Upper James City County Ministerium
February 26, 2020
Recently, I started reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal Priest and a professor of religion, entitled Learning to Walk in the Dark. It has been on my reading list for quite some time. Now, I just picked it up, so I’ve only finished the introduction and the first chapter (so I don’t yet know where she’s going with her walk in the dark), but as I started reading it, I began to think about learning to walk in the dark as a metaphor for Ash Wednesday and for Lent, in general. In her introduction, she writes, “when I look around the world today, it seems clear that eliminating darkness is pretty high on the human agenda – not just physical darkness but also metaphorical darkness, which includes psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual darkness… If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love – if I could just find the right night light to leave on” (Taylor, 4-5).
I find a lot of truth in that. And to an extent, it is only natural. When I get home from work, this time of year, it is already dark. The first thing I do, as I’m walking in the door, is tell Alexa to turn my living room lights on; there’s fear of what we can’t see. We don’t want to experience pain. We take Tylenol or advil at the first sign of aches and pains. There’s this urge to look away or deny the pain and the darkness around us. In this society, we don’t often face our mortality or the mortality of our loved ones, wanting to believe that we can stave off death. We don’t want to face the things that cause us pain – physical or emotional. We don’t want to be afraid. We don’t want to face loss. We don’t want to face death. At its extreme, there’s this push to find immortality – in power, in money, in extreme medical procedures. Facing mortality and walking in the darkness is radical and countercultural in this world that tries to convince us – with enough wealth, with the right medical treatments, with the right attitude, with the right prayers – that we can stave off death.
Last summer, my grandmother had a health scare. Double pneumonia caused by undiagnosed congestive heart failure. I was there as the doctor was laying out treatment options. “We’ll start with lower grade medications – they come with lower risks of severe side effects. Given your age, we don’t think it’ll have much of an effect. If they don’t work, we’ll move to stronger medications – but they come with higher risks, so we’ll have to keep you for a few more days. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll have to put in a pacemaker.”
My grandmother immediately said, “No. I do not want a pacemaker. I’ve had 84 good years. I do not want a pacemaker.” My cousin responded, “well, then you’ll break your granddaughter’s heart.” The doctor responded, “well, my job is to get you to 100.” To which, my grandmother said again, “I’ve had 84 good years. I’m happy with my life. I do not want a pacemaker.” I’ve never heard her so assertive about anything. She’s the kind that will often do what makes others happy, but she was adamant. When I left, I gave her a hug, and affirmed that she should do what she wanted and needed to do for her, not to worry about us, fully believing that it would be the last time I saw her. Today, Gram’s fine. The lower grade meds did their thing, and she’s back to living her life well.
My point is this: Gram had learned somewhere somehow to walk in the dark, knowing that whatever she faces, walking in the day or in the night, God walks with her. She has faced the mortality of her loved ones: her parents, her brother, her friends. She has faced her own mortality for years, telling me things like, “Gram’s ready to go whenever the Good Lord is ready for her.” “If there’s anything of mine that you want, you be sure to tell your Gram.” And to be honest, hearing her say those things always made me uncomfortable. And I’ll never be ready for “the Good Lord to take her.” But it wasn’t until seeing her in this health scare this summer, that I truly faced her mortality. Even after losing two grandparents already, I didn’t want to face it (and if I’m really honest, I don’t want to face it; but I will fight for what she wants the end of her life to be). Yet in a world that tells my gram that she should do everything she can to extend her life, that the goal is to live to 100, she said no. She’s learned to walk in the dark.
Today, we hear a portion of Luke’s passion narrative. Our Lenten theme this year is on the people of the cross. And tonight, we encounter the women that followed Jesus, the “daughters of Jerusalem”, highlighted only in the Gospel of Luke. These women were well acquainted with the dark. And they follow Jesus into the darkest part of Jesus’ life and Jesus’ story. The disciples have scattered. The road was simply too dark. They needed to find a night light. I don’t say that as a criticism; I don’t pretend that I’d do any better myself. Fear of the dark, fear of the death of their loved one, fear of their own deaths were just too much.
Yet these women, like so many of the prophets of Israel’s past, see the darkness, stare it in the face, and lament. Lament over the faithlessness of God’s people, lament over the ways that people suffer under the powers that be, lament over the injustice happening right in front of them. They lament the brokenness of the world that leads to the death of Jesus. They lament the power of sin that leads to the death-dealing ways of this world. They walk in the darkness and dare to stare it in the face. In a world that encourages them to shy away from the darkness of the world and to ignore it, staring it in the face is an act of bravery and an act of trust. In a world that says that tears, that weeping and mourning are signs of weakness, beating their breasts and wailing for Jesus, is an act of defiance in the face of injustice.
The Rev. Dr. Craig Kocher, chaplain at the University of Richmond, puts it this way: “Here [in the cries of the women] once again the dramatic story of God’s relationship with humankind is put on display. The powers that be have their way, while the innocent suffer. The people’s faith falls prey to fear and is placed in political, military, and religious institutions rather than the love of neighbor and the faithfulness of God. The voice of God’s kingdom prophet crying out in the wilderness is brutally silenced. The women’s lament highlights the grief within the Godhead, the cries of God the Father weeping for the sake of God the Son, a cry that will be lifted again in the silence of God the Spirit at Jesus’ dying breath” (Feasting on the Gospels, Luke – Vol. 2, ).
By walking the journey to the cross, by following Jesus there, these women found courage: a courage that allowed them to lament. A courage that allowed them to embrace righteous anger at the injustices of the world. And a courage that pushed them to see the course to its end. This Gospel, the Gospel of Luke, tells us that a group of unnamed women who followed him were the ones who saw him laid in the tomb. And the unnamed group of women who followed him were the ones to first see the empty tomb. Eventually Luke tells us that it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James who told the apostles. But it was a crowd of women who had followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem, to the tomb who were there that first Easter morning. By walking in the dark, they were the first to experience the new day and the new life of the resurrection. They were the first to see that death is not the end of the story. They were the first to see that the ways of this world and the powers of this world, while mighty and death dealing – will not win in the end. As Jesus tells the women, they will have to walk in the dark again (and they do when Jerusalem in destroyed in 70CE). But the promise of the empty tomb is that the death-dealing ways of the world do not have the final word – for them – or for us.
Tonight, we gather here on Ash Wednesday and we receive the imposition of ashes. We hear “you are dust and to dust you shall return” (or some similar words). They are a reminder of our mortality. That we too will die. They are a reminder of our sin. And they are a reminder of the dealing ways of the world, of the sin and injustice that is within us and that surrounds us. These ashes remind us that, because sin and brokenness are part of our lives and part of our world, we need Jesus. We need God’s grace, we need God’s forgiveness, we need God’s life to break in to our lives and into our world.
And tonight, we set out on a journey through Lent, a walk in the darkness that leads us to Jerusalem – a walk that finally leads us to the cross. We walk to the cross – that place where God meets us in our darkness, where God meets us in the injustices of the world, where God meets us in the worst of what human life can bring. On the cross, God, in Jesus, makes it known that God doesn’t shy away from the darkness, but embraces us there. In Jesus, God walks in the dark too. Because in Jesus, God has walked in the darkness, has died on the cross, has been through the worst of what human life can bring, God shows us that not even death – the death of God’s beloved son at our hands – can separate us from the love of God found in Christ Jesus. We are free to honestly and bravely walk in the dark – the dark of our mortality, the darkness of the world’s injustice, whatever darkness we may face – because God has been there too. We don’t journey this alone, but with God by our side.
The ashes we receive today remind us that our walk in the darkness doesn’t have the last word. We have the gift of living on this side of Easter morning. These ashes, made in the sign of the cross, are placed where many of us were marked with the cross of Christ at our baptism, where many of us were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” We are free to walk in the dark because of the promises of Christ made to us – that we are joined to not only Jesus’ death but also his resurrection – “for if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Jesus frees us from the power of sin and death, from the power of the darkness of the world, receiving the promise that “resurrection means that the worst thing is not the last thing.” We can walk in the dark because from the dark of Good Friday, we get the new day of Easter morning. We are joined to that story; we are joined to the empty tomb and to the promise of resurrection and new life. So we walk in the darkness with the promise of that light and life of Easter morning, a promise made to each one of us.
These ashes remind us not only who we are: sinners in desperate need of God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness. But these ashes remind us whose we are: God’s beloved children, named, claimed and saved by the grace of God through faith apart from the things we do or don’t do for the sake of Christ. And nothing, not our sin, not our mortality, not the darkness of our lives or our world can change whose we are. Because God has claimed us, because of God’s grace, we can follow the call to walk in the dark with courage to center our lives around the cross. Placing our faith in the one that declares victory over death and the grave, we can dare, like the women of Jerusalem, to look honestly and courageously at death and sin in its face, lamenting the sin and brokenness of our lives and of the world. Placing our faith in the one that declares victory over death and the grave, we can dare to live out our identity as beloved and redeemed children of God, for the sake of a broken world in need. As we turn toward the cross, we can learn to walk in the dark, knowing that it is Jesus that walks right there with us.