Starry, Starry, Darkness: sermon for Pentecost 12C

van-gogh-vincent-starry-night-79005662Readings:  Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-16, Luke 12:32-40

Listen to the sermon

‘Have no fear little flock. Have no fear little flock. It is you Abba’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom.” Have no fear. Do not be afraid. But what is it that we are all afraid of? What is fear is Jesus trying to sooth? What fear drives us? In the deepest darkest hours of the night what are we afraid of? Does it all come down to the darkness in the end? Darkness in the end?
Darkness in the end? Have no fear. Do not be afraid. But how can I not be afraid? What if in the end it all comes down to darkness?
Have faith! Have faith. ”Faith is the reality of all that is hoped for; faith is the proof of all that is unseen.” Have no fear little flock. Do not be afraid. Have faith. But what is faith? The reality of all that is hoped for; faith is the proof of all that is unseen. I’d love to get me some of that. I’d love to have faith; faith that in the end all is not darkness. If I only had faith, I could believe that in the end I will not be left in the darkness of the abyss. If I only I had faith.
After this morning’s worship, I will begin five weeks of vacation. Five glorious weeks to do whatever I want, whenever I want to.I am richly blessed!!! Not only do I have five weeks stretching before me. My vacation begins at the peak of the Perseids. In fact the absolute best time to view the most spectacular meteor shower of the year will be tonight and tomorrow night. From about 10:30 to 4:30 am the universe will be putting on a show. It will start off slowly and then peek just before dawn and if you lie out under there’ll be more falling stars to wish upon than you’ll be able to count. I’ve spoken to you many times about my experiences out under the stars. I’ve been a fan of the Perseids ever since I was a teenager and felt the nearness of something so much bigger than myself under a starlight night. Stars have always given me the courage to peer into the darkness and trust that we are not alone. Stars in the night-sky and not doctrines, or theologies or creeds or a list of things I ought to believe, but stars in the darkness of the night sky. Stars in the night sky take me back to all hope filled nights I’ve spent peering into the darkness for a trace of the One for whom my heart yearns. Stars in the night sky help me to see beyond the darkness. Stars in the night sky are best viewed far away from the lights of the city. In the city there is too much man-made light interfering with our view. In the city there is just too much of everything and there is good reason to be afraid.
I still remember my first trip to New York City. I was a young woman, and the hustle, and bustle, and reputation of New York City gave me so much to be afraid of. New York City is dirty and gritty. In an effort to escape the stickiness of the busy streets, I ducked into the Museum of Modern Art. Back then I didn’t have much of an appreciation for great art, but even I was left breathless when I turned a corner and was confronted by Van Gogh’s masterpiece, Starry Night. Vincent Van Gogh’s image of the night sky swirls across the canvas full of vitality and power that speaks of God’s presence. The stars don’t just sparkle; they explode in radiance. Looking closer, I could see that the earth itself seems to respond to the movement in the heavens, forming its own living waves in the mountains and the rolling trees beneath them. In the sleepy village, the windows of the houses glow with the same light that illuminates the universe. The church steeple in the center seems to struggle to point to God, who is so alive in this scene. But the little church is dwarfed by the cypress trees at the left, which seem to capture the joy of the inhabited creation around them by erupting in a living flame of praise.
I spent a couple of hours standing and sitting in front of that masterpiece and that afternoon was just the beginning of my love affair with Vincent Van Gogh’s work. Over the years I have travelled to Amsterdam many times and spent hours in the Van Gogh museum gazing in wonder at the work of this master. If you have only ever seen a print of a Van Gogh then you have missed the wonder of the thousands and thousands of brush strokes that make up one of his masterpieces and you have missed the opportunity to be mesmerized by the wonders of the details imbedded in each painting. I have traipsed around Europe exploring the various museums that contain Van Goghs and I have often gone out of my way to catch a glimpse of a Van Gogh tour. I’ve seen hundreds of his masterpieces, but none can compare to the splendour of Starry Night.

Not many people know it, but Van Gogh didn’t start out as an artist. Like his father and his grandfather before him, Van Gogh was a preacher. He was ordained in the Wesleyan tradition and began his ministry in England. But Van Gogh was an intense young man and he had a difficult time as a preacher because he asked so many difficult questions. Van Gogh tried to follow the scriptures to the letter so he sold all that he had and went to be a missionary among the miners of Belgium, but the peasants found his intensity a little too hard to bear and Van Gogh was forced to leave the ministry. Van Gogh found it increasingly more difficult to follow the strict teachings of the church. He couldn’t abide the church’s intolerance of questions. He wanted to be free to explore God’s creation in ways that the church frowned upon and in time Van Gogh left the church. Van Gogh had abandoned the established church and rejected “the whole system of religion,” though not religion itself. He wrote, “That [rejection] does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars.”
In a letter to his beloved brother Theo, Vincent explained, “To believe in God for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresistible force urges us toward more loving.”
Van Gogh began to express his questions about God in his art. Van Gogh painted Starry Night while he was held in the grip of a debilitating disease. Today he would have probably been diagnosed as a manic depressive or suffering from bipolar disorder. Van Gogh was rejected by the institutional church. His tormented questions were judged to be a threat to the faithful. The loss of the church community would prove to be fatal for Van Gogh. The details of his suicide stand as a vivid accusation of a church that failed to embrace the questions of a genius.
In the masterpiece Starry Night that is part Van Gogh’s legacy to the world, the church stands—tall, forbidding, and dark—reflecting Van Gogh’s understanding of the unenlightened theology and preaching he found in the church of his day, while the homes of ordinary people in the painting pour forth with light. The cypress tree explodes from the earth, twisted and agonized; it is Van Gogh’s crucifixion of Christ, meant also to symbolize our own daily suffering. The sky, however, has the last word. Vast and magnificent, it fills three-quarters of the canvas.
This is God, the mystical nature of the Divine, the breadth of the Spirit .
This is the God who is not somewhere but everywhere. This is the God of whom our ancestors pointed in the stories they told of Abraham. In the face of Abraham’s questions, fears, and doubts, God responds, “Do not be afraid.” “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”
It used to be much easier to believe in the God of our ancestors. There was a time when asking a question about the meaning of it all was simpler than it is now because the answers never changed. The Great I AM was the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God Isaac, the God of Miriam and Moses, the God of Job, the God of Ruth, the God Jesus, the God of Paul, the God of church, of nation, of home and family. Whatever existed or happened, we knew was the eternal will and calculated design of the God who made everything. Our purpose in life was to keep a set of rules and regulations, or to receive the grace of this Almighty God until we managed to negotiate this world well enough to escape it to a better one. The purpose of life was clear. The rules of the game were clearly laid out. “Read your bible, pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow. And you’ll grow, grow, grow.”
Spiritual union with the Almighty was the meaning of life. God’s purposes were never clear to us, but God had a plan and our job was to believe, to have faith because God had a plan for each of us. God was in charge of it all and having faith meant believe that. Then somewhere along the way, we raised our heads from chewing on the same old grass and the words, “Have no fear little flock” began to loose their meaning and we began to fear the darkness once more.
Some of us were so afraid that we bowed our heads and bit off what we could chew. Others of us looked around and decided that the flock wasn’t providing enough protection from our fear of the darkness, and we decided that our shepherd wasn’t that good at warding off our fear. So we went searching for other fields, tougher shepherds, sweeter grass. But in the end we knew that the darkness was still there, still waiting to overcome us and the fear rose in us that in the end darkness may be all there is. So, we decided to content ourselves with figuring out the night sky. Science and technology became our touchstones and while we may mourn the loss of the shepherd we have left behind, there’s always today, there here and now, in which we can eat drink and be merry. So, if even tough we may not know what lies beyond the darkness, we can distract ourselves from its reality long enough to hold our fear at bay. So, let’s put our faith in the Universe and let nature take it’s course and in the end let’s hope for the best as we decompose into the matter that we once were. Into the darkness that haunts us.
Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colours on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They did not listen, They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

As I recall those summer nights, laying out under the stars, it seems that there has always been water nearby. Often it was the ocean, sometimes it was a lake or a river, once a pond, but always water nearby. Just as the universe’s splendour shifted from the night sky the display of shooting stars would reach their peek and my ability to count was hampered by my weariness, and I would begin to drift off to sleep, suddenly the sky would begin to change it’s hue as the rising of the fireball that is our very own star. And as the sun begins to rise, if you look toward the shore you can catch a fleeting glimpse of a character on the beach beaconing you to come and join him. Jesus stands there on the shore in the mists of the morning, and in your mind, if you listen carefully, you will hear the words, “Have no fear”, “Do not be afraid.”
It’s not much just a hint, a whisper of what lies beyond our sight. There’s no map to point the way. No secret recipe for success. No rules to follow to make it all work out right. Just a beckoning from the shore, just the hint of the One for whom we long for. Nothing you can believe.
Nothing you can know for sure. Just a glimpse of the love that lurks in the darkness.
It’s what our ancestors tried to tell us, but we could not listen,
we did not know how. We were taught that we had to believe in order to have faith.
But faith is not about believing. Faith is about trusting, about loving, about living. Faith is not about believing. Faith is about trusting. Faith is putting one foot in front of the other trusting that the ground will be there. Faith is not about believing, faith is about loving. Faith is about looking into the darkness and trusting that there is love and having the courage to open yourself to that love, about trusting enough to give love in return. Faith is not about believing, faith is about living. Living knowing that the darkness awaits us all. Living trusting that Love will see us through the darkness. Faith is not about believing. Faith is having the courage to embrace the morning, trusting that we can put one foot in front of the other and the ground will be there. Faith is about trusting that the Ground of our being is love. Faith is about loving, living and facing the darkness trusting that the darkness will not overcome us.
So, enjoy the starry nights that lie before us. Have no fear little flock. Despite the metaphor that has been handed down to us, you are not sheep, nor are you expected to be sheep. God is not a shepherd, nor should you expect that which lies at the heart of all that is, to be a shepherd. These are metaphors designed to put our fears to rest. You don’t need to believe them to be the words of Jesus; anymore than you need to believe that Jesus was the only Son of God or that God is a Father, or three in one, or any of the doctrines of the church in order to have faith. Faith is not about believing, faith is about trusting, loving and living. Trust the longing of your hearts, love and live.

One thought on “Starry, Starry, Darkness: sermon for Pentecost 12C

  1. Once again Pastor Dawn Hutchings has brought us the Gospel this time through Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting. I, too, have been a fan of Van Gogh but never knew his story and the inspiring interpretation given by Pastor Dawn Hutchings. Reading Pastor Dawn Hutching’s sermon and spending time with a print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night can move us to a deeper level
    of appreciation for God’s beautiful earth/universe and a deeper level of “trust” as we all move forward in life and living. Pastor Jon Fogleman

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