This is the sermon I gave at First Church Cambridge on January 4th, 2015. I will give this a trigger warning for talk of suicide and depression. Please read with care:
Verve Coffee Roasters sits on the corner that separates the two streets with the heaviest foot traffic in Santa Cruz, CA. I began writing this sermon while there, sipping my afternoon coffee, nestled into my favorite window seat watching the people pass by on the Front Street side of the cafe. I can recall the early years of Verve, before it opened the Santa Cruz location, when I had to go the seven miles to Capitola to treat myself to a coffee better than what I could brew at home. Being the coffee snob that I am, it’s hard for me to find something I’m willing to go out of my way for, but that cafe was special. I met my friend Britt there.
Britt wore her boldness as unapologetically as her purple glasses. Her smile gleamed with warmth, and her personality filled the room. She was the barista who would serve up coffee with witty banter, never repeating the same line twice. If she became interested in your life, she wanted to know all about it. She always had an opinion, or a question, or an insight to share. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that she was capable of small talk. We never made it. If I started a conversation about the weather, it would quickly turn into a deep discussion about climate change or racial barriers in the local food movement, or something else weighty and (most likely) justice centered. Maybe it wasn’t so much that she wasn’t capable of small talk so much as it was something about our friendship that skipped that step completely. She made Verve so special for me that it never seemed out of my way. It felt like home. Over time, I quit going there and she quit working there, but our friendship would blossom over the next few years into a unique relationship where we could share in each other’s vulnerabilities trusting that the other could hold them.
We had our last conversation at the end of this past November.* It is the perfect example of our friendship, difficult as it may be for me to say. It happened on Facebook, after she read a status I had posted in regard to some challenges I was having with depression. She had been struggling with depression and anxiety for a long time. Recently, it had been reaching new depths. She told me that she cried upon reading it because it felt as if I knew what she had been going through and that I understood. She felt as if I was speaking directly to her. She ensured me that I wasn’t alone, and that she would be there for me—that “we are siblings in this.” I don’t quite recall all I said in my reply, but I know I ended it with “You are not alone either. I love you.” I didn’t hear from her after that. On December 13, Britt ended her life after deciding that the weight of her depression was too much to continue bearing. I have no idea how she did it. I neither need nor do I want to know. That’s not important. Now, all that’s important is figuring out how to proceed.
One of the first steps I took to figuring out my process was to return to Verve. It seemed fitting to go back to the place that most resembles where we met, and to begin this sermon there. I thought that, maybe, the setting might have something to tell me about how our relationship came to be. So I went back to the beginning. The cafe in Santa Cruz worked as a familiar-yet-different setting for me to trace the lines of our friendship, seeing what drew the two of us to that particular place. Once there, I could dive deeper into the present state of our friendship, and begin piecing together how I am supposed to move forward. I recounted the story of our meeting in my head to make sure that I got it right. From there, I was able to follow the paths that led us to friendship and to our physical separation as she moved to Portland Oregon and I to Cambridge. As I repeated this story to myself, I lingered in the beginning. I wanted to make sure that I remembered the origin of our friendship so that I can continue in its spirit in the future. So, with the future in mind, I went back to the beginning.
Our reading for today also goes back to the beginning—the very beginning. It hearkens back to Genesis when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” The darkness spoken of in Genesis is a swirling, watery abyss enveloping the universe. God exists as within this darkness, but as distinct from it, sending sweeping winds across its surface. It is just God and the deep. God exists alone in the darkness, unable to control it, but able to create within it. From the darkness, God creates light, and separates it from the darkness, thus beginning the process of the creation itself. This is where John places the origin of Jesus: part of God in the midst of darkness, as the divine Word that orders the universe. This passage has been placed at the center of Christian belief, establishing Jesus’ divinity through his presence with God in the beginning. He was with God in the beginning, calling life into being from the darkness.
But the darkness still stands.
It’s not that the darkness is evil in some way. It just is. Imagine yourself sailing in deep water on a night with no moon. You look over the edge of your boat into the water and see nothing, but watery black. You imagine that there must be something in there, but can’t begin to imagine what it would be. You look up into the sky, and because there is no moon, the stars are faint if at all visible. Now imagine yourself in that situation for eons, until, one day, the sun begins to rise. That would be a remarkable change. The darkness is no more evil than it was the first night you were in the water, but it does grow tiresome after a while. I imagine the darkness in Genesis to be something like that. Where God is just floating in the darkness until, all at once, something is different. God realizes that there are words to speak that will make things new. And so God speaks, and begins to create.
God and the Word are just as much a part of that darkness as the creation that emerges from it. God knows that darkness closely. So much so, that it was all God knew until God created something else. Who knows how long God existed in the darkness, but my guess is that it was long enough for God to learn the depths and challenges of loneliness. Maybe creation is the result of God staring into the face of the deep alone and feeling despair. God knew enough about loneliness to declare in Genesis 2:18 that “It is not good that man (humankind) should be alone,” meaning that God had to have some knowledge of what it felt like to be totally alone. God had to know just how painful it could feel to be the only one like godself in existence. We can think of creation as a way of God crying out in the darkness for something else, and Jesus as that persistent cry for newness. The Word of God, but also as the words of God, naming the situation at hand and a catalyst for change.
Oftentimes, we may feel like we don’t have the words to be able to say what needs to be said, whether that’s to name a situation or to ask about what someone else feels. We might stumble over words, searching, frantically for some thing to say that we don’t actually believe is there. What if we operated under the assumption that the words are there, and that we just have to give space for them to come up from out of the deep? All of us have that deep, dark place within us. Some of us may be profoundly afraid of it. Others of us may just live there, not necessarily afraid, but wishing something were different. Still, others of us may experience some combination of these feelings waxing and waning at different times in life. We don’t have to resist it. That deep, that place that resembles the chaos of the abyss is the purpose for Emmanuel. That place is the reason why God is with us. God is with us because God knows that place. God lived there, and God knows that it is not good for us to be there alone. So we, too, have words to name our situations, to talk about what it is that we are feeling, and to respond to our loved ones through those feelings, even if that response sounds more like silence than speech. Even if it’s to say, “I don’t understand what you’re experiencing, but I’m here to listen, even if you have nothing to say about it. I’m here for you. We are siblings in this.” And that’s church, right? At least that’s how I think of church: a community of folks coming together in the common acknowledgement of that dark place, willing to hold each other through it. A group of people committed to being siblings in the darkness until the words to create change make themselves known. I think that’s what we do here at First Church. We are with each other.
I’d like to figure out how to extend this beyond church walls. As we bring in 2015, I want to think about how to make a world where the darkness isn’t met with fear. A world where scores of people can stand at the edges of their darkest, most chaotic places shoulder-to-shoulder, holding hands, ready to plunge into the deep together. A world where I can turn to the people on both my right and left and—though they may be strangers—look them in the eyes and say, “I’ve got you. We are siblings in this.” Where I can call them family knowing that the truth of our common lineage links us back to the very darkness into which we stare. Knowing that this darkness is in all of us, that they see the exact same thing in me and are not afraid of it. Knowing that they will be able to give voice to whatever it is that they are feeling because the words have always been there. The word has always been there, with God since the beginning. This year, may we see all the opportunities we have to begin by plunging into the deep. By being with people, not because it’s the “nice” thing to do, or because we think we can save them. Be with them because we are siblings in this.