A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on December 9, 2018
The Second Sunday of Advent
Our worlds can grow dark so suddenly. We had a certain plan for our lives, and just like that, a new reality we didn’t plan for takes hold.
Your beloved walks out of your home for the last time. The doctor says, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do.” You drop your last kid off in her dorm room and the house is quieter than you expected. A policeman arrives at your door. A verdict is read. Something comes out of your mouth that you can’t take back. Your boss calls you into the office to inform you of the restructuring. You lose a dreamed-about baby to infertility or miscarriage. You had the much-wanted baby, and suddenly you are too sad and numb to imagine your child’s future or your’s. You say your final goodbye to the wife you promised to love till death do you part. You never thought she’d go first.
Barbara Brown Taylor calls the darkness a time in which you can’t see where you are going. In some way, you are given “The News,” and it changes everything you were sure of. The dark slows us down. It even stops us. Our old tools we brought with us are rendered useless there. You brought your map, but you can’t see it. You have a compass, but you can’t see it. You have a plan sketched out, but you can’t see it. The dark can be disorienting at best, and terrifying at worst.
No wonder we are too quick to flip on the light switch.
Mary Oliver says, “someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” There is much to be learned in the dark, and much growth that can happen there, if we are brave enough to accept it as a gift.
I met with our Ranny the other day, and she told me that she wouldn’t tell her story from up here because she hates public speaking, but that I could. Ranny has been sick with cancer for about a year, and she almost died three weeks ago when she had a bad reaction to the medicine. In fact, she thinks she died and came back. She was at the cancer clinic getting her chemo, and was suddenly plunged into the dark. Doctors and nurses and EMTs rushed around her trying to revive her. Somehow her heart went on, and she returned to us. “Dying is easy,” she said. “Living is what’s hard. And I want to live. I’m a stubborn old broad and I’m far too stubborn to die.”
For the first time, though, she wasn’t afraid of death. She felt God’s presence there in that dark place. God guided her feet into the way of peace that day.
The scriptures are full of the word “will”…a word that we associate with “not yet.” A word that we associate with promises, like the ones we make on our wedding day. In the Hebrew scriptures, God is the promise-maker. Take off the garment of sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem: God WILL show you splendor everywhere under heaven. God WILL give you the name “righteous peace.” God WILL bring your children back to you. God WILL lead Jerusalem with joy in the light of his glory. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high WILL break upon us.”
GOD has, God can and God WILL.
The biblical writers were living in a time of great darkness. They needed the reminder of who God was, the promise that God was still with them, and the assurance that their hearts would go on.
It’s unfortunate that the darkness is so often used in our scriptures as a metaphor for sadness, evil, ignorance and fear. Because darkness is also where the whole world is created. God spoke light into the darkness. Darkness is where seeds are planted and regenerate new growth deep in the earth. God buried Jesus deep into the dark womb of his mother Mary, where he emerged 9 months later to save the whole world. God resurrected Jesus out of the darkness of the tomb.
Life is created and re-created in darkness. And darkness is where all of us begin, intricately woven in the depths of the earth, knitted in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made. It is also where we will all return: back into the dark earth where we will become part of All That Is once again.
I was introduced to Kate Bowler through her writing when I read her essay in the New York Times a few months ago. I immediately picked up her book called “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved” and read it in a day.
Kate is married to the childhood love of her life, who still makes her laugh and swoon. After living off of ramen noodles with her husband for years as a perpetual student, she got a professorship at Duke Divinity School; her dream job. After a long period of infertility and a devastating miscarriage, she finally had a baby boy who is their sun, moon and stars. They bought a house, and filled their days doing work they love, anticipating waking up to the giggles of their small boy. All of Kate’s dreams had come true. She and her husband were fond of taking long walks, planning a seemingly endless future, which could only get brighter. #blessed.
And then at 35, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and was given a matter of months to live. Suddenly her world grew very small. Kate would leave everything she loved about her life far sooner than she had planned. Kate won’t see her toddler grow up. He won’t remember what she smelled like, or what her voice sounded like. Her husband’s bright future will no longer have her in it. Her interests and studies will die with her.
Kate still describes herself as an incurable optimist on her website. She is a professor in Christian history. She has written the only book on the history of the American Prosperity Gospel. Ironically, she studies the group of folks who believe that the more faith you have, the more God will bless you with health, wealth, and happiness.
Prosperity religion is a heresy and a toxic lie that poisons our country. And yet we are all susceptible to its allure, whether we go to a church that preaches it or not. We so badly want to believe that if things are going well, we are somehow blessed by God.
That’s why our faith is so easily the first tool to go when we are lost in the dark. We forget that we worship a God who doesn’t protect us from suffering, and who also doesn’t leave us alone in it. A God who promises that when we’ve lost sight of the path ahead, only love is what remains. This, too, is a gift.
Two months after her diagnosis, Kate Bowler writes:
“CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.
But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
I remember Shelly Kennedy-Leonard looking up at the walls of cards she hung around her before she died: “Look how much love there is out there for me! I wouldn’t know about all this love if I hadn’t gotten sick!” She brought me to Drumlin Hill and described it to me in every season. “It never stops being beautiful. It is always peaceful. You can see deer here, in the meadow, and the calliope of fall colors in the fall, and the kids sledding down the hill in the winter, and if you come here early in the morning, the mist rises off of the hill, and it is like a magical heaven, and all of creation is in concert with God. When I pray here, I just feel deep in my bones that all will be well. I am sure of God’s love just because of all of this beauty….”
God’s love was the only thing she was sure of. She knew she wasn’t alone in the dark.
There is a line from Isaiah that says “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, all flesh shall see it together.” God doesn’t promise us health, wealth and happiness. God promises us to show up in the flesh. God promises all flesh shall see God’s glory TOGETHER.
Kate Bowler says that what saves her every day is the ability to touch and be touched. Since she got sick, she just craves hands to hold, back rubs, hugs. “The weight of people‘s hands on my shoulders and head feels like I’m being put back together,” she says.
Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. When the old tools we carry no longer work, touch. Grab a hand, give a hug, use your hands to knit or make a meal for someone else, or your feet to march. Put skin in the game. Don’t leave anyone alone in the dark. We shall see God’s glory if we are willing to wait there, together.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.