Genesis 1:1-5; Exodus 20:18-20a, 21
When I started considering this sermon earlier in the fall, selecting hymns and texts, working with our musicians to create a service for today, we didn’t know what All Saints’ Sunday would feel like for individuals and the community. We tried to imagine what emotions people would be bringing with them to worship today, what words of comfort and proclamation of hope might be needed, what naming of the transition should be lifted up in this service, tended to in prayer, preaching, and song. Because I couldn’t sense several weeks ago what right now might feel like for me, I had trouble imagining what it might feel like for each of you. That left me feeling both a bit stuck and with a sense of freedom, or better said, reassurance in the trust we share in God’s presence and guidance at all times and in all places. It led me back to places in Scripture where there is evidence of the unknown, where there are new beginnings, where creation itself is becoming, where God’s people are on a journey. Our passages today from the first verses of the book of Genesis and from Exodus speak to the power and presence of the unknown at key moments in God’s relationship with the people of God, as God establishes covenant with community in creation.
In our Exodus passage, Moses has just delivered the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, after they have been following him and God on their journey from the banks of the Red Sea, to quarreling with Moses and testing God, following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night to guide their way. God has been working to keep up with the people’s basic needs for food and water and Moses has been doing his best to lead them. In this context, the giving of the commandments provides a sense of purpose and identity, direction, and security, in the midst of what feels very unknown. As scholar Amy Erickson reminds us, “Although God has brought them out of Egypt and performed a number of miracles, it is not until this point in the story that God tells the people about God’s intentions for them.”1
But no sooner has God shared these intentions, than the people witness thunder and lightening, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking. They are terrified and trembling, and they draw back, begging Moses to speak to them, rather than letting God speak to them. They think they might die if they listen to what God has to say to them. But Moses responds with the encouragement given more than any other in the Bible, “Do not be afraid.”
And with the people watching, Moses, rather than retreating at a distance, draws near to the thick darkness where God is. Moses knew he could find God and reassurance in the unknown, in the wildness of the dark, for God was already there. Moses is showing the people of Israel and all of us today, that the darkness is not to be avoided. It is one of the places where we can find God, and where God will find us.
The creation story in Genesis 1 offers us the first day of new life, of creative unfolding that emerges from darkness and chaos. The wind of God, the Spirit and very breath of God, sweeps over the face of the dark abyss. God is present in these shadowed, distanced places, and God’s presence brings forth light. The light is separated from the darkness, but the darkness is still there. There is Day and Night, and both are good.
According to Eric M. Vail, here in Genesis 1, God is not simply with creation, God is for creation, participating as a member of the newly begun and emerging community. For Vail, God is intimately involved in the building up of community, in the future and creative becoming of life, and all of that emerges from the unknown darkness because of change.2
As I studied these passages, I wondered how looking at the darkness and the transitions in these stories in a new way might help us through a particular season, individually and as a community, and how we might find God and one another there. I wonder what the people of Israel might have encountered if, instead of drawing back at a distance, they drew near to the thick darkness with Moses. If instead of wanting to be protected from what God might say to them, they listened into the mystery of the unknown and saw the goodness in the darkness.
Maggie Smith’s poem, “How Dark the Beginning,” speaks to this mysterious goodness of darkness and new beginnings.
All we ever talk of is light— let there be light, there was light then, good light—but what I consider dawn is darker than all that. So many hours between the day receding and what we recognize as morning, the sun cresting like a wave that won’t break over us—as if light were protective, as if no hearts were flayed, no bodies broken on a day like today. In any film, the sunrise tells us everything will be all right. Danger wouldn’t dare show up now, dragging its shadow across the screen.
We talk so much of light, please let me speak on behalf of the good dark. Let us talk more of how dark the beginning of a day is.
The poem was first published in February of 2020 and Smith said later that she had no idea how much she would need the hope expressed in this poem a month later when lockdown began. You can hear in the poem how the speaker is pushing back on talk of light, because of course, as Smith says, “morning doesn’t begin with the sunrise— each new day begins at 12:01am, when it’s still completely dark out and will remain dark for hours. The metaphor was right there,“ she says, “the beginning of a new day is dark.”3
Beginnings, endings, and transitions can feel like they throw us off balance, they can feel strange and shadowy, but there may be something inherently good in all of that mystery if we are open to it.
In talking with my dearest friend this summer, whom I met in seminary and whose calling has taken her in a direction away from ordained, congregational ministry, we were sharing again the nature of our respective work, the similarities and points of divergence. We talked about this concept that no matter in what capacity we serve God and God’s people that we are all stewards of the mystery. It was one of those moments when what you’re talking about with another person seems both so obvious and profound at the same time. In I Corinthians Paul talks about being a servant of Christ and a steward of God’s mysteries (I Cor 4:1), but I never really thought about it as being part of my job description, something I would put on a resume, or as part of the particular calling for any of us who are followers of Christ and people of faith. We certainly live in what can feel like perpetually unknown times, with political upheaval ever present, environmental and economic crises in abundance, challenges to peace, equality, and justice all around. But there is something about today, as we move into a new chapter in the life of this congregation, as we remember on All Saints’ Sunday loved ones who have died this past year, where the call to steward the mysteries of our individual and shared life together feels more invitational, feels closer, with the option to seek out the darkness like Moses to find God there just within our reach.
There is mystery after the death of a loved one, there is mystery in changes in relationships, identity, in transitioning from a future path that once felt more familiar. Perhaps finding ourselves as stewards of the mystery might be just the grounding we need. Frederich Buechner posted just months before he died last year, a reference “to being [a] steward of the wildest mystery of them all.”
He was referring to how the preacher tells the truth of this mystery, which as people of faith we can all live into, not just the few who preach. He said we must live into “this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that ‘catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears.’”4 Buechner believed this is the deepest intuition of truth that we have. To steward the mystery collectively is to hold together all the complexities of our journey of faith, to draw near to the darkness for what it can teach us and how it can change us.
At the end of September, the staff and a group of leaders from the church’s boards and personnel committee spent a day with consultant Rev. Susan Beaumont. She works with leaders and congregations to build on the strengths and gifts already present and to offer language and context in times of transition. I have found connecting with Susan to be very helpful, and staff members and lay leaders have shared the same. During our day-long workshop, Susan started with the theme of liminality, as Margaret alluded to in a sermon this summer. Susan defines liminality as, “A quality of ambiguity and disorientation that occurs in transitory situations and spaces, when a person or group of people is betwixt and between something that has ended, and a new situation not yet begun.”5
Liminality comes from the Latin word for doorway or threshold, meaning that it is anything that occupies that transitional space at a boundary. Liminality is all around us in literal and metaphorical form all the time. Bridges and caves are structural examples of liminality, and there are examples in nature. There is liminality in that moment where a river and lake are one and separating, beginning and ending.
In his book Liminal Zones: Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin, Kim Trevathan considers the “ecotone between quiet and moving water, the immediate spot where a river reclaims its natural course after being confined as a lake.” Trevathan feels it is at this precise juncture that one can discover “the possibility that the landscape has retained some mystery.”6 Through his paddling adventures, in search of these transitional areas in water, Trevathan considers what makes certain places special, protected and set aside, while other places are not. He connects these transitional places to culture, history, and even physical and spiritual health.
I suspect many of us can locate ourselves in a lake becoming a river moment and I believe God is calling us to see this time and space as special and protected, and together we can hold and steward the mystery of the quiet and moving water all around us. There is liminality in our passages for today, in the disorientation of creation coming into being, and in the people and Moses just beginning to understand God’s intentions for them. There are endings and beginnings in these stories, where people and creation itself occupy two sides of a threshold at the same time, with something not quite fully over yet, and what is coming not yet fully defined, and both passages retain some sense of mystery.
This is exactly the liminal nature Susan Beaumont describes. We are both looking back and trying to look ahead, while perhaps not exactly certain where we are. There is light, there is darkness, there is mystery. And it is good.
This fall, the clergy have been reflecting on the writings of Pádraig Ó Tuama and specifically, his book of daily prayer. The last prayer in this wonderful series of reflections and meditations is a Liturgy of the Night, based on the creation story in Genesis.7
“On the first night God said: ‘Let there be darkness.’ And God separated light from dark; and in the dark, the land rested, the people slept, and the plants breathed, the world retreated. The first night. And God said that it was Good.” Ó Tuama continues to offer the imagery and detail of what each successive night of creation can offer in holy reverence and opportunity. “On the second night God said: ‘There will be conversations that happen in the dark that can’t happen in the day.’” And on the third night there will “’be things that can only be seen by the night.’ And God created stars and insects and luminescence.” What follows on successive nights are reminders that, “‘Some things that happen in the harsh light of day will be troubled. Let there be a time of rest to escape the raw light.’” And that “‘There will be people who work by night, whose light will be silver, whose sleep will be by day and whose labour will be late.’” On the fifth night, “God put a softness at the heart of the darkness.” Each of these moments and descriptions God calls good. And then we arrive at the sixth night. “And on the sixth night, God listened. And there were people working, and people crying, and people seeking shadow, and people telling secrets, and people aching for company. There were people aching for space and people aching for solace. And God hope that they’d survive. And God made twilight, and shafts of green to hang from dark skies, small comforts to accompany the lonely, the joyous, the needy and the needed.” On the last night, God rested, and the rest was good, it was very good, and God called all of this very good.”
In Ó Tuama’s imagination, the mystery of the darkness allows for rest, but it allows for space to be, for small comforts, for conversations that cannot happen during the day, an escape from the harsh light, and God creates softness at the heart of the darkness. Later today, as we marvel at the early arrival of the darkness, with the sun setting in just over 5 and ó hours, may we receive that sudden blanket of shadows as a reminder of God calling us into what the mysteries can teach us, how they can leadus, how they might change us.
Beloved, we are the Church, and part of the call to be the church in new ways and in new times, invites us to consider how we are stewards of the mystery, embracing the near darkness of new beginnings, receiving the softness at the heart of the darkness, speaking on behalf of the good dark, which leads us together to a new day. And with God’s guidance it will be good. It will be very good.
May it be so.
1 Obtained online, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27/commentary-on-exodus-201-4-7-9-12-20-2, October 2, 2023.
2 Eric M. Vale, Creation and Chaos Talk: Charting a Way Forward (Eugene: Pickwick Publishing, 2012), 200.
3 Obtained online, https://maggiesmith.substack.com/p/behind-the-scenes-look-how-dark-the, September 15, 2023.
4 Obtained online, https://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2022/5/7/steward-of-the-wildestmystery, September 23, 23.
5 Susan Beaumont, as shared in presentation for staff and leaders at Westminster on September 26, 2023.
Also cited in How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, by Susan Beaumont.
6 Kim Trevathan. Liminal Zones: Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin (Knoxville: University Press, 2013), xiv.
7 Pádraig Ó Tuama. Daily Prayer with the Correymeela Community. (London: Canterbury Press, 2017), 67-68.