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Matthew 4:18-25, from The Message
John 1:1-5
“Lean in Toward the Light,” words and music by Carrie Newcomer 1

        This was supposed to be something of a feel-good sermon—a gentle nudge back to the heart of this season of light and revelation, welcome permission to take a step back from the demands of the activist life, an inspiring call to keep our eyes on the prize, and a loving reminder that Jesus calls us to drop everything and follow him.

        But then a deep and ever-widening darkness began to settle in and, with it, a panicked reactivity. Along with each day’s Senate hearings, executive orders, and policy pronouncements, I would see and hear your faithful responses. You were going to still more marches and meetings, making calls to federal agencies and members of Congress, spreading all kinds of bad news on Facebook (some of it not even true), being so upset that you were getting angry even about things that were meant to be funny.

        And I was right there with you.

        I began to notice all the ways in which I was not leaning toward the Light. I began to realize that my well-meaning attempts to do something about everything, all my reactivity and much of my best-intentioned civic action was, in fact, exhausting and dispiriting.

        I remembered how Dr. King, writing from his jail cell in Birmingham, had railed against the moderate positions and tone-it-down counsel of the local white clergy, saying that the silence of good people was more destructive than even the racist views of segregationists. I recalled what Edmund Burke, the famous Irish statesman and philosopher, had said—how “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”

        It occurred to me that there is at least one more thing that facilitates the triumph of evil, and that is for good people to try to do everything.
I took a deep breath, closed my laptop, and stepped away from Facebook—for a few minutes, at least. I encouraged others to take similar steps. After many hours of agonizing, I even decided not to participate in a march on an issue I care deeply about.

        All the more reason to sing and be sung to, I thought. To encourage us all to lean on each other and lean in toward the Light—to follow Jesus in doing what we can, to let go of what we can’t, to keep trusting in the God of life and new life, to keep practicing resurrection.

        And then came Friday’s executive order banning some migrants and all refugees from entering this country, and yesterday’s horrifying detentions and deportations at airports across the country and around the world. As I read and watched heartbreaking stories of fully-vetted immigrants stranded at airports, separated from their families and at risk of being returned to life-threatening situations, I wondered how we had come to this.

        Did those who had voted for the president have any idea that their support would lead to so much suffering? Or did they fully endorse the order to turn away of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn, famine-riddled nations overseas, even as plans were made to construct a $14-billion wall on our southern border? Did the president’s supporters really believe that Christian lives matter more than Muslim lives?

        It is one thing to pray, as Jesus did, “God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But how do we pray for those who know full well what they’re doing? How do we pray for those who believe such policies are justified and necessary? How do we pray for those who have told and re-told the lies that have led some to believe that Muslims are terrorists?

        Sometimes all we can do is lean in toward the Light.

        On Facebook, I read of a rural congregation where a majority of members had voted for the president. Two members of the church—an Iranian-born U.S. citizen and her husband, who was also born in Iran but has only a green card—had been visiting family in Tehran. Yesterday, as they prepared to fly home, they were prevented by U.S. authorities from leaving the Tehran airport—thanks, in part, to the votes of their fellow church members, who love them dearly.

        How does healing happen in that situation? How does one bless the ties that bind us not only one to another and all to God, but to homes and nation states—some that cannot give us live and others that refuse to let us in? How do we pray for the people in all these different situations—and the people who put them there?

        It seems to me we can only lean in toward the Light, trusting that no darkness will overcome it, listening for its loving call across the waters, through the bureaucracies, amid the chanting protests, and into our hearts.

        On social media and television news, I saw protests happening at airports across the country—even as lawyers were filing suit, climate-change activists were meeting in Northampton, Native Americans were standing their frozen ground in North Dakota, and countless others were giving of themselves to feed the hungry, insure health care for millions, protect public education, and stand with undocumented workers.

        Where do we begin to undertake our own works of mercy, and when and where do they end? In just such a time as this, how can we answer the call to do justice, how can we be God’s hands and feet without wearing ourselves out and ending up being no good to anybody?

        Leaning in toward the Light seems like a good place to start—as does acknowledging that even that will mean different things to different people. As does understanding that it will mean different things to the same people on different days. As does realizing that sometimes we have to lean in toward the Light just to figure out where the Light is at any given moment, to discern the need of this particular time, to hear where the call comes from today, to watch intently, wondering where Jesus will show up next.

        For me, leaning in toward the Light almost always means loving whomever’s right in front of me. Most days it also involves some prayer, some listening, some singing, some kind of beauty, some gratitude and some laughter—all of it bringing me closer to God. And some days it is all I can do to try to punch a few holes in the dark.

        When fear, hatred, and division demand your attention, and the stress, sadness, and suffering of it all threaten to overwhelm, how do you lean in toward the Light?

        Think about it: What are the things that bring you meaning? What feeds your soul? What are the people and practices that bring you closer to God’s love? In the midst of the struggle, how do you hold onto hope?

        No, we cannot go gently into the darkness of these times. We must not allow division, discrimination, and dehumanization to become the normal state of things. We cannot, as a church, stand idly by or simply stay calm and carry on with business as usual.

        But neither can we fall victim to the lie that fixing it is all up to us. Neither can we do everything for everyone. We need to focus our efforts. We need to stay grounded in God’s love. We need to stay connected to one another and the Christ in all.

        We need to lean in toward the Light, remembering that Jesus’ call to follow him is good news that leads to abundant life for all.

        “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all who are weary, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

        The Sufi mystic Hafiz said: “Just sit there right now / Don’t do a thing /  Just rest. / For your separation from God,/ From love, / Is the hardest work / In this / World. / Let me bring you trays of food / And something / That you like to / Drink. / You can use my soft words / As a cushion / For your head.” 2

        Carrie says, “Lean in toward the Light.”

        There will be plenty of time to weep and rage and work against injustice. The time is always right to love and pray that justice will roll down like water—freely, and on everyone.

        But if we don’t take time to lean in toward the Light, if we don’t draw from the Spirit’s power, if we don’t do all things in love, we will be as noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

        Let there be no doubt: I am feeling distressed and outraged. I have plenty to say about the many biblical mandates to welcome the stranger, and what that might mean for us as First Church. Be not impatient; we’ll talk more about that next week.

        But we must also take time to lean in toward the Light, to rest in God’s heart, to trust that the darkness will not win out. And so this sermon has become less about inspiration than spiritual survival, more object lesson than message.

        See? Faithfulness does not require constant activity. See? We can find peace when we choose to ground ourselves in gratitude rather than reactivity. See? We can step away from the madness to pray and worship for an hour, to tend to our souls, trusting that God’s got the whole world in her tender hands.

        So let us lean. Let us regroup. Let us call on the name of the Lord. Let us pray without ceasing and love without limit, following the way of the Light.

1 “Lean in Toward the Light”
words and music by Carrie Newcomer

Winter is the coldest season,
But quietly beneath the snow,
Seeds are stretching out and reaching,
Faithful as the morning glow.

Carry nothing but what you must.
Lean in toward the Light.
Let it go, shake off the dust.
Lean in toward the Light.
Today is now, tomorrow beckons.
Lean in toward the Light.
Keep practicing resurrection.

The shadows of this world will say,
There’s no hope—why try anyway?
But every kindness large or slight,
Shifts the balance toward the light.

Waters wind and open wide.
Lean in toward the Light.
Don’t just walk when you can fly.
Lean in toward the Light.
When justice seems in short supply.
Lean in toward the Light.
Let beauty be your truest guide.

The shadows of this world will say,
There’s no hope—why try anyway?
But every kindness large or slight,
Shifts the balance toward the light.

The prayer I pray at eventide.
Lean in toward the Light.
All left undone be put aside.
Lean in toward the Light.
And when forgiveness is hard to find,
Lean in toward the Light.
Help me to at least be kind.
Lean in toward the Light.
Lean in toward the Light.

2 As translated by Daniel Ladinsky.