You can join this week’s worship service by visiting: https://youtu.be/eRqskCK4yb4
Below, you’ll find Andy’s reflection and prayers for this week.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Mark 6: 30-34; 53-56
Music: There Is Room for All; My Soul Is Thirsting For You, O God
“But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Mark 6: 49-50)
It had been a long day. We didn’t read the entire passage today, which is one of Mark’s longest stories, but in between the rest Jesus calls his disciples to take and this account of the nighttime water walking, they have fed hundreds of people, if not thousands, during a stretch of healing and feeding ministry that lasted for months. Jesus and the disciples were completely drained and likely fell asleep quickly.
Suddenly, they are awoken in the night by a wind that is dragging them further from shore. Alarmed, they try to row against it, but to no avail. Suddenly, they believe they are seeing a ghost: a figure, walking toward them, on the water. They cry out, they panic. And as he speaks, they see that it’s Jesus. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Ancient writers who lived in a world lit only by fire can be forgiven for describing the night with foreboding and, indeed, at times, as something forbidding. To travel dirt roads on foot, with the light of only stars and moon to guide, was an act of daring. And we, even in a world lit constantly by electricity, we know that we can experience a single event completely differently, depending on whether it occurs by day or by night. An unplanned phone call from a close friend who is far away, may raise our curiosity in the afternoon, but it will raise alarm in the middle of the night.
As sight-dependent mammals, we tend to associate the night with danger because we can’t see as well. A little light can play tricks on us, reflections can give us a fright, sounds we wouldn’t even notice during the day put us on high alert at night. So, it’s also not surprising that when 16thcentury mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote about the pains of emotional distress and of spiritual reckoning, he referred to them as the Dark Night of the Soul.
Since that time, darkness has served as a metaphor both for a lack of enlightenment and for the experience of our perceived distance from God. In our hymnody, we light a candle against the darkness, and it shines in the nighttime of our fear. One of my favourite poets, William Stafford, refers to our isolation from each other and from nature as The Hungering Dark. The future is often referred to as dim.
And yet, in all my life, I have felt God’s presence most profoundly at night. On summer evenings, hot and humid, a fan would whisper its cooling touch as I lay awake in bed, listening to Weird Al, wondering at the moon through my window, dreaming vague dreams of a wide open future.
I remember – like it was yesterday – the baseball field at night at Berwick Camp in the Annapolis Valley. Normally the sight of our family church in the summer, on this weekend it was the site of our NS Youth Choir rehearsal in late September. The only things I remember about that weekend are the stars at night, and holding the hand of the person become my best friend, my life partner, and he mother of my children
Each Sunday evening, at St. George’s Round Church in Halifax, I would sing the service of Compline – the last office of the day – with the choir. There it was the bellows of the organ that whispered underneath the plainchant, and the glorious harmony of the Lord’s Prayer near the end of worship; the candles illuminating the rich and comforting darkness of evening prayer.
Now, I should add that I’ve never seen a ghostly figure walking toward me on the sea, or hovering at my window at night. My uncle Kevin, who stayed in our guest room when he first moved here a few years ago, swears that he saw a ghost, or, as he put it, a wolverine, outside our windows one night when he was alone. Ever since, we’ve taken to teasing him about sightings of the Ghost Wolverine.
But most of the time, our hardest experiences happen during the harsh light of day, not night. Getting test results from the doctor; the funeral of a loved one; losing a job; arguments; accidents. Yet still, the images associated with these experiences continue to be about darkness. With the result, I think, that we have associated the absence of God, the absence of joy, with night, with darkness, and even, sadly, with blackness.
In writing an Advent worship resource for the church a few years ago, I was reminded of how even our church language is shaped this way. I had written, “We light a candle against the darkness, and declare that God is light.” Perfectly scriptural, and yet my editor, who is Black, asked if I could think of another way to phrase it; a way that would not imply that darkness – and indeed blackness – are undesirable.
In liturgical circles we call this expansive language – a choice of words that expands how we describe and understand God, in a way which doesn’t support an implicit bias. It’s not surprising, of course, that the language and imagery of white, European settlers would continue to shape us to fear that which is dark, or black. What my editor was suggesting, however, in her very gracious and supportive way, is that a change in heart about our neighbours has to be supported by a change in language – a thoughtful and faithful consideration of what we say, with a mind toward how it is heard.
That’s why I’ve been focused recently on God as present in the rich and comforting dark. I realized as I read the lesson today that disciples were not afraid because it was night, but because they couldn’t believe their eyes. And when this happened, Jesus reassured them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” In the quiet curve of evening, God is there. In the restless hour in the middle of the night, God is there. In the uncertain future, the path we cannot see, God is there.
God blesses both light and darkness, day and night, and is with us through all things. Amen.
Holy God, Giver of Life and Source of Love, we give you thanks for the many gifts that are part of your rich creation. We thank you for the growth of new life and the renewal of the old. For time to spend with family and friends, time to rest, reflect and replenish, we thank you for these gifts.
Today, as we reflect on your presence in and blessing of the rich and comforting dark, we pray for those who have been unjustly treated because of the colour of their skin. We pray for your wisdom and compassion as we reflect on our practices and our words, in worship and in witness. Give us patience to hear, without defenciveness, the experiences of our neighbours. Give us the courage to change, not out of fear for ourselves, but out of love for others. Help us to follow you, Holy One, in all we do.
We pray for our community of faith and for our wider community; for the brokenness we know about, and that which we cannot see. Guide our hands and hearts to reach out – not out of a sense of obligation, but out of the joy of sharing life – that we might practice and experience your peace.
We pray for those who are ill in body or in spirit. For those in hospital and care home, at home and in transition to care. We pray for our families and friends. We pray for those who mourn this day
And we pray for ourselves, God of Mercy and of Hope; that you would grant us trust to know that you are always at work in us and others by your Spirit. Give us courage to consider the parts of our lives that need tending to, and to rejoice in the parts of our lives that give us life.
We ask these things in Jesus’ name, who taught us when we pray to say, Our Father… Amen.