In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
When I told my husband that I was going to talk about darkness this morning, he said, “You’re not going to make it one of those interactive sermons where you ask everyone to close their eyes, are you?” He’s not a big fan of audience – or congregation – participation, if you couldn’t guess. If you’re like him, rest easy. I am not. But I am going to say something that as a young person going to church I would’ve loved to hear a preacher say – feel free to close your eyes during this sermon. As I was preparing for today, sitting on our couch at home in the evening, I found myself frequently looking out our front window at the darkening night sky as I considered how we talk about darkness, how we behave when we come upon it and what we might be missing when we behave that way.
In our western, technologically-developed, white-dominated society, when we say darkness, we often, almost always, are speaking of something negative. We talk about dark moods, being afraid of the dark, people who are the “black sheep” of their family. And like no one else in the history of our world, we push the literal darkness out of our lives. We yell to our kids to “come inside, it’s getting dark.” Even after we close our eyes, we leave nightlights on to show us the way, our electronics blink in the corner of our rooms, in my room the humidifier and the baby monitor both shine bright. If I got to the kitchen for a drink of water, the microwave and oven clocks provide all the illumination I need. That is the absolute totality with which we, in our society, have shunned darkness, because we believe about darkness being inherently scary or evil.
So if that’s a baseline for how we talk about darkness, it’s no wonder how we typically behave when we encounter it. We run, we turn our backs, we lock the doors, we pull the covers over our heads, we ask our parents to reassure us that everything will be ok. I don’t know if this is just me, but man can I literally let my own thoughts about darkness, not even the darkness itself, terrify me. I’ll be going to bed, slowly turning out lights as I head toward the bedroom where my husband is already asleep, and my feet will start to move quicker, my heart rate goes up, my gut just tells me to move through the darkness quickly and get to my bed, to my little reading light.
That’s why Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in this morning’s reading is so unusual to me. Now a story about a burning bush in what may have been the middle of the day may seem an odd reading to provoke a conversation about darkness…but I’m going to use the definition of darkness that Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor gives in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark. She writes, “darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me – that I want no part of – either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” And there’s no doubt that fire is one of those things that invokes fear, whether it’s opening the oven to flames to just smelling smoke somewhere it shouldn’t be to the absolutely devastating and terrifying impact on life and livelihood we saw in the California wildfires last year…and in the Gorge the summer before. Fire is a force that, rightly, makes us turn and run. It is a powerful darkness.
So we might expect Moses to behave the way we humans typically do when we encounter something terrifying…turn and run, possibly even leaving behind our flock that our father-in-law had entrusted to us. In the grips of fear, we take flight and put as much distance between us and the darkness as we can. But Moses didn’t do this.
First, we hear that “the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed,” which suggests that the fire maybe didn’t look like a typical brush fire. No, this blaze is described as being different, as not consuming the thing that it was burning. That gives us the sense that something strange, something unknown, something maybe to fear, was present. And yet Moses’s response is “I must turn aside and look at this.” While he would go on to have many more direct encounters with God, this was Moses’ first. It’s not like this was a common occurrence for him, God showing up in dazzling form. It’s not like Moses knew what to expect, or that he could assume from past experience of God’s presence that he ought to investigate. We get the sense from the reading that Moses was compelled and curious, and it’s at this point – when the Lord sees that he’s turned aside to approach the burning bush, that God then speaks to Moses, calls his name. And then Moses is afraid and he hides his face.
There is a lovely children’s book by the author Lemony Snicket called The Dark that I read to our kids about a young boy named Laszlo who we’re told at the start is afraid of the dark, the dark that lives in the same house as Laszlo, in the closet, behind the shower curtain, in the basement and, at night, across all the windows and doors of the house. Every morning Laszlo opens the basement door, stands at the top of steps and says “Hi” down the stairs to the dark, hoping that by visiting the dark in its room, the dark won’t come to his room. And then one night the dark says “Hi” back and tells Laszlo it wants to show him something. So Laszlo follows the dark around the house, finally down into the basement, where the dark shows him a chest of drawers full of lightbulbs. Laszlo says thank you, and, as Lemony Snicket writes, “The dark kept on living with Laszlo, but it never bothered him again.”
Who of us, if we heard something in the dark – the dark itself – asking us to follow it to show us something, would go along? Who of us, if while out walking alone saw a bush consumed by a strange blaze would get closer to investigate? And if we chose not to, who of us might miss the voice of God? Might miss hearing God call our name? Might miss being given a gift to help us understand and see our darkness. Might not see the “the way out” that Paul writes to the Corinthians about in his first letter to them that we heard from this morning.
There’s a lot in that passage we heard from 1 Corinthians. First, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of their heritage in the Israelites who were led into the wilderness by God through Moses, a journey that began with Moses encountering God in the burning bush. Second, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the destruction and death that befell thousands of those Israelites, their ancestors, because of their turn toward evil. Why bring this all up? Why remind the Corinthians of these terrifying ends that many Israelites met at the very hand of God? Because, as he says in the final sentences of the reading from this morning, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” He is reminding the Corinthians that despite the centuries they have on the Israelites, they have not somehow succeeded in separating themselves from the darkness of temptation, whether through special knowledge or spiritual awakening or even proximity to Jesus Christ. They are still confronted by darkness too. And then Paul writes – in one of the most perplexing statements in his writing – and there are many – “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” That verse has always sent my brain into spirals.
Paul says God will not test you beyond your strength. What would it look like to be tested beyond your strength? When my mom died in 2012 after seven months with brain cancer, I was not enduring. I felt tested way beyond my strength, and so I did two things – I drank a fair bit of wine and I slept a lot. All I could do for months was avoid the darkness of her death, and alcohol and sleep facilitated that avoidance.
I’ve often fixated in those verses on the idea of God “providing a way out” and asked what that looks like. But I think maybe it’s the “ability to endure” that is the way out. In the Greek the word translated as “ability to endure” has the connotation of “to carry on under,” which is to say to be burdened by, to feel the weight of the burden, the weight of the darkness, of the temptation. For me and the death of my mom, it was finally feeling the weight of the darkness – picturing my mom ill, recounting conversations we’d had in her final months, thinking about my own immortality – that was the way out. The way out was to go further in.
There is a risk here in romanticizing darkness. In terms of literal darkness, the places on our planet that are best lit are not the ones that are most populous only but the ones that are most populated by the wealthy. Many people on our planet do not have or have been denied access to electricity, and therefore to the ability to light the darkness, and in many places and many ways this contributes to poor health, to oppression by those with resources and power, and to individual harm. In addition, we risk ignoring that there are privileges in whiteness, in seeing and in mental health that allow some of us to simply to explore the dark areas of our lives and the world when it’s most convenient for us. I think we combat this by practicing darkness in the way we do the spiritual practice of prayer or meditation: by saying yes to exploring dark things when they become known to us, not just when we choose. By making attention to darkness an everyday part of our lives. By believing and amplifying the voices of those whose skin color, whose mental health, whose life circumstances, mean that they experience darkness regularly and without warning or without their choosing.
Lent means, literally, springtime. The sun is out, at least it was, the days are longer. But our rebirth in Lent must necessarily come out of the darkness of winter. There are wonderful opportunities in Lent still to explore both darkness and rebirth, to accept that God may inhabit the darkness in our lives and to go to God there. I wish I could say that when I went deeper into that darkness of losing a parent, I discovered a loving and kind God of comfort. I didn’t. I discovered that I believe fewer things about God than I once did, but that the ones I still believe I do so more deeply and fiercely than ever. Was that worth it? No. I would rather have my mom alive. But I can say that to the God I know now, the God I would not have met had I not gone into the darkness.