Exodus 3:1-17. Matthew 16:21-end.
The bible is odd isn’t it… sometimes when we look upon the words we might ask how they got there. How many times were the stories told before committed to writing, how many generations were they passed through?
The story of Moses and the burning bush is one such occasion. We are told that Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up….” It’s all rather diplomatically spoken, “i must turn aside”.
But an newly discovered early document reveals that what Moses really said was closer to this, “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaarggh!”
The story of the burning bush is iconic. It’s a deeply instilled image, it speaks of wonder, awe and mystery right before our eyes. It speaks of something bewildering, confusing and yet deeply divine. It speaks of what the bible calls holiness, (or something other).
But what does wonder, awe, mystery mean to us in our lives?
Well today we are on day three of our Dazzle festival, a celebration of community, imagination and ideas. We hope that members of this congregation can join us at many events through the week. And that as we work with outrider anthems, local theatres, pubs and local activists that we can begin to explore something together about our lives as a community and our hopes for a future of partnership, creativity and love.
Dazzle is a festival which we have said is ‘in conversation’ with Outrider’s ‘Festival of the Dark’.
But a church dealing with darkness? Surely that’s not right is it.. aren’t we all about light? The light of the world, the light of God?
Is there a tension here? Shouldn’t we be careful ‘of the dark-side’?
Well the church here at StJ&StS is well aware of ‘Realistic Christianity’ we discuss it once a month in sermons, and try to live it every day. We recognise that risk and discovery go hand in hand. Nothing happens if without some kind of risk.
The first step of realistic Christianity is realising that life is more complex than simple black and white categories. A religion with no capacity to speak of darkness is not a religion dealing realistically with the world or its people. Darkness is all around us, it invades our lives, sobers us and tempers us. It slows us down and hinders us. It is a place known well by G-d, a place known well by Christ. Our lives are all affected by darkness of one sort or another, so why do we avoid speaking of it in church?
When we spoke with Jennifer a few month back we spoke of the need for ‘a conversation’ about the dark. For those of us familiar with being human, (most of us) we quickly realise that darkness is part of what makes us human, and there are many forms of darkness – grief, depression, trauma, but also uncertainty, unknowing and fear. We might throw the word mystery into the mix here as well.. When we think about darkness we also think about what Jung called shadows – the parts of ourselves we repress.
Let’s get back to Uncertainty, unknowing….\
One of the design themes in DaZzle is based upon the Dazzle Ships of the first and second world war. These designs were not intended to camouflage in a classic sense, instead they were intended to dis-orientate an enemy ship; is it one ship, two, is it coming forwards, backwards, moving sideways? It shifted perception, challenged the knowable.
The closer we are drawn to God the less we know; we are caught up in a wonder beyond words, a dazzling splendour, the glory of humanity, a cloud of unknowing..
Moses later in his life was to encounter God directly again, but as one he could not gaze upon, instead God was a dark cloud over Mt Sinai, a realm of wonder – but terror too. God would not, could not – be contained.
And here in this moment we read that Moses drew near to God and saw a burning bush, something impossible, something beyond reasoning. And Moses his his face because he knew one could not look upon God and live. And a name is requested, ‘who shall I say?’
אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, ehyeh ašer ehyeh, “I am, who I am” I am, I exist, I am being, I will be.
God cannot be named, wonder cannot be contained.
The ‘I am’, being…The event, not the name, The impossible, not the visible.
The ‘I am’ is the source and ground of all being, of all things; light and dark, angels and atoms, stars, planets, children, artists, politicians, cleaners, forests and homes. The ‘I am’ of being calls Moses to speak a word of liberation – a word of freedom.
So what of Dazzle?
Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of the luminous mysteries of God lost in a dazzling obscurity of silence. Denys who then inspired many contemplative and mystical traditions spoke of the Dazzling Darkness of God; in other words all we can know of God is so enthralling so captivating, yet so beyond our knowing.
To hear God reduced and contained in simple arguments about provability and non-provability, existence or non-existence, or reduced to neat simple statements about ‘if only you had more faith’, is a million miles away from this splendid awe we are speaking of….
The ‘cloud author’ says God ‘lives in the cloud between knowing and unknowing’.
Denys; “The truly divine knowing is that which is known by unknowing”
But what this darkness is calling us too is not stupidity, but wisdom. When we speak of unknowing we speak of how we cannot contain or control. It may be God, (or our ideas about God) or it may be people, and their infinite, beguiling and sometimes frustrating mystery. It’s like trying to examine a poem under a microscope – how does this collection of words affect me so deeply? Poetry and art and imagination transcend the rational.
Rachel and I – 25 years anniversary. What a mystery! I see I understand, but the mystery grows deeper; the cloud of unknowing is enticing!
What lies at the heart of this broader understanding is not about dominance but about reverent bowing before love. The unknowing of God is all about the compulsion of love.
If we seek understanding, (and we should – Anselm) then we have two choices; to allow understanding to be read as control and domination, (tell the Earth), or we allow it to be the starting point of more wonder.
So we are moving beyond only knowledge – towards wonder and devotion.
But unknowing is also not the end of the story…
In the dialogue, the God of mystery reaches out to humanity – there is a connection;
“Moses, Moses!” a personal / phenomenological encounter.
“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” A call from history.
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry” – The call of justice.
“I will be with you” a gift of encouragement.
Unknowing does not mean a faith beyond us. We encounter the mystery, the delight, the fun and action of faith in our daily lives. We live and move and have our being in God.
But what of the risk of uncertainty?
We see in the Gospel dialogue a simple description of the tension between sensible security and the risk of letting go. Peter represents here the desire, (very reasonable) to keep everything/everyone safe. Stick with what we know, lets stay safe. We might say in churches ‘Lets keep out theology secure’ don’t let doubt creep in’.
But Jesus offers a startling rebuke!
This is not his way. Typical to everything Jesus has been about he turns toward risk, unknowing uncertainty. He is determined to enter his own cloud of unknowing as he heads towards Jerusalem.
Jesus inverts our expectations – again;
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Jesus knows where he has come from, he knows the scripture, he has read of Moses and the cloud. He knows of the pain-filled laments of the prophets, the dark prayers of the broken psalms. He knows that uncertainty, darkness and doubt are part of the story, they are Israel’s history with Yahweh, their God.
He knows that to follow the divine way is not to stay in certainty, but to embrace risk. He knows that pain may well come, (and it does in silence, loss and even abandonment). But he trusts also what CS Lewis called ‘The deeper Magic’ that in the midst of loss comes the greatest surprises of all.
Life returns in the most unexpected places.
So DazZle is about this; looking again – for a time – into our lives. Art, imagination and creative – even provocative – ideas do this. They call us to think, to reflect, to wonder and maybe remind us of a love which captivates and enthrals beyond understanding and knowledge… a love which is hopeful and compassionate; a love which dreams new dreams for our children, our families, our streets and our communities.
And what are we to take from this?
When we see someone in need, when we seek to improve our community, to enrich the lives of those around us, to care, to give, to share, we are moved by the rich and wide depths of our humanity and the image of God seen within that.
We are all in thrall to this love, it confronts us, challenges, entices us in a dazzling darkness. We are called to live with risk and love and passion.
So come along this week, lets think about our world, and the people who share it. And let’s give thanks to the source of being, who goes beyond light and dark, and who holds all in a radiant wheel of broken and hope-filled love.