Faith is a walk in the dark.
As Paul Tillich said many years ago, “Faith is the state of being grasped…by the ultimate in being and meaning…being grasped by an ultimate concern…being grasped by the Spiritual Presence… and opened…It is the act of keeping ourselves open…” (III, 130-1)
Faith is walk forward into the unknown, into the dark, and open entrance into the future.
Darkness need not surprise you. There may be no darkness in God, as 1 John declares.
But there is a lot of God in darkness. There may be no darkness in divinity, but there surely is divinity in darkness. The Bible tells us so.
In its very first sentence. In its very first sentence, the Bible tells us so. Darkness was upon the face of the deep, when the divine sermon spoke creation. Darkness. Darker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp. In the beginning, there was darkness—infused with divinity.
Darkness lurks in every Scriptural nook and darkness lurks in every Biblical cranny. Jacob scurries to the river called Jabbok. At night. The children of Israel would neither have heeded nor have needed a great pillar of fire, across the wilderness, except that they traveled…at night. Yahweh gave them a cloud of smoke—his daily obscurity—and a pillar of fire—his nightly obscurity, with which to chart their course. Obscurity squared. You remember the university professor of theology and culture, Nicodemus. Nicodemus saw the light, at night. Every Holy Week encounter happens at night. Jesus prays at night. Peter betrays at night. Thomas doubts at night. Mary shouts at night. All the crucial passion scenes occur at night. And Paul? Paul and Silas, past midnight, have their chains ripped off in a Roman prison. Their guard is petrified. But they are not surprised. The night time—is the right time…
You would like faith to be simple and sunny and clear? You would prefer that faith be as plain as the nose on your face? Or, plainer still, as plain as the nose on MY face? Really. When has that ever been so? With Jeremiah, walking, by night, in chains, to Babylon? With Samson, blinded, seeing a lifelong night? With Paul shipwrecked? With George Washington, Christmas Eve of 1776, marching in the snow at midnight, crossing the river to Trenton, with all the chips on the table? With Harriet Tubman, listening at 2am for bloodhounds along the Susquehanna? Or maybe with Dwight Eisenhower, at 3am, on June 6, 1944? Or with Nelson Mandela in the 28 years of darkness behind bars? No. Darkness surprises no one who lives in friendship with God, least of all you who have been baptized to the cross.
The word comes at night. First at night, in the Genesis pattern, “evening and morning…” The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. The light shines—IN THE DARKNESS.
Our Scripture today was formed, formed in the dark catacombs of Rome, seven decades after Christmas, and four decades after Good Friday. Mark lights a candle for faith by trying—throughout the Gospel and especially in this chapter—to answer a hard question. Why did Jesus suffer? Why did Jesus die? Why did Jesus fail? Why was the Messiah rejected, dishonored, and unheeded? Answer one, verses 1-6: so it is with prophets, especially at home. Answer two, verses 7-13: so to teach us to go forward into the dark, fearless. One needs no bag or second tunic, just a bit of attitude, and a whistle in the dark.
Now, if we are honest, darkness is frightening. But not unexpected. Frightening, but not surprising. It is sobering to see a loved one taken off in a stretcher, down the long night hallway of uncertainty. Human life in a nuclear age is anxious life, ever shadowed life, lived against the background of a potential nuclear winter. Who would not sleep with one eye open, come hurricane season, when the wind begins to blow, after Tsunami and Katrina? Who is not sobered by the report of a potential subway bombing? Beware, beware a cheery, cozy, quasi Christ, unfamiliar with the dark. Beware a Jesus who has not been given his night license. Beware a loud, light, boxy, bongo, easy Christ. There are plenty around today. Steven Prothero’s excellent book American Jesus will show you the historical bestiary. Beware a trumpeted acclamation that it is already, always MORNING. As in, “It’s morning in America…” It isn’t. Jesus’ cross is the nighttime hallmark of his loving. In fact, in sum, his heavy walking is his loving. His departure is the heart of his loving.
You know from your experience about loving and leaving. Like a mother leaving a daughter at school, or a father leaving a son at camp, or a teacher leaving a student at graduation, or a boss leaving an apprentice at retirement, or a parent, perhaps a mother or father memorialized here today, leaving this earth. As Bonhoeffer’s sturdy words remind us, the leaving is the loving:
Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. He does not fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.
The darkness is frightening, but you need not fear it. The edgy fragments of a post-modern sensibility—every generation and identity group for itself and the devil take the hindmost—is frightening, but you need not fear it. The cataclysmic demise of authentic Christianity in the Northeast— lovely, large, lasting and liberal, and increasingly gone—is frightening, but you need not fear it. The emptiness of the world when your spouse dies and the thought of emptying the closets is a prospect worse than death itself is indeed frightening, but you need not fear it. Here is why. You come from a long line of women and men who have practiced discipleship in the dark. Who have earned their night licenses, as you also have done. Your people knew God…at night. You will too. Miguel de Unamuno had it right: “Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold not of darkness. It is not the night that kills. It is the frost.”
We share with the early church an experience of God, at night. At their best, they knew how to take responsible risk. At their best, they knew both how to come and to go, to enter and to leave. At their highest, they trusted their instincts. At their finest, they had the guts to start out before dawn, before the fog lifted, before daybreak. They hoped, that is, for what they did not see. Who hopes for what he sees? We hope for what we do not see.
Do we minimize the obscurity of the future, the dark night of the unforeseen? Do we repress the forebodings of the subconscious? Do we deny the complexities of power? Do we call darkness light and night day? No. No. No. No. No.
Nothing of the night is foreign to us. Nothing of darkness is foreign to us. We avoid nothing, nothing, though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us. Darkness is no surprise.
We have learned to walk in the dark.
You will not want to race in the dark, like a cabbie hurtling down Commonwealth at midnight. We do not run headlong—foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. No. We do not hurl ourselves like fools into the black beyond. You know the value of virtue: prudence, temperance, courage, patience.
Walk humbly. If we walk…we have fellowship. Walk by faith not sight. Walk with God. At night, especially, walk. Do not run. Walk.
Slow and steady wins the day. A stitch in time saves nine. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Let your head save your heels. Look before you leap.
Thunders Isaiah, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” Those today sensing a call to the ministry want to remember Isaiah.
Ghandi weighed 100 lbs, wore a sari, and looked sorrier. He walked four miles a day. And, oh, by the way, he changed the world for the better. Jesus never left Palestine. He walked, preaching and teaching and healing. John Wesley walked slowly to Aldersgate Street, and more slowly home, a changed man. His horse walked all over England. Morality, generosity, piety followed the man on horseback. Said Wesley, “I am always in haste, but never in a hurry.” James Bashford peers down upon us from the stained glass of this hallowed space. He took his time. First as pastor (his highest honor), then as President of Ohio Wesleyan, then as Bishop of Korea. His way of living, walking, inspired a generation to take the world and make it young again. Like Branch Rickey, who integrated baseball. (But that was last week’s sermon!) Easy, slow. Walk. Saunter. Lollygag.
Self-destruction awaits a hasty pace in the dark. On the down side, Methodists and others have sometimes been hasty about doing all the good we can. Sometimes we are too optimistic in our accounting. We accentuate the positive, which is alright, but suffocate the negative, which is not alright. We engage in wishful thinking, when it comes to money, sometimes. We see what we want to see, rather than what is. After all, were we not meant to be “happy in God”? The newspapers this week, or a great history like David Hempton’s Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (109ff), or our own experience itself, will confirm our penchant for hasty counting, and even for tragically overoptimistic accounting.
Take your time at night. Feel your way. Step along. Be careful. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is very hard to get it back in. Let your eyesight grow accustomed to the obscurity of experience and the hidden nature of God. Befriend shadows. Walk. Skulk. Lurk. Who hopes for what he sees? Said Alice Walker, “at middle age I slowed down so that whatever was trying to catch up to me would have an easier time of it.”
Abraham Heschel would call this Sabbath living:
There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have, but to be, not to own, but to give, not to control, but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord…The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. (Sabbath, 9-11)
To face sacred moments.
Walk. Swing your arms. Smile. Greet your neighbors and their wayward kids. Take your time. Only the devil has no time to let things grow. It is a foolish farmer who pulls up his carrots every week to check their progress. Easy, easy.
Otherwise, you will miss the fullness of life and faith.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born 100 years ago this year, a great interpreter in word and life of Mark 6, is best remembered for his teaching, by word and sacrifice, about grace, and his reverence for the walk of faith announced in today’s Gospel:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without contrition.
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be SOUGHT again and again, the gift which must be ASKED FOR, the door on which a person must KNOCK. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs us our life, and it is grace because it gives us our only true life.
Costly grace takes time. It requires us to walk, and not faint. Costly grace takes time. Time to invite, and to tithe. Time to fish and to plant. Faith begins with giving way 10% of what we earn, and ends in inviting someone to dinner.
The only way to make headway in the dark is to walk. The night time is the right time—if you will walk.
Victor Hugo wrote, Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.
Here is the good news: Faith. . .is a walk. . .in the dark.