Saturday, March 25, 2006

March 26 sermon. Light and the Darkness and the Dusk

Sermon Texts:
Ephesians 2: 1-10
John 3: 14-21

You’ve heard stories from people for whom the experience of salvation was so impacting that it turned their life around completely. It is usually the case that they sink to a certain depth and then ask God for redirection, and they mark that experience as the distant reminder of what they had been and now are. It is like they are one of those wind up toys which hits the wall, spins around and zooms off in the opposite direction. The wheels don’t turn, they just stay on course.
Tom Long, professor at Emory, wrote in a recent issue of Christian Century about the conversion stories that Chrisitians often tell. He described a musician who was on Larry King talking about his faith who from an early age was blessed with a vibrant faith and a musical gift. Eventually, shaking the dust off his little town, he took his faith and his keyboard and headed toward the bright lights of Nashville. He found some success, but he also found drugs—lots of them. A life once young and hopeful soon spiraled out of control: a faith once alive soured into despair. One desperate night, he came apart emotionally and found himself lying face down on the linoleum floor of his kitchen, sobbing uncontrollably, crying out to God for salvation. He told Larry King “I woke up the next day,and I haven’t been the same since. That was 28 years ago. I give credit to the Lord.” Reflecting on three decades of sobriety and productivity, he said “I think God just rescued me.”
I have to agree with Tom Long when he admits that he doesn’t have much patience for hearing pastors give this kind of testimony about themselves in the pulpit. Seems simplistic and naïve. It somehow turns the faith walk into a long jump. Growing up in a Baptist town without a story of redemption like this musician’s was trying at times. My mother and father gently suggested that perhaps salvation isn’t an event, but that perhaps it began when I was born into a community of faith and baptized among them as an infant. They would tell me that salvation is a continuing process. Perhaps it is a lifelong experience instead of a moment of clarity.
Tom Long suggests that frankly though, the real reason why such stories of sin and salvation cause us discomfort may well be that they bring us too close to the molten core of the Christian faith. We prefer to leave the control rods in the reactor, but as much as we might like to domesticate the gospel, to make the faith about spiritual enlightenment or ethical ideals or the broad love of God that inspires tolerance, the fact of the matter is that the gospel is at root a rescue story. Even Jesus’ name, as theologian William Placher reminds us, means “the Lord Saves.”
I feel somewhat convicted. The majority of what I have said to you from this pulpit is about spiritual enlightenment and ethical ideals and the broad love of God which inspires tolerance. Perhaps part of the problem is that I don’t usually see myself as ever having been “bogged down in the depths of sin.” God hasn’t helped me kick any habits. I haven’t had any radical changes of heart. Christ hasn’t miraculously caused me to love some group of people I once hated, because I’ve never really hated a particular group of people. The point of me saying all this is not for you to admire how great an example I am, it is to ask the question, perhaps for more than just myself, what do you do when your religion is about rescue, but you don’t really feel adrift at sea. Is it akin to throwing a life preserver to someone who already sits in the lifeboat? “Oh, thanks—I appreciate that. Hope I don’t need to use it!?”
John uses drastic dualisms to communicate to us the mystery and the power of salvation. Specifically, a favorite motif of John’s is the Light and the Dark. Well, if I just take John’s imagery to heart I might assume that there is a reason I don’t feel in need of rescue—there at the end of today’s passage, it says very clearly, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.” I knew I was on the right track—it feels good to be in the light. Sorry to all of you who “hate the light” and would rather creep around with your addictions and your predjudices and your shame. Come on into the light, the water’s fine!
There is a beautiful short story by Ernest Hemingway called “A clean, well lighted place.” The anecdote revolves around the difference between a clean, bright cafe and a dark, not-so-clean, bar as a place for lonely men to spend the long, sleepless nights. Two waiters discuss a lingering patron in a cafe who overstays his welcome as the night wears on. The old man gets quietly drunk each night; just last week he tried to kill himself, but was rescued.
Tonight he tries to pass the night in a clean, well-lighted place. The young waiter, impatient, to get home to his wife, does not comprehend the importance of this place to this old man's survival. The older waiter, who does understand, walks into the night himself, unable to find his own clean, well-lighted place in which to pass a lonely and sleepless night.
Perhaps the duality that Jesus uses for Nicodemus and that Hemingway uses in his own story is more an illustration of an experience of salvation rather than a sustained mode of being though. I don’t feel like I live in the gleaming light of righteousness, even though I don’t have any rescue stories. Perhaps the reality is that we live in the dusk. There is always the looming darkness, there is always a long shadow. If we are sustained in the bright noonday light, we may not be able to see our shadows lurking directly underneath us. As the day moves on, we become more aware of our shadows, the darkness that each and every one of us projects onto the world around us. Paul tells the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We may dwell in the light as church-going, open hearted, people trying to do well, but the fact is that we all cast a shadow, and the closer we get to the darkness, the more apparent that shadow becomes.
Paul tells the Ephesians, “You were dead through trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, but now by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing.” Prof. Long continues, “To see this statement as applicable to us, to swallow even one ounce of this claim, we must admit a cluster of truths about ourselves we would rather not face—that we are captive to cultural and spiritual forces over which we have no control, that they have drained the life out of us, that we are unable to think or feel or crawl our way free, and that we are in urgent need of a God who comes to rescue. IN short, we need saving. We can accommodate this perhaps, in a 12 step program, but to encounter it as a description of our true and basic selves sends us scrambling for safer ground.
This is why our spiritual father, John Wesley, prayed fervently for conviction. He could buy the idea that the world needed a savior, but wasn’t convinced that Christ saved him. It isn’t about being egotistical or humble. I don’t think it is egotistical to be honest about our perception that we stand in the light of God, we may very well have had experiences of sanctification in which we did feel bathed in God’s magnificent light. It is more about attention—some of you may be at a point of noonday light right now in your lives, some of you may be helpless in the darkness—most of us I would venture to say are living in between, in the early morning fog, waiting for the sun’s rays to burn away our confusion and doubt—hoping it is right around the corner. Some of us are probably in the waning hours of the afternoon, the late day light giving us the ability to see our long shadows stretching across our world and determined to do something to “turn back the clock” to those brighter hours when that shadow wasn’t there.
Jesus is clear to Nicodemus about one thing—the light isn’t in the world to judge it—the light falls out into the open, it illuminates everything, it is available to all who step out of the shadows. It doesn’t condemn what it reveals, it saves what it warms. In bringing to light our mistakes and transgressions, we can see them ourselves—and through this recognition, we can let go of them, we can drop them on the ground and stretch our hands and face toward the light. The judgment is that we love the darkness more than the light—we don’t want to see, we don’t want the world to see our mistakes—we want to pretend like they aren’t there.
Perhaps my own mistake about believing I don’t have any need for “rescue” is the idea that some “thing that I do” would keep me from salvation in the first place. Perhaps orienting myself in the light just because I haven’t had some crisis or secret shame that I have to relinquish IS the reason I need saving. Such works righteousness is a clear problem of the Pharisees like Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus in the darkness, seeking enlightenment.
Instead of righteousness, the light that falls all over the ground is grace—you all know people who live in the midst of that grace, soaking it up, squeezing it out into the shadows where people live in fear and shame. That is what it is to live in the light, not some degree of “morality.”
Light-lovers soak up God’s grace through every pore of their being. They have sometimes come out of the darkness of despair and trespasses, and they have sometimes come out of the dusk of self-evaluation and confession.
The promise of God is that the Grace of Light is ever-present—it is always daytime without a cloud in the sky—we may be fearful about leaving behind our comfortable darkness, our false sense of security that gives us a sense of belonging or power. We step out naked into the light—the promise of God is that we are accepted by God just like a mother accepts and nurtures and loves the child that comes out of the darkness of the womb and into the light of the world. We should have no fear, because in the light we see our true purpose and our true nature—we are children of God and we are Kingdom builders! Amen


At 3:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks... full of grace and just what I needed!


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