03/30/14 Sermon (March 30, 2014) “Living Light”

posted Apr 22, 2014, 12:16 PM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: (from Ephesians 5:8-14)  (Liturgist)

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. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

    “Sleeper, awake!

         Rise from the dead,

    and Christ will shine on you.”

(after the reading)

“We live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God.”

Sermon: "Living Light"             Rev. David Hawkins

If there’s one thing I learned from middle school, it’s that no-one likes a snitch. No one likes a tattle-tale. We are all taught early on that telling on your peers to the teacher is the worst possible thing you can do, if you want to have any friends at all. Nothing isolates you more than being identified as the one who ran and told the teachers that something illicit was going on.

Even as young children, we learn that there is something shameful about exposing the secrets of those around us. There is something slightly dirty about telling others about dirty things.

And this reluctance to talk about our secrets carries well into our adulthood, doesn’t it? We don’t talk amongst ourselves about each other’s secrets, at least I hope we don’t. That would be the very definition of gossip. There are things that we know about each other that we learned in confidence, and if we value our friendships and our trust in one another, they will stay in confidence. That’s the way that trust works.

And that’s what makes this passage in Ephesians so very difficult to live out in real life. On one hand, we are told that it is shameful to reveal secrets, yet on the other hand, we are told to expose them. On one hand we are encouraged to shine a bright light onto the dark corners of the world, and on the other, we are reminded of a truth that we already instinctively know, that it is our own reputations and friendships that will be ruined if we do so.

It is quite a dilemma, isn’t it? There is no easy answer to the questions that are raised by this small bit of scripture. And not only that, we aren’t given many clues as to how we are to interpret it. Sunlight might be the best disinfectant, but exposing dark secrets to the light is a dangerous undertaking, for all involved. Nobody comes out completely clean.

For that reason, we need to explore this passage carefully and gently. There is a great temptation to simplify and generalize this scripture, and consequently cause great pain with a ham-handed application of it. At least, there is for me. I know that I need to be cautious when I think about how to apply this scripture to my own life.

Let me first say this: As your pastor, I am bound by my ordination and by civil law to hold in confidence anything that is told to me in confidence, with certain exceptions. One of these exceptions is that I must notify the authorities if I discover that children or people in vulnerable situations are being abused, or are in danger of being abused. In this case, I am mandated by law and by PC(USA) policy to break confidentiality.  

But in general, my role is to provide a safe space for folks to talk about parts of their life that are difficult, or even embarrassing. And it is not my place to expose your secrets. In fact, I believe that if anyone comes to me in confidence to talk about those things in their life that concern them, no matter what the concern is, or how shameful it might be, having this conversation with me is already the beginning of the process of letting light into the situation. Simply sharing our lives with one another is a way of letting the light of Christ shine into our dark places.

However, the tragic reality is that this guarantee of confidentiality has historically been abused in the Church, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. The Church in years past has known about child abuse and done nothing about it out of a misplaced sense of privileging clergy confidentiality over the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

And now we see the great harm that this wrongly applied understanding of confidentiality has caused our children, and the damage it has caused to the Church’s reputation. Everybody has suffered, but the children have suffered most of all.

As the scripture says, it is shameful to talk of such things. It is shameful to even think about such things. Nobody wants to talk about such things. But when acts of such terrible shamefulness are committed, and no-one talks about them, the perpetrators are allowed to continue in their evil. And this is even worse than talking about it.

But it isn’t just the Church that doesn’t want to talk about such things. No one wanted to talk about the Jerry Sandusky crisis at Penn State. For fifteen years nobody wanted to even think that Sandusky was anything but a concerned and generous retired football coach. Nobody thought too hard about his inappropriate behavior with young boys. Nobody wanted to think too hard about it.

Even after Sandusky was observed by an eyewitness abusing a young boy, nobody wanted to think too hard about it -- not his boss Joe Paterno, not the administration at Penn State. It was just too shameful to discuss. And this failure to confront and expose the truth of Sandusky’s action ruined lives and careers and the reputation of a fine university and the legacy of an outstanding football program. Not to mention the lives of several young boys who will be emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives.

There are too many other examples, of course. It is estimated that at any given time in the world, over 27 million men, women and children are victims of human trafficking. That’s more than the population of Australia. More than the population of Taiwan. 27 million human beings, held in slavery.

There are more than 300,000 children brought into the United States for purposes of sexual slavery every year. I’m sure that you feel ashamed hearing these numbers. I feel ashamed saying them. Nobody wants to think about such evil things. And yet they happen. They happen all around us. And nobody wants to talk about it.

Sometimes we don’t want to talk about the evil things that happen in the dark for economic reasons. I remember in my own neck of the woods, up in Colorado, there was a small town about 30 miles away from where we lived that was home to a Louisiana Pacific lumber mill. This plant specialized in making plywood, and for years, everybody who drove that stretch of road next to the plant knew that something was just not right. Thick brown smoke poured out of the plant, and it would hang low on the ground. It stung your eyes and made you cough. Sometimes it would get so thick that we would have to slow down and turn on our headlights on to drive through it.

We all knew, somehow, that maybe not all the appropriate regulations were being strictly observed. But the plant supplied 300 jobs in a town of 1500, it was an economically depressed area during an economically depressed time in the life of the nation. You know how it is.

But people were getting sick. Water was getting polluted. And water in Western Colorado is a big deal, just like it is here. Finally, an employee of the plant was fired because he refused to comply with the lumber company's policies of disabling the pollution monitoring equipment. He led the EPA in their investigation, and eventually Louisiana-Pacific was fined 37 million dollars for the abuses at that one plant, which at that time was the largest fine ever levied under the Clean Air Act.

It turned out that not only was the smoke and pollution a problem, but so was the formaldehyde that was being spewed out into the air. And the fact that Louisiana-Pacific had been mis-labelling substandard plywood, and selling to contractors. There were more than a few problems going on at that plant, but nobody really wanted to talk about it.

We see this reluctance to confront corporate sin all around us. A fertilizer storage facility right next to a school in West, Texas, explodes and 15 lives are lost, and it turns out that the last time it was inspected by OSHA was in 1985. Due to budget restrictions and a lack of qualified inspectors, most fertilizer storage facilities in Texas can expect an inspection only once every 126 years, according to the Wall Street Journal. But we don’t want to talk about it.

In West Virginia, an above ground chemical storage tank on the banks of a river in West Virginia leaked a chemical used to process coal, leaving over 300,000 people without water for more than 2 months. To this day, many are still not drinking the water. But to suggest regular inspections and stiffer regulations regarding the storage of these chemicals is anathema in a region dominated economically by the coal industry. We just don’t want to talk about it.

Now, the plant in West, Texas, and the chemical storage tank in West Virginia are regional concerns. But the revelations by Edward Snowden regarding the capabilities of our intelligence gathering organizations affect all of us. The activities of our own government have been exposed to the light, and we don’t like what we see: tapping the personal phones of our allies in other countries, accessing the phone and email records of U.S. citizens, and many other activities which went far beyond the scope of what most Americans, including members of Congress, knew or even imagined.

And our response has been mixed. On one level, we don’t want every facet of our lives to be open to the scrutiny of the United States Government, for obvious reasons. And yet, we do want the government to defend our country against another terrorist attack, and in some ways, we have given our elected officials carte blanche to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.

And so, in releasing these documents, for shining a light into our national intelligence agencies, Edward Snowden has been alternately hailed as a hero, despised as a traitor, honored as a whistle blower, and indicted as a spy. It’s no wonder he’s decided to stay in Russia. It wouldn’t be safe for him to return.

Of course, given our present relationship with Vladimir Putin, that hardly helps his case. Snowden looks, and acts, like someone who has done something shameful. And yet most of us agree that what he has uncovered about our intelligence agencies is also shameful. So shameful that there are already reforms being made that will address some of the more egregious methods of data collecting.

But we really don’t know what to think about all this. At least I don’t. I know that I’m ashamed of the fact that we tapped German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s private phone. I’m alarmed that the government can access my email and store my phone calls. But I also am aware that terrorists use cell phones and the internet to plan their activities.

I’m angry at Snowded for running off to Russia, and launching his attacks from enemy soil. But I’m also convinced that if he had made these accusations while he was in America, he would have been locked up and never heard from again. There’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to talk about it, or even think about it. You know what I mean?

Our scripture today makes us think about what it means to be a child of the light. It makes us confront the reality that we live in a dark world, and are a part of it, whether we like it or not. We have to make choices about those things that are done in the dark: Do we expose them or not? Do we talk about them, or not? Do we allow the light of Christ to shine on them, or not?

And the choices we make have a lot to do with whether or not we have a stake in the results. If we don’t have dog in the race, it’s easy to expose something to the light. After all, it’s not going to affect us, is it?

But when the evil that is being done results in good things for us, and when the consequences of exposing that evil result in damage to us, or to our community, well, it’s a lot harder to let the light shine in. We would rather not talk about it. Just let it be. Sweep it under the rug. No need to stir up trouble. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We have all kinds of ways of keeping the light out of uncomfortable places.

So how do we live out this scripture that God has given us today? How do we think about these difficult choices? Earlier in Ephesians, the author cautions us to speak the truth in love. Does this help us think about the ways we let the light of Christ shine in dark places? Is it loving when we gossip about the secret faults of others? Is it truthful to stay silent in the face of corruption if speaking out might make life uncomfortable for us?

There is no perfect answer to these questions that fits every situation. There is no cookie cutter approach that will give us the right course of action every time. We live in a broken and complex world. A world in which there are very dark and evil things going on that are very nearly too shameful to talk about.

But there are some things we do know. We know that we cannot allow the powerless to be hurt even if talking about it makes us uncomfortable. We know that we cannot allow corruption to go unchallenged, especially when the corruption results in loss of life or health, even if, or especially when, that corruption benefits us. And we know that when we share our own personal dark secrets with someone, even if it’s just one person, even if that secret is shameful, the burdens we carry are lessened, and we let light into our lives that begins the process of healing.

The author of Ephesians encourages us to be aware of the world we live in, and to engage it. We are not permitted the luxury of withdrawing from the world, nor are we given licence to live according to its rules. It’s not easy trying to sort out what is pleasing to God. It’s even harder when we know exactly what it is that pleases God, and we realize that it will make our lives difficult if we do it. But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are by the grace of God countercultural, and this means that we are called to live lives that reflect the light of Christ even when it’s uncomfortable.

The last few words of our Scripture today are thought to be from one of the earliest Baptism hymns of the early Church: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

The promise of our baptism is that we all live in the light of Christ, whether we want to admit it or not. All our lives are exposed to the One who knows all there is to know about us. And while this radical vulnerability might seem frightening and overwhelming for us, the good news of the Gospel is that with this knowledge comes grace. Grace that knows all our sin, and yet loves us anyway. Grace that has come to terms with our lives, redeemed them, and brought us home to God. Grace that promises that even in our worst moments, our poorest choices, God is still at work in the world.

Let us rise from our sleep, and let Christ’s light shine in our lives.

Thanks be to God. Amen.