Turning to the Light

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on March 30, 2014, at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco. 

A friend of mine who lives down toward West Portal has recently written a book titled: The Election of 1864: Our Greatest Victory. And people have been puzzled by the title.  Completely baffled. The election of 1864? Who was running? What difference did it make?  How could it be “Our Greatest Victory”?Product Details

Well, I’m sure you all know that the Democrats that year nominated George McClellan, General George McClellan, and the Republicans nominated – wait, wait, don’t tell me – right, Abraham Lincoln.  And the prospects for his election were not good. So on August 23, 1864, Lincoln wrote a memo to his Cabinet anticipating that he would lose the election. The war had been going on too long and people were tired of it. It was time to make peace; let the South go. Lincoln’s wisest advisors told him he was certain to lose.

So Lincoln wrote a secret memo sealed until after the election, saying that if he lost as expected, he would cooperate with the winning candidate to preserve the union until the new president was inaugurated, but after that the Union would certainly be dissolved.  Of course, if that had happened, we would have had two countries, and slavery would have continued indefinitely. Can you imagine?  Still slaves in Texas and the southern states? But if the South had gone its own way, what would have changed it? And more than that, if the country had become divided, there would have been no powerful American armies to win the First World War or the Second. Can you imagine that world?  We would be living in a different world entirely.

In fact, of course. the tide of the war turned:  Sherman captured Atlanta and suddenly things seemed very different. In fact, Lincoln did win re-election, the Union was preserved, slavery was abolished, and the world history you learned in school happened the way you learned it. Looking back, it’s impossible to imagine the alternative world that might have happened. it’s impossible to imagine two or three or more disunited collections of States.  it’s impossible to imagine that sensible people 150 years ago would have voted – indeed fought – laid down their lives – to divide this country and preserve slavery. But that’s exactly what happened. It’s impossible to imagine that people could have been that blind – but they were. So the election of 1864 really was our greatest victory and you can read all about it.

Now, I tell you all this because the things we take for granted as obvious to anyone with eyes to see were not always obvious or easy to see. Were not and are not.  If our great-grandparents were that blind, how sure are we that we can see any better?  What will our grandchildren think about the way we have dealt with climate change and health care and poverty? The readings today are about blindness: not visual blindness but mental and spiritual blindness, the kind that afflicted Americans in 1864 and still does in 2014.

Now, the readings today give us first the story of Samuel and Saul and David. Saul is a towering figure in the Old Testament.  Literally. When they wanted a king to unite the Jewish people they lined the men up – just the men, of course – and Saul was head and shoulders taller than anyone else so they all cheered and said, “Saul is our King.” And he was.  He was a natural leader and he united the Hebrew people and he defeated their enemies.

Saul was a great leader. He also was a bit psychotic. Sometimes the two go together. Vladimir Putin is a great leader, so was Stalin, so was Hitler, so was Napoleon and Caesar and Attila the Hun. So, for that matter, were Roosevelt and Eisenhower, and Kennedy – great leaders – but not one of them is an example to hold up to your children. They were great leaders but their personal lives were a mess. Saul too. Saul was a great leader and people couldn’t imagine life without him but there were traces of paranoia.  And they used to get David in to play the harp for him and calm him down.  But God saw that Saul was destroying his country. The same qualities that enabled him to do great things were beginning to destroy him and divide his country. But even Samuel didn’t see it.  Samuel didn’t see it, but God made it clear to him that it was time for a change and Samuel followed orders and began to look for a new king to replace Saul.

Today’s story brings us to the point at which Samuel has narrowed the search for a new king down to one tribe and one family. And son by son, the candidates are brought forward and they look just fine to Samuel but God says “No, look deeper; not this one either. Look deeper.” And finally Samuel finds David and says “This is the one” and Samuel anoints him heir apparent and eventually David does become king and the greatest king in the whole Biblical story – until Jesus. But David had his faults too.  There was his relationship with his son and heir apparent Absalom that got so bad it led to open rebellion and then there was Bathsheba. But even Samuel, a prophet, a seer, God’s spokesman, can’t help looking at outward appearance and God has to tell him again and again, Look further, look again, look deeper.

So that’s the first lesson for today.  Look deeper.  Don’t go by first impressions and surface appearance.  Look deeper.  The second lesson for today is a meditation on light: “Live as children of light.”  Well, yes, we should. But how do we connect this to Samuel and Saul and David? Well,glory the first lesson was about leadership and the second one is about discipleship – leaders are out front and disciples are following – they’re not unrelated, but different.  Yes, but we need more light either way. Light to know whom to choose;  Light to see the way to follow. Light to make decisions; Light to find the way.  You and I get to chose leaders every couple of years and I wish Samuel was available to help us; because we do need help.

But we need more than Samuel. Even Samuel guessed wrong; even Samuel got fooled by appearance and reputation. They chose Saul because he was tallest and that didn’t work out so well. Even so, Samuel looked at David’s older brothers because they were bigger and stronger.  Do you know that in almost every presidential election, the taller candidate has won? How much has changed? Theoretically in a democracy an enlightened electorate makes wise choices. We have newspapers and radios and television and computers to enlighten us but with all that light to enlighten us we still look to see who’s tallest – in almost every presidential election the taller candidate has won. And it shouldn’t be a surprise. Half the population doesn’t believe in climate change thinks American health care is just fine and increasingly doesn’t go to church or believe in God.  No wonder we make bad choices.

Look again at this morning’s readings.  I’ve been talking mostly about the Old Testament reading because it shows us how hard it is to get the light we need. The people made bad choices and Samuel almost made another bad choice. Fortunately he said his prayers and paid attention to God’s guidance. But even then, when he chose David and anointed him, it was years before David became king and David wasn’t perfect either – a great leader, yes, but far from perfect.

So, yes, live as children of light but the Bible shows us again and again and again that our light is often pretty dim – that it’s hard to choose well, and the best choices available are often not that wonderful.  So is that an inspiring message to take home with you?  Probably not. Fortunately there is still the Gospel. And the Gospel also has to do with blindness and light – real blindness and real light. There’s a man blind from birth and there’s Jesus and there are disciples and Pharisees. But the man blind from birth is the easy problem, the easy fix.  He knows he’s blind. The real problem is the disciples and the Pharisees who are also blind but don’t know it. They think they already know the answers.

The disciples create the story when they see the blind man and ask Jesus “Who sinned? this man or his parents?” You see, they assume they know what’s happening: there’s a blind man, so someone must have sinned.  There’s a problem, so someone must have done something wrong. But Jesus doesn’t see it that way.  He’s not really interested in the cause anyway. What matters is the cure.  What matters is the opportunity to glorify God. Who cares why he’s blind; let’s find a solution.

When the election of 1864 was over Lincoln meditated on the situation in his inaugural address and he said:

Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.

Yes, exactly.  God has a purpose and it may not fit with our hopes or expectations.  Let’s always be ready to look again, look for more light, look for a better light, recognize our blindness and trust God to work through us when we recognize our need.  Let’s come down to cases.  Why is the Episcopal Church not growing?

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church met last week in Texas and took as their theme, Psalm 137:4 – “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” My first reaction was “how appropriate for people visiting Texas.” But on second thought, I think they were focusing on some larger objective than trying to understand Texas. I think what they were really asking themselves – and God, I hope – was what’s happening in our world and our church. How can we sing our hymns and say our prayers and proclaim the gospel in the strange new world of the 21st Century.

The new bishop of Connecticut likes to ask, “What is God doing?”  We look at the state of the world and the church and it’s all too easy to say, “Who sinned?” And we can play the blame game: its those liberals or it’s those Tea Party types.  I can imagine Jesus’ disciples – that would be us – doing exactly that.  Things aren’t going well: whose fault is it? But that’s not what Jesus did.  He didn’t even try to answer that question. He seemed to think that it doesn’t matter how we got here. What matters is what light do we have to find a way forward.

I was very interested in the little graphic in the annual meeting report for this parish that showed declining attendance for a number of recent years and set it in parallel to the diocese as a whole which is following exactly the same downward path.  Well, you could set it alongside the same data for the national Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists and the charts all look the same. What’s depressing is that we have so much better answers than the Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics but still get the same results!

So what is God doing?  Let’s blame God. I’m quite serious: blame God. That’s what Jesus did in today’s gospel.  He said in effect, God did this to create an opportunity to show God’s glory. Who cares why the man is blind; healing him is an opportunity to glorify God.  Here’s a blind man.  Let’s heal him and give God the glory. Here’s a sick church in a sick society.  Let’s look for healing.

What’s wonderful about this parish church is that for all the discouraging news I haven’t heard the blame game being played. No, on the contrary, I see a church doing what Jesus did: reaching out to heal. Not asking, “Who sinned?”  but asking, “How can we serve this community.”  And that, it seems to me, is being obedient to the light we’ve been given.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”  The blind man said, “I believe” and he worshiped him. It’s just that simple.  We need to keep our priorities straight: believe in Jesus and worship God.  Read the Bible, say your prayers, support each other, reach out to the needs around us. Don’t waste time now asking  “How did we get here?” but recognize the opportunity: not for a charismatic leader, not for a great new diocesan program, that may work or not. All of that tends to draw us away from what we need most of all, which is very simple but demands all we are and all we have: to turn to God.  To turn to God. To turn to God with all that we are and all that we have and look for ways to serve and to heal.

We aren’t here to glorify plans or programs or leaders but to glorify God. Father Lui put it very well last week when he said we can plant seeds. God gives the growth; maybe not on our schedule but we aren’t in charge.  God is – and our job is to plant and to trust. That’s the great opportunity we have.  Let’s use it in such a way that we learn more than ever to turn to God’s light and make that light visible here.

1 Comment

MenavathsaiOctober 4th, 2014 at 12:53 am

I agree not having a time table ralely does make it tough. It is also hard when communication is not clear and the kids (and foster parents) are told different things by different people in the case. How can the kids grieve and adapt and move on when the story changes?

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