A More Light Congregation

Bethany Presbyterian Church


I have a children's book called “This Book is Gray” by Lindsay Ward.  In this book there is a color named Gray who always feels left out.  His friends never let him color with them.  So he decides to tell his own story and write a book.  He calls it This Book is Gray.  He draws a picture of a tall house with lots of windows and a mailbox and a beautiful stone walkway from the door to the road.  And the sky is overcast and the sea is smooth and still.  Gray writes, “Once upon a time, a wolf, a kitten, and a hippo lived in a small house by the sea. (Some would describe the house as dismal, bleak, or gloomy.)  But it wasn't.  It was lovely.  And GRAY.  And perfect.”

But the other colors come by and they complain about his story.  They say that it looks really scary and bleak and depressing.  Gray says no, it's beautiful and the overcast sky brings with it the perfect kind of weather.  “Dude” says blue,” where's all the color?!”  The other colors remind Gray that you can't illustrate a good story without the primary colors!  They take one look at Gray's picture and right away they are sure that the wolf is going to eat the kitten!  Or maybe the wolf and hippo and kitten will die because they don't have enough sun. This goes on for some time, with each of the primary colors talking to the secondary colors and complimenting each other, and complaining about gray.  White even comes by and puts white all over Gray's whole story shouting, “Whiteout!”  But Gray can't stand it!  “No, no, no!  This book is gray like me!  Why is that so hard to understand?  You guys get to be in everything.  I'm left out all the time.  I don't even get to be in the rainbow!  I just wanted to show you what I can do.  Gray is a cool color too, you know!?”  So Gray goes off with his wolf and hippo and kitten and sulks about everyone thinking he's dull.  But he's bold and interesting!

The colors finally come round, and apologize, and help Gray make an amazing story, without getting rid of the gray color.

As much as this is a story about including everyone, letting everyone play in the sandbox, I bring it up today because it also hints as how we associate anything dark with negative things.  The wolf will eat the kitten – it must be a scary story because everything is dark.  The beautiful overcast sky is seen as a lack of sun.  The sea looks gloomy.  Even white jumps in and makes a snowstorm, just so everything doesn't look gray.  

Have you ever had periods in your life where everything in your world was gray?  Last time that happened to me, I decided that I loved ash Wednesday and lent.  Finally, some acknowledgement of my world view.  Compared to some who think the church is supposed to be all goodness and light, all shiny Jesus, it felt good to triumphantly proclaim the other side!  Yes, my gray life matters too.  Lent allows us to be in those gray moments knowing that the gray is not the enemy – gray is what will lead us to days that are brighter for the struggle.

When that gray life happens, you may not even feel like you deserve to walk into a church because inside the church we are all about hope and grace and we are only allowed to talk about how much our faith helps us see the brighter side.

And it does – our faith does help us see the brighter side – but maybe not on the same day as the gray.  Sometimes not even in the same year.  

Lent is a time to say yes to the gray.  Even in the church.  Especially in the church.

It's not a time to wallow in the dark, but a time to recognize the dark; acknowledge its existence and its power and its tenacity.  

Let's talk about what's dark.







All those dark things lead to and are themselves, suffering.  But it's not the dark that's the enemy.  It's how we get to the dark, how we use the dark, and how we live in the dark that's the enemy.  When we use the dark to hide, when we use the dark to cover up, when we use the dark to disconnect from everything life giving, we suffer or cause others to suffer.  When we do these things as a society or a community, the suffering is compounded.  When we give in to the dark for generations the suffering is systemic.

For all this talk of the dark, the word lent comes from several sources that mean spring season, lengthening, and slowing.  The period of lent in the historical church was traditionally used as a period of time when penitents prepared for baptism which occurred at Easter. It was a time to be cleansed.  It was a time for discipline.  It was a time for an honest inner journey. In church history, we don't talk about struggle and suffering just for contrast to the joy of Easter.  We talk about struggle and suffering because it is what defines Easter.  Easter represents the ultimate overcoming of the ultimate suffering.

So we talk about suffering.  Beginning with Ash Wednesday when we are reminded of the dust from which we come we begin the symbolic journey to the cross.  If we choose to be marked with ashes this morning, we are marking our own choice to take the journey of Christ.  This is symbolic.  Our journey to Easter will remind us of how we are one with Jesus in his struggles.  Once Jesus came down that mountain was sent straight into the wilderness towards us.

Just like our own wilderness periods, the first thing to happen when we're down is we get hit with burdens that seem too hard to bear.  In today's reading, the tempter (In Luke's gospel, the devil is named.) is the first one to greet Jesus.  We call hitting someone while they're down as one of the worst things to do to another.  That's exactly what the tempter does. The tempter comes at Jesus when he's down.  In Matthew's gospel, Jesus' identity as the Son of God is the most important part of Jesus' identity.  So the tempter goes right after that – If you're the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.  To the tempter, being the Son of God must refer to the power to change the physical world.  Surely the Son of God must be able to get what he needs even for sustenance by changing a stone to bread.  But Jesus' response shows that for life, bread is not the only thing one needs.  Well, surely then to the tempter, being the Son of God must refer to the power to call upon angels whenever you want and be protected from any physical danger.  But Jesus' response shows that the tempter is not just hoping Jesus will be tempted by avoiding pain, but he's asking Jesus to test God.  There is a danger in these temptations because they're not really about bread and physical pain.  They're about getting what you think you need by demanding that God do your bidding.  Finally the tempter says what he really wants and offers Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world!  Because isn't that what we really all want?  We want it all!!!!  And we want it to be easy.  And we want it right now!  Sometimes when I hear someone argue their point in some ridiculous way, I just want to say, “Oh go away.”  Maybe I should try “Away with you Satan!”

Jesus' temptations are about extremes.  Biblically 40 days just represents a very long time, maybe longer than we can endure.  And bread, and safety and majesty are versions of some of our basic needs.  Most of us don't really want it all, now, and easily, but we do have some related needs.  In 1943 Albert Maslov came up with a hierarchy of human needs.  The first of these is the largest: Physical needs – food, nutrition.  And the second level is safety.  The third and fourth level are love/belonging, and esteem.  So maybe Jesus' temptations are versions of our basic needs.

The question for the season of lent is, are we willing to look deeply at ourselves, visit the dark or even the gray areas, and add a Lenten discipline that will help us return to our source for our needs, and not turn to the things that tempt us away from God?

Often something like eliminating chocolate or caffeine or wine is a good way to add a little discipline to our daily lives that will remind us that something is different during the next 40 days.  I have sometimes tried to fast between Good Friday and Easter.  The first time I tried that, I was part of a group that was making Easter breakfast, so on the Saturday before Easter I was confronted with many many tiny blueberry muffins that were so easy to just pop into my mouth!  Even just that simple bite, was a reminder of just how easy it is to do what I do without thinking.  Just imagine if I tried to eliminate something like snapping at people that irritated me!  Maybe I'd find out just how often I do that, and be reminded that there are better ways to be.

Whether we eliminate something we'd like to leave behind, or add something that we'd like to keep; whether we are gray or a primary color, lent is a time to become close to the God who will never let us go. Just like the Corinthians tried to rank themselves according to this or that, there is no better Lenten discipline than another.  Sometimes life is already throwing enough at us, that we don't need to search for additional ways to be reminded of the feelings of separation that we feel.  

God knows who we are today, and who we have been.  And God knows who we can be.  We are not alone during this Lenten season.  We can offer our darkest selves to God and will be given a path out of that darkness.  Lent is part of that path.  Let's begin together.   Let me close with “Blessing the Dust” by Jan Richardson.

Blessing the Dust

For Ash Wednesday

All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners

or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial—

did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust?

This is the day

we freely say

we are scorched.

This is the hour

we are marked

by what has made it

through the burning.

This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.

So let us be marked

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less

than we are

but for claiming

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world

is made

and the stars that blaze

in our bones

and the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.

—Jan Richardson

And So it Begins

Reverend Debra McGuire

March 1, 2020

Matthew 4:1-11




Power misused