26th Mar, 2006

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God…”
Ephesians 2:8

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen

John Rankin lived in a small town in Ohio in the mid 1800’s. His home happened to be located at the highest point in that town. Every night John Rankin would place a lantern in the top window of his house and that lantern would burn all night. To the townspeople, it was nothing more than a peculiar habit their neighbor had and they thought nothing much about it. But to runaway slaves who were trying to make their way north to freedom, it was a lighthouse, a beacon, a refuge, a signal for safe passage and much needed hospitality.

For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
(St. John 3: 20-21)

St. John the Evangelist has a strong sense of the imagery of light and darkness. Right from the start of his Gospel we hear “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Light and dark: powerful symbols hearkening back to the primordial origins of mankind. Images strong in both our Jewish origins and the early development of the Church. We stand every Sunday to proclaim our Faith through the ancient words of the Nicene Creed – God of God, Light of Light… Two important events were observed last week – one of the natural world and the other of the super-natural – unrelated, yet very much related, not by coincidence occurring almost simultaneously. One was the vernal equinox; the other was the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. One observes the gradual lengthening of days and increased light; the other proclaims the principal doctrine of our Faith, the Incarnation, which by God’s powerful act tangibly brought the Light of the World, His Blessed Son into our midst.

Again from St. John’s prologue: “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.”┬áDarkness indeed pervades the world, in desperate need of the light. Who can deny that reality, not needing to search far beyond the very streets of our own community? Who is not appalled by the greed, dishonesty, self-serving interests evident in much of corporate America and all levels of government? Who is not outraged by the apathy which allows inequity and injustice to continue to pervade our society? Will light ever be able to pervade all the deep recesses of the world’s darkness which seem impenetrable much of the time?

When our Parish Mission Team arrived on the Gulf Coast, nothing could have prepared us for the devastation with which we were confronted. Six months after the storm, it still looks like a nuclear bomb had just fallen. Mile after mile after mile of utter destruction, home after home, building after building damaged or destroyed. One of the landmarks along Biloxi beach was an old lighthouse which had weathered many a storm over the years – “Was it still there?” I wondered. As I drove along it began to loom in the distance – sure enough, it had survived completely intact and bravely stood amongst the ruins like a beacon of hope in a landscape of despair.

As the week progressed and our team engaged in diverse activities: helping the Parishioners of Holy Redeemer sort through the rubble of their Parish Church; assisting an old couple remove trees and limbs from their yard; picking debris from property; or working in the food distribution center. The vast amount of recovery work that yet needs to be accomplished on the Gulf Coast is so overwhelming that our week-long efforts seemed miniscule, yet everyone was so very appreciative of our help. And I thought that maybe in our own way we were like that Biloxi lighthouse bringing some hope and a bit of light to the darkness of devastated lives.

Jesus’ words today from St. John’s Gospel are some of the most beloved by most Christians: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Some Christians want to ignore the verses before and after this one and make it a proclamation of exclusion. It is easy to make Jesus a prisoner of a particular formula or belief, so that those who are not Christians, people of other religions, or Christians who do not think like we do, or Episcopalians who are not Anglo-Catholic are going to hell in a hand basket.

And yet St. John talks about Jesus being lifted up so all may see, and that Jesus has not come to condemn the world, but to save it. But still many prefer an exclusionary faith, even though our Lord said that the eternal destiny of others is none of our business! Our calling is much greater than one of exclusion and privilege. St. Paul calls the Church the new Israel. Israel was called to be the chosen people, chosen not to be the only people God loves, but to be the example of what it looks like to be loved by God. St. Peter tells us that we are a nation of priests – Old Testament priests were called to mediate between God and humanity and between humanity and God. Our catechism tells us that we have been called in baptism into a covenant relationship with God. That covenant we have with God is that we are to be His people, to the world and for the world.

When our Parish poured out its generosity to the victims of the Katrina disaster and when we sent a Mission team down to Church of the Redeemer and the community of Biloxi, nobody asked how they voted in the last presidential election or what their stance is on the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson. As Jesus did not come to condemn or judge the world, but to save it; so we are faithful followers of the Christ, when we demonstrate that we are the loved community, called to mediate that love to all, no matter how they may differ from us.

Part of our Lenten discipline might be to examine just how we are doing in these areas. How do we as the Parish of St. Thomas the Apostle “look” to the world observing us. Do we look as if we are the beloved community? Do we look loving, caring, compassionate, or exclusionary and turned inward on ourselves?
How does the Hollywood-West Hollywood community view us? Are we seen as expressing the loving Jesus, who does not exclude, but yearns to make us whole?

In a beloved, covenant community of faith we all have an important role to play. It is not just the role of the clergy or the Vestry, but of each and every member of the Parish. It is a great calling and it is a privilege to be called and to serve! Not everyone was able to take a week and pack up for the Mission Trip to the Gulf Coast, but everyone has talents we need to build our Parish for the greater good. Today our Spring Volunteer Ministry Fair will offer many opportunities for service and Fr. Davies and I strongly commend each and every one of you to explore the worthwhile ways you participate in the dynamic and growing life of our Parish.

Being a Christian is no easy calling – it carries enormous responsibilities. Yet as the collect for today reminds us, Jesus the true and living bread fills us with His presence and empowers us to be for Him the chosen people in whom God’s love for the whole creation is made evident daily.

Amen.

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