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Sermon Reflection - John Bergen, November 8, 2020

There is a somewhat apocryphal story from 1972, that when then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought of the French Revolution, nearly 200 years in the past, he responded simply, “Too soon to tell.”

Too soon to tell. If there is one line helping me through the uncertainty, fear, and anxiety of the past weeks, it is this.

How do we make meaning in this time, and make meaning of this time? This year seems to simultaneously cry out for meaning-making, and yet overwhelm every attempt to encapsulate it. Maybe it is too soon to tell.

A week ago, our community joined congregations all over the world in marking All Saints Day. I knew that to lead worship on a day of such depth, I needed to zoom into the service from our building in Germantown. In preparation for the service, I wondered at what point my heart would break. It turned out to be at every moment: In looking at your faces on the screen and remembering where you sit. In hearing my guitar echo through the sanctuary, where all of your voices should be. In lighting candles for those who have died.

Standing in the sanctuary, I was reminded of the incredible power of this season, a thin time in many traditions, a time of deep spiritual vulnerability, where the great cloud of witnesses draws closer and the mysterious power of the Spirit invites our hearts to crack open in grief and in praise, in hopelessness and hope.

Maybe it is spiritually dangerous to place US elections so close to a thin time when we remember the dead. This year the dead draw close to remind us that we move through a world shaped by the choices of our ancestors, both those who struggled for freedom and those who birthed and defended the powerful spiritual forces of heteropatriarchy and white supremacist capitalism. This week, there was no great repudiation of fascism. No clear turning against racism. We have been reminded, as Karl Marx says, that, “[We] make [our] own history, but [we] do not make it as [we] please.... The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Or as a friend who is a young black organizer and leader in West Philly said to me recently, “This year for Halloween, all the ghosts are real.”

So what meaning do we make in a time of ghosts? What resources do we draw on for doing battle with the weight of the past?

Right before he dies, Joshua gathers together the people to ask them to make a choice, to leave behind the past and serve God. They have made it this far, sometimes by faith, sometimes in fear and rebellion, and often both. Put another way, Joshua’s final question to his people is: In this moment, with the weight of the past upon you and the road before you uncertain, on what ground do you stand, and in what direction are you walking?

In a time of great fear and great hope, sometimes it helps not to search the present for answers, but to scan the horizon for signs of where we walk. Like Eduardo Galeano said, “Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I'll never reach it. So what is the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.”

On Friday morning, when I biked down to the Convention Center, where, for a third day in a row, people gathered in a way that none of us had seen since before the pandemic: In pure, sunlit joy, we danced. We watched the drumline led by a cartwheeling child and a giant Elmo. South Philly Barbacoa showed up to hand out free tacos. And any time the police or white supremacists attempted to disrupt, the DJ simply turned up the volume.

The crowd that gathered was not interested in being “For Biden.” It was only marginally interested in being “Against Trump.” What it was, however, was unequivocally for Black Lives. It was an eruption of queer joy. It could have been a fearful, defensive protest. But instead it was a choice, a covenant made with the people to say: We do not serve a political party. As for us, our households, we practice joy in the face of fear. We believe in celebrating the sacredness of every human being. In the words of poet Roque Dalton, “All together they have more death than we, but all together, we have more life than they.”

Choosing joy over fear is answering the question of where we stand and in what direction we walk. It is deep wisdom that teaches us that in the midst of our grief and our loss, we can dance. It is an act of prayer to say that the police murdered Walter Wallace, Jr., but we see on the horizon a world where the police never kill another Black or brown person again. If I have faith in one thing, it is that slowly, mysteriously, in a thousand ways we cannot see, the Spirit is dancing with us in the midst of the dark tomb of grief, loss, and trauma, and that in the turning and swirling we are moving closer to that open door. When will we get there? Too soon to tell.

I’ll close with this: I continue to gather with all of you on Zoom, every Sunday, because I believe that this thing we do together, in the presence of God, helps shape us a little bit more into the Kindom of God. Jesus tells his friends, “The Kindom is like this: Ten people were ready to throw a surprise party for their friend. But their friend was so late! Some of them had charged their cell phones in anticipation, others had not. And late at night, in the midst of the darkness, they saw on the horizon their dear friend approaching, carrying a light. Those whose phones had died stumbled around in uncertainty, unable to see in front of them. And those who had light ran to meet the incoming light, and they threw a huge dance party.”

Jesus offers this parable in the middle of a sermon about discerning where to walk in the present moment. His closing part, aka the part he really wants you to hear, are these famous lines: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Stumbling in the dark, unable to see the light, is not a question of right belief, preparedness, or hypervigilance. We keep our lamps trimmed and burning by caring for those who are wounded by the world. We orient towards the light by standing with those most oppressed. The Kindom of God is like this: There is light on the horizon, shining far brighter than any electoral outcome. There is light within each of us, and it refuses to go out. You are the light of the world. Let us dance together towards the light.


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