For God So Loved the World
A Sermon by The Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Lent 2, Year A
March 16, 2014
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone who has lost someone they’ve loved (and most of us have), that grief can push you into some pretty dark places. For me, the unexpected death of my father, several months before the birth of our son Jude, was a crushing experience. I lost weight and sleep and in many cases the will to do the things I needed to do to take care of myself and my family. I quit running and took to spending ungodly hours at the office. I worked as though it was my life, as though it were an anesthetic, an opiate to calm my pounding brain and to lift the pain that seemed to settle into every part of me. I was in the dark–so deep in the dark that my grieving mind couldn’t comprehend there would be an end to the pain, a change, a lightening of the load I was under.
Four months after his death, and on the threshold of Jude’s birth, I was on retreat with some colleagues in Connecticut and I had brought my running shoes in the off chance I would feel up to a run. On the first warm day of spring I slipped them on and shuffled off down a dirt road, sun on my brow but clouds still in my heart. As I moped along, feeling the weight of each step as though gravity had increased, I kicked a small pebble ahead of me, and my thoughts were in that stone, in the dust, impervious to the joy of a world breaking into spring. And, my thoughts were a mantra, bouncing like the pebble in front of me, the repetition of my grief, of “why” said over and over again.
Until as the road rounded a corner and for the first time I shuffled out into the fullness of the sun on my shoulders and the stone slipped over the edge of the road and into the weeds of the ditch and was gone, and my thoughts suddenly shifted. Without explanation or premeditation my mind was filled with the affirmation of that old American hymn, “It is well.” I was seized by the words, as if they were laying claim to me, and I stopped my plodding and stood in the sun with tears in my eyes wanting to fight the words, wanting to shout that it wasn’t fair, wanting to crawl back into the dark, and instead only able to run repeatedly through those words like the scroll of a player piano.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way, and sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”
I returned to the retreat center having barely run a mile, tears streaked through the dust on my cheeks, and strangely confident that somehow, some way, some impossible way, in the deepest of pain, in the darkness of grief, that God was with me, that light was still shining (Somewhere. Somehow.), that I would be ok. Not in some sort of cheap “ok” but in the “God-has-redeemed-the-world-and-you-with-it – ok”
I like to think of that moment as grace. I didn’t deserve and could not have earned that momentary relief from my pain. I had not asked for an assurance of God’s presence or the hope that my grief would ultimately pass. But it was there, in the sun for a moment, and with me to this day – that God was in it with me, that love would sustain me – that it would be well again. That day, I can say without a doubt, I was saved.
With that moment in my back pocket and with the love of friends and family, I slowly crawled back to health. It took time and sometimes it came in fits and starts. But it was in that moment when it all began to turn, slowly but surely, toward the light.
It is interesting to me that Nicodemus, a learned man and a Pharisee, who John tells us was a leader, comes to see Jesus in the dark of night. Scholars tell us that darkness in this context was probably as representational as it was literal. Nicodemus, the smart guy, cannot see the truth of who Jesus is. The darkness is his doubt and ignorance. And, I’d be willing to wager it was fear and possibly grief too. He comes to Jesus seeking to know who he is, searching for hope, for relief for his people, hope for himself, wondering if this was the Messiah, the leader to save them from oppression.
So too do many of us come to Jesus, or to this place, to our churches and our pews in the dark, searching for hope, and hoping for truth, looking for a light in the midst of our grief or pain. And, how often has the church not been Jesus? How often have we compounded grief by adding shame, and amplified pain with fear. This same passage that speaks of hope and salvation has become something of a bludgeon in some circles – containing that famous passage from John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Sadly, in the churches of my youth, and in the churches that so often have the loudest voice, the emphasis in this passage and truly in the whole of their so called gospel is that of belief and not love – which is to say that the agency of our salvation is our own belief and not God’s love. And, to read it thus is to distort it completely.
Let us never forget that this passage and the whole of the good news of God in our lives is that God loved us.
As the ever eloquent Will Willimon, former chaplain at Duke Divinity School and master preacher, once wrote in the Christian Century, “The prophet is sent not to scold but to save. It was out of love that he came among us and stood beside us and chided us and died with us, for us, and saved us. Love!!!”
And, that is why we are here, particularly in this season at the end of the long night of winter, here before the light of Spring and of Easter. We are here for a saving word – not just for sackcloth and ashes, not just to rehearse and confess our darkness, not just to bewail our manifold sins and wickedness – we are here to be saved by love.
And John writes: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Whatever your darkness, whether it is grief or sin, whether it is shame or fear, let this word be a light, and a hope, and a taste of salvation for you, and for all of us – God so loved the world that he came into the world. He came for love.
As Willimon writes:
“We kneel not as miserable worms but as those brought to their knees by sheer wonder at the gift. It was not to condemn us that our Lord bid us bear his cross, but to save us. We are not here as the lost but as the found.”
We are here because God so loved the world. Amen, and thanks be to God!