For the love of darkness

It is almost unfair to make John 3:16 part of a lesson that can be read on Sunday morning.  It has become such a cultural Christian trope that it is basically impossible for us to hear anything other than “For God so loved the world…”  We miss, in my opinion, the far better verse that immediately follows.  The RCL hivemind has tried to help us out, by including Jesus’ passing reference to that really odd story from Numbers 21, but honestly, what preacher in their right mind is going to the “God killed people with snakes and then saved them with an idol of a snake” story?  It seems the best option for this week might be to help people get past the snakes and forget about the man in the rainbow wig and preach the reprise of John’s light and darkness motif.


The judgment that Jesus came to save us from is this, that the light had come into the world, and people loved darkness instead of the light.  For all the good that Christianity has done in the world, for its music and art, for its (occasional) embrace of peace, for its (purported) sharing of the love of God, this statement about our love of darkness is as true today as it was when Jesus first said it.

It doesn’t take long to see what Jesus means.  A quick scroll of your Facebook newsfeed will show that Christians on both sides of the American political divide have decided to live in darkness, addicted to anger and worshiping the idol of being right.  Some are obvious: the racially motivated meme or the picture intended to poke fun at someone’s appearance.  Other instances of the darkness that we choose to love are less conspicuous.  It is the veiled dig at those who disagree with us; the passive aggressive comment about fellow children of God.

As we enter the middle week of Lent, it seems appropriate that things are as dark as they will get ahead of Good Friday.  Perhaps this week, rather than being enamored with John 3:16 or grossed out by snakes, it is probably a good opportunity to take stock of where we have decided to choose darkness rather than light, to repent of those decisions, and to ask God to help us walk in the true light of grace.

God looks us in the eye and says, “I love you.”

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read here.

There is something vitally important about being looked in the eye.  We’ve all been in those conversations where it feels like the other person can’t wait to get away from you.  While they may be talking in your general direction, their eyes are scanning the room, searching for an escape route or perhaps someone more important to talk to.  It can be disheartening to be talking to someone while they look around for anything else to do.  In my pastoral care training, they shared with us that the most overlooked people in the hallways of hospitals are the patients.  Rolling around in wheelchairs and on gurneys, their eyes are well below the eyeline of others walking the halls.  While any number of people may say hello to the person pushing a patient down the hall, very rarely does the patient actually get acknowledged.

The same is true of children.  The world seems to exist above their heads, literally and figuratively, as adults discuss things three feet higher than they are.  I was reminded of this over this past week after Lainey received a pretend ice cream and hot dog stand for Christmas.  The stand has an awning at the top, that is maybe three feet off the ground, so when I approached it to order a delicious ice cream sandwich, I found myself talking to the awning rather than the eager five-year-old who was ready to take my order.  It is only when I crouch down to her level that she and I can really enjoy the experience.  Over this past week, we must have played ice-cream-hot-dog cart a hundred times, and everybody got in on the action.  I noticed the power of making eye contact especially when my sister engaged Shopkeeper Lainey.  Lisa is a special education administrator in Philadelphia.  For more than a decade now, she has been dealing with children who are often overlooked.  As Lisa crouched down to buy another Philly soft pretzel from Lainey’s Snack Stand, I could see that this was her standard posture.  While most of us looked around for something to sit on, Lisa was perfectly comfortable crouching down to look a child in the eye, making Lainey feel special, loved, and cared for.


I can’t help but see my sister crouching down to engage a child with special needs when I read the Prologue to John’s Gospel.  The language is certainly lofty, but the story it conveys is earthy and raw.  It is the story of how the God of all Creation stooped down to look humanity in the eye and share with us that we are special, loved, and cared for.  The story begins when all that existed was God.  In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were in a perfect relationship of love with one another.  The Word was with God and the Word was God, and as God spoke, the Word went forth and created.  The Word created the sun, moon, and stars, the earth and all that walks, creeps, and crawls upon it, the ocean and all that swims therein.  Finally, from the voice of God the Word created humanity, and the Breath gave us life, and the Triune God looked upon all that Creator, Word, and Breath had made and declared it very good.

From then on, God could have stayed far away and simply watched creation like a science experiment, but God didn’t do that.  God loves creation too much to leave us to our own devices, and so, throughout history, God has intervened in the hopes of keeping us in right relationship with God and with one another.  Through Abraham, he made a covenant that God would bless the whole earth.  Through Moses, he gave the law, by which we were to live in peace with one another.  Again and again, we failed to maintain those perfect relationships.  Again and again, we fell into sin.  Again and again, we proved that we needed extra help.  Through the prophets, God called us to return, but in time, it became clear that God was speaking above our heads.  The only way God could really get our attention was by crouching down, looking humanity in the eye, and saying, beyond the shadow of a doubt, “I love you.”  And so, in the fullness of time, the Word who is the light of the world, took on flesh and lived among us.  In his translation of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson puts this powerful verse like this, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  The good news of Christmas is that God’s very self was born for us. God took on flesh to live as one of us. He entered the messiness of this world, to the point of being born in a barn and laid in a feed trough. God didn’t stand aside, watching creation uncreate itself through the screen of his divine iPad. Instead, God stooped down from heaven and moved into the neighborhood so that he could look us in the eye and affirm that we are loved beyond all measure.

Over the course of our new liturgical year, we’ll journey through Mark’s Gospel and find out what it means for the Divine to stoop down to engage humanity face-to-face; for the Word that John speaks of in such lofty language to move into the neighborhood. In his haste to bring us the Good News, Mark will make us run through the details of Jesus’ life.  He will carefully focus our attention on Jesus’ ministry of service, beginning with Jesus being baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River and being declared as “beloved Son” by both a voice from heaven and the descending of the Spirit as a dove. Many miraculous events will follow: he will drive out evil spirits, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, make the paralyzed to stand up and walk, and even raise the dead to new life.  By way of several parables, Jesus will teach us what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  Over the course of his active ministry, Jesus will have no place to lay his head, and yet, out of an abundance of compassion, he will feed thousands upon thousands with scarce resources. He’ll find comfort in friends, be anointed by a stranger, terrorized by enemies, and tempted by the devil. Finally, he’ll be handed over by a traitor, spit upon by his enemies, tried by a coward, and killed at the hand of Rome, only to rise again on the third day. Jesus, the Word of God who took on flesh and blood, will not stand idly by while real life goes on around him, but instead he will experience the roller coaster nature of human life, taking it all into himself, redeeming the good and bad, highs and lows, joys and sorrows.

As we heard on Christmas Eve, to us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the Good News of Mega Joy of Christmas. God, who could have very easily sat back and watched as the creation he spoke into being destroy itself by selfishness and jealousy, instead came to earth and lived and died as one of us so that we might know how much God loves us.  Two thousand years later, the Incarnation still means that God is present in our joys and in our sorrows. God is present as we come to the end of 2017, whether we think back on it with fondness, or hope to forget it ever happened. God is present as we prepare for what 2018 has to offer, whether it is the joy of a child or grandchild, the promise of a new career, or the cold diagnosis of disease. God is present in the joy-filled songs at 10 o’clock and in the simple recitation of the liturgy at 8am. God is present in traffic on Scottsville Road, in the waiting room, in the shopping mall, and in school. No matter where we are or what we are feeling, the good news of Christmas is that God moved into the neighborhood in order to look humanity in the eye, to look you in the eye, and make sure you know that you are special, you are cared for, and God loves you.  Amen.

Testify to the Light


When approaching an airport in low light conditions, a pilot is trained to look for the airport’s beacon.  You’ve surely seen them as well.  They are particularly noticeable near a smaller airfield where roads often pass by in close proximity.  Often when there are some low level clouds lingering about, you’ll see the white and green beams streaking across the sky.  From the air, these lights are visible from many miles away, helping a pilot flying under Visual Flight Rules get their bearings and begin the approach process.  If you can’t see the beacon at the airport, you can’t legally land there under VFR.

The beacon image came to mind this morning as I was reading John’s version of the John the Baptist story.  The lectionary assigns selected verses from John 1 (6-8, 19-28), including three from the familiar and beloved prologue.  With its dual themes of Word and light, the prologue sets up for the reader the theological foundation of John’s Gospel.  The preexistent Word was sent into the world to shine the light of God for all people.  In our text for Sunday, John is careful to note that John the Baptist is not the light, but rather “he came as a witness to testify to the light.”

Both the noun “witness” and the verb “to testify” are translated from the same Greek root, martyr.  John was the witness of the light who was to witness about the light.  To stretch the flying metaphor above, JBap had been given the ability to see the beacon of God’s work in Christ, and was called to get on the radio to tell anyone with who would listen where to find the light.  He was calling everyone back to their home field.  He was inviting them all to see the light shining in the darkness of the world.

As disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we are inheritors of this primary vocation.  We are called to share the Good News of Jesus; to help our family, friends, and neighbors to see the beacon that is so often obscured by the fog of fear, anger, hurt, and regret.  As followers of Jesus, we are to carry that light out into the world to help people see that in the light of Christ there is life, and that life is abundant with joy, compassion, grace, hope, and love.  The world is in a constant state of low light conditions, but with the light of Christ, Christians are called to shine in the darkness, for as we hear in the prologue, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Wednesday in Holy Week 2017 – a homily

This is the sermon I preached at Wednesday’s Downtown Church’s Holy Week Service.

Good afternoon.  It is my pleasure to be in the pulpit at First Christian Church today.  Megan and Kyle have been such gifts to me during my recent transition into Bowling Green, and so I am extra glad to have my first ecumenical Holy Week sermon take place here.  We have heard two excellent sermons so far, this week.  I’m grateful for my colleagues who have modeled for me what a noonday prayer service homily is supposed to look like.  I hope I don’t disappoint.  Let’s turn our attention then to that which never disappoints us, the word of God.  Our lesson for today comes from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John.

At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples– the one whom Jesus loved– was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.”

When someone asks me how they can get in the habit of reading the Bible with regularity, I always point them to John’s Gospel.  It isn’t that it’s the best book in the Bible or that it tells the Good News of Jesus more effectively than the Synoptic Gospels, but more that I think John was just a remarkable story teller.  Like any good sermon, John hooks us with a fantastic introduction.  The first half of the book uses seven signs and discourses to point us to the mission and ministry of Jesus.  Then, in the second half, John turns his attention to the Passion, which for John is Jesus’ ultimate coronation as the King of kings.  All the way through the text, John weaves key themes as reminders of what this story is really all about.  John’s Gospel is like a great symphony or the score of an epic film.  These leitmotifs, which are introduced at the very beginning, continue to pop up throughout the course of John’s Gospel.

“And it was night.”  Throughout the course of John’s Gospel, the theme of light and dark – day and night – sight and blindness – appear again and again.  In John’s great prologue, he introduces Jesus as, among other things, the light of the world.  Those who live in the light of God’s Son are given the ability to see clearly the will of God for creation, while those who choose to live in darkness are subject to the sort of blindness that happens at night.  Nicodemus, you’ll remember, comes to visit Jesus in the cover of darkness.  When Jesus invites him into the light by being born again, he can’t handle it, and disappears back into the perceived safety of the shadows.  Later, when a crowd had lifted up stones against the woman caught in adultery, Jesus invited them to step into the light.  “Let the one among you who is sinless cast the first stone,” he challenged them.  In the stark light of Christ, none of them were found to be sinless, which prompted Jesus to make one of his great “I am” statements, another leitmotif for John.  “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Even still, the Pharisees would not step into the light – choosing instead to remain in the safety of the darkness.

The theme returns in the story of the man born blind.  Just before Jesus spat on the ground to make the mud that would heal the man, he reiterated to his disciples that his work was to occur in the light of day.  After the drama with the Synagogue was over, the Pharisees again chose to remain blind, living in the darkness of the certainty of their rules and regulations about the Sabbath rather than stepping into the joyful light of Christ’s healing presence.  Yet again, at the raising of Lazarus, Jesus reintroduces the theme of light and darkness.  Over and over again, in John’s Gospel we hear of Jesus who is the light of life while the powers that are actively fighting against the Kingdom of God remain blind in the dark of night.

“Nothing good happens after midnight.”  I’m sure Bo Schembechler wasn’t the first person to say this phrase, but he did make it famous.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve known this to be true in my own life.  We may no longer believe that the night air carries with it evil spirits, but there is still a lot of blindness that happens at night.  Here on Spy Wednesday, we are reminded of that truth on what was one of the darkest night of all, the night Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinners.

Way back in chapter six, John tells us that the darkness had already entered Judas long before Jesus handed him that piece of bread.  It seems that Judas had been working for quite a while on his own scheme for the Kingdom of Jesus.  James and John were more forthright, asking Jesus plainly to sit at his right hand and at his left.  Judas was more discreet.  His plan was to use the cover of darkness to launch a surprise attack.  It would require an army, a careful plan, and a leader who was willing to fight.  Increasingly, however, it became clear to Judas that Jesus wasn’t that kind of leader.  Jesus preferred the light of day.  He entered Jerusalem on a donkey in the brightness of the Sunday afternoon sun.  He flipped the tables in the Temple court in front of everyone.  On Tuesday and Wednesday, in the light of day, right in the middle of the Temple court, during the busiest travel holiday on the Jewish calendar, Jesus directly challenged the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees.  By the time dinner rolled around on Wednesday evening, Judas was fully in the dark as to how Jesus’ plan could possibly work, and so, like so many others, Judas committed himself to the darkness.  Maybe if he forced Jesus’ hand.  Maybe if he could get him arrested, Jesus would finally call up the army Judas had been waiting for.  Maybe those legions of angels would come and restore the throne of David to its rightful place.  All of Judas’ maybes depended upon the darkness, but he forgot one key point: Jesus is the light of the world.  The plans of the darkness will never work in the light.  The light always wins.

As we prepare for the Triduum, the most holy of the seasons of the Church, I find myself struggling with the darkness.  Maybe you are too.  Sometimes, it seems, my plans would be so much easier than God’s plan.  Sometimes, it seems, that the safety of the darkness is preferable to the vulnerability of living in the light.  Sometimes, it seems, that Judas exists within all of us.  But Jesus is the light of the world.  Jesus invites us to put our trust in his plans.  They may not be easy, certainly dying on a cross wasn’t easy, but the will of God is light and life abundant.  Jesus invites us to step into the light, warts and all, so that we might see the fullness of God’s overwhelming love.  Jesus invites us to see the Judas that lives inside of us, to be honest about our sinfulness, our failings, our comfort in the darkness, and to allow God’s grace to flood us with the light of life.  “It was night,” John tells us, and we know that it is only going to get darker as the week comes to an end, but we also know that the light of day is soon to break once more.  “The light shines in the darkness,” John assures us as he introduces this theme in the prologue, “and the darkness did not overcome it.”  It was night.  It is night.  But thanks be to God, the light of the world is coming.  Amen.

An Interesting Qualifying Statement

Another Sunday in Lent, another loooooong Gospel lesson from John that will tempt the preacher to ramble all over the place in an attempt to catch the myriad themes inherent in the story.  While I’m dealing with my visceral reaction to the way the disciples treat the man born blind (MBB) as if he’s just a theological prop to be debated and dissected, I’m choosing to write instead about an interesting qualifying statement made by Jesus.

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (Jn 9.5)

You’ll recall from the Prologue to John’s Gospel, a text Episcopalians hear read every First Sunday after Christmas, that one of the key components of Jesus’ identity in John is that of light.  In that great cosmic poem, Jesus is described as “life and light” (1.4-5) and “the true light which enlightens everyone” (1.9).  Later, as Jesus continues to be challenged by the Pharisees, he claims for himself the role of light bearer, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8.12).  Yet here we are, merely a chapter later, it seems like Jesus is claiming that his light can be extinguished.

As we round the halfway point in Lent, having now passed through the awful right of passage known as “Daylight Saving Time” and now on the other side of the vernal equinox, the season seems to be all about growing light, while our feelings will be all about growing darkness as we head toward the noon hour on Good Friday when darkness fell over the whole earth.  So, which is it?  Light or dark?

Truth be told, by now I’ve done what the disciples did to the MBB.  I’ve created a theological straw man to prove a preconceived point.  See, Jesus will die on Good Friday.  It will get dark.  Very dark, but darkness and death will not have the final word.  The light of the world will shine through the resurrected Jesus, and continues to shine through his Body, the Church, even to this day.  Jesus may be ascended to the right hand of the Father, but he hasn’t left the world, he is still very much with us and in us, and his light continues to provide hope in the midst of darkness that threatens us from all sides.  The qualifying statement of Jesus is only a qualifying statement if we don’t believe in the continuity of his message and the holiness of his Church.  If we do believe these things, then the ramifications are clear, as members of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, we are the light of the world.

Now, to figure out how to be light.  Thankfully, Jesus told us about that just a few weeks ago.