Sunday, January 7, 2018

Walking in darkness may not be a bad thing (A sermon from Gen. 1:1-5)

In the opening chapters of Genesis there are two creation stories arising out of different times and contexts in Israel’s history. The story from which I am reading today extends from 1:1 to 2:4a. Most likely this story emerged around the sixth century BCE and was originally addressed to a community of exiles. Just as the Gospel of John begins with a poem about the Word made flesh, Genesis begins with a poem about creation. This is not history or science; it’s what some scholars call “metaphorical narrative.” It’s parable and poetry. I am not going to read the whole story. Our OT reading for this Sunday, which is my sermon text, is from the opening part of this story. I am reading 1:1-5.

In a Gary Larson cartoon a wagon train is under siege by Indians. A couple of fiery arrows hit the wagons, and they burst into flames. One cowboy turns to another and says, “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?” Sometimes when life shoots fiery arrows at us and the wagons in which we keep our comforts and certitudes go up in flames, we might feel the same way. Can Life do this? O yea, life can and does.

Any number of events and experiences can send us into a time of confusion and disarray where we see most of what we value or what gives us security and stability go up in flames. Many times these events are completely beyond our control and totally random. Other times we may have contributed to them or even be the principle cause behind them. But whatever the reason or source, we are not prepared to face them and they blind side us. A loved one dies of a sudden accident or illness, a marriage or long standing relationship ends rather abruptly, a career ends or a dream is crushed. We might speak of such times as being engulfed in darkness. We tend to use the image of darkness to speak of some dreaded period in our lives. And in our biblical tradition darkness is often employed as an image of evil or injustice.

However, it’s important to know that our sacred texts do not employ darkness in this negative way exclusively. For example, in 1 Kings 8:12 we read: “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.” And in Psalm 18:11: “God made darkness his covering around him.” Clearly, in those two passages darkness does not represent evil or injustice. Nor does it represent that here in the opening verses of this creation poem.

Darkness is part of the formlessness and emptiness over which God moves and upon which acts to shape the creation. Darkness is part of the shaping process. Darkness is incorporated as part of the natural rhythm God sets in motion which later in the story God calls “good.” The darkness is integral to what unfolds; it finds its place. It’s part of the rhythm of day and night: “God called the light day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning. . .”

Spiritual writer and novelist Sue Monk Kid talks about the time her son Bob, who was three years old, went through a period where he was scared of the dark. They put a nightlight in his room, but still, sometimes he would wake up and cry out. One night she went in and held him close. At the time she was pregnant with her daughter. Her son touched her abdomen and asked, “Mama, is it dark inside there where my little brother is?” (He was convinced his sister was a boy.)

“Yes,” said his mother, “it is dark in there.” He said, “He doesn’t have a nightlight does he?” “No,” his mother responded, “not even a nightlight.” He kept patting her abdomen and his mother kept patting him. Finally he asked, “Do you think my brother is scared all by himself in there?” She said, “I don’t think so, because he’s not really alone. He’s inside of me.” That gave her an inspiration. She then said to her son, “It’s the same way with you. When it’s dark and you think you are all by yourself, you really aren’t. I carry you inside me too. Right here in my heart.” He sat there very quiet and went back to sleep. That was the last time he called out afraid in the dark of the night.

When we go through periods of darkness we can feel very alone and that can make us quite fearful and anxious and insecure. What we need to remember is that we are being carried in God’s womb, God has us in God’s heart, even when we don’t feel it or sense it or are able to consciously experience it. And maybe the image of being carried in the womb is even closer to what’s real than the image of being carried in one’s heart, because in a very real sense, in a sense that we are only vaguely aware of and conscious of in our peak moments, we are in God and God is in us. In those peak moments we realize what Jesus realized in his experience of God at his baptism – that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters. And no matter how far we stray from living out that reality, God’s love holds us and beckons us to return as the prodigal returns to the Father in Luke 15.

The Quaker educator and activist Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak tells about his descent into clinical depression. He describes it as the ultimate state of disconnection, between people, between mind and heart, and between one’s self image and public mask. Parker says that after many days and hours of listening, his therapist offered him an image that eventually helped him to reclaim his life. He said to Parker, “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?” That’s a fresh perspective isn’t it?

Too many of us want quick fixes and easy solutions, but these do not last. The quick fix is no fix at all. Maybe you heard about the guy who went to the therapist and said, “Doctor, you have got to help me. I haven’t slept in days. I wake up in the middle of the night and I see monsters crawling out from under my bed and they walk around the room scarring the stew out of me.” After months of therapy and getting nowhere the therapist was ready to recommend he go to someone else. Then one afternoon he comes bouncing into her office with the announcement “I’m cured. Been sleeping like a baby.” She didn’t know what to say. He went on, “My brother came to visit and cured me.” She asked in amazement, “Is your brother a therapist?” “No.” he said, “he’s a carpenter. He sawed the legs off my bed.” I suspect that the ground that brother landed on is not going to be solid for very long. That’s the kind of solution superficial religion, pop religion and pop psychology offer, and it doesn’t last.

I love the symbolism in the Jesus story as Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to face the temptations of Satan. In Mark the temptation story is condensed to two verses. Writing metaphorically, Mark says the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan where he wrestled with wild beasts and angels ministered to him (1:12-13). Jesus, I suspect, is facing his own inner demons. He has to confront his own demons before he can liberate others from theirs. Annie Dillard in one of her books talks about riding the monsters all the way down. When we do that we usually descend through levels of darkness. We may try every way in the world to avoid that descent into the darkness, but maybe that’s the only way we can find solid ground on which to stand.

Jesus’ own journey into the darkness of the desert where he faced his own monsters ended with his baptism by John. There were wild beasts to struggle with out there in the desert, but there was also a prophet of God forming community and calling people to repentance and renewal. As Jesus humbly submitted to a baptism by John, there he saw the heavens open, the Spirit of peace descend upon him, and he heard the voice of God, which was also the voice of his deepest and truest self, say, “You are my beloved Son, on whom my favor, my grace rests. With you I am well-pleased.”

And you know brothers and sisters, maybe we, too, have to be led out into the desert to face Satan. Maybe we too have to wrestle with wild beasts and ride the monsters all the way down before we can land on solid ground and hear the voice of Divine love and acceptance tell us how dear and near to God’s heart we actually are. Here is the paradox. Are you listening? There are some things we can only see in the darkness.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark shares what she learned from reading the memoirs of Jacques Lesseyran, a blind French resistance fighter, who  became totally blind at age 7 due to an accidental fall. After the accident, Lusseyran’s doctors suggested sending him to a residential school for the blind in Paris. His parents refused, wanting their son to stay in the local public school, where he could learn to function in a seeing world. His mother learned Braille with him. He learned to use a Braille typewriter. The best thing his parents did for him was never pity him. They never described him as “unfortunate.” His father, who deeply understood the spiritual life, told him, “Always tell us when you discover something.”

And discover he did. He wrote in his journal: “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. It’s source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before. This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

With practice he learned to attend to things around him so carefully that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see. He learned to distinguish the different kind of trees listening to the sounds they make. He could tell how tall or wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body. Though he could not literally see, he learned to see by developing his capacity to hear, to smell, to feel, to taste. Lesseyran pointed out how those of us do see, often do not actually see what is there, because we have developed the habit of simply scanning the surface of things, and so we see only outer appearances. (That is most definitely true of things spiritual and religious as well isn’t it?) By giving such careful attention to things, Lesseyran learned to see what was really there, things that we who physically see miss. He said that if we would ever learn to be attentive every moment of our lives, we would discover the world anew.  

My good friend, John Opsata, part of the little clergy group I meet with regularly, had a good media post which offered some really thoughtful reflection as we enter the NFL post-season. John is a Vikings fan. And at one time, a passionate Vikings fan. He confessed this in his post, “I grew up with the Vikings; living and dying with every play; never missing a televised game. If you would have drawn my blood, it would have been purple. The Purple People Eaters were my heroes and Bud Grant my idea of the perfect man. I don’t blame them for losing. I know they played hard and wanted to win. I blame myself for allowing my self-worth to be diminished by the losses.” We all can relate to John because we have all done what John did, and some of us are still doing it. And yet when you really think about it, what our team accomplishes and how they perform in the great big scheme of things is really superficial isn’t it?

Now, here is where the darkness comes in. It usually takes some experience with darkness to teach us that some things are simply not worth all the energy and passion we invest in them. There are some things that in the grand scheme of life are superficial. Now, why it would take a period of darkness to bring to light what is superficial and tp show us what is really worth living and dying for I cannot explain. I just know that’s how life works. The path to spiritual growth and maturity leads us through this rhythm of darkness and light. I know that there are things in my life I would have never learned if not for the periods of darkness. It really is true. There are some things, some areas of illumination and enlightenment, some truths that we would have never discovered, and some changes we would have never made, if not for the darkness. And, you probably don’t want to hear this, and I wish I didn’t have to say it because I don’t particularly want to hear it either, but hear goes. There are still truths we need to learn, and there are still changes in our lives we need to make, and we probably will not learn or change unless we walk through some darkness.


Gracious Lord, if given a choice, we are always going to avoid the darkness. We would like all of life to be light and joy and pleasure and happiness. But that’s not how life works and if it did work that way we would never grow, we would not be stretched to become anything more than what we are now. So, even if we can’t welcome the darkness, even if we can’t be grateful for it, help us, Lord, to accept it and not despise it, because we cannot grow without it. So help us to be attentive and aware, to be mindful and awake, to be teachable and moldable, so that when we walk through these periods of darkness, we come out better persons, not bitter persons. Help us to see what can only be seen in the darkness. Amen.  

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