26 March 2006

Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Lent (7:45am, 11am services)

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
This is one of those verses of Scripture that sits uncomfortably with me. I think we all have one of these: something that makes us stretch and struggle and that we might even disagree with. This verse is right up there with “I am the way, the life, and the truth” for me.

When we read Scripture, we can’t simply turn off who we are, our history, our experiences. It’d be a whole lot simpler if we could just clear all of that out and just absorb what the Bible tells us. But that isn’t true to who we are as human beings. We come from families that shape us, from places that have taught us joy and sadness, from a whole range of experiences. We bring all of who we are before God each day.

So, I have to confess that when I read this Gospel passage, it provokes something deep within me. It strikes a nerve.

Perhaps many of you are in the same boat. Perhaps this is for you, as it is for me, one of those passages you hurry through because its implications are hard to contemplate, let alone accept without fighting it. This passage, and especially the over-quoted verse within it, are so tremendously difficult for me because of what they imply for those who don’t believe. As promises go, believers are pretty well off, but the picture seems grim for everyone else.

In a world where people of many faiths, nationalities, and cultures live and work together, this passage sounds harsh and closed-minded. It is challenging for me because I was brought up in the Unitarian-Universalist tradition, and my closest family – my mother, father, and sister – don’t share my Christian faith.

When I became a Christian, I struggled with this very passage. For years. What did it mean for my family? Would God really condemn my mother? How could God, who loves me, hurt those whom I love? And if he would, can I really put my trust and faith in Him?

At the time of the Gospel’s writing, this wasn’t any easier. Christianity was gradually becoming more distinct and separate from its Jewish origins, and this verse divide could friend from friend, father from son, and mother from daughter. Our culture has developed the idea that church and family are inseparable, but in the ancient world, faith could and did divide families.

For Jesus, for the Gospel writers, for the apostles, the disciples, and the crowd, this is a matter of life and death. It is the most important concern of their lives, and it went far beyond the ties of family. This was rather amazing in the context of the Jewish Law, where God commanded the Israelites to honor their fathers and mothers. Instead, it would prove divisive. But for the followers of Jesus, then and now, the presence of Christ among us surpasses even the most important relationships we have.

This is a demanding faith, but it is also full of hope. We look to Jesus, crucified on the cross, and that moment captures the whole of his life and ministry. He set aside himself for others. When we look to Christ lifted on the cross, we know what came before and what is yet to come. We can see the whole of his story in an instant. To believe in the message of Christ is to have hope, joy, and to know that, even in sorrow and doubt, something wonderful can happen.

This kind of deep joy and abiding hope is precisely what the Gospels are trying to convey, and it is the message that has called people to faith for two thousand years.

It is no trivial thing to convert from one tradition to another. It is one of those difficult processes in our lives, one that takes time and effort. We are a people, we human beings, who are defined by time and place, and by the experiences that are so habitual we can’t imagine anything else. We grow, like the trees that reach high above the ground, very deep roots. And as our lives go on, our roots go deeper and deeper. Entering a new faith, like starting a new family in marriage or losing a dear friend, forces us to uproot from where we have been, perhaps even from everything we’ve known. The world looks different, it has a different shape to it, because we have been wrenched out of place. When we are called to leave behind what we have known and enter into an unknown territory, it can be terrifying to put down new roots. It takes time, and it can be incredibly painful to grow into a new place when you’re still grieving for the old and familiar.

It is a trauma to be uprooted and moved. It is a time that requires greater care and attention. For us, our traumas can be either joyous or deeply painful – or even both at the same time. Either way, there is a time in which you and I have to grieve for what has been before we can enter fully into what is yet to come.

All of this is to say that I am still struggling with John 3:16, despite being baptized and confirmed eleven years ago, and I expect that I will continue to do so. In these struggles, I am reminded by the passage around this troublesome verse to look to Jesus.

We are, today, halfway through the season of Lent, and we are beginning to look with hope towards the Easter moment. Even though the Gospel challenges our sensibilities and makes us wrestle with it, it speaks of hope. The parts of Scripture that sit uneasily with us are exactly what keeps our faith from becoming rote and habitual. It keeps our attention, makes us think, and helps us to grow stronger in our faith.

And this is what I have learned from wrestling with this small piece of Scripture: God loved the world – the whole earth and all of humankind – from the beginning. It is because of this love that God walked with us in the Garden. It is because of this great love that God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. It is this same love that entered the world in the person of Jesus, called the Messiah. Because of this love, Jesus Christ brought a message of hope and life. It is because of this love that we look to the cross as a symbol of the power of God to transform our lives.

In the wilderness at Mount Hor, God offered a gift of life to ease the fears of the Israelites. And in first century Palestine, God extended an invitation of hope to the entire world. It is not a thing or an object, but a person – living, breathing, born into life just as we are. This is the greatest gift I have ever received, and it is one I share with each and every one of you. Even more, the gift of Jesus Christ is not only for those of us here today, or for those who share our branch of the Church, but for all who are created, because it comes from God, who gives all of us life and breath.

We put our trust in the God who loves us and in whom we live and move and have our being. We look toward Christ Jesus, in whom we have hope, not only for ourselves, but also for those we share our lives with.


Homily (9am Family Service)

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3,17-22; John 3:14-21.

When I was a small child, my mother was bitten by a snake in our garden. I was hustled off to a friend’s house while she went to the hospital. I was terribly afraid that I would never see her again.

This is the kind of fear that infected the Israelites in the wilderness. They had left all that they knew in Egypt, they were beset by fear of hunger and an unending wilderness. Their fear brought them a blight of snakes and ever more escalating panic. And in that moment, they turned to Moses for help, and Moses, as their intermediary, turned to God. They are seeking hope, deliverance from their fears and from the possibility of death.

Through the image of the bronze serpent, they trust in the power of God. This is an icon rather than an idol, because it is a way of looking towards God. The salvation offered in the wilderness is specific to the needs of these people, in this time and place, a hope tailored to their fears. The first verse of our Gospel reading echoes this story, as Jesus tells us that like the serpent, he will be lifted up.

What is striking, however, is the absence of limits on salvation through Jesus, compared to the hope offered by the serpent. Instead of addressing a current crisis, Jesus offers a universal hope, the prospect of salvation and the promise of life. It is precisely because Jesus is fully human that this assurance is open to all of us. He understands our worries, our needs, and our transgressions, and he carries these to the cross, for our salvation.

We all know the end of this drama, the story of Jesus’ death. And every year we revisit this story, because it matters so very much. It is of the greatest importance; Jesus was lifted up on the cross, raised high for all of us to see. On that cross, in the sight of his companions, his mother, and God, he was crucified. In his crucifixion, Jesus saves us from all fear, from the absence of hope, from a life lived in darkness. Jesus has brought us through suffering and death into light. It is a journey he has shared with us, in our world, in human form.

This is the amazing story we are recounting in the season of Lent. This Sunday, we are halfway to Easter, and the lectionary inserts a hint of what is to come. It is at this moment that we begin to look with hope towards the darkest hour, because we know of the dawn that follows.

We are told by Saint John that God so loved the world that he gifted our lives with Jesus. This gift is not for a select few, but for the whole world, for all people in every time and place… for us. The story of the cross and the resurrection that we are anticipating this Sunday are not the entirety of Jesus’ work here on earth. It is the culmination of all that Jesus Christ did and taught. It summarizes the whole of his life and work, so that when we look with hope to the cross, we cannot separate it from his message or his actions.

By looking to Jesus, lifted high on the cross, we can see the love that offered this gift. Like the sacraments that we celebrate together, Jesus makes visible and present the tremendous love God has for us. The Israelites in the wilderness had already experienced the grace of God, but the symbol of the serpent made it physically present to them. For us, Jesus Christ is lifted up high, for all to see, in order to make known the love of God, to make the grace that is available to us all visible. This love seeks to draw us out of darkness into hope and possibility. We have all known the darkness, each in our own way, that consumes us and leaves us discouraged. And this is why we return to this story regularly: the work of salvation that Jesus undertakes is not yet finished in our lives.


19 March 2006

Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Romans 7:13-25; Psalm 19:7-14; John 2:13-22.

The last time I preached, Jesus was audaciously forgiving sins in front of the religious establishment. In the Gospel reading today, he is at it again. His bold actions in both situations come out of his emotions. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, we are told that he is moved by pity and compassion to heal, to comfort, and so on. But in Jerusalem, Jesus is beside himself with anger.

On finding merchants and money changers at the temple, he is incited to violence. His violent response is shocking to us, primarily because we hear so much of the friendly, welcoming, and loving Jesus, the Son of Man who heals the sick and welcomes children as an example to his disciples. Our culture has created a caricature of Jesus as someone rather like a cross between the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. Instead, Saint John tells us of Jesus driving people and animals out of the forecourt, yelling and carrying on like something atrocious is happening.

For Jesus, something atrocious has happened. The presence of commerce at the entrance to the temple, the herds of animals, and the people who are buying and selling: these are all distracting from the worship of God within the temple. He is on fire with a righteous anger, and he lets it out in spectacular form.

I want to speak for a moment about the motive force that underlies Jesus’ response. The presence of merchants at the temple was common practice at the time, and they served a specific purpose. As pilgrims arrived, they would be able to purchase the animals they needed for sacrifices to God. In this way, pilgrims – good and devout Jews – could be assured of finding the proper animals on their arrival and would not have to bring them on their journey. It simplified the adherence to the Law. The religious authorities could not accept Roman coinage, so the money changers were present to take, for a fee, Roman coins in exchange for temple currency. All of this was permitted by the priests and scribes, but Jesus challenged the economic system that the temple authorities have created. It is not only the fact that the merchants and moneychangers were present, but they symbolized for Jesus the misguided system of the Temple. The system, as a whole, defiled the purpose that the Temple was meant to serve.

What is striking in the Judaic context, is the priority Jesus gives to worshiping God, over and above properly fulfilling the Law. The religious establishment adhered quite strictly to the Law and the prescriptions it gives for Jewish life and worship. The Law made no mention of excluding merchants from the forecourt of the Temple, but it was quite specific about the sacrifices to be made to God. But in the Temple of Jesus time, the activity of commerce distracts from the worship of God. Jesus’ actions tell us, in our modern circumstances, where our attention ought to be. Our worship and the spaces in which we worship belong to God. The Church – buildings, people, policies – are so often caught up in the demands of the world and in the traditions that have been handed on. Our particular branch of the church, with its emphasis on liturgy, risks becoming wrapped up in ritual. As with Judaism, we have a set of practices that help to define who we are as a worshiping community. But our liturgies and rituals should never be the endpoint, the goal. They should, instead, be the way we move toward God. Being a liturgical tradition requires holding in tension the practices of worship with the One we honor and glorify. Jesus reminds us to stop and think now and again about where our center is. In Jerusalem, the center of attention and activity had moved out of the Temple and into the marketplace. For us, God is our center, both as a community and as individuals.

I thought that I would be telling you to leave behind the distractions of the world and to clear your mind to make room for God. But I realized that this would not be true to who we are as human beings, nor would it be an honest relationship with God. All of the stuff of life clings to us; it troubles us or brings us joy. It is impossible to shed our feelings and lives at the church door, and we should not even try to do it. I say this because God does not want us to worship Him as emptied shells, but as we really are.

Instead, I hope the story of Jesus driving out the merchants with a whip of cords serves to remind us of how we worship God today. Let your worries and joys come with you into this moment. They should be here, because they are part of you. Let them be present, but not the point. The aim of our worship is God, our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Spirit, our Sanctifier.

The Temple authorities were drawn away from God by the trade outside their worship. The issue was not so much that pilgrims needed to buy sacrifices and that there were people to sell them. Jesus was provoked to anger at the defiling of God’s worship. The concerns of trading had taken the place of God as the center of the Temple’s activity. It consumed the attentions and energies of the priests, merchants, scribes, pilgrims: everyone involved. And it left very little room for God. What this tells us is that all of the things we do to come to church should not leave us without the energy to give ourselves over to God in this time and place. As Christians, the foundation of our faith is Jesus Christ: his love, his message, and his death and resurrection. From this foundation, our lives and worship as a Church, the body of Christ, are directed toward God.