Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Dark enough to see the stars

Mark 9: 2-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday


         Earlier this week, referencing one of the Super Bowl ads, a colleague quipped about one of the verses from this morning’s gospel lesson: “’And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.’ The Transfiguration: It’s really a Tide ad”.

         For many who watch the Super Bowl but who aren’t interested in football, the attraction is the advertisements. At $5 million a pop for 30 seconds, we expect to see something more than the usual ploys to get our attention. More often than not pop culture makes an appearance, like Volkswagen with a Star Wars theme or Visa with Marvel comic book heroes.

         But some ads shine a light on that same culture, whether it’s a PSA for domestic violence and abuse in 2015. Or Clint Eastwood giving us a halftime speech in 2012, after the recession: how we pull together when times are hard.


         And I thought that the light was shining when a commercial opened with words from Martin Luther King, Jr. from 50 years ago that day: “If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s the new definition of greatness.” And then we saw images of servanthood: people hard at work, ranchers, teachers, neighbors of all colors and stripes, soldiers and medics, parents and children, first responders, and that all we need to serve is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. And you bet I’m in, heart and soul.

         Then the clincher: Ram trucks, built to serve. And my jaw dropped. You see, Dr. King’s words came from a sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct”, in which he also said: “Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. … And you know, before you know it, you're just buying that stuff. That's the way the advertisers do it.” And he went on to say, “Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.” Same sermon. And for reasons beyond my understanding, those who are in charge of Dr. King’s estate gave permission for his words to be used to sell a car.

         Another clergy colleague in New York City—female, African-American, mother, immigrant rights activist—asked this question on Sunday night: “The things folks are willing to look past, in order to watch football, are insurmountable to me. Why aren’t they to you?” And I squirmed because she’s right. Even though players from both teams have taken a knee in protest during the national anthem, we didn’t see it Sunday night. We saw Brandin Cooks take that awful blindside hit to his head, and we kept watching. That man’s life will never be the same again, like many players in the NFL. And we knew what was going to happen on the streets of Philly as soon as the Eagles scored their final touchdown.

         And yet it’s complicated too. It’s not black and white. The city of Philadelphia needed that win. Some called it a David and Goliath game. The cathartic release of emotion was palpable for many. Football in and of itself is a great game, and yet it has a shadow side of racism, money, power, violence, and bodily damage that oftentimes we’re willing to look past. We cheer when the light reveals the shadowy places of others and yet it is oh so hard for us to look openly at something so beloved and culturally entrenched as football and the Super Bowl.

         50 years ago, Star Trek was in its third season and known for shining a light on some difficult and very present struggles, such as nationalism, fascism, the Vietnam War, and racism. In this episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, the crew of the Enterprise encounters two humanoids: one is black on the right side, the other is black on the left side. One is a freedom fighter, a fugitive who stole a shuttlecraft from a Federation starbase; the other, the enforcer who has been chasing his quarry for centuries. Both have an all-consuming hatred for the other.

         Faithful Jews that they were, Peter, James, and John thought they must have been witnessing the end of their oppression and the beginning of God’s saving reign on earth. Certainly God does take sides when it comes to injustice. But then I think God wants everyone to be free: the oppressed and the oppressor, the survivor and the abuser, those who have power and those who don’t. When that light shines on the mountaintop, we need to remember that the rest of the story takes place in the valley of the shadow of death and eventually leads to another hill, this time with a cross on it.

         We want the glory, the light of truth to shine and expose the shadows, especially those that harm and hurt the marginalized and criminalized, the dehumanized among us. But that light shines everywhere, and sooner or later it casts our shadow. Carl Jung said until we make the unconscious conscious, until we bring our shadow into the light and embrace it, it will dictate our lives and we will call it “it is what it is”.

         The night before Dr. King was assassinated, and he struggled with his own shadow, his own demons: he gave his famous “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” sermon and said these words, “[The] world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. …It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.” Fifty years later and that is where we are now but for how much longer?

         And yet it was that night he was happy, joyful even, that night before. That night he wasn’t worried about anything and he feared no one, because he had seen the coming of the glory of the Lord.

         That’s what God, what Love wants for all of us. But it won’t happen until the criminalized and marginalized and dehumanized among us receive it first and in full measure, until we own the shadows in each of us. It’s dark enough now to see the stars. Nonviolence or nonexistence. It’s up to us to shine the light. Amen.

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