Text: John 1:1-18
I write regularly for the Huffington Post, and this week, they asked for nominations for the Religious person of the year. Since I was on vacation, I didn’t do any research or nominate anyone, but the question did occupy my thoughts when I was in Florida. Who made the greatest impact in religion? I thought of the many Muslims who have not hidden in the face of discrimination, but they have worked for deeper understanding. I thought of Jews who have worked for peace. But on the site, I represent a Christian perspective, and so I began to think of Christians who have impacted our faith, and the question grew for me, from the past year to the past decade. Who made the greatest impact on religion?
And I imagined all of those men and women. I don’t know their specific names. I could only recognize their shaky voices and blurred profiles. They were the people who have stood up and turned in their priests, pastors, or missionaries who were predators. I thought of all of those who risked the suspicion and disbelief of their friends, loved ones and community. They were brave enough to stop the lies and cover-ups, and they told the truth. Now that I have worked in churches for thirteen years, I know how good they are at suppressing secrets. They are like families, businesses and other organizations. Powerful forces arise when someone has a complaint of this magnitude. And yet, these men and women did what John describes: They shined light into the darkness.
Since the day when those victims began to raise their voices, they became survivors. Many people have had the courage to step up and shine a light in that deep darkness. Now, in our church and in most denominational congregations, we have strict rules to protect children. One adult is not allowed to be alone with one other child. We try to keep two Sunday school teachers in the classroom, and if we can’t manage that, then we have our Christian Educator who floats and checks in on all the classrooms. In our nursery and classrooms, we have clear glass on the doors so that parents will know that their children are being cared for properly. In our denomination, we have strict rules on how a report is to be made, and how the perpetrator will be disciplined. We have men and women who work to make society safe for children. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. It is a struggle in all walks of life to protect the vulnerable and those who cannot speak for themselves. Yet, many have become aware of what can happen when we try to hide things, and they have worked tirelessly to bring those things in the deep darkness to the light.
I grew up knowing that our former pastor was a pedophile, and so it was often hard for me to go to church. Even though I realize that pastors and priests are human, the depth of hypocrisy that it takes to carry out something like that is astounding, and so I always had a difficult time with religion in general.
I have watched people take different positions when the church betrays them or their family. They can reject the church altogether. Or they can proclaim that they are “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, they appreciate the goodness, teachings and practices of spirituality, but they cannot abide the darkness of church. They don’t see much good in the professional clergy, the buildings, or the governance.
I understand this thought and I would never try to argue with someone who has made that determination, but I have made a choice to be a religious professional, in spite of all the darkness that I know is in our midst. The reason is because we are human. There is no way to have a spiritual experience apart from our humanity. And with every human endeavor, there is light and there is darkness. Even when we try to be good, even when we try to be noble, even when we try to do the very best and right thing, there is some darkness.
I have read discussions on MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s blog when it comes to the environment. In order to help the environment, she employed the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” tactic. And yet, she found that she had to use harsher chemicals when cleaning her toilets. A commenter was concerned the hamburger that she bought everyday, and how bad her beef consumption was for the environment, so she decided to order salads instead. But then she became frustrated to find that her hamburger was served in a small piece of paper, but her salad was served in a giant, plastic dome. I heard a story on NPR recently that said that many dishwasher detergent companies took phosphates out of their soap, because of the terrible things that they can do to the environment. But the story explained that there was a concern about how it was taking more water to wash our dishes now. We buy CFLs, but then we find out how toxic they are when they break.
We can see the same thing when it comes to technology. The community and relationships that can arise through social media fascinate me. Men and women are able to talk to other people who have the same hobbies. They can share ideas. Artists can sell their art. People with the same political passions can create constellations of hope around their causes or candidates.
But at the same time, we have also seen how people can be bullied to the point where they have killed themselves. Men and women, who may never be so uncivil to a person face-to-face, can become nasty with the anonymity of the Internet. Racism can thrive. The darkness of the technology, having your face hidden in those shadows, seems to create monsters out of some people.
We see it with science. Incredible discoveries were made. We learned about atoms, and then we figured out how we could split those atoms. And the world has never been the same.
We even see it with the medical profession. When wonderful achievements have been made to prolong a person’s life, sometimes we begin to wonder, “Does this person have the right to die?” We appreciate ground-breaking medications, but we also realize their side-effects.
Over and over again, our technology, our science, our advancements have led us to new problems. But does that mean that we should give up on caring for the environment, on technology, on medicine, on science? Of course not. As progressives, we will keep working for the good of all people and the care of the earth. We will work for education and freedom for all men and women. We believe that we will keep moving forward and pushing for a better world.
With every advancement, we understand that there will be light and there will be darkness, and we keep shining the light, even when deeper, darker corners arise. In each of our professions, in each of our passions, we cannot give into the complacency of walking away and in giving up. But we need to keep striving and moving forward.
And I feel the same way about religion. It is my passion and my calling. I have seen religion do incredible harm to women, men, lesbians, gays, and children. But I have not been able to walk away from it and I have not been able to separate “religion” from a spiritual life. I have not been able to sequester myself into an individual spiritual practice, devoid of our life together in this sanctuary. Because I know that we can do more when we are gathered. We have more light to feed homeless people, to care for prostitutes, to teach art to children, and to provide medical care for people in Ethiopia.
There is darkness among us. I cannot deny that. And I realize that my comparisons are faulty in many ways. I am not saying that pedophilia is the inevitable outcome of something that is well-intentioned. No. Not at all. But I am saying that there is darkness that I’m not willing to walk away from, and many of us have been called to the diverse and colorful beauty that our collective light can bring.
Thoughout these days of Christmas, may we remember the light that was born within us, and may we be called to keep illuminating the darkness as Christ did.
Through our Creator, our Liberator and our Sustainer. Amen.