Oct. 10th - "Walking in Darkness” - Rev. Michael Plank
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 10, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Walking in Darkness”
Text: Job 23:16-17: “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me. Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.”
Scripture Lesson: Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that even when God seems most absent, the God-given strength deep within each of us allows us to endure until we find God again.
Prayer for Illumination: God of light and God of darkness, illuminate our lives this morning as we hear your Word, and give us the wisdom to understand how you speak to us. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Job 23:1-9, 16-17: After Job had lost everything and been stricken with disease and devastation, he began to fully feel the weight of his suffering. Listen for God’s Word.
Most of you know that I love bowhunting. When I hunt in the mornings, I like to get in very early so that the forest has plenty of time to settle down after my disturbance before it gets light. I remember one morning a few years ago when it was cloudy and there was no moon, and it was dark. Usually if you’re in a clearing you can give your eyes a minute and they can adjust enough to the starlight or ambient light to see the ground, but not this morning. I used my flashlight and found the tree I wanted to climb and got up into it and got all set up, then sat down to wait another hour or so for light to come.
A little while later, still well before the horizon starts to light up, I heard a harsh bark a few hundred yards away, toward where I had parked. It was immediately clear that that bark did not come from a domestic dog. A second later, I heard another one. Coyotes. Maybe 30 seconds later, I heard them bark to each other again, this time a little closer. Then I heard them again, closer still. Then again, closer still. And then I realized that they were on my track. Ninety percent of me found that to be a very cool experience. Animals with great noses will sometimes follow your scent in the woods, the same way you might follow a deer track through the snow for a ways – just for the sake of curiosity. But 10% of me was chilled to the bone, because there were predators following me. And it was all the way dark. I didn’t know how many, I didn’t know how big, I didn’t know how close they were. And because it was dark, that one small part of me was able to spin the whole experience into the kind of things that sends chills down your spine and into your toes.
And it is in that kind of darkness that we find Job. Job is one of those books in the Bible with deep cultural relevance. Nobody really references Habakkuk in casual conversation, but Job comes up. Job is a profound exploration of what it means to suffer and be a person of faith; of what it means to suffer even when you have been a good person, lived a good life, kept the commandments, gone to church, loved your neighbor, and worshiped God. Job “was blameless and upright… He was the greatest man among all the people of the East” (1:1, 3). And yet it all came crashing down.
First, bandits raided his lands, stole his livestock, and killed his servants. Then, in a freak accident, his sheep and the shepherds he had hired died horribly in a fire. Then, raiders stole his camels and murdered their caretakers. Then, a fierce storm destroyed the home where all of his children were sharing a meal and they died. And if that weren’t enough, he came down with excruciating and grotesque sores that covered his whole body so that every movement was agony. And in the verses and chapters that follow, we watch as Job’s despair and suffering grow deeper and deeper and deeper, until we reach our reading for this morning.
Job speaks. And he says, “Even today my complaint is bitter; [God’s] hand is heavy in spite of my groaning” (v. 2). And the next few verses I’m going to read from the New Revised Standard Version which has it a little different than our pew bibles:
Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. (23:3-7).
But God is nowhere to be found. “If I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him” (vv. 8-9, NIV). Job has been beaten down at every turn. The deck has been stacked against him. He has endured tragedy upon tragedy and when he looks for God everywhere he can think to, he finds… no one. Nothing. Only darkness.
This is a big month for advocacy and awareness. October marks Mental Illness awareness, Domestic Violence awareness, Breast Cancer awareness, and the National Day of Remembrance for Pregnancy and Infant Loss. And if Job’s words – where he accuses God of being absent when he needs God most – if those are difficult to hear in church, difficult words to read in the Bible; difficult words to say aloud, they nonetheless have surely been felt by those who have been marked by suffering.
The woman who is beaten by the partner who claims to love her, the woman who goes alone to another brutal chemotherapy treatment, the man so deeply in depression that he doesn’t leave his bed for days at a time, the expectant parents who return from the hospital with the new car seat empty in the backseat… they all know the darkness. They all know suffering. And if I were a betting man, I’d wager that you know it too. And if you haven’t, I’d wager that the day will come when you will.
And we look for help or healing or relief and find none. We cry out to God for some kind of assistance, for some kind of deliverance, for some kind of end to the pain, and wake up the next morning with nothing changed. I go the east, and God is not there. I go to the west, and I find no one.
Sometimes, if we’re very lucky, some relief will come eventually, and it will be obvious that God is at work, answering our prayers and tending to our pain. But often we won’t be so lucky. Often we will give up on God. We will know that something needs to change but we will be unwilling to wait any longer for God to do anything about it. And in that moment we will make one of two choices: either we will give up altogether – on happiness, friendship, love, life – or we will steel ourselves to survive and move through suffering anyway, with or without God’s help.
Job finally arrives at this point. “God does whatever God wants and who can stand against it?” he says (v. 13). “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me” (v. 16). You had your chance God, and you’ve blown it. You’ve damaged the relationship we had. I trusted you and you let me down. And there’s nothing I can do about that.
“Yet,” Job says, “I am not silenced by the darkness” (v. 17). God may have given up on me but I’m not giving up on myself. God may have left me to die, but I’m not dying yet. God may have knocked me down, but I’m getting back up, on my own if I have to. Job is where William Ernest Henley was when he wrote the brilliant poem “Invictus” after Tuberculosis and its complications required that his leg be amputated.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
…It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
There is an unquenchable fire within each of us, that, if we let it breathe, grows into a small, but fierce flame. It is the triumph of the will. It is the audacity of hope. It is the defiant conviction to survive no matter how impossible the pain and suffering and agony. It is the boldness to make it through no matter how alone you are or how hopeless things seem. It is the perseverance of the human spirit, with or without God’s help.
Ah, but we forget. In those moments when we make the decision to keep going, no matter the cost, we forget that we are not the only ones who have found the perseverance of the human spirit. We forget that the spirit alive in us that keeps us going is not our own. It’s hard to remember, when you’re that deep in the darkness, you simply cannot see the whole picture, and so we forget that Jesus said, “I will send you an Advocate – the Spirit of God” (John 15:26) who will stand for you when you can no longer stand for yourself. We forget that that Spirit steps in and stands up for us with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26). We forget that the Lord is the one who goes ahead of us; God will never fail us or abandon us (Deuteronomy 31:8).
That immortal and invincible and universal human spirit is immortal and invincible and universal precisely because it is not our own. It is our God-given gift. It is our unconquerable soul. God has maybe gone ahead to scout the way, but in the meantime it is God who gives us the strength to stand again when we’ve been knocked down. It is God who gives us the strength to step forward when we’ve been pushed back. It is God who gives us the courage to keep moving in the darkness. It is God who gives us the daring to refuse to be silenced. It is God who gives us the audacity to keep going for just one more day.
I read an interview once with an ocean kayaker who found himself caught in a storm too far from shore. The swells were fifteen feet high. One false move and he would be rolled over and drowned. He was caught in that storm for almost twelve hours. He said every now and then he would pick his head up and look out at the waves and the ferocity of the skies and the sea and feel himself start to panic. And so the question from the interviewer came: “How did you stay calm?” And the kayaker said he brought himself back and said just this next wave. You can make it over a 15’ swell. Just get this one. And he did that for 12 hours until eventually the swells became a little smaller. Eventually they grew a little farther apart. And the sea never became completely calm, but it got to where he could navigate the waters again and find his way home.
The Spirit that God has given each of us always gives us enough for one more wave – for just this next day, this next hour, this next minute, this next second – just for right now, God, help me to stand. Just for this moment, help me take one more step in the darkness. Amen.
Oct. 3rd - "We are the Presbyterian Branch of the Jesus Movement” - Michael C. Casey
“We are the Presbyterian Branch of the Jesus Movement!”
Sept. 19th - "Tactical Empathy” - Rev. Michael Plank
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 19, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
Text: Mark 9:35 “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’”
Scripture Lesson: Mark 9:33-37
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that empathy, kindness, and service are the route to building the Kingdom of God on earth to the end that hearers will consider more closely the humanity of others; especially those with whom they disagree.
Prayer for Illumination: God of all people, proud and humble, you speak to each one of us equally. Open our minds to hear what you say to us this morning. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Scriptural Context: In the midst of Jesus’ preaching and teaching and traveling, the disciples learn many unexpected lessons from him, and this is one of them. Listen for God’s Word.
The summer when I was 16, I worked in the gift shop at the zoo. We lived in Omaha at the time, and as much as Omaha sounds like a backwater town here in the bustling metropolises of Washington County in the northeast, my favorite fact in defense of Omaha is that its Henry Doorly Zoo has been listed in the top 10 zoos in the world for decades (it’s currently #3 in the US behind the Fort Worth and Cincinnati Zoos). So I, as a teenager who loved animals, was super excited to work there; even if it was just in the gift shop.
And there was a lot about being in that zoo five days each week that was totally amazing. And there was a lot about working in a gift shop that was probably like what you’d expect. And the memory that stands out most clearly to me was the time that a couple came into the gift shop and they looked at the giant stuffed animals – the ones that are five feet tall. The man came up to me at the register as I was talking to my manager and asked how much the enormous koala was. I looked it up and told him the price was $200. He and his partner put the stuffed animal back and left.
My manager and I (he was maybe 19) resumed our conversation – I have no idea what it was about, but I know we were laughing, because a second later, the man stormed back in, grabbed the koala, opened his wallet and threw two, crisp $100 bills on the counter. “How much money did you guys make last year?” he demanded. I was 16, so I was thinking I’d maybe made $500 if you counted birthday money. He kept right on going. “I made two million dollars last year. So you ducks better watch who you’re laughing at.” And with that, he threw this 5-foot-tall stuffed koala on his shoulder and marched out of the store.
I am sure, that his intention was to show us wealth, power, and greatness. But even then, at 16 years old, all I saw was insecurity. Greatness is ascribed by others. And you rarely get it by acting like you have it. Jesus said “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
This verse comes shortly after Jesus and his disciples left the mountains, where Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Then the disciples had tried to heal a boy who was possessed and failed, so Jesus had to do it. And then, maybe because they were feeling so low, started talking about who was best – who was smartest and wisest and most noble and most faithful and most worthy of learning what Jesus had to teach.
And when they finally got to the house that was their destination and were able to wash their feet and rest at the table, Jesus very casually said, “So, what were you guys arguing about?” And you could have heard a pin drop. Nobody wanted to admit that they’d been so petty. And after hearing no answer, Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, that person must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
This is what Biblical scholars, especially those who study the Gospel of Luke, call the Great Reversal. In Luke, you see even more of this: the last shall be first, the first shall be last, the proud shall fall, the humble shall be raised up, and on and on. But glimpses of that Great Reversal are found throughout all the gospels, including here in Mark. And it’s called the Great Reversal because it goes against our expectations. Our expectations are that if we want to be great we should put ourselves in charge, raise ourselves above everyone else, demand the best, be assertive, takes what’s ours, shout down our opponents, and crush those who would dare stand against us. But do you know what’s interesting? That doesn’t really work very well.
There’s an author named Chris Voss who writes and speaks about negotiation. He was a negotiator for the FBI for 24 years, ending his career as the chief international hostage and kidnapping negotiator. In his book, he talks about the failures of early negotiating tactics where you try to bully the other side into giving up. And he talks about learning the incredible power of what he calls “Tactical Empathy.” The goal of negotiating, he says, is to find shortcuts to human connection – and you do that, not by asserting your way, but by listening; getting what you want ends up being a side benefit.
So let’s dive into that for a minute: first, the always confusing difference between sympathy and empathy. When I am sympathetic, your feelings and my feelings are aligned. You feel sad, I feel sad. You feel loyal, I feel loyal. When I am empathetic, I am able to step into your feelings; in other words, I can put myself in your shoes. I may or may not actually feel what you feel, but I can deeply understand what you feel.
Now, empathy is not without boundaries. I’ve heard many people talk about how difficult life is for them because they feel all the world’s pain because they are self-identified “empaths.” Empathy has nothing to do with your sense of boundaries around where the world ends and you begin. You can be deeply empathetic and not debilitated by someone else’s pain. Empathy also is not agreement, and it’s not condoning behavior. I can be empathetic toward someone who has done something despicable; especially if I think about times when I have acted badly and about the things that have caused me to mistreat people.
And so Tactical Empathy is not about losing all sense of boundaries and blindly agreeing with everyone; it’s about seeking to genuinely understand another’s position in order to have a shortcut to human connection. Many of us wish the world were different, and in order for it to be different, we need more people to come to our side, but the way to do that is through connection, not what’s popular: which is shaming people who disagree with you.
You’ve maybe heard the story of Daryl Davis. He’s a black musician who is often described as being a converter of members of the Ku Klux Klan. He tells the story of having a white man come up to him and compliment his piano playing after one of his shows and learning that it was that man’s first ever conversation with someone who was black. As the conversation progressed, he learned that his admirer was in the KKK, but he could see that their friendly conversation was having an impact. It was like a seed that had been planted, and so he decided to plant and water as many seeds in as many people as he could. The first KKK member who renounced his membership gave Daryl Davis his Klan robe. And since then, he’s been collecting them. He now has over 200.
He doesn’t describe himself as a converter. His goal is to build relationships. He says “I didn't convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.” And when people say to him, “How can you sit down with people like that? People so full of hate?” He says, “How many robes do you have in your closet?”
Now before anyone accurately points out that it’s easy for me as a white man in the United States to extol the virtues of a black man confronting racism with patience and listening, my point is simply that if the goal is to enact change in another person, listening seems to be more effective than talking. If you want to be first, putting yourself last seems to be more effective than marching to the front of the line. If you want to be great, serving seems to be more effective than staking a claim.
And so maybe the Great Reversal is actually ours. Because what Jesus talks about is the way the world actually works, and what we try to do with our blustering and granstanding is a reversal of that. Even a 16-year-old kid can spot insecurity masking as greatness. It doesn’t work. And notice that Jesus doesn’t chastise the disciples for trying to be great. He says, if you want to be first, the way to do it is actually to be last, to serve, to consider the feelings and humanity of others and not just your own.
And just to be clear, he’s not saying to make yourself small. This is the same Jesus who says to let your light shine before others (Matthew 5:16). But he’s saying that it’s not just you out there. If you want esteem, if you want glory, if you want high-regard, if you want respect, if you want greatness, the way to get it isn’t by claiming those things, it’s by giving them.
If you want esteem, treat others well. If you want glory, celebrate others. If you want high-regard, hold up someone else. If you want respect, give respect. If you want greatness, recognize someone else’s greatness. If you want to be served, first serve someone else. You cannot shame someone into lasting, heart-driven change anymore effectively than you have been shamed into lasting, heart-driven change. But you know what else is interesting? Not only are kindness and empathy the surest route to greatness, they will also help you grow along the way. Unless you are a sociopath, those efforts will make you better.
After telling his disciples how the world really works, Jesus pointed to a child and said, whoever serves a child like this serves me. And whoever serves me, serves God. Serving others, being kind to others, putting yourself in their shoes puts you in the presence of God, and you cannot emerge from that presence unchanged. If you want to be happier, serve others. If you want to be richer, serve others. If you want to be more respected, more famous, wiser, serve others. Because it is in service to others that you find God. And God will show you how to become more than you ever imagined. Amen.