A Heretical MidWinter Sermon
I’m a preacher’s kid. This means I can make a casserole or a craft out of nothing, curse like a sailor, sing *all* the verses to “Good King Wenceslas,” forgive people even before they do anything wrong, and hug my children when I really want to kill them. It also means that sometimes I have to do a little preaching.
Today, I’m preaching. Just a little. Because the times are very dark.
In or around 731, the Venerable Bede (best name since Boleslaw the Wry-Mouthed, by the way) wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in which he recounted the Christianizing of pagan England. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Unitarian-Jewish-Agnostics get a little nervous about the whole Christianizing deal.
What I want to talk about is a remarkable and beautiful passage in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History that I read more than 20 years ago as an undergraduate and have never forgotten.
In 627, King Edwin met with his council to discuss the possibility of adopting this new Christian religion for the kingdom. Each of the council members spoke, and one (according to Bede) said this:
“The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
In the classroom, we talked mostly about that final line and about the way this passage reflected the uncertainty offered by Pagan theology as opposed to the certainty offered by Christian theology. Today I’m more interested in that sparrow.
He’s all alone, and he’s so small, and he’s buffeted by the wind and the rain and blinded by the dark. And then somehow, by the purest chance, he flies into the mead hall—filled with warmth and light and food and fellow creatures. For a moment or two, he basks in that companionship and that comfort. But all too soon, he stumbles back out into the night.
We are surrounded by the dark now, in ways that we haven’t been at any other time in my life. But this is the time of year when, for thousands of years, people have drawn close together to kindle lights–feeble and flickering and so very brave–against the dark. And we need those lights so badly now.
It’s very easy, with all those storms outside, to feel as small and as lost as the sparrow. It’s very easy to feel like reaching the mead hall is too hard for our strength, or too far for our patience, or too uncertain for our faith in ourselves and in others. And the storm is getting bigger, rougher, and darker all the time. What’s the point, really?
But I promise you this. Light your candle, and I will light mine. I don’t know if we can beat back the dark, but I know that if it can be done we cannot do it alone. If we’re to have any hope at all, we need the mead hall. We need each other.
And a little mead wouldn’t hurt things either.