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.

Advertisements

First Week of Lent // #RethinkLent #RethinkChurch

The other day I shared with you some reflections on Lent. Though I discussed some of the ideas around the season, which are highlighted in the Book of Alternative Services prayer, we didn’t discuss many options for Lenten commitments.

Now, this morning (Ash Wednesday), around 8am, I received a text message:

What should I give up for lent?

Lent can be a tough season, as we try to navigate an annual delve into a spiritual discipline. It can be even more disconcerting as, for many of us, it may be the only time during the year we take the idea of structured and consistent practices seriously. There is also a feeling of social pressure, as we look at friends and family who are giving up their favourite things or committing themselves to, what appears to be, mountainous tasks of prayer.

“What should I give up for Lent,” almost seems to say, what is good enough to give up? What sacrifice can I make which balances my will power and time with the right level of piety? It is a perplexing question, and annually I have begun to dread the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”

The question seems to echo the words: Piety. Righteousness. Penitence.

Though the question seems to be one of casual conversation it is imbued with spiritual baggage. And I have to ask, are we to commit ourselves to an annual form of socially acceptable suffering? Is this what God has asked us to be? Hungry? How does this image of ourselves reflect onto our God?

No, this image of a God who calls his children to suffer because Christ suffered is inconsistent with the call to love and reconcile. Frankly, Jesus had some harsh things to say about the virtues we uphold for Lent, and how they can be distorted away from God. (Excepts from Matthew 6, The Voice)

Concerning Piety:

But when you do these righteous acts, do not do them in front of spectators. Don’t do them where you can be seen, let alone lauded, by others. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Concerning Fasting:

And when you fast, do not look miserable as the actors and hypocrites do when they are fasting—they walk around town putting on airs about their suffering and weakness, complaining about how hungry they are. So everyone will know they are fasting, they don’t wash or anoint themselves with oil, pink their cheeks, or wear comfortable shoesThose who show off their piety, they have already received their reward.

I am not saying fasting or prayer is a bad practice, nor do I think Jesus is. The message appears to be that all of these things should be approached with careful thought and humility. Fasting is not for everyone, nor is it an expected part of Christian faith. It is a useful process of self-sacrifice and focus and can take many forms. But Lent is not synonymous with fasting, though we may use it in that way. I.E. “I’m fasting from chocolate.” Further, fasting is not synonymous with righteousness.

Instead of giving something up, recognize what you have. It might seem silly to someone who has nothing to eat that you would give it all up simply because that is what you are expected to do. Try and choose a Lenten activity that suits your person and the relationship you have with God. If you binge on candy when you’re stressed out instead of working through your stress and putting your trust in God, then you very well might feel called to give up candy. Maybe then you should choose to reach for a favourite CD or yoga mat before you reach for the candy.

Choose to incorporate in your life activities that are uplifting and positive reflections of the Gospel message, and messenger, in your life.

I believe this is one of the reasons why there has been so much pushback and a move towards taking up something for Lent. (Read Patty Kirk’s 5 suggestions for things to take-up this Lent.) Lent is an incredible season of potential to rediscover Christ as he makes his way towards crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation–the critical moment in the Christian faith. We want to empathize with Christ’s suffering, but even more so Christ has already chosen to empathize with our own. We want to take the choice seriously, and choose to set aside time each Lent to do that.

Lent is not a time of mourning or suffering; Good Friday is a time of mourning. Lent is when we look at Christ not as a child, not as the one baptized by John, but the figure emerging out of the desert with a story that needed to be told.

#RethinkChurch is a project put on by the United Methodist Church that calls us to “live the questions” during Lent. They have a series of discussion questions that look at Christ’s message of salvation and reconciliation on a local and global scale, as well as discerning your place in the movement of the Kingdom of God closer to the here and now. If you are looking for something to take up, why not take up the discussion? Begin to ask the bigger questions and to invite God into your daily acts.

Rethink Church

The First Week of Lent // Inconvenience and Experiment

This week, on Ash Wednesday, I will begin, along with the wider church, a new season of Lent. A season, as the Book of Alternative Services puts it, of “self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.”

The Ash Wednesday service is a meaningful one, as the Celebrant calls us to reflect and begin to prepare our hearts for the Easter season. It is an invocation–an invitation to begin an annual pilgrimage towards Golgotha and the pinnacle of the Christian faith.

…every year at the time of the Christian Passover we celebrate our redemption through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Lent is a time to prepare for this celebration and to renew our life in the paschal mystery. We begin this holy season by remembering our need for repentance,
and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes, an ancient sign, speaking of the frailty and uncertainty of human life, and marking the penitence of the community as a whole.

I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God. (Ash Wednesday Service, BAS)

How might I observe a “holy Lent”? Will giving up chocolate invite me into the activities this liturgy is declaring? How will it invite me to mediate deeper on the word of God?

I ask this question not to belittle those who do give-up sweets, or similar loves, as Lent is first and foremost a process of self-examination. So, I ask again, how will giving up sweets invite Selina into self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? How can I choose both to give-up and take-on activities of prayer and reflection that: 1. I can reasonable commit to without harming myself or another, and 2. will encourage me to deeper my relationship with the Gospel message and messenger?

We cannot achieve the perfect Lent, with absolute self-sacrifice and righteousness. Lent is an experiment in discipline, spiritual formation, and introspection; it is a messy process that should be felt more as an inward pilgrimage than an obstacle course to be overcome. There is no road map and no destination. We must each discern an area, a thought, or a theme God calls us to reflect on, and allow the Spirit to guide our meditations and actions as we look deeper into ourselves.

As I begin a journey towards inconvenience and stewardship, the themes of my Lent this year, I hope to share some small reflections on my own experiment. I will be giving up plastic, to the best of my abilities, in an exercise to question the value of convenience and the call of humankind to be stewards of creation. (Later on this week or next I will share about the driving force and process I will be participating in.) As well, I will be taking up a number of small activities with my family, ones that call us to love and recognize the face of God in one another. My leading thought is around the idea of “caring”–how we care for the earth and our relationships. I hope God will have surprising outcomes and interesting thesis for me to discover during these next weeks of experimentation.

Let me leave you with a final quote, which sums all of these thoughts and feelings up far better than I might ever:

“As Lent is the time for greater love, listen to Jesus’ thirst…’Repent and believe’ Jesus tells us. What are we to repent?  Our indifference, our hardness of heart.  What are we to believe?  Jesus thirsts even now, in your heart and in the poor — He knows your weakness. He wants only your love, wants only the chance to love you.”  (Mother Teresa, of Calcutta)