Sermon for Sunday, March 18, 2012

John 3:14-21

“The Loving Judgment Of Light”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear a podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  120318SermonPodcast

I have always been drawn to the prophets.  Yes, I’m talking about Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and Micah.  But I’m also talking about Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin.  Bayard Rustin, you ask yourself?  I’ll get back to him in a minute.

Part of the reason I love the prophets is because they understand the power of light.  They made, and make, it a practice of shedding light on those in power to expose their words and their deeds so that the people can judge their actions as either worthy or unworthy of their trust and support.  In modern times this process is very much related to (and has, in fact, led to) the creation of “freedom of information” laws.  We know them commonly at “Sunshine Laws.”

Wikipedia explains that:

Freedom of information legislation comprises laws that guarantee access to data held by the state. They establish a “right-to-know” legal process by which requests may be made for government-held information, to be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions. (1)

Prophets are masterful at shedding light on situations that they feel, and – in the case of biblical prophets and many prophets of faith throughout time – on what they understand God feels, are evil.  It is true that prophets will also seek to shed light on individual people, the citizens of a country or of a society, but they save their most intense pressure on people in power, believing instinctively what Lord Acton most famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (2)

Yesterday was the 100th Anniversary of Bayard Rustin.  Rustin is one of the least known leaders of the Civil Rights movement of the 20th Century.  He was an activist and organizer for many of the key events that changed the course of history.  From the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 to the March on Washingtonin 1963, Rustin’s brand of honest, forthright, nonviolent activism made its indelible mark.(3)  Rustin, like prophets before him, knew that rather than attacking evil with fists, bullets, or fire, all one needed to do to change the course of history was to find a way to bring light to the truth of what was happening.

Bayard Rustin

Today’s scripture calls us to just such loving judgment.  It is always a bit dicey to attempt to preach on what has become the world’s most famous and memorized line in scripture: John 3:16.  Say it with me, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son so that whosoever would believe in him would not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 is emblazoned on everything from Quarterback Tim Tebow’s cheeks to the wall in our chapel.

I believe one of the greatest insults to scripture, and the root of enormous misinterpretation of it, is in the fact that we have ripped this text from its context and used it to perpetrate injustice, supporting everything from shaming children into behaving correctly to undergirding a Christian sense of superiority that just isn’t in the text.  If nothing else is done to redeem this text, the least we could do is forever join it to the very next sentence, “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Bayard Rustin at the 1963 March On Washington For Jobs & Justice

It is essential to see that the entire point of this scripture is to emphasize God’s love, and that this divine love is for the entire world.  Even more central to me, however, is verse 19, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”  

So many people believe that the way to fight evil is through coercion and compulsion, which usually manifests itself verbally as admonishment that leads to shaming and physically as force that leads to violence.  One might gather this from the connecting verse, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  This condemned/not condemned scenario seems to make the case for a dualistic understanding of life, us and them.  One might then surmise that it is our job to try to persuade “them” to come over to “us” in whatever way possible, even through force, especially if their salvation is at stake.

But we have to read verse 19 to make sense of this.  Verse 19 is all about light.  And we are not the light.  The light is Jesus, and it is not ours to make the light do or say anything.  The light simply shines!  We can open doors, window shades, even tear down walls; but it is not ours to either be or to manage the light.

This brings me back to the prophets.  They understood that it was their job simply to allow the light to shine.  Like a wound that needs air to breath or a plant that needs full sun, our world needs to feel the light of God’s love.  Similarly, the prophets knew that they were not the light.  Almost every prophet worth her or his salt confessed up front her failures or his shortcomings.  Prophets do not pretend to have limitations.  They know all too well that they are not the source of the light they share, only magnifying glasses to project and enlarge the light.

But the principalities and powers are keenly aware that this subtlety is lost on the mass of human beings.  In almost every instance, prophets are attacked for their human imperfections and frailties by those upon whom they seek to shine light.  Whether it is a king or queen, a Sadducee or a Pharisee, a Caesar or a czar, a president, or a prime minister.  Rustin was attacked, just weeks before the historic March on Washington that he was directing by Sen. Strom Thurmond for a “sexual perversion” charge he had been jailed on decades before, and in doing so Thurman was intentionally publicizing the fact that Rustin was a proud and openly gay man.  Rustin was blacklisted by J. Edgar Hoover as a Communist for having explored, and yet later rejected, that philosophy as a young adult.  Rustin’s faith was even used against him.  He was a devout Quaker and pacifist, therefore had been a conscientious objector to war.  But Rustin kept on struggling to shed the light on the evils of systemic racism and personal prejudice.  Luckily, the slander flung at him by those in power did not ultimately deter his colleague from seeing the worth and value of Rustin and his passion for justice.

Even Jesus felt the sting, and ultimately the brute force, of those in power who used what they saw as his shortcomings and failures, against him.  Jesus reflected on the religious establishment’s accusations of his infidelities when in Luke 7 he quotes them, “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”

Do not get me wrong, friends.  There is sin in this world, and each and every one of us is quite capable of sinning.  In fact, we do.  Period.  The question becomes what should we do to address our sin and bring the cleansing and healing power of God’s light to bear on it.  Clearly scripture supports the spiritual disciplines of prayerful discernment, confession, and repentance.  These are time honored personal means of transformation.  Lent has historically emphasized just such a journey for each and every person, and John 3:16 can be and is for most people a guide on that road of renewal.

What I believe the scripture that surrounds this classic text of faith is calling us to is to do two things.  First, it is urging us to remain vigilant in knowing exactly who is in charge of the transformation.  By seeing the power in the light of God, it prevents us from pretending that it is somehow in our power to root out evil, whether within ourselves or those around us.  Receiving the light of God, through Jesus and through every way God chooses to bring us light, maintains God as the principal actor in the drama of transformation.

Second, seeing John 3:16 in context also demands that we not simply focus on personal piety, but upon societal ills.  Jesus’ discussion of God’s love for the entire world, and the loving judgment that comes through light encourages us to shine that light on those in power, those who can amplify good or evil exponentially.  We would be standing in a long line of prophets if we were to do so.

Beloved, let us proclaim to the world God’s love.  Let each of us step into God’s marvelous light and examine our own lives in light of the power of that love.  But let us also pull open the shades and fling open the doors of to the halls of power so that this same loving judgment of God’s light might also expose the evils that may fester within.  And may “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Amen.

Notes:

(1)         http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_information_legislation

(2)         http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely.html

“This arose as a quotation by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902). The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Another English politician with no shortage of names – William Pitt, the Elder, The Earl of Chatham and British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778, is sometimes wrongly attributed as the source. He did say something similar, in a speech to the UK House of Lords in 1770:

“Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it”

Absolute monarchies are those in which all power is given to, or as is more often the case, taken by, the monarch. Acton was referring to these forms of government when he made his famous remark. Examples of absolute power corrupting are Roman emperors (who declared themselves gods) and Napoleon Bonaparte (who declared himself an emperor).”

(3)     For more information, go online to: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-demilio/bayard-rustin_b_1354552.html

To learn more about the documentary film about Bayard Rustin, “Brother Outsider: The Life Of Bayard Rustin” go to: http://rustin.org/

To learn more about Rustin’s Quaker roots, go to: http://www.quakerinfo.com/quak_br.shtml

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