5 March 2023 – Second Sunday In Lent
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Imagine you’re in a room…maybe it’s a familiar room…maybe it’s not…doesn’t really matter…just you’re in a room and it’s really dark. Maybe there’s been a power outage…or maybe you’re just waking up in the middle of the night…again…doesn’t really matter…just you’re in a room and it’s so dark that you can’t see. At first. But now, think about what happens next…
If the lights suddenly go out. You might freeze in place…afraid to move because you suddenly don’t know where anything is…
If you wake up…it still might take a minute to orient yourself…and think about how…in dim light…even familiar objects can take on surprising or frightening shapes in dim light. What is that in the closet? Did I see a something moving in the hall?
We’ve all had this experience of being in the dark somewhere and being disoriented…but then what happens?…We slowly start adjusting…objects begin to clarify…shadows become recognizable shapes…and begin to develop familiar depth and texture…and gradually…gradually…we are able to see…despite the lack of light…
Spiritual growth is very much like this…are like learning to see in the dark. Other traditions call spiritual growth “enlightenment” for a reason…Either because the light does suddenly dawn, or because the light in here begins to burn bright enough that you start to be able to see…
Nicodemus “comes to Jesus at night.” Bible commentators make a big deal out of this detail. Because John is constantly—and most think intentionally—employing metaphors of light and darkness. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night…literally in the dark. But Nicodemus is also metaphorically “in the dark.” But he is learning to see…he’s struggling to see… And we can relate to him, because that’s where all of us start our spiritual journey…in the dark…not really being able to see but with a sense that “there must be something there…but I’m not sure what it is.”
All of the Gospel readings for Lent this year come from John…and they all have various things to teach us about spiritual growth—both individually and communally.
This week we meet Nicodemus…in the dark…struggling to see… Next week, we’ll meet the Samaritan woman at the well; the woman who has had several husbands. When Jesus shows up, hot and thirsty, John tells us it is noon…so plenty of light…very few shadows…But, remember the story…in her conversation with Jesus she becomes aware of her own shadow…her half-truths…the convenient obfuscations she uses to get by…but as light of Jesus’ countenance shines on her…her shadow subsides a bit more…and people around her take notice. Spiritual growth also entails learning how to integrate our own shadows…
The week after that: we’ll hear the story of the man born blind who is granted sight…by Jesus…and his cure reveals the shadow of the community. He is cured…we could say that he becomes “enlightened” but now it’s the community that remains stumbling around in the dark. It’s not enough to learn to see, or to integrate your own shadow…communities have shadows as well…Every community has people, or groups, whom they have historically ostracized…excluded…marginalized…who are still kept out of the fullness of community because of a darkness…a shadow…in the community…It’s sometimes called fear, or anger, or resentment…a failure of nerve…or just an unwillingness to be open to change…Spiritual growth requires learning to see in and through that darkness as well.
In the last week of Lent, we’ll hear the story of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus…whom Jesus will raise from the dead, and one way of reading this could be as a whole community becoming enlightened as they witness a new world being born…and as they work together to remove the wrappings that have kept them all bound to the old ways…the darkness of the tomb.
A journey of faith is a lot like learning to see in the dark…and learning to see the darkness within us and around us…and ultimately removing the bindings that prevent us from living fully…And like learning to see in the dark, spiritual growth requires patience, and persistence. A willingness to tolerate discomfort…the courage to make some mistakes… A capacity to ask some honest, difficult, maybe even naive questions (“how can these things be?”).
Bishop Alan reminded us last week that there are individual and communal aspects to all spiritual journeys: things to celebrate, individually and collectively; things to repent of individually and collectively; things to discern individually and in community. Lent is a very appropriate time to do that.
Individually I know many of you are engaging in Lenten practices (and it’s still not to late to adopt one, if you haven’t yet). One of the simplest is to take some time to reflect on: Where are the places of light and life and joy and grace and peace in your life? And what places are currently cast in shadow? Or have become dusty from underuse…Because another truth about spiritual growth is that it is not linear…it twists round and round as you go deeper and deeper (or ascend higher and higher…pick your metaphor).
I find that as the seasons of my life change…the light itself also changes…Comes in from different angles…illuminates things that I have either never seen, or lands on things that I have long forgotten…similarly things that I once thought were of supreme importance are either no where to be seen or buried deep in the shadows.
As we continue on our spiritual journey, as we grow in the faith…as we spiral around and around learning to see both in the shadows and in light, we will often find ourselves in a room, at night, in the dark…asking those existential questions—how can these things be?—when that happens…try not to get frustrated, or see this as a failure of “progress.” Instead open up to the mystery of it…be patient with it…curious even…let your eyes adjust…because then you might start to see differently…start to see better…start to see anew… And that might be enlightenment enough for to see just a little further down the road.