In The Dark

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
In The Dark

Did Jesus know, when he entered Jerusalem to cheers and choruses of “Hosanna!,” that this was a moment of triumph? Did he know it was the beginning of the end of his life? The most important moments often go unrecognized. Instead we build a life in the dark, by feel, and need hindsight to discover what was most important. Dan tells the Palm Sunday story and Amy preaches.

Worship Leader: Rev.Amy Zucker Morgenstern
Music: Jessica Martin, guitar

Sermon: In the Dark

I’ve been mishearing a lyric in my head. A Bob Dylan song, “In the Garden”:

When they came for him in the garden, did he know?

It’s actually 

When they came for him in the garden, did they know?

as I know perfectly well, having heard the song many times . . . yet it’s my imagined version that haunts me. Did he know? Did Jesus know what would happen? Did he know he was about to die, did he know he would live, did he know his teachings would inspire us to love and peace millennia hence, did he know any of it? 

When we ride triumphantly into our successes, when our dreams have come true, when all hail us and sing our praises, we don’t know what will happen next. When we lie ill and dying, we don’t know what will happen next. We lie down and wake to the darkness of “what will this night, this day, bring?” The old joke is that there’s nothing certain in this life but death and taxes, but the truth is that there’s nothing certain, nothing at all, except uncertainty.

It would be easier to know the plan. Or at least to know that there is a plan. If there is one. In this regard, a different Jesus emerges depending which Gospel you read. The one who confidently states God’s plan of salvation, and the one who says “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Or maybe they are the same person . . . If we are honest, doubt comes in no matter how confident we are.

Later theologians and philosophers would invent certainty. A clockwork universe where all was foreordained and inevitable. A God who knew all, every jot and tittle, the rising of every mote of dust, the falling of every grain of sand, from before Creation to the end of time. But that was not Jesus’s God. He was a rabbi of the early 1st century, whose afterlife was the pit, whose god was given to anger and jealousy, affection and caprice–in other words, a quite human God. The man who prayed to that god wouldn’t have been rock-solid certain of anything. Instead, he had to settle for what we have: guidance, inspiration, hope. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37) I was talking about purpose a few weeks back . . . knowing one’s purpose doesn’t mean knowing where things will end up, how things will end. Jesus believed his purpose was to testify to the truth.

We feel our way, in the dark. We seek out beacons: wise people, and philosophical systems; people we love, and people we trust; truths and revelations. 

The darkness presses upon us when we have moments of realizing that the  beacons are not the clear guides we crave. Sometimes they grow dim. Sometimes they mislead, or in our craving to know, we imbue them with more certainty than they actually possess. As Pilate said in response, “What is truth?” He was mocking, but it’s a profound question. How do we know that what we follow as truth is true? That we are not deceiving ourselves? How do we know that our beacon is warning us away from the rocks and not luring us into them? 

Like Jesus, we move through darkness. This week in the Christian tradition, its Holy Week, its holiest week, tells us: be in the darkness. Do not be too eager for certainty, for completion. Be in doubt and questions, be in confusion and inner conflict, for they, too, are holy. James Baldwin wrote:

It is perfectly possible — indeed, it is far from uncommon — to go to bed one night, or wake up one morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again? The lives of men — and, therefore, of nations — to an extent literally unimaginable, depend on how vividly this question lives in the mind. It is a question which can paralyze the mind, of course; but if the question does not live in the mind, then one is simply condemned to eternal youth, which is a synonym for corruption.

That is transformation. It takes place in the dark, like the transformation of a seed from something outwardly like a stone to an explosion of life and vitality. It takes place in the soil, in the depths of space far from any star, in the womb. In the dark. 

The writer and painter Etel Adnan writes of an encounter with the darkness:

A bird ran into the glass door of my deck and died. I rushed with paper and a pencil to make a drawing and realized I couldn’t draw death. The record player was playing a Koranic prayer recorded in Tunisia. The lamenting voice of the Prophet became a funeral song for the silenced animal. I came in and saw my Ray Bradbury book opened on these lines:

Robins will wear their feathery fire
whistling their whims on a low fence-wire
and not one will know of the war, not one
will care at last when it is done…

Through the long night of the species we go on, somehow blindly, and we give a name to our need for a breakthrough: we call it the Angel, or call it Art, or

–in Adnan’s case–

call it the Mountain.

We are in the dark, not without guiding lights–Baldwin and Adnan and Jesus among them–but without ultimate certainty, because they, too, were wanderers in the dark. Even and especially Jesus. 

Truths crumble. Maybe a better guide than truth would be love. The kind of love that Jesus taught, the love that does not change when the beloved is unworthy or doesn’t love us back, the love that persists always, because it is unconditional. Jesus said the heart of his teaching was to love God with all our mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor. The love of our creator, whatever and whoever it might have been; the love of our neighbor, whether they are good or bad, known or unknown. The love that pours upon us, all of us, the deserving and the undeserving, the wise and the foolish, like rain, like grace.