The sermon for week March 15, 2015
Guiding LightOne of Kate’s friends shared this story on Facebook a few months ago.
Simon grew up in New York City on Long Island with no exposure to horses. In 1976, after college, he joined a Benedictine order as a novice monk. The monastery he joined is in North Carolina, out in the countryside with lots of animals. The monastery had two horses, and one of Simon's jobs was to "feed the horses." No specifics given. So Simon fed them bologna and cheese sandwiches. One horse soldiered on, eating what he could. The other horse did not. And hated Simon. Hated him. FOREVER. Eventually, the situation was noticed and corrected, and all was well (except that the horse still hated Simon).
Simon didn't need to know how to feed horses while he grew up in NYC nor was it covered in Benedictine initiation. Simon was left in the dark.
Today’s scripture contains the famous John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” It’s held up at every sporting event in the nation. I have a hard time believing anyone who saw this on TV and looked up the verse in the Bible right then and there ever became a Christian. Many Christians love this verse. As Molly Baskette points out in the UCC Lent Devotional, “The cavalierness with which people hold up the first half of [John 3:16] at football games, Sharpied onto cardboard, gets me. It’s as if they don’t realize they’re holding a lit stick of dynamite, dynamite that explodes in the second half of the quote. ‘Because their deeds were evil.’ That is, our deeds are evil… None of us are immune from doing evil. Even the guy holding the cardboard. If we think we’re special, uniquely good, we’re mistaken.” (10)
We love to focus on the “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” YES! We’re in! We’re going to heaven and the evil darkness people are going to hell. Yet how much darkness has happened due to this circling of the wagons? It is one of the ironies and shameful tragedies of history that the church, the very institution that should remove darkness and shine light, participates in creating and perpetuating the darkness of war, tribalism, nationalism, racism, and so much more. How often have we read about financial, spiritual, physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy and covered up by their congregations and denominational hierarchies? Insider/outsider language only makes the insiders feel secure and the outsiders feel more alienated with no interest in “getting in.”
I want to take comfort in the phrase “everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” But it’s too dependent on what I think. I can profess noble principles but sadly practice the very opposite of those principles. There is a great gulf between what I believe and what I do, between what I profess and what I practice. I can talk all day long about the merits of peace while I load my gun and sharpen my sword. I can make fervent pleas for justice yet passively benefit from injustice. There is an agonizing gulf between my “should” and my “do.” To believe in Jesus, to trust, put faith in, rely on means that I try to act like him. Yet I’m often in the dark about my own actions, and so is the church.
The late poet Maya Angelou stated, when you know better you do better. When you learn of your actions and their effects, when you learn of the gulf between what you say and what you do, you are able to change. That is my belief and life’s passion. And so many have found this path in Jesus and even in the church. So many have learned they were feeding baloney sandwiches to horses and made the switch to grain and hay. I have learned this countless times, and you have heard and will hear about many of these moments in my sermons. It helps me align my beliefs with my actions, and I hope it does the same for you.
Often times we don’t know the evil we enact. We do so not because we’re evil but because we’re ignorant. And ignorant doesn’t mean stupid, it means that we simply don’t know, we haven’t been taught, we lack the experience, no one told us. Simon fed those horses baloney and cheese because of ignorance, not because he was evil. Saul was not evil when he persecuted Christians. He was a sincere believer and devoted Jew. He didn’t see the light in these so called Christians and when he did, he became Paul, the great evangelist of the church.
John 3:16 is the end of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. This visit happens at night. Night and dark is not something the Gospel of John values. Nicodemus visits at night to keep things secret, so others won’t know. It’s a half-hearted approach to Jesus. Nicodemus is baffled through the conversation is left in the dark. This echoes the beginning of John, “a light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Yet Nicodemus’s night visit is a model of someone who was willing to act on his own against the will of the authorities and seek Jesus. And at the end, not even Nicodemus gets left in the dark. After Jesus is killed, Nicodemus also brings “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (John 19:39) and helps perform the burial custom. No one gets left in the dark.
God loves the world! Jesus came not to condemn, but to save it. This means no one gets left in the dark! “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:3-5)
We often love the darkness rather than the light. We’d rather shun and avoid and talk trash about someone we’re in conflict with rather than take up the hard work of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Peter comes to Jesus and says, “How many times am I to forgive?” Peter wants a legal and statistical answer. Jesus says “until seventy times seven” in other words, forgiveness is not a matter of quantity but of quality. You cannot forgive 490 times without forgiveness becoming a part of your being and thus becoming not an occasional act but a permanent attitude. You can’t wage war when forgiveness is a permanent attitude. You can’t hate your neighbor living like that. You can’t even comprehend the idea of having an “enemy” with an attitude like that. Who would get left in the dark with that?
I’m attracted by the idea of God loving the world. That Jesus pointed to God and lived as God would have us live, leading a life of peace, speaking truth to power, reconciling the oppressed and oppressors, and talking endlessly of the power of love. I don’t know how you’ve been gifted to carry that out. I’m only just discovering it myself. Yet as I keep trying to live this way, to mold my life to the example of Jesus, I find myself “believing” more and more. I used to struggle with the doctrines and the creeds and all the junk because I could only see the darkness that came forth from those things. But as I keep trying to live into the light, I’m starting to surprise myself in how little I fight those doctrines. I still don’t take a hardline stance on them, but now I read them as encouragement to keep trying to live into the light. They spur me onto good deeds and praising the good works of others! Especially your good works, church.
I want the deeds you are doing to be clearly seen. You are feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, reconciling people to each other, lifting up the son of man as light and example through your book studies and educational programs. You are sewing gowns for babies who have died. You have partnered with Gabriel’s Gowns to seek to be light to those who are in the darkest grief. Grief I can’t even imagine, a grief that goes unsaid, a wound that will never heal and will rarely be spoken about. Yet you’re allowing that space. In the simple act, you’re being light and love to the world.
This church has helped so many change and become better people. Since 1835, we have helped people reconcile, make peace instead of war. We have blessed unions and helped marriages stay together and when we couldn’t do that, we helped the divorce be as amicable as possible. We have buried the dead, fed those in grief, and celebrated so many lives here. We serve as mentors to the next generations and have helped them improve their lives as workers, citizens, lifelong learners, and disciples of Christ.
And you have provided me a position to do this very thing. I feel like I’m an evangelist to a new generation. A new generation who isn’t evil, they just don’t know. They’re in the dark about what you do. They don’t go to church not because they want to hide in the dark but because they’ve never had to attend your church. We have a great opportunity, here Church, to reach a whole new group. And we must because there are no more Mayflowers coming across the sea.
Instead, let our lights shine. Let us step out of the darkness and fully into the light, and if we can’t do that; may we live in the grey area of the shadows taking baby steps toward the light. May we be that place where we stand, blinking, our eyes full of spots, adjusting to the light. What we will find there is not a baloney and cheese sandwich, but the living bread, the living water, and we will never hunger or thirst again. But be at peace, knowing that we are loved by the same God which flung the galaxies into infinity, which spoke and caused a billion suns to burn.
For God so loved the world, may we learn to love what God loves, namely you and me, and all of humanity. That’s no baloney.
Baskette, Molly. Re-Lent, Lent Devotional 2015. Still Speaking Writers’ Group. Page 10.