As a child – I must confess – I grew up in relative paradise. We lived on a five acre plot in Northeast Georgia surrounded by twenty undeveloped acres that were owned by someone who lived in New Hampshire – which might as well have been another planet as far as I knew. I spent many a night outdoors camping and playing. I was never afraid of the dark. I can remember sneaking out at night and having no fear other than the possibility of getting caught.
Many years later I found myself in a cave with a church youth group. Our guide had us turn off all lights to experience total darkness. I remember being astonished that my hand touched my face without expectation from any visual cue. We were told to consider this to be like the formless void of creation, the abyss of nothingness, the womb of the earth, or perhaps the presence of God even in the absence of being (and then we waited on the next group so we could spook ‘em).
A year later, I was walking alone on a path between two cabin groups in the pitch-black countryside of Northern Virginia after turning off my flashlight. I anticipated recapturing the feeling of childhood bliss only to find myself suddenly and terribly aware that most of the things that walk out in the open at night are predators. There is nothing quite like realizing that you have placed yourself lower on the food chain than you ought to be to inspire an appreciation for a flash light and another soul to walk beside!
I tell you these things because I believe there is a lot of darkness and fear in the world today. Certainly, there is much to be afraid of, but the currency of terror seems to be more productive than the currency of hope. By that I mean that individuals and organizations are making more money, developing more support, and creating institutional change by capitalizing on fear. And somehow, it seems that those who follow Jesus are painted in the same light. We are presented as either part of the problem – or part of the solution, depending on who you talk to – because we are simply unyielding in our views, and there is no middle ground between moral positions and social distress.
Sometimes, when I see the distress in our world, the prescriptive and overly simplistic application of faith, and the disconnect between the church and the culture we live in, it makes me wonder what happened to the significance of the Reformed tradition of faith? “Sola fide, sola gratia, et sola scriptura” are the watchwords of our tradition. Faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone – is that not what the letter to the Ephesians is all about?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
For those of us who have grown up (and grown old) in the church, these are very comforting words. No matter what we have done, or what has been done to us, God has given us the ability to believe that salvation has come through Jesus. Our faith is not about what we might do for God, but about what God has done for us. All that we do is in response to God’s love and mercy and grace and forgiveness!
And yet, when we walk out into the darkness of this present world, it seems that grace and mercy do not garner the same kind of response as they once might have. Where our response might once have been selflessness, it seems to have become more about feeling justified. It seems that we have replaced the common good with the expectation that a rising tide lifts all vessels. All the while we hear the drum beat of the disappearing middle class and the increasing gap between the incomes of CEOs and the average employee while our thirst for luxury items continues to increase. We hear of cultural hold-outs for racism and the blame game between individuals and institutions, and I, for one, begin to feel a bit numb.
Then I hear the words of Paul speaking to the experience of the Ephesians, and I want it – I need it – to be my experience. You were dead. Let these words hit the church like a crash cart to a heart in cardiac arrest. You were dead through your trespasses and sins! You were slaves to your own passions, to things that seemed to benefit you, through living as though you were self-determined instead of God-formed.
And that is where life enters in – the understanding that we are God-formed. We are not God-formed because we are Presbyterian. We are God-formed because God formed us, and by the grace of God the church is in the business of helping us see this. We come, in the words of Fred Craddock, “from God and we go to God.” But what does that mean for us in the middle?
It means that we find ourselves needing a flashlight for the path and another soul to travel with. It means that even when the culture shifts and all seems to be in darkness, God is yet bringing light through a belief in the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus. And it means that when we move into the light, we bring not only our hopes, but also our fears.
I believe that is why God asked Moses to make the bronze snake for the people to look upon. They had already confessed. They admitted that they had rejected God’s providence, and so it seems to me that the bronze snake was as much an acknowledgement of their sin as it was a recognition of God’s mercy. It wasn’t a magic trick. It was a statement about what they were being saved from, and just as they were being saved from the snakes, they were also being saved from themselves.
And so Jesus uses this same story to recognize how he will become a symbol of our salvation – not just from the sin and evil of others, but from the sin and evil we carry in our hearts. As we move forward as a congregation, we’re going to have to move with transparency, with penitence, and with confession. That may sound a little confronting to you. I mean, it’s not as though we have snakes in our midst. We are actually a pretty diverse group. Sure, we’re not as racially diverse as we could be, but for our size we have a good mix of incomes and political and social orientations. This is true.
So, I don’t think our confessions need to be about what we are doing wrong or about how inclusive or particularly exclusive we are. I think our confessions will need to be about the things we are doing, or not doing, that are more based in our desire to determine who we are versus our desire to be a people who are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
I do not have an accusation to hand out or a prescriptive plan to tease out a specific response to God’s calling for us. But I do have faith that, just as we must all constantly ask ourselves, we must constantly ask one another what the good works are that God has prepared for us to do. When I do that, I generally find that God has given me more than enough options.
That may sound like hard work – and it probably will be – but it might be just a matter of looking around. Jared Ebert and Kevin Shultz discovered that one day. They are both public maintenance employees in Fon DuLac Wisconsin. One day they noticed an older gentleman trudging through the snow to get to a park bench in an area that was never cleared. The bench was dedicated to his wife of 55 years, who had passed away. Bud came every day to give her a “Daisy a Day.” The next day he came and found the path had been cleared. Jarred and Kevin continue to clear the path on their own time, without pay, because it is just the right thing to do. In the news report on this story the commentator ends by saying, “Sometimes, to make a difference in this world, you need a good idea. Sometimes all you need is to recognize the good around you and clear the way for it.”
The thing is, God is in the business of clearing the way for us, and the most profound way that we can receive the gift of God’s grace is directly through our deepest fears. God has done this time and time again, and through the person and work of Jesus we see that God is in the business of bending toward us, even as we turn away in fear and doubt and selfish ambition.
You know, that actually takes me back to that time that I was in the woods walking in the dark between cabins. My deepest fear was that I would be found out for being alone in the world. I wasn’t afraid of being found alone in the woods, but alone even when I was with people. That’s part of the reason I turned off my light – to experience the loneliness I was feeling. Then my flashlight wouldn’t come back on, and I was scared. And God met me there. God met me there in the person and work of two counselors who just happened to find me and bring me into the light of community. I can’t remember their names.
But there and then, they showed me that it is better to be formed and re-formed by God and to bring my hopes and fears into the light of God’s love. So, don’t be afraid of the dark. Don’t be afraid of anything, but let us the love of God continue to form and re-form us into a people who demonstrate the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that we have received. We can do that. We can be that. And to God be the glory. Now and always. Amen.