“Grace in the Dark”
March 6th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
We have just entered into Lent—that period of 40 days (not including Sundays) wending us towards retelling the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. Lent is in contrast to the season of Epiphany right before it.
Epiphany is symbolized by the bright star leading the wise ones to Jesus. And the Epiphany season focuses on the dawning recognition of who Jesus is, and who he is to us. It might be said to have a feeling of discovery, of wonder, of awe—we are seeing Emmanuel, God with us, not only in the flesh, but as an adult, doing adult things, like flipping our world view upside-down.
Lent, on the other hand starts on a more somber note—Ash Wednesday marks us with a smudge of ashes, and Lent often asks us to give up something, or add on something, to find a way to look deeper into our faith, our commitment to God, our way of life. Lent’s color is purple. And so, I have for you a measure of purple cloth—to carry with you this Lent. Put it in your coat pocket, or place it on your refrigerator, or your mirror, or somewhere that you will see it, as a reminder of our walk with God, not just in the bright sunlight, but also in any darkness.
And who of us would be able to come to this service today without feeling the darkness of war and the anxiety of so many people caught in the upheaval and the destruction. So, I was struck by a picture that Seasons of the Spirit choose long ago for this time. It is by Jan Richardson and is titled “Grace in the Dark.” That is what we hope for: Grace in the Dark.
As I look at this slide, I see a lot of dark, mostly dark. The brightness does not seem to overcome the rest, as we are promised in our Christmas Eve readings from John. Is light forced to the side? Or is it expanding into the dark? Or does it grow from the dark loam, the rich soil, the protected space, free from the harsh brilliant light?
I notice that there are other colors: blue and mustard and brown and red and purple. Spiraling up or carving their way through.
What part is grace? Is it that thin strip of bright? Or could it be the myriad colored ribbons germinating in the petri dish of dark? Is it the acknowledgment of all sides of the human predicament—life and death, joy and sorrow, bright and dark? Not trying to place a label of good or bad. Maybe it is easier to see grace in the dark. Maybe the dark makes things more stark, it focuses the mind. Maybe in the light there are too many distractions, too many diversions, that blind us to what is right there. Maybe that is what Lent is. A time that is not so bright, a time to ponder where we might be heading, a time to rest and strengthen ourselves for the journey. Grace in the dark.
The poet Mary Oliver once said, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
So what do I say about our readings for today? The very familiar reading for the first Sunday of Lent: Jesus in the wilderness, tempted three times by the devil. And the other focus Scripture, Moses requiring the Israelite people to give their first fruits to God. This could be a sermon on one of the spiritual disciplines you might practice in Lent, a practice of gratitude. Give to God from the best of what you have, rather than the left-overs. Find ways to make that story “A wandering Aramean was my father” our own story—to remember what God has done for us in the past, and hold onto it in our present and future, however they be.
This could be a sermon on following Jesus’ lead in rebuffing the trials and temptations that surround us every day—“the devil” in various disguises offering us opportunities to show how great we are, to entice us with wealth and power, to insist that we prove how much God loves us. Jesus shows us how to stand strong, how to use the knowledge of God’s words (and who God is to us) to find the lie in the devil’s requests. It is an epic fight, and Jesus triumphs. But we are warned that “the devil departed from him until an opportune time.”
I have to share with you that I struggled with this sermon. I struggled because among the comments in Seasons of the Spirit meant to tease a preacher’s brain was this one: “There are two ways to read this [Deuteronomy] passage. One is to use it for power and possession, claiming a faith story that stamps our ownership on the land we want because “God has given it to us.” The alternative is to let the text remind us that all land we travel across is God’s” (p. 18).
As Russian tanks encroach on Ukraine territory, as the Israeli and Palestinian peoples try to figure out how to live on a land that each thinks God gave them, as we worship on this plot of land, set on Old Indian Rd, an original trail of the Unami tribe of the Leni-Lenape, the idea of land rights seems flawed, at best. I don’t want to gloss over the words that have created untold heartaches “the land that God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle it” [land that was concurrently already possessed and settled and lived on]. I don’t want to try to hide the brutality of taking over property, no matter who you said gave you permission (if you read some accounts of the settling of the Promised Land). I don’t want to make it ok by pointing to softer versions (including much of the archeological evidence) of the Israelite ancestors migrating and living side by side with those already in the region—as you could point to in the end of our reading for today “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”
What is the grace in the dark in this? Did God make a mistake? Did the prophets and priests misunderstand what God’s intentions were? What do we do with our own situation? If we move toward thinking of “all the land we travel across as God’s” where does that leave those of us who own property? And does any of it have anything to do with our gospel lesson of Jesus in the wilderness?
I don’t have any great revelation to share with you. Maybe that is the point. Maybe the first step in dealing with difficult issues is acknowledging that they are hard, and that we might not have all the answers.
I’m not trying to use that as a cop out, just as a beginning step on a road that I hope will bring more clarity to me, to us, to our world.
I see Jesus fighting with forces that want to separate and create hierarchies and stroke egos and intend all kinds of harm to others. Jesus stands with God against all of that. That is the grace I find. God is on the side of the oppressed; God is the one who starts the chant of “Let my people go;” God is forever being found with the least among us.
And maybe the declaration that God needed to get the first fruits was a way of ritualizing this idea. If we give God the first fruits, then it is like paying rent, or paying a mortgage, saying, “we know it ultimately belongs to you, God.” Putting our money, our wealth, our lives, where our mouth is.
So what does that mean for us? Seasons of the Spirit suggests that maybe we could “travel lightly in and on the land, being mindful of those who live amongst us and with whom we share Earth’s resources—being in solidarity with marginalized communities who continue to struggle with injustice, equity, and exploitation.”
Maybe we as a community could move towards “traveling lightly in and on the land”—finding some ways of being involved in ecojustice. I have already planned a night (Wednesday April 6th) to take expired food from the Food Pantry and separate it into compostable food stuffs and recycling the containers. (We will be working with a West Orange composting company called Java’s Compost). We are continuing to brain-storm in our Micah Project meetings about connecting ourselves with other networks of people working on providing a helping hand to marginalized communities—for one example, we are exploring helping those who are reentering our society, and trying to find out more about why NJ has not closed the juvenile jails as they promised four years ago. We have committed to paying forward a “royalty” for the African-American Spirituals we enjoy in worship. We are being prodded by the Mission arm of PCUSA to expand our Matthew 25 pledge.
These seem so small when there are depressing things assaulting our eyeballs and our sensibilities every time we turn on the TV or read a newspaper. But maybe that is the point. We do not have to be big. We only have to put our hand into the “hand” of the One who created everything around us. We can only bring the first fruits of what we have been given, as a sign that we belong to something larger than ourselves. We only need to answer the call to follow Jesus, even if that takes us into the wilderness, even if it means going toe to toe with the forces in this world that are up to no good. We are promised grace for the journey. Not just grace in the bright sunshine of our lives. But grace in the dark as well.
And I hold onto that grace for dear life.
We hold on, together, for what we can do is to open our eyes, and educate our minds, and make a start at treading lightly on this place, as we pledge solidarity with those who most need justice, mercy, and God’s grace.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.