The Goodness of Both Light and Dark

Act 1

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth….  God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” And so it began a long, long, long time ago. (Please don’t think for even one minute that what’s accounted in Genesis is the scientific way it happened. The Bible is a book of theology, our understanding of God, and not a science textbook. Never mind that the very next chapter of Genesis has a very different creation account written by a different person which doesn’t align with this one.) The creation begins with a separation of light and dark, and it was good.

A sermon in 3 acts based on Genesis 1 and Mark 1.

Or at least the light was. Did you catch that? And God saw that the light was good, but no similar statement about the dark. Is that because the dark was already there at the beginning in that space into which God created and so no special mention needs to be made? Or could it be that the writer of this chapter—someone writing generations later likely during the time of the Babylonian Exile—only saw the world in a black and white binary and so is continuing that motif? As one of our parishioners said this week while reflecting on this text, certainly God isn’t a computer programmer distilling everything down to a series of zeros and ones. 

Because we know the dark is good too. During it most of the world sleeps. Scientists have learned that our muscles grow and our brains are cleansed when we sleep. Certainly those are good things. It’s only at night that we can see the vast expanse of interstellar space, as the Eucharistic Prayer puts it. During the daylight hours we cannot see a single one of the 200 billion galaxies out there that God created—on Day Four according to Genesis 1, if you’re keeping track. When it’s night, nocturnal animals are able to come out and experience the world. There are at least twelve different species of night monkeys that are only active after sunset, and there are owls and bats and possums and a whole host of other things that flourish. Surely they’re good, right? 

And at night things are quiet and peaceful. Ask any parent of a toddler who’s finally gone down for the evening. Or the stillness that is found as you sit around a fire and listen to the crickets or peepers. On that first day of creation God spoke light into being amongst the darkness already there, the very darkness over which the Spirit herself hovered, and it all was good.

Act 2

However, some of us as human beings are indeed computer programs. Or binary thinkers who like the categories of things. Those who under-appreciate a spectrum, like when day turns to night and it’s not completely dark out although the sun has set and the fireflies have started emitting their lights in the hopes of finding a mate. There are those among us who want a definitive line between light and dark.

Because in that frame, light means “good” and dark means “bad.” It shows up all over in our language. If someone describes their day as “dark” rather than “light,” we know exactly what they mean. Or if we hear that a teen is having “dark thoughts,” we know to be concerned and pray for them. We see how scripture continues this theme at times, when spiritual darkness means that a person is not following the way of Jesus Christ.

And that light and dark binary has sadly carried over to skin color. As Selina Stone writes in Tarry Awhile: Wisdom from Black Spirituality for People of Faith, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2024 Lent Book, “It is so easy to begin to categorise people as ‘good’ (light) and ‘evil’ (dark). We can easily reduce people to being one or the other, with the former being worthy of our trust and the latter deserving of our suspicion. Our brains are wired to simplify processes by making these kinds of shortcuts. This is what we often call ‘unconscious bias.’” She concludes, “We are trapped in a binary where light (and white) is closer to goodness and dark (or Black) is inferior.” 

It’s so easy to dismiss this or think it’s someone else’s problem. That racism—which is what this is—isn’t a part of our lives as good Christians. But then I look at the research put out by Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. With years of surveys and using multivariate regression models focused on white Christians and those who are white religiously unaffiliated, and both of their respective level of racism the findings are stark. Being a white Christian—be it mainline, Evangelical, or Roman Catholic—shifts what he terms the Racism Index by nearly 60%. He writes, “The models reveal that, in the United States today, the more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian.” And surprisingly it’s highest in that determination here in the Northeast, as there is a preponderance of both Roman Catholics and those of us who are mainline Protestants. Those white unaffiliated folks? The Racism Index drops by 6% for them. 

And in case you were wondering, he clarifies what role regular church attendance plays in all this. “For all white Christian groups, there is a positive relationship between holding racist attitudes and white Christian identity among both frequent (weekly or more) and infrequent (seldom or never) church attenders.” In other words, statistically very little.

And it’s hard to sit with all that. To recognize that our Church systems have perpetuated—and continue to perpetuate—white supremacy. Here at St. Mark’s we might like to point out Joseph Burnett’s condition on deeding the land that we still sit on, that the church remain “free to all with no distinctions as to class, color, race, or station.” Yet we know that the culture we live in, and the disparity among whites and people of color on all sorts of scales from imprisonment rates to net worth to education opportunities to ease of voting. We’re complicit in it all. We’re all entangled in this sin. And it’s hard to know what to do with it.

Act 3

St. Mark writes, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” When he first came on the scene, John proclaimed where the people had fallen short in their lives. He laid it out there for them in stark terms, and in such a way that they couldn’t hide from it. 

And surprisingly, as word about him spread, more and more people came to him. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” They didn’t come to see a show of the raving lunatic; they came to confess their sins.

They knew as well as we do that carrying the guilt of something they’ve done wrong is not good. That it takes a toll on your soul when you say something hurtful, or intentionally cheat, or when your implicit bias flares up and you make a stereotype about a person simply based on their skin color. It can be too much to handle on our own but we think that we’re beyond confessing these days.

Unless, of course you go online where there are places across the interwebs to post anonymous confessions. There’s no reason to dredge up what people post hoping to find a place where they can get it off their chests; it’s enough to know that they’re there. People still looking for forgiveness. 

And while our baptism is a once in a lifetime thing, we can come before God anytime we need to make amends and experience what those people back at the river Jordan did. When we’re honest about our lives, about the ways in which we do in fact sin, God offers us the free gift of grace and a clean slate. We don’t need to earn it. Because we’re beloved by God, simply for being who we are. God wants us to become more and more the people we were created to be in all our tremendous diversity. God looks on us just as God looked at all of creation and says that we are good, and then God continues to shower us with love and fresh starts when we mess up and turn to God for help. Let us choose to do that. To recognize that whenever we fall into sin, that we can repent and return to the Lord, and to work for justice and peace among all people. Those are promises we made at our own baptisms, and they can continue to guide us all the days of our lives.

Image by 705847 from Pixabay.

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