A sermon by the Rev. Richenda Fairhurst
“I did not know God was in this place.” Genesis 28:16 NRSV
When you step onto ancestral ground, you feel it in your bones. You feel the ghost in it, the shadow of your ancestors. This happened to me when I was 18. My heritage is Scots. As a young adult I had the opportunity to travel through Scotland with my Aunt. We stopped in many places, but when I stepped onto the holy ground that was the wilderness of Glen Coe, I could feel a cold wind lifting my hair at my neck. It was as if the boundaries of what was ‘now’ and what was ‘then’ blurred and time stretched across the marsh and through the dark grass.
For those who don’t know, Glen Coe, Scotland, is the site of an infamous massacre remembered still in Scotland. The clan MacDonald lived in the Glen Coe valley and ruled the islands. In 1692, in the dead of night with a blizzard raging, a royal order was handed down to exterminate the clan. A group of soldiers led by Robert Campbell followed those orders, murdering MacDonalds while they slept and burning their homes, sending women and children out into the winter night to die of cold.
As a young woman when I stepped onto the earth where the mountains opened across the Glen Coe valley, it was as if my life has collided with my history, and darkened with it. The space around me thinned. I knew I was standing on terrible, but holy, holy ground.
I have never been to Gettysburg. But, in reading a few accounts of those who have, it is clear that just being there feels a lot like that. The battle, though won or lost, still bears weight, pressing from ‘then’ into ‘now’ through the thin space of hallowed ground.
One thing is obvious, when two large bodies collide, be they MacDonalds or Campbells or North or South, the force of it feels as if it can throw the earth in darkness. We recognize ourselves as puny humans and feel helplessly stuck in the path of totality. The hair stands up on the back of our neck as the angels and ghosts travel through the veil of the thin space all around us.
Monday, August 21st, a total eclipse of the sun by the moon happens right over southern Oregon where I live. Millions of people are even now arriving with eclipse viewing glasses clutched in their hands. In 2017, we can predict this event and we know the science behind the ‘why.’ We watch from the safety of shades that are Nasa approved.
Yet even so it is easy to relate to the awe and fear of ancient people who witnessed eclipses quaking in fear as they wondered why the gods—these two great celestial bodies, sun and moon—were closing in on each other. It seems a contest, indeed: life and death, dark and light, all or nothing. Totality.
This month at church we have been telling the story of Jacob’s Ladder during worship. Jacob has stolen a blessing by colluding with his mother and lying to his father, Isaac. In so doing he has hurt his twin brother, Esau, terribly. Even as Esau weeps, he threatens Jacob’s life in retaliation.
Fear filled, Jacob flees into the night. Jacob ends up in the middle of the wilderness alone and vulnerable. At any moment attack may come, from wild animals, harmful spirits, or angry tribesmen. Or, he may simply die of thirst. Jacob and his brother are like two bodies who have come up against each other and collided, with Esau raising fists and Jacob running. When night falls, Jacob is in darkness.
We often say that the persons and characters in our bible are heroes. This can be problematic when we imagine a ‘hero’ to be someone above reproach, better-than-human, and presenting a great example. The truth is some of the so-called ‘heroes’ of our Good Book do terrible things. But one way that this label might stretch to work for Jacob is that he must deal with the consequences of his actions. He is on the run, estranged from his family, and lost in hostile lands. Heroes are tested, even when they bring that test upon themselves. The opportunity here for Jacob is that this test can make or break him. His true nature is being called out. How will he respond when God shows up?
Jacob lies down in the dirt of the wilderness with a stone for a pillow and goes to sleep. As he sleeps he dreams of a brilliant, celestial staircase, like a ladder, reaching from the place he is lying to the sky above. The staircase is populated by angels moving back and forth. Jacob sees the angels and hears the voice of God, “I am the Lord. I am here. I will protect you wherever you go.”
They are coming for the church!
Police all around.
They won't let us go outside.
Y'all these KKK are marching with torches!
— Traci Blackmon (@pastortraci) August 12, 2017
I read the accounts of Charlottesville this week with fear and trembling. The yoke of racism that twists our country was agonizing as young white men shouted Nazi slogans, gave KKK salutes, and attacked bystanders, clergy, and anti-racism protestors. My first alert to the depth of the trouble was a tweet from Rev. Traci Blackmon who with many others had been worshiping and were now taking refuge in a church. The next day clergy would gather again, despite the threats. They would stand as the presence of love and collide with the voices of hate.
The image of the clergy in their robes and stoles amid a sea of swastikas and MAGA hats is burned into my vision. Are there sunglasses safe for viewing sights like these? The darkness spreads and love is challenged. I grapple with the news and wonder how, how can it be that there are so many alt-right movements so hatefully grown? And why, why have they come together to breathe this kind of darkness against God?
Against this darkness, the clergy began to sing.
I think immediately next of Standing Rock when myself and more than 500 clergy marched in Cannonball, North Dakota, along a blocked highway where police and pipe-line mercenaries had dragged concrete barriers to protect corporate profits against tribal people, their water and their land.
We clergy showed up for a day of solidarity, to show support in the power of prayer, non-violence, and faith in God. We prayed and were smudged in the early morning then began our walk from Oceti Sakowin Camp to the blockade. As we marched a murmur ran through us from all sides: How could we reveal who we were and why we had come? We should be singing! The song rose up, Dona Nobis Pacem. Grant Us Peace.
At Charlottesville the clergy held their ground against the confederate flags and automatic weapons. The song they settled on was simple and childish, perfect in its innocence, the perfect pairing for the darkness and collision. This Little Light of Mine. They sang of light together, of light in each other, of the light of God.
Jacob ran away because he had done something awful to his brother. He has stolen a blessing of great price and his brother has sworn vengeance. Yet God does not relinquish God’s power so easily. God’s long term plans for humanity do not get short circuited by our foolishness, our fright, or our failings. God says, get up. Get it together. We are going to see who we really are.
Jacob is revealed in his response to God. Instead of lashing out in blame and nursing hatefulness, Jacob sees beyond the darkness he is wrapped in. We discover in the story no darkness can hide the splendid light of God. Quite the opposite, it reveals it. And Jacob rises in awe of the love and light spilling from the stairway like a crown. He says, quite simply, “Wow. I didn’t know God was in this place.”
The thing about the eclipse is that the gift to see it is paired by the accompanying darkness that reveals it. For a few moments, the shadow maker—in this case the moon—may seem to be a real contender to replace the sun and doom us all to darkness. For a split second our hearts may quail at hearing of rallies of hate, of our sons seemingly lost to threats and violence.
But I tell you, hold fast to love. For that split second is an illusion. A play. A passing contrast that shows love all the more. The sun shines every bit as brightly behind the shadow maker as the shadow maker lunges. God is not impressed, nor blotted out. The corona is instead revealed, the crown of light and fire as the angels pass to-and-fro along the stairs. The darkness passes by. Love wins out.
It is a sight both humbling and utterly magnificent. It is a sight that is drawing millions just to get a glimpse.
In the path of totality Monday, as two celestial bodies collide by light and darkness, as the great body of the moon comes in front of the great body of the sun, what will this cosmic event reveal in you? What ground has been tested, like Charlottesville, by the forces of the dark? What ground by that great challenge has become holy ground?
That same ground is being hallowed, even now, inside of you.
As Jacob did, see the light, repent of the darkness, and make your testimony. Speak the truth of love for you are the blessing, you are the sons and daughters of Jacob. Lift up your voices and sing: This little light of mine, let it shine, let it shine, shine, shine.
The Rev. Richenda Fairhurst serves as pastor of Ashland First United Methodist Church in Ashland, Oregon. She is an elder in the PNW Conference.