People have attempted to access the Divine and gain access to worldly wealth & eternal life in a multitude of ways that exclude God. How do we seek to reflect the light of Christ with so many conflicting signs pointing in other directions?
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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I had the opportunity to attend the NEXT Church conference in Kansas City with my Calvary colleagues Joann and Victor a couple of weeks ago. The mostly Presbyterian gathering fosters the sharing of ideas and builds community as people consider ways God is calling the church to serve. One of the key challenges we received was to listen. Speakers challenged us to listen to voices of people who may never sit in church pews. Listen to the spiritual, but not religious. Listen to those who are naturally suspicious of institutions and clergy. Listen . . .
After days of doing all that listening, many of us were parched and gathered in the hotel bar. Victor and I represented Calvary, while Rev. Joann H. Lee was likely praying for us from a safe distance.
A couple approached our large booth and asked if they could sit down. Felicia and Jay quickly struck up a conversation and asked what brought us to Kansas City. When meeting new people, it is generally easier to tell them you are a cat herder, life coach or long term life insurance sales person than confess that you are a pastor.
Victor and I decided to tell the truth—that he is a country singer and I am his banjo player. (We did in fact admit that we serve as pastors and were there for a church conference)
Upon hearing about our vocation, Felicia lit up: “I love the Lord! I’m a Christian too.” Jay did not seem entirely comfortable as Felicia continued to share. She explained that though they have a beautiful home, cars, and meaningful careers, something is missing. As the server delivered Felicia’s martini and Tim’s bourbon, she confessed that they end up drinking excessively to fill the void and arguing when they do.
In what felt like a God thing, Victor shared that he knew of a spiritual director who had just opened a practice in Kansas City. A spiritual director is someone who helps people explore and deepen their connection with God. The practice is not a replacement for psychotherapy, but can help a seeker wrestle with a sense of purpose, forgiveness, or other faith concerns.
Felicia’s bar booth confession about feeling empty despite having seemingly every worldly thing that advertisers tell us should make us happy reminded me of today’s Scripture lesson from Ephesians.
The author of Ephesians stresses that we are spiritually “dead” when we “follow the course of this world.” By contrast, we are “alive together with Christ” when we receive grace and remain open to a path with God first.
Ephesus, an ancient city located in modern day Turkey, featured some of the same opportunities and trappings we have in San Francisco.
Like the Israelites in the desert making a golden calf to worship, some in Ephesus wanted an idol or god they could see, hold, and control. Silver statues of Artemis, the Greek goddess of numerous things including the hunt and natural environment, were hot sellers. Not coincidentally, a successful hunt and environmental conditions allowing for robust crop growth were keys to financial success.
When Paul established an early church in Ephesus, the implications were much more significant than persuading people to join a congregation. As people started to follow “The Way,” one of the early names for the Christian Church, they were buying fewer silver statues of Artemis. According to another book of the Bible–Acts 19—this caused a riot in Ephesus. The growth of the early church as people accepted an identity in Christ, caused great tension for those fixated on worldly pursuits.
While most of us do not consciously make or purchase idols like the people in ancient Ephesus, we can easily fall into the trap of allowing our identity to be dominated by the world.
How often do we convince ourselves that if we just had that thing, that job, that car, that remodel, then we could be happy? How many of us have some magic financial number in mind that we have convinced ourselves will bring us a sense of peace?
This past week, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network released their fifth annual World Happiness Report. As some of you likely heard, the United States did not crack the top ten. We’re number 14! (Isn’t that fun to chant?) Norway and Denmark are ranked first and second, while Syria is understandably at the bottom of the list. The research focuses on the “the social foundations of happiness for individuals and nations,” and concludes that “The United States offers a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness in ‘all the wrong places’,” the report says. “The country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse.”
Today’s Scripture calls us to live by the light, but all too often either trying to b-u-y the light or function as though we have a b-y-e through the grace of Jesus that excludes us from having to truly care about the world. It is easy to adopt a mindset we have our ticket to heaven punched by saying that we believe in Jesus and go to church. I do believe that we are saved by the grace of God through Christ and not by our works. At the same time, Jesus’ earthly actions and teachings focused on following him. Saying we believe in him is one thing, but what does our path of following him look like?
Living by the light is not easy. We cannot do it alone. Following the path of the Light is often inconvenient, but it is why we exist. As I intentionally share in sermons, there are numerous studies by reputable professionals showing the benefits of living for a purpose higher than our own pleasure. When we are on the “hedonic treadmill,” we tend to feel empty over time. When we are focused on God and others, “eudaimonic” happiness—think euphoria—brings real benefit: “Happiness derived from leading a life full of purpose and meaning seemed to protect health at the cellular level, while happiness derived from pleasure or self-gratification did not.”
Today’s Scripture concludes with, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14) What does it take to wake us up?
Near the end of the NEXT Church conference, a woman shared her testimony, beginning with, “I’m often asked how a girl like me ended up in a trailer park.”
Tamara John shared that she and her husband had lived a very affluent lifestyle in Southern California. Her husband was a successful attorney and she worked as a model and actress. They purchased more and more stuff and over time started drinking heavily and using drugs. She described the experience as, “an insatiable way of living… The more you have, it’s never enough.” One night she said she was in her room looking around at all of her beautiful possessions, feeling hollow. Tamara said she had a clear sense of these words: “Tamara, this isn’t what I created you for.” She responded in her heart with, “I want what I was created for.”
This dangerous prayer, another way of saying, “Thy will be done,” can lead down unexpected paths.
In Tamara’s case, it led to seminary to become a pastor, but not just any type of pastor. Rev. Tamara John again asked God for guidance and saw a most unexpected sign: an RV. This led her to start Hope for Life Chapel RV ministry. She has a specially equipped trailer, leads worship services, and does pastoral counseling. While there are people who are in an RV park for recreation, Tamara says she encounters people who have lost everything and have no place else to go, and are dealing with depression, anxiety and addictions of their own.
Rev. Tamara John felt that she had no choice but to live by the light.
I’m not saying that God is calling each of you to serve as a full time minister in a trailer park. I am confident that every single of us is called to serve in some meaningful way. In some cases, that may take you to a neighbor down the hall in your apartment building or to an adjacent office or cubicle. Some of you already know you are called to a different life than you are living now.
I invite you to pray . . .
Loving God, help me do what I was created for.
Help me live by the light.
Thy will be done.
 Brickman, Phillip & Donald Campbell. Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. 1971. New York: Academic Press. pp. 287–302.; http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/a_healthier_kind_of_happiness