You may listen to the sermon here:
There is a movie called, “Defending your life.” The film is about Daniel Miller, who, on his 40th birthday, buys a new BMW and promptly kills himself by running it head on into a bus. When he comes to, he finds himself in a place called, “Judgment City,” a sort-of Purgatory, where the recently dead are put on trial to decide their fates. He learns that if you are judged worthy, you move on to a “better world,” but if not you go back to Earth. (Daniel is informed that there is no “hell,” “although,” his defender tells him, “I hear Los Angeles has gotten pretty bad”).
What is most interesting about this film to me are the criteria for judgment, which are not whether you were “good” or “bad,” but how you faced your worst fears. As part of the process, Daniel watches scenes from his life. When he meets a woman named Julia and views a few scenes from her life, he realizes how fear-driven his own life has been. Julia’s film clips are a shock to Daniel – she’s Joan of Arc and he’s the Cowardly Lion.
While the theology of this film does not quite match my own, I like it, because it provides a really concrete vision of what it means when we talk about the omniscience of God. Whatever we do in darkness, scripture says, God can and will bring to light. In other words, imagine your entire life playing on a movie screen for everyone to see. Then imagine finding out that the standards you thought you were being judged by were wrong – that instead of correctness and adherence to the rules of society, you were being judged by how you dealt with your greatest fears, your meanest instincts and the darkness in your soul. I don’t know about you, but that scares the living daylights out of me. Because while I am generally an excellent rule-follower and I frequently (although certainly not always) do what society would call, “the right thing,” I am certainly not confident enough to have my every thought and impulse presented to the Youth Group at tonight’s movie night.
But that’s what it means to walk as a child of the light. It means revealing yourself not just to God, but to one another. It means being compassionate to one another. This was a new idea to the Ephesians, who believed that the path to salvation was through individual adherence to the law. But Paul and his followers were not interested in personal righteousness; Paul was interested in forming communities of Christians who lived cooperatively – and his letters reflect that single-minded agenda. That’s why some of his advice is so problematic for modern Christians. For example, today’s reading (which may not have been written by the person we think of as “Paul”) does not include any specific rules, but among those that occur in the passage that follows this one are: “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” and “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”
Ouch. Such allegedly “right” behaviors – offered by the author to a specific people in a specific context to meet a very narrow agenda, have been used to justify the maltreatment of people of specific genders, races, and ethnicity by Christians for millennia. How, you might ask, can people who profess to believe in what is represented in the words and behavior of Jesus – and in his clear statement that the second greatest commandment is to love one another -reconcile these seemingly opposite directions for how to live.
It’s an important question – perhaps the most important question that 21st century Christians have to consider – because the way we interpret the words of scripture have a tremendous impact on how we behave. Like the Ephesians before us, “we live in an age in which theologians and prophets, including many of the self-appointed variety, rarely hesitate to make pronouncements about the will of God, and we are susceptible to them because we crave a litmus test for what is truly “Christian” and what is not.
I recently read an article about the battles between different Christian leaders over the proposed federal budget. While the leaders of many denominations have expressed distress over proposed cuts in funding to services to individuals in need, others have argued that such cuts are actually completely consistent with the words of Jesus. For example, one conservative blog editor opined that “When Jesus talks about caring for ‘the least of these,’ he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians…about how you treat only his disciples, not the poor… [And according to another writer], “It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor…It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ . [It’s about helping Christians, not unbelievers…And, of course] other theologians and Bible scholars can and have easily argued that the wider context of Jesus’ preaching and the rest of the New Testament — as well as the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus and his followers drew on — clearly show that Christians are called on to care for all those in need.”
Such arguments can be confusing, because even teachers and seers called by God can make mistakes. Samuel discovered this when God unceremoniously ousted the man divinely chosen as the first king of Israel. Today’s Hebrew scripture tells us that Samuel was angry and hurt and grieved over God’s decision, but God was unmoved, telling Samuel to get over it and go to anoint God’s new choice – a choice that Samuel did not understand. Why would God pick the youngest and weakest son of a poor shepherd of the tribe of Judah to replace a handsome warrior king? Surely not because he had pretty eyes! But Samuel nonetheless did what God asked because Samuel knew something that we would do well to remember. Samuel knew that we are not God – that God does not think like us. We see through the darkness of our human nature, but God sees in the light.
That light is the light of Christ. Jesus is the one true prophet who does not misunderstand God – because he is part of God. But seeing clearly by this light requires us to comprehend that Jesus is not defined by our beliefs. We are defined by our belief in him. The Pharisees, who were asked to judge the “rightness” of Jesus’s miraculous restoration of sight to the blind man failed to see this. Rather than rejoicing at the blessing before them they instead focused on the ways in which it did not fit into their idea of things, ways in which Jesus’s behavior branded him as a sinner rather than a savior. Like Paul, they had their own agenda to advance. This kind of thinking – the desire to make new ideas or events fit with what we already believe- is called “confirmation bias” and it is rampant in today’s society. Such willful spiritual blindness is the very definition of sin – because “sin lies not in being born blind, but in refusing to see when one is confronted with the light.”
It is a blindness born out of fear. Because sometimes it feels safer to live in the ignorance – the darkness– of our fear – to hide behind our habits and rationalizations, our need to remain safe in our own cozy, limited perspectives. But we are not children of darkness. We are children of the light- and we must find a way to overcome our fears and face the truths of our world.
This is where we do it. It is in Christian community that we can “surrender our lives and wills to God… thrive through serving others…[and]…no longer feel threatened and alone…From within [a] community that honors the dignity of every human being we are free to listen…to express our understanding, and…to find [the]…truth.”
That truth is simple. God is with us – and our deliverance from our own darkness is already assured. If we truly believe in the redemptive power of Jesus’s love for us, we need never have to defend our lives. Because the Lord is our shepherd and we need fear no evil. Trust him. Walk into the light. Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone. AMEN.
Frederick Niedner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fourth Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 102.
David Gibson, (March 20, 2017), “Trump’s budget slashes aid to the poor. Would Jesus have a problem with that?” http://religionnews.com/2017/03/20/trumps-budget-slashes-aid-to-the-poor-would-jesus-have-a-problem-with-that/. R. Alan Culpepper, (1998), The Gospel and Letters of John, [Nashville: Abingdon Press], 178. Ward B. Ewing, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fourth Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 114.