Sunday, March 18, 2012

Shadows and Light

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 18, 2012

Year B: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
(Ephesians 2:1-10)
John 3:14-21

Shadows and Light

Well, today the rose vestments make one of their two annual appearances. It’s the Fourth Sunday in Lent, called Laetare Sunday from a Latin word meaning joy. We take a break from the Lenten purple because today is the Sunday when we begin to glimpse the joyful light of Easter that’s already shining for us all.

And today, for the second Sunday in a row, we heard a passage from the Gospel of John. The Fourth Gospel was almost certainly the last of the gospels to be written, probably completed right around the end of the First Century – several generations after the earthly lifetime of Jesus.

It’s a gospel that was written at a particularly difficult time for the still-young Jesus Movement.

Of course, Jesus and all of his first followers were Jews. And they lived during a time when, like today, Judaism was very diverse. In fact, it makes more sense to talk about “Judaisms” than one monolithic faith.

Thanks to that Jewish diversity of belief, in the earliest years after the Resurrection it seems that for the most part the followers of Jesus were able to continue worshipping along with their fellow Jews, more or less harmoniously.

But, as the years went by the situation began to change.

First, thanks to the missionary work of Paul and others, non-Jews became an increasingly larger part of the Jesus Movement.

Second, among the followers of Jesus there was increasing use of God language for Jesus. There were lots of supposed messiahs around in the First Century, but to talk about Jesus as in some sense divine was tough for the staunchly monotheistic Jews to accept as permissible, even under the big tent of Judaism.

Finally, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in the year 70 led Jews by necessity to reflect on what their faith would look like without its center of worship and sacrifice.

In a nutshell, the Gospel of John was written during the challenging, frightening and - for some - exciting time when the followers of Jesus were beginning to develop a new religion, Christianity.

Many Jews, of course, never accepted Jesus as the messiah.

But, others did, and maybe some of them now had to part from their fellow Jews.

And then there were those people who were in-between – those who were attracted to Jesus and his message – but had only partial faith. They were not quite able to fully commit to Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, these in-between people with partial faith are represented by Nicodemus – the Pharisee, the Jewish leader full of questions who comes to see Jesus in the shadowy darkness of night.

In today’s gospel lesson we heard the end of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.

In the gospel, written during a time of parting, Nicodemus’ choice is described as one between light and darkness.

Now today, when many Christians have made progress toward respecting the Jews as our elder sisters and brothers in faith, we wouldn’t describe Nicodemus’ choice quite that way.

Today, Nicodemus doesn’t represent the Jews of two thousand years ago. No, today Nicodemus represents us – people who just by being here today have said that we’re drawn to Jesus and to his message. Yet, like Nicodemus, our faith is still only partial – we’re not quite ready to commit fully to Jesus and his message.

Like Nicodemus, we’re somewhere in the shadowy place between light and darkness.

Sometimes, with God’s help, we move out of the shadows and closer to the light of Christ.

That’s why we’re here today. Week after week we come here to move closer to the light when we confess our sins and receive absolution, when we hear God’s Word, when we’re moved by sacred music, when we pray, when we exchange the peace, and most especially when we take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our heats.

With God’s help, we move closer to the light when we reach out to someone in need, when we invite someone to cry on our shoulder, when we share with others the blessings that we’ve received.

Now, I know only too well that the church isn’t perfect and can sometimes get in the way of the light, but I think for the most part this is one of the places where it is easiest to move out of the shadows and into the light of Christ.

But, moving out of the shadows and into the light gets a lot more difficult when we leave this place and go out through the church doors and into the world.

During Lent (in the Rite II services) we’ve been saying the second post-communion prayer, in which we pray, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”

Much easier said than done. Once we go through those doors and into the “real world” it’s very easy to move away from the light of Christ and deeper into the shadows.

Maybe hearing the Ten Commandments each Sunday has reminded us of how often we move away from the light and deeper into the shadows.

For those of you in school, that move to the shadows might be cheating on a quiz or test or copying someone else’s homework. Or it might be being mean to a kid who’s different.

In our lives maybe we move away from the light into the shadows by gossiping about or ridiculing others, or holding a grudge, or spreading falsehoods or demonizing people who think or act differently than we do.

Many of us may have experienced the tension between light and shadow at work. That’s probably always true, but maybe especially during tough economic times. There’s so much pressure – we depend on our income to support ourselves and maybe other people count on us, too. Every workplace has its own culture – and often that culture can easily and subtly draw us from the light of Christ and deeper into the shadows.

In my own case, I remember very well how toxic the faculty room could be – a very shadowy place of cynicism and negativity – a place to dwell on grievances – the administration is stupid, the kids don’t want to learn, the parents are a pain, …

The faculty room often provided a toxic environment where it was hard to love and serve God as a faithful witness of Christ our Lord.

I’m sure many of you heard about or read the op-ed piece in the New York Times written by a mid-level executive at a major investment bank and published on the day of his resignation.

In the ultimate example of burning one’s bridges, this 12-year veteran of the firm criticized a corporate culture that he described as “toxic” and “destructive.”

He bemoaned a shadowy culture that puts profit over anything and everything, including, he claimed, the best interests of the firm’s clients – clients who were often ridiculed by his colleagues.

Now, I have no idea if his description of that company’s culture is accurate and fair. And I have no idea how much his description fits the rest of the financial industry or the corporate world.

My sister works for an investment bank and of course a good number of parishioners here work or have worked in the financial industry. Although, obviously, these companies exist to make money, I can’t really imagine my sister or our parishioners putting profit above integrity.

But, I can imagine the pressures created by a high-stakes and cutthroat culture and I can imagine how working in that toxic environment could make it very hard indeed to love and serve God as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

No matter who we are, for all of us, it’s an everyday struggle not to get drawn into the shadows.

The struggle between shadow and light doesn’t only take place at work. It can happen any place and any time.

Recently in the Wall Street Journal there was a story about an experiment conducted by a computer security firm. They deliberately “lost” 50 smart phones in various American and Canadian cities. But these were not just any phones – they were loaded with tracking software that allowed the company to follow what the people who found the phones did with them.

First, the good news: it was actually hard to lose the phones because often people would say something when they saw a phone “accidentally” left behind.

But, it’s a discouraging story because, whether out of curiosity or malice or both, 89 percent of the finders clicked on something they shouldn’t have – like banking information, passwords, and photos.

And only 50 percent of the finders offered to return the phones, although the security company made it very easy to find the owner’s contact information.

Faced with a choice, most of the people who found the phones chose to retreat into the shadows rather than move towards the light. In the language of the Gospel of John, they loved darkness rather than light.

So, today, like Nicodemus long ago, you and I are in-between people, living in the shadowy place between darkness and light.

Like Nicodemus, we’re drawn to Jesus and to his message. Yet, like Nicodemus, for most of us our faith is still only partial – we’re not quite ready to commit fully to Jesus and his message.

So we keep coming here week after week, stepping into the light of Christ to be fed through Word and sacrament - fed to give us the strength that we’ll need when we walk through those doors and out into a world where it’s so easy to be drawn into the shadows.

We keep coming here week after week to be reminded that God so loves our shadowy world that he gave – and continues to give – his Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

We keep coming here on Laetare Sunday and week after week because it’s here that - with God’s help - we move out of the shadows.

We keep coming here week after week because it’s here that we glimpse the joyful light of Easter that’s already shining for us all.