18 March 2012

Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent - "Bearing the Light"

            Let us pray:  God of light, you reveal all that we are, and we choose darkness.  You would love and redeem us, but we choose the false security of the lies we believe about ourselves.  Draw us to Your light.  Put us to death in our lies, and raise us up in truth, made new in the blaze of your glorious love.  Amen.
            In the Exodus reading for this morning, the people of God find themselves in a hard place.  They had been slaves in Egypt for over 400 years, but in that time they had usually been housed and fed by the Egyptians.  You can’t build pyramids with starving workers.  So while the people of God had been set free from slavery and abuse, they had also been set free from their homes and their food, and once life in the wilderness really set in, the people became afraid.  They were now trusting their security to a God they’d barely known and a leader who’d spent most of his life hiding as a shepherd because of his own checkered past.  When the food started to run low, the people started to act out of their fear and anxiety.  As my Old Testament professor Terry Fretheim put it, “Bondage with security and resources seems preferable to freedom and living from one oasis to another.”
            That’s the story for us all these many years later, isn’t it?  We, too, are in bondage.  We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  But part of our task of repentance in this season of Lent is to acknowledge not only our captivity, but our preference for captivity.  Jesus said it in John’s gospel:  “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”  So let’s not stop at captivity, insisting only that we are helpless in the face of sin and death.  We already know that.  Let’s talk instead about sin, honesty, repentance and the overwhelming love of God for this world.
            How many of you know about a situation where sin has run rampant, or where random evil struck without warning, yet the situation is never, under any circumstances, admitted out loud in the presence of others?  A child who died, yet either that child is never named out loud, or the bedroom remains as if the child will return at any moment?  A failed marriage that is never mentioned?  An addiction that everyone agrees to ignore?  Past abuse that isn’t acknowledged, but isn’t forgiven, either?  How many of you are carrying these kinds of stories in yourselves?  I am, and I know most of you probably are as well.  We are a broken people.  We are a crowd of terrified children hiding our faces against the wall, insisting that if we cannot see the evil in our lives, no one else can, either. 
            Jesus says that this will simply not do.  Honesty about who we are is essential to authentic Christian life.  Anyone who cannot admit to who they are, what has happened in their life and what they’ve done in response is not yet a full follower of Jesus Christ.  Following Jesus is not the Hokey Pokey - we are called to put our whole selves into the story, not just a foot or an arm.  That is what it’s all about. 
            This isn’t just about particular sins, either, as if confessing every misdeed will somehow put us right with God.  Jesus came to save the world, not forgive sins - our gospel reading today makes that very clear.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “cheap grace:”    He wrote:
            “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church...Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system.  It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God...Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate...When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ.  Only so could he speak of grace...We have gathered like ravens around the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ.”  [1]

            Cheap grace is easy and quick - it is the false good news of sin management rather than the true good news and costly grace of Christ.  Christ offers more to the world than simple forgiveness of sins - and yet, the world resists the great gift Christ bears in himself. 
            There’s a verse from this passage in John that most of you could have said by heart, right?  John 3.16 - the most translated verse of scripture, according to most experts.  Yet that very verse is full of good news and truth that we often miss.  First, the word “so.”  We hear it this way:  “For God loved the world SO MUCH...”  Of course, it’s true that God’s love for the world is greater than anything we could imagine, but that’s not all the verse says.  It also says, “For God loved the world IN THIS WAY...”  Giving Jesus to the world is HOW God loves the world, not just how much. 
            Speaking of the world, the word this gospel uses for “world” is kosmos.  “Kosmos” in John is the universe that is hostile to and alienated from God.  Kosmos is Ainsley running to hide against the wall rather than taking what I have to offer.  So, “God loved the hostile, alienated world in this way:  God gave Jesus...”
            Finally, “gave” isn’t the best translation, either.  The word is also used when Jesus is handed over to the authorities to be crucified.  So, “For God loved the hostile, alienated world in this way:  he handed over Jesus so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” 
            This isn’t some remote, doctrinal formula to which you are expected to give your intellectual assent.  God is actually giving you Jesus, right here and now.  Jesus said to Nicodemus in that time, and he says it to you, now:  “I will not hide from you, and I will no longer allow you to run from me.  I am God in the flesh, here in the world, come to forgive sinners and bring them into the light of God.  No matter what your past may hold, no matter what sins you may have committed, all that matters is this:  in my light all is revealed and all is made whole and alive again.  Come into the light, and be saved here and now.”
            The darkness in which we hide insists that stepping into the light of Christ means destruction.  The darkness is right.  Following Jesus means leaving behind all our pretensions of self-reliance and autonomy.  It means leaving the captivity of sin behind, but it also means opening ourselves up and revealing, publicly, that we are broken, flawed, afraid, untrusting and unwilling believers.  But leaving the darkness behind also means leaving behind all the old lies, all the burdens of pretending we’re okay when we’re not, all the weight of carrying around your own reasons for existence and worth.  When we come into the light, we step into the embrace of Christ, warmly welcomed by a God whose love is far more encompassing and fulfilling than we could ever imagine. 
            I read a blog post this morning that I’ve copied for all of you today, to take with you and read in full on your own time.  But I want to finish with the last words of the story, written so wonderfully by Carol Howard Merritt.  She tells of the time when the pastor of her childhood church confessed to having an affair - and how her mother responded:
            “I don't remember being let in. I just recall entering and seeing Margaret, our pastor's wife, sitting on a chair in her living room. She remains motionless in the dark room, in her beautiful home, staring at her lavish, white carpet, breathing deeply.
            My mother takes the basin, walks into her friend's kitchen, and fills it with warm water. She carries it to Margaret's feet, taking off Margaret's shoes, she cradles her soles as if they are the most precious things in the world. Without a word, mom puts them in the water and washes them. 
            Margaret begins to cry and it doesn't take long before the tears smear all of our faces. Mom takes Margaret's feet out and dries them on the soft towels. Throughout the entire ritual, we don't talk, but we know what's being said. I even understand the depth of it, at my young age. Margaret is about to face some of the worst public betrayal, as people began to pick apart the indiscretions of her husband.  In the midst of the painful exposure, Margaret would sort out what she was going to do about her marriage. While hearing more details than she ever wanted to, she would have to evaluate everything in her life--her friends, the lies, her reputation, her pride, her children, and her financial situation. 
            Mom wanted Margaret to know one thing in the midst of it. Margaret would be cherished, even to the end of her toes.[2]

            There are days I struggle to believe and trust in the church, because I know we can all be woefully disappointing.  We fight - we gossip - we doubt - we bicker - we believe the worst about each other without even trying to see the best.  But stories like this remind me that in the midst of all that is sinful and shameful about this church that claims to follow Jesus, sometimes we get it right.  Sometimes the darkness in which we live gets broken by a fellow follower, who can’t take away the pain but can make sure we know we aren’t in it alone.  Jesus calls us into His light and sends us to bear that light into the lives of others:  if this is all you learn as a member of this community here, I’ll consider your time here well-spent.  May your darkness be broken by the invading light of Christ.  May that light fill you with the certainty that you are a beloved Child of God.  May you bear that light into the world around you, and may you know, always, that Christ goes with you.  That's how God loves the world.  Amen.

[1] 1 A Testament to Freedom, (c) 1990, 1995 by Nelson & Kelly, eds.  Published by Harper Collins.  p. 307-309 (excerpts)
[2] “Love and Lent” © 2012 The Christian Century.  All Rights Reserved. 

No comments:

Post a Comment