Sermon: Light

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, 17; Matthew 3:13-17

Date: January 8, 2017

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church


         Do any of you suffer from “S.A.D”?  That usually stands for “Seasonal Affective Disorder”—a condition in which some folk who are affected by the lack of light in darker winter months find themselves feeling depressed and sluggish.  You can buy special lights and lamps nowadays to give your body an extra dose of light. 

         The worship series we are beginning today suggests another way to look at that “S.A.D.” acronym—“Spiritual Affective Disorder.”  In Dr. Marcia McFee’s words, “Winter can be a time of Seasonal Affective Disorder when the lack of sunlight affects our moods and ability to cope effectively. But Spiritual Affective Disorder can also be a factor as we lead lives that are too crowded, busy, overcommitted, sometimes disturbing and uncertain. At the turn of this new year, we will explore everyday life activities that can become spiritual practices–deepening our experience of a meaningful life and making us more ‘light-hearted.’”Just as a therapist might recommend sitting under a strong lamp to fight Seasonal Affective Disorder, generations of Christian practitioners recommend spiritual practices that fight off Spiritual Affective Disorder. 

         Is “Spiritual Affective Disorder” a thing?  Although I haven’t previously heard it called that using the “S.A.D.” metaphor, it does seem that spiritual malaise is a very real possibility for most of us.  It doesn’t wait for winter, necessarily; seasons of darkness can overtake one anytime.  The “winter of our discontent” could strike in the dog days of August as readily as the dim days of December.  It could have to do with external circumstances—hard times—or could well up from within like a gaseous belch.  The third prophet writing under the name Isaiah speaks of dark times, darkness covering the earth and thick darkness covering the peoples.  He may have been referring directly to hard times–the difficulties of rebuilding after a long exile and hard-scrabble homecoming—or may have been acknowledging that darkness can cover people independent of circumstance. 

         It’s almost as if the thick darkness is what humans bring along with us almost automatically.  A fuzzy boiled wool hooded union suit of thick darkness, issued, perhaps, in adolescence, when we begin eyeing the world askance in earnest.   I caught a few moments of the movie “Deadpool” the other day in which the irksome protagonist, trying to get a rise out of a teenage,r leans into her face and says, “Sullen stare or sarcastic remark? Sarcastic remark or sullen stare? Which is going to be?”  She says nothing, glaring.  “Sullen stare, then?” he says.  She’s got her “thick darkness suit” on. 

         Are you with me, picturing a boiled wool hooded union suit as a metaphorical portable darkness we are issued at some point and always seem to have with us?  It comes with one of those facemasks you wear in a cold clime whose eye and mouth holes never quite line up properly with your actual anatomy.  Some days you just wake up wearing it. 

These garments of darkness, though, they’re not comfortable. They’re heavy; they itch.  Something inside you knows it’s not your proper outfit.   You are a child of the Light, longing to be free of the gloom wrapping you round.  I like the way poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who struggled with depression from time to time, wrote about yearning for God as “the great homesickness we could never shake off” (among other things).  Listen to this poem from Rilke’s Book of Hours:

“I love you, gentlest of Ways,
who ripened us as we wrestled with you.

You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,
you, the forest that always surrounded us,

you, the song we sang in every silence,
you dark net threading through us,

on the day you made us you created yourself,
and we grew sturdy in your sunlight…

Let your hand rest on the rim of heaven now and mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.”[1]

“Let your hand rest on the rim of heaven now and mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.”  We’d like to get shed of this thick darkness we wear like a garment, skewing our vision, making it hard to breathe, hard to speak.  By adding the word “to”—“bear the darkness we bring over to you”—Rilke’s words call to mind a picture of handing over this covering of thick darkness we brought along with us to an infinitely patient God with arms outstretched to take it from us. 

         Spiritual practices, no matter how simple or elementary, are devices for helping any and all with Spiritual Affective Disorder to shed the covering of thick darkness and step into the light.  Or polish up the lamp within that holds the divine spark, whose chimney can get awfully sludgy and mucked up, making it hard to see the light within.  FYI, Reed informed me that religion scholar and mystic Huston Smith died last week, so I got a few of his books off the shelf and listened to some bits of his interviews on Youtube. He was saying in one talk that where the Divine Light is concerned, the categories “out there” and “in here” don’t mean much.  The Divine Light is very much in both locales; the geography of skin is no barrier.  Spiritual practices help us perceive the Light both outside and within ourselves.  If you want to shed your thick darkness suit but the zipper is stuck, disciplined spiritual practices may give it a yank. 

         I had a moment when considering choosing this worship series for Epiphany of wondering whether this is a good season to be talking (again) about spiritual practices.  Some of us are gearing up for a new season of activism, of engagement with social systems and problems.  Is focusing on spiritual practices a retreat?  Too trivial?  Too individualistic? 

         Since I was mining Huston Smith’s wisdom this week let me share a few nuggets from him I found helpful.  In one passage in Why Religion Matters he is talking about the virtues of liberal and conservative religion.  The virtue of conservatism, he says, is that it can infuse into life the feeling of certainty that the universe is on one’s side.  This feeling “can get drunkards out of ditches.”  He quoted a sentence in a journal that had brought him up short: “Liberals do not recognize the spiritual wholeness that come from a sense of certainty.”

         You’ve probably heard people talk about the cross as a symbol of the two essential dimensions of human life—the vertical representing the relationship with God and the horizontal representing the relationship with other humans.  Of the two dimensions, Smith says, the vertical relation (with God) is more important.  That’s not to say that compassion and justice are unimportant; after all, they are rooted in God’s very nature.  Compassion springs from God; it’s not merely an admirable human virtue.  Listen to Smith’s critique of neglecting spiritual depth while pursuing social justice: “Liberals inherited their exemplary passion for social justice from parents and grandparents who (for all their social concern) nailed the horizontal arm of the Christian cross to its vertical arm which (in standard rendition) is longer to symbolize its priority.  In their declining concern for theology and worldviews, liberal Christians have in effect turned the cross on its side and made its horizontal arm the longer of the two.”[2]

         I think that’s a fair and perceptive criticism.  We may rush out the door to do good work but such good work is not very sustainable without a grounding in God.  Thick darkness always lurks ready to cover the light we perceive and bear.  We need practice in keeping the light arising in view and in soul.  Another bit of Huston Smith’s book that delighted me was a little riff on his local church’s motto.  When he was writing Why Religion Matters, his church had just started printing their stationary with the tag line, “Committed to Social Justice and Spiritual Growth.”  He found himself playing around with some alternatives that get more at the vertical dimension of religion and religion’s ultimate purpose.  One possibility which he thought would be refreshing to see on church stationary: “Committed to Making People Less Shallow.”[3] 

         Reclaiming the depths of the divine-human relationship is a necessary part of helping the kingdom of God be realized on earth.  Recognizing the depth of God’s love is a starting point.  The story of Jesus’ baptism, in which he sees heaven open and hears the voice of God claiming him as a beloved son, sets the stage for all that comes afterward.  Jesus’ understanding of and grounding in being beloved by God gives him immediately needed strength to overcome temptation.  Knowing himself beloved gives him the vigor to engage in healing, the power needed for wrestling demons to the ground, the patience to teach and re-teach disciples.  The vertical arm of Jesus’ relationship to God, grounded in a certainty about being cherished, made possible all that he accomplished in community. 

         The same is true for us.  We may not have such a powerful vision as Jesus did, but we, too, are Beloved.  We, too, perceive and reflect Divine light.  As the prophet Isaiah promised his people, “You shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” [Isaiah 60:5a]  The transformation of the society follows being claimed by the Light.  As Huston Smith writes, “To think that we can circumvent the human heart and, in the face of its unregenerated clamorings, achieve the kingdom of heaven by revamping social institutions is to overlook the fact that the kingdom is first and foremost an interior affair.  Short of the end of history, its arrival in the world will be in proportion to its arrival in human hearts.”[4]

         One encouraging thing about this prospect is that we do have some measure of influence over our own hearts, our own spiritual practices and spiritual lives.  Even if one is not naturally disciplined, one can take on a new practice that is aimed at shoring up that vertical dimension of a sturdy relationship with God.  One can practice relinquishing the thick darkness that clouds perception of Light within and around us.  And then one can practice reflecting the Light that leads to more compassionate community. 

         I threw in Isaiah 60:17 in our reading today because of the way the prophet tied Peace and Righteousness together in this vision of the age to come.  “I will appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster.” Being bathed in God’s Light and grounded in certainty of being beloved by God is beautiful, but is not an end in itself.  Such certainty leads to inner Peace—makes Peace our guardian, our overseer.  And that Peace flows into Righteousness, which in the Bible means doing the will of God. Righteousness is the taskmaster.  A zeal for righteousness, for performing righteousness, leads to the kind of repairing-the-world activism liberals tend to relish. 

A bit more of Huston Smith’s insight: “…Light creates.  It pumps power into the spatio-temporal world.  This is most obvious in the process of photosynthesis, where the immaterial light flowing from the sun is transformed into the earth’s green carpet of vegetation.”[5]  This reminder of the miracle of our universe just sets my imagination fizzing and sparkling!  I love the idea that we might absorb Divine Light and turn it into loving action in a kind of soul-photosynthesis.  Just think of all the ways we absorb Divine Light and soul-synthesize it: into hugs and marches and advocacy calls and pots of soup and patient listening and rides to the doctor and making art and serving on a Board and writing poems and encouraging folks and making swords into plowshares and and and and….Taskmaster Righteousness has an endless catalog of deeply satisfying ways Divine Light can be soul-synthesized into loving action. 

Practice clearing the way for the Light to enter into yourself.  When thick darkness is covering you, weighing you down, making you itch, practice making at least a little opening for Light to reach you in your lovely birthday suit.  Remind yourself you are beloved, that you are a child of the Light.  Practice seeing yourself as a vessel of Light.  Then shine. 

Here’s a word of encouragement from the poet Dante Alegheri:

The love of God, unutterable and perfect,
     flows into a pure soul the way that light
     rushes into a transparent object.
The more love that it finds, the more it gives
     itself; so that, as we grow clear and open,
     the more complete the joy of heaven is.
And the more souls who resonate together,
     the greater the intensity of their love,
     and, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, p. 70

[2] Smith, Huston Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001, p. 212

[3] Ibid. p. 231

[4] Ibid. p. 167

[5] Ibid. p. 138

[6] Dante Quoted in The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry Stephen Mitchell, ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1989, p. 68


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