“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-14)
Good morning! This Sunday is week three of our Summer Road Trip sermon series, where our congregation is traveling through 8 of America’s National Parks together. Two weeks ago we began our Summer Road Trip with Yellowstone National Park and talked about how God works through us so that the worst thing is never the last thing—there is always hope to be found even in the worst of times. Last week, we went on to Olympic National Park and were reminded that God has created a richly diverse world and it is up to us to protect and value that diversity. If you have missed a week and want to catch up, you can always find a video of the sermon on our Facebook page or read a text version of it on our website.
This week we are headed to Carlsbad Cavern National Park, right here in New Mexico. For the next month and a half, we are getting inspiration for our worship services from the book America’s Holy Ground: 61Faithful Reflections on our National Parks by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. Their reflection on Carlsbad Cavern is really beautiful! They describe it this way:
“Carlsbad Caverns may be the second-best known cave in the world, after Jesus’ empty tomb. This labyrinth of enormous underground rooms and passageways, speleothem sculpture created by innumerable drips of calcite-rich water, and the well-known avian residents that tipped off a young farmhand that a cave was nearby, have combined to make this hole-in-the-ground a mind-boggling natural attraction for more than half a million visitors each year.”
They go on to explain that it is believed that the cave chambers were formed about six million years ago by a series of chemical reactions! A limestone reef began dissolving as slightly acidic water trickled down and encountered hydrogen sulfide gas. Together, this combination dissolved the limestone and left huge holes behind. Since then, calcite rich water and other minerals have contributed to a series of formations that hang from the top of the cavern, others that grow up from the floor of the cave, and some that even span the entire height of the cavern from ceiling to floor.
I am so thankful that we have access to technology, because even though we can’t actually travel into the cavern together this morning, the video does a pretty good job of representing how amazing it truly is. It is also the National Park that I think the largest percentage of this congregation have been to since it is only about 3 hours away from our church! I look forward to hearing your thoughts about it during our coffee time at the end of our service.
I have not been to Carlsbad yet, but I have been through two other cavern tours in Texas and in Arizona, so I can imagine what it is like. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to visit Kartchner Caverns. It’s smaller than Carlsbad, and unlike Carlsbad the formations in it have not stopped growing. Despite these differences, I imagine that Kartchner and Carlsbad still share many similarities, including that when the lights are turned out the caverns are so dark you could put your hand directly in front of your face and not see it.
While I was doing research for this sermon, I came across a story by Bob Woods that was originally printed in Pulpit Digest. In the story, he tells about a family with an 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter who went to Carlsbad Caverns. When the tour reached the deepest part of the cavern, far, far below the Earth’s surface, the guide turned off all the lights. Suddenly, the entire space was dark and silent. The little girl was frightened and began to cry, but almost immediately her brother said: “Don’t cry. Somebody here knows how to turn on the lights.”
Now, that isn’t my story and I can’t speak to whether it is true or just a really great sermon illustration, but I have been a 7-year-old girl who was afraid of the dark. One time, I was in my Dad’s basement with my older stepbrother and one of his friends when, out of nowhere, they looked at each other and sprinted for the stairs. They turned off the lights and locked the basement door, cackling about how funny their trick was. For them, it was a silly game, but being unexpectedly plunged into total darkness in a basement terrified me. It probably didn’t help that I had watched Home Alone for the first time around then, and my mind immediately went to the furnace in the basement that Kevin thinks is a monster. Do you all remember that scene?
So, I was stuck in what felt to me like a desperate situation…not sure what manner of monster might jump out at me at any moment. My cries for help only managed to make the boys laugh harder, until my step-brother finally decided to let me out. Thankfully, he did that before any furnace monsters could get me.
Even as an adult there are still times I find being alone in the dark to be frightening. What I try to remember is that, darkness is a part of life. We can’t have the day without the night, or the in-between times like dawn and dusk and twilight. Without darkness, we can’t see the beauty of the stars in the night sky. But even though it is a natural part of life, humans have been conditioned to be afraid of the dark, and a lot of that conditioning comes from scripture.
In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Christianity has never had anything nice to say about darkness. From earliest times, Christians have used ‘darkness’ as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness and death…At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things.”
The scripture I chose for this morning certainly does this. In it, the author of John writes that Jesus is a light that is shining in the darkness, so bright that the darkness cannot overcome it. And on the one hand, this is a beautiful sentiment, right? Jesus came into a world that was corrupt, full of sin, violence, greed, and danger, and shined as a beacon of light to teach us how to live better lives.
I don’t mean to take away from the meaning of this scripture, because it is a really beautiful description of Jesus and how he lived his life on Earth. However, I do think it’s okay that we use it as an example to help us question the way the Bible, and therefore our society, uses the language of light and dark to describe good and evil. As Barbara Brown Taylor said in the quote I just read, these descriptions of light being good and dark being evil has contributed to racism in our society and ableism against folks who experience eye trouble or blindness. The truth is, if we completely avoid the darkness, we miss out on the full spectrum of the human experience.
Darkness gives us the opportunity to hone our other senses. Anyone who has been in a cave or cavern with the lights turned off probably understands what I mean—when we can’t see, we naturally begin listening more, smelling more, tasting more, and feeling more. Parts of the experience that you missed before rise to the surface. The dampness of the cavern feels heavier on your skin. The smells of bat guano and moss become more distinct. The silence becomes starker, and you are more aware of the people breathing and shifting their position around you. By embracing time in the darkness, the full experience of being in a cavern becomes richer and more alive.
I think life is this way too. If we spend our lives afraid of facing the darkness, we miss so many opportunities to go deeper, to understand life better. Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the importance of honoring the dark moments in our life this way:
“As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
Right now, we are experiencing a kind of metaphorical darkness. There is so much uncertainty in our lives right now that we can’t see too far ahead of us. We have no idea when this pandemic will end and our lives can go back to normal, we can’t see that light at the end of the tunnel just yet. This lack of information coupled with uncertainty is naturally causing us all to have a lot of fear and anxiety. So, if Carlsbad Caverns can teach us anything this morning, I think it’s that even though this time is frightening, we can use it to stretch our other senses and experience life a little differently.
I know that being in social isolation has forced to me to slow down and recognize the most important things in my life. It has helped me to have a renewed desire to focus on my own spiritual practices as a way of caring for myself. It has reminded me of the value that the people I love have in my life and has pushed me to think creatively about ways to stay connected with them. There has been a lot of pain and a lot of grief, but this time can also offer us new life if we know how to look for it.
When we are surrounded by light, it can be easy to forget about the gifts that the darkness brings. Underneath our feet plants are starting to grow from seeds, colonies of insects are going about their day, and there are caverns that hold an entirely different ecosystem that exists because it is in the dark. When we are surrounded by daylight, we can forget that the stars are still out there in the sky, we just can’t see them. We need the darkness to show us parts of the world that we ignore when we are surrounded by light.
God is with us, whether the path in front of us is illuminated by light or clouded by darkness. I invite you to use this time to see what senses can awaken in you that are normally hidden. What gifts can this time of darkness bring to your life?