Sunday, March 11, 2018

Our Failures, God's Promise: In the Wilderness, a Way

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

           When my nephew was about 4 years old he came out to visit me in South Dakota.   
            Grandma and grandpa drove him out, he went to Bible School with the children at my church, and we had a good time together.      At the end of the week I drove him back to Minnesota and to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. 

            Which turned out to be an ordeal.  More than I expected.
             It was about a  4 and a half hour trip, but you would have thought it was 40 years in the wilderness. 
            He was sitting in his car seat in the back seat and every couple of minutes he would ask again, how many miles?  (Like he knew what a mile was) 
            Or how any minutes?  (Like he had any real concept of how long a minute was.) 
            Every few minutes the question again, and every few minutes I tried to give him an answer.   I even tried to stop at a Dairy Queen for a treat along the way, and that didn’t seem to brighten his mood. 
            And at one point his little despairing voice cried out, “Oh, I don’t think we’re EVER going to get to Grandma’s house!”

            O Ye of little faith.

            There is so much in this reading from Numbers that is outside of our experience.   Except the complaining. 
            That part we can understand. 
            The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for about 40 years now and they are complaining. 
            They don’t like the manna, they don’t think they are ever going to get where they are going, they doubt not only Moses’ wisdom, but God’s.        And this “Murmuring”  --that’s what it is called in scripture”  -- this has been going on for –oh – about 40 years. 
            So they are complaining in the wilderness – but the things that happen next – they are strange, and if we are honest, they probably don’t fit our picture of God.  
            First there are the serpents that God sends. 
            The scriptures doesn’t say that God sends them as a punishment exactly – but that’s what the Israelites understand, and when the serpents start biting them, and they die, they cry out to God for help.              They ask God to take the serpents away. 
            Which (and this is strange too) God doesn’t do. 
            Instead, God says, make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole and when people who are bitten look at it, they will live.
             And that is what they do, and that is what happens. 
            When the people who are bitten look at the bronze serpent on a pole, they are healed.  They do not die. 

            I’m not going to lie – this seems like a strict punishment for complaining, which is something we all do,  sometimes.   
            In fact, if you read the Psalms, there are plenty of laments that sound exactly like complaining. 
            The Psalmist complains about the presence of evil in the world, and that he doesn’t understand God’s ways. 
            “Why do the wicked prosper?  Why am I suffering?  My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  
            All of these complaints and questions are right there in the Psalms.  The words are there for us to pray. 
            But here in Numbers, when the Israelites complain, they get serpents. 
            And when they turn back to God and ask for help – instead of getting rid of the serpents, God sends another kind of remedy. 
            And I am not even going to begin to say that I understand all of what God might be up to here.

            But remember the covenant.  Remember the promise that God made to them, and that they made to God.  God said, “I will be your God.  Trust me.” 
            And they said, “We will do everything that you say.”  And they don’t. 
            Their complaints reveal ingratitude (We don’t like the food – blech), faithlessness (why have you brought us out here?),
            and  distrust.   But I will give them this:  when Moses tells them to look at the pole with the bronze serpent, they do it. 

            “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up”  -- Jesus says, in the gospel reading. 
            He is speaking with Nicodemus in the darkness.  They are talking about the mysterious things of God, the Spirit of God, light and darkness, life and death, being born anew. 
            These are things that Nicodemus doesn’t understand, even though he is a teacher. 
            And then Jesus brings him back to what has to be a story familiar to him:  remember when you wandered in the wilderness, and you rebelled and complained and did not trust God for your salvation?      Remember the serpents, and how when Moses lifted one up on a pole, and you looked at the serpent, you were healed? 
            When you look to me, on the cross, when I am lifted up, you will be healed.  

            And it must have seemed every bit as strange to Nicodemus as the serpent does to us. 

            I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the people of Israel to look at a replica of the thing that bit them.  Well, maybe I can.
             I’m not a lover of snakes, especially if I know they are dangerous.  That’s one of the things that sort of makes me nervous about Texas.  You have the dangerous snakes here…. Not just the icky, but relatively harmless ones. 
            It had to take a sort of courage – to look at the serpent – and trust – to believe that it would work. 

            And for the early church – to look at the cross must have felt the same. 
            We put flowers on it at Easter time – but the cross did not start out to be a symbol of salvation.
             It was a particularly gruesome form of execution, reserved for the worst criminals.  Look at the cross, and live. 
            Believe that the cross heals you somehow.  It had to take some courage to do that.

            But even more – to look at the serpent on the pole meant that the Israelites had to look at their own complaining, their own mistrust of God, their own failure to live as God’s people. 
            They had to look at the serpent and know themselves.  That takes courage too. 

            “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believed in him may have eternal life.” 
            So that whoever trusts him may be healed.  So that whoever looks to him may live. 

            When we look at the cross, really look – what do we see? 
            We see an act of evil – and maybe we also catch a glimpse of the evil in the world, the suffering that we cause each other, the ways, large and small, that we grieve each other, and God. 
            When we look at the cross, what do we see?  Do we see the ways we have turned our back on God, trusting anything else to save us?  Do we see the one who offered the world healing, life, and forgiveness?
             Do we see both of these things on the cross?
            It is an act of courage to look at the cross.  And see ourselves.
             It is an act of trust to look at the cross – and trust that THERE – in that unlikely place – we will find healing.  And love.  And life.

            I don’t understand why God didn’t just take away the serpents in the wilderness. 
            But he didn't.  He didn't.
 There are serpents in this world,  there are dangers, toils, and snares. 
            And God doesn’t take them away.
            We live in the wilderness – where there is a lot to complain about – a lot to lament about.
            We live in a world where there is suffering and sin, and some of it belongs to us.   We live in the wilderness, but we live with the remedy as well.

            I think of my nephew – in the car – in the wilderness – on the way home.
            And maybe the best we can do is say, like he did, “Are we there yet?” 
            It IS a long journey – but God is with us – and on the way there is manna
            And dairy queen
            And grace
            On the way we can point out for one another and remind each other to look up – to lift our eyes  -- 
            And be healed.



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Monologue: The Servant Girl who Challenged Peter

            It started out as simple curiosity.  That’s the truth.  Usually, I try to keep to myself, just do my work, follow the high priest’s instructions, keep out of the way.  I find that works best. 

But this evening there was so much commotion.  Usually it’s quiet at night – but this night there was a trial – and that was such an unusual thing.  I thought – this prisoner must be something very special, for them to want to do everything in the dark.  So of course I was curious.  I overheard some of the questions they were asking this Galilean – questions about tearing down the temple and claiming to be God.  But I couldn’t hear his answers. 

And then I saw this man – a man I didn’t know.  He looked like he was from Galilee, I thought – and he seemed interested in what would happen to the prisoner.  I looked at him for a long time.  Then I got up my courage and asked, “Weren’t you with this Jesus?  Aren’t you one of his followers?”  I have to say, I was surprised at how loudly he protested.  But the more loudly he protested, the surer I was that he must have been one of Jesus’ men.  I appealed to those around me – I saw to them, “I think he is one of Jesus’ followers.”  And I think they agreed with me.  But he got angrier and angrier – and scared too, I think.  For some reason, he wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and this Jesus.  Then why was he hanging around?  That’s what I wanted to know.

            That Jesus must have been a dangerous man.  The high priest was afraid of him – I could tell that by the way he asked him questions, and how he tore his clothes.  But that man was afraid of him, too, in a way – afraid to be called one of his followers, afraid of what Jesus stood for.  I suppose that he was afraid that what happened to Jesus might happen to him, too.  But he was supposed to be one of Jesus’ friends, wasn’t he?  And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get him to admit it.  He was ashamed and afraid.

            I was right, though.  He was one of Jesus’ friends.  I’ve seen him since then.  He talks to everyone about Jesus now – right out in the open.  One of these days he’s going to get in trouble, just like his friend did.  But now, he doesn’t seem to care any more.  I’m curious about that, too.  I wonder what has changed.  I mean, if I were him, I’d be ashamed.  First, I’d be ashamed of Jesus, and what happened to him – he died on a cross, and you know what THAT means.  That’s the worst thing that can happen to a person.  And if wasn’t ashamed of that, I’d be ashamed of myself – that when the chips were down, I didn’t stand up for my friend.  Some friend I turned out to be.  That’s what I’d think.  I do hear rumors that some people say that Jesus isn’t dead any more, but I don’t know about that.

            Sometimes I want to go up to this man, just like I did on that night, and ask him again.  I’m curious, like I said.  I don’t know what is stopping me, so far.  I suppose I don’t have much opportunity, serving the high priest, like I do.  But I’d like to ask him about his friend Jesus, and see what he says this time.  I’d like to ask just the same question – “Aren’t you a friend of Jesus?” and see what he says this time.  And if I had the opportunity, I’d ask him…. “Why aren’t you afraid any more?”  I wonder what he would say.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lent 3 Sermon: Our Failures, God's Promise

Exodus 20:1-17/John 2:13-22

“Our Failures, God’s Promise:  The Gift of the Commandments”

            Every family has rules.  Ours was no exception.
             I think there is probably even some overlap from family to family.  For example, we had a rule that we could not say “Shut up!” to each other. 
            Instead, we had to say “Be quiet!”  We also had a rule that we always had to say “grace” before we ate, and afterwards, we could not leave the table without asking, “May I be excused please?” 
            We had rules about bedtimes at particular ages, and rules about fighting, although I don’t remember what they are, except perhaps, “No biting!” 
            There were some things we did not have rules about – but maybe we should have – like ‘’see who can eat the most pancakes” contests,  or no taking apart your olive and examining the pimiento.   Or no peeling your banana in four sections and smashing it on the kitchen table while shouting, “X marks the spot!”

            Every family has rules.  Grace pre-school has rules too. 
            There are rules about standing in line, and rules about being quiet when someone else is talking, and rules about praying:  fold your hands and bow your heads and close your eyes
            I saw a teacher reprimand a student this week, because she grabbed another student and it hurt.  The teacher said, “she has to learn that she can’t do that.” 
            Every family has rules.  But before there are rules, there is a relationship.

            So today, Moses goes up to the mountain and receives the ten commandments from God. 
            The people of Israel are left standing at the bottom of the mountain, waiting. 
            And the words the Moses receives, the rules for their life together, are a gift to them.          
            It might seem funny to say that rules are a gift.  Maybe we have never heard of the ten commandments as a gift. 
            But the rules in your family, the rules in the school:  if your family is a good one – they are for your good, aren’t they? 
            They are so you don’t hurt each other, so you know how to live, so that we learn the things that are most important. 

            And before there were rules, there was a relationship.  Before there were rules – there was a promise, given in love. 

            First God made a promise to Noah – and with the whole world.  It’s a good promise, but it’s a sort of rock-bottom, the least-God-can-do sort of promise. 
            At least God is not going to destroy the whole world in a flood again.  At least.              Then God made a covenant with one man, Abraham, and his family – a promise to bless him and bless his family – a promise to bless him and make him a blessing to all of the families of the earth. 
            And this promise results in a third promise, a third covenant – with Abraham’s descendants, the people of Israel. 

            ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people,’ he tells them. 
            And then he rescues them from slavery in Egypt and he leads them through the red sea.  And here they are. 
            Standing at the foot of the mountain, while Moses goes up to receive the words from God.  The commandments.

            And these words are part of the promise, they are part of the covenant.  In fact, when Moses gets ready to go up to meet God,  God says to the people, through Moses, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant (my promise), then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.”  And the people of Israel, standing there, and the foot of the mountain, say, “We will do everything that the Lord has said.” 

            I will be your God.  You will be my people.  That’s the promise. 
            And that’s the first of all of the commandments that Moses receives.  “I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other Gods before me.”  It is the first commandment for more than one reason.
             It is first because, well, it makes everything else fall into place, doesn’t it? 
            It is first because it tells us who to listen to, who not to listen to. 
            It is the first because it tells us there are a lot of competing voices, a lot of competing ‘gods’, telling us which way to go….. like the famous scene in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy meets the Scarecrow at a crossroads – and wonders which way to go. 
            Suddenly the scarecrow speaks, and he says, “some people say you should go this way, and some people think you should go that way”  --- “and still others think you should go BOTH WAYS!” 
            There are many competing voices, and many competing gods, all of them making promises to us –

            Promises that they will make our lives better – promises that they can keep us safe, promises that they can give us security, that they can give our lives meaning, that they can make us wealthy or powerful….. 

            But God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”  My treasured possession.  That’s it.   There is no where else where you can find security…. Where you can find peace… where you can find purpose… where you can find true life….

            I have to tell you though – if you don’t already know it—what happened while Moses was on the mountain receiving the words from God.  
             The people waited at the foot of the mountain. 
            And it seemed like they were waiting for a long time.  And they began to get worried, and they began to be afraid. 
            What if Moses had died up there?
             They saw the mountain from afar, and they saw Moses go into a cloud, and they began to feel like they needed something – something else to put their hopes on. 
            They got together with Moses’ brother Aaron, and they made a god – a golden calf -- out of all of the gold rings that they wore – and they could see it and they could touch it – and they could follow it – but they would have to carry this god, because it wouldn’t move on its own. 
            And then, when the calf was molded – Aaron said, “These are your gods, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” 

            They had already forgotten that it was God who rescued them. 
            They had already forgotten that it was God who brought them out of the land of Egypt.  They had already forgotten the promise:  “I am the Lord your God.”   
            And you can call it willful rebellion, or you can call it fear, or you can call it amnesia. 
            They were like an Alzheimers patient who had forgotten their name, forgotten who they were, forgotten who they belonged to. 
            Never mind the rules.  And they turned to other gods. 
            And the stone tablets were broken. 
            You shall have no other gods.   The first rule.  The most important one.  Breaking that one, we forget all of the others.

            There’s a moment in Exodus 19, when the people are standing at the foot of the mountain, and God reminds them of what had happened when they escaped from Egypt. 
            And then God says this, “I have borne you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.
            God didn’t bring just bring them to the mountain.  He didn’t just bring them through the red sea. 
            He brought them to HIMSELF. 

            Before there were rules, there was a relationship, a promise, a word kept by God. 
            Not by us.  Every promise we broke.
            But God kept.
            And then – God brings us to himself
            In the body of Jesus. 
            “This is my body, given for you.”
            This is my blood, shed for you.”
            In case we forget the promise.