Monday, April 20, 2015

April 19 Sermon: The Love That Lets Us Share Our Name

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

1 John 3:1-7
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
I’ve had this song stuck in my head all week and I’ve heard that the best way to get a song out of your head is to get it stuck in somebody else’s, so I want to do that from the pulpit this morning. It’s a song called “Murder in the City” and I first heard it covered by Brandi Carlile but it is originally by the Avett Brothers, and incidentally those are both bands you should know. Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers says that he wrote it because he gets paranoid when he travels, and he’s been known to leave notes with instructions in case he doesn’t make it home. I’m not quite that bad, but I get the instinct. I’m a pretty nervous traveler. Every time I travel, before I get on the airplane, I make sure my affairs are in order, that the bills are paid, that sort of thing. Stacey laughs at me because I have airplane shoes, which are comfortable, reliable shoes I know I can run in in case I need to get away from the plane quickly, as if that would make any difference from 10,000 feet in the air.
At any rate, I get the sentiment. And maybe that’s an unusual premise for a song, but it’s a sweet song, really. The final verse goes like this: “If I get murdered in the city, go read the letter in my desk. Don’t bother with all my belongings. Pay attention to the list. Make sure my sister knows I loved her. Make sure my mother knows the same. Always remember there is nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.”
I think that’s a pretty profound statement, that there’s nothing worth sharing like the love that lets us share our name. Why, it reminds me of this morning’s scripture passage, the kind of love the writer of 1 John tells us we have been given by the God who claims you as God’s own child.
I have to tell you, I find it to be one of the most striking things about the Christian religion that we are all adopted as children of God. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter where you have been, you are God’s beloved child. Black, white, rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat, prostitute, politician, screaming baby, sullen teenager, hipster, brony, sinner, saint: you are welcomed in God’s name.
I will tell you, this is not just a church growth strategy. We don’t take all people just because it makes the church grow. We welcome all people in God’s name because the Bible tells us to do this! And because being reminded that each of us is God’s beloved child is increasingly important in a world that constantly tries to divide us. I have quite a view up here as the pastor, and I can tell you that when we celebrate Holy Communion, when we participate in the Lord’s Supper--we’ll do this next week in fact—when I break the bread and raise the cup, and I say the bit about the fact that this is not the United Methodist Table, but that it is God’s table, and that if you are here, you are invited to participate, because you are God’s beloved child . . . you can hear a pin drop. It’s probably the most profound moment we experience together. It is not unusual for me to look out and see people crying. You can sort of feel the emotion in the room rise, because, my God, everybody wants to be loved, and here it is, on display, this love so powerful that it claims you as God’s own child.
The same thing happens at a baptism. I have said this before but I love that we baptize infants in our tradition. Each time it happens, it is a reminder that even before we can speak God’s name, even before we can accept God’s grace for ourselves, it is offered to us. It is given to us. We are claimed by God as part of God’s family, and it is an incredibly moving thing to watch a community of faith respond to that claiming with a claiming of their own, so that it is not just that God claims each of us as God’s child and that’s all there is to it. There are no only children in the kingdom of God! If we are all children of God, we are all connected, we are all responsible for one another. It as the hymn says, I am the church, you are the church, we are the church, together.
But it is not enough to revel in that connection to God and to one another and to leave it there. Yes, we are children of God, yes, we are members of God’s family together, but if it matters that we are God’s children—and I think we agree that it does—then surely we can agree that there are expectations of being’s God’s child. Surely we can agree that if it means something to be a part of God’s family, we ought to respond somehow to this great gift.
This is where I think 1 John is particularly helpful, where untangling the scripture that Hannah read this morning can help us understand how we ought to respond to this gift. Some of it is obvious, I guess, when you think about it. Whether or not the whole “God as parent” image is helpful to you, whether or not you were fortunate enough to have loving parents, everybody has people in their lives they’ve looked up to, who have shown them love along the way, and so the obvious thing is to mirror that love, to share it with others. Of course, it’s easier said than done, mirroring that love, for in our relationship with God we encounter a love so powerful that it will knock you on your rear and make you reprioritize everything. It’s a love so powerful that it is liable to mess you up. And so it’s not as easy as just mirroring it, because I’ll be honest. I’m just not yet at a place in my own spiritual life where I can share that kind of love without working at it, without being intentional to respond to it. And this is where 1 John is helpful, because it tells us how to respond to that love.
What it says is this: purify yourself. Purify yourself. Maybe that sounds a little unusual, purifying yourself, but it just means that we ought to move away from sin, that we ought to try to become better vessels of love. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we all probably realize we have a ways to go in this department.
After all, sin is just what happens when we do things that don’t honor that great love that comes from being claimed as God’s child. It’s what happens when we do not do God’s will, when we rebel against God’s love, when we do not love our neighbors, when we do not hear the cry of the needy. And to honor that calling as a child of God is to move past sin, to say, I am not perfect, I am not capable of saving myself, but just as we all agreed to do this morning, with God’s help, I will so order my life after the example of Christ that I can move in the direction of love. That’s not to say you’re ever going to have it all together, or that the process of working through your sin is going to be easy. But it is to say that to honor God, we can’t pretend nothing is different. We can’t live as if that love doesn’t exist.
This is why, as a pastor, I never shy away from telling people who want to join the church that there are some expectations! Everybody’s welcome here, sinner and saint alike, but if you want to be a Christian, if you want to be a member of God’s church, there are some expectations, and I think that’s fair. I think it is fair to expect that if you want to be a member of God’s church—and I hope you do!—that you do your best to honor this passage of scripture, to say, “I am God’s beloved child. I best act like it!”
I mean, this isn’t some club you’re joining. It’s the Body of Christ. We ask everybody who joins the church to be loyal to Jesus Christ through this church and uphold the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness for Jesus Christ! I think these are all fair expectations! They aren’t easy, but they seem to me to be fair responses to being claimed by love! I think it is fair to expect people to pray: to pray for yourself, for your family, for the world and for this church, that it would thrive, that it would reach out and show new heights and depths of love to the North Decatur Community. I hope you’re praying that prayer—if not, now’s a great time to start! I think it’s fair to expect people to uphold the church with their presence, to be here when they are in town because the church is stronger when you are here! I think it’s fair to expect that you’ll serve others and share your witness, that you’ll share the love of God out in the world in word and deed, for these are essential parts of what it means to respond to God’s love, essential parts of what it means to be a Christian.
And I think it’s fair to expect you to respond to your calling as a child of God by sharing the talents you have been given and the resources God has entrusted you with. So when I have this conversation with people about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to follow Jesus, I try to be really clear. To respond to God’s love is to offer all of yourself to God, and that includes your money! We certainly don’t require people to tithe, which is the Biblical standard of giving 10% of your income to the church, but we do say that we expect that you move in that direction. Start with 1% if that’s what you’re ready to give, and then next year, bump it up to 2, because responding to God’s love means growing in faith. And it’s not about paying some sort of dues, or a pay-to-play kind of thing. It’s about being generous. It’s about having the kind of generosity that allows the church to do what it is supposed to do, which is reach out in love to brand new people, to share with them the good news that they beloved by God, that whether they knew it or not they are part of the family, too! That whether or not “family” is a dirty word to them, no matter their experience searching for love, there is a love even greater than what they hope for, and it is found in this place, among these people, from the God who claims each of us as children.
I know, I know these expectations are not easy. I struggle with them, too. I also know how to daydream about how I could have spent that 10% of my paycheck every time it’s drafted from my bank account. I know that following Jesus is not easy. But I also know you’re not here this morning for lack of better things to do. I am aware of the great Sunday brunch specials in Downtown Decatur. I know you don’t have to be here. But here you are. And maybe I’m way off base, but I have a sneaking suspicion you know there are expectations, that you like that there are expectations, because anything meaningful has them. Anything worth doing is worth doing on purpose. And if we are to be called children of God, if we are to wear that name, we ought to act like it.
I will end with this. A friend of mine was telling me the other day what it was like to grow up learning from his father, who was the kind of person who would give a stranger the shirt off his back but who had high expectations for his own children. And when my friend would complain about having a hungry neighbor over for dinner, or about the inconvenience of helping a stranger, his father would sit him down, sort of lower his glasses a little bit, and say, “Son, we are Johnsons. This is what we do.”

So it is with the children of God, with those of us who call ourselves Christians, who literally take our name from the person of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to recognize that the great love that claims you as God’s own child is a love worth responding to. It is to always remember there is nothing worth sharing like the love that lets us share our name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter Sermon, April 5: Room to Run

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
It was still dark when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and I will admit that there are days when I know how she feels. The writer and preacher Shannon Johnson Kershner says that Mary is someone who has experienced so much darkness that her eyes have adjusted to it, and if that is the case, my eyes have adjusted, too. I know what it is like to experience darkness. It seems like every other day, some unspeakable tragedy comes across my news feed. It is really hard to shock me these days. There is so much darkness out there that it can make a person feel stuck, like you’re out of options to battle it, boxed in with no place to go.
Maybe you can relate. I do not need to tell you that the world can be a dark place, that the circumstances of our lives can make us feel stuck, and so perhaps we should all join Mary Magdalene in this journey this morning, this search for light in the midst of darkness.
And so it is that on the first day of the week, while it is still dark, Mary Magdalene gets to the tomb of Jesus so that she may grieve, and she finds that his grave been desecrated. The thing that couldn’t possibly have been made worse was made worse. Someone had pried open the tomb, rolled away the stone, and stolen Jesus’s body. It is the sort of thing that boggles the mind, the kind of tragic horror that seems so beyond the pale that you can’t even really imagine it. Sure, they’d killed Jesus, Mary’s friend and savior, but surely, now, they’d finally leave him alone. And then this.
So she high-tails it back to where the rest of the disciples were gathered, and she tells them what has happened, that someone has taken the body of the Lord, and Simon Peter and another disciple drop everything they are doing, take off for the tomb, run as fast as they can, so focused on the goal that one of them started to outrun the other but just kept going anyways, until he reached the tomb.
The first disciple approaches the tomb and sees the linen wrappings that had been placed around Jesus’s body lying in a pile on the floor of the tomb, and he stands outside the tomb and waits for Peter to come in. And when Peter does get there, he goes inside the tomb, and Jesus is indeed gone. Peter sees the linen wrappings, but he also sees the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’s head, and it’s not in a pile. It’s neatly rolled up, as if Jesus had said to himself, I’m not going to need this anymore, so I might as well clean up after myself so that the next guy doesn’t have to deal with the mess.
And it is when they see that rolled up cloth that they know that this isn’t a grave robbery. Grave robbers wouldn’t have bothered to roll up the cloth. They’d have taken it, or let it fall on the ground under the cover of the same darkness that Mary Magdalene brought with her. And seeing this, the disciples believe. They understand that while it is true that Jesus is not there, it isn’t that his body has been stolen. It’s that it has left on its own accord. And so the disciples, John’s Gospel tells us, go back to their homes.
I have to say, that despite the detective skills of Peter and the other disciple, I am most impressed with Mary Magdalene in this story. For even though she has already come to the tomb, found it empty, and run to tell the disciples, she comes back. She turns around and comes back to the tomb, and I wonder what she was thinking. I mean, there wasn’t anything there. Just an empty cavern, a rolled back stone, some old linens. And yet something must have told her to return, to put one foot in front of the other and walk forward to the empty tomb, to stand there and then to bend over and to look inside, and this time, the tomb isn’t empty at all. There are two angels inside, in fact, dressed in white, one sitting where Jesus’s head had been, another where his foot had been, and you wonder how Mary’s life had been different if she’d stayed home, if she hadn’t ventured back out into the darkness, into the unknown, because even though the grave was empty the first time, even though she was faced with the horror of the abduction of his remains, this time was different.
I don’t know why she came back. They say insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different outcomes.
And yet this is how the mystery of the Resurrection begins, with the same thing happening twice, but the second time, the second time was different.
It is a mystery, of course, the Resurrection. I can’t tell you exactly how it happened. I can’t explain the physics of the Resurrection, just how it is that Jesus is raised from death to life, how his body is able to do the one thing that bodies aren’t able to do, which is quit being dead once they are dead. I don’t know how it happened. In fact, of all the Gospels, of all the stories of Jesus’s life, only one thing, one event happens in pitch dark. It is the Resurrection. We do not know the particulars of how it happened. The Resurrection, this central moment in history, the thing that changes everything forever and ever amen happens between God and Jesus, happens in the dark with nobody else around.
That’s not to say it didn’t happen. It’s not to say I don’t believe it happened. I do. I believe it more deeply than I believe the things I can prove. I’m just saying it takes faith.
Now, I want to acknowledge that faith isn’t always a popular word, and I get that. When hateful groups use the banner of the church to promote racist, homophobic agendas, I understand how faith can have a bad name. When people of faith are resistant to science, the ongoing exploration of the beauty and intricacy of creation, I understand how faith can have a bad name. When the church focuses so much on its own preservation that it misses people starving to death just outside its doors and around the world, when it forgets that the crucifixion teaches us that self-preservation is less important than God’s mission, I understand how faith can have a bad name.
It’s enough to make you feel stuck, like there’s no room to have faith in our modern world.
And yet even in the midst of all of this darkness, faith is what we’re called to have: not a hateful faith, not an anti-intellectual faith, not a self-serving faith, but a faith that acknowledges that there is a love beyond explanation, there is hope beyond tomorrow, there is life beyond death.
And on this day when we read the Easter story once again, when we gather to hear the story of the empty tomb and the risen savior, I am giving thanks for Mary Magdalene, whose eyes had already adjusted to the dark and yet who kept looking for light anyway. That’s faith, you know. Here’s a woman who saw Jesus die, went to the tomb and saw that it had been robbed, and went back anyway. That’s faith. And thank God for it, thank God for the faith of this woman we know very little about, for it wasn’t until her second trip to the tomb that things changed. The two angels. I don’t know what compelled her to go back. She’d seen with her own two eyes the first time. And yet she looked again anyway.
Isn’t this the message of the Resurrection? To experience pain but to look again anyway, because when you are willing to look forward, even in the face of tragedy and death, there is hope on the horizon?
I mean, here’s Mary, returning to the tomb, the scene of the crime, and this time, there are two angels, and they ask her why she is weeping, as if that were unusual behavior at a graveside, and then she turns around and sees the gardener and he asks the same thing, and she says, just tell me where he is. Just tell me—I will go get him. I will break the customs and laws that are supposed to prevent me from touching a dead body and I will go get him. Just tell me where.
Now, we don’t know why Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize that it was Jesus all along. The Gospel of John doesn’t go into specifics as to whether Jesus somehow changed his appearance or if Mary, so distraught at Jesus’s execution and the supposed robbery of his grave, couldn’t bring herself to believe that the Lord was standing in front of her. I get that. She’s watched him be killed. That’s not the kind of thing you usually come back from. Whatever the reason, honestly, I don’t think it matters, because when Jesus hears Mary offer to break her own religious customs for his sake, he simply says her name. Mary.  And she knows. She realizes this is not a gardener but the savior of the world, and despite everything she’s seen happen, despite the trial and the crucifixion, the death and the burial, none of it is strong enough to stand in the way of God’s love.
And, you know, then Mary does the strangest thing. I am not quite sure how to say this, but it is as if she is running in two directions at once. It is as though even though she runs back to tell the other disciples, she’s actually running forward towards hope. Even though she’s returning, she’s running forward into uncharted territory, because she carries with her a message unlike any before, the message of the Resurrection. And the message is this: no matter how stuck you are, no matter the circumstance, no matter your station in life, there is room to run forward. There is nothing so strong, no force in life too strong for God. Fear and greed, bitterness and squalor, pain and loss. None of these things are more powerful than the love of God. Not even death.
This is the message of the Resurrection. Not just that Heaven is for real, though it is. Not just that God will save us, though God does save us, every moment of every day. The message is that there is always room to run forward. The strongest force in the world, death, is no longer the strongest force. It has been defeated by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, by the God of love, and because of that defeat, there is always room to run forward. The barriers that used to stand in our way are no longer there. Not even death.
And maybe this is overplayed, and it’s Easter, so you’re already well aware of this, but can you imagine what this means? This defeat of death? It gives us license to stand up to the agents of fear who threaten us because fear no longer wins. Love does. It gives us the ability to go out into the world and proclaim the good news that God loves us, that God loves all of us, that the things that keep us down are no match for God. And at the end of our earthly lives, the Resurrection reminds us that there is room to run forward still, for death is not the final word. There is room for life, even beyond death. There is room to run forward.
This is the message of the Resurrection: that there is life beyond fear, that even in the darkness of the world, even in the darkest moments of our own lives, there is room, for just on the other side of the veil is God’s eternal goodness.
This kind of gift, this kind of grace reorients our lives, because preserving, maintaining is no longer the most important thing. There is a new most important thing, running forward in the name of Christ, because the old things can’t hold us back anymore. Nothing you’ve ever done can hold you back. Nothing you’ve ever done can keep you from God’s love. If not even your own death can separate you from God’s love, nothing stands a chance!
If you ask me, that’s pretty substantial. It helps you understand how Mary Magdalene would run in two directions at once. It helps you understand how people, for two millennia, have dedicated their lives to it.
Why, I have it on good authority that it’s enough to make a person stand in front of the church, in front of God and everybody, to declare his allegiance to God and to accept the waters of baptism. It may even be enough to make the people of God go out into the world to declare that death is no longer in charge, that fear is no longer in charge, that love is in charge, and then in what would have to be the most revolutionary thing of all, to act like we really believe it. And that would shake up everything, everything. Can you imagine? Can you imagine what that would be like?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Palm Sunday Sermon, March 29: The Unexpected God

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
You’d think that the longer I’m a Christian, the less surprised I would be by Jesus, but it just keeps happening. You know, you come to faith and you start reading the Bible and you expect a clear picture of who Jesus is, all majestic, riding a stunning white horse with hair flowing behind him or whatever, but that’s not what you get. What you get is Jesus on a donkey. What you get is a Jesus who runs away from home, who gets angry, who says things that don’t match our preconceived notions of who he is. What we get is a God who shows up in the most unexpected places.
And so I got to thinking this week about the unexpected ways I’ve seen God at work, the unexpected people God uses to accomplish God’s purposes. I was just reading an article about the young actor who plays Brick Heck on the show, “The Middle.” Have you seen this show? Brick is a weird character—he reads incessantly, is scared of bridges, and generally just incredibly awkward. And the interview with the actor was about his faith, about how he is a churchgoing Christian in Hollywood, and I have to tell you, with apologies to the youth among us, I didn’t expect to find myself moved by an interview with a kid who has made a name playing a quirky character, but here he is, witnessing to his faith, an unexpected blessing from an unexpected person.
Or I think about someone like Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador, the champion of the poor, who was assassinated 35 years ago this week. You might expect an archbishop to be used by God, but Romero started his career standing against those in the church who said that Christians ought to work for the well-being of the poor, saying there were other more important issues for the faithful to deal with. It wasn’t until a friend who had worked with the poor was, himself, assassinated that Romero said, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I, too, must walk the same path.” And he did, spending his final years advocating for those closest to God’s heart, in the face of intimidation from the ruling junta. And it wasn’t twenty-four hours after he preached a sermon encouraging soldiers to stop violating the basic human rights of El Salvador’s poor that he was murdered, right in the middle of church, as he stood behind the altar. And his death galvanized the whole country. Oscar Romero started his career opposing reforms that would help El Salvador’s poor, and yet God used him anyway.
Of course, these might be unexpected people in some ways, unexpected vessels for the work of God, but even then, I’m not a celebrity. I’m not even an Archbishop. I’m just a guy with a car note and a job and a family to support. I hear these stories, see these great things people do, and I’m liable to just sort of crumple, to say, why bother. What could God possibly do with me?
Have you wondered that? Have you wondered what God could possibly do with you, with your limitations, with your baggage, with your pain? I think it is a pretty common question for those of us who live in the real world, who come up against real problems that make us feel real small.
And it’s why I love the story that Hannah read this morning. Yes, the triumphal entry is nice, yes, the parade is nice, and the laying of cloaks and all the rest. But you know what has my attention? The donkey. The donkey! It’s what Jesus rides when he is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s on his way there with his disciples and he tells two of them to go to the village ahead of them where they will find a donkey who has never been ridden, tied up just inside the city. And this is what they do.
Now, what really kills me about this story is that Jesus tells them that if anyone asks why they are stealing a donkey that doesn’t belong to them, they are to say, “the Lord needs it,” as if the excuse of “God told me to do it” has ever worked in the history of the world.
Yet, this time, it works. They go to this unlikely city and find this unlikely donkey and offer this unlikely excuse, and it works. The bystanders allow them to take the donkey.
They bring it to Jesus, and they throw their cloaks on it to make it at least a little more comfortable, and so it was that the savior of the world climbed on a donkey and rode it into Jerusalem as throng of people threw their coats on the ground and waved branches and shouted ““Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Now, it wasn’t totally out of the ordinary for somebody to ride a donkey in a parade. It wasn’t common, but it was a symbol. When a king wanted to enter a new place in the name of war, he’d ride a horse. But if he wanted to send the signal that he came in the name of peace, he’d ride a donkey. The symbol in and of itself wasn’t too strange. But what was strange was that by every discernable measure, what the people needed wasn’t peace, but war. We read the Bible in the context of our contemporary democracy, but that wasn’t what Jesus and his contemporaries experienced, of course. We forget that the story of Jesus takes place in occupied territory, with oppressed people in horrible conditions. The Romans were dominating the local Jewish people, and so what makes the donkey thing so weird is the idea that peace could solve the problem, as if one guy on a donkey could save the world.
Why, it’s so crazy that it just might work.
That’s not to say that the business of saving the world is all peaches and cream. This was not a parade that would end in triumph. The people were fickle. They may have shouted Hosanna on Sunday, but by Friday, they were shouting “Crucify him. Crucify him.”
Perhaps it is the most unexpected part of this whole story that what we are dealing with is a parade leading to a crucifixion. Sunday’s palms lead to Friday’s thorns.
It’s like Romeo and Juliet in a way. You know, the whole story points to a happy ending, not that it’s easy, but it points in the direction that everything’s going to work out, and Juliet drinks a potion to fake her own death so that they can be together, but Romeo thinks she’s died and so he drinks poison, and when she wakes up from her slumber to see that he has died, she stabs herself with a dagger. Here you think, oh, a love story, how wonderful, and this is what you get.
Or you may remember the news story a few months back of a family who were on their way to Disney World, driving all the way from Texas, when the teenage son fell asleep at the wheel and, all of a sudden, a celebration turns into tragedy. It’s the last thing you expect, and yet there it is.
I don’t mean to suggest that the story of Jesus is all tragedy. We know how it ends, and it has a happy ending, a powerful ending, but I just can’t get past the fact that an integral part of the story of God is that he dies, that he is executed like a common criminal. It seems so normal to those of us for whom this is not our first Palm Sunday, who have heard this story again and again. But in our familiarity with this story, we have to remember, there is perhaps no twist ending, no surprise in all of literature as profound as this one, that as Jesus was waved into the city as a hero, as a king, he was really on the road to his death. Here we have the son of Man, the one we hope to be the savior of the world, and he doesn’t even save himself.
It is the last thing you would expect, that the almighty God would know what it is like to walk towards his own execution, to suffer, to die, but then, this is the kind of thing God does. God suffers and dies so that we might know that when we suffer, even when we die, God is with us. It shows us the depths of God’s love. It is unexpected, but it is so needed.
This is how God works. Not just the crucifixion, not just on Good Friday and Easter, but all the time. God shows up in the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected people: the kind of people we might write off as obnoxious, or strange, or not worth our time. I remember about a year ago we had a guy come in off the street clearly dealing with some sort of psychosis, and in those situations you don’t really know what you’re dealing with so you want to be careful, so I shut the door to the church office and sat with him in the welcome center, and he didn’t need food, he didn’t want financial assistance, he just wanted to play the piano for a little while. I was busy so I felt completely inconvenienced by this, but I figured it couldn’t hurt much, so I went and got my computer out of my office and sat down within earshot so that I could try and get some work done while he sat in the fellowship hall and played the piano.
And it’s not like he was Mozart or anything. Clearly, if he’d had lessons, they’d been twenty years prior. Some of what he played didn’t make any sense. But I want you to know that I sat out there for a full hour listening to him, and it was strangely beautiful. It fed me on a day I didn’t even realize I was hungry. This is how God works. Not just the crucifixion, not just on Good Friday and Easter, but all the time.
I’ll tell you one of the most profound examples I’ve seen of this kind of recently. I’ve been following the Kelly Gissendaner case pretty closely. She’s the woman who was scheduled to be executed late last month down in Jackson, Georgia for encouraging her boyfriend to kill her husband, nearly twenty years ago. Never mind that the guy she paid, who actually committed the murder, was given life in prison instead of being put on death row. You should know that while I know we don’t all agree about this, I feel very strongly, and this is a position rooted deeply in my faith, that the death penalty ought to be abolished in all instances, but even then, this case is different. Kelly Gissendaner had been through a program through my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology, that offered certificates in advanced theological studies to inmates. It’s pretty much a seminary-level deal, and through those studies, Kelly Gissendaner got to a place where she decided to reorient her life around the teachings of Jesus, she asked for forgiveness, and she became a source of strength for other inmates, who started calling her Mama Kelly because of the way she cared for them. None of this undoes the evil act of conspiring in her husband’s murder, but it does, in my mind, matter. If we are talking about the God who shows up in unexpected places and unexpected people, I don’t know of many more unexpected people than inmates on death row waiting to die.
Now, you may remember that there was a lot of activity around this case. I know a lot of people who knew her personally, so I heard a lot about it, and, in fact, our pastoral residents here at the church were involved in some of the demonstrations and vigils that took place in those days. We prayed that the payroll board would grant her clemency, which they did not. We prayed that the Governor would ask the board to reconsider, which he did not. I don’t usually find myself wrapped up in these kinds of cases, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind, this unexpected vessel of God in the most unexpected of places. I joined many others in praying for a miracle, for any miracle, and as the hour of her scheduled execution passed, as I was ready to give up praying, the strangest thing happened. Word started to trickle out that she was still alive, that she hadn’t yet been executed. Come to find out that as she and her legal team waited to hear if the Supreme Court would step in, the pharmacist had discovered a problem with the pentobarbital solution they were going to inject her with.
You can’t buy this stuff off the shelf, as all the drug companies in the United States have stopped making it, because they have no interest in being involved in killing people. So states have to hire specialty pharmacies to mix it up, and on this day, in this case, the pentobarbital appeared cloudy. They couldn’t use it. They’d have to postpone the execution, indefinitely.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened that night, the cloudy lethal injection, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, as we wave palm branches at what is functionally a parade that will lead to an execution. It doesn’t always happen like this, so when it does, you sit up and take notice. One of my seminary classmates who was at the vigil outside of the prison that night said, I think pretty profoundly, “We know that one of the images in the Bible for the Holy Spirit is a cloud. It was as though the Holy Spirit showed up as a cloud in that drug.”

Talk about God showing up in unexpected places! In this season that moves so quickly from celebration to execution that it can make your head spin, this is important to remember. God can show up in what seems like the most unexpected, the most hopeless of circumstances. In fact, as we prepare for Easter, I can’t think of a more important message than that, because while it is true that we are marching towards the horrible events of Good Friday, it is likewise true that the journey does not end there, for in the kingdom of God, we find majesty in a donkey, salvation in an execution, life in a tomb. Perhaps this is cause for celebration, after all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 23, 2015

March 22 Sermon

Psalm 51
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
As a professional religious person, I have the opportunity to be in conversation with all kinds of people, and I'm not just talking church people. I didn't really grow up in church so this dynamic is a pretty new one for me, but it is amazing what people who have never darkened the door of a church will share with a member of the clergy. And I will tell you, it is a high honor to be the steward of those stories. But it's still a little weird.
In fact, I’ve shared with some of you that my wife Stacey and I have a game we play at cocktail parties when we want to find a way to exit a particularly dull conversation. We'll ask the person we're talking to what they do for a living, and they'll tell us and then inevitably ask us we do for a living. When I tell them I am a United Methodist pastor, they'll do one of two things. Either they will start sharing things that nobody ought to share with a stranger in a public place, because they feel so bad about things they’ve done, or they’ll let out this sort of guttural groan and walk away slowly, as if they feel like they’re about to be judged and they just can’t handle it.
And so it is that I have come to discover something pretty profound about modern people. I think it's profound anyway. And it has to do with sin. Sin, of course, is a theological concept, which makes it complicated, but in a few words, it is the stuff that separates us from God. To be human is to have sin. Sin is what happens when we don't do the loving thing, when we break God's law, when we turn against God and God’s people.
What I have discovered about sin is this. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of people, and I can just about pick them out based on their response to learning I’m a pastor at a party. There are people who are so overwhelmed with their sin that they don't know what to do, who realize that they are sinful and get so stuck on that fact that they spend their lives being miserable, feeling like they are never good enough, like they are fundamentally flawed, sort of Eeyore sometimes. That's the first kind of person.
The second kind of person says, maybe I sin, but it doesn't really matter. It's really not that bad. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not like I’m committing genocide or anything, and God’s going to forgive me so why worry? In fact, I'm pretty great. I'm smart, I'm good at what I do, and I'm right about more things than I’m wrong about. If I do sin, it's just little piddly stuff, because I'm too great a person to sin very much. It’s the kind of Homer Simpson character who says, eh, I’ll just confess on my deathbed and everything will work out all right.
Those are the two kinds of people. People who get bogged down in sin and people who ignore it. They may be caricatures, but there's truth there. And what's fascinating about this is that it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between these kinds of people, because they act out in similar ways. I should say, we act out in similar ways, because we all have sin. Those of us who get bogged down in sin act out in unhealthy ways because there’s no hope in that kind of focus. There’s no positive anything. We get stuck. And when you’re stuck, you wallow, and you don’t end up doing the loving thing. You can get focused on yourself instead of focusing on all of God’s children, which is, of course, where our focus ought to be.
But those of us who don’t really pay attention to sin, who kind of write it off, we act out in the same ways! We start thinking we’re great, and so we focus on ourselves, and again, we forget everyone else. This is the cyclical nature of sin. Sin begets sin.
And don’t be surprised if you find yourself today somewhere between those two poles. I will tell you that there are two people sitting in your seat today. There is the person who gets bogged down in sin and brokenness, and there is the person who does not pay it any mind. It is part of the human condition that each of us vacillates between these two poles. Each of us.
This is part of what it means to be human, to have sin, to bounce around between being overwhelmed by it and ignoring it. And it’s what makes sin so complicated, so hard to pin down, because one day we’re stuck and we think we’re terrible, and the next day, we think we’re the best thing since sliced bread. Neither is true! But sin is real. And when we don’t pay it attention, when we don’t talk about what it is, how it functions and how it separates us from God, we don’t engage sin as it actually is, and as the Bible tells us about it, we can get into real trouble. We’re liable to think of ourselves as simultaneously too broken for redemption and too put together to bother to care.
And that works until it doesn’t. It works until it doesn’t. It’ll pull you in two different directions until you are split in two. I’ll tell you, this is the very position that the writer of the Psalm finds himself in. This feeling that I thought I had it figured out and yet, somehow, everything is falling apart around me. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like you’d hit rock bottom only to discover that you’ve landed on a false floor? I think we all have moments like that. And it’s miserable. It is. But for everything else, it is a reminder that we cannot do this on our own. We are not built to be self-sustaining. We are built to be held up by God and by others.
It takes being at that point, I think, to pray the kind of prayer that the writer of Psalm 51 writes. He says,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
These are not words of someone who’s feeling great about himself. In fact, this is what the Psalms are. They are some of the most human writings in the whole Bible, because they express things like hopelessness, anger at God, frustration, thanksgiving, confusion. Are these things you’ve felt? And in this psalm, the writer has reached that point, where he realizes that he can’t do it alone. He’s not capable of doing it alone, because he has sin.
And in this psalm, sin isn’t just about having God tell you not to do something and then doing it. It isn’t just about eating from that one tree that God says not to eat from. It’s not about God testing at all. It’s about being born with it, being born with the inability to do it all on your own. It’s being born with the need for God but the predilection to ignore that need. It’s not to say we’re fundamentally terrible. It’s to say we’re fundamentally in need of God’s grace, fundamentally in need of being washed in the waters of grace.
This image of being washed is so important, because you do need to respond to the reality of your sin, but not by being demoralized by it. The psalm ends this way: “restore me to the joy of your salvation, and sustain me in a willing spirit.” You don’t respond to God’s love by wallowing in your sin, by saying, oh, I’m so terrible, and moping around the house. You respond to God’s love by acknowledging your sin, asking for forgiveness, and being joyful. This isn’t the kind of false joy that we think would come if we were able to do whatever we want. I think many of us carry within us the idea that if we could just do everything we wanted, if we were in charge, we’d find joy in it. But that’s a fantasy, because it presumes that I know best, that all of my ideas are the best ideas
The joy of salvation is completely different. It’s really the opposite of being in charge, because it comes from the realization that we can’t do it on our own but that we don’t have to, because we have a God who loves us too much to let us go, who will sustain us in a willing spirit so that even though we sin, even though we don’t have it together, we can move towards repentance. We can be made more perfect in love. This forgiveness is not about no longer acknowledging sin at all. It is about taking seriously the reality of sin in our lives and working, with God’s help to move past being bound by it and move toward fuller relationship with Jesus Christ, the God who declares that we are his Children.
In fact, this is what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about when he talks about the new covenant. God has made an agreement with us, and yes, we break it again and again, despite our best intentions and sometimes, our worst. But the new covenant is stronger than our own foolishness. It is so strong, Jeremiah says, that if we will take it seriously we will grow into people who do not even have to say, “know the Lord” because it is a covenant which carries within it the power to change hearts and minds. It is a covenant that is so strong that if we will just take it seriously, we’d put all the preachers in the world out of business, including the ones who apparently need $65 million dollar airplanes, and while I guess I would have to find something else to do, I’d be ok with it, because the love that comes from that kind of devotion is powerful. This isn’t to say that this kind of love makes our sin disappear. It certainly does not. But it is to say that we have the power to grow, the power to move closer towards the heart of God, so that we may experience God’s grace in a way that isn’t simply about grace merely washing over our sin, but in a way that becomes about grace washing over our lives.
This new covenant, in our understanding, is made manifest in Jesus. It is seen in his birth, in his life and teachings, and most visibly, in his death. You have heard, I am sure, that “Jesus died for our sins,” and this is true, but it does not mean, as some have said, that somehow God demanded a sacrifice because he is angry at is and was willing to accept the blood of his own son in order to be satisfied. That’s cruel, and it isn’t who God is. The idea that Jesus died for our sins is that he fulfilled the new covenant, that he suffered as we suffer, that he died as we will die, so that he understands the things we go through, but that because of his great work and love for humanity, death was not the final word.
This, this is the new covenant: whether you are feeling like Eeyore or Homer Simpson today, sin does not rule. Death is not the final word. If you are here today wallowing in your sin, hear this important message: in the name of Jesus Christ, you, even you, are forgiven. Nothing you have ever done, nothing you could ever do, is beyond the potential for forgiveness. Nothing. For you are God’s beloved child.
And if you are here today thinking your sin doesn’t matter, hear this message: yes, you are forgiven, but it is in the name of Jesus Christ. It is not that you are forgiven because God doesn’t care. Neither does your forgiveness give you license to eat, drink, and be merry at the expense of noticing the suffering of the world. You are forgiven, in the name of Jesus Christ, because Christ has suffered and died, because Christ defeated death. Your forgiveness comes at a cost, and every time you ignore that call to try to be better, to try to sin less, to move deeper into the heart of God, every time you ignore that call, you cheapen that gift.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. You are forgiven in the name of Jesus Christ. Each of us vascillates between the two poles, but neither pole is sufficient, for the true answer is not found here, or here, but here, for we are promised in scripture that I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

This does not mean sin disappears. It just means that God loves us more than we can ever imagine. It is by this love, by this grace, that we are able to make the promise, in our baptismal vows, to remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world. Let us share this great love in appropriate ways. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 16, 2015

March 15 Sermon: "God So Loved"

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

John 3:14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
So, today’s scripture probably includes the most famous verse in any scripture of any religious tradition, of all time. If you know it, you probably know the King James version: For God so Loved the World that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believed in him shall not perish but gain eternal life. We see it on bumper stickers, we see it on jewelry, and it seems like there’s always some super excited guy in the background on College Gameday waving it around on a poster.
And it’s a great verse. It’s a verse about hope, and love, and grace. It’s a verse that, in many ways, sums up our faith. You know, if you asked me what does it mean to be a Christian, I might say that it means that we believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. And that’s good . . . but it’s not as easy as we make it. Those of us who have been hearing this verse for a long time probably feel like it’s familiar at this point, and so it’s comfortable, but it’s not as easy as it seems, because it takes away my ability to decide who is loved and who is not. It takes away my ability to decide who gets in and who doesn’t, and man, I don’t like losing that ability, because it very well might mean that I am not in charge.
So often, we make this verse about me, about my life and my faith and nothing else, as if what John really meant to say was “For God so loved Dalton that he gave his only begotten son.” We do that at the expense of everything and everybody else, and certainly at the expense of the context of the verse. That’s why I like that this morning’s Gospel lesson is about more than just this one verse. It’s a passage not just about you, not just about me, but about Jesus, about why Jesus was sent to earth, why we had the experience of a savior. And as we continue in Lent and prepare for Easter, I think it’s a useful thing to think about, just why it is that Jesus broke through the veil of humanity and shared himself with us.
And the reason is this. God so loved the world. God so loved the world. The whole world. I mean, can you imagine, worshiping a God like that? We can get behind the idea that God loves the church, or that God loves me, but this isn’t what it says. It says God loves the world. In fact, God so loves the world that God sent God’s son Jesus to earth: not just for you, but for everyone.
I mean, this may sound weird to people who have heard about this stuff their whole lives, but this is pretty scandalous. It’s pretty scandalous to think about the ways God loves the whole world. Not just you, not just me, but the orphaned kid in China. The hungry woman in Mozambique. And, I suppose, it’s ok to us that God loves these people. If you’ve been around folks who are suffering, you start to understand the power that this kind of love can offer. But what about Bernie Madoff? How do you feel about the fact that God loves Bernie Madoff? What about ISIS? The passage goes on to say that God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to save it. To be honest, most days I want to condemn the whole thing and hole myself up and ignore everything but my little bubble.
I mean, you start thinking about it, and the business about God so loving the world is pretty powerful. It’s pretty incredible. It’s pretty scandalous, because God’s grace does not work like we want it to. Notice that the Gospel of John does not say that God so loved the righteous part of the world, or the Christian part of the world, or the repentant part of the world, or the part of the world we don’t regularly bomb. It says that God so loved, God so loves the whole world.
And it’s scandalous, and it’s a lot, but there’s a word for it. That word is grace. Grace. It’s one of the biggest words I know. It’s what we’re about around here, grace. It means that God loves us even when we don’t deserve it. It means that God forgives us. The Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton says that grace is God’s own life, shared with us. Even before we can call on God’s name, God is there, offering us grace, because God so loves the world.
I think it is telling that in the Sundays of Lent we are talking about baptism here at North Decatur United Methodist Church, about the vows we take at baptism, because I can’t think of many times in which this kind of gracious, all-encompassing love is more evident than during a baptism. I had sort of a crazy week but I got to have two conversations on Wednesday about baptisms we’ll be doing in the coming month or so, and if you or your kids haven’t been baptized, I hope you’ll come talk with me about it. I have to tell you, it’s just one of my favorite things, whether it’s an adult or a child, to experience the grace that happens in baptism, to watch the congregation enfold that person in love and promise to help support and shape the faith of that person, no matter who it is, no matter what he or she has done. It’s a small window into the heart of God, because it is the case that God so loved the world. Not just me, not just us, but the whole world.
When we stand before the church to answer the historic questions that are part of our baptismal liturgy, we confess Jesus as savior and promise to serve him in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races. I mean, that pretty much covers it. I guess I should say that if you fall outside the definition of people of all ages, nations, and races, you should probably leave. Anyone? Anyone? That’s what I thought. It’s pretty conclusive. God takes all comers.
This is how we understand church. It’s how we understand grace. In fact, there’s a term for this. It’s prevenient grace. It’s one of our big things as United Methodists, even if the word prevenient is a little archaic. What it means is “coming before.” Coming before. Some people talk about that moment of decision to follow Jesus as the moment when God gives you grace, and there is grace in that moment, but one of the things we believe as Methodists is that God’s grace comes before you even know who God is. It’s why we baptize infants, because in that moment, God claims the child as one of God’s own, even though the infant isn’t ready to decide. The decision is important, but the scripture doesn’t say, “God so loved the people who decided to love him back.” It says, God so loved the world.
This is hard to explain to some people. When Emmaline was baptized, it took some explaining to my Baptist mother as to why we felt that this was an important thing to do. She was a little scandalized by the whole deal, because in that side of the family, we’re the only Methodists, and our experience and understanding of grace leads us to baptize babies. And I will tell you, there’s even this movement in some corners of the United Methodist church to privilege adult baptism over infant baptism. There are some who say, oh, it is so much more meaningful to wait to be baptized when you are an adult, and I don’t want to put down adult baptisms—we seem to have a number of them around here, and that is wonderful, because it demonstrates a commitment take all that we are and offer it to Jesus—but grace is so powerful that the meaningfulness isn’t in how you feel about it. It is in what God is doing. It is in the act of grace that takes place when the water is placed on your head or you are immersed in the waters of baptism, the moment in which God looks at you and says, this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
I guess I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but then, maybe, I do. I do want to be clear that the action in baptism is God’s action, not the pastor’s, not the person being baptized. And this mirrors the promise in scripture that God so loved the world, because there are no prerequisites to being loved, no requirements for being invited into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. All you have to do is be human.
In fact, after the verse we put up on posters, the Gospel of John goes on to say this:
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Here’s the thing. I’ve seen it again and again. We have a tendency to read passages like this and assume that when it talks about people of the light, clearly it must mean us, and when it talks about people who love darkness, well, that must be everybody else, but the division is not so clear. I carry within myself a certain glee whenever somebody who I think deserves to fall falls. There’s a reason people watch Entertainment Tonight, and it isn’t to delight in other peoples’ successes. There are times when I watch a celebrity, or a politician, or even a famous pastor who ends up being surrounded by some scandal, and I think to myself, ha! That’s what you get. But the business of belief, of being a part of the church, of being baptized into the family of God is not so that we can suddenly think of ourselves as good in a world of bad. The business of following Jesus is about bearing light in a world of darkness, and there is a fundamental difference!
If we think of ourselves as good in a world of bad, we have a tendency to separate: to say, oh, those people don’t understand God like I do, but friends, if I learn anything from John 3:16, there are no those people in the kingdom of God. There is no one outside the bounds of God’s love.
And this is why I love the metaphor of light. It’s all throughout John’s Gospel. (turn off the lights)
Can you still see? This is how light works. Just a bit illuminates a room. Just a bit.
I will end with this. When I used to work at a camp in Arkansas, we’d take the campers on a side trip to Blanchard Springs Caverns, which was a gorgeous natural cave in the Ozark Mountains. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to tour a cave, but it’s gorgeous, just amazing what a little water can do over millions of years. And it just so happens that caves are some of the only places on earth where you can experience total darkness: no stars, no streetlights, no nothing. They did this thing where they sit you down and turn off the lights and you can put your hand in front of your face and not see it. It’s so surreal that when they do it, you think at first that you can see your hand because it is so rare to experience that kind of darkness. And I probably went on that tour ten times with various groups of kids, and inevitably, some little joker would have a little flashlight in his pocket and would pull it out, and it is amazing what you can see with just the tiniest bit of light. Give your eyes a minute to adjust, and that little bit of light illuminates the whole cavernous thing, the stalactites and the stalagmites, the floor and the ceiling, the pretty parts and the ugly bits.

This is who we are called to be: people who shine light, even when it seems like it’s a fool’s errand. People who take that experience of grace and mirror it to the rest of the world, for in the final analysis, light shines on the just and the unjust alike, for God so loved the world that he sent his only son that everyone, everyone believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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