Sermon from Sunday, March 18
Fourth Sunday in Lent
(You can listen to the sermon here.)
Spring is springing. The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming. The grays and browns of winter are surrendering to the pinks and greens of spring. And, most of all, the bats are cracking. Baseball is here again.
Many of my days on the baseball diamond were spent on the pitcher’s mound. It’s a lonely place, the pitcher’s mound. You have no one to talk to. You have no companion. You’re all alone, except for your shadow.
My shade, my shadow, imitated me perfectly. Every time I threw a fastball, it threw a fastball. When I would spit, my shadow would spit. I would pump my fist for a strikeout, and it would pump its fist. And on those late spring afternoons, when the sun was low, my shadow would almost stretch all the way to third base. My shade was bigger than I was.
On those lazy spring afternoon, sometimes I would only watch the shadows, not the players. The shadows would run, swing, catch, throw. I would fall into a trance-like state. With a little imagination, I could make myself believe that it was the shadows that were real, and the players were only ghosts or apparitions.
But shadow baseball became dull and boring. The brightly colored hats were gone. The sweat on the catcher’s brow was no more. The eye black under the left fielder’s eye was lost. Living in the shadows, focusing on the shades, created a dark, flat, lifeless world.
And that is precisely where much of Christianity dwells, in the shadows. We mistake the shadow for the real thing. We live and breathe on the shadows of the faith, rather than raising our eyes to see its full color, and life, and light.
John 3:16 famously says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It’s a monumental saying. It looms large over our faith. In many ways, it is the heart of the gospel.
But like a lonely pitcher on the mound, it casts a long and fierce shadow. John 3:16 has been degraded to the status of “bumper sticker theology.” This saying has been bandied about recklessly, in countless religious squabbles, to prove some vague point about eternal life. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” has been boiled down to a trite saying; a shadow of what it really means.
This shadow has captured Christianity. This shadow only mocks and imitates a real faith. Rather than joyfully saying the Nicene Creed, we prefer the shadow of insipid aphorisms; aphorisms like, “God is my co-pilot.” Rather than taking up the cross and following our Lord, we prefer the shadow of an easy, comfortable faith; a faith that requires no sacrifice. Those are the shadows of Christianity. We aren’t looking at the full light of the gospel, but rather dull, flat shades that offer no hope and provide little inspiration.
And we see the consequences of this shadow Christianity. Our churches are dying. Vibrant communities of faith are giving way to decaying institutions. Religious violence is taking precedence over forgiveness. And sentimentality rules our churches with an iron grip. These are the consequences of a shadow faith. And our religion teeters on the brink of becoming dull, flat, and uninspired.
We need to step out into the full light of the gospel.
For starters, we have to remember that God loves the world. Not just you, not just me, not just our church. When this passage speaks of God loving the world, it means that God loves the cosmos, the entirety of all things, seen and unseen. God loves every scorpion and squid. Every supernova and every blackhole. Yes, even every felon and every meth head. God loves saints and sinners alike. The shadow of our faith says that “Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and Savior.” But that is dull, flat, and uninspired. Jesus Christ is the Lord of all, whether we believe it or not.
That is our first step to make our way out of the shadows.
Then we realize that the only fit thing for us to do, is to love the world just as God loves the world. As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ came into the world as a light. This is the light that dispels the darkness, a light that gives hope and peace. But if all we do is talk about “seeing the light,” then we’re still living in the shadows. We haven’t yet turned fully toward God.
When we step out of the shadows, when we invest ourselves with a vigorous and radical Christianity, we become God reflectors. Our lives, actions, and words become prisms. Like a prism, we soak in the light of God, and then cast it back into the world in the form of a beautiful rainbow. The prisms of our lives give color and warmth to the dark and cold places of the world.
For even though God loves the whole world, much of the world is ignorant, or unable to sense that love. Even though God loves this world, oppression and degradation abound. We read this in the newspaper everyday. We have overcrowded prisons. We have children who are homeless and hungry. There are millions of people, people that God loves, who are born into vicious, perpetual, downward cycles. Lives of drugs, and disease, and violence, and pain cast these poor souls into the dark places of the world.
If we live out a shadow faith, then we have no care for those who have been chewed up and spit out by society. In the shadows, we are preoccupied with how much God loves us, and figuring out who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. That is a dull, flat, and uninspired religion.
When we become prisms of God’s light and God’s love, we put away all of those anxieties. The fullest form of Christianity takes the issues of this world seriously. If God loves the world, then so should we. Loving the squids and the scorpions, the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the meth head and the felon.
The full form of God’s love, not the shadow love, will take us to some pretty scary places. We will walk into prisons, sharing God’s love with the condemned. We will feed the hungry and visit the lonely. We will the unlovable felons, meth heads, and addicts. We will be prisms, casting the beautiful rainbow light of God into this lovely world.
As the church stands on the shores of the twenty first century, I believe that the only way to move forward is to emerge from that shadows. That life is shallow, and uninspired. There is much more to this faith, much more to the wonderful message of John 3:16. And there is much more love and work that this world is crying out for. Indeed, this loving work is already in progress, and we see it here in our very church. But much still stands before us. Yet that should not frighten us, because we have been filled with God’s light, a light of an eternal hope.
My hope is that one day the city of Waco will say something about us. Years from now, when we are all long gone, when we have been buried, and our children and grandchildren are gray and wizened, I hope they will say this: “For the people of St. Alban’s loved God that they gave their lives to this world, so that everyone saw the light, and believed in the love of God.”