II Kings 20.1-11

Psalm 36.5-12

Acts 5.12-16

The Shadow Knows

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

 

Near the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men,” we read these curious lines:

                        Between the idea and the reality

                        Between the motion and the act

                        Falls the Shadow

                                                                                         For Thine is the Kingdom

                        Between the conception and the creation

                        Between the emotion and the response

                        Falls the Shadow

                                                                                               Life is very long

                        Between the desire and the spasm

                        Between the potency and the existence

                        Between the essence and the descent

                        Falls the Shadow

                                                                                       For Thine is the Kingdom

                                                           

Now I’m not an expert on poetry, so I can’t tell you exactly what Eliot was trying to say.  But just in the reading of these lines you can feel the tension in all those “between”s, that there is something mysterious and unknown in that slender space from one to the other:  “between the idea and the reality;” “between the conception and the creation;” “between the emotion and the response.”  Between each of these, according to Eliot, falls “the Shadow” with, by the way, a capital “S.”  And yet in the midst of this tension is either a reaching out or a confession which may somehow locate God in the picture, “For Thine is the Kingdom.”  Yet even accounting for the presence of God, Eliot’s “Shadow” seems an anxious and uneasy place to be.  “Between the essence and the descent falls the shadow.”

Between Dora and Desire - don’t you just love the names of some of the towns in Pennsylvania? - between the towns of Dora and Desire, falls Punxsutawney, where this morning, the shadow knows.  As he does every year, legendary groundhog Punxsutawney Phil ventured out of his burrow.  Now we all know that if the sky is cloudy, Phil remains outside and starts getting ready for spring.  But Phil is a skittish little groundhog, and if the sun shines, his very shadow will frighten him, and he will clamber back underground for another six weeks, promising us at least another six weeks of winter weather.  Now Phil probably knows as much about poetry as I do, but it is interesting that in addition to sharing T.S. Eliot’s anxiety about the shadow, he also chooses the great “Between” to go out and search for that shadow; because this morning, Groundhog Day, is right smack between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox; you and I are at the mid-point between the first day of winter, and the first day of spring.  So perhaps Punxsutawney Phil and T.S. Eliot have more in common than this amateur literary critic might suspect.

The shadows, or “the shades,” as the ancients called them, can be a frightening and anxious place to be.  What are some of the shadows that visit us?  Are we anxious about our jobs, or about relationships?  Are we troubled by the mistakes of the past, or by the prospect of an uncertain future?  Some people worry about money and security, some about their health and well-being; others just know a vague and veiled vexation that sometimes nibbles around the edges of their happiness and serenity.  For me?  Well, between climate change and this week’s sham trial in the Senate, I have half a mind to scurry into some kind of news-proof burrow of my own, like Phil, and just ride the whole thing out.

But the Bible reminds us that there is also safety in the shadows.  The shadows can offer security, and sanctuary, protection from whatever comes along to threaten our spiritual and emotional equilibrium.  In II Kings, we heard this morning that the shadow is the sign of God’s healing and led to the lengthening of Hezekiah’s life.  Jeremiah writes of taking refuge in the shadow of a great city:  “In the shadow of Heshbon fugitives without strength may stop.”  Isaiah has this to say about the shadows:  “Each will be like a hiding-place from the wind, a covert from the tempest... like the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”  The same thought echoes in the well-loved Lenten hymn:  “Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand, The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land.”  But by far the most frequent and insistent biblical image of a shadow is the peace and security we know in God’s embrace, depicted as the shelter of the eagle’s wings:  “Hide me in the shadow of your wings,” Psalm 17 reads; Psalm 57 proclaims, “I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings;” Psalm 63 declares, “I am safe in the shadow of your wings.”  And as Lynette read for us this morning, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!  Your children take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”  The power of the shadow to frighten, or to threaten, or to throw us off our stride, evaporates in God’s embrace.  To know that you and I stand under the protective shelter of God’s all-healing love is to know that no harm will come to the spirit that resides within the radius of God’s shadow.

But a shadow is more than just a metaphor in the Bible.  It is also a sense of real security, protection, and wholeness.  Remember what happened in our New Testament lesson this morning, from the book of Acts.  As news of the apostles’ work in the name of the risen Jesus spread, one of the most noteworthy aspects of their ministry was the ministry of healing:  “Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles...  And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats.”  The power of God in Jesus Christ was so alive, and so vigorous among the apostles, that even the shadow of Peter was believed to carry with it the healing of infirmity.  The sick were carried out, Luke tells us, so “that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.”  As was true for Hezekiah, so it is true with Peter:  it is the breadth of God’s blessing, that even in the shadow of God’s messenger, come the healing and the wholeness the human spirit so desires.

Is there anyone who hurts?  Are there any who are discouraged?  Does worry or anxiety gnaw away at anyone’s person or spirit?  If there is, know that we will find wholeness, we will find healing, and we will overcome whatever disturbs or disappoints us, in the sheltering shadow of God.

You know, I kind of started out this morning’s sermon on a lark.  For several days I was feeling the weight of last week’s discussion of climate change, and of the book I had just finished, The Uninhabitable Earth , and I wanted something on the lighter side for today.  And I looked at the calendar and was reminded that today is the high holy day of the sub-celestial world, but without the Patriots, the Super Bowl just isn’t what it used to be.  Then I discovered that today’s date is a unique one: it is the only palindrome we get in this century:   February 2, 2020, or 02022020 reads the same way both forwards and backwards.  Surely there must be a sermon in there somewhere. Well, finally I remembered that 0202 in any year is Groundhog Day, and wondered, somewhat facetiously, if there were any biblical connection I could make.  But as I followed the development of the idea of the shadow, I really liked what I found.  Because in the most ancient of times, a shadow was something to be afraid of.  In Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in Greece, a shadow was believed to represent the vitality of human being, and so if someone were, let’s say, to step on your shadow, it was thought to be a portent of great harm or injury that was about to come your way.  Then the shadows, or the shades, came to be regarded as the dwelling places of the dead, to be avoided at all costs.  Some of this thought found its way into the Old Testament, including the 23rd Psalm, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”  But eventually, both Jewish and Christian faith and tradition came to understand that there is something beneficial about standing in the shadow of God, and of God’s prophets and apostles.  And what I liked about it all was how the idea of how the experience of the presence of God turns the notion of the shadow around, from something to fear, into a place of security and comfort.  And the reality is that faith can do this for us wherever we find ourselves, whether in the depths of despair or at the pinnacle of happiness.  Our faith will move us into the shelter of God’s all healing love.  “Between the idea and the reality... between the potency and the existence,” between Dora and Delight, falls the Shadow.  Just past this morning’s dawn, there was no shadow for Phil to see, meaning an early spring, which is only appropriate this year; I mean how can you have six more weeks of winter when we’ve had barely any winter at all?   Still groundhog shadow or no, the reality is you and I find comfort and safety and healing under the shadow of God’s wings.  Wherever God’s shadow falls is the place we want to be.

Amen.

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