Saturday, May 30, 2015

Endarkenment (Sermon - John 3)

When I was a new mother, my husband and I took our three-month old twins to Florida to see my grandparents, to whom I was very close.  My husband spent several days in Orlando for a business conference, and I took the babies to visit my grandparents.

At the time, my grandfather was extremely ill – dying, in fact, of kidney failure.  He and my grandmother had gone to Florida for the winter, but he had taken a sudden turn for the worse after their arrival around Thanksgiving.  By the time we arrived in mid-December, my grandfather was house-bound and cared for by round-the-clock nurses, as my grandmother was herself too frail to do much of the physical work.

My grandfather was experiencing something with which many of you are no doubt familiar. It’s called sundowning, and it’s characteristic of dementia.  My grandfather was often up and about during the day, coming to the table for breakfast and lunch, completely lucid, aware of who my children and I were, and delighted to spend time with his great-grandsons.  But as evening fell, he would lose his bearings.  His behavior became increasingly erratic, and his sense of who and where he was evaporated in the night.

I was particularly aware of his situation because I was up much of the night with my babies -- in a guestroom next to my grandfather’s room, so that I could hear him talking. Talking and talking, all night long, to his nurse companion.  And during those late, long nights, my grandfather slipped back into the 1930s, into the Depression, into the years in which he and his father and brother were trying to make a go of it in business.  He thought, night after night, that it was Christmastime in 1930 or so, and he was frantic that he did not have Christmas presents for his young family.

I learned so much during those nights, about the cycle of life, and about dementia, and about my grandfather.  I saw life at both ends, with two babies at the very beginning of theirs  and my grandfather in the last month of his. I l learned about the trials of dementia, not in a textbook or classroom sort of way, but in a real-life experience kind of way, spending time with someone I loved as his mind failed him.

And I learned about my grandfather, who he was and what was important to him.  You know the old saying – that no one at the end of life ever says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office?” My grandfather was a perfect example of the truth in that.  In those long nights, a month before he died, he never once talked about his business.  It was all, all of it, about his family.

These were not things I could learn in the light of day, when all seemed well and fairly ordinary.  These things required me to attend to my grandfather’s experience of the night as he neared the end of his life.

What about you?  Where else do we learn things in the night?

Hospital corridors are among the first nighttime places that come to mind. If you’ve ever spent time with a seriously ill loved one, then you’ve probably experienced the lonely, bewildering sense of mystery that one finds in a hospital at 2:00 or 4:00 am.  Deathbeds are another place at which we often find ourselves in the night.  And crises seem to come at night – the police at the door, the ambulance in the drive, the phone call alerting us to an accident.

None of these are night time places we would choose, but they are all places in which we grow, aren’t they?

Now, those are tangible, concrete night times of our lives. But there are also intangible night times – times after a death, after the loss of a home or a job, times of anxiety over a struggling child, or finances stretched too far, or choices gone bad.  In Cleveland, the Brelo trial has been such a metaphorical night time.  While the events of the case – the chase, the shooting, the deaths – all took place during the literal night, the trial and judgment have felt to many like a continuation of  night time.  It’s clear that while Officer Brelo’s actions may have been within the bounds of the law, as the judge decided, that does not mean that they fall within the bounds of acceptable behavior for a police officer.  Brelo’s case falls within the context of a long night time of injustice, of misjudgment and reckless behavior by police officers in communities across our country, the consequences of which fall disproportionately on black shoulders.

Night time seems to be a time for confusion, for struggle; a time in which things go wrong.

Might it also be a time, however, in which knowledge and understanding come our way?  Knowledge and understanding not available to us in the daytime

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and preacher-writer – we studied one of her books last winter -- suggests that we need to focus more on what we might learn in the night.[1]  As we all know, we tend to emphasize light as a symbol for learning, for finding clarity.  We even call a great historical period of learning and philosophy and literature in Europe “the Enlightenment.” In fact, much of what we understand as cultural norms today first say the light of day during the European Enlightenment.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests offers us a new term to describe how we might learn differently.  Her term is “endarkenment.”  We need, she says, more of endarkenment rather than the enlightenment toward which we tend to gravitate.

This morning our text offers us a night time story.  Nicodemus: what’s he doing out late at night.

The usual explanation given is that Nicodemus, a skilled lawyer and debater, a leader in is community, doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s visiting Jesus.  He’s drawn to Jesus, this compelling rabbi who performs signs and wonders, and he’s curious – but he doesn’t want word getting around about his attraction to this mystery man.  And so he seeks Jesus out at night.

And does Nicodemus ever get more than he bargained for!  He can’t get a straight sentence out of Jesus, but he gets an earful – about being born “from above” (or, “again”) about relationship, and about the love of God.

Oh – and about the Trinity.   This is one of the few episodes in the Bible in which our understanding of God as Trinity makes an appearance.  The idea of Trinity is very confusing, as most of our most learned theologians have been quite willing to admit.  Nicodemus is merely one of the first in a very long line of confused people.  The Bible does not, after all, have a chapter entitled “The Trinity.”  The Bible is not a textbook on the geometry of three-in-one.

What the Bible offers us, as Jesus does Nicodemus, is a series of hints; of clues.  In this little story of the night, we are told that God sent God’s son, and that we must be born of water and spirit.  Not exactly clear, is it? Poor Nicodemus -- supposed to make sense of all this information coming at him in the night.

What’s important here, though, is not the complicated math of the Trinity, of God.  What’s important is who God is, and what God wants.  What’s important is what Nicodemus learned during his night of endarkenment:

That God so loved the world.  That God SO loved the world.  That God so LOVED the word  . . .  that God gave God’s Son . . .

That God so loved the world that God sought not to condemn -- but to save.  After a whole history of human foolishness and error and destruction, all God really wanted was to save what God had begun.

That God so loved the world that God wanted to endure that we would not perish, but that we would have eternal life.  That we would flourish, that we would grow into the people God always wanted us to be, that the whole world – not just us, but all of creation – would be born anew.

We don’t know much about what happened to Nicodemus as a consequence of his nighttime encounter with Jesus.  The Bible leaves out a lot of the detail.  It’s not like Oprah – no blow-by-blow description of crisis and growth.  But we DO know that this nighttime meeting with Jesus changed Nicodemus.   We know this because toward the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus makes another appearance -- this time in the light of day – to assist Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus after the crucifixion.    Whatever happened to Nicodemus in those three or so years, he was transformed – transformed by what he learned about the love of God, the God who saves and promises eternal life.

What about us?  What do we learn in the night? What do we learn about God in the night times of our lives, whether in the company of a dying loved on or in the midst of a crisis – do we discover a loving, compassionate, attentive God who, we might not encounter in the light of an ordinary day?  

What about great community challenges which make it seem as if night has fallen? Because of the Brelo case, and because of Tamir Rice, and because of other catastrophes in the same vein, our city is learning about and committing itself anew to justice – the work of God, who tells us over and over through the prophets that justice matters.  Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that what we discover of good in these situations justifies the cost, paid in young lives – not at all.  But it is a reality that our own individual experiences of endarkenment teach us to see with new eyes – we discover things we could not have learned in have learned in the daylight, just as Nicodemus did.

Is it possible that in the night, we, too learn of the extravagant, saving love of God?   A couple of months ago, at Easter, we talked about how the story continues – about how the post-Resurrection story in Mark, which ends with everyone filled with fear and running away, is a story which we are called to continue.  Perhaps the same is also true here, with another story which does not really continue, but picks up later with a changed Nicodemus  – perhaps, again,  we are the continuation of the story.  That God is loving the world into salvation and eternal life, and that we are called to carry that love of God forward, each of us in our own way, each in our own darkness, so that God’s dream is realized.   

Frederick Buechner,  Presbyterian pastor and writer, tells us that “all we’re asked to do is to take a step or two forward through the darkness and start digging in.”[2]  That’s what Nicodemus did; maybe we should do the same.  Look for the love of God – the presence of Jesus – and the persistence of the Spirit – in the nights of life.  Amen.





[1] Learning to Walk in the Dark (2014).


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