2 Pentecost: Into the dark
|"The Dark Side of Matter and Energy..." by Tremain Calm, on Flickr|
Jesus said, "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one's foes will be members of one's own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
In college, taped to the hallway wall outside my husband’s dorm room, was a large piece of brown butcher paper, with a thumbtack in the corner from which hung a pen on a string.
This was the quote board.
Throughout the year, as Matt, his roommate, and their friends said memorable things - whether funny or absurd or eyebrow-raising - they would document those statements on the quote board.
The things written on that piece of paper made the most sense to you if you were there when they happened. It became a fun and funny way to reminisce with one another. But if you read through the quotes on the board without knowing their history or their context, the quote board became something of a puzzle, and an unsatisfying one, at that. It’s hard to read isolated statements, without context, and feel like you can really know what they mean.
I mention this because today's gospel reading reads very much like that piece of butcher paper. When we read this strange list of difficult sayings of Jesus, we have to remember that this section of Matthew’s gospel was likely pieced together from a variety of things that Jesus said in a variety of contexts. Jesus probably didn’t say all of these things right in a row at one moment in time on one particular day to one particular group of people. As Matthew’s gospel was handed down and eventually written down, these independent teachings of Jesus were grouped together, even if they don’t quite fit together, because they all have one thing in common:
All of the statements in today’s gospel point to the truth that being a follower of Jesus is difficult. It will separate you from the world, from those you love, and even from a former version of yourself.
Even though we are joined to Christ in baptism, even though we been gifted the whole of God's grace and mercy, the faith that saves us is also the faith that puts us at odds with the wider world. This is the dark side of our faith.
Even though we walk with Christ to eternal and abundant life, the reality is that there is a cost to putting the demands of discipleship ahead of all the other things that we hold dear. This is the shadow-side of being a Christ-follower.
Jesus says, "What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light."
Most of Jesus' statements in today's gospel are statements about how following him will put us into dark places.
Jesus warns us of the dark of being shunned or even persecuted because we seek justice for the poor instead of rewards for the rich.
Jesus warns us of the dark of isolation when we choose to put the needs of outsiders ahead of the needs of the insiders.
Jesus warns us of the lonely dark of relationships broken over putting God's values ahead of our own.
Jesus warns us of the darkness of conflict that will come when we seek true, lasting peace instead of mere platitudes and preservation of the status quo.
Jesus warns us of the dark night of the soul that comes as we wrestle with the meaning of life and death, of dying to our old selves and rising to Christ; for the breaking open of our hearts, even for Christ's sake, can be a painful process.
What Jesus says to us is that being a disciple is dangerous. That God is dangerous. That discipleship will lead us into the dark, where everything we thought was certain becomes fuzzy around the edges. Where the well-worn paths of our lives become obscured by shadows. Where our worldviews, our perceptions, everything we can take for granted in the light suddenly become veiled as we step into the thick cloud of God's presence. That there is a curious and disorienting fog that comes with leaving ourselves behind to become disciples of the divine.
The writer Barbara Brown Taylor recently released a new book focused entirely on meeting God in the darkness, entitled Learning to Walk in the Dark.
[The darkness in which we meet God] is an entirely unnatural darkness - both dangerous and divine - that contains the presence of God before whom there are no others....This thick darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it, the same way the brightness of God’s glory does....While this darkness is dangerous, it is as sure a sign of God’s presence as brightness is, which makes the fear of it different from the fear of snakes and robbers. When biblical writers speak of “the fear of the Lord,” this is what they mean: fear of God’s pure being, so far beyond human imagining that trying to look into it would be like trying to look into the sun....[The church father] Gregory [of Nyssa says that], those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God. If we decide to keep going beyond the point where our eyes or minds are any help to us, we may finally arrive at the pinnacle of the spiritual journey toward God, which exists in complete and dazzling darkness. (47-48).I wonder if Jesus, in all of his difficult statements about the cost of discipleship, is really trying to tell us that there exists a spiritual practice in losing yourself to dark places with the trust that in this dark, you will meet the God who promises you light.
Because at the end of the day, doesn't discipleship ask us to follow Jesus all the way to the darkness of his cross and his death, that in that most final darkness of death, God might surprise us with the light of the resurrection dawn? Isn't discipleship, at its very heart, the practice of walking into and meeting God in the dark places in our world, that we might bring to the world the promise of light?
“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light,” Jesus says.
What dark places has God called you to in your life? Where are the dark corners to which Jesus has led you? What are the shadowy places in your heart where you feel pain or fear or disquiet? Where are the thick clouds that press in on your soul?
And what might God be saying to you in those dark places? What whispers of hope do you hear? What are you learning about God, about redemption, about yourself and your faith from these dark spaces?
In the last few weeks, God has pushed me into a few dark corners. The clouded work of holding vigil during someone’s last fleeting hours of life. The nightfall of cancer diagnoses. The shadowlands of working with neighbors who need money and food and support systems that they do not have.
And let me tell you. The darkness is not a place that I enjoy being. Jesus certainly isn’t asking us to like the darkness, and isn’t asking us to pursue darkness just so that we can say we are disciples. But Jesus is always helping to redeem our darkness. He gives us the assurance that for as long as find ourselves in dark spaces, God remains with us, and that we will emerge on the other side of the veil changed by the encounter.
So my friends - my fellow disciples - blessings be with you on this journey of faith. Blessings to you in the darkness and in the light. Blessings to you as God gives you the grace to take risks for your faith. May your discipleship be bold. May your faith be strong. May you hear God’s voice even in the darkest night, and may you be bold to proclaim his grace in the morning!
All praise to thee, my God, this night for all the blessings of the light.
Keep me, oh keep me, King of kings, beneath thine own almighty wings.
Now and forever.
Thanks be to God.