Sermon by Kim Christman
WFBC, June 21, 2015
When I was little I was afraid of the dark, especially the monsters that were lurking under my bed and the huge spiders that would crawl out of my closet as soon as my parents turned out the light. I would call out to my mom and dad to come and look under the bed for me because I was too afraid to do it myself. And they would come and help me go back to sleep and feel safe. They were the presence of God in Psalm 27; they made a refuge for me, a refuge of love and protection. While these childlike fears are just a normal stage of development, the fear of the dark can be much more serious. We learn from an early age in all kinds of fairy tales to fear the dark, the dark forest, the dark castle, the dark cave. Modern tales use the imagery of darkness all the time. Think of Harry Potter and the dark forbidden forest and the Dark Lord, The Lord of the Rings has the Land of Shadow, and in Star Wars there is Dark Side of the Force.
Modern news stories are full of accounts of violent crime that happen in the darkness of our city streets and our country neighborhoods and the darkness of family lives. We were all catapulted into a dark place Wednesday night with the news of a mass killing inside a Charleston, SC church, what is supposed to be a sanctuary, a safe place, a place of light. The mystics talk about the Dark Night of the Soul, a time of great anguish and terror. Maybe that’s why we turn to the Psalms that deal with the fears of the night and darkness like Psalm 23, “Ye, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” And, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Perhaps that’s why we sing so many hymns about light—because we need them. We sing “Send the Light,” and in “Joyful Joyful” we sing,“Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, Drive the dark of doubt away. Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.” There is “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.” Light is the beginning of creation, it is wonderful, it helps us see, it gives us life, gives us the hope of a new day.
The writer of Psalm 27, probably David, wrote about light, perhaps because he knew the darkness of vulnerability, loneliness and fear. And, thanks to God, the Psalmist reminds us that our ability to trust is not dependent on our own human ability, our discipline or even our desire. It comes from God. We love because God first loved us. We trust God because God is trustworthy. We have faith because God if faithful. And there is more encouragement in that as we don’t have to compare ourselves or our faith to others. We can all lean on the same source and remind each other to do so without fear.
And we need to remind each other. Sometimes we need to do the reminding, and other times we are the ones who need reminding because we all face times when our world threatens to steal that trust and faith away from us. That is the deepest threat, more than the real dangers of our world, the fear of losing our confidence in God maybe even the fear of losing God. We need to be reminded that God is present. We need to repeat the Psalm. We need to read it again and again, particularly in the midst of the loss of 9 faithful brothers and sisters. I want to say their names.
Lance Daniel L. Simmons
We look for, we plead for God’s presence. And we remember with great sadness that this is not the first time someone has been killed in a church. In 1963, four girls were killed in 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmigham, Alabama. In 1974, Dr. Martin Luther King’s mother, Mrs. Alberta Williams King was murdered while sitting at the organ. In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed while celebrating mass in El Salvador. In the Bible, Zechariah was killed between the altar and the temple. And so we plead for God to protect us because we recognize that there is no place safe from danger, no secure place on earth, save in the depths of our innermost souls.
Perhaps that’s why I believe this Psalm is one Psalm and not two because we live in a back and forth space of darkness and light, confidence and fear, gratitude for past deliverance and pleading for deliverance now. We can respond to frightening things with trust and pleading at the same time. And so when we are overwhelmed with tragedies, with losses, with fear, we need to be reminded that somewhere there is a light that shines in dark places, when all other lights go out. This is a quote from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and it accompanied a gift of a glass that held the light of the Elves’ most beloved star. I imagine that as a child I would have slept better if I had had one under my pillow. But we really have it. We have it in our hearts. It opens to me the possibility that God’s light is present inside of us even when our surroundings are completely overwhelming. When we can’t see any light at all—in times like this week—we remember from John’s Gospel that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, cannot overpower it, cannot put it out.
On Wednesday night, Stan and I were watching the movie Selma. In the film, when King goes to visit the father of Jimmy Lee Jackson who was murdered, he says, “There are no words. But I do know this—that God was the first to cry.” On Wednesday night, God was the first to cry.
The Psalms are a book of songs that are meant to be sung more than once. I remember a friend of mine gave me a cassette of poetry and I listened to it and then started to give it back to her and told her that I had heard it. She said, “Just once?” I said, “Yes,” The way she looked at me I knew I had just begun to learn that poetry. I began to really listen to it again and again, and the poetry began to do its work. The same with the Psalms. We read and sing them more than once. Not just to enjoy them but because we need to be reminded of what they say, particularly ones like Psalm 27. I need reminders not to be afraid because too often there are too many things to fear in this world. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy is having a session with Charlie Brown and tries to identify his fears and goes through a long list with him. Finally leans over getting very close to him and asks, “Do you think you have pantophobia?” He asks, “What’s that?” “The fear of everything.” Then, after a moment Charlie Brown shouts at the top of his lungs, “THAT’S IT!!!”
So whatever your fears or anxieties, whether one thing or everything, you can put them right in the middle of this Psalm. Write it in because they can fit right in, whatever they are. Whatever your dark place is when all other lights go out, that is where God is. If it’s a terrible tragedy, fear not. If it’s a long time struggle, fear not. If it’s just a really bad day, fear not. And whether or not the enemies encircling you seem to prevail, fear not. Remember that the real battle of fear is inside ourselves. And that my friends is the place where God’s refuge is secure, where nothing in this world can touch or take away, where the light shines no matter what. Fear not to have hope, to carry on, to get up, because you never get up on your own. It is God who pulls you out of the fear and sets you high upon a rock.
Sometimes I need to remember the stories I love to help me face my fears and say, “If Sam and Frodo can climb Mt. Doom to destroy the Ring, then maybe I can do somethings small for God.” If Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and John Lewis can stand up for racial justice in the face of all kinds of fears and terrors, maybe I can stand up and speak up when I need to. And if the families of the slain worshipers of the church in Charleston can go to a courtroom and offer forgiveness, then maybe I can get up in the morning and take part in a meeting that I dread and seek to find a way to bear some kind of small witness to the transforming power of love of God. If Jesus could climb Calvary’s hill and not lift a finger in his own defense, maybe I can at least slow down my tendencies to be on the defensive and to be right all the time. And if Jesus can die and come back to life, then maybe I can face any day of trouble and see it as an opportunity to practice resurrection.
My dad’s final days were in the category of “days of trouble.” And it took me a while to engage all the emotions that surrounded us during that time. Sometimes it felt like and army surrounding me ready to devour me. But when we found ourselves in your company, when I spoke to several of you on the phone, saw you at Salemtowne, when Lia came to be with us, when so many of you came to the funeral, when Woody and the choir provided such beautiful music of consolation, when you said your own personal words of remembrance, peace and comfort, and when so many of you prayed for us with deep love, we were and are sustained. You were and are the presence of God that is in Psalm 27. When I was particularly sad and afraid and not able to see the light, you held the light for me, reminded me that it still did exist in the midst of my fears and grief. You reminded me that the light still shines in the darkness when all other lights go out. You gave me the courage to lean onto God’s presence, onto the strength of this community of faith through which I have continued to be blessed.
Many of you know that Stan and I have recently returned from almost a year in Cuba. There are many people there who prayed for us during the time of my dad’s illness and death. I want to mention our sister church in a small village called La Vallita. My sister Carolyn and I put some sea shells and rocks on my dad’s grave because he loved the beach. The pastor of our sister church named Sila has a granddaughter named Ruth Vivian. She found a special rock that she gave me to bring back and put on my dad’s grave, to remind me that they prayed for us and are still praying for us. This rock that reminds me that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.
Most of the time we understand Scripture to day that darkness is something to be endured, to overcome, to get through. However, what if there is something more to darkness? What if darkness is more than just a place to be feared? What if darkness has something to contribute to life? Our bodies need the dark. The earth needs the dark. Plants need the dark. Seeds need a dark place in the earth to be reborn. Without the dark, there is no rebirth. Could the dark be another place of trust without fear, a mysterious place of new life?
Wendell Berry wrote this:
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 angel feet and angel wings
Maybe Jesus can be the light of the world and the dark of the world. Maybe the darkness can be a place of rest, mystery and rebirth. Perhaps we need not fear the darkness after all. Neither do we need to fear the light. We need not fear the mystery. We need not fear at all.