The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 20, 2017
At exactly 11:46 AM tomorrow morning, the eclipse will begin. 238,900 miles out there in outer space, the Moon will pass in front of the Sun and cast a shadow back on Earth. I think we’ve all got a little bit of eclipse fever, and are excited to watch it.
But you know, it didn’t always used to be that way with a solar eclipse. We now know when an eclipse is coming, but imagine if you didn’t know it was coming. Darkness during the day was interpreted as an omen. The stunning and unpredicted nature of a solar eclipse was a portent from above. In 585 BC there was a solar eclipse during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in modern day Turkey. The soldiers on both sides put down their weapons immediately and brokered a peace agreement then and there, because they thought it was a sign from above.
The darkness, the unexpected insecurity, is frightening. Think of Joseph, from the story in the bible from Genesis. Joseph has eleven brothers. Their father is Jacob; Jacob’s father is Isaac; Isaac’s father is Abraham. Joseph comes from a proud family, and on top of that, Joseph is his father’s favorite son, even though he’s the youngest. His father has given Joseph a long-sleeved coat of many colors, showing just how loved he is. You all get the gist, you’ve seen the musical.
Well, this doesn’t sit well with the eleven older brothers. When the opportunity arises, they capture Joseph, and sell him into slavery to Egypt. And that’s exactly when the dark shadow starts to cross the light in Joseph’s life. See, Joseph thought everything was going along just fine, his sun was shining brightly, until the unexpected darkness.
He’s in darkness in Egypt for many, many years. He’s a slave, and then when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, he’s in prison. His life should have been going one way but the unexpected eclipse has turned the potential light into utter darkness.
The maximum of the solar eclipse here in Houston will take place at precisely 1:16 PM tomorrow. The full extent of our shadow. Rock bottom. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, they do. A prescient lesson for today, as many in this church go back to school tomorrow. This year at school, you will have a struggle. It will be a math problem, it will be some other kid at school, a tough class. Teachers, you’ll have long hours, tiresome work, that one student. Parents, you’ll see your children grow and struggle. I know from experience – the smiles and fresh clothes in the pictures on the first day of school don’t last long. The shadow creeps in front of the light.
And we as Holy Comforter, we know about this light, and about this shadow. I remember three and a half years ago, hard to believe it was that long ago, that I stood in this pulpit and said they were going to build a church. And there was light, there was joy. Finally, finally this thing is going to be done. But, as we’ve all learned, building projects take time. And maybe for a few brief moments, we all thought it would never happen, or it’s not happening exactly as we would have hoped it to. The shadow creeping against the light.
We know about the shadow. We have lived in the shadow. And so has Joseph.
Joseph finds himself in prison, but, as God would have it, the eclipse isn’t going to last forever. As God would have it, Joseph eventually becomes the second most powerful person in Egypt, next to only the pharaoh himself. And then the darkness begins to lift. See, God reveals to Joseph in a dream that a famine is coming to strike the land. Joseph then orders enough grain to be stored so that no one would starve. When the famine does in fact come, the people of Egypt are fed from the reserves.
The light is starting to return. But, Joseph’s brothers and his family back in Canaan are beginning to starve. So Jacob, their father, tells all of them to go to Egypt to find food. Lo and behold, it’s Joseph that helps his family to avoid starvation. The same Joseph they sold into slavery. But they don’t know it’s Joseph until he reveals himself to them. He actually has to say, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.”
And then comes the key to the story. Joseph says to his brothers, “and now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph sees that even though a dark shadow eclipsed the light, the light had been shining all along.
And of course, that’s what happens during an eclipse. It’s not that the Sun goes out, it’s that momentarily we cannot see the Sun. Tomorrow, at precisely 2:45 PM, the eclipse will be over. The Moon and the shadow will move on to reveal the full brightness of the Sun.
How often is it the case, that when you look back on life, even in the dark times, you see that the light was still shining? Of course, it didn’t seem that way in the moment. There was shadow. But the light always returns. I don’t mean to glorify Joseph’s suffering and slavery, but I do mean to say that God is able to bring good out of evil. The Sun is always shining even when we cannot see it. God is always loving, even when we’re caught in the shadow.
This is also the message of the cross. Jesus opens wide his arms of suffering on the hard wood of the cross. The pain he experienced, the agony of crucifixion was all too real. But God refuses evil to have the final word. God does not inflict evil on Joseph, but he turns that evil around in order to keep a family from starving. God does not inflict the cross upon Jesus, we do. But God turns the cross around so that an instrument of torture becomes the sign of life.
The darkness, the shadow, is but a precursor to the light. And remember that in order to have shadow, there must be light.
Yes, you will have a hard time at some point during this school year. It’s going to be a stack of homework, a pile of papers to grade, the dreaded STAAR test. It may seem like darkness but it is only a passing shadow.
And let’s be honest – this year of construction we have ahead of us, it’s not going to be fun! There will be shadow creeping in at times. You know, it’s a funny thing, for three and a half years we’ve been anxiously waiting for construction to start. But about five minutes after it does start, I know we’ll be tempted to complain about long it’s taking. Parking will be inconvenient, things might be noisy, loud, confusing. It will seem that it’s taking forever. Do not despair. It is only a passing shadow. The light, the light will always be burning. And at the end of it, we will have received a great gift. A gift that is beautiful, accessible, and visible. You can be tempted to live in the shadow – “it’s taking too long, it’s not exactly what I envision” – you can do that. But you will be missing out on the light. The light of joy, and peace, and love. This year, live in the light. Choose the light of grace and generosity.
See, sometimes the shadow is of our own creation. Sometimes we’re the ones who block the light of God. Sometimes we’re the ones who prefer the darkness because we think we can hide in the darkness. But the darkness is just a passing shadow that will not last forever. That’s the lesson that Joseph’s brothers have to learn.
For all these years they’ve been covering up how they sold Joseph into slavery. For all these years they’ve been living with that painful memory. For all these years they’ve lived in the shadow of what they had done. No matter how much they prefer the darkness, to try to keep things hidden, God will bring it all to light.
The same with the cross. No matter how hard the Romans tried to kill Jesus, he was always going to get up again. So you may as well step out from the shadows now, and live in light, because it’s going to happen sooner or later.
And herein is the lesson for such a time as this. Live in hope. Live in hope. As naive as it may sound, hope that the evils of the day are but a passing shadow. Hope, pray that the light of God will shine in the all the dark places. Hope, pray, trust that this church community will be a place where we refuse to live in the shadows. And live, live as if the shadow has already passed. Live in the light of loving your neighbor and loving your God.