The Rev. Hannah Hooker’s Lent 4B sermon
When I was in elementary school, I dreaded bedtime. I was frightened of the darkness and what monsters lurked there. I was frightened of nightmares and frustrated that I couldn’t prevent them. And I was convinced that all the worst things happened at night: storms, illness, phone calls with terrible news. I did anything I could think of to put off going to bed. I feigned illness to keep my parents busy taking my temperature. I volunteered to do chores after dinner. I would start a movie half an hour before my curfew and then beg my parents to let me finish it. And the agony did not stop once I’d finally succumbed to my bed. Some nights, I would lie awake for hours, mind racing, willing sleep to take over, unable to calm my nerves enough to drift off.
But every once in a while, either from too many Dr. Peppers or the mighty force of childhood fear, I would manage to stay awake long enough to reach a breaking point. All of sudden, at 3am, staring into the terrifying darkness, fear would drain out of me like a fever breaking, and the darkness and I would accept each other, embrace each other. My unlit room would become beautiful and my mind would come alive. Some of my best thoughts and ideas in life have come from these late night liaisons with the darkest, scariest parts of the world and my soul.
As I got older, I sound similar experiences in other places. Gathered with family in a hospital lobby in the middle of the night. Waiting for news of our loved one; knowing the odds; not quite daring to hope. We were hungry, exhausted, in desperate need of a nap and a shower, and we were staring into the darkness of the fate that might await us. But then, a shared memory suddenly sends us into a fit of giggles, and we find release from the tension. A few years later, in a library study carrel in the middle of the night, my college classmates and I stared into the darkness of all the material we needed to comprehend by morning, and the impossibility of retaining it all in the next few hours. And then, someone threw their notes in the air and announced it was time to give up and go to Waffle House, and we all gleefully marched out the door.
And even recently, right here at St. Mark’s, in the past few weeks of Lent we have stared into the darkness of our own sin. We have struggled with our inability to keep up with our Lenten Disciplines, we have struggled with still not having a Rector, and we have struggled with our church finances. We have dreaded and ignored thinking about the misery of Holy Week that looms ahead. But today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we are met with the sweet relief of Laetare Sunday. The word Laetare means to rejoice, which is what I do when I get to wear this Hannah-sized rose vestments. Laetare Sunday is our moment of celebration within this somber season.
I call this phenomenon “grace in the night.” Our world is filled to overflowing with examples of God’s grace, the free and unearned expression of God’s love we experience every day. The lovely scent of your favorite flower. The humor in a joke. The very fact that you were born. These are all grace. But grace in the night is special. Sometimes, we have to be submerged in darkness to notice the light of God’s grace.
In this morning’s Gospel passage. Nicodemus is having one of those nights. Our lectionary brings us in about halfway through this story, so you might not have known whom Jesus is talking to. It’s our old friend Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. A leader in the Jewish community. A man strong in his faith. A rule follower. Nicodemus knows that Jesus is trouble, that he threatens their way of life. But he’s also irresistibly drawn to the message. He disagrees with much of what Jesus says, and doesn’t understand most of the rest of it, and yet, here we find him sneaking out in the middle of the night, against his better judgement, risking his life and career, to stare down the darkness with Christ.
We meet the two of them deep in discussion in the wee hours of the morning. Nicodemus has asked again and again for Jesus to explain his mission in a way that makes sense, and we begin our passage this morning with Jesus’ answer: remember Moses and the serpent. I imagine that Nicodemus, like you and I, probably thought to himself, why would Jesus compare himself to a snake? For that answer, we have to head back to our Old Testament reading.
In their long trip through the wilderness, the Israelites had it rough. And they brought even worse conditions upon themselves by ignoring God and forgetting to be grateful. After a pretty significant temper tantrum which they expect Moses to relate in full to God for them, the Israelites are beset with venomous snakes. Now I suspect that if I were bitten by a snake, I might well develop an aversion to them. Might work as hard to avoid them as I did to avoid my dark bedroom at night as a child. But no such luck. God sends the Israelites a symbol of the thing they fear most, and says that to be healed from a snake bite, they have to look right at it. In order to come out of their darkness, they had to stare it down. The source of their fear is also the source of their grace. So it is for you, Jesus tells Nicodemus. So it is for all of us who endure pain, walk through the unknown, or fear darkness.
This ‘grace in the night,” this freedom from the physical bounds of darkness in all its forms, is a kind of victory. When we survive the night by outlasting our fear, we overcome the thing that frightens us, and we are a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser, a little bit lighter. And while this victory doesn’t undo the anguish we experienced, we don’t want to go back to life as it was before. And we can’t receive this kind of grace if we hide from what we fear, avoid the darkness. We have to dwell in it, stare it down.
I have witnessed individuals at St. Mark’s, as well as the St. Mark’s community as a whole, show incredible strength standing in the darkness, and it is a pinnacle of my ministry, a privilege of being your priest. In the dark night of being without a rector, I have seen folks step up to take leadership roles and support me in my budding leadership, and I have seen folks double down in their commitment to the mission of fellowship and outreach that makes St. Mark’s St. Mark’s. In the dark night of Lent, I have watched our children dive into Episcopal liturgy and put together their own Lenten worship based on the Prayer Book. I have listened as folks have told me about their personal Lenten Disciplines and have been inspired by our St. Mark’s devotional.
And so today, on Laetare Sunday, I want to reassure you all that grace comes in the night. This community dwells in darkness together so beautifully, and I cannot wait to see how the Sprit is embodied in this place is when that sweet relief comes. This week, as you experience your own darkness, as we all do, especially in Lent, take strength and comfort from the message of Laetare Sunday, from this grace in the night, and remember that it is by staring down what we fear most, just as Christ did for us on the cross, that we will have victory over fear and death once and for all. Amen.