This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United community for Sunday, March 26th, 2017, on Lent 4.
Spring, in so many ways, is the waking up of life.
And, even though it doesn’t feel like spring just yet—we’re seeing timid animals making their appearances, and hear that even the bears have started to wake up. We also feel our days getting longer, with the dark of the evening getting slowly pushed back. And the days, recently, have been filled with brilliant sunshine.
Sunlight has an incredible power over us, which may be why so much poetry and art is dedicated to it. It may be why humans have worshipped the sun for millennium—with its life-giving rays. It affects us in ways we would call physical and emotional—though we are learning more and more about how our physical and emotional selves are one and the same.
We all have some idea of light and darkness. There are sights, feelings, smells, and memories connected with these words. And, if I asked you to close your eyes and breathe in deeply, I am sure they would come to you.
The author of Ephesians gives us a dramatic image that connects with our senses: “Once you were darkness” but now you’re in the light (or other translations offer, one you were darkness and that now you are the light).
This letter, overall, is very concerned with what the author perceived to be the dual-nature of the world. In 1st century Greco-Roman thought dualism was a popular idea—that the world had two parts, first the physical world we touch and see, and then an invisible second world, which you could call the spiritual world.
When the author talks about “darkness”, he is bringing his reader back to his earlier idea that we were all born into a world of sin. He uses the term “children of wrath” in Ephesians 2:3; children born into a world of chaos and evil.
All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— (Eph. 2:3-5 NRSV)
This world of flesh, and sinful nature was the “physical” world, which feels like a very Puritan theology. And, with this worldview his urgent call for us to abandon the sinfulness of this physical world and turn our eyes toward the spiritual, where Christ reigns, makes a lot of sense. However, you and I live in a different time, with a different worldview.
Just as we do not believe that every physical illness is a result of inner wickedness, as was discussed in our Gospel passage; we recognize the complexity of our humanity. We know that our brains aren’t some abstract entity floating in space, but made up of tissue and electricity that connects with all of our being.
We know that this physical world is filled with the good gifts of its creator. And, as created beings, we know goodness can also be found in us.
Our world is not cleanly separated into visible and invisible/physical and spiritual. Just like our humanity, is a big complicated mess—a lot of wonderful gray—abundant divine mystery.
Sin, then, is also a more complicated thing for us. In our Song of Faith, a core document of the United Church, we sing that:
Made in the image of God,
we yearn for the fulfillment that is life in God.
Yet we choose to turn away from God.
We surrender ourselves to sin,
a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy.
Becoming bound and complacent
in a web of false desires and wrong choices,
we bring harm to ourselves and others.
This brokenness in human life and community
is an outcome of sin.
Sin is not only personal
to become habitual and systemic forms
of injustice, violence, and hatred.
As a church, we recognize that the “darkness” which the author of Ephesians alludes to looks like many different things. “Bondage” is unique to each of us, and yet such a universal human experience.
When you think about the darkness in your own life, the things that paralyze you or prevent you from being the person you believe God calls you to be, what comes to mind?
Darkness reminds me of standing on my gravel driveway, as a kid, with dad, staring up at the sky, searching for patterns in the stars. It’s an enjoyable memory, but also of anxiety—thinking back to the secrets I would share with my dad as we tried to pinpoint Orion’s belt.
It’s amazing what kind of secrets we’ll whisper to one another in the dark—there’s something that makes us feel safe, hidden away. It makes being vulnerable with one another, just a little bit easier.
There are different kinds of secrets. There are secrets that are private or special—treasured things we bring out to share with trusted loved ones.
Other secrets we hide away inside ourselves, building up walls of shame, anxiety, and fear. And, what a terrifying proposition it is to pull them out and show them to someone else. This is an especially paralyzing type of bondage, that can build into an overwhelming web that seems impossible to break free from.
Now, the author of Ephesians’ solution to this? So simple… “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” The author of Ephesians is calling for a radical change in our nature.
Instead of hiding, allowing themselves to be bound by fear and shame, he presents the church in Ephesus—and us today—with an invitation. An invitation to take that terrifying step into a community where we can name our struggles and anxieties.
To bear witness for one another. To participate together in dismantling destructive lies, behaviors, fears and anxieties. To relinquish the power of darkness over us.
Bon Hoeffer writes in Life Together that, “In confession occurs the breakthrough of the Cross. […] Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride…In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother – which means, before God – we experience the Cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation.”
I believe Bon Hoeffer sees humiliation as that horrid moment when the light is first shines on our weakness, our fear, our shame. That the intention is not to humiliate one another, but to come to a place where we affirm that we are not able to do this alone. That our attempts have failed. It is an expression of our upmost vulnerability.
A call to confession is a call to self-reflection, and an awakening. It is a Lenten call, a call to prepare us for Easter. But, what are we awakening to?
The author of Ephesians calls us to awaken to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, to awaken and join with the other disciples of Jesus in forging a new life for ourselves—free from the bondage of sin—free from the power of darkness—of anxiety, fear and shame.
The Good News is that we believe in grace and that there is abundant life in it.
And, our song is not done. As a church we continue to sing:
Yet evil does not—cannot—
undermine or overcome the love of God.
and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings
with honesty and humility.
and calls us to repent the part we have played
in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.
and calls us to protect the vulnerable,
to pray for deliverance from evil,
to work with God for the healing of the world,
that all might have abundant life.
We sing of grace.