This is my sermon from last Sunday. Fr. Jeff described it as very "confessional" which is not the same as "penitential," mind you. ;)
Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
4 Lent, B
22 March 2009
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
I speak to you in the name of God, our Father and Mother; In the name of God the Son our Redeemer; in the name of God the Holy Spirit, our comforter.
The exercise of both preaching and writing this sermon is an incarnation of what Lent is all about – being disoriented and living with that. Over spring break I looked at my prayer book’s lectionary table and saw that I would be preaching on John’s version of the loaves and the fishes; between the prayer book lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary the Gospel is the same – most of the time. This week is one of the times that it does not, and all my extremely applicable Sara Miles quotations from Take This Bread: talk about the Cross to talk about feeding people, Derek Webb that people in adult formation heard last week, the sermon that I was putting together two weeks ago – not applicable. I’ve still managed to get a shameless plug in for the final session of Sara Miles’s Take This Bread in adult formation, but I am still left with a text that I hadn’t planned on preaching.
And moreover, despite how this might be received, this is a text that I didn’t like…or as a friend more aptly pointed out, I don’t like how this text has been used. When Fr. Jeff told me last week that I was preaching on this my brain did two things: deflated my energy about John’s loaves and fishes, and immediately flashed to the image of a car in my parking lot on campus. On the back bumper sticker it says very clearly, “I believe” with “John 3:16” in large letters followed by an exclamation point. I got the text that I grew hearing touted as the be all, end all of the Christian faith without any context of it in John’s narrative, the conversation in which it is spoken, or what the Greek used in this text means. As I struggled with this text and my disorientation about speaking today, the Holy Spirit, through the Human Right’s Campaign’s “Out in Scripture” weekly commentary and the preaching resource Synthesis, moved and breathed into my brain some ideas that redeemed the text for me and that I hope will engage you to thinking about this text in its entirety, rather than the verse.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, who has come to him under the cover of night, which is important for this selection of John’s Gospel as well as the entirety of it. John focuses a lot on contrasts and things having or being of dual natures. Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the night, but leaves in the light of the new day. Just before our selection for today, Jesus is talking about his ascending and descending, and later in our passage, he talks about salvation and condemnation…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Part of Jesus’s answer to Nicodemus’s question about seeing the Kingdom of God is Jesus referencing a story with which Nicodemus would’ve been familiar…and we heard as our Old Testament lesson today: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, it is necessary for the Son of man to be lifted up. This reference to Jesus’s being lifted up two weeks before Passion Sunday is no coincidence – Jesus is not talking about everyone praising him. He is talking about his being raised up – onto a cross.
And then, the verse. God loves all the world – the entire cosmos, and all means all – so much that God gives God’s son so that those who believe will not be condemned, but will live forever. While my sincere-hearted friend’s bumper sticker stops there, Jesus does not. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The action in both these verses, at least the salvific action, is not done by us, but rather by God. God is sending God’s son out of God’s love, rather than our worth or what we do, or how well we please God.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees of then and now that Jesus’s purpose wasn’t condemning the world, but saving it. Furthermore, he tells a Pharisee that we are all affected by sin, and that those who look to Jesus for salvation – just as those who looked for the serpent on the pole – will find it. What Jesus does not do, however is make a list of sins the way Pharisees did and do or exclude people from being able to find their salvation in him because they are “sinning.” Jesus tells Nicodemus and us that those who believe in him – whoever they are – are not condemned. The Greek word here, from the verb πιστευω, as you have probably often heard from this pulpit, is not merely an intellectual assent, “I believe…” but rather an intellectual assent and doing something as a result…which Jesus talks about in the rest of his answer to Nicodemus: coming to the light.
“Those who believe” – those who give an intellectual assent and demonstrate behavior that reflects that assent – “in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God…All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.”
While not making a list of sins, Jesus tells us about what HRC’s commentators call “symptoms of the sin’s venom” – living in the dark, and hiding who we are and our deeds. Reading about living in the light and being honest about who we are I thought about a Derek Webb piece. which is thing is applicable both to this text and to our season of penitence. Before his album She Must and Shall Go Free was released, Webb toured in homes of supporters, with no more than fifty people per “venue.” Before some of the songs he sometimes offered some background, inspiration, or thoughts on the song he was about to perform. Before his song “I Repent” Webb has the following to say
I think that we often believe, if we’re really honest with ourselves, that the Christian life is about how well we can learn to hide our sin. I mean, honestly, I think a lot of us, and I do this all the time, we think that we are able to measure the growth of our spirituality by how little we are sinning. Or maybe at least how little we can convince everyone, ourselves included, that we are sinning. But the Christian life is not about hiding! It’s not about living in fear! Gosh that’s what we all do, though, is it not? I mean, we just live in fear all the time that we’ll be found out…I’m telling you, the best thing that could happen to any one of you in this room, the best thing, is that your sin would literally be exposed on the five o’clock news. Your deepest, darkest, most embarrassing sin, the one you work the hardest to hide would be broadcasted on the five o’clock news; best thing that could ever happen to you, best thing that could ever happen to me.
Because I am so weary, I am so tired of hiding my sin from people. I’m deceiving people of who I really am. I’m tired of it! I just wish my sins could be exposed! I wish there were huge screens that would just show you the truth about me. All the way down to my core. In order that you would know me for who I really was. And that I could not, I, … I did not even have the option to hide from you anymore. In order that I would have nothing but Jesus to grasp on to because that’s all I’ve got anyway! Cause the truth is, your sins have been exposed as if they were on the five o’clock news. They’ve been exposed to Jesus. He knows you better than you are even willing to admit to yourself. But He’s forgiven you! Take joy in the fact not that your sins are not real but that they are real and that your Savior is real. I cannot tell you this enough times in hopes that any of us, one of us, even me might believe this. I’ll never tire of saying this to people! I’ll never tire of hearing this myself because by the time I go to sleep tonight I’m not going to believe it again. I’m going to be thinking of ways to hide my sin from people in hope they might like me, or something. But that’s not what my Christian life is all about. That’s not what sanctification is all about. That’s not what growth as a believer’s all about. It’s about coming to grips with who you really are and being willing to admit that to each other!
In order that that might happen in your community that others might come and say, “You know, I heard you talking about this sin and that was bold of you brave of you to admit that! You know what, I,… It’s kind of leading me to repentance as well, I, I… I want to tell you something… I want to invite you into where I hide in hopes that I might not hide there anymore. Make it harder for me to go back there. Because the light switch has been turned on.” Please, please begin preaching the Gospel to each other in a way that you might actually believe it, a way that you might come out of hiding and that it might change our communities. I mean, am I the only one sick of living in American, sub-culture Christianity where we encourage each other to hide, encourage each other to put on these faces? That is not what the Christian life is all about! It’s no wonder statistically our church is losing relevance by the day. It’s no wonder we’re so stagnant! We don’t believe the Gospel. It has not failed us, we have just failed to believe it.
While I don’t know that I agree that the best thing that could happen to all of us is for our sins to be dragged into the light on the news tomorrow night, I do believe that almost everything Webb says to his audiences has Truth – with a capital T – to it. Webb invites his listeners, just as Jesus invites his followers – to come out of the darkness of hiding and into the light of God’s love – with all its consequences. Jesus was honest about who he was, and it took him on the path we’re on this Lent: the path to Jerusalem and Golgotha.
As I felt started to close this sermon on Friday, I recalled a hymn not in our hymnal, but one that I sang I don’t know how many times. Upon looking at its words in a United Methodist Hymnal at the Wesley I thought that the first and last verses – probably the most frequently sung of this song in some traditions – were especially fitting to close this.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling/calling for you and for me/see on the portals he’s waiting and watching/watching for you and for me…/O for the wonderful love he has promised/promised for you and for me!/Though we have sinned, he has mercy and pardon/pardon for you and for me/Come home/ Come home/ you who are weary come home/Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling/ calling, O sinner, come home!
Jesus is calling - in the Word made flesh, in his being glorified on the cross, and in the breaking of the bread yet to come this day – come home, from darkness into light. Amen.