Posts Tagged ‘darkness’

Vineyards Darkness and Exile 10-8-17

In this sermon, which is based on Matthew 21:33-46, along with Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 8:7-15, I explore the imagery of a vineyard for God’s chosen people, and how the reality of exile occurs cyclically throughout history. This is light of the tragedy last week in Las Vegas reminds us of just how prominent darkness is in the world.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/vineyards-darkness-and-exile-10-8-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

There are times when I realize that things I take for granted aren’t quite so obvious or well known to everyone else. I had this thought over the course of the week as I considered our batch of scripture passages for today.  How many people out there are familiar with how those various texts are chosen?

Have you ever wondered about that? About how we pick the various readings that the lector shares…the psalm that we read together…about the gospel lesson that I share…ever wondered about that?

Now some of you out there might know…but we’ve got this cool organizational tool called the Revised Common Lectionary. In its current form, established back in the mid-90’s the lectionary lays out the scripture passages that will be featured each week…its organized into a 3 year cycle, and while it doesn’t cover every passage from the Bible, it does feature a lot of them.

And so, each week as I sit down to prep the bulletin and start working on the sermon, I’m not just pulling these various readings out of thin air…20 plus years ago, a group of Biblical scholars from several different denominations worked together to specify what we, along with MANY other congregations in many parts of the world, will hear as scripture lessons.

Now I can’t tell you why certain passages end up partnered up together for a specific week in the cycle…but typically there is some sort of connection among them…but this week…the connection is pretty blatant across 3 of the 4 different texts…Vineyards. We hear about a vineyard in Isaiah…we hear about another one in the Psalm…the snippet of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the exception here…but then we heard about it again in this parable of Jesus, taken out of Matthew’s gospel…the third in a series of parables that Jesus has offered as he continues to engage in a back and forth verbal sparring match with the religious elite of the priests and Pharisees…the who’s who of the Jewish culture at the time…the ones who have been charged with leading and guiding the rest of the culture in all matters of religious faith. (pause)
But what’s this all got to do with a vineyard? That is, perhaps the big question that we’re posing at the moment…and in short, the vineyard in question…it’s the nation of Israel…the Jewish culture…this mass of people who were chosen to be the people of God…a nation of priests…and it happened generations before Jesus came on the scene.

Now I can’t tell you just why the ancient Jewish culture chose the image of vines or grapes or wine or in this case, the vineyard to represent themselves…likely because of the prominence of this crop at the time…but yet here it is…and we see it from the get-go as we hear a bit of a love song from God in the prophetic words given to Isaiah. “Let me sing for my beloved, my love-song concerning his vineyard.” We hear that he went through the work of establishing it…clearing it out, planting the vines, building a watch tower…and then waited for the fruit of his labor to arrive.”  But what God has hoped for has not come to fruition…and we hear of a harsh promise that the wall and the hedge that protects the vineyard will be torn down…the fruit and the plants will be devoured and trampled upon…the vineyard…will be destroyed… even though the Lord loves his people, the fruit is not what God had in mind…and the vineyard will be taken away. (Pause)

Now think about the Psalm that we shared earlier in our worship service today. It would seem that this story…this illustration of the vineyard has now moved forward…and the promise that the vineyard will be taken away from the people has come to fruition…but we are also reminded of what God has done.

You have brought a vine out of Egypt and planted it. Because of what you have done o Lord, it has taken root and filled the land…you stretched out its tendrils to the sea and to the river.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that the psalmist is asking God to remember what he has done to establish the nation…but then…as we hear, the psalmist begins to question…to lament.

Why have you broken down its wall? Those that pass by pluck the grapes…the beasts graze upon it and trample it down…the vineyard is lost…it has been taken away…and the psalm concludes as the psalmist pleads with God to turn his favor back to the nation…Turn now O God of Hosts…look down from heaven…behold and tend this vine that your hand has planted. (pause)

Are you finding the trend so far? The vineyard will be taken away…and then the vineyard has been taken away…and with that, we find ourselves in Matthew, as Jesus shares a parable that, I hope by now, is starting to become a little more clear.

The master creates a vineyard…he plants it, clearing the ground…he builds a wall around it for protection, digs the wine press and builds the tower…and then the master entrusts its care to others. When its time for the harvest, the master sends his servants looking for the fruit…but instead of doing what’s asked of them…they rebel, roughing up the servants or killing them…several times over…even going so far as to catching hold of the master’s son…the heir…and killing him in an attempt to steal his inheritance. And as we hear…the future promise within the parable…identified by the audience of Jesus…judgement passed by the very people he’s critiquing…the vineyard will be taken away from those wicked tenants and given to others. (pause)

It’s a cycle isn’t it? The vineyard will be taken away…the vineyard has been taken away…once its restored…it will be taken away yet again. That’s what we see as we bring these three different readings together…each of them from a drastically different period in the history of the Jewish culture…the ongoing, overarching story of how God’s favor is shown, then taken for granted, and because of this that which has been promised is taken away.

There’s a word for this…something that the Jewish culture knows quite well…Exile…when the culture, or at least individuals within the culture are taken away from their homeland…when they are held in oppression at the mercy of a culture that is larger and more powerful than they are.

We see it over and over again through the scriptures…beginning with slavery in Egypt…wandering in the desert…struggling to settle the promise land with the natives…the conquering Assyrian Empire…the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans…over and over again, we see that the vineyard…the physical representation of God’s promise is removed from the people…truly they are a culture who has known hardship and oppression. (pause)
But there is another sense, perhaps hiding within the psalm today that serves as an important reminder for us. Even in the midst of exile…even when the individual is wallowing in the despair of the vineyard having been taken away…the presence of God is with them…and the cry goes out “Turn now, o God of hosts….preserve what your right hand has planted.”

The promise of God for his people…beginning all the way back in the covenant made with Abraham and tracking all the way across the ages to today…is that God is always present with those that he loves…even in the midst of turmoil…even in the midst of exile. God hears the cries of his people and the promise is real…that he will not leave us stranded…that the vineyard will be restored. (pause)
Now something tells me that when I bring up the subject of exile, or oppression, or perhaps, darkness…we don’t have to try very hard to imagine just what that’s like do we? All too often we are reminded of just how dark this world is…how broken it is…and even though God has begun his redemptive work of the world through Jesus Christ we still feel the effects of this broken down, messed up world…and we see this same brokenness within ourselves don’t we?

Perhaps we too find ourselves crying out in lament just like the psalmist…Restore us O God of hosts…let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved…and as we wait for this promise we ask the question posed in the previous psalm “How long o Lord?”

We see despair…we see destruction…we see oppression and pain…and we see darkness. Our nation…once more…was reminded of the presence of darkness 1 week ago…when the peace and joy of a music festival in Las Vegas was broken by a mad-man who opened fire…wounding hundreds…and killing more than 50 people…and the truly troubling part of this is that we can’t call it isolated…but in recent years we’ve heard these reports with WAY too much regularity.

Once more…children must live without their parents. Fathers without their sons. Mothers without their daughter…people without spouses…individuals without friends…it makes no sense and to simply call it the darkness of the world…while perhaps accurate…is insufficient to express the pain and the outrage that we should feel.

But I fear that in this case…like in every other case that didn’t happen in our backyard…we have the tendency to throw out the typical social media comment about thoughts and prayers…and we hug our family and friends tight for a day or two…and then we all go back to business as usual…numb to the reality that the vineyard has been ripped away from the families of 59 people…and that hundreds more will feel the effects of this madness for years to come.

I think about this situation…and my own tendency to get over it too quickly…and I’m not okay with it. I think that this time that old slogan that we all know is wrong…what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas…because if we just ignore this kind of thing time after time then the darkness continues to loom…and I for one am not okay with that.

We are told in the opening verses of the Gospel of John that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…and I’ve thought long and hard this week about how we as individuals and how we as a community of faith can in one way shape or form begin to reflect that perfect light of God shining in the darkness…how can we…as heirs of the promise made real in Jesus Christ begin to live in the reality that the kingdom has come near right here right now in the middle of all this darkness…in the middle of what often feels like exile from that which is good and beautiful in the world.

I can’t answer this question for you…but I will say this…be the change that you want to see in the world.  Its going to take a miracle to turn this all around…but you know what, Jesus is that miracle…and he invites us to take part in it…You…go be the miracle…and don’t get stuck in the same old excuse that we all like to run in our heads of “What can I do?” Because opportunities exist everywhere. (pause)
Jesus reminds us that the commandments can all be summed up when we love God and love our neighbor…and maybe changing the world means making a tiny difference in the life of one person.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man walking along the seashore at low tide…and as he walks he’s amazed at the immeasurable number of star fish left out on the beach to dry out and die in the sun…and as he continues he sees a young girl picking up star fish to throw them back in the water…one after another after another…and the man says “Little girl…what are you trying to do? There are so many…how can you possibly make a difference?”  The little girl bent down, picked up another star fish and threw it into the ocean. “I just made a difference for that one didn’t I?”

This world isn’t perfect…we all know that…pain and brokenness and death and darkness are all around us…and at times its easy to feel lost in the midst of it…but remember that we have a God who has promised us…repeatedly…that we are never alone in the midst of this darkness…and that this God shines a light for us…and invites us to reflect that same light…that same hope in the midst of despair, in the midst of darkness…in the midst of exile to those experiencing it right alongside us. May we reflect that light so that they might see it. Amen.

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I Do Not Understand 3-12-17

In this sermon, taken from John 3:1-17, I explore the odd encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. A grammatical situation reveals the truth, that often we lack the ability to understand what God is up to.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-do-not-understand-3-12-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Just out of curiosity, is anyone out there fluent in Spanish? I am not…I know just enough to be dangerous…and I truly discovered this fact during my final year of seminary as I spent two weeks in a congregation with a large Hispanic population.  Throughout the course of the time that my small group of classmates and I were in the congregation, we met with many different individuals for conversation…and that would always include one of the two pastors present for the purpose of translation…but we all attempted to communicate with one another directly in one another’s language, at least as much as we were able.

Now for me…my one year of Spanish my sophomore year of high school didn’t do a lot of good…and my ability to communicate in Español was pretty much limited to introductions. Time after time we would go around the table introducing ourselves…and each time I would say Mi llamo es Scott…which literally means “My name is Scott.”  Now, grammatically, there was nothing wrong with what I was saying…but after hearing several others from my group introduce themselves I started to pick up on the regular way for a person to say it. Soy Scott…now saying it this way literally means “I’m Scott.” (pause) Again, neither one is technically right or wrong…they are just two ways to say the same thing.

Now the polar opposite situations happens in today’s gospel lesson. Rather than hearing two different ways to say the same thing…we begin to discover one way of saying two different things…but first, let me set the stage.

We’ve moved into John’s gospel…where we’ll remain for the rest of the season of Lent…and perhaps that’s not a bad thing…maybe its fitting during this season we usually consider pretty dark as we move towards the cross…and if you’re familiar with the major theme here in John’s gospel it’s the idea of light and darkness…and the contrast between the two…we hear this theme all over John…as the narration of different stories continues to give us little clues about the state of things…telling us the time of day or that an encounter happens at night.  (pause) And in our story for today…that bit of narration is right out there.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…a leader of the Jews…He came to Jesus by night, calling him Rabbi…seeking something. Now this all happens in Jerusalem…and of course we’re pretty early in the whole story. Jesus has been baptized…he’s publically performed his first miracle…or sign as they’re called here in John…and he’s made his way into the capital city for the first of 3 Passover celebrations…he’s already caused a major stir in the temple when he started cracking a whip and throwing a bunch of tables around…and since then he’s just been around the temple…performing more signs and teaching. And this is where we pick up.

Nicodemus is one of the big wigs…not only is he a Pharisee, but he’s also a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He’s kind of a big deal…and if we were to compare him to a present day figure, we’d probably call him a Seminary professor with 3 or 4 different PhD’s. This guy…he knows his stuff…anything having to do with Jewish culture or their religion, or their faith, or their understanding of the law…he’s your guy…Nicodemus was the 1st Century Jewish equivalent of Google…if you had a question you went to him…not the other way around.

And perhaps this is why its so strange that we find him seeking out Jesus in the first place. Maybe the council sent him…or maybe he was just curious…but either way…here in the middle of night…in the midst of darkness…Nicodemus comes searching…calling Jesus Rabbi.

Now there’s a lot of back and forth in this story…as the teaching moment begins as a dialogue between the elite Pharisee and the traveling Rabbi…and the first thing that Jesus does is point out the error in the way that the council perceives him. We know that you are from God because no one can do the signs you do apart from him.

And Jesus response…you don’t get it. You can’t see the kingdom of God…you can’t perceive it unless you are born from above…and with this statement…Jesus and Nicodemus are off to the races…they engage in a lively debate around the idea of being born. (pause)
But here’s the problem…remember how I talked about 2 ways to same thing in Spanish…well here…we find 1 way to say 2 things…Jesus says “born from above.” But Nicodemus hears “born again.” (Pause) And it raises the question of just how that happens.  Well, funny enough it has to do with the original language…the very language that Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking to one another as they sat there debating…keep in mind they’re speaking the same language, but Greek gets funny right here…and the word that Jesus uses to say “from above” also means “again.”

Let me give you an example…desert…I say that and I might be talking about a delicious sugary post-meal treat…or I might be talking about leaving you high and dry in the midst of your need. Same word…two different meanings…and the same thing has happened between Jesus and Nicodemus.

Now the conversation goes back and forth…Jesus offering explanations…Nicodemus asking more questions…but seemingly getting nowhere as he tries to understand what Jesus is attempting to teach him.

But maybe that’s not so out line in the first place. Jesus talks about being born from above…whatever that means. Nicodemus is thinking more about the physical reality of what Jesus has said…and logically speaking…it just doesn’t work…to be born again? How can that happen…no one can enter the womb and be born a second time. I know how biology works…and that’s not how biology works.

And so after some back and forth Nicodemus finally throws up his hands and utters his final words of this story. “How can this be?” (Pause) You know there was another time when a person asked that very same thing…when an angel appeared to a young woman and said You will have a child…and this girl, maybe you’ve heard of her, she goes by Mary…asks How can this be, for I am a virgin?

In both cases…Mary and Nicodemus, they’re thinking about these things in terms of the physical…what can we see, what can explain…but the kingdom of God…this new reality that Jesus is bringing into the world…its not physical…its something else…something that we can’t quite put our finger on…and I’m guessing that often times as we consider what this book (hold up a Bible) has to say to us…we can’t quite put our fingers on it either…and like Nicodemus we end up asking “how can this be?”

Now Jesus seems to respond to that question today…offering up what I’ve long considered to be a rebuke…at least until quite recently. Nicodemus, you are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things.” I always thought Jesus was coming down on him…but what if Jesus is simply making an observation…that even the most highly educated…even the one who by all human understanding should be the one to get this…even you CAN’T understand.  He goes on too…if you can’t fully grasp earthly things…how could you be expected to understand heavenly things?

Now a couple different things happen at this point…Jesus goes on teaching…and in the end offers up one of the most well-known passages of scripture…reminding us that because of God’s perfect sacrificial love for the ALL the world, he gave his son, not to condemn the world but to save it…all of it. (pause) Jesus lays out this vitally important, and very deep…DEEP truth…and Nicodemus has faded from the story. (pause)

Quick side note, remember when all this is going on?  Night time right? In the midst of darkness…and its still dark…and it would seem that Nicodemus remains in the dark…lacking understanding…not finding what he’s been looking for…for Nicodemus, the light bulb hasn’t gone off yet…Now I’ve long wondered if he ever “gets it.” Because here today…it looks like a no.

But his story isn’t over yet either…and he pops up 2 more times…the next time we see him…his kind of passive aggressively defending Jesus to the council…saying that its not lawful for them to condemn someone without a trial…not really picking a side…but cling to technicality.  But then the last time he pops up…at the cross…helping deal with the dead body of Christ…out there in the open…in the midst of the daylight for all to see. (pause)
Admittedly, Nicodemus is often criticized…because here at least…he just doesn’t get it…and he remains in darkness…in the lack of understanding…but I think its because he comes looking for Jesus instead of the other way around.

Maybe its because I’m Lutheran…but it seems to me that anytime we go looking for Jesus…when we go searching for God…we’re gonna miss the mark…because we look in the wrong places…and it is God who finds us. That’s what Jesus’ presence in our reality is all about…that’s why, out of his perfect sacrificial love for the world, God sent Jesus into the world…and that event…the whole aspect of Jesus’ in our reality…something they call the incarnation…that’s about God coming to find us where we are…in the midst of the darkness…not the other way around.

Now the amazing thing about the incarnation is that we need every aspect of it to even begin to makes heads or tails of this whole Kingdom of God thing. You’ve heard me talk about the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…and we need every aspect…his perfect life gets us nowhere without his cursed death on the cross…and we need the death, because you can’t have a resurrection without it.

And if the ongoing example of Nicodemus shows us anything…its that we need all aspects to even begin to understand. He didn’t get it until after the death of Christ…when he publically displayed that he was a follower of Christ…but even his closest followers, the disciples…even they failed to understand what was happening until the resurrected Jesus showed up again….and to be perfectly honest…even that was lacking.

Because here’s the thing about faith…we are clinging to the promises of that which we cannot see clearly. Scripture gives us tiny glimpses into the truth that Christ has brought into the world with him…but we cannot fully understand in this life.  The apostle Paul reminds us that now we see as in a mirror dimly…but one day we will see face to face.

One day…but, we’ve got to get through death before we reach that day…because it is only when we join with Christ in the resurrection…and we have put aside all these human limitations…only then will we truly comprehend the glory that Christ has made possible.

And so in the here and now…its okay for us to admit that we don’t understand…to ask the question How can this be? And then to realize that we probably won’t come up with a satisfactory answer…but rather to cling to the hope we find in the promise that because of God’s perfect love for us…we will not perish, but will have eternal life. Amen.

 

This Isn’t The End Maundy Thursday

This sermon for Maundy Thursday comes from John 13:1-12a, 31b-35. In the sermon I explore Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper, and the promises that are made that God’s love for us, expressed through Jesus Christ, will never end.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-isnt-the-end-maundy-thursday

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

There are quite a few things hanging on my refrigerator…but one dominating feature is a multitude of family pictures taken each year at Family Camp in Colorado, something many of you are aware that we do annually. We’ve been doing it for a while now too…and so there are 9 years’ worth of pictures hanging there.

I was looking at them yesterday morning…and of course the main thing that jumped at me was to see the changes of my kids as they’ve been growing. But as I sat there looking at the various pictures, I found myself thinking back to last year, and some of the things that were happening behind the scenes of that particular trip out west.

Some of you are aware that we had a health scare about that time…as there was a strong possibility that my wife had developed a cancerous growth in her neck…and for several months, she went through various tests with inconclusive results…and there was a lot of unknown…which culminated on that particular trip. It was shortly after we got home from Colorado last year that we found out that the growth was not cancer, and in the long run everything was fine. (pause)

But up until that moment when the doctor talked to me to let me know it was nothing more than the result of an infection…we were living in the tension of the unknown…and in that time I discovered something about myself. While I am pretty good at sitting with other people in the midst of their dark moments…I’m pretty lousy at sitting through my own…but I wonder…isn’t that the case for everyone? (pause)

And speaking of dark moments…tonight we find ourselves in the midst of about the darkest moment that the gospels have to offer. Maundy Thursday…the night when Jesus reclines at the table of the Last Supper with his disciples…the night he washes their feet as a sign of servant love…the night that he institutes the Lord’s supper (pause) The night…when he was betrayed.

Now interestingly enough…all these different events are tied in together…and though we didn’t highlight the specific passage tonight, its in the midst of what we did read…that Jesus once more predicts his betrayal, telling the disciples that the betrayer is sitting right there at the table with them…and after some further discussion, Jesus looks Judas in the eye…tells him to go do what he must do…and we hear as Judas leaves the table and then the house…that it is night.

Its not daytime, its not dusk, its not morning…its night…as dark as you can get…both figuratively as well as literally. (pause) Jesus finds himself on this night, in about the darkest point he can be…but in the midst of all this…he’s still busy doing the work intended by the father…and we hear, that Jesus loves his own who are in the world…and that he loves them till the end. (pause)

That’s an important phrase…till the end…because if we think about everything going on here in the gospel…it seems like the end isn’t very far off. Tonight is the night when Jesus is betrayed…tomorrow…he’s dead and buried…even the name given to this meal…the Last Supper…gives a tone of finality doesn’t it? (pause) And so what do we make of that phrase that Jesus loves his own until the end? Perhaps we think of the way in which he protects his disciples later on that night…as he leaves them in the protection of the garden and goes out to meet the mob led by Judas…Perhaps we think of the moment as Jesus hangs on the cross, and in the midst of his torment, he provides ongoing care for his mother by placing her in the protection of the beloved disciple…or the way that he forgives the very people that are torturing him…or when he tells the criminal hanging beside him that today you will be with me in paradise.

But then, Jesus dies…and his body is placed in the tomb…and so it seems, by all logic…that the end…is coming right up doesn’t it? It seems that the darkness is about to win…and with it…the love of Jesus for his own in the world…will end as Jesus meets his end. (pause)

And if that’s the case…then the events here at the last supper seem a little strange…because I’m pretty sure that Jesus knew what was coming…he knew what was about to happen…and yet he spends this time, serving his disciples…taking on the role of a slave by washing their feet…and then as they recline at the table…Jesus grabs a hunk of bread and he tears off a piece and before handing it, one by one…to each of his beloved friends he tells them…this is my body…it is broken for you…when you eat it…remember me.  And then after supper is over he picks up the cup of wine…and once more looks them in the eye and says this is my blood poured out for you…when you drink it, remember me.

These seemingly simple acts and words are anything but…simple…because here at the Last Supper…we realize that the supper isn’t over yet…and if Jesus loves his own who are in the world till the end…then we need to realize that its not the end yet. (pause)

You know its funny, my preaching professors back in school harped on us the importance of preaching the day…and more often than not I stick to that…but if that’s the case…then I need to stop right now…because its Thursday…and yes Jesus eats a meal with his disciples…and does some simple yet utterly cryptic stuff…but then then walk out of that supper and I’m guessing the disciples were still confused…and then a little while later…Jesus is arrested…and they run away.

And so if I preach the day…that’s where I stop…with all hope lost…with the first steps happening towards the cross which Jesus has predicted time and time again. (pause) But I can’t stop there…and I won’t…If you were in worship a couple weeks ago, I talked about being Saturday people…of living in the tension between the darkness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and the joy of the resurrection on Sunday.

And that notion of living in that tension still holds today. Yes, we are in dark time now…and tomorrow is even darker…but we also know what happens on Sunday…because for us the tomb is already empty…and we know…that tonight is not the end…no matter how much it might have seemed like it in that moment. (pause)

I want to back up now to something I said earlier…about how I’m pretty good at sitting with people in the midst of their darkness, but I have found that I’m pretty bad at sitting in the midst of my own. (pause)
I was reminded of that on Tuesday…because Tuesday was a pretty dark day in a lot of ways…none that really applied to me directly…but to a lot of people around me…people that I care about.

If any of you were in town Monday late afternoon…you heard the sirens of the ambulance and firetrucks leaving town…racing north…racing to the scene of an accident that left 3 high schoolers injured and one 14 year old boy dead…I heard the sirens, but I didn’t hear the news until Tuesday morning…that for 3 families, life was shaken…and for 1 family…everything just stopped.

I was also thinking about a family…and specifically an individual…who is watching their mom die…having just gone into hospice…and another family dealing with a painful memory tied to that day.

And I was thinking about a pair of my seminary classmates…a married couple, 6 months into their first pregnancy…only to lose their baby…and finally in the midst of all that stuff rattling around in my head before I even got into the office on Tuesday…then I opened my computer to read the news of two bombs going off in Brussels…40 or so dead, countless more injured. (pause)

All of this stuff going on around me…not really to me mind you…but around me…all these different individuals and families who were experiencing the tragedy…the darkness…and for them in that instant…life came screeching to a halt…the world was ending….and because I care about these people and the world that we live in…it affected me…and so I was pretty moody through the day.

But then the day went on…and I walked out of the office…and I recognized how beautiful of a day it was…and my son and I went out into the backyard to play catch…and as we were out there…I heard birds singing…and cars going by on the highway…and I heard the sounds of the high school soccer practice in the open field down the hill…and later on we walked over the school and I stood and watched a few minutes of a little league baseball game…and I talked with different people…and life went on. (pause)

I’ve noticed this type of thing before…typically on days when I’ve presided at funerals…because more often than not, funerals end up happening on nice days…and outside of that funeral…which is so difficult for those in attendance…life goes on for everyone else…the world might be ending for those individuals…but not for everyone else.

I bring all of this up…because of that promise that we hear about Jesus…that he loves his own…and he is with them till the end…and if Holy Week shows us nothing else…it is this…we haven’t reached the end yet. The world continues…and you know what…the Last Supper isn’t over yet either….because when we receive the bread and the wine…and we hear the same words that Jesus spoke to his friends…we are joining in that same supper…and the love of Jesus is still present in the world. We just need to know where to look for it.

But you know what…Jesus talked about too…I give you a new commandment…that you love one another…this is how the world will know that you are my disciples, whom I love…that you love one another. (pause)

We are the body of Christ here on Earth…we are joined together through the power of the Holy Spirit in ways that go far beyond our understanding…but as the body of Christ we are called to be Christ for one another.

On Tuesday, many different people experienced the darkness first hand…and for them, in that instant, it seemed like the end…but those around them…those who gathered around them with love and support…they were Christ in that moment…continuing to love those who needed it…sitting in the midst of the darkness with those who couldn’t escape it.

That is what we are called to do…that is why Christ tells us to love one another…so that in our moments of darkness that we can’t escape…we can see first-hand that it…IS NOT…the end…and that the love of God is still present…even in the midst of the darkness. (pause)
Tonight Jesus is betrayed…he is arrested…he is tortured…he is hung on a cross and he dies…but the biggest threat to Jesus…the thing he feared the most was being separated from the love of the Father…even for a period of a couple of days in the tomb…but Jesus will do this…Jesus…HAS…done this…to ensure that we are never left alone…because he loves us…till the end…and his love is present whenever we show love and compassion for one another…and we find his love, in our darkest moments, in the love and compassion we receive from those around us. May we realize, both now on this dark night…and in each of those moments when darkness surround us…that despite everything this dark world throws at us…Jesus has promised us…that this is not the end.

If you can see this…then be the light…show the love of Christ for those around you who need it…and if you can’t…then look to those who offer it to you.  We are not alone in this world…for we are the body of Christ…He loves us till the end…so we love too. Because this isn’t the end. Amen.

 

You Mean I’m Not In Trouble 5-31-15

This morning’s sermon is based on John 3:1-17. This is the night time encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. I explore the changing perspective of hearing this as a rebuke to an honest teaching exchange.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/you-mean-im-not-in-trouble-5-31-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…Amen
Is there any certain sight that you dread to see? Something that almost turns your stomach as soon as you spot it? (pause) I can certainly think of one that got me in my younger days…specifically between the ages of 16 and about 22. (pause) Red and Blue lights flashing in my rear view mirror. (pause)
I will state it for the record…that in my early years of driving…I was a little too familiar with those lights…because I got pulled over with a fair bit of regularity…until a letter from my insurance company warned me of my personal risk…of high risk insurance rates…at which time I developed a much lighter foot, coupled with a much stronger tendency to set the cruise control at a reasonable speed.
And for many years that has served me well…with just one exception, back in August of 2013 when I came up the entrance ramp down by Hy-Vee in Council Bluffs just a little too fast and met a police officer sitting in the median right there at the curve…you all know that spot don’t you? (pause) And sure enough…a moment later…there were the blue and red lights flashing right behind me.
And ever since then, I’ve been very careful to watch my speed as I come around the curve on I-80…knowing that the next time I let it creep up above 60…I’ll meet another officer sitting there waiting…and admittedly its affected me…and I see evidence of this every time another vehicle comes flying past me on that stretch and I utter the words over and over again. “LET THERE BE A COP THERE…LET THERE BE A COP THERE”
And then on the instances when there is an officer sitting there…the chant turns to “GET ‘EM….GET ‘EM…GET ‘EM.” And recently…just about a month or so ago…I got my wish when a speedy driver went flying past the officer sitting there in that spot…and I saw the officer swing his cruiser around and fly up behind that other car…and the lights…came…on. (pause…then big response) “YES!!!!!!” I don’t know just why it is…but ever since that day back in 2013 when I was pulled over at that spot, I’ve wanted to see someone else get it too…full disclosure…I’ve been fascinated with seeing someone else get busted….and maybe…just maybe…I’m not the only one. Because isn’t that human nature? We’re kind of fascinating with seeing someone ELSE…get into trouble aren’t we? (pause)
Now admittedly, this is the attitude that I have brought into today’s gospel story throughout the course of my history with it. Nicodemus…coming to visit Jesus at night…and in the midst of the encounter…Jesus seems to give him his come uppance…Nicodemus…one of the leaders of the Pharisees…one of the leaders of the religious bigwigs…sneaks off in the dead of night…in total secrecy…to try and wrap his head around just who this Jesus guy really is…but he has to be secretive…because he’s got a reputation…and who knows what would happen if all his cronies knew what he was up to. (pause)
So that’s the setting…this guy who by all rights should get all this stuff…should understand it…and should see the truth within it…goes all covert in the dead of night…and if you’ve heard me talk about John’s gospel before, you’ve likely heard me reference the importance of light and darkness…how light equals believe, and understanding…and even relationship…while darkness equals disbelief and sinfulness…and here’s Nick, operating under the cover of darkness…figures.
And you know what…within the context of John’s gospel we’ve got another example of someone doing bad stuff at night…perhaps you’ve heard of him…this Judas guy…who towards the end of the gospel goes out into the night to betray Jesus…and so knowing this…don’t we sort of expect the tense confrontation here between Jesus and Nicodemus?
Does anyone else approach this passage expecting a rebuke…expecting Jesus to really put Nick in his place…to rip him a new one? Or is that just me? (pause) I’ll own it…each and every time I’ve approached John chapter 3 in the past…I’ve gotten a little cynical…thinking to myself. “This guys gonna get it. Here it comes.” And then I read the back and forth as Jesus and Nicodemus debate and discuss…and in my mind they’re getting a little more heated with each statement and question and counter point…until finally Nick has heard enough and he utters the ultimate question “How can these things be?” (pause) And finally…finally…Jesus…turns on the flashing red and blue lights… “YOU ARE THE TEACHER OF ISRAEL…and even you don’t get it.” (pause…then big response) “YES!!!!!!” (pause) And just like I revel in seeing someone else get pulled over…I revel in seeing some uppity dude get fully owned by Jesus. (pause)
That is…until this week…until this time…because this time…I didn’t read it that way…and I’m not even sure why that is…but for some reason…this time…it came across a little differently…and instead of looking down my nose at Nick…I think I found myself relating to him…because what Jesus is talking about…its some pretty heady stuff.
Maybe its because today is Holy Trinity Sunday…the one Sunday every year when we focus on and celebrate all three aspects of the Triune God…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…and if you’ve been downstairs in the discussions around the trinity…and specially around the Holy Spirit…you’ve heard me say that its…pretty darn confusing…and I’ll play the card of “that’s one of our divine mysteries that we Lutheran love so much” simply because we don’t have good explanation for how it all works…or what it all means.
And don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you right now with trying to offer any sort of explanation…because sometimes we just have to accept that what God’s up to in the world…and for that matter…God…is simply beyond us…and all we can do is admit that…and ask God to help us…and the really amazing thing about all this…is that I think Jesus FULLY realizes this.
Because Jesus doesn’t simply debate Nicodemus and then rip into him for not understanding…rather Jesus is trying to explain how the Spirit acts within the hearts and minds of individuals…making relationship possible…and making us heirs with Christ to the promise of eternal life. (pause)
You see…Nick came at this in the right way…regardless of his intentions or his sneaking around in the darkness of night…he comes to Jesus and calls him…rabbi…teacher…and in this one simple address, Nick admits that Jesus is one who’s authority is greater than his own…that Jesus is one that Nick can learn from…and then their debate simply shows us that Nick is trying to understand…but that this amazing truth is beyond him…and likewise it is beyond us…and Jesus admits it to us…
The wind blows where it chooses…and you hear the sound of it…but you DO NOT KNOW…where it comes from or where it goes…So it is with EVERYONE…who is born of the Spirit. (pause) And right after Jesus tells us this…he says the words that I no longer hear as a rebuke, but rather as evidence…You Nicodemus, you are a teacher of Israel, and this is beyond your ability to understand… (pause)
How many times have we read scripture and been confused by it? Or witnessed difficult things in life…disease and death…hardship and suffering…and we fail to understand it…and we wonder what is God up to in the world…what is going on? Just what is the Holy Spirit doing in all this? (pause) And we get nowhere with those questions.
And perhaps in those times…when we feel like we’re butting up against a wall…maybe, just maybe it feels like we’re in trouble…like God is mad at us…or that we’re not worthy of this amazing gift, because if we were we’d have it all figured out…and we sit there staring in our rear view mirror, shaking in our boots…and wondering just how much trouble we’re in…what we’re in store for…and expecting the worst.
That was my situation on that day back in August of 2013…knowing full well that I was driving too fast…and expecting a ticket…but then the officer came up to my window…having already run my plates and my driving record…and he gave me verbal warning…told me to go ahead but slow down….He might as well have been telling me to go forth and sin no more…not because of anything that I had done…but simply out of his good graces. (pause) and all I could think to myself is “You mean I’m not in trouble?” (pause)
And isn’t it wonderful that we have a God that loves us so much…that loves each and every one of us so much…a God that loves the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life…that whoever believes in him may not be punished…they are NOT in trouble.
This is what Jesus is telling us today…even those born of the Spirit…even those who believe that Jesus IS the son of God, lack understanding about just what God is up to…and that…is okay…because we don’t have to understand it…we don’t have to be able to explain it…because God has already done it…and the father sent the Son, not to condemn us…but to save us…
And so today, perhaps all we can do is thank God for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives…here in the world…and through the power of the Holy Spirit we declare that Jesus is the son of God…sent by God in the world to redeem it out of love for us…and though we might not understand how it all works…and maybe it seems too good to be true…we can look to the Lord and say…You mean I’m not in trouble? And then we respond the only way we can…by saying thank you.
Amen.

Where Do We Go From Here

I haven’t actually sat down and written a blog in a long time…too long. I can’t even tell you the last time that I did any writing that wasn’t a sermon or a board report or a newsletter article.

But life has afforded me a moment to stop and catch my breath in the midst of a lot of craziness. And when I find these moments…which is admittedly often though typically quite fleeting…my mind starts going. Lately there’s been a lot to think about.

This is a crazy time of year. People and activities are buzzing all around us. Christmas shopping, holiday planning, school concerts, seasonal changes…the list goes on and on. Additionally, the wide spread buzz has been…well…buzzing with a lot of controversial things as of late. Arguments have erupted around different issues like gun violence/control, grand jury decisions regarding tragic deaths, racial based tensions, immigration…and the list goes on and on.

Here at home things have been crazy as well. Following a week’s vacation over Thanksgiving, I came into a week that I was expecting to be low key…thanks to the Adult Choir at church performing their Christmas Program this Sunday and letting me off the hook for preaching. But yet in the midst of a casual week, I’ve kept busy. Conversations with other area pastors my first day back filled an afternoon with discussions, sometimes heated, about the difficulties we face within our own small niches. Due to this, my normal monthly visits to members in nursing homes was postponed. A congregational family experienced a death, and in the midst of offering them support my wife’s family experienced their own loss of a beloved aunt.

Its one of those situations that sort of leaves you with your head spinning.

Where do we go with all this stuff…there’s too much. Too much violence…too much hate…too much death…ITS TOO MUCH LORD!!!! WHERE ARE YOU ON THIS STUFF…There’s more darkness in the world than I know how to handle.

And when I get in that mode mentally, my mood goes south in a really big hurry…and I kind of walk around in a bit of a dark funk…every bit as dark as my perception of the world around me. That was my situation as of about 24 hours ago…but I put on my big-boy pants…as well as a brave face…and I went on the nursing home visits that had gotten postponed a couple days earlier.

One of the visits found me sitting at a table with 4 or 5 ladies…a couple of which I knew…and a couple that I was just meeting for the first time.  I can’t quite account for this, but what I perceive to be the combination of extreme hearing loss as well as an “I’m old enough that I’ll say whatever I want to” attitude led one of the new ladies to lean over and “whisper” to her neighbor.

“He’s a pastor? Oh he can’t be a pastor, he’s too good looking.”

And then…

“He look’s like a hunk to me.”

Cue laughter…a lot of laughter from everyone at the table…myself included.

Here in the midst of the dark funk that I’ve been feeling lately…powerless to do anything about it, comes a glimmer of light…a spark of joy.

And in that moment I found myself reminded of the season. We’re in Advent, coming right up on Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Christ in the world…the Incarnation as its known in the church world…and when I realized that, I immediately thought of my favorite Gospel…sorry Matthew, Mark, and Luke…you guys are great but it isn’t you…and I thought of the Incarnation in John’s Gospel. Chapter 1 verse 5…The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Jesus is the light…he is the light of the world…and at Christmas he comes into the world…and in the midst of all that darkness…all this death and tension and fear and anger that so many of us are feeling these days…that darkness doesn’t win. God says so…because the darkness doesn’t get the last word…God does…and while I believe with every atom of my being that God is mourning the current state of our reality, I also believe that God is doing something about it, whether we realize it or not.

And that moment of extreme belly laughter, brought on by one elderly lady building up my ego, reminded me that God’s not hindered by our darkness…he’s not stymied by the difficulties that we face…and God IS…up to something. The darkness cannot and will not win…because the LIGHT has come into the world.

Don’t believe me…think I’m just another religious nut? Think I’m crazy to hold on some fantasy? That’s okay, but I’ll get scientific with you too. Darkness is the absence of light…period…darkness is not even its own thing…it can only be when something else is not…and that is the light…the instant light comes on the scene, darkness retreats. Darkness cannot exist in the presence of light.

So in the midst of a dark time, let’s hold onto the hope that Light is, once again, coming into the world…and the darkness CANNOT over come it.

Where Did He Go? 3-16-14

This week’s sermon came from the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night, found in John 3:1-17. In the sermon I explore the difficulty of the truth that Jesus presents, and how some people will turn away from it, needing time to come to grips with what Jesus is telling them.

You can listen to the sermon here.
http://soundcloud.com/revdalen/where-did-he-go-3-16-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here. As usual, disregard the indications to pause and the weird punctuation…gotta remind myself of that somehow.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
As many of you have learned, I grew up in a small town, not unlike Underwood. But there was one major difference between Underwood and him home town…the size of the school. My entire school, k-12 was less than 300 people. As I think back, I can remember pretty much every room in that school because I was in them at one time or another…but for some reason, there is one room really stands out in my memory. The boys bathroom in what was at the time, the junior high wing.
Now, there is nothing special about the bathroom…no reason that it should still be visible in my memory 17 years after leaving the school for the last time, but I can still see it. A large wooden door…dark red floor, pale blue walls…quite the combination…you walk through the doorway and around a corner, past 3 or 4 toilet stalls to the back wall where there are 2 sinks and 3 urinals. Can you see it? Picture it for a moment.
Now the kicker. This is junior high. Some wise guy thinks he’s funny and flips the lights off as he walks out the door…complete darkness…Great…Needless to say, this situation happened to me…more than once during my time there…but I never panicked. I knew the layout of the bathroom…I knew where the light switch was. All I had to do was carefully feel may way through the darkness and I’d find my way out…sounds simple right? I always thought so, but reality was a little harder. I remember one time in particular when I decided against the normal “feel my way along the wall until I hit the corner, turn and find the light switch” technique. I thought to myself that I knew how to walk out. I don’t need any lights…I don’t need any illumination. As I took a few tentative steps in the right direction…I thought to myself about two more steps then I better put my hand out to find(BAM!!!)… the wall. I guess my “knowledge” was lacking there wasn’t it?
This theme of groping in the darkness blares out of our lesson for today. The story opens with Nicodemus…or as I like to call him Nick…now this guy is a Pharisee…and he’s apparently impressed by Jesus and seeking him out…in the dead of night.  Why at night? Come on Nick!…you’re a prominent guy, why all the secrecy? (pause here) Oh…I see…you’re not quite sure about this guy you are going to see…and not only that, your Pharisee cronies wouldn’t think too highly of it. Okay, I get it…Nick’s got a reputation to uphold…and he’s not overly excited to visit with Jesus during broad daylight when everyone can see what he’s up to.
Regardless of his motivation for the night time visitation…and regardless of the circumstances that led him to Jesus, we should, in the very least give him a little credit. He’s seen the man, and he knows what he can do…Rabbi clearly you are from God because the stuff you are pulling off is impossible…Now, I’m a smart guy. I’m a Pharisee and I’ve got it together, but…I’m still a little confused? Can you shed some light on all this for me?
Now we know how the story goes don’t we? Jesus starts firing off truth for our old pal Nick, who tries to show off how brilliant he is…but it doesn’t quite work out…epic fail…He’s just groping in the darkness…darkness as deep as the night of our story.
Jesus continues to teach him, living up to the very name that good old Nicky used in the first place…Rabbi…Teacher…but it is hard truth…it is confusing…and Nick finally admits his lack of understanding with a simple, yet very profound question…How Can This Be?
Jesus doesn’t miss a beat here, but lays out a pretty strong “religious accusation.” You are a Pharisee…you of all people should get this.” He might as well be saying “See…even the Jewish big-wigs fall short. With all their rules and restrictions and piety, and yet here they are…alone in the bathroom with the lights off, groping around trying to find a light switch.”
But you know what…I think we can probably relate can’t we? Think about it for a moment…Nick comes at night…confused, but curious…lacking understanding about just who Jesus is and what he stands for…but Nick is seeking this understanding…and not only that but he’s seeking it from the source…he wants to drive out the darkness of his confusion with the very light of the truth itself…Jesus…but what he experiences is confusing…its hard…and I think that sounds really familiar.
Because sometimes, when Jesus starts teaching…he lays out some pretty strong truth…and he does exactly that in this story. But in doing so he says a lot of stuff that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For instance, Jesus says that no one can enter the kingdom of heaven without being born from above…Nick’s confused and asks how can someone be born again?
Now it doesn’t really come through very well here in the English, but in the original language it’s the same word used by both men…above or again…same word…which raises the question…did Jesus use it intentionally just to be confusing? Or is this just another example of how the truth about the kingdom…a truth that Jesus knows and understands…is just down right difficult for us to grasp?
Whatever the motivation of Jesus for using confusing language, we simply recognize that it is, in fact confusing…confusing for Nick…and confusing for us today…and so, like Nick, perhaps we find ourselves asking the very same question…Jesus…How can this be? Or to put it quite simply…WHAT ARE YOU BABBLING ABOUT!?!
But in the end, Jesus does stat to move things towards a pretty good conclusion…and in my opinion, he lays out the very center of the entire Biblical message. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have life eternal. (pause) In the midst of some pretty heady stuff…he drops that wonderful little nugget.
But…now at this point…where’s Nick? Did anyone notice that he disappeared by this point? Sure enough…by the time Jesus gets to the really good stuff, he might as well be talking to himself. But there’s a reason for that. As Jesus is teaching, laying out these uber-truths, he is bringing illumination into the world. And it is…intense. After groping around in complete darkness, the lights just came on and they are blazing. Has that ever happened to you?
One of my favorite times of day is a brief moment of quiet that I experience between taking the kids to school in the morning and heading across the parking lot to the office for the day. I grab a cup of coffee, step into the living room…and plop down in a chair that faces the big bay window on the east side of the house…but one thing that I’ve noticed is the second I sit down in that spot is the morning sunlight blinds me…utterly and completely…I can’t see anything because the light is so intense.
I think that good old Nick experienced the same type of thing in his initial encounter with Jesus. Here he is, groping around in the total darkness of his disbelief, and then the full power of the Son hits him full in the face. It’s too much for him. He can’t take it and has to turn away…at least for awhile.
This isn’t the last we see of the man. Later on in the story, we see him…and he’s changed. He defends Jesus within the Pharisee’s, the very people that he feared finding out about his initial encounter with Jesus…though admittedly in that part of the story, his defense of Jesus is simply based on a technicality within the Law…He’s making progress, becoming a little more bold where Jesus is concerned…but he’s still holding onto his old way of thinking.
But then later on…towards the very end of the Gospel…we see Nick pop up a third time…and this time, he assists in the burial of the crucified Jesus…can’t get much more public and exposed than that…assisting in handling the body of the very enemy the other religious leaders had killed.
So what happened? Did he just need some time? Did his eyes need some time to adjust? Maybe so…Maybe Nicodemus simply needed time to come to grips with the life changing illumination that Jesus was giving him…and that…sounds pretty familiar.
Think about your own experience. Was your conversion instantaneous? Or when the full light of the Jesus the Son of God was shining in your face, did you need a little time to come to grips with just what you were facing? For many, the light of Christ may be just as blinding as the utter darkness that I faced all those years ago in the bathroom.
This is the reality of the gospel that we have each been called to proclaim. It is a hard truth and many that hear it will turn away. Like Nicodemus, they might disappear for awhile. We cannot control that….but we shouldn’t condemn it either…because the story of Nicodemus…his journey through life towards faith in Christ mirrors he human experience…one that we all have…one that we all experience. So remember this…when the people are blinded by the light of Christ,  they may just need some time for their eyes to adjust. May it be our prayer that they do…and that they are able to see the truth, and hear the good news that Jesus himself proclaimed…The son of man has not come to condemn the world…but he has come to save it…and to save you…Amen.

Shine the Light of You 2-9-14

This morning’s sermon is taken from Matthew 5:13-20. It marks the 2nd of several weeks in which the Lectionary focuses on the Sermon on the Mount. In this particular passage, we hear the familiar verses “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world. In this sermon, I focus on the Light aspect, and how Jesus tells us to shine the light that we are.

You can hear the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/shine-the-light-of-you-2-9-14

You can follow along with the text here. As usual, disregard the indications to pause and the odd punctuation. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Last Sunday featured two major headlines. Depending on your point of view, one was likely much bigger news than the other, garnering a lot more attention as well as a multitude of additional offshoot headlines over the course of the next couple of days.
The first event was of course…the Superbowl…and the massive beat down handed out by the Seahawks over the Bronco’s…this was the big story of the day…and certainly the basis for a lot of water cooler conversations on Monday.
Though I am, by my own admission, nothing of a sports fan, this does tend to be the one televised football game of the year that I stop and pay attention to, and this year, if nothing else, it provided me with the joy of seeing my 10 year old son, who is…at least this year…a Bronco’s fan…riddled with angst as his beloved Peyton Manning and the rest of the Bronco’s offence got systematically dismantled by the superior defense of the Seahawks….now don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t make me happy to see my son sad, but I was laughing to myself quite a bit as I heard him ranting at the tv. “Why’d you make that pass?” “How could you let him make that catch?” Or perhaps my personal favorite… “Come on Peyton, you have to yell Omaha…then everything will be okay.”
Well, as we know, for the Bronco’s the game didn’t turn out so well…but admittedly, I was somewhat distracted from the game by the other news of the day, which had hit the airwaves earlier in the afternoon. The academy award winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead at the age of 46.
For many, this news was a bit of a downer, but quickly dismissed as yet another Hollywood celebrity lost too soon…but that was not my reaction. I am a movie buff in every sense of the word, and Hoffman has always been one of my favorite character actors…his ability to embody a character on both the big screen as well as on stage was well known, and I have enjoyed his work immensely…so when I heard the news that he had been found dead, I sat up and paid attention…over the course of the next few hours, more information was released, and the world found out that Hoffman had been found with a needle in his arm…his death caused by an overdose of heroin.
Hoffman was a drug addict, though one who had seemingly overcome his addictions more than 20 years ago…but for whatever reason, this darkness once again took hold of him, and whether it was accidental or on purpose…drugs snuffed out the light of Hoffman’s life.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the course of the past week reading various blogs and news articles, both about Hoffman and not about him…but all together aimed at the monkey on your back known as drug addiction…and as I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to realize that quite a few people that have influenced me over the years have addiction in common.
Some of these people I know personally…other’s I’ve interacted with through social media, though I’ve never met them in person and still others have influenced me through their writing or public speaking…but through hearing their stories I’ve come to understand more about the notion of addiction…and the way that the darkness of the world can cause such pain that they cannot help but to find unhealthy ways to dull it.
Perhaps this hits close to home for me because of an event that changed my life and that of my extended family back in 2007. On a clear bright summer day I received the news that my cousin had been found dead…and as time went on we came to find out that he had taken his own life…the pain caused by mental illness had become to strong for him to overcome and he had stopped the pain in the only way that he could think of.
In many ways, this is not unlike the descriptions I have heard from various addicts as they too seek to deaden the pain that they feel…and though I struggle to understand the strength of this pain in their life, I do recognize that life is not without pain and darkness…and we all look somewhere outside of ourselves for relief from it.
One of the blogs that I read this week seemed particularly fitting, and I’ll share a portion of it here with you. “I wonder how many people slip away from this life, knowing they have missed something important. And never knowing what it was. Like a source of untouchable peace that sustains me when the “noise” becomes “too much.” Or a source of strength that enables me to overcome “the pain of living.” Rather than escaping into something that solves nothing and creates more pain. Or a hope so strong that not even the darkest of days can erase it. Where can I find the power to conquer my inner darkness when there’s no scriptwriter to write a happy ending? Not in me. Not in my greatest achievements. My personal strength. Or even my deepest relationships. Life is too hard, my resources too finite to find ultimate answers by looking in myself. Or around at the people close to me. I found them only when I looked up. And saw there a God who loves me, extending His hand to me. With a peace … a hope that holds me together, when the noise and the pain are overwhelming. The darkness doesn’t have to win. Not with this Light that nothing can extinguish.” *(see below)
I’ve thought so much about this issue of light and darkness this week. Many of you have heard me preach on this subject before and have likely come to realize the importance of this concept for me, and it likely stems from this scar in my family history…and the questions that arose from my cousin’s death…and the questions that any family goes through of why? Why did they do this? Why didn’t they ask for help? If they couldn’t handle it on their own why didn’t they look somewhere else?
And that brings us back around to another notion that I’ve come to understand about addiction…for most of us, the ability to control things is within us…we have the capability to handle our high, whatever it is that helps us to escape the pain and the darkness in the world, even for a moment…we are able to maintain…but for the addict, this self control simply does not exist…and it MUST be found from another source…and that source often times comes from yet another addict…someone who truly understands the pain and the struggle but has been given the tools to over-come them.
In yet another blog, I stumbled across this passage, written by another famous drug addict that has been clean for more than ten years but still battles his addiction each and every day. When an event causes emotional pain to rear up in his life, and he finds himself on the verge of hunting up a dealer…he writes these words.
“I [wind] down the hill in an alien land…the pain quickly accumulated incalculably, and I began to weave the familiar tapestry that tells an old, old story. I think of places I could score. Off Santa Monica there’s a homeless man who I know uses gear. I could find him, buy him a bag if he takes me to score…Even as I spin this beautifully dreaded web, I am reaching for my phone. I call someone: not a doctor or a sage, not a mystic or a physician, just a bloke like me, another alcoholic, who I know knows how I feel. The phone rings and I half hope he’ll just let it ring out. It’s 4am in London. He’s asleep, he can’t hear the phone, he won’t pick up. I indicate left, heading to Santa Monica. The ringing stops, then the dry mouthed nocturnal mumble: ‘Hello. You all right mate?’ He picks up. And for another day, thank God, I don’t have to.” ** (see below)
This individual looks for a refuge from the darkness in another person…and that’s where I’ve been going with all this. I admit, this sermon has been a bit of a downer today…and I may be coming across to you as soft on the notion of addiction…but that’s not my point today…my point is that we all feel the effects of pain and darkness in our lives…because this life is full of it…this life is full of darkness…and we have a God that knows it.
And in today’s scripture passage, we hear the words of Jesus telling us to do something about it…today’s lesson is a familiar passage, particularly the opening portion. You are the salt of the earth…and then just one verse later…You are the light of the world.
If you were here last week, you heard me discuss the notion of just who Jesus is addressing here in the Sermon on the Mount. Is he talking just to the 12 disciples? Well, the answer to that question is no…he’s got a much broader audience when he points his finger and says You are the light world.
In both of these verses…the you are is referring to everyone…Jesus is talking to the community of faith, not just to individuals…but to everyone…and he’s talking to them as a single unit…as the community.  So even though we hear you are the light of the world…it might be better heard if Jesus was from Texas…because then it might sound a little more like “Y’all are the light of the world.” (pause)
But if we…all together are the light…then we have to ask the question of just where does it come from…because we all know that the light of life is not self generated…but as we’ve heard before the Light is God and the Light dwells among us…the source of the light is God himself…Jesus Christ, God in flesh…dwelling among us…as one of us…but even more importantly…dwelling AS us…for we are the church and the church is the body of Christ here on earth.
So when Jesus tells us that We are the light in the world…we need to stand up and pay attention…its not something we do…its not something we achieve…its something we are because God himself says so…but then he goes on from there…and he tells us not to hide the light…as if we could…but to shine…very simply be the light shining in the world.
The Greek is very simple…if I was translate it word for word it would “Shine the light OF YOU.” The light is not something that you possess simply because of your status as a Christian…its not a special card that you carry around in your wallet, or an app on your phone, or badge that you wear…no…YOU are the light of Christ, so shine…shine in this world of darkness and pain…
And how do we do that? Well…its pretty simple…we’re called to love each other. Remember that passage about midway through today’s lesson…when Jesus says that he came to fulfill the law…well it’s true…you see the Law gets kind of a bad wrap…because we know that we can’t live up to it and we do fail…and we do need Jesus to save us from ourselves…but Jesus himself tells us that the commandments can be summed up in two very simple statements…Love God…and love your neighbor…all 10 of the Commandments can be boiled down into those two statements.
And when we love God…and when we love our neighbor…well that is the light shining so brightly that the world cannot help but notice…that is the light of God…and the love of God shining through us…in spite of the pain and the darkness.
The darkness doesn’t have to win…not with this light that nothing can extinguish. Amen

* Ron Hutchcraft, The Stunning Death of Philip Seymour Hoffman,

** Russell Brand, http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/09/russell-brand-life-without-drugs?CMP=twt_gu