he is from his cheated brother Esau. It is in a night time dream wrestle that he becomes aware of God's presence. He names this place along the Jabbok river the place of God – beth meaning place and el – one of the ways that God is named in the Hebrew scriptures.
This is a classic illustration of the point I am trying to make here – namely that the cover of darkness, a time when we are invited to reflect, cogitate, mull and even wrestle is often the best time to become aware that God is here too – prodding, agitating, comforting, inspiring, consoling, encouraging us to respond more clearly, follow more nearly, the way that God would have us go.
The cover of darkness, of course can also be used for no good. The parable we heard in the gospel reading today is an example of this. Under cover of darkness the thistles were sown in the field of good wheat. This parable is not so much about darkness and light, but it does offer a different perspective on another key concept – namely the dialogue between happening fast with urgency and waiting until the right time. Keen, neophyte gardeners might be tempted to weed the garden right away, as soon as they realized that thistles had been planted amongst the wheat, but the wise farmer said that it would be much easier to separate the weeds from the good plants after a time of growth when the difference between the two kinds of plants was much more apparent.
The beauty of the parables is that they offer many layers of meaning. When I first read this passage this week, it seemed obvious to me that it was about the importance of being someone who uses discernment in going about life. Sometimes the impulsive action can be destructive, and it is better to wait and make decisions with the wisdom of time and reflection to help us. That was the message I heard from Paul's letter to the Romans as well. It is okay to wait – especially if we don't use the waiting time impatiently but more as a blessing - a time when we can reflect on the value we gain from each moment lived in the presence of God. It is unfortunate to me that Matthew (and I believe it is Matthew's initiative at work here) decided that he had to add an interpretation of the parable of the story – which in some way steals the depth of meaning and interpretation away.
The message I would like to leave this day is just that – namely that there is a wealth of insight to be gained from the stories of the bible – stories of the relationship between God and God's people, and Jesus is a master at helping us to see the other side of the coin. One of the key phrases of Jesus throughout the gospel stories is : but I say to you, followed by a challenge to think about something in a new way. Don't worry if it doesn't come to you right away. There's a pretty good case to be made that it can happen in the wee hours of the morning, even though we may have to wait another six weeks or so for the real darkness to set in! Amen.