Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Light and the Darkness

The Darkness and the Light
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 11, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 1: 1-5
John 1: 1-5

Here is the audio file of this sermon

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Today’s scripture passages are familiar, and they are the beginnings. The very beginning of the Bible in Genesis, the beginning of creation, the creation of the world, and then the beginning of John’s gospel, which actually takes a step backward, to the moment, if you could call it a moment, before time began, when it was just the Word, the Word and God, the very Word that becomes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, showing forever the depth and extent of God’s love for His creation, and the complete power and sovereignty of that love over, through and within that creation. In both you have darkness, and then light, God’s light, the light of the world, shining through that darkness. Today I want to share with you, continuing our look into some of the great Christian pieces of literature, I want to share with you, as the literary counterpoint of today, a poem that is very special and personal to me. It is one where seminal events of my life, the formative events in my life are forever connected and shaped to a specific and special memory of this poem. It has taken on new life for me beyond the words, but also including the words because the event I’m going to share with you doesn’t just surround the words of this poem, but is shaped and becomes a living testimony to their truth and brilliance, the very idea that the poem is trying to communicate, is what I felt, and needed. The poem is William Cowper’s “Light Shining Out of Darkness.” Cowper, spelled Cow-per, but pronounced Cooper was born in the 1730’s in England and had a troubled life, filled with depression and anxiety. He actually attempted suicide three times in his life. But he found solace eventually in poetry and in his conversion to a deepened sense of Christianity. His salvation entered into a life that was in great need, and stood as sufficient. Cowper was actually a contemporary and friend of John Newton, writer of Amazing Grace, who also had a late in light conversion to Christianity, and together they inspired each other to write many poems and hymns. This poem, Light Shining Out of Darkness” is one of the most anthologized of Cowper’s poems. Here is is:

God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill,

He treasures up his bright designs,

And works his sov'reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding ev'ry hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flow'r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan his work in vain;

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

He captures the unexplainable, unplannable, power that God has to penetrate the darkest moments in our lives and bring a shred of light, a shred that is glowing bright, like a beacon bringing us through the pain, a light to follow, we can find the hope, the silver lining, the faith that though the darkness comes, the light will follow, thought the pain is here, the strength will follow, though doubt and fear and worry cloud our minds, making it hard to see the light, it is truly there, always. It is truly always moving in a mysterious way, but it is always present, and ever in motion, to fast it would seem for us to try and control ourselves. That there is a paradox, between the apparent now, and the invisible future. . . one being hopeless, and difficulty, and the other being full of hope and peace, if faith can lead us forward.

I mentioned earlier that this poem is special to me. Back in 2006 I was in what would be my last year teaching at Christchurch School. I had begun my search for what was going to be next. It had become frightfully clear that it was now time to move on, but to what, and to where. To put someother pieces of the puzzle into focus, let me give you some other biographical checkpoints. It is probably February. . . that Christmas, I headed to church with my parents, who had just moved to Gloucester from where I grew up in Southern Maryland, there new house was about 20 minutes from where I was living and working there at Christchurch. . . It was Christmas Eve, and through the darkened sanctuary, in in the light shining at the organ, I see playing at the organ, this vision. . . is she looking at me? I have to stop staring at her. . . that kind of thing. . . I would over the next few months. . . have near misses with meeting her, including seeing her in the fellowship hall with kids all over her, I was sure they were hers, and so I gave up hope. . . but here we are, and in February, we started a poetry unit with my one senior class. . . I got to teach 4 sections of Juniors, and was given one section of seniors. One of these Seniors, Jake Copeland, I had taught as a Freshman, and also the previous year as a Junior. . . It was one of those great anomalies of scheduling and timing, where I moved up from my teaching of all Freshman classes, to have gotten enough experience to be trusted with upper classmen. So my plan was I was going to assign each of my Seniors a poem that they would write a response to, and to lead the class in discussion. Jake was given this poem, “Light Shining Out of Darkness.” This is February. . . ON March 20th, Jake was missing from my class, he would never enter it again. He had taken the day off. His parents were in Mexico. And he drove his four-wheeler into a tree, killing him instantly.  His memorial service would follow a few days later. I was asked to speak. . . what would I say. . . I was racking my brain. . . I had only done this kind of thing once before, three years ago, when we lost another student who I was really close to. . . and as I was going through my things in my classroom, I found it. Jake’s paper. . . “Light Shining Out of Darkness” an essay on Cowper’s poem, by Jake Copeland. I read it. . . wow. . . how impressive. . . how perfect. . . how beautiful were Jake’s words, his sentiments about greater meanings, and silver linings, and higher plans, and God’s special providence, that loving hand of creation and sovereignty, lovingly in control even in our darkest hours. Well, we are in some dark hours Jake, we miss you. . . can I read his words at his funeral? Because how amazing would it be to hear his words. . . words of hope, words of faith, words of such Theological beauty and timeliness. . . how perfect would it be. . . Oh my God. . . how am I ever going to do this. . . somehow I did. . . and I will never forget it. Nothing has shaped my life since like that did. . . I found, right before I was heading to new possibilities. . . for I had at somepoint in that same time thought about Seminary. . . at least I was thinking about Grad School. . . and Union Seminary was one of the one’s I was looking at, but ministry. . . me. . . no way. . . and here now, again I was given the chance to make a difference in the lives of grieving people. . . I found my own strength in helping others, I found that I somehow had the right words to say, the right chord to strike, the right presence. . . and it was sealed, I was headed to Seminary. . . and I was going to marry that Organ player. . . and just like Jake’s paper said. . . there was an abundance of light shining out of that darkness. . . just like three years earlier when I suffered the darkness of loss, as well. God in his continuous act of creating me. . . said again Let there be Light, thought the night had been quite dark, the dawn now was shining brightly.

I couldn’t help but also see the significance of this poem today. . . today the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. . . It was crazy, this week in my class, 9/11 came up, and I was realizing that these kids had never known it. They’d been living in it’s shadow, but they were too young to experience it on this day 15 years ago. . . it was amazing too how fast things have progressed away. . . it seems like just yesterday. . . and just a few years ago, we had a student at Blue Ridge whose father was killed when the towers collapsed, and now the freshmen were not even alive when it happened. Time moves on doesn’t it. . . . That was a dark day for sure. . . It is one of those events that  you remember exactly where you were, the details of the day. . . the questions you asked about the first plane, that were hopelessly answered by the second one. . . darkness. . . to the advent of new questions like how could this happen, how could such atrocity, such violence, such blatant disregard for human life, how could it happen? Who would do such a thing? Who could think up such a thing? But I remember the days following, the months following even. . . the way that people came together, the love that surrounded, the divisions that all seemed to disappear. . . the brotherhood, and patriotism, and care for heroes that it instilled, and fostered within us. It was palpable. . . the question is now what happened?

We were so close, so united. . . how did we get to here? What happened to the light that was shining so bright in that our darkest days? I want to share one of my own poems now, for it gets at this question by painting a picture of it. It’s called Night Lights

When stars shine in darkness,

Sparkling white ‘gainst the night,

It’s a moment often missed,

Or oft times shadowed in the mist.

Too much light can blur that far off twinkle,

Artificial light blinding our eyes

To the natural wonder of created gleaming,

Brighter beaming, but an eternity away,

At least seeming because we cannot control

What we have not made, though we try,

Thinking if we just could, it would be better,

Truly made righteous, made just, for us, by us,

Or at least me. I cannot speak for others.

So many opinions there would be on just

How it should be, what perfect could be,

If we could just agree. Maybe that is why

He, who made the sky, made all things,

All rules, all decisions, for only He knows

The hearts of all, the dreams we all seem

To find in the sky, hidden behind the gleaming

Of our artificial light’s own beaming.

This poem stems from one idea, one natural phenomenon, and that is when our lights, artificial lights, light bulbs, flood lights, street lamps, whatever. . . when our lights are shining we have difficulty seeing the stars. These lights that God hung in the darkness to guide the lost sailors home, the lights that mark the night, glorious, bright burning ball of fire and gas. . . indescribable distances away.. . . can be dimmed by our own lights. . . and what an amazing metaphor for the light shining our of the darkness. . . the light is always there, we just can’t see it. . . it is not until our lights are off, our defenses have been shattered, our plans have been dashed, our trembling grip let’s go, that we can see those stars again. . . that is why the darkness reveals in us what we couldn’t otherwise see. . . because in the darkness we are no longer blinded by the fruits of our labors, clouding our vision of the real power in the universe. . . . now after 15 years, we’ve already become divided. . . distracted. . . polarized. . . people have pressed forward with agendas. . . demagogues have promised safety and security. . . we’ve built systems, we’ve put them in place. . . we. . . we . . . we. . . us . . . us . . . us. . . I . . . I . . . I. . . and where has God gone? Where has our faith gone? How have we let our relationships get broken? Have we become blinded to the light, too rapped up on our own stuff. . . have we built a tower of Babel again, trying to reach heaven on Earth, and now have become scattered, tossed, and lost in the ever blowing wind. . . still blind to the light?

There are two things that we feel in our darkest days, that we sometimes forget about when we are bathing in the light. One is humility, all our machinations, all our thoughts that we could do it on our own are taken away, and we find that we are very much in need—in need of eachother, and in need of God. The other, and perhaps it is born of humility is gratitude. . . for the very thing we need in the darkness, is a little bit of light, and that is the one thing that we get. And because we are not shadowed in our own machinations any more, that we have been humbled to our knees we can see that light, and we can bathe ourselves in the light. And light for us becomes like water for someone in the desert, we crave it we thirst for it, and when it touches our lips we are absolutely thankful for just the most bitter drop. . . so too with the light shining in the darkness. . . somewhere as time goes on, we build ourselves back up, and we lose a little bit of that humility. . . and we stop being thankful.

You see it all the time, any time you see a 9/11 poster, you see the two towers. . . and it says “Never Forget.” Some people would say that Never Forget means to always be vigilant, always prepared, always to be worried, always to be scared. Others may say that Never Forget means we need to hold on to get revenge, to put those who did it to justice. I think Never Forget means, what we need to most remember today and everyday is to be humble and absolutely grateful. I look back on my relationship with Jake, and the days and events of all that, and I am humbled by the care that would send him into my life at that very moment. And on the days when I am frustrated by the minutia and the small, and the details of life that have to do with ministry, and life, and marriage, and I tend to lose sight of the amazing gratitude that I should have. That is what is missing when I’m lost, and that is what’s there, the humility and the gratitude, when I am found.

Let us pray,

Almighty God on this day and everyday, may we look back on our lives and recognize the light that is always shining, the light that is impossible to miss in our darkest days, but somehow hidden from our view when our lights are shining bright, help us not to fear the darkness, but to embrace it as part of your amazing plan, that goes beyond our imagining, the type of plan that would give of your son, to live and experience life in this world, only to be crucified, rejected and sealed in a tomb, only to show us that those things never can be done. In Jesus Christ our Risen Savior’s name, do we pray, Amen.