Lent 4 Sermon March 11 Life is difficult


Lent 4 March 11, 2018

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


I have learned, and I am learning that life is best understood in a longer arc than I may have imagined when I was younger.


I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I first became a pastor, only that I knew my roughly twenty-one years of school were no longer the backdrop of my life. 


In my first parish, with a membership of 1,500, multi-staff, activities and programs, three worship services on Sunday morning, I was fresh out of seminary with experiences in multi-ethnic urban ministry and not anticipating a white church in the western suburbs of Chicago.


I remember being at leadership meetings when I was the only one not wearing a wedding band, and how shiny I thought mine looked when I came to my first meeting post-wedding, and wondered what sort of married club I had joined.


I remember late nights in meetings over finances, building projects, and wondering, this is ministry?


I remember Kari and I beginning a conversation and it quickly devolved into laments over how little time we seemed to have for each other and how little money we seemed to have to do much of anything except pay our rent and buy our groceries.


I remember leaving the Jewel store with the grocery cart the day I got paid and thinking to myself.  “if someone robbed me of the stuff in that cart, we would not be in good shape for the next two week.”


I remember teenagers in my charge thirty years ago daring me to say something, to do something that would make me different than any other adult in their lives, as if I were a caricature of an authority figure that didn’t have anything meaningful to say.


I remember first opening up the popular book written by M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) and reading these beginning words, and thinking that writer is putting a finger on something that is true:


“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”


So Lent, this time of Lent, is to acknowledge the great trouble in being human, in being in the world, and that conversion and repentance, making the turn away from what draws us from holy living and toward light is not immediate but more akin to slow food, incubation, and a series of testing theories and practices.


For the Israelites in their long, multi-generational hike to the promised land, it was not an easy row to hoe.  The wilderness was not some kind of ideal, it was a realization that barriers, facing enemies, lying from within, and physical hardship were part and parcel of their life as God’s chosen people.  So they did what everyone is inclined to do when the going gets rough—blame someone.  They blamed Moses.  They blamed God.  They spoke about how they had NO FOOD, and in the same breath how much they hated the FOOD, the manna provided for them each day by God.


The ancient story includes what we think is improbable, snakes, snake bites, death from snake bites, a bronze serpent on a stick that Moses was to forge himself (!), and healing by getting bitten and looking at the bronze serpent on a stick.  Modern interpreters speak of the backdrop of goddess worship as a context for this story, where the serpent goddess Asherah may have been an object of devotion alongside Yahweh, only twisted through the theological lens of Israel’s Exodus story to be a kind of a combination of evil and good. 


Maybe we can find room for serpents around our feet and on a pole, alongside that of Christ on the cross, each figured in death but for us and our communities also sprouting life.


Maybe in the long arc of life, we learn from our elders and ancestors that important changes emerge from dreadful and dire circumstances.  Like Rosa Parks who in 1955 refused to budge from her seat reserved from whites in the front of the bus.  Like Sojourner Truth, died in 1883 and remembered in the church yesterday, who changed her name Isabella Baumfree to blast though barriers for women and slaves, and who felt a calling to be a preacher and an abolitionist.   Here is one among many great things she said:


That little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.


I don’t think the Israelites bargained for the wilderness after the rush of freedom from the Egyptians, do you?


I don’t think that Nicodemus, who came to the rabbi Jesus as night, was easily taught about a new birth or a second birth as a path to life.


And then as sayings from Jesus in today’s Gospel spill from this encounter with Nicodemus as another kind of Sojourner Truth, we might scratch our heads to wonder who does God love, and who does God condemn?  And what does that love look like, and what does that condemnation look like?


In my mind, and in my own life’s arc, I continue to see that it is communities of faith like this one which are models for the path that lifts up eyes to the cross, and who carry folks through to the empty tomb.  As we bear burdens, name injustices, recognize our own flaws and limitations, see our own hatreds and participation in systems that harm, we name our sins and place them at the cross.  We realize that our common yearning brings us here.  We see that our mistakes and cruel behaviors expose judgment, and by God’s grace, in the desert, in middle age and youth, and at death, with the resources we are given, we are called to lead one another to the light, which looks like forgiveness, which looks like a second chance, and third, and fourth, and fifth.


Here in this community, Christ is offered to bring hope.  Here Christ is seen not as a bludgeon but as an opening to refreshment and love for all, no matter who they are.


Here we eat bread and drink wine as sinners who are so hungry and thirsty to find their way, on the long road, and on days like today glimpse Easter’s promise joy in our gathering, in our gestures of peace, in our determination to let our actions flow from the mercy that has its origins in the divine.


I have learned, and I am learning that conversion is best employed in rituals like worship, joined to actions in daily living, tested and proven over time.


I invite your renewal in the paschal mystery, seeing the cross is still lifted up wherever injustice is.  I invite you not to shy away from the difficulties of life, but seek to be agents of mercy and receivers of mercy. 

Let us immerse ourselves in vocation, a called life: to live together in the lifting up ways of God, all the way to the place of promise.

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