Texts: Psalm 138; Mark 3:20-35

Date: June 6, 2021

In the name of our loving, liberating and life-giving God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen

What a joy it is to be up here again, to be in this space with you, to worship together, to feel your energy, your excitement, your nervousness, your warmth. I’ve missed you all; I’ve missed this pulpit; physical spaces are spiritual spaces, are they not? There is something sacred about being in this space, with you again.

A lot has happened since the last time we have gathered together in person. Little did we know last March that it would be well over a year before we’d be together for worship. As a community, we have missed so many opportunities to support one another, to share our lives together, to grieve the loss of loved ones, to celebrate the birth of others. To walk with our seniors through their pivotal year. To say goodbye to those who have moved away and to journey alongside those who lost their parents, their children or who had cancer. Understandably, there are some who aren’t comfortable coming back, at least not yet. If we are honest, we have no clue where we are in this pandemic. Has winter finally come to an end? Are we somewhere in the middle? This pandemic; it has ravaged our lives, our routines, our economy, our families. I’m pretty sure there were moments for all of us where it was hard to have hope; hard to know exactly where God was. 

If that wasn’t enough, since we’ve last gathered together, our nation experienced societal unrest brought about by senseless police brutality and others taking black lives. The protests that we thought would never end and wondered if they ever should were a prelude to one of the most difficult election seasons of our nation’s history. Many still insist the election was fraudulent. Some even stormed the capital, an act of insurrection, to make their point. We are living in the most toxically polarized moment in America since the Civil War. There seems to be little interest by most to engage across differences and bridge our divides. 

What does one say at this moment, given all this darkness, anxiety, and uncertainty? What does it mean to be Glennon Heights Mennonite Church given all this? As I’ve been thinking these last few weeks about what to say today to mark our return, to highlight a shift in our life together and help us imagine a new path forward, I kept coming back to the same story.

This is a story that the great preacher, Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles often told. For those not familiar with Samuel Billy Kyles, he was a great civil rights activist; he was the one who beckoned Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in 1968 to support the sanitation strike. That meant, Rev. Kyles was there on that balcony, the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. 

And the story is about a boy who wouldn’t go to sleep one night. He just kept staring out of his window; he kept standing there looking at the darkness. His father came by the doorway of his son’s room; he was perplexed at what his son was doing. So he told him: “Son, it’s time to go to bed.” But the boy replied: “Daddy, I can’t go to bed just yet. You’ve got to see what this man out here is doing. There is a man punching holes in the darkness.” The father had absolutely no idea what his son was talking about. So the father came over, looked out the window and finally realized what his son was observing. There was a lantern lighter in the distance who was lighting the street lamps in order to light up the dark city. And to his son, it appeared that this man was punching small little holes in the darkness.

Punching holes in the darkness. When I think about our calling today, in this moment, at this particular time. Punching holes in the darkness seems like the best way to describe what our responsibility is as a people of faith. For punching holes in the darkness reminds me that we are called to be like that man lighting those street lamps; that we are called to bring light, life, hope and beauty into this world especially during times when everything seems so bleak. Billy Kyles says it this way: God has placed us on the earth not to be the sun but simply to light a lamp so that you can punch a small hole in the darkness around us.

Punching holes in the darkness – in many ways this describes what Glennon Heights has been up to for a long, long time. Yet, I think we sense, when we look at our world, that our world needs us to keep doing this work, now more than ever. And to keep doing this difficult work of punching holes in the darkness – I believe there are two traits, two virtues which are fundamentally important if we are going to build on our capacity for this work: Courage and Imagination.

First, courage. What is courage? In this society dominated by superheroes and the marvelverse, it is easy for us to think that courage has everything to do with privilege and physicality. Don’t get me wrong, I love the marvel universe. I’ve seen all the phases of the movies; I’m looking forward to the new Loki show premiering next week. But all marvel characters are rooted in privilege. I’m not rich like Iron Man. I don’t have royalty like Thor. I’m not endowed with scientific genius like Bruce Banner. I don’t have superior reflexes like the Black Widow. And I don’t have an entire nation behind me like T’Challa. 

So what is courage? Courage comes from the Latin word core. Literally, it means heart or heart speech. To have courage has nothing to do with one’s physicality; it also has nothing to do with privilege. For courage is the ability to speak your heart … to speak your whole heart. It is courageous when you dare to be vulnerable enough to speak the totality of your core, to speak whatever it is that is on your spirit and to speak this truth to those in power. 

When I think of the Psalmists, I think of people who dared to do just that. They were people who dared to explore the depth of our souls and then sought to find language to voice those depths, no matter what they found. The Psalmists were not afraid to voice their doubts, their anger, their frustrations, their lack of faith to both God and their community. The Psalmist were people who were emboldened by this desire to be vulnerable and to speak the totality of their heart. As our Psalmist this morning proclaims: “When I cried out to you, you answered me, you greatly emboldened me.” I love the Psalms; I love praying them when words fail me; I love turning to them during dark times. Because the Psalms were composed by people who laid bare their souls to the world and spoke the words that others were too afraid to utter out loud.

That’s courage. And courage I believe to be the most important of all the virtues. For courage is what makes them all possible. You can’t love unless you have the courage to love; you cannot forgive unless you have the courage to forgive; you can’t live a life that seeks after peace and justice unless you have the courage to do so. You can’t do any of these things unless you dare to speak your entire heart; unless you are willing to live out your truth.

That brings us to the second trait necessary if we are going to punch holes in the darkness – prophetic imagination. Imagination calls us to see past the world in front of us and dare to believe that another world is possible. A world of dignity, equity, and liberation. A world of life, not death. A world of abundance, not scarcity. A world of love, not judgment. A world not centered on extracting labor and resources, but one where the land, animals, and human bodies are protected. 

Right now we find ourselves amid a time of cultural ruin, a time of rubble. The world as we know it has collapsed. People are stockpiling weapons. People are afraid of bridging differences. People are insulated, isolated and afraid. And they are searching for stories, new stories by which to live. This is what QAnon has taught us. People are desperately looking for new stories that offer them alternatives. And prophetic imagination beckons us to proclaim stories that both stretch us and nourish us about the possibilities of God’s reign among us today; then they invite us to participate alongside God in this work. Stories which interrupt the rhetoric and logic of our day; which liberate our imaginations so that our minds, hands and hearts will be free.

Mark too found himself living in a time of rubble; a time of cultural ruin. His temple, much like ours, had collapsed. The people were plunged into a time of crisis thanks to a war raging in the Jews backyard. And what does Mark decide is most needed at this time? A story, a story which will expand their imaginations. So he tells the story of God’s reign embodied in a poor peripatetic prophetic and teacher. Why place a premium on storytelling in the midst of wartime? Because what Mark understood is that what the people needed most was to know that God was present and that God was still active in Jesus. The people needed an expanded imagination. They needed an alternative to Pax Romana. They needed a new story that would both stretch them and nourish them.

It is pretty amazing, if you think about it, that Mark calls his book, euagalion – translated as Gospel. For this was a technical term used for imperial victories. It was a term of political propaganda highlighting the emperor’s exploits. So Mark, by appropriating this term, deftly challenges the rhetoric and politics of empire. Instead Mark offers the story of Jesus as an alternative to his culture of death, war, empire. Mark plunders Rome’s storehouse of rhetoric and propaganda, and latches onto this word, “gospel,” as a way of thwarting Rome’s stronghold on the peoples’ imaginations, so that they can imagine a new world centered around God’s reign.

Courage. Imagination. These are the traits we must continually work on if we are going to punch holes in the darkness of our world. If we are going to keep offering an alternative to the darkness which permeates all around us. To close, I’d like to tell a story about someone who devoted their entire life to punching holes in the darkness. Someone who embodied both the courage and prophetic imagination which our world so desperately needs today – Robert Smalls. 

It is a shame that the life of Robert Smalls isn’t too well known. That his story has been obscured by history, but that is soon going to change, because Amazon is currently working on a movie about his life. It should be a great movie, for it’s a real life story that is much better than Oceans 11, 12, and 13.

You see, in 1862, Robert Smalls and his wife, Hanna, were enslaved Africans in South Carolina. And they plotted to steal a Confederate War Ship and not only take their family but eleven other Africans to freedom. And what enabled them to pull off the heist of the century was the peculiar arrogance and ignorance of racism. Because at that time, people did not believe that Africans had the capacity to not just steal a warship but be the captain of a warship. Even though it was Africans in the south who built the warships, navigated the ships, cleaned the ships and did everything on the ship. Racism’s ignorance and arrogance believed it was impossible for Africans to command such a ship.

So Robert and Hanna plotted. They knew that the captains and crew got drunk almost every evening. One night, after those in charge left to get drinks, they brought the other families on the ship. Robert Smalls then put on the confederate uniform which he stole and took his place at the bow of the ship. Then under the cover of darkness, Robert sailed them out of the Charleston Harbor. But to leave the harbor, there was one major obstacle – getting by the harbor master. And the brilliance of Robert and Hanna is that they memorized the entire Confederate Codebook. And so when the harbormaster gave the signs, it was Robert Smalls on the bow of the ship who gave those signs back.

It was incredibly early in the morning. All the harbormaster could see was a silhouette of someone in a confederate outfit. And they sailed right out of the harbor. But the story doesn’t end there. Because the Union placed a blockade on the Charleston Harbor and the union was ordered to fire upon anyone traveling north unless they surrendered. As they traveled out of the harbor, a little later a union ship spotted them. They pointed their guns on the warship known as the Planter which Robert and Hanna were commanding. Hanna immediately got the idea to grab a white sheet and run it up the pole to state they were surrendering. They found a sheet; they ran it up the pole; they thought they would be safe. But if you have ever been to Charleston, you know mornings can be foggy. The union ship, it couldn’t see the sheet. They prepared to fire; they counted one, two and before they said three, the sun came out and burned off all the fog.

When the union boarded the ship, they expected to find white soldiers. They could not believe that enslaved Africans had the capacity, the imagination, the courage to steal a ship. And when they boarded the ship, Robert stepped forward and said: I give this ship to Abraham Lincon for the fight against slavery.

The story does not end there though for the Smalls. They moved to Philly and Robert joined the Union Army. He became the first African American placed in the position as Captain, an officer in the military. After the war, they raised money in Philly and decided to move back to South Carolina. When they moved back to South Carolina, they had enough money to purchase the plantation where they were enslaved. From there, they started a food coop for those food insecure in Buford and Charleston. Then they started four schools for enslaved Africans with a focus on early childhood development. 

But that wasn’t enough. Robert Smalls believed he was called to speak his whole heart to this nation so he ran for Congress and he won. While a congressman, he put forth legislation that would be the framework for what we know today as the public school system in the United States. How was this possible? Because both Robert and Hanna rooted their lives within a black spirituality that proclaimed the power of courage and the power of imagination. And so they devoted their lives to punching holes in the darkness. 

I’m not going to lie. I don’t know what lies ahead for our congregation, for our community, our society, our world. But this I do know, we are a resilient people, who will keep finding ways of punching holes in the darkness of our lives and this world. And that means we must always have the courage to imagine that the way things are are not the way things always have to be. For God has placed each one of us on the earth not to be the sun but simply to light a lamp so that we can punch a small hole in the darkness around us.

Amen.