by Rev. Sarah Buteux

December 10, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

Advent 2 B

I’m going to share something very personal with you this morning because I have the sense that there is something well nigh universal in my experience. I am normally a very positive, energetic, and productive person and we are now deep in a season of the year when I need to be operating on all cylinders.

But I hit a wall the week before Thanksgiving, and then I started to sink down deep, into one of the worst depressions I’ve experienced in a long time. One of those states where you can’t begin to imagine the rough places ever being made plain or the valleys being lifted up because the mountains are so high you can’t tell if there’s any sun behind them at all. The kind of depression where you have to remind yourself to eat and then start to wonder how long till you need to remind yourself to breathe.

And before I go any further, I want to say a quick thank you to those of you who reached out with support – Francie, Connie, Janet, Stina, Greg, Anna, Laura, Todd, Andrew, MJ, Jasper…so many of you, whether you knew it or not, whether you realized it or not, were there for me. You heard me and saw me in that place and I knew I was not alone. Your kindness and care and patience were like bread crumbs that helped me find my way back up and out of that valley.

One of you even sent me a meme of Oscar the Grouch – you all remember Oscar? – It’s Oscar the Grouch as life coach saying: “Just because you’re trash doesn’t mean you can’t do great things. It’s called garbage can…not garbage cannot.” Yeah it made me laugh too, and laughter really is good medicine.

But the real reason I want to share this with you is because it got so bad that I went to see my Doctor, and when I told her what was going on I said: “I know I’ve been working too hard and I know the change of seasons always gets me down and I’m getting older so I’m sure there is some hormonal stuff at work here, and we’re moving into advent which is always stressful…blah…blah…blah.”
And you know what she did? My doctor got me down off the table and into a chair. (So you know this is serious.)

Then she pulled up a chair herself, sat down across from me, looked me in the eye and said, “It’s not you. Or at least it’s not just you, your hormones or your life. All those things might be contributing factors, but I have got to tell you that I’ve had more people come into this office over the last few months because of depression and anxiety than I’ve seen since 9/11.
It’s like the whole valley is under a cloud of depression. People resolved after the election to not accept the workings of this administration as the new normal. They have been outraged and working at resisting it all day in and day out and they are exhausted.”

“And those of you who take care of other people – (you know, people like ministers -we’ve got a few of you to here), doctors- any of you in the house?, nurses, teachers, therapists, social workers, addiction counselors, community organizers, parents of young children, and children of aging parents, friends, neighbors, colleagues, (any one of you who spend energy taking care of any one other than yourself- do we have any of those kind of people here?)… you folks are doubly exhausted,” she said.

That’s so sad, I thought, though perversely it made me feel a whole lot better to know I was not alone. And I’m not, am I? You don’t have to raise your hands or anything, but is she right? Are you exhausted by it all? Are you struggling to remain hopeful? Yeah, #metoo…
It is hard work to keep telling the truth when people in power lie with impunity. It is hard work to grieve when the scale of devastation around you leaves you numb, hard to keep going when the wounds you see being inflicted on others re-open wounds you carry yourself.

It’s been hard, and in many ways I think this hardness transcends gender and politics. Everyday seems to bring more news of another tragedy or revelations that make us doubt the goodness of humanity.

Just the other day I was recalling something we did at Common Ground after a particularly traumatic event and I couldn’t recall the event itself for about 45 seconds. I knew it wasn’t the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs because the timing was off and then I finally realized it was the shooting in Las Vegas.

Now Las Vegas should be the worst thing that’s happened in as long as I can remember. Instead, it seems more like the worst thing that happened that week, and I think that says something profound about the times we are living in.

And as a pastor there is a part of me that wants to comfort you in the midst of all this, which is why I was so drawn to these words of Isaiah. It’s why I wanted to sing “Comfort, comfort ye my people…” with you all this morning.

There is a part of me that wants to rush in and make it all better, for you, for me, for this country, for our world. Even as I realize that the tendency to rush in and try to make it all better is part of why I am so exhausted, and why so many of you are too.
No one wants to feel this way: this deep disillusion and disappointment, this anger and fear. No one goes willingly into the valley of shadows or the wilderness of discontent.
The truth is, when things become this untenable, we want to find our way out. We want to be better, feel better, make it better and we’re the sort of responsible people who are willing to put in the effort to make it so. Which is why we’ve been showing up at rallies and lectures, classes and churches, sit-ins and sing alongs. Right? It’s why we have been signing petitions and reading editorials, making donations and doing the work….the prophetic work Bruggemann is talking about right here in your program.

We’ve been trying – really trying – trying so hard to dig ourselves out of this hole. And friends, the work you’ve been doing is beautiful, important work and I commend you all for sticking with it. And I think if we’re going to survive all this we need to stop… at least for the moment.

I think we need to take the fact that we are in a wilderness time seriously and tread carefully in this valley or we’re liable to lose ourselves down here.

I think we need to hit pause, take a breath, and remember two things that come through very clearly in our readings this morning. The first is that we are not the God we’ve been waiting for. There is a force, some one bigger and more powerful than you or me out there without whom we cannot heal the world no matter how hard we try.

We are not the God we’ve been waiting for.

And two, this God who we so desperately need is not waiting patiently for us on the other side of this struggle, at the other end of this valley, on the other side of this wilderness. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

Our God, is the God who comes to us in the midst of the struggle, who walks with us through the valley, who meets us in the wilderness.

This morning’s reading from Isaiah was a word of hope given to people living in exile. The reading from Mark was written to a community that was being crushed, silenced, and was all but destroyed by the ruling government of Rome.

These promises of good news and comfort were given to people living in a whole other world of hurt from what you and I are living through now and if God could meet them right in the midst of all that, God can surely meet us.

So friends, I think we all need to hop down off the table of quick fixes and take a seat across from the great physician. Because, there is no prescription strong enough to heal what ails us right now. Nor is this the time to self medicate with a little extra brandy in the eggnog.
All the grief and anger we are feeling right now is not a sign that there is something wrong with us. It is a sign of all that is right with us, a sign of God with us – our Immanuel. A sign of God being being born within us, filling us with a holy discontent, an abiding sense that this is not how the world should be, there is another way, a better way.

We may be living through a dark time right now, but the darkness itself is not the problem. It may not be comfortable, but the darkness fomenting in your soul and mine is claiming a holy space within us, not hollow but hallowed.

And I think the most important work we can do right now is simply be still in this dark place and trust that it is dark for a reason, that there is something holy down here in this valley waiting to feed us, gather us in, and hold us close.

Jan Richardson encourages patience in times like these. “If we lean too quickly toward the light,” she says:
we miss seeing one of the greatest gifts this season has to offer us: that the deepest darkness is the place where God comes to us. In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming; when we are lost, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path; in all the darkness that attends our life, whether hopeful darkness or horrendous, God meets us. God’s first priority is not to do away with the dark but to be present to us in it. ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness, God says in Isaiah 45:3, and riches hidden in secret places.’
For the christ who was born two millennia ago, for the christ who seeks to be born in us this day, the darkness is where incarnation begins.”

I remember something of this from when I was pregnant. I was so tired, not unlike the tired I feel now. I had as much to do then as I do now, but there was an instinct that took over some days, an instinct that helped me understand that the most important work I could do was lie down, curl up around that baby and practice wondering at all God was doing within me, completely without me.

I fully believe that in our brokenness, our grief, our admission that we cannot do this alone….in that place of deep surrender, God meets us… …in that tender dark place where we end, God begins.

“New life starts in the dark, “ says Barbara Brown Taylor, “Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, (new life) starts in the dark.”
So friends, hear the good news of the angels that ring throughout advent and “Fear not!” Do not be afraid to sit down here with me in this valley, because you are not alone. God is with us in all this, but you and me, we’re in this together too. We can reach out our hands to reassure one another down here. We can whisper our hopes and fears and know they will not fall on deaf ears out here.

And we can lift our voices in song, proclaiming as we do the promises of this already not yet God, whose good news for us today, as it says in Mark, is just the beginning. There is so much more to come. I don’t know what hope awaits us, but if I am still for long enough, I can feel it kicking…I can feel it yearning to be born.
So sing a piece of it into being with me now, would you? I want to teach you a song that put a little something of me back together this past week when I heard it for the first time. It speaks to the already not yet promise of Christ’s coming that we celebrate at Christmas. The already not yet promise that the better world we long for is as close as our willingness to let God bring it into being through us. As we live into it, it becomes so…

We are going
to a place where music
falls and fills up everything
And though it might be a long time
I know its gonna to be alright
Cause we’ve already started to sing.

Dear ones as we quiet our hearts and come before God in prayer, hear these words from Steve Garnaas-Holmes:
In your pain and uncertainty
God will come to you.

In your struggle, your healing,

She will carry you.

In your recovery, your unfolding,

She will feed you.

In your brokenness and guilt,

She will hold you.

In your leading, your creating,

She will gently lead you.

In your loneliness, your disconnection,

She will gather you.

In your choosing, your standing firm,

She will guide you.

In your beauty, your resilience,

She will delight in you.

Lift up your hearts. See, your God is coming. .. let us pray…

“O God, hear the song that rises from our hearts. Hear us in all our longing and exhaustion. Come and gather us in now, lift us up that we might feel your warm embrace. O God, our shade by day and shelter through the night, may we find comfort and solace here beneath the shadow of your wings.

As the nights grow longer and colder, as our lives and souls draw inward, as the world around us falls to pieces, feed us and hold us close. Protect us and anoint us, O God. Protect us from the darkness that can harm and anoint us with the darkness that can heal.

Help us to be still down here. Breathe your love and peace into us down here. And as our hopes and fears and the deepest desires of our hearts rise to meet you, as we lift those we love up into your warm embrace, meet us and fill us with the knowledge that you are with us in all things, Immanuel, that you carry us as well.

O God, and surround those we love with your love… hear our prayers O God…hear our prayers both spoken and unspoken as we lift them now to you.

And now, united with all those who have prayed and with those for whom no one has prayed, let us pray together…Our Father …