This can be a really heavy time of year. It takes me awhile to adjust to shorter days and grayer skies, but I think things just feel heavier as fall transitions to winter and as the school year plods along. It can feel like the weight of the world is pushing down on us. Not one of us is exempt from this burden. I certainly cannot hope to know all that weighs on us. For some it’s the news. The horrific violence of the Russian aggression in the sovereign nation of Ukraine breaks my heart. Every time it appears that there is a glimmer of hope that things will wind down, it seems like Russia doubles down on ravaging Ukrainian cities. It’s wicked. It’s terrorism. And it has no place in a world where justice should matter.
But not all that burdens us is geopolitical. Many of our burdens are much more personal. We are carrying brokenness in our families, where relationships have frayed or where friendships have disappeared. We are carrying brokenness in our bodies, where it has become impossible to keep up with who has Covid, who is fighting cancer, who has a relative that needs our prayers. I know there are times that I get our prayer chain summary and feel overwhelmed at all the needs.
Today is when we mark All Saints’ Day, and it’s a reminder that many of us are carrying grief from the past year where we had to let go of people we loved, trusting them into God’s everlasting arms. Perhaps you’re even here today for the first time since a funeral service. I want to recognize that it’s hard to be here when the grief is still surfacing.
So, how do we choose hope when there is so much obvious suffering and despair? How can we be honest about our struggles, be willing to carry each other, and believe that the burdens do not have the final say?
Our texts and song have some answers to that question, so I’m going to walk us through each one, beginning in Zechariah. The prophet is speaking into a situation of suffering. As is common with much of the latter half of the Old Testament, these writings spring forth from the Babylonian’s conquering of Jerusalem and the exile that followed. It’s an acknowledgement that things are terrible, but it’s a defiant hope that the Lord is doing something about the burdens.
Zechariah envisions the nations of the earth gathering around Jerusalem to do battle. On its surface it appears like “here we go again,” but this time the Lord shows up on the Mount of Olives—just east of Jerusalem where the sun rises every day. It’s such a momentous appearance that this mountain splits in two, making way for the Lord. The entire creation is responding to the Lord’s presence and action.
The cold disappears, which in a world where central heat isn’t a thing, this matters.
It will be perpetual day, which in a world where electric light doesn’t exist, this matters.
Running water goes from Jerusalem, heading west to the Mediterranean Sea and east to the Dead Sea, not only giving all fresh drinking water but also creating fertile ground for enough food for all. It’s a picture of peace and prosperity, where the Lord reigns as king over all the earth. Zechariah is saying, “Look, this suffering is terrible, but it is temporary. But look at what the Lord promises is to come. Just hold on, even when the darkness feels its heaviest.” God is going to kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight. This is the firm foundation of hope. It is what we need to keep us going through the burdens of this day.
Let’s jump forward 500 years. Jesus is in Jerusalem. He’s in an upper room with his disciples. It’s the darkest night of his life. He knows that he is facing death. He knows that Judas, someone he loves, will betray him, setting in motion the crucifixion. It is in this context that Jesus doubles down on creating meaning with his closest friends. He surrounds himself with community until his arrest. We should pay attention to what Jesus is doing and why he is doing it.
At the table he takes bread, offers a blessing, breaks it, and says, “Take, eat, this is my body.” This is different. This bread for the Passover meal represented the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt. No time to let it rise. Another story of suffering where God is entering into that suffering with salvation, but now this story becomes about what God is doing through Jesus. This is eternal rescue that makes a difference now and forever.
Jesus turns to the wine. He redefines this Passover element as well. It now represents his blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is entering the darkest night of his life, yet he speaks to God’s eternal work that will change everything for the good. Jesus own actions in the hours that follow will enact how God is turning all the despair and pain into hope and life. Even today when we come to this table, we are once again making the radical claim that the darkness will not win, that despair and all that burdens us need not overcome us, that God in Christ is going to kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight.
We didn’t read verse 30 from Matthew today, but it’s worth doing now. They’ve finished their Passover meal. In preparation to head into the darkness of night this is what they did. “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” That is they leave the upper room and in the darkness head east towards the sunrise, towards the place where Zechariah says the Lord is coming to set things right. It’s on the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus prays fervently in Gethsemane. It’s there that he is arrested. It was there that he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. Zechariah saw the Lord coming in power, but it turns out that God’s power was hidden in what looked like weakness. God’s power suffered but would be strong enough to overcome suffering and despair.
But did you notice that they sang as well? I think that singing can be an act of defiance against the darkness. That’s precisely the posture of the song for today, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” which is the sixth song for our Songs of the Faith series. When I was planning the series, I had no idea that first five weeks would feature writers basically all from the United Kingdom, so I’m glad this week that we’ve finally moved stateside. “Let Us Break Bread Together” is an African American spiritual.
When we sing from traditions that are not as familiar to us, we have a chance to understand others’ experiences in a new way. It is a reminder of the global and universal nature of the church. It is an invitation to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Interestingly, many of the spirituals that are in our present hymnal have been curated and arranged by a fourth-generation African American Presbyterian scholar named Melva Wilson Costen. We have her to thank that these songs are broadening our understanding not only of Christianity but also of who Presbyterians actually are.
Still, songs like this emerge from contexts of suffering. This is a song for the whole communion of saints, and its original singers would have known what it was like to suffer. They were not fully a part of our society. Many of their bodies were owned. They knew the promised freedom that comes in Jesus Christ, but it was not actualized in freedom yet. So, we can see the gentle humility that invites us to break bread, drink wine, and praise God together on our knees, but we need to learn how to appreciate that turning our faces to the rising sun to look for God’s mercy is a hope far beyond most of our hopes.
Why the rising sun? Because every new day can bring the hope for change. Because every new day brings the possibility that today will be better than yesterday. But, most deeply, the rising sun is a reminder that God is coming back some day to set this world to rights. It will be a time of judgment and justice, and if you’ve been suffering your whole life, you better believe that you are hopeful for what Christ’s return will be.
When we sing this song, we can never fully know what its original singers experienced, but I hope that we can begin to find some hope when we share in the communion of saints in how we wait patiently for God to make all things new.
Hope is a choice. Hope is an act of faith. Even in the darkest night, even when the weight of the world bears down on us, even when we are thisclose to despairing, we can remember that this table tells the story of God’s work to take on the suffering of the world and still bring things to a good end. This table is another way we “kick the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.” So, let us break bread, drink wine, and praise God together on our knees, with our faces to the rising sun, trusting that God will be merciful and loving toward us.