Year A, Proper 22
In the early 2000s, artist and musician Ben Gibbard was in a time of relative ease and success. He had, as yet, not experienced much by way of loss, and still in his 20s, he’d achieved both economic and critical success in his band Death Cab for Cutie. It was during this time that Gibbard began to wrestle with and explore themes of mortality and death, to wonder what the meaning of his closest relationships were to him, what it might mean to lose those whom he loved. In his song “I will follow you into the dark” he expresses much of this wrestling.
“Love of mine, someday you will die
But I’ll be close behind and I’ll follow you into the dark”
Perhaps a bit morose, it expresses something similar to what Paul says in Romans when he effuses that “Neither life nor death… shall separate us from the love of God…” Indeed it is the greatest expression of love that we have that Jesus’ loved us enough to enter that valley of the shadow. The darkness of death is but one kind of darkness though, and yet for millennia it is the darkness or the fear of it, that has so challenged western thought. It is with the imagery of darkness and light that our ancient forebears wrestled with death and life, mystery and revelation, chaos and order, ignorance and knowledge, evil and good, portraying darkness as the thing to be feared, and light as the thing to be desired. So it is, even in Christian thought, that conceptions of race and ethnicity were and are shaped by this negative appraisal of darkness.
Yet, the Christian tradition regards darkness with more complexity than this. In the medieval mystic text, The Great Cloud of Unknowing, the author contends that God is only knowable through the brave act of surrendering ones ego and intellect, to let oneself go into the dark of ‘unknowing’. The author writes, “And so prepare to remain in this darkness as long as you can, always begging for him you love; for if you are ever to feel or see him…it must always be in this cloud and this darkness.” Darkness is all over our tradition as a place of God’s revelation and presence. As Frederick Buechner was fond of pointing out, The Bible begins in darkness and the Gospels end in darkness –
“‘Darkness was upon the face of the deep,’ Genesis says. Darkness was where it all started. Before darkness, there had never been anything other than darkness, void and without form. At the end of John, the disciples go out fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. It is night. They have no luck. Their nets are empty. Then they spot somebody standing on the beach. At first they don’t see who it is in the darkness. It is Jesus.”
Darkness too is on the periphery of today’s Old Testament lesson. In the one verse omitted from the passage on the Ten Commandments, is this concluding sentence – “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” For some odd reason the body that created the lectionary omitted this beautiful end point to the giving of the commandments, perhaps because it was regarded as unnecessary, or maybe because it was seen as a transition verse to what follows, or perhaps because they wanted to avoid introducing the complicating idea that darkness might be one of the places of God’s revelation. But here it is, on the edge of this momentous spot in our tradition, that moment where God is teaching us what it means to be in a covenantal relationship with Him, what it means to love him with all our heart, soul, body, and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves, here God speaks and sits in the darkness.
The focus of the next 9 months at Saint John’s will be on the curricula from the Episcopal Church, called “The Way of Love”. And, as we explored in our faith formation series this morning, the Way of Love, indeed a way for all Christians to live, begins with some kind of Rule of Life, a set of practices and habits to shape us into faithful disciples of Jesu. Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann contends that the Ten Commandments are just such a kind of “Rule of LIfe” given first to the Israelites and now to us. They are a way rooted in, and he says, emancipation. He writes:
“the Ten Commandments are strategies for staying emancipated once you get away from Pharaoh. This new strategy, first of all, says you have to honor God – that’s the first three commandments – to the exclusion of every idol, every “ism” such as racism, or sexism, or nationalism, or the worship of stuff that is rare or precious or attractive or beautiful or empowering.
The new strategy means in the Ten Commandments to take the neighbor with utmost seriousness. So, the last five commandments are all about the neighbor and treating neighbors with legitimacy and dignity and viability and especially disadvantaged neighbors – not to violate the neighbor for the sake of greed.”
We do this, he says, because our tendency as humans is to normalize the behavior of Pharaoh. We behave as though the exploitation, death dealing, scarcity mindset of Pharaoh is the way the world is supposed to be. And, I think this is true because more and more these things happen in the light of day, right out in the open, in front of our very eyes. We have seen time and again in this past year the death dealing reality of the Pharaohs of this age out in the plain light of day – the wanton disregard for hundreds of thousands of lives lost to this present pandemic, so many of them avoidable deaths, chalked up to collateral damage to the political aspirations of a few, the continued murder of black lives by flawed policing and bad public policy, the callous disregard for the environment and the resulting destruction of fires and storms the likes of which we have never seen, the death of over half of the creatures alive on this planet in just a few decades, all done for greed, power, and selfishness, and all done in the open, in the light, in front of our eyes.
The great poet and author Maya Angelou famously said “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” This week the President failed to denounce White Supremacy in front of the entire nation, in prime time, and instead invited a group of virulent and violent White Nationalists, to stand down and stand by, in the full light of day. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said recently in a sermon that “partisan neutrality does not mean moral neutrality.” So, we denounce the immorality of systemic racism and white supremacy, just as we work to end it. Yet, while we in the church must denounce white supremacy in the highest office of the land, we must also recognize that racism is a problem found in our whole political system, left, right, and center, democrat, republican, and independent and we must name it for the immorality which it is. We must know and name that the way of Pharaoh has been normalized in our political process, our laws, our communities, our homes, and even our churches.
We can address it, in part, by voting for candidates and policies that reflect the morality which we have come to regard as being of God, a way that values life and prizes love of neighbor above selfishness and greed. But, we recognize that candidates like us are never perfect and are a part of the way of Pharaoh, of which we are seeking to resist and reform. So we must work too, in the world, to be about the change we hope to see. To practice justice, to give toward reconciliation, to model generosity and love. And, we must also practice the way of Love, the way of life given to us in the covenants and commandments of God, and lived for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This morning, I walked into this church for the very first time for worship since the pandemic began over 6 months ago. It was, as the book of Exodus says, shrouded in thick darkness, enveloped in shadow and yet echoing still with the prayers and presence of you and so many others who have come before. And, here, in the darkness, I could sense the presence of almighty God. Friends, our task as followers of the Way of Love is to return here, if not now in body, then in spirit, to practice our faith and renew our relationship with him who was in the darkness at the beginning and finds us now wherever life has brought us. Llet us return in faithfulness to God who is found in the mysterious darkness as much as in the bright light of day, who bids us return to him in prayer and contemplation, in repentance and humility in the darkened quiet of our prayer life as much as in public acts of witness and justice, who wants to be known morning, noon, or by the shade of night, in the light and in the dark.