Sermon by Daniel Ingram
April 23, 2006
1 John 1:1-2:2
It was about this time last year when I was invited to a bachelor party for one of our church members. To launch things off, we went to see a movie that had just come out, “ Sin City,” a movie adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novels. The critical consensus of this film was “groundbreaking visuals and terrifically violent.” …sounded promising.
Now, I can get on board with most violent movies. Violence in movies has its own segment in the art world. I’m going to let you in on a truth about art that true artists might never admit. Bigger is most often better. Paintings are usually best when they are huge (that’s why we want to stand in the center of the Sistine Chapel instead of looking at pictures online). We usually like our music loud (that’s why we built this magnificent pipe organ). And those who enjoy violent movies like REALLY violent movies (that’s why Quentin Terrantino and B-Horror movies make money in the box office).
But, when I left Sin City, my first reaction was, “that was awful!” Not because I watched a third of the movie through the gaps in my fingertips. Not awful in the cinematic sense either. It was one of the most stunningly and brilliantly shot movies I’ve ever seen. It was awful in the moral sense. We’re convinced to believe in just a few protagonists, and in any other environment, these would be truly hideous people. And these, our heroes, fight out their angst in a city that is eternally draped in the dark of night.
I left the theatre drained, craving some moment of redemption – not a tightly wound up happy ending, just some glimmer of hope, but there was none. And this was why I found it to be such an awful experience. I felt like I needed a shower or a glass of water or just a hug. But, a bachelor party isn’t the kind of time when we freely solicit hugs from each other. But I yearned for some hope or glimpse of purity. But, it’s just a movie – why did I feel so awful?
I’ve been thinking about this since then, and this is what I’ve come to believe. This fantasy story spoke clearly and honestly about the reality of the human condition. There is a yearning in the film for a peace that can never be – a need for a sunrise to dispel the everlasting night – a need for color and light to break through the depressing monochrome – a need for grace to balance vengeance.
I’ve said before that our tears of laughter, joy and sorrow are never very far apart. This is how we are able to find ourselves laughing at funerals and crying at weddings. We laugh and cry at things that speak most honestly about ourselves – those things that point out specific truths in us. Is this why this movie so deeply disturbed me? Could it be pointing out the truth of my very worst nature?
We all long for salvation. We call it by many names, but each of us, in some way seeks to be well, whole, elected, rescued, repaired, liberated, transformed, released, redeemed, pardoned, forgiven, restored, justified, sanctified, even glorified and blessed. And if this is what we seek, then it is clear that all is not well – at least, for us. We want it to be, but cannot make it so – perhaps we cannot even imagine what being well would look like. Attempts to make things right, even to try to identify what is wrong is overwhelming. Our behaviors, feelings and attitudes produce behavior that harms our selves, those around us and the world. Night closes in – we need hope.
Our text this morning comes from the first letter of John. It’s slightly different from John’s two subsequent letters. If it weren’t for these other two letters, we may not call 1 John a letter at all. It lacks the customary salutation, thanksgiving and closing regards that we find in the other letters. It reads more like a sermon – beckoning John’s congregation back to the basics. It could even be considering a summarizing commentary on John’s gospel, sharing many words, themes and images.
First John opens with a declaration of intent. It’s a declaration that reaches back to the beginning, just the same as the gospel of John. The word of life, God’s Son Jesus Christ, is the source of life, revealed, the one to be proclaimed. The word is not ghostly or ethereal – it’s not a metaphor – the word is tangible and real. It has been heard, and seen and even touched with our hands. But John continues: we need to set some things straight.
John writes about darkness and light. God is light, pure light – there is no darkness in God. But any community that confesses one thing and acts in a different way is deceiving itself. If people know that God is light and act in shadowy ways, they undermine the very truth to which they testify. And how is this truth to be lived out? He continues with three confessions (written in first person plural – using we language – this will be important) contrasting false confessions with true ones.
The first: If we claim that we experience a shared life with God and continue to stumble around in the dark, we’re obviously lying through our teeth – we’re not living what we claim. We are living a lie if we say we are in communion with God but continue walking in darkness. This is probably where we spend the most time beating ourselves and each other up – not living up to whatever expectations we’ve created, whether justified or not. Live the life that we preach about.
The second: If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is ridiculous. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—come clean—God won’t let us down; God will be true light and true love. Saying that we don’t have sin is to move into a deeper and darker deception. We are never without sin, but we are forgiven.
The third: If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we blatantly contradict God—we make God a liar. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God. To say that we have not sinned makes a liar of God.
I’m not a huge fan of Christian bookstores. Not for the obvious reasons – those who know me well know that I am not a prolific reader. If anything, I envy those who crave books – I wish I shared that passion. This thing about Christian bookstores is rooted more deeply in cynicism, and also out of the spirit of Jesus who drove the marketplace from the temple steps. But, let me be clear – I visit the stores often, they make my job easier and I am able to find resources there that would otherwise be very difficult to find.
First, there’s something about putting the word “Christian” in front of any inanimate object that kind of makes it false. I mean, “Christian”, at its Latin root means “little Christ”. It’s a great word for people like us who strive to do the things God would have us to do, modeled by the one we believe to be God-human. It’s a good moniker – one we should be proud of, one that gives us direction for ministry. For the sake of God and the sake of this world, we want to be little Christs. But when we give the same title to bookstores, radio and television stations, magazines, lines of clothing, and so on and so on, the name is watered-down. That’s the cynical piece – and yes, it may be hair-splitting, but it’s what I think.
Here’s the temple sweeping part. Christian bookstores are also the marketplace for Christian accessories. If you are looking for things other than literature with which to express your faith, you can find these here too. These include clothing, stickers, posters, music, furniture, food and just about anything else you can think of. Just about anything with a cross, an “Icthus” (or the Jesus fish), or the poem footprints can be purchased here.
This fad was made particularly evident some years ago when “What would jesus do?” or “WWJD” paraphernalia hit the marketplace. The sentiment is right on. I’ve already said that we define ourselves as Christians, little Christs. Of course we want to walk in the path of Jesus, we want to have Christ’s interests in front of our own – we want to glorify God in our lives and through our actions. But the application was all off.
It started with a bracelet with WWJD stamped on it. Presumably in moments of crisis or indecision we were supposed to look at our wrist and ask “What would Jesus do?” And what would Jesus do? Well, for starters, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t buy the bracelet. I’m imagining Jesus on the beach in front of 5,000 people. The disciples scamper around, panicking, and they tell Jesus there isn’t enough food for all of them. Quietly and confidently, Jesus asks himself, “What would I do?”
A quick search for WWJD on Amazon.com will find WWJD bumper stickers (one can only surmise whether Jesus would drive a car), a WWJD belt buckle (there is a Nazareth, TX but I don’t think this was Jesus’ home), a WWJD New Testament (Seems innocent enough except that I only recall Jesus reading the Old Testament). I was relieved and tickled when I found a sticker that said, “What would Jesus do for a Klondike bar?”
But it’s more than the commercialism – commercialism is unavoidable, even (quote/unquote) “Christian” commercialism. It’s the individualism that results from it that is most troubling. WWJD found itself played out in the minute details of life, but avoids the big picture. It helped people justify behavioral characteristics: not using bad language, avoiding conflicts, maintaining a good diet, and various as sundry other particulars in the minutia of life. Some folks are capable of using it to justify what they wear, who they hang out with, maybe who they vote for (wouldn’t we all like to know who Jesus would vote for … if he’d vote at all).
But, even this fad found little traction in the larger scheme of things. It didn’t help us to wrap our minds around the current plagues of global poverty, hunger and violence. This was later made evident by a secular campaign, “who would Jesus bomb?” It’s easier to retreat into our cover of personal salvation – to do our little part here – to blend in. It’s like when a child covers her eyes, she thinks she’s invisible. If we can cover ours, we can retreat into the safety of our lives, to back away from the world, to let the world live out its darkness apart from us.
Dorothy Solle, the late German theologian and teacher calls this Christianity’s Ice Age. She said we are not just living in this age, we produce it, maintain it and profit from it. It’s a different way of looking at sin. I said earlier that John uses “we” language when talking about sin – and this is why. Have you ever had the feeling that there are things happening in this world for which we are terribly responsible, and we may not even know about it? It’s a shared sin, one we would never intend, but is quite real. (1)
The more we consider it, the more absurd it is to deny that this “sin” exists; that is, the domination of the frozen, retreating human beings. We don’t have to be Christian, religious or even particularly sensitive to get it. Sin – the absence of warmth, love, caring, trust – is the most normal thing in the world.
For the most part, we find “sin” to be a ridiculously old-fashioned word, connected with eating too much, speeding, cheating, cussing, smoking, drinking, or any number of sexual characteristics. In theological terms, it’s hard to take any of that seriously. We may feel guilt about not visiting a friend as often as we’d like, or picking on someone weaker that us, or not taking proper care of our children. But sin?
This may be because so many of us have been superficially Christianized. As children, we are taught that sin is simply ‘separation from God’, revolting against God, or worshiping false idols. But these are empty phrases that have little to do with the way we live. We may experience the actual meaning of sin – that separation from God – most closely and clearly in our depression. We are overwhelmed by the troubles of the world. This is that Ice Age, the cold night of indifference drawing over us.
Our tradition says that sin is the destruction of our relationship to God, but we need to move away from calculating these as individual “sins” – it has more to do with our general condition, the destruction of our capacity to relate to God and others. Everything seems to us to become shadowy and unimportant; life loses its taste, we can take it or leave it. Sin means being separated from the ground of life; separation from God disrupts the relationship to ourselves, our neighbor, God’s creation and the rest of the human family.
How can we have fellowship with God (who is light) while walking in darkness? How can we say we have no sin when we are sinners? We lie if we do these things – and the truth, which we confess, is not in us.
How do we emerge when there’s no quick spiritual Paxil or Prozac to usher us out? Thankfully, the text points us beyond this unfocused end. John draws a sharp line in order to make a greater truth clear. While we cannot escape our sinfulness, we are assured that in our sin, we have an advocate and friend. The righteous one, Jesus Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He brings harmony between us and God and harmony between us and the world. And there’s more…
The atoning work of Jesus is not just for the sins of the community, for the congregation, for the elite or elected – for the believers. This work of Jesus is for the whole world. Jesus is not just our hero – he is the one who, in death was swallowed up by darkness and in resurrection overcame the shadow of death. Through Jesus, God has forever changed the DNA of sin. Rest assured, God loves everybody. God’s love is pure light for the entire world.
What would Jesus do? The world is dark. Bring light.
(1) This and the following 3 paragraphs is adapted from Dorothy Solle’s article “Sin is When Life Freezes” from The Christian Century, May 12, 1982.