It was, in fact, the first time I had ever preached on this Gospel text.
I was in my first year of seminary and I was preaching that Sunday morning in my teaching parish at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in St. Paul.
Since this would be the first time I actually stepped into a pulpit, I wanted to be especially ready and so I went out the week before and purchased my first alb. It wasn’t anything fancy, but I was pleased with it nonetheless. I hung it in my closet, hoping the wrinkles would work their way out before Sunday and went to work on my sermon.
Somehow in the days to come I forgot about the alb and its wrinkles until Sunday morning when I went to get it ready to go. It was early still, as I recall, and so when I noticed the wrinkles hadn’t miraculously disappered I didn’t panic. I just went down to the large public restroom where there was a communal ironing board in our dorm, plugged in the iron and carefully laid the alb on the ironing board. Slowly I began to move the hot iron over it. Perhaps I moved too slowly or maybe the iron was too hot or maybe I simply didn’t know what I was doing, for when I picked up the iron there it was: a perfect dark brown imprint of the iron on the front of my lovely flaxen alb.
I was mortified, of course. However, I didn’t know what to do except to go ahead and wear it anyway. I was grateful that at least during my fledgling sermon itself my ‘sin’ was not exposed as it was hidden by a pulpit. And I was grateful that for some reason no one shamed me by pointing out the easily recognizable but out of place pattern on my new alb. And I was grateful that when I went to wash it, the stain did come out. Still I can’t help but think about how ironic that was. There I was preaching about darkness and light and sin, hidden and not, and there I stood, “the error of my ways” fully exposed for all the world to see. I would have preferred darkness that morning. I would have preferred not to stand in front of 150 people and risk their stares, their judgment, their ridicule. But there I was…
And so it is I also find myself especially grateful today that this bit about darkness and light, about sin exposed or hidden, comes on the heels of Jesus’ marvelous proclamation of love for all the world. What else could possibly convince me to come out of the darkness and into the light except for the promise of the very light of God’s love?
To be sure, my example of my ‘sin’ exposed so long ago in an iron’s imprint on my alb is rather a silly one. Indeed, while it demonstrated my clumsiness, my inexperience, my lack of forethought, it was not the result of malintent. How much more vitally important these words become in the struggles and joys of life in relationship with one another in this world. Indeed, how much more in those times when my sin has been intentional or has hurt another am I tempted to hide in the darkness, wanting no one to know?
And yet, I’ve found I’ve never once regretted coming out into the light. I have been especially blessed to have experienced the tender forgiveness of others when I have risked exposing my frailty, my fickleness, my failure. In fact, somehow it is when I become consumed by hiding it in darkness that It takes on a life of its own, becoming even larger and more threatening than it even was before. Again, to be sure, the promise and experience of God’s unending love makes it possible to come out into the light in the first place. And to know then the wonder of grace itself.
- I expect that were I to find myself on a Sunday morning with an iron imprint on the front of my alb today, I’d find a way to use it as an illustration in a children’s sermon. Even so, I know there are areas in my life where that is less true. Where I much prefer not being so ‘exposed’ for my faults or my failures. How about you?
- It can be so tempting to keep our sin ‘hidden’ in the dark. Have you ever known it to make it even worse than it actually is? Have you ever been kept ‘prisoner’ by the darkness in this way?
- When and were have you experienced the gift of ‘light’, of forgiveness, of grace?
- John 3:16 is perhaps the most familiar of passages. Does that make it easier to ‘preach’ or more difficult? What has been your experience?