Homily: February 15, 2015
LAST EPIPHANY, YEAR B; Rev. Theo Park
Jesus said, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Or at least the editors of the gospel of John have him say this.
And of course this is one of Christianity’s major metaphors for Jesus.
For six weeks now we’ve been talking about Jesus revealed to the world as the light of God
and what it means to follow that light as illuminating our pathway to God.
We started with the story of Jesus revealed to the nations,
personified by the magi, who followed a star as the glory of God led them to Jesus.
We close the season with Jesus revealed as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets,
outshining Moses and Elijah, who witness the glory of God now emanating from Jesus.
All this talk of Jesus as the light is beautiful, it’s a great spiritual metaphor,
but I want us to recognize that it’s also a tricky thing,
because it requires something to play against
and naturally the first image that comes along is the absence of light: darkness. Our first hymn this morning led that charge in classic fashion:
God’s word cleaving the darkness, bringing forth light.
Imagery like this often leads people, has for millennia, to say “Light good. Dark bad.”
Which is a problematic proposition in and of itself,
tightly tangled up as has been with notions of sin and virtue and cleanliness and dirt.
But it becomes much more problematic when we say that Jesus is the light.
Because for so many the trajectory is then to go on to say the only light,
and from there to claim with Paul that therefore
those who do not follow Christ as the one true light are blind.
Do you see my dilemma here?
To go back to our opening hymn, do we really want to claim
that until the light of Christ breaks on someone they
“dwell in darkness, dark as night and deep as death.”
Of course this is only a problem for a progressive, liberal theologian…or congregation.
Your basic traditionalist has no problem with this dualism or this certainty.
There is a right way and a wrong way.
There is Jesus, who is the way of salvation, and there is…
whatever else you might name, which is the way of damnation.
It’s as plain to them as black and white, night and day, darkness and light.
I wonder whether we don’t need some new imagery?
Or some new understanding of the images we do have?
What if we were to move from images of Jesus as light to Jesus as enlightenment?
What if we were to talk of Jesus as a teacher of enlightenment?
To see him filled with the Wisdom of God, embodying that Wisdom in a unique way
and calling us to realize the same enlightenment,
to release the same Wisdom embodied in us but suppressed, even forgotten.
And what if part of that Wisdom is understanding
that we meet God as much in the dark as in the light?
Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor has a new book out
that suggests just that. It’s called Learning to Walk in the Dark.
“Christianity has never had anything nice to say about darkness,” Taylor charges.
She accuses the Church with propagating a “full solar spirituality”
that focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock.
But the Wisdom of Jesus is, she suggests,
to be more fully realized in embracing a “lunar spirituality,”
one that recognizes that humans need both
the divine light and the equally divine darkness.
Here is some of what Brown Taylor writes:
“Darkness is everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of.
But that’s just the beginner’s definition.
If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells.
God may also be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me,
yet I decide to trust God anyway.
The Christian message, at its heart, says that
when the bottom drops out and you’re screaming your guts out at God, there’s more.
It says that if you are willing to enter the cloud of unknowing and meet God in the dark—maybe even the dark of a tomb—you might be in for a surprise.
The great hope in the Christian message is not that you will be rescued from the dark
but that if you are able to trust God all the way into the dark, you may be surprised.”
What Brown Taylor describes is the darkness embraced by John of the Cross,
as we sang a moment ago, a darkness entered with joyful hope, that space where God’s love reigns supreme.
This may seem like something only a mystic can comprehend, which John was,
but we forget that Jesus was a mystic, too.
He asked his followers to come into relation with the Spirit or the Sacred
in a way not dependent upon convention or institutions.
In his life and his teaching he became a lens, through which we see
what a life filled with the Wisdom that comes from God looks like.
At the center of such a life is compassion or unconditional love,
as an ideal parent might feel for a child.
That was universalized to a different way of seeing all people
beyond conventional categories like important or unimportant, beautiful or ugly,
deserving or undeserving, but instead as beloved in their essence.
Beyond, therefore, light and dark, black and white, in or out, saved or damned.
The movement that Jesus as radical, unconventional Wisdom
calls us to make toward enlightenment leads to an entirely new way of living,
a new ethic and social vision, in which our personal sense of identity is transformed,
and we are moved beyond what our cultural conventions say we are.
It liberates us from the anxieties and preoccupations that mark so much of our lives.
It is a source of courage as well as endurance.
It enables us to face suffering—and joy—in a new way, a deeper and richer way.
Life in the Spirit grounded in the Wisdom of Jesus
sees beyond individual enlightenment to our corporate interactions as well.
It embodies a passion for social justice,
an understanding of the importance of life in community,
each a necessary part of the whole,
and a limited concern about the afterlife in favor of a transformed appreciation
of life in the here and now where, if we are able to trust God all the way into the dark,
we may be truly surprised.
I believe that this vision of the Wisdom of Jesus
is important news, good news, for you as the household of God at Gethsemane,
standing as you are at the crossroads of a new future.
It calls you to some choices as well.
You have said that you want to be a theologically progressive, social liberal congregation.
What will you do, what work will you undertake—
and direct your next clergy partner to undertake with you—
to ensure that your liturgies, hymns, and formation materials
intentionally reflect this identity as a value?
Will you be content with a full solar spirituality or will you embrace a lunar spirituality?
Can you rethink the limited metaphors of our tradition,
whatever weight they may have carried in the past,
to create a faith for the future?
Can you see the presence of God in darkness as well as in the light?
I started by quoting from an old hymn, an old viewpoint.
I’ll close by quoting from a new one:
“In darkness we feel we are loved by God, a presence beyond any face, “A realm which the pictures and words vacate and stillness bestows its rich grace. “Sing praise for the dark whose pathway we walk by light from our spirit’s bright fire. “O God of the dark in you we shall find that love which our hearts desire.”
Bill Wallace, 2015.