Sermon: March 10, 2024 4 Lent

As you might guess, I have had a lot of unoccupied time over the past five weeks of my medical leave.

My foot wasn’t working right, but my brain was just fine.

I did a lot of reading, and I watched a bunch of tv.

In this world of the internet and streaming, this means I could watch pretty much anything I wanted to watch, and I found myself looking up tv favorites from my past.

I made an interesting discovery—almost none of them have aged well.

This surprised me, because when I was a child, I frequently watched reruns from before I was born.

I loved I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, I Dream of Genie, Bewitched…I could go on and on.

In the 1980’s none of these shows seemed outdated or offensive to me.

But this is no longer true.

I found M*A*S*H but couldn’t get past the rampant sexism and treating of women as objects.

It was a radical show in many ways, but it was difficult to watch behavior from the male doctors that was supposed to be funny, but really was quite creepy.

I looked up Threes Company but couldn’t deal with the sexism and the homophobia.

I even struggled with a much more recent show that I used to watch faithfully, The Big Bang Theory.

It was a little easier to watch than the other shows, but the homophobia, sizeism, and the objectification of women were still difficult to swallow.

Apparently, the world and I have changed a lot in the last few years.

I found it impossible to laugh at all the many micro-aggressions in these shows, even if they were supposed to be funny.

Apparently, the world has changed faster in the last 5-10 years than it did in the previous 50.

And while it was disappointing not to like some of my old favorite shows any longer, I am glad that the world and I have changed.

I want all people to be able to see themselves reflected positively in the entertainment they watch—women, men, LGBTQ+ people, neurodivergent people, people of all the varying races, ethnicities and religions, differently abled people, people of different sizes and on and on the list could go.

It would mean that in one area at least the world was beginning to treat all people as the children of God that they are.

And I realized that the same changes that have made it difficult for me to watch all these shows that I previously found enjoyable and funny are the same changes that have made Christianity such a challenge for so many people today.

Despite the outcomes of recent national elections, the majority of Americans cast their votes for leaders who support civil rights for more and more groups of people—black, white, male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, trans, nonbinary, or cisgendered, neurotypical or neuro-spicey, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or atheist and on and on the list could go.

The majority of Americans happily live in and support a world of diversity and difference and are seeking ways to better get along with people different from themselves.

This is demonstrated in poll after poll.

The backlash that is occurring is precisely because things have changed and people for whom the previous ways worked well are getting scared and angry.

People have friends, family members and coworkers who are different than they are, and through these relationships people learn that difference doesn’t mean wrongness.

Their Hindu neighbor is a good neighbor who cares about his children and works hard every day to support his family.

Their transgendered doctor is kind and caring and takes good care of them.

Their child’s autistic best-friend is a good friend, and they enjoy hosting them at their home.

Their Muslim wife cares just as much about poverty and climate change as they do.

You get my point.

We are living in a world in which we are beginning to understand that difference is not something to be feared, but a necessary part of life that makes a better world for all of us.

Indeed, if you took diversity out of the ecosystems of the world, we would all stagnate and die, as we are seeing close up and personal of late.

And what do most people hear as the dominant Christian message in this country?

Follow Jesus or go to hell.

There is only one way when it comes to religion, and there is only one way to be Christian.

And our gospel passage for today is one of the passages that is often held up to support this version of Christianity.

It goes like this: the world is fallen because of something our ancestors Adam and Eve did long before any of us walked on this earth.

As a result, we are disconnected from God before we even get started. God wants to be in relationship with us but is angry and needs to be placated.

We all actually deserve to die, but God, being loving, decided to send His only Son to die a horrible death for us instead.

Jesus is the bridge that reconnects us to God.

He is the one and only conduit for salvation.

Believe in him and be saved.

Don’t believe in him and go to hell.

And this just doesn’t stand up well with what most Americans are experiencing in their everyday lives.

Now, I am not sure I ever believed that non-Christians were going to hell, even as a child, but I do know, just as I didn’t question the various microaggressions in the television shows I used to watch, I also didn’t think a whole lot about Christianity’s dominant message.

I certainly accepted the idea that the whole point of Christianity and my faith was to get to heaven after I died.

Follow Jesus and live a good life and I would go to heaven.

Stop following Jesus and do bad things and go to hell.

I certainly understood and lived my faith as if this was the whole point.

But maybe we have completely missed John’s point in this passage and other passages in his Gospel that have been used to make exclusivists claims about Christianity.

First of all, Jesus says that “God so loved the world.”

Jesus doesn’t say that God so loved the church, or the faithful, or the theologically correct.

The central theological assertion being made is that God loved the world, all of it.

Why would a God who loved the world want to condemn parts of it simply for not following Jesus?

I have never found that threatening another person with exclusion has encouraged them to have a relationship with me.

Respectful listening, curiosity, interest, acceptance—these have all worked but not exclusion.

I think God knows more than I do, so I don’t think God would behave this way either.

Second Jesus says that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God is not about condemnation.

God’s intention is to make creation whole.

Jesus is the vehicle, for those who follow him, to awaken us to this love and to join in making creation whole.

Third, John was writing not to non-believers, but to his own community, those seeking to follow Christ.

These early believers, some of whom had walked alongside Jesus or knew someone who had, were trying to make sense of something that they knew to be true because they had experienced it.

To meet Jesus is to meet God. This changed these early believers.

They could never see the world in the same way again.

They could never live in the same way again.

They knew that they needed to live as God lived so that the Spirit of God could be in them too.

The Gospel of John is one community’s attempt to put into words what they had experienced and to figure out how to live their lives now that they had met God in Jesus.

This isn’t about the falseness of other religions.

It is about how encountering Jesus shone a light on the lives of these first believers.

It is about the relationship they wanted with God right then and right there because of this.

It was not about living forever after death, though certainly because God is eternal, a relationship with God will surely be eternal as well.

And fourth, this story is not for modern day non-Christians, urging them to become Christian so that they won’t go to hell when they die.

This is a story for us, followers of Christ in 2024.

To see this simplistically as a message for the “unsaved” non-Christian is a way to let ourselves off the hook.

I am a Christian.

I’ve been baptized.

I am saved.

Easy Peezy lemon squeezy.

Nothing more required of us.

If, however, we substitute “trust” for “believe” (a legitimate translation of the Greek word used here) the passage becomes a much greater challenge for us.

“Trusting in” requires so much more.

This is a story about how any one of us might reject the light offered to us because of the way it exposes what is dark in us.

It is about letting our lives be transformed by the Jesus story–withholding our trust in lesser things that seek to claim our allegiance.

It is about acting as Jesus acted, embracing those on the margins of world, loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving God with all our heart mind and soul.

I guess it comes down to what you think God’s primary character is, and what I hear in this passage is that God’s primary character is love.

And when I allow the love of God to shine into all my dark corners I am transformed, I am changed, and I can no longer exclude others, I can’t watch as people go hungry, I can’t watch some have while others have nothing, I can’t live with systems that keep some people on the inside and some people on the outside.

Once I have known this love I can try to run away from it, but I will always know that I am not living a full life.

I will know I am disconnected from God. I will condemn myself; God doesn’t have to condemn me.

Indeed, God loves me so God will keep being God and shining that light in the hopes that I will finally come to it.

We live in a diverse world, and I think God wants it this way.

God can never be contained within any creaturely vessel, including religious vessels.

I know that I have experienced God in following Christ, and that I need to go more deeply into following Jesus if I wish to experience God’s love even more deeply.

This is not so that I will be saved when I die, but because what I want at my deepest level is to be in relationship with the Divine, and this is eternal life right here and right now.

And I also know that all that can be said and known about God cannot be contained within my culture and my religion.

I am thankful that God has given me an infinite diversity of people to know and to love, that I might come to know God even better, that my relationship with God might grow even deeper.

This does not mean that I want to cease being Christian, following Christ, for this is the way for me, but it does mean that I have learned in my relationships with people different from me that God is bigger than I could ever imagine, and I thank God for that.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who trust in him are not condemned; but those who do not trust are condemned already, because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.”