If we will look

File:Staff at Sunset.jpgWatching for the Morning of March 11, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Bitter, poisonous talk leads to venomous serpents in the first reading on Sunday. Israel is in the wilderness, having failed to trust God to give them the land of Canaan (when the spies came back saying giants inhabited the land and the people lost confidence in God’s ability to fulfill God’s promise). Now they are marching back they way they’ve come toward Egypt in order to travel up the inland road. They have been condemned to wander the wilderness for forty years. Bitterness breaks out, and the consequence of their venomous talk is venomous snakes. But God provides a way to be healed – by turning their eyes to a bronze image of a serpent impaled(?) on a pole. It will become an image of Christ impaled on the cross, and the promise that in looking to him we will be healed.

We are learning something of the consequences of venomous talk in our country. Bitter unrest abounds. Hateful speech. Unfriendly news is called “fake.” Lies abound. Facts are denied, ignored and invented. Goodness and life seem far away. Where is the sign from God to which we may turn our hearts and find healing?

The psalmist will sing of God’s deliverance: “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction.” “They cried to the LORD in their trouble,” and God “sent out his word and healed them.”

The author of Ephesians will say we were dead through the trespasses and sins,” living “in the passions of our flesh.” “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

And then we will hear Jesus speaking to Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Those who look to the crucified one, who put their trust in and show fidelity to Christ Jesus, will possess even now the life of the age to come.

There is healing for us. If we will turn and look. If we will put our trust not in power and might, but in sacrificial love. It is there to see on the cross. If we will look.

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the sermons so far in the series.

The Prayer for March 11, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Merciful,
source of all healing and life,
in love you sent your Son into the world,
not to condemn the world, but to save it.
Draw us to the light of your Son, Jesus,
that we may ever be found in you;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 11, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’” – Having failed to trust God in God’s first attempt to lead them into the land of Canaan, the Israelites must turn back towards the Red Sea to come to the land by another way. Their words become poisonous as they turn against God and against Moses. Met by poisonous snakes, they cry out to God and God answers – and in trusting God’s word (to look upon the bronze serpent) they are saved.

Psalmody: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
“Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction… Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” – A psalm of praise for God’s faithfulness to his covenant, shown in his acts of deliverance.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
– By God’s Grace we have been brought from death into life.

Gospel John 3:7-21 (appointed, verses 14-21)
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born “from above” and testifies that he alone has come from above (the heavens, the realm of God) and returns there. Just as seeing the bronze serpent “lifted up” brought healing and life to the Israelites in the wilderness, looking to Jesus “lifted up” grants the life of the age to come.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStaff_at_Sunset.jpg By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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He did not despise

Friday

Psalm 22:1, 16-28

File:Peter Paul Rubens The Three Crosses.jpg24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.

There is a deep underlying tension between our human religiousness and the God of the exodus and Calvary. Our religious impulse is towards what is pure and perfect. Temples and cathedrals of every land are works of extraordinary beauty. We set rules for who is worthy to enter, who is considered pure enough, sacred enough, to come into the presence of the divine.

Every culture needs its rules of purity. They create a measure of social cohesion and identity. They define boundaries. They give a measure of order to the world.

We eat turkeys but not vultures (who feed on the dead) or eagles (who symbolize the nation). Fish eat worms. We eat fish. It is the order of things. (It is what made Chinatown so interesting to me as a child, for there were things hanging in the market windows I never saw in my town’s grocery.)

Fish are “clean” (when they have been cleaned) and worms are “dirty” and belong in the dirt. And what is true of everyday things is true especially of religious things. As children we took baths every Saturday night and wore our “Sunday best” to church.

We have an attraction, as human beings, to what is perfect and pure. An ice skater is “pure grace”. A runner “pure speed”. We exult in the “perfect game”. We are drawn to the beautiful, the pure, the innocent, the brilliant, the exceptional. We turn away from what is corrupt, ignoble, defeated. And we think the heavens must think as we think.

But what, then, shall we do with Jesus? He started so well and ended in such disgrace: bloody, broken, stripped, shamed, mocked, despised. Ugly. Unholy. Defeated. Defiled.

He doesn’t match our human religious impulse. The only way we can hold on to him is by transforming the cross into an act of heroic courage or stripping the body from the cross and focusing on resurrection – ultimate victory!

But it was the crucified who was raised. The shamed who was honored. The debased who was exalted. We see him now through the radiance of the resurrection and the glory of Easter, but on that Friday when the disciples fled, God “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.”

Jesus embodied this truth of God. He did not despise the leper he touched and healed. He did not despise the bleeding woman who touched him through the crowd. He did not despise the despised woman at the well. He did not despise Matthew, the tax collector or Simon, the Pharisee. He did not despise the widow’s dead son. He did not despise the thief on the cross. He did not despise his disciples who denied him.

Our human religious impulse clashes with this God of slaves and the crucified. But in the day of our need, we find a life-saving mercy. He does not “despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.” He does not despise the sick or the lost. He does not despise the broken or the bitter. He does not despise the saint or the sinner.

Our hearts may be turned to love what is pure and holy, but the heart of God is turned to love us. And hopefully, we will learn to follow the command to love as he loves.

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For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 12, or Proper C 7

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APeter_Paul_Rubens_The_Three_Crosses.jpg  by Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Among the crucified

A sermon/reflection on Good Friday

Isaiah 53

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

The texts for Good Friday are Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (He was wounded for our transgressions) and John 18:1-19:42 (The passion according to John)

Each of us experiences this day in our own way. And each year this day has, for each of us, its own character. Some years the desolation of the cross speaks to a desolation in our lives. Some years it’s the mystery of redemption that overwhelms us. Some years we are struck by the strength, courage and nobility of Jesus and he becomes an example for us. Other times we are disturbed by the hatred of the crowds or the abuse of power by the leaders and see our own times in that light. Some years we see the majesty of God’s love and are filled with awe and wonder. Each of us experiences this day in our own way. And each year this day has, for each of us, its own character.

We used to vacation at the beach when I was young. For a few years, we were part owners of a condo over in Aptos. I don’t remember as a child being overwhelmed by the vastness of the ocean; I just saw the waves. And when we were there after a storm and the storm had rearranged the beach and changed the course of the river, I wasn’t thinking about the power of the sea, only the novelty of what had happened and the new possibilities it meant for our play.

In those days, I didn’t see beyond the waves. I didn’t see the mystery and wonder of the sea. When we walked out on the pier to the sunken ship I didn’t comprehend the power of the ocean to break a concrete ship.

In the same way, as a child, I didn’t understand this story about Jesus. I hadn’t had any experience with evil, with tragedy, with grief, with guilt, or with the kind of courage and strength of Jesus’ sacrifice. But with each passing year the story becomes more real.

The story also became more troubling.

When I was about 16, the daughter of dear family friends was killed in a plane crash out of LAX. I remember being sad, but I didn’t yet understand anything of the devastation her family was feeling. I saw racism and war on TV, but didn’t yet understand the suffering they inflict.

As we go from one Good Friday to the next, it is not only the story of Jesus that becomes more real, the connection between the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of the world becomes more real. The story of Jesus’ suffering is not simply about his suffering; it is about all human suffering.

God has entered into the world, and we have done to him what has been done – to some degree or other – to every human being. We are all, at some point and to some degree, shamed, taunted, tortured, mocked, wounded, and crucified. And we have all, at some point and to some degree, done the shaming, taunting, torturing, mocking and wounding.

In the grand scheme of things, what happened to Jesus is not unusual. We can think easily of extreme examples like the death camps or the killing fields. We can think of very mundane examples like school yard taunting. We have heard, recently, young men singing a racist chant on a bus. We have seen the photo of a noose left outside a minority student building. We have seen policemen shoot children and beat suspects and scream at a driver for honking.

What happened to Jesus happens to all of us. We have tasted abuse in our homes. We have witnessed it between a parent and child in a store. We have all comforted children who came home from school or a party crying. We listen to the hate in public speeches. We have seen the violence against women and against gays. We hear the graphic testimony against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the brutal consequences of his actions. We are haunted by the thought of an airplane full of people listening to the pilot pounding on the cockpit door and screaming at his copilot, while the plane plummets towards the ground. And we know that sooner or later some news program will play the tape.

We have seen the bodies of university students lying in the street, singled out and killed by Al-Shabab because they were Christians. We have seen Christians in the Central African Republic killing Muslims.

It’s not that there isn’t kindness and mercy and generosity in the world. It’s just that what happened to Jesus is such a universal story.

And where is God in this universal story? The answer to this is very important. We tend to think God is above it, somehow, looking down. We tend to think God could stop it, somehow. Give a command, summon his angels, silence the cacophony of the world in one great roar.

But God has become one of us in Jesus. God has come to us in this Jesus. Not only that we might see the face of God, but that God might dwell with us and we with him in this world he created to be good and holy.

God has come to us. And we need to be sure we understand this: the God who comes isn’t sitting in the seats of power. God isn’t seated on the throne of Pontius Pilate. God isn’t seated among the council of Chief Priests and Elders. God isn’t a member of the board of Exxon-Mobil. God isn’t taking a role in the White house. God isn’t in the councils of Al-Shabab or ISIS. God is hiding under the bed while gunmen go door to door. God is walking with refugees towards the Turkish border. God has become a victim of violence. God makes himself present, and is found among the broken and beaten, neglected and abandoned. “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

God is present as the crucified. God is present among the wounded. But God is not here as a helpless victim. He is present as the Lord of all. He is present as the truth Pilate cannot see. He is present as the Holy Name before whom the soldiers fall to the ground. He is present here as the one who is lifted up for the healing of the world. He is present here as the one who is the resurrection and the life.

By his presence among the crucified, God speaks a word of judgment against all our violence. Exposing it. Naming it. Revealing that such violence is not on the side of God. God is among the crucified.

And by his presence among the crucified, God speaks a word of promise that our lives and our world are not bound by their suffering. Our lives are not bound by guilt. Our lives are not bound by shame. Our lives are not bound by sin and darkness and lies. Our lives are called into the divine like the branches to the vine. Our lives are called into the freedom that comes in Jesus’ word. Our lives are called into the life of the age to come by him who summons Lazarus from the grave.

Each of us experiences this day in our own way. And each year this day has, for each of us, its own character. But each year we are met here by the Lord who transcends time, the one in whom and for whom all things were created, the one who is not bound by the tomb, the one who stands among the crucified and calls us into his way, his truth and his life.

Amen