On Darkness and Middle School

Proper 28 / November 16, 2014 / Year A

1 Thessalonians 5:11

Matthew 25:14-30

Preached: November 16, 2014, All Saints’ Church, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

When I was 11, I lived with my parents and my two brothers in a little colonial house on a hilltop overlooking a graveyard and an Episcopal church. The church was built in 1715; it was really old. My dad was the property manager–he opened the church up every day, he locked it up every night. He dug the graves with a backhoe, he filled them back in again after burials.

Our family operated within the rhythms of this country church. Many nights after dinner, I would get to ride along with him in the front seat of an old, silver pick-up truck, checking the perimeter of the church property, and locking all the gates. It was dark and I would often hold a Maglite out the window for him so he could see where he was going; I remember the hunch of his back as he swung closed the gates and fiddled with the locks, silhouetted by my careful beam of light.

The house was at the very edge of the township where my brothers and I went to school, which meant that we had the longest bus ride of anyone. And when I was 11 and in the 6th grade and just starting middle school, I thought it would be a good idea to be in the marching band–I played the flute–because they had pretty cool uniforms and I was generally an overachiever. What I did not realize was that marching band practice was at 6:30am, on the football field, in November and December and January. And also it involved marching.

The early bus to school picked me up from my little graveyard house at 5:45am. 5:45am in the winter is dark. I would call it, the outer darkness. For there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

To make matters worse, I had big, thick LensCrafter glasses. I had orange hair that was halfway grown out because I had tried to highlight it myself over the summer with a bottle of Sun-in. I had really unfortunate bangs that parted in the middle and came down in two hooks. I had puddles of grease all over my face. And I had a full set of braces, including rubber bands, and a big gap in between my two front teeth.

It was not a good look. When I think back on my life as an 11 year-old, it is dark. It is graveyards, marching band, and no friends. Because that was the other thing: for whatever reason, I was a favorite subject of a group of 6th grade boys, who would throw berries from the trees at me and stain my clothes, and who wrote some choice phrases about me on the bathroom walls, not suitable for the pulpit. As go the tides and winds of middle school, the rest of the kids seemed to follow their lead, and one day, I actually got a letter signed by everyone in my class saying how much they hated me.

So, I think that’s enough sob story about 11 year-old Julia for one morning, but suffice to say, middle school–as I think it is for a lot of people–was very dark.

I’ve been thinking about darkness this week, because I’ve been thinking about the third slave in this morning’s Gospel story, who is sent into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is in the midst of telling a long string of stories. (This is one area where I can definitely relate to Jesus. I love to tell a lot of long stories.)

Anyway, Jesus is in the midst of telling stories and he gets to this one. He doesn’t really preface it. He certainly doesn’t tell us who is who in this story or what we are supposed to take from it. The story just sits there–and the more I was reading it, the angrier I got about it.

First of all, this story, also known as “The Parable of the Talents,” is supposed to be a “good text” (as in, helpful for the preacher) for talking about “stewardship”–the fancy church word for the season we are now in, where we all decide how much money we will pledge to give to All Saints’ Church in the coming year–what feels life-giving for us, and what will help this place and all of us thrive in 2015.

Well, one thing that I definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable dropping in the plate is a Talent, and I don’t think the ushers or acolytes would be too happy to get one either because a Talent was a piece of precious metal that weighed about 80 pounds and was worth about 20 years worth of work for an average laborer. That’s about half a million dollars in today’s money.

And I don’t think a story that, on first reading, seems to be saying that God is a vindictive slave master is such a good story for trying to get people to give a church money. “Double your money and give it all to us or God will send you to the outer darkness, you slave!” I don’t know–maybe it’s just me–but that doesn’t sound like a good appeal. And it doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know. That doesn’t sound like a Gospel of abundance, or of life-giving stewardship of our precious resources.

So I was getting mad at the scripture, a step I am realizing is pretty integral to my sermon-writing, until I flipped the parable around–recast the characters–and found some of what is good about darkness.

I’ve already confessed a lot of embarrassing things this morning, so I will tell you one more which is that this turning point came while I was watching the latest episode of Super Soul Sunday on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Oprah’s guest was Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and author who was there to talk about her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Taylor talks about the danger of what she calls “super solar spirituality”–the notion, often found in Christianities, but also many world religions, that we should “stay in the light and flee from darkness of any kind.” That we should “ignore the dark places in our lives, get out of them as fast as we can, and avoid them entirely if possible.”

But the truth of it is that we live in darkness every day; it would be a pretty weird day if it never got dark. And it would be a pretty weird life if things never got hard. The dark times can actually be the times when we learn the most about ourselves. The darkness itself is not what we should fear–it’s getting stuck in the darkness that is the problem. It’s the outer darkness–the flip side of that “super solar light”–that’s the problem. Too much light, too much dark–they’re both bad.

**

The slaves’ in Jesus’ story only access to money was at the whim of their master. The economic system of the time was split into houses–the masters of the houses controlled huge percentages of the wealth at any given time, and it was the master alone who benefited entirely from any profits.

The third slave says no to this corrupt system. The third slave digs a hole big enough for an 80-pound weight and drops that Talent in there. You can imagine him wiping his hands of the dirt, disgusted. And when the master comes back, the slave tells the master the truth: “You are not a good man. You take what isn’t yours.” The Master sends him to the outer darkness.

Imagine, then, that this third slave is God, traveling to the outer darkness to be with us. God finding us where we are weeping–because our friend died, because we are worried for our parents, because we cannot get out of the grips of corrupt masters. Imagine God finding us where we are gnashing our teeth–because we are 11 and we are in a band uniform in January marching around a football field.

There is no darkness where we can hide from God, where God cannot find us.

**

I hope that this is still a stewardship sermon. I hope that this is a better appeal than the master gave his slaves as he was slinging out talents. Because I hope that the promise of God finding us in the deep, God shining her Maglite on us as we work in the dark, is an invitation for all of us to be abundant in our gifts to the place where we meet God through each other.

St. Paul instructs the Thessalonians, a very early group of Christians, to “encourage one another and build up each other as indeed you are doing.” I can’t think of a better exhortation to the people of All Saints’ Church, the place where I came (as a Thank-God-no-longer-11-year-old) to see if God is calling me to be a priest, and where I found a whole church full of love, encouraging me and building me up. I repeat Paul’s words to you now–whether you find yourself in the dark or the light: Find one another. Encourage one another. Build up each other. Indeed, you are doing it.

Let’s keep doing it.

4 thoughts on “On Darkness and Middle School

  1. William D. Stroud II

    Wonderful sermon. You shined a bright light When you were 11, you helped me see in the dark. You helped me see so much more than just a key hole in a lock. You helped me see love, every day.

    Reply

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