For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Dowload PDF.”
For this week’s spiritual practice “Darkness and Looking Up” led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE.
This past year, I’ve been having more memorable, vivid dreams. I’m not the only one in my household who has reported this. And it turns out that this has been a widespread phenomenon this past year. Scientific American reports, there has been “a global increase in the reporting of vivid, bizarre dreams.”
All kinds of stuff is coming to us in the night.
There have been a lot of articles about this. My favorite title I came across was “Sweet Dreams Aren’t Made of This.” I only like that because it’s playing off the most awesome brainworm of a melody from the pop music of my childhood.
Sweet dream are made of this
Who am I to disagree?
Oh, I love that song. I hope someone’s dream is set to the Eurythmics tonight.
But I digress, don’t I?
What’s going on in the night?
One scientist says many of us are more anxious, and that plus sleep disturbance is leading to weirder dream lives. Another thinks that many of us are sleeping a little more than normal – more REM sleep, more memorable dreams. And another notes that we’re facing these massive, unfamiliar levels of disruption. We feel we’ve been thrown into an alternate reality, where our waking lives can feel like living in a dream.
So there’s lots of disjointed, distrubed, disruptive thoughts we’re taking to bed with us for our brains to process while we’re at rest.
This last theory really resonates with me. For nearly a year, we’ve been living through a kind of collective dark night.
I’ll pause to note that comments on night and day, dark and light that fill our language, our culture, our religion, even parts of the Bible like the gospel of John, can be problematic.
It’s been pointed out that in the English language and in the Western tradition as a whole, language around darkness and blackness tends toward negative connotations. Whereas language around lightness and whiteness tends toward positive connotations. I’m not a linguist or anything, but I totally buy the arguments that part of this is racialized; it’s connected to the white supremacy that lurks inside the history of our language.
So we’re going to try to correct this pattern a little. I’m going to use nighttime, darkness language and metaphor in this sermon, because it’s important to the Bible text we’ll look at. But we’ll try to avoid this straight up good/bad dichotomy.
Night – for us now – and especially for the ancients is a scarier time. Night, darkness, is a time of less visibility and clarity, of threats real and imagined.
But night is also a creative time. Darkness can be a generative time. Nighttime is an intimate time as well. It’s a time for dreams, for art, for lovers.
I think all this applies to our moment of time. We’ve been living through a dark time of disruptions, anxiety, and unpredictability, for sure. But it’s also a time not just of anxiety but of creativity. It’s a time of great distance in some places, and yet intimacy in others.
In these dark, disruptive times, how do we look for what God might be doing and what God might be saying that is full of possibility?
What comes to us at night? What parts of that sap life from us, distract us, or grip us with fear? And what parts of what come to us at night focus us, ground us, give us life?
To talk about these themes I want to turn to one more parable in our little winter series “Stories Jesus Tells Us.”
Jesus tells us a parable of night-shift workers. Convenience store cashiers, late shift nurses and cops, night security – here he calls them servants and uses an image of domestic servants working for a master or head of house. Jesus says:
Luke 12:35-40 (CEB)
35 “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit. 36 Be like people waiting for their master to come home from a wedding celebration, who can immediately open the door for him when he arrives and knocks on the door. 37 Happy are those servants whom the master finds waiting up when he arrives. I assure you that, when he arrives, he will dress himself to serve, seat them at the table as honored guests, and wait on them. 38 Happy are those whom he finds alert, even if he comes at midnight or just before dawn. 39 But know this, if the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he wouldn’t have allowed his home to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.”
Alright, this story is weird. And we’ll look at it from a couple of different angles.
One of the things I love about this translation is what it does with Jesus’ favorite title for himself, “Son of Man.” This version translates that as the Human One to remind us that Jesus isn’t just sort of a person. He’s the real deal. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He shows us what God looks like. But Jesus is also the one that through his life and teaching shows us how to be a real human being, our truest self, just as he was an authentic, beautiful human being as well.
What does Jesus, the Human One, have to say about our collective darkness and the great disruption we’re living through?
Well, this story is part of a series of stories of warnings. The headings my Bible’s editors place in the different sections of Luke chapter 12 four times talk about warnings.
And this story is also a sub-genre of stories Jesus tells about readiness, about being ready for someone who arrives when you least expect them, being attentive and alert when something big happens.
One thing all these stories have in common is they imply God’s arrival in big disruptions on the earth. Jesus seems to sit in this long prophetic tradition of seeing God’s involvement in major historical events, especially in major disruptions. Jesus, for instance, anticipates the destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem in the generation following his life. And he says you’ll see God doing all kinds of things in that. He uses this old prophetic line “the son of man” or “the human one” “coming on the clouds.”
Even in an event as horrible as the destruction of a beloved city and center of worship, Jesus says God will be found.
Jesus encourages us to pay attention to what God might be doing during big times of disruption. This is a two point sermon really, so that’s the first:
- Pay wondering attention to what God might be doing in all big disruptions.
Have you wondered what God might be doing this year? I’m sure some of us think God is, I don’t know, asleep or something. Or busy elsewhere in the universe. Writers of the Bible felt those things sometimes too.
But if you think God is always with us, as I do; and if you think God is not micromanaging the world, not controlling everything, but always engaging as a loving, healing, persuasive presence, then what might God be encouraging right now? What might God be inviting us toward amidst all this disruption?
We think this way as wonderers, of course, not as confident proclaimers, as if we have unique access to the mind and intentions of God. Too many self-proclaimed prophets have lied to people about what God is doing at a particular moment in time. I think of the pastors who have proclaimed during various tragedies that it is the fault of some group they scapegoat as sinners. Or I think of the lying self-proclaimed prophets who a couple months back announced God has revealed Trump would win reelection. This kind of pompous proclamation isn’t prophecy, it’s self-serving manipulation. Prophets invite us not to confidently prognosticate the future or proclaim God is on our side, but to listen and discern, to humbly watch and wonder and deepen our wisdom and love and justice as a result.
My favorite prophetic voice into these questions of what God is doing in the disruption was the Indian writer Arundathi Roy. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, in early April last year, she published this amazing essay, “The Pandemic is a Portal.” She believed the pandemic is showing us a great deal that is true, which we might not otherwise want to see. This past year has been full of revelation, hasn’t it? In the Christian tradition, this is one of the ways we interpret the phrase “God’s judgement,” not necessarily God punishing us, but God helping us see the truths about ourselves that we would otherwise rather not look at.
This past year, we’ve seen how fragile life is, how fragile are our public health systems, our schools, our democracy, our lives. We’ve seen how deep white supremacy runs in our country, how large the gaps of resources our economies have shaped, how sick the church is in America. It’s been a time of judgement, in this sense of revelation.
Revelation always invites us to not turn away, to not turn away but to see the truth and ask: how together will we respond?
What have you seen about the world this past year? What truth about the way things are has been made more visible to you?
Arundathi Roy hopes with us that with this new sight, with this new knowledge that has come to us in the night, we will reconsider how we live together. She ends her essay writing:
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
We’re all longing for back to normal living – to worship in person together, to travel without restriction, to send our kids to school, to touch and be touched more. Thank God for our scientists and physicians and leaders who are earnestly giving their time and talents toward this end.
I brought my elderly mother in law yesterday morning for her first COVID vaccine. And because it was at a clinic where my mom works, they vaccinated me as well. And while my arm’s a little sore, I’m so excited. It’s this symbol of hope in my life, in my body, that slowly we are emerging from this year of distance and darkness. We will emerge.
But we believe, right, that back to normal needs to be a “new normal” in many ways. So many of us are hoping to return to healthier ways of living. Maybe less days commuting. Maybe less frenzied. Maybe more connected and grateful.
And so many of us are finding God showing us we need more just ways of living. That we need to give ourselves together to reducing the gaps that are exposed among us around resources and races, gaps in health, gaps in safety and security, gaps in all kinds of access to the goods of life.
I shudder to think what the future holds if we do not live differently, if we do not run with what this year’s disruptions have been teaching us.
This wondering what God is doing is part of the invitation I’ll extend next Sunday to the upcoming season of Lent that starts next week. We’ll be listening in Lent this year to prophetic voices, people that know what’s most important, as we seek to learn together, to rediscover what is most important to God and to us, to re-ground ourselves in the ways we want to live, even if we’ve lost our way.
So please join us next Sunday, get your Lent in a bag next weekend as well, as we do these things physically distant but spiritually together.
I want to return to Jesus’ particular story, though, about the nighttime visitor and talk about it more personally before we close.
And here’s what I’ll focus on.
- There are many nighttime thieves. Jesus might be the only one who shows up to serve you.
These stories are weird. Jesus talks about thieves that show up in the middle of the night. And in his stories, sometimes these intruders sound like God, sometimes not. Sometimes they unexpectedly turn out to be welcome, sometimes not.
We know, though, that a lot of intrusions come to us in the night. A lot can visit us, sometimes haunt us, at night when we’re alone.
I want you to hear just the beginning of this gorgeous song by Joy Oladokun. I met this song, of course, on the most recent episode of This is Us, which is… stunning.
Here it is: (listen to the first 28 seconds!)
“The Devil’s in the basement in my home
A Flight of stairs is way too close
He comes for me when I’m alone
Collecting debts that I don’t owe
What comes to you in the night? When you’re up too late, and your thoughts are running, what fears settle in? What regrets come back to you? What accusations return?
Jesus, like this song, calls the voice of these nighttime thoughts the devil. A character emerges here and there in the scriptures that is called “the satan” which means in Hebrew, the adversary or the accuser.
This is not the fiery horned menace who opposes God and rules over Hell. Centuries later Christians invented that character. The satan in the Bible, and in Jesus’ teaching is more subtle than that.
Some people think it’s a hostile angelic being, who tricks and lies and seeks to encourage evil upon the earth.
Some people think “the satan” is a personification of the most deceptive, accusatory, violent tendencies within the human mind and the collective human experience.
It doesn’t really matter for today – that’s a topic for another time. But the fears, regrets, and other negative thoughts that can come to us in the night – the literal night when we can’t sleep and the metaphorical night of tough times in life – these thoughts don’t give us life or help us. They aren’t from God. They make us sadder, more afraid, more despairing than we have reason to be.
That’s why these visitors at night, the song says, try to collect debt that we don’t owe.
Jesus, though, in his story, says that he’s a nighttime visitor too. The thief in Jesus’ story we heard today, the one from Luke 12 seems like the Spirit of God, which Jesus says comes alongside us and tells us everything he wants to say to us.
Jesus messes with the usual thief imagery by saying that when he comes to us at night, it’s because he wants to get all dressed up and serve us. Nighttime Jesus isn’t like: take off my shoes and get me a beer. Nighttime Jesus wonders what we need most and wants to bring it to us. Nighttime Jesus isn’t there to collect debts or stoke our fears. Jesus wants to break through our haunting thoughts and tell us the truth.
Jesus always shows up to serve.
What voices, what thoughts come to you in the unguarded night? And how do you tell which come to accuse, to steal, to drag you down? And which from from God, which come from Jesus, here to serve you? Which come Jesus, who wants for us all more abundant life?
A couple nights ago, I woke up at 4 in the morning. My thoughts were racing a little, I was dehydrated, I didn’t feel so great. I knew was awake because I eaten really poorly the night before, I had been on illuminated screens a lot the night before too and several nights before that. And my mind was troubled by a couple things as well.
And there was a voice with me that was like, what’s wrong with you, Steve? Look at the way you’re treating yourself. Look at the state of your pathetic life. Negative, accusing, despairing thoughts.
But then a different thought came to mind, a different voice in my head, you can call it.
It just said: Steve, you don’t need to live this way. You don’t need to live this way.
And I instantly knew all that meant. It spoke to food and drink and how I care for my body. It spoke to my screen use at night and sleep hygiene. It spoke to other stuff in my that has been stuck and hurting. It was a voice of freedom. There’s more. There’s better. There’s another way to be. I know the way. I can go there.
I knew this voice was Jesus coming to me in the night, telling me the truth about myself, dressed up and ready to serve me, so I could have more life and freedom.
I see this all the time as a pastor. We harbor so many self-accusing, despairing, stuck, tired, bitter voices and patterns in us. But now and then, a different thought, a different voice, a different perspective cuts through. We stumble across our own belovedness. We realize we are less alone. We realize we have more freedom, more choice than we realized. We see a different way forward – a more whole, more integrated path, a more just and peaceful future we can bring into being.
This is the voice of God, coming to us in the night.
How might Jesus be speaking to you these days? How might Jesus want to come to you in the night, dressed up to serve you?
My belief, based on my reading of the gospels, my witness to Jesus speaking in your lives and throughout history, and my own experience of Jesus these past 30+ years of my life, is that Jesus regularly has three types of things to say to us in the night, three ways he comes to serve.
Jesus wants to accompany you, to assure you that you are not alone, that you are seen, heard, treasured, loved. Jesus says: I am with you.
Jesus wants to encourage you. Not necessarily just cheer you up, but literally encourage you – fill you with courage, help you be whole-hearted, fully alive. Sufficiently energetic and vital to greet your own life and this world with hope. Jesus says: Take heart, be encouraged.
And Jesus wants to direct and guide you into ever-increasing freedom.
Jesus comes in the night not to discourage, accuse you, or collect debts you don’t owe. Plenty of others will do that. Jesus comes to accompany, to encourage, and to guide you into ever increasing life and freedom.
I encourage you this week, each night before you to go bed, take just a moment, and say, Jesus: I want to hear your voice in the night. Jesus, I want to pay attention to what you have to say. Jesus, I welcome your accompaniment, your encouragement, and your guidance. I trust you are with me. Amen.