Life in the Valley
Sunday, January 22, 2023 – Parkminster United Church
I don’t know about you, but January feels like such a long month. Maybe it is the post-Christmas lull. Maybe it’s the dull, dreary days – which given our lack of sunshine as of late – January feels, well, kind of blah.
When I was on study leave last week, I took another course with Betty Pries through Conrad Grebel called “Leading the Church Through Transformation, Change and Renewal.” As always, it was thought-provoking, invigorating, and deeply appreciated.
As I reflected on that course and my sermon for this week, it struck me: the time that we are living in, the challenges that we as a community of faith and so many other communities of faith are navigating feels like a bunch of Januarys.
The church – not just Parkminster – but the church as a whole is in a time of great transformation. A while ago, I talked about an image that Betty had used in a previous course I had taken with her. Imagine for a moment the letter U. She reminded us that these big changes always bring us down to the valley before we can come back up. You can’t have transformation or renewal without it. It will be painful at times. It may even feel futile. But we must take the time necessary to dwell in the valley of that “U.” Transformation, renewal depends on it. So much of our world today is about instant gratification, but there’s no way of ziplining between the two top points of the U as much as we might like to. And it is in that valley of the “U” where the fertilizer is. Where wild hope lives. Where change encourages us to grow and thrive and transform.
Life in the valley. Wild hope in the valley – faith for an unknown season. A time of risk and faith in the truest sense of the word that throws open the boundaries of what is to allow something new to emerge.
Our reading from Isaiah is especially poignant for times like this. “The people walking in darkness have seen a brilliant light;” the prophet said. “Upon those who live in a land of deep shadows, light is shining.”
This passage is one that is sometimes read on Christmas Eve. Though on Christmas Eve, we do not stop at the fourth verse; we go on to read Isaiah 9:6:
“For a child is born to us,
an heir is given us,
upon whose shoulders
dominion will rest. This One shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, the Strength of God,
Eternal Protector, Champion of Peace.”
In a way, this passage makes a lot more sense read in its entirety on Christmas Eve. It not only gives us the “what” – that the people were seeing a brilliant light – but also the “why” – because Jesus had been born.
But today – not reading it in the context of Christmas Eve and not going on to read that the child was born – we see it differently. We do not get to read that ‘why’ – we may not necessarily understand where this brilliant illumination is coming from. When Isaiah spoke these words the people of Israel were extremely fearful of what the future might hold. They were living under oppressive military occupation and their land was desolate.
And while vastly different from our time, there are parallels to our own time in the valley. Despite what any individual congregations are facing internally, there is a much bigger issue that we are facing collectively as a people of faith. Our culture at large is changing rapidly, and the church is not the center that it once was. In the words of one colleague, we are an analog church in a digital world. Let’s not sugar coat it. These are challenging times for communities of faith. But stay with me – because remember, it’s precisely in these valley times that the fertilizer is rich, that we are held in the beauty of the dark to discern and flourish. It is this that Isaiah speaks of. It is this wild hope that sustains me and even excites me for I know that here, in this community of faith, the work that we will do together in the valley will lead us to great transformation and renewal. I believe this. Why? If you here with us in person this morning, look around and rest your gaze upon others who are gathered here. If you are with us online, pause to look at the other names on your screen. Why do I have wild hope? Because of each of you.
Has life as of late felt like life in the valley for you? Have you been feeling fearful of what the future might hold – individually and as a faith community? Have you ever felt like giving up? Have you ever felt as though all hope was lost? All these
questions and feelings are valid. But today I want to invite us to plant ourselves in the valley.
Often, I hear people tell me that they are struck by how much terror and violence and sadness there are in many of the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. But I think that it is so important to remember that these stories very much reflect the human experience. They represent experiences that many of us have today. They represent a reality of struggles, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, and sadness that many of us live every single day. They represent life in the valley.
And yet these stories also remind us that amid the normal struggles of life – the struggles that Israel faced thousands of years ago and the struggles that we all face today – that we are not alone – that God is present and that God’s love illuminates. And we face the journey together.
Several years ago, the United Church of Christ launched a campaign using the slogan, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I was reminded of that slogan when I read this passage because it made me think about our church community and the different places that people come from when they gather.
We all come to church from different backgrounds –different community backgrounds, different familial backgrounds, and different educational backgrounds. Because of this we see and experience and react to things differently. But there is great beauty in these differences. And there is beauty in the community of Parkminster that is thriving. This is a place of wild hope. In the valley we are invited once more to discover who we are meant to be not just as a community of faith, but as children of God.
Because the world needs your voice. The world needs our voices. Rates of loneliness, suicide, and mental illness are rising at alarming rates. The longing in our society for hope, connection and meaning is growing at a feverish rate. We are being invited into a time of transformation at personal, congregational, and even denominational levels. This means taking account of what is no longer serving us and holding fast to what does. To remember that each of us is beloved of God. Because we believe that God is faithful – and we believe in one another – and we know that we can make a difference in the lives of our community – and in the world.
Friends, we join together as a community of faith, not because it is the thing to do, but because it is something that we need to do. We need to come together to serve and to learn, but also to heal one another and to heal ourselves. We come together and through worship and song and prayer and service and action, we peel away the shadows, we bathe in the fertilizer of the valley, and work together to step ever closer to a great transformation.
There may be shadows, but we will see a brilliant light. We will come together as a church to offer wild hope, compassion, and justice; to ourselves and to one another, to our community and to our world:
“But there will be no more gloom
for the land that was in anguish!
The people walking in darkness
are seeing a brilliant light—
upon those who dwell in a land of deep shadows
light is shining!
For the yoke that burdened them,
the weight on their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressors—
you have shattered it,”
Beloveds of God. Fear not. You are not alone. You are loved. It’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we must respond with resilience, courage, and truthful, unflinching witness. So Parkminster, let us dwell in the valley that leads us to the great transformation and let us do so always with wild hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Heather Power
With deep gratitude to Betty Pries whose course and words inspired so much of this reflection.