The Corner Office
A Light When All Other Lights Go Out
This is a sermon Kurt Esslinger gave at Lake View Presbyterian Church on Sunday December 30th, 2012.
The nights are finally beginning to get shorter. It is one thing we can rely on as we reach this time in the season. The days begin to grow longer. And yet, the cold has set in. We hear the crunch, crunch, crunch of snow under our feet and have to take a bit more care when the crunch turns into slippery ice. The air and the wind is finally getting to where it has some real bite in it, so we rush to cover up our ears and our noses with hats and scarves and ear muffs. There are some things that Chicago seasons particularly will not allow you to forget. This is also part of the beauty that I find in following a liturgical calendar through the seasons, not allowing us to forget the happy moments of release in the biblical histories, but also the darker moments of foreboding. Two weeks ago on a Sunday morning, I took off to New York with a group of 10 UIC students on an Agape House trip to visit the Presbyterian Ministry to the United Nations. While there, an intern at the Presbyterian Ministry led our group in a prayer where he thanked God for making this a season that we cannot ignore, even if we are tired and exhausted and want to turn everything off, this season always seems to break into our consciousness.
Here we are finishing up the time of remembering the events leading up to the birth of Jesus the Christ; this story of waiting and hope. For some of us, this time of holidays brought back memories and experiences of family, warmth, and full stomachs. For others of us, this time brought back memories of family, anger, and conflict. For still others, this time is filled with a mixture of all of that. Some years, it feels like we are dragged through the entire breadth of it. This year, for the first time… usually I try to find alternative Christmas music that doesn’t make me want to scratch my eyes out, although I usually end up flipping between Harry Connick Jr. and The Nightmare Before Christmas. But this year, for the first time I sought out Blues Christmas music specifically. Spotify, an online music source, found me an interesting album of first wave blues music from 1925-1955, full of songs about how sad Christmas was about to be, that their lover would not return, or Santa wasn’t going to bring them anything good, or that their heat wasn’t going to turn on. I found myself this year, likely due to a different soundtrack, considering even more the situation of other parts of society for whom Christmas is a season of dread, either of fighting with family yet again, or of dealing with the time without any family or any shelter while so much of the rest of the country seems to lavish in family, shelter, and warmth. The more I sat with these thoughts, the more I came to feel that, who indeed is Christmas for if not the downtrodden and those considered disposable by our society?
As we are forced to think of Christmas in every store and coffee shop we enter, it usually feels like the Disney version of Christmas where everything seems to work out pretty well, and all the little girls and boys try to be on their best behavior so that Santa gives them something good instead of a lump of coal. I fought more and more with this unhelpful dichotomy of expectations this season feeling within that something was wrong with a Christmas story where you get what you deserve. It conflicted too much with what I knew the Christmas story to actually be about.
You have Mary and Joseph having to return a great many miles, with Mary near the end of a pregnancy, to the birthplace of the husband of the family. This is no easy task for those traveling without much means. There were no AC’s or heaters in their car. There was no Service Plaza there to welcome them when they crossed the state line between Indiana and Ohio. The book of Matthew also tells of a tyrant of a king fearing that he might lose his power with the birth of a particular young boy among his people. He sent out men to find the child so that the prophecy may be killed along with it. So the specter of death followed this family along its path to Bethlehem. All of this occurring under the pressure of many years of colonial rule under the Empire of Rome. Perhaps you are familiar with the refrain of Empire, “Why are these colonies, these savages so unhappy with our presence when we have given them roads, hospitals, and universities?” all the while tightening its military grip and silencing opposition in the name of Pax Romana.
Yes, Mary and Joseph were in a position to sing the blues as they prepared for their journey back to Bethlehem. This is not a story of a family already overflowing with blessings, and thankfully the young child has been a good boy, so (yay!) he gets a new puppy! On the contrary, this young couple is fighting the pains and sufferings of a disposable people within the empire. And yet it is here in this very dangerous, very trying time, a time of darkness for the people of Israel; that this sign of hope is raised and a light is set in the darkness. I find it particularly interesting that Europe decided to have celebrations of Christ’s birth held to coincide with celebrations of the Winter Solstice, that the time of the darkest day of the year, the longest night, becomes the brightest sign of hope for the coming of help from our God. It is in the midst and context of a concert of blues songs that this hymn of hope is raised by Mary in this first chapter of Luke. Some of you may have heard this hymn of Mary put to music as the Canticle of the Turning. “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great. And my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my weakness you did not spurn. So from east to west shall my name be blessed for the world is about to turn. My heart shall sing of the day you bring, let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn.” That’s the most important line for me there: “wipe away all tears…” for there are surely tears to be wiped away.
But it is this acknowledgement in a time of darkness that brings us together now. Yes, we are suffering under a society structured for the benefit of only a certain portion of that society. Yes, there is a King Herrod who is enjoying the flexibility of wielding his power of his little portion of the empire. Yes, we still have to hear about preachers using their Christmas sermons to blame the outcasts for all of their problems. We have reason for tears now, we have reason to sing the blues now, but we are also going to take this moment to proclaim that even in the midst of suffering the power of hope cannot be extinguished.
I am particularly fond of exploring other stories and myths of various cultures and times that, as a Canadian pastor named John Van Sloten who wrote in the book, The Day Metallica Came to Church, about stories that co-illumine the story of God in scripture. The story that co-illumines this time of year the most for me is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When the fellowship visited the Lady Galadriel in Lothlorien, she gifts to Frodo a very special phial of water from her powerful mirror. The phial contained the light of Earendil, a special star to the race of elves. She explains to him, “Let it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.” Eventually, near the end of his journey, Frodo finds himself inside the cave of Shelob, the great spider, lured by an unfaithful Gollum. Deep in a labyrinth of a cave where no light from outside could reach, an utter and impenetrable dark. There in the moment of despair and anger, he raises this gift of the light of a star and calls out upon a story of old, Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! For a moment, the darkness and the great spider is driven back, giving him and Sam time to escape.
This promise of the birth of Jesus is our gift of light now in times of darkness and cold. When all other lights go out; when all other warmth ceases; we have this light that we can raise and harken back to. When all we have seen around the world is cause for tears; when anti-gay forces around the country gather in opposition and we sing the blues; we gather together with whatever semblance of family we have, even if it is only a crude crew of misfits; we listen to Judas Priest sing Christmas songs through snow covered highways; we gather and recite the story of hope. We sing a song of tyrants and empires that can never last forever. We celebrate the coming of joy, and the gift of light, so that we have strength to stand up against the darkness and drive back the power of hate and death. So, sisters and brothers, gather with me, sing the songs, and raise the gift of light with me, the gift of life, the gift of Jesus the Christ.