Light in the Darkness

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

but accumulates

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.

God forgives,

and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings

with honesty and humility.

God reconciles,

and calls us to repent the part we have played

in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.

God transforms,

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.

Amen.

Murder, Divorce, Adultery, and a New Ethic

This sermon was prepared for the community of Wesley United for their Sunday morning service on February 12th, 2017. The Lectionary readings for the day were Deuteronomy 30:15–20, Psalm 119:1–8
1, Corinthians 3:1–9, and Matthew 5:21–37 (Epiphany 6).

When seminarians dream of their first pulpit supply, this is not the passage they think of.  Murder.  Divorce.  Adultery.  And oath keeping.  Our gospel passage today is a difficult one.  And, it seems to be such a different tone to last week’s Gospel reading, where Jesus proclaimed that we are salt and light.

This passage is a teaching on Jewish law, covering topics that were hotly debated by different Jewish sects who were Jesus’ contemporaries.  In fact, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is the largest section we have of Jesus’ teaching on Torah and gives us the greatest insight into Jesus as a rabbi–as a Jewish teacher.

Now to understand Jesus’ teaching on Torah we must also understand the basis of Jewish law.  Our lectionary helpfully pairs a passage from Deuteronomy with this gospel passage, shedding light on the purpose, or ethos, the Law.

At this point in the story of Deuteronomy, Moses has gathered all of the Israelites at Moab: the leaders of the tribes, elders, and officials, all the men of Israel, their children, women, and the aliens who live in the camp, and the slaves.[1]  He is renewing the covenant God made with Israel and is explaining to the people what is required of them.

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess[2]

Moses calls the Israelites to embrace the Law not just as a legal document but as a way of life.  It is also a call to follow it by virtue of a deep and abiding love of God.  We hear a call to live out the Commandments, but also a call to right-living.  “By loving the Lord your God” and” walking in his ways.

The Hebrew word for Law is Torah, which means “the way”.  To follow God’s Law is to follow God’s way.

Now, returning to our Matthew passage, we hear Jesus discussing some of the Laws of Torah.  However, he moves beyond mere legal precedent and shares some pretty outlandish instructions, and they can be hard to swallow.

Jesus suggests that meditation on a sinful action is as bad as completing that action.  Let me tell you, friends, this particular teaching used to haunt me as a child.  Churches have succeeded in terrifying people, in convincing them that they are bad, sinful, people because an unkind thought, an angry response, or a primal urge has fluttered through their mind.

So. Why does Jesus seem to insist that a sinful thought is as damning as committing a sinful action?

I would suggest to you that the dramatic language of Jesus speaks to the concept we read about in the prophetic writings.  Isaiah 57 speaks of those who are humble with contrite hearts.  It is in the prophetic writings we see a movement that advances the concept of not just obedience to the Law but also a shaping of our inner self to God’s ethic.  Jesus, then, does not allow his listeners to get away with merely following the rules.

Last week we heard Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish but fulfill the Law”.  He did not come to reject the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures but to re-orient the children of God back toward the heart of God.  As he tells us later in Matthew 22:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.[3]

To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, to love your neighbor as yourself.  With this lens, we hear the words of our gospel passage as instructions to commit ourselves, to commit our lives, to the love of God and to love of God’s creation.

In the first few verses in our gospel passage, we read that he calls us not to simply pat ourselves on the back because we have not murdered, but to seek reconciliation within our community.

He calls us not to merely live lives where we honor our vows, but to think seriously about the things in our lives that prevent us from honouring those vows.  He encourages us to actively remove those barriers, or to question our motives before we enter into contract with one another.

Jesus calls us to take responsibility for our own sinfulness.  The Greek word for sin is Hamartia, meaning a “turning away of the mind”.  He calls us to take responsibility for our own desires, our greed, our anger.  Jesus doesn’t say if you lust after a woman tell her that her skirt is too short!  No, instead he calls us to take responsibility for our own lust.

The Law of Moses was always more than just rules.  It was, and is, about living a life of integrity.  Certainly, this is what Jesus calls us to; to live with our minds turned towards God’s way.

And, today is the first week of Black History month in North America and our Church.  For Black folks in our communities, this month is one of remembrance and celebration.  For those of us who are White, whose past and present realities benefitted from the centuries of subjugation of Black people, it is also a time of confession.

White society, our ancestors, my ancestors, did not live their lives with integrity when it came to their Black siblings.  We did not take responsibility for our own greed, anger, and fear.  And, now, though we don’t commit the same actions of racism that our ancestors did, our hearts are still hard.  We continue to live in a world where systemic racism is a present reality.

We must continue to question, challenge, and most importantly listen.  To listen, to reconcile, and work to reshape ourselves, and our society, from the inside out.

In the following weeks we will hear the continuation of this sermon, and the instructions Jesus gives on how to shape our lives to be an inward reflection of a God-inspired ethic.  Thereby shaping our actions to be an outward reflection of this same God.

And, I challenge, as you go about your week.  To reflect on the ways you invite God into your daily life.  How you allow God to mold your inner self in God’s ways.  Ask yourself:  Where do you feel Jesus’ words challenging you?  Who do you need to reconcile with?  Where, do you need God’s redemption and strength. For, I assure you, friends, that this God of justice and love: waits for you to draw, as God waits to draw close to you.

[1] Deut. 29:10-11 NRSV

[2] Deut. 30:16 NRSV

[3] Matt. 22:37-40

Unsplash.com | Igor Ovsyannykov

Have we lost our saltiness?

This sermon was prepared for Chapel at the United Theological College / La Seminaire Unie for February 1st, 2017 (based on the following Sunday’s lectionary, Epiphany 5). This was the Wednesday following the shooting at le Centre Culturel Islamique du Québec on January 29th, 2017, in Québec.

I had another sermon prepared, that is, until 10pm Sunday night. I had another service prepared until Zack called to me down the hall.

After I had heard about the events at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, I laid awake in bed, knowing it was my turn to lead chapel on Wednesday. And, I thought to myself, there was no way I could lead you in the songs and prayers I had planned. Then, I asked myself: If I change the songs, and the prayers, should I also change the scripture reading? Does this reading, from Matthew, speak to the tragic loss of life, perpetuated by fear, ignorance, and hatred?

And, the next morning, I turned back to the passage and asked: Where is God in this? Where was God on Sunday night, when God’s children knelt in prayer?

I thought about how today is the first day of Black History month. I thought about Christianity’s bloody history of discrimination and exploitation against Muslims and People of Colour.

I read and reread the Gospel passage, and this is what I heard…

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

And, I wonder, have we lost our taste? As a Christianized nation, a nation built on Biblical ideas, for better or worse. Have we, as a society, lost our saltiness? Have we shrouded our city on the hill? Have we hidden our light?

And I was overwhelmed by grief because the answer seemed so clearly to be yes, and the passage seemed to say that our saltiness could never be restored.

If we are the “light of the world,” and we have been called to “let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to God,” how do we undo what has been done? How do we rewrite the horrific Gospel we have been proclaiming?

But, salt doesn’t lose its taste. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. And, light leaks through the cracks.

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Last week, when we heard Jesus say: blessed are the poor, the meek, the marginalized… We imagined that he was speaking to the people in front of him: trades people, parents, widowers, orphans, slaves, and all those others who gathered on the hillside.

To these people, Matthew’s Jesus proceeds to say “you”. You, who are blessed and marginalized, are salt and light.

You are salt. You are light.

He calls these blessed people to live their lives as a testament to God’s work, a universal work of love that we see lived out in Jesus.

When the world seems to lose its taste, when it overwhelms us, we look for those “salt of the earth” people. Folks whose words and actions flicker like a light in the darkness. These people quietly and loudly proclaim the Gospel message. They act out their testimony to the Living Word, the Gospel message of Jesus.

Fred Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

People like Mohamed Belkhadir, a 29-year-old engineering student at Université Laval. Who, when hearing gunfire, returned to the mosque he had just left. Who provided First Aid to a friend who was shot. Who fled when he saw a man with a gun, thinking it was the shooter, not the police. Who said, “I understand, I respect, that they caught me. They saw me flee, they thought I was suspicious, that’s normal. For them, someone who flees is a suspect.”

Where were you God, on Sunday night? In the hands and feet of people who reached out against fear, ignorance, and hatred in acts of love.

In the following weeks we will hear the continuation of this sermon, and the instructions Jesus gives on how to shape our lives to be an inward reflection of a God-inspired ethic. Thereby shaping our actions to be an outward reflection of this same God.

This is a crash course in being salty and bright; in being a “salt of the earth” kind of people.

And, we will hear more about how being salt and light is a call to live a revolutionary life, a radical life of justice and of love–a call to demonstrate the Gospel message.

But for now? We mourn, we respond, and we care for one another. For now? We look for the helpers and hope to find that we, too, are one.