In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Well, we are halfway through our stewardship series on the four distinctives of North Decatur United Methodist Church that are built into our DNA as a church and that will mark our time together for the coming years. Over the past couple of weeks, we have talked about the importance of evangelism and hospitality and the importance of reaching out in mission to our community. Next week, a number of preschool families will be here as we talk about ministry with children.
But this week. This week is the hardest of all, because there is nothing more difficult than sharing space and life with people who aren’t exactly like you. What’s the quote: Hell is other people? And that’s too cynical, because there are great gifts in life lived together, but anybody who has ever been in any kind of relationship with another person knows how hard it is to share life, and if you think it is hard sharing life with one person, try sharing it with a hundred or more. And I will be honest, there are some churches who say, you know, this is just too much, we’ll be a seeker church and focus on converting people, but there’s not much on the other side. Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World, which is of course the mission statement of the United Methodist church, means that you’ve got to actually make disciples, actually form them. It means that we’ve got to work alongside the God who is always forming and shaping us into something that looks more and more closely like the image of God. You don’t just invite them in the doors and assume that the hard work is over.
But some churches say, oh, it is too much, that it’s way easier to just invite people in and let them find their own way.
You see why this is hard, this business of living in community. Everything about our modern selves pushes against it, because we are programmed to rely only on ourselves, to be men and women who need nothing and nobody other than our own ingenuity and hardworking spirit. The world is full of stories of people who beat the odds, who came from nothing to reach such great heights. Who needs the church?
Only, if you talk to one of those people who have come from nothing to achieve so much, they’ll tell you that the key to success is precisely that you do NOT try to do everything on your own, that you need other people, that if you spend all your time looking at your own navel, you’ll walk in circles until you get so dizzy that you fall over.
There is no self-made person. We need each other, you and I, and what is more, you never outgrow your need for relationship, for love. Just because you have figured out how to bathe and eat doesn’t mean you’ve graduated to relying only on yourself. That’s a recipe for disaster!
This is, among other reasons, why we need the church. We are hard-wired to need relationship because we were created by God, because we came from God, because we all come from the same place and so we are all family. We need each other, and because each of us has within us a piece of the image of God, the more diverse the group of people we hang around with, the fuller the picture of the face of God.
Now, this is not easy. We may be hard-wired for relationship, but we sure do resist being around people who don’t see things just the way we do. I mean, I need not remind you that the blessed government of the United States of America ground to a halt this month because people just refused to talk. These are people we elect to talk to one another, and instead, they got stuck on themselves, they hung out with people who looked like themselves and talked like themselves and believed the same things, and look where it has gotten us.
It is much easier to create in our image rather than the other way around, to assume God is on our side because all the people we hang around see things the same way. But it is also the case, as the writer Anne Lamott has said, that you can safely assume that you have created God in your image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. And yet I assume that God likes the people I like and doesn’t so much like the people I don’t!
But what a miserable existence to fool yourself into thinking that everything is as you see it! What a miserable existence to eat the one thing on the menu that is comfortable and, at least, good enough to justify the eight dollars, at the expense of trying the buffet!
This is why we do church! Because community is hard but it is life-giving. It is vitally important to your spiritual well-being to be around people who disagree with you! And this is why Christian education is so important to who we are as the people of Christ. If you aren’t in Sunday school class, find a class! You are risking spiritual narcolepsy if you are not intentional about marrying your heart-faith with your head-faith, for the heart can only go on so long without a little help from the head! There is a reason, after all, that we have classes rather than independent study. Reading a book is one thing, but scripture was written to be read in community, theology and the life of faith are made to be lived in community, together, because the fuller the experience of God, the more nuanced the experience, the more likely it will be that when you experience a crisis in your faith—and nobody is immune from crisis—when you experience a crisis in your faith, you will have the grounding to weather the storm.
Christian education—studying theology and the Bible—is not about learning facts. It is about building a connection between your head and your heart, about digging such deep channels between your faith and learning that when you experience crisis, the rivers of woe will not overflow the banks! If we are to live into God’s future, we’ve got to get back to the place where we are engaging religious learning, where we are having tough and life-giving discussions in Sunday school and other gatherings about matters of faith, where we are intentional about picking deep, meaty curriculum rather than just pulling books out of the resource room because they are there! We have a rich heritage as United Methodists, as North Decatur United Methodists! Let’s get back to that deep-seated faith that passes on cotton-candy theology that may satisfy your sweet tooth but which offers you nothing but empty calories and an empty stomach.
And let me add this. If you are in a Sunday school class, what would you do if somebody showed up at your door on Sunday morning and wanted to join your class? How easy would it be for them to do so? There’s a tension in community between supporting those many of us have known for a long time and welcoming the stranger. But for as important as community is, when it ceases to invite in new people, I mean really invite them in, rather than just giving lip service, it ceases to be community and becomes a clique. There’s no room for that in the church, and if we’re going to get back to that rich faith, we’ve got to always err towards welcome, always be flexible enough to invite in new people to facilitate and experience new experiences of the risen Lord.
Let’s get back to that robust faith, that well-seasoned faith, those experiences that you and I have had of the risen Jesus Christ, the one who found us dead, nothing but dust, and breathed into us the breath of life! Let us share it with the fervor of John the Baptist, who the writer of the Gospel of John says came to testify to the light so that all . . . may . . . believe . . . through that light!
Now, sometimes, I will admit, the light can seem a little dim. Sometimes our disagreements keep us from properly reflecting the light of Christ, and maybe that happens more than we would like to admit. The church isn’t immune from this sort of thing, and in fact, the church is especially susceptible to disagreement, and to be honest, it ought to be. We’re dealing with important stuff here, and if it is what we say it is, we’re dealing with the most important stuff in the whole world. Disagreement is normal. And that is all well and good UNTIL our disagreements keep us from reflecting the light we see in one another. Living together isn’t about all believing the same thing. It is about living in such a way that others lights are reflected in your own eyes, whether you agree about the color of the carpet or the salary package for the pastor. And if I know anything about the light of Christ, it is that whether or not we agree on this or that, my light needs yours, we need everybody’s together if we’re going to go light the world, for the more light we take in, the more light we reflect. And yet sometimes, we let disagreement get in the way of shining that light.
Sometimes, it is our own stubbornness that keeps us from reflecting the light we happen upon in the life of faith. Oh, you know, we’ve never done it this way, and we’ve got to keep this program because we’ve done it forever, and that sure doesn’t seem like church, why would the church get involved in that sort of thing? But it is funny, as I read the Bible, *especially* the times in which Jesus talks about the church, I don’t see anything about a building, or about what is and isn’t church. That’s not the Bible talking—that’s my own stubbornness talking, my own unwillingness to see the things that God is up to in a . . . new . . . light.
And sometimes, sometimes I get in my own way. In the interest of being faithful on my own, of stepping out in faith as I understand it, in feeling as if I know the right answer and could get everything done if people would just get out of the way, I find myself somehow, mystically, standing between myself and the light, blocking it and leaving a shadow perfectly aligned with the contours of my own body.
There are plenty of reasons for the light of Christ to seem dim, but when I read the Gospel of John, I hear these immortal words ringing in my ears: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That light, of course, is Christ, and when we get past our petty disagreements and our entrenched stubbornness and our stuck-ness on ourselves, the light of Christ is not bound by history, by the thirty-three years that Jesus walked the earth, and instead, that which began at the beginning with the creation of Heaven and earth continues even now, shining in my eyes and in yours, and you can barely open the back doors without bathing Church Street and what is left of Suburban Plaza in pools of light.
In fact, you know, I don’t know if you were aware of this, but at the end of every worship service, when the acolytes come and extinguish the candles and walk down the aisle, that’s exactly what they are doing. They are symbolically taking the light of Christ out into the world, they are bathing the outside world in light. And, of course, when we walk down the aisle to exit worship, we’re following, we’re walking out behind that light to share it with the world, not as a hundred-some-odd separate vessels, but as kindling! You can’t light a fire with a stick. But get a bunch of them together, and you’re off to the races.
And so here in a few minutes, when we follow the light of Christ out the door and into the world, let’s live up to that which is expected of us. Let’s live not as people who say we’ve so got it together that we don’t need anybody else, but as people who say we’ve so got it together that we know better than to try to face life alone, for the more light you take in, the more you reflect. Thanks be to God. Amen.