Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Lent 4 Year A
RCL Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41
8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.
Today we have heard a feast of scripture. The designers of the Revised Common Lectionary have asked us to think about light which God’s son brings to the world, a central theme in John’s Gospel, and so they’ve chosen our second reading from Ephesians which talks about what it means to live as God’s people of light in the world. Because today’s reading from John comes just before Jesus talks about himself as the good shepherd, that Johannine theme is also underscored by the Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel, which describes the choosing of the shepherd David to be Israel’s king, as well as Psalm 23 with it’s famous declaration that the Lord is my shepherd. The poor preacher, placed between these wonderful and dense texts, runs the risk of starving like the proverbial donkey between two bales of hay, not sure which one to sample.
However, there is also another text that presses on us this Sunday, I think, and that is the text of current events. The theologian Karl Barth once said that the preacher should work with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, meaning I think that our faith needs to equip us for the world we live in. For us as members of a military chapel, we have perhaps a closer link to the conflict zones of the world than do most civilian churches. Some of you have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, and others of you have endured the absence of husbands as they served in those places. As a military chapel, we have, I think you will agree, a ministry to pray for the members of our armed forces overseas, for their safety and for their good work. I say good work because we believe, however vaguely or inarticulately it may be said by our leaders, that our militaries can do good in the world. Surely that is the reason why Canadian and British aircrew are flying over Libya as we speak, to do some good in that country? And so we pray for them and that God may bring good out of these conflicts.
As part of our prayer ministry here, I have been including each Sunday the names of NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Today our prayer list is a long one and includes ten names: a Canadian, three Britons, and seven Americans. To those ten we can add at least seven others: a 27 year old Swedish UN worker named Joakim Dungel, a 53 year old pilot in the Norwegian air force named Lt Col Siri Skare, a 43 year old Romanian political officer with the UN named Filaret Mocto and four security guards from Nepal. According to the BBC News, these seven were killed Friday in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif when a mob overran the UN compound where they worked. Other reports say that at least four Afghans were killed in the incident. These killings are linked, some say, to the burning of a Koran by an American pastor in Florida on 20 March. One Afghan protestor in Mazar-e Sharif told Reuters that “We are very upset that the devil America burned the Holy Koran. We call for the punishment of those who dishonored our Holy Koran.” The church where the Koran was burned, Dove Outreach Centre in Gainesville, Florida, was they same one which had threatened to burn the Koran last year on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Pastor Wayne Sapp, who led the burning on March 2, told the media that he did not feel responsible for the UN deaths
It is probably impossible to prove conclusively that the actions of Sapp and his followers in Florida caused the deaths of the seven UN workers in Afghanistan, although circumstantially it looks like the protest which started the incident was about the Koran burning. We should know enough about Islam by now to know that many Moslems react violently when their holy symbols are treated disrespectfully or desecrated. Our leaders in the West can protest with all sincerity that our war is against terrorism, and not against Islam, but there is a religious component to this war. There are Jihadist elements who believe that killing and dying for their faith is holy and just, but they do not speak for all Moslems. So when people who self-identify as Christians, like Terry Jones, the founder of the Dove Outreach Centre in Gainesville, preaches that “Islam is of the Devil” (the title of his book), then it becomes harder to distinguish between the voices of religious intolerance on either side of the conflict, and the conflict itself becomes even more intractable. More people die. More people at put at risk: Western soldiers, UN staff, and aid workers, Christians in Moselm countries and ordinary people on the street in those countries caught up in the bombings and killings. Terry Jones and his followers say they are resisting Islamic terrorism, but when their actions look and feel like hatred and ignorance, they don’t look much different from the people they are supposedly resisting. There is less light, more darkness, more hatred.
For thoughtful Christians, and especially for Christians who worship in a military chapel, the issue and the times are troubling and confusing. We want to be tolerant and fair minded, and we know that our allies, including the Afghan government and most of its people, are Moslem. We resist any attempt to make this a religious war, because whatever our personal beliefs we fight for countries whose citizens are of many or of no faiths. As Christians, we want to be people of peace, like the prince we serve and the Jesus we follow, and we are troubled when stories like the Koran burning make our unchurched, non-religious neighbours all the more convinced that religion merely breeds hatred and intolerance. Where do we stand in times such as these?
We heard in Ephesians that “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” (Eph 5:8-8) Christianity thinks in terms of light and darkness. Jesus in the gospels is all about light. Think how many times the word “blind” occurs in today’s gospel, and how against all that darkness is opposed to that one, triumphant statement by Jesus that “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). Light and dark are opposites that they can lead to a binary thinking among Christians, a triumphalist belief that we have the light and everyone else is in darkness. That is the thinking of the Pharisees in John 9, who refuse to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. They don’t burn Korans, but they can throw people out of their churches, as they do with the man given his sight by Jesus. They can’t accept the miracle and they can’t accept that Jesus is from God. Becuase of their pride and their arrogance, Jesus tells them that despite their sight, they are blind with sin. That sin, I believe, is the same kind of spiritual blindness we see in times like this, when some banish and punish and bomb and kill others who do not believe the same as we do. That sort of thinking does not remain in ligt but strays into darkness.
Please note that I am not advocating now for the tolerance that comes from multiculturalism, or for a belief, as one churchwoman once told me, that religions of the world were like different coloured raincoats, all useful when it rained. Note that in our gospel reading that Jesus says “I am the light of the world” and later he tells the once blind man that he is the Son of Man, that “the one speaking with you is he”. As Christians we join with the cured man in saying “Lord, I believe”. We are given the gift of light to see and acknowledge the Christ, the Son of God, but that gift does not mean that we should curse the darkness. Ephesians 5 calls us to a life where, in God’s light, accountable to God and to one another, we should live as God intends us to live. When it was first written, Ephesians spoke to a small number of Christians who lived in a pagan society that did not share its beliefs and even persecuted them for it. The Ephesian Christians were reminded that they were given the gift of life through a Christ who had found them, as Jesus finds the man in John 9 after he is cast out of the synagogue. Ephesians begins with a wonderful passage reminding us that we are part of God’s adopted family, given light not because we deserved it, but because God didn’t want us to live in the light, not in the dark.
On March 20th a small group of Christians showed the world the light of a burning book. I believe that action was misguided because it demonstrated hatred and fear of the dark rather than faith that the light of Christ would win out in the end. It’s results, to use a word from our Ephesians reading, were cleary unfruitful, as it contributed to death and stoked anger and hatred. It is for God to judge and for God to punish, and not for us. God’s work of light is ongoing. The witness of the Christian church throughout the world continues. God’s work of seeking out the lost and isolated continues. God continues to adopt new members into his family. Jesus is the light of the world and he calls his people to live in that light, even to be that light with him. My friends, let us remain in light. Amen.