Sermon Archives

Sunday, March 12, 2017
The Second Sunday of Lent, RCL Year A
The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
Dark Night

Open our Lips, O Lord, that our mouth shall proclaim your praise. Amen.

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark[1], Barbara Brown Taylor tells about her 8-year old friend Anna, whom Taylor invited (with her mom)to the farm house one day. Taylor was sure that Anna would love to help her catch the chickens and move them from pen to pen. If you know anything about chickens, moving them during the day when they are wide awake can become mayhem. The chickens will scream and fling themselves against the wire, as if they have heard stories about people who ring their necks and then eat them for supper.  Chickens will crash into each other, lose their feathers and can actually die of fright right in front of you if the conditions are right.

But, at night, when chickens are already nestled in their beds, they act as if they have “had two martinis.”  They chuckle when a farmer enters the coop and allow her to scoop them up into her apron – even five at a time – while the others wait patiently for their turn.  After dark is the time to move chickens.

So Taylor invited Anna to the help one evening.  Taylor led Anna slowly down the path towards the chicken coop, about 50 yards from the house, just down a hill from the garage.  Although the moon was nearly full, Taylor shined the flashlight on the path to help her friend find the way. She explained how although it is dark now, Anna’s eyes would eventually adjust. “I can’t see!” Anna complained. Taylor continued to lead, coaching and exclaiming how beautiful were sounds of the cicadas singing and the fireflies blinking. Taylor knew that the joy of moving chickens was just beyond the darkness.

When Taylor realized Anna was not behind her, she headed back up the hill and found Anna sobbing where she had stopped, immobilized by fear, in the moonlit night.  See, Anna was a city girl and walking in the dark takes practice.

Everyone in Anna’s life had taught her to fear the dark, taught her that darkness is dangerous, taught her that anything she cannot see can hurt her, taught her that the best protection is to stay inside after dark with the doors locked and to sleep with the lights on. And you know you will do anything in your power to prevent a child from being fearful.  If night does that, well, then you buy a lamp for her room and project stars on the ceiling and make an ambient dusk to protect her from fear.

Anna’s fear that particular night, just 50 yards from the house, may seem unfounded to us, but our bravery comes from earned courage. Courage that is no more than managed fear. Courage that is practiced over and over in situations that are scary but not dangerous.  In experiences like darkness.

Perhaps Nicodemus wanted to practice courage, for courage is what it took him,  a big-shot religious man with a bright theological reputation to uphold, to check in on Jesus who was in Jerusalem that day.  It took courage for Nicodemus to ask someone he barely knew, but knew “about,” for deeper understanding.  It took courage, but he had a hunch that in the darkness he might find wisdom.

But then Jesus tells him that basically, it boils down to getting born again. And then, in the deep, fearful dark of that hour, a gust of wind must have come down the chimney, making the embers burst into flame. Jesus paused and said, “Yep, being born again is like that – it’s not something you did, the wind did it.  The Spirit did it.  It was something that happened, for God’s sake.”[2]

How can this be? Nic wondered aloud. And, according to pastor Frederick Buechner, that’s when Jesus explained what Spirit looks like, “…there are people [in poverty,] walking around with the love-light in their eyes, and ex-cons teaching Sunday Schools, and undertakers scared silly we’ll put them out of business...  I’m telling you,” Jesus continued,” …God’s got such a thing for this loused-up planet that God sent me down here so that if you don’t believe your own eyes, maybe you’ll believe mine, or me, or you won’t come sneaking around at night in the dark.”

But what convinced Nicodemus even more was the rushing of his own breath and the racing of his own heart, an unusual feeling of excitement that made him blush.  *That* was when Nic realized he was practicing courage, in the dark.

Last weekend, our vestry & parish leadership met for a spiritual retreat. The retreat leader invited all of us to practice courage by sharing when we felt most close to God and most far away from God.  Several responses revealed that in the darkest moments of tragedy, crisis or deepest doubts, God came close and touched lives.  We heard about meeting Jesus in the “dark night of the soul.”  We also heard about never feeling close to God.

That is when we all realized that everyone is on a spiritual path of some kind. Sometimes that path goes just fifty yards from our house, just beyond the garage and is waiting there in the dark.

Today, Nicodemus invites us to meet Jesus there in the dark. Are you there now?  Are you afraid, or just trying to find your way? Are you not sure what you believe? There, in the dark, Jesus patiently hears questions and shows how to practice courage, because he has heard it all before. There, in the dark, Jesus offers to help, to teach, to liberate, to clarify the way and to strengthen us for the journey. There, in the dark of our Lenten Quiet Night, we can experience something scary but not dangerous: how to cultivate the virtue of Dying Well. There, in the dark of Lent, we practice courage because its cousin is practicing resurrection.

Resurrection is coming on Easter, but not yet.

Today, in the scary but not dangerous dark, Jesus affirms in the last verse of the gospel that we will be saved, saying, “God sent the Son into the world not to condemn, but so that the world might be saved through him.” In that verse, the word “world,” from the Greek “kosmos,” refers to a place that is hostile to God.

So, we can read, “God did not send the son into the world to condemn even this world that despises God but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through the Son.”  Might *still* be saved.  God’s love is that unexpected, that bold, that abundant. And, God’s love is meant for all – yes, all – even as threats are made against our Jewish brothers and sisters whose cemeteries have been desecrated and community centers threatened.  God’s love is meant for all – yes, all – even as there is increased animosity directed toward our Muslim brothers and sisters since 9/11 and more recently.  God’s love is meant for all – yes, all – and God calls us, therefore, to see persons of other faiths (and of no faith) through the lens of that profound and surprising love.

There is no better way to share our faith than to practice courage in the dark. There is no better way to be real Christians than to say how our spiritual hunger is satisfied by the love of God that is bigger than we can ask or imagine.  That is where the Spirit gives birth in our lives. That is where we feel the rushing of our own breath and the racing of our own heart.

Courage, my friends.  Go into the dark.  Leave your flashlight on the porch.  Find that place of darkness this Lent, where Jesus will meet you in your doubts, fears, anger, and struggles.

May we, this Lent, come to Jesus by night and be born again with courage, water and Spirit.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk In the Dark, (New York, HarperCollins, 2014) p. 33-38

[2] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, (New York, Harper & Row, 1979), p. 121-123