Monday, January 18, 2016

Signs in the Spotlight

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate

First, I want to say congratulations to all of us on our engagement. Did you catch that? According to the Prophet Isaiah, God has asked us to be God’s bride, and we have accepted. We have entered into a covenant with God that is matrimonial and eternal.

OK, it’s fine if that metaphor seems weird to you. Metaphors are metaphors because they do break down and because they don’t work for everybody. But there are other metaphors for what it means to be a part of God’s church. One metaphor that shows up in our readings today is a wedding reception. Another is light. The common theme is celebration, because the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Come join the party!

John’s gospel is full of these metaphors, and they play out in his storytelling. John approaches the story of Jesus not as a journalist, but as a theater technician with a spotlight. He chooses seven signs, or miracles, of Jesus on which to shine his spotlight. And then John makes sure we understand that this is only a sampling. At the end of his gospel he writes: “There are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

Alternately, you could say that each gospel writer is a curator of the Jesus experience. John makes explicit his purpose in writing his gospel in the first place: “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John’s gospel is a theological mixtape, an extended dance remix mashup of Jesus’ greatest hits. Or it’s a cabaret celebrating the drama of Jesus’ life. Today the spotlight shines on the first of those seven signs, so let’s looked at each sign a little more closely.

Have you ever seen water turned into wine? Perhaps not. But have you seen a dead party come to life? Maybe not everybody here would be comfortable shouting “Praise Jesus!” just because your odd variety of friends seems to be getting along. But I think that’s kind of what the church is—odd people, people who might never cross paths otherwise, making common cause in their love of God and in service to the world. The One who turned water into wine causes the church to dance as well—whenever we choose to relax and enjoy the party!

Next in John’s gospel, Jesus heals a dying boy. Of course, most of us pray for those who are ill, and we do so together every week in church. Do we do it in the hope that they will get better? Of course. But it’s not like their getting better depends on how hard we pray. We pray because we love them, and we pray in the confidence that even people who die are held in God’s care. In this case, Jesus does heal this boy, and many other people throughout history have experienced surprising instances of healing. It’s just something God does, and it’s something to celebrate.

Third, Jesus causes a lame man to walk. It’s another physical healing, but with a different skew. This isn’t a life-threatening condition … more like life-stunting. Have you ever feared that life had passed you by, only to be surprised and excited by new opportunities and renewed abilities? Have you ever feared that there would be nobody there to help you in your time of need … and then there was? Perhaps you, too, were having trouble walking, in a sense … and then suddenly, you could.

Jesus feeds five thousand people on five loaves of bread and two fish. Have you ever feared that there wouldn’t be enough to go around … and then there was? Abundance is the assumed starting place of the Christian, because scarcity never leads to hope. God provides us with enough, if only we humans will stop our fearful hoarding and share with one another.

Sign number five: Jesus walks on water. It was one thing for God to help Moses make a way through the water that stood between his enslaved people and their freedom. But Jesus leads us right over the top of the water instead. Have you ever looked at what seemed to be a permanent barrier, only to find it was no barrier at all?

Jesus gives sight to a man born blind, and in a long, dramatic encounter, the formerly blind man comes to see the truth of Jesus far better than those who have always been sighted. Have you ever discovered perspectives and ideas and light that you never could have imagined before?

Finally, Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from death. And resurrection is happening today, all over the world, wherever people love and care for each other. That is what we in the church call God’s Kingdom, always breaking into the world, ready for us to participate in it as citizens who live in love. And wherever we find resurrection, the fear of death cannot remain.

In another part of John’s gospel, Jesus tells the people, “I am the light of the world.” But in Matthew’s gospel, he tells them, “You are the light of the world.” Both are true. Jesus brings us light through our baptism so that we can shine it into all the dark crevices of our world. You and I are part of God’s project to renew the world, to realign its values around love, mercy, forgiveness, health, abundance, and joy. God is stirring things up in you, bestowing gifts on you to use for the sake of this world renewal. These gifts are to be used abundantly—wastefully, even—without any restrictions regarding the kinds of people we extend them to. When the Holy Spirit so chooses, some people are so drawn to that light that they simply must shine as well. We are to welcome them and baptize them and involve them in God’s project as new Christians.

Other people shine God’s light in ways that are less familiar to us. They may never encounter our ways or understand them. Someone asked me last week about good people who never become Christians. I didn’t tell him I objected to his implication that Christians are typically good, and non-Christians not so much; I don’t think he really meant that, but that he was speaking out of an old habit. My answer to him was, “Honestly, I don’t worry about that. Why? Because God is good and trustworthy.” Whether other people become Christians or not has no bearing on our mandate to love them and to serve them.

And then there are people who intentionally turn away from all light, who allow fear and hate to rule them. We may be tempted to control such people or to bring them in line by force. We certainly have a duty to protect the innocent who suffer at their hands. But Christians must never attempt to use darkness for the sake of light, because obeying that urge is what has turned many people away from Christianity in the first place. Fear and hate cannot bring us any closer to love.

Shining the light of Jesus isn’t easy, and it’s not always clear to us whether we’re doing it right. And I want to pause here and say a word about our church in the news this week. You may have heard in the media that the Episcopal Church has been “suspended from the Anglican Communion,” an attention-grabbing phrase that contains very little truth. A lot of people don’t understand that the Anglican churches of the world, though they all have roots in the Church of England, have no authority over each other. The Episcopal Church is not a child that has been scolded by its parents. Our churches are more like cousins who used to be close but who lately have begun to drift apart.

Here’s what happened. It was the understanding of the other Anglican churches of the world that the Episcopal Church would make no further moves in the area of human sexuality without consulting with them first. And then we went ahead anyway: last summer we approved same-sex marriage, deciding to treat it the same way as any other marriage. Indeed, this is what we do at St. Paul’s. I have seen with my own eyes that same-sex couples stand on an equal level with opposite-sex couples in their ability to shine God’s spotlight on the world through the sacrament of marriage. Furthermore, I feel strongly that our gay brothers and sisters have had to wait far too long for the church to honor their lifelong unions as a sacrament.

In other cultures in the Anglican Communion, such a revelation isn’t possible yet, and many faithful Christians cannot comprehend that what we’re doing is true to the gospel. Some believe that we are merely capitulating to a decadent culture. I believe we have much to teach them. But it would be a grave mistake to imagine this as one-sided; churches in other parts of the world have much to teach us about the destructive power of materialism, and about the power of less individualistic, more communally responsible approaches to life. All these types of learning occur not primarily through logical proofs, but through relationship. We need to stay in communion so we can continue to learn from each other.

You may be one of those who are glad that the Episcopal Church has taken this step. Or you may be one of those who wishes we had honored our commitment to our cousin churches, though it may be generations before some of them accept such a decision. The consequences are that Episcopal Church representatives will not be permitted to vote in certain Anglican Communion committees for the next three years. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury has been asked to convene a “task force” to assist in continuing dialogue.

Many are reacting with shock or sadness at this turn of events. But it seems to me that what is happening here is the best possible outcome towards staying in communion with those who disagree with our church’s actions. The Episcopal Church is experiencing real consequences for having betrayed the trust of other Anglican churches. But this decision also outlines specific steps for people to collect themselves, pray, and learn from one another. The Anglican Communion is not broken—it is just living in the reality of long-term relationship. It’s not easy, but for those parties committed to continuing to listen to each other, it can happen. Conflict is an invitation to intimacy.

So fear not. God is renewing our churches, and God is renewing the world. It’s happening now. We can’t see the future, but we know that God is good and trustworthy and is always doing a new thing. We come to the Gospel with different experiences that lead us to different assumptions about what is required of us as Christians. But whatever we don’t yet understand will be revealed in time. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not—will not—cannot overcome it. So let’s come together like we always do to pray and receive God’s blessings in the bread and wine. And then let’s shine our own God-given spotlight on the miracles of love and truth that happen in our world every day. Amen.

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