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Move Toward the Darkness and Feel

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 04

Luke 12: 13-21

Many years ago, while preaching to my former congregation, I made an honest mistake and misused a word. It went either unnoticed or unchecked at the time. A few weeks later though, I received a call from my mother.  I picked up the phone to her unsettled voice.“Dan” she said,”I just read your last sermon. Do you know that you told your entire congregation that you are, quote, ‘a bit of a lush’? “Yeah,” I said, “so what?” “So what?” she said. “Do you know what that word means?”  “I think so,” I told her, as I nervously reached for my dictionary to check the definition. Needless to say, I was surprised to learn that I told the whole congregation that I was a “drunkard,” and that’s according to Webster himself. Mind you, I was a youth minister at the time.  Woops! For whatever reason, I thought the word lush had a more general connotation. I thought it referred someone who knew to live it up a little, whether eating or drinking or generally appreciating the finer things of life. In the sermon, I’m sure I went on to talk about the ways that our senses can open us to the delights and wonders of God’s creation, or something like that. It wasn’t about our text for today, but the following line from today’s passage brought the story to mind: 19 And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'  We might wonder if the rich man in our passage was planning to live out something of a lush life himself, however defined.  


If the parable were to stop there, we might think the guy was onto something.  There’s a “carpe diem” - seize the day, sort of attitude here? Well, before he can get a glass to his lips, God calls him out! Like my mom, God says in essence “man, do you even know what your saying?”  Except God isn’t so polite about it! “You fool!” God says with an uncharacteristic harshness! When I’ve preached before on this text before. I’ve talked about the spiritual distraction of greed and wealth and what it may means to be rich towards God.  Indeed, God’s response to the man suggests that his narrow concerns for his own future have totally isolated him from his connection to God and the wider world. Today though, this text raises a different set of question for me, about how we think about, and how we too may be sometimes confused about the nature of pleasure, happiness and joy.  Afterall, the guy just wants to “be merry,” to do all the things that feel good, and presumably to not think about anyone or anything else! It’s his quick and easy answer to a deeper question. How do we experience joy in the midst of the steady demands of our lives and faith?  Are we destined, in the words of GK Chesterton, “to endure all the pagan pleasures with a Christian patience.  Let us eat, drink and be serious.” I can’t imagine this is what God or Jesus would want. Even Jesus tells stories about celebrations and lavish hospitality. Some even think he was a bit of lush, what with all those weddings and banquets and turning all that water into wine.


On a morning like this, when we awake to headlines of not one but two more mass shootings. how do we live into and hold onto joy?  For that matter, how are we to find a semblance of sabbath delight in the midst of increasing anxiety about our climate crisis? We just sweat through the hottest month of July ever recorded!  As we approach the 5 year anniversary next weekend of Mike Brown’s death and of the Ferguson uprising, how do we receive the peace of Christ living in a country that is so far from serving justice to victims of centuries of police violence and racial terror? 


I’ve been thinking lately about some of the traps we can fall into when contemplating or even seeking to know God’s joy in our lives.  I confess...Joy has sometimes been elusive for me and I think its because I sometimes get confused about what joy really is! For th rich man in our text, it seems his joy was all about seeking the pleasure and instant gratification of eating and drinking. It was about the ease of not having to work any longer. And it was as if he considered finding joy an individual pursuit, unattached from relationship with others or with God.  For years, I too connected joy with pleasure, with enjoyment, with the good and easy things of life. I took pride in being a bit of a lush, or at least someone who could enjoy life. I still do even as I realize that those experiences are fleeting and relatively disconnected to what’s real and deep and true in this world. I’ve even been tempted to think at times of joy as some kind of luxury or privilege, as if we should somehow begrudge ourselves the experience of joy because someone, somewhere is in pain. How Puritan of me, right?  Mencken would be proud. He defined puritanism as the  haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Does anyone share this heritage and struggle? Its a fair question at one level: how can anyone afford joy when there is so much sorrow in the world? Of course, it ignores the far more powerful  flip side of the question which is how can anyone afford not to experience joy? We may not boast about it, but we should never underestimate its power for good, especially when sorrow is deep!  


I heard the writer Ross Gay speaking about joy  recently in an interview with Krista Tippet. Gay has written two books with amazing titles:  “The Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude” and “The Book of Delights.” He reminded me, first, that “joy has nothing to do with ease!”  He’s right, of course, though some of us are seemingly hardwired to reject that notion. But joy, when we think about it, has an eyes-wide open, quality about it, doesn’t it? The most deeply joyful people I know are often those least prone to deny to the reality of sadness and suffering in this world! These are people who are consistently choosing a certain proximity to the reality of human suffering. Their ways of moving towards suffering, or at least not shying away, brings their joy to life and into a sharper focus! Wislawa Symborzska has a line in a poem called A Few Word on the Soul. “Joy and sorrow aren’t two different feelings for [the soul]. It attends us only when the two are joined.”  Amen! And indeed, Joy has nothing to do with ease. And e should resist the binary, all or nothing thinking, that would lead to think that we can’t feel sorrow and joy at the same time!


Even more deeply, as David Whyte writes, and this may at first seem startling, “joy is a measure of our relationship with death and our living with death!” We think joy is all about a verve for life! But its also about an intentional remembrance of death, yours and min!   Again, Ross Gay: “...Joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. ...When I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking... that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also [all of us] in the process of dying. ...The connection between the dying and the joy? if you and I know we’re each in the process, there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible — not always gonna happen, because I might just get scared and do something else. But there’s the potential, I think, for some kind of tenderness.”  Tenderness, yes, a gateway to joy, and I would add beauty and laughter and grace and acceptance. By the way, did you notice what God says to the rich man after “You fool?” This very night your life is being demanded of you!” As in, you too are, right now, in the process of dying! Its counterintuitive to be sure. But the monks know it. And the blues artist and spiritual singers know it. Memento Mori! Remember your death! The bond of the dying process creates tenderness and connection even amidst strangers. Let’s let today be no exception!


One more tidbit on joy, this from David Whyte again. Joy is the act of giving ourselves away before we need to or are asked to, joy is practiced generosity!  Circling back to our parable once more, perhaps this is also what upset God enough to call the rich man a fool. The isolating, insular repetition of I, me and mine in our passage without so much as a mention of others. “And the things you have prepared?  Whose shall they be?” As in, “Be merry,” at a table for one? Good luck with that buddy! Foolish indeed! Joy is a product of the practice of gratitude and its twin generosity. Gratitude and generosity in all things!  


One more quick story. On Friday night, with Nancy and Julian both out of town this weekend, Nellie and I decided to head out to the Cambridge summer youth program’s performance of the Addams Family Musical. I confess, musicals aren’t really my thing, and high school musicals, with all those cracking voices, even less so, but they do have a certain magic and this one was no exception, besides it was a joy to have time with my exceptionally daughter!  Nellie wanted to go in part to cheer on her friend Michael who played Lurch, the towering, lumbering, stone faced, half-zombified butler to the endearingly macabre Addams family. To our surprise, and aside from the occasional grunt, Lurch didn’t say a word for 21 of 22 scenes, despite the fact that he was a lurking presence in most of the them. In the very last number though, Lurch took to the center stage and is if it had been building in him for the entire two hour performance, he croaked out a few notes, found his voice and then began to sing. The whole musical was about how healthy it is to make room for feelings of sadness, anger and despair and the last song brough the theme home!  It was called Moved Toward the Darkness. Imagine Lurch belting out these lyrics to a haunting, surging sort of melody and tune :


Move toward the darkness

welcome the unknown

Face your blackest demons

Find your weakest bone

Lose your inhibitions

Love what once was vile

Move toward the darkness and smile

When Lurch landed on the word smile, his otherwise dour-looking face cracked open this totally awkward but wonderfully since and totally beaming grin!  It brought down the house! The lyrics continued:


Don't avoid despair

Only at our weakest

can we learn what's fair

When you face your nightmares

Then you'll know what's real

Move toward the darkness and feel


To see Lurch, let alone this gangly, awkward high school teen age boy come into his own like that, that’s joy!   Even and because of moving toward the darkness and feeling it all, it was totally tender, pain-embracing, thoroughly genuine joy!


On a morning like this, we may be tempted to resist joy, to think we shouldn’t let ourselves go there!  But that’s short-circuiting joy’s deepest and most defiant power in our lives! On mornings like this ,we are more tender, more grateful for our lives and loved ones.  The music, even without our soloist, sounds that much more holy and true. 


With this combination of “intentionality” and “self-forgetting,” we can and should all by all means come to the table. Here we can eat, drink and be merry in way that would God’s heart sing!  Not as pleasure seeking lushes, of course, with blinders on to the world around us. But with eyes wide open! Afterall, this table of love invites us to remembers tragedy, violence death and also self-giving love and radical acceptance of life and love that is stronger than darkness, hatred and death-dealing empires! This  is the context of our most basic Christian practice! Here we eat! Here we drink! Here we know a joy as deep as life and deeper, as deep as death and deeper, as deep as human love and deeper still. Here, we too can move toward the darkness in our lives and world and smile, boldy and truly! If Lurch can do it, so can we! Thanks be to God for that! Amen.


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