Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 18, 2012
God be with us expanding creative life into the distance; Christ be with us moving grace closer than we have ever dreamed; Holy Spirit warm the world with hope. Amen.
A man decided to join a monastery where silence was very strictly observed and enforced. When he entered the monastery, the abbot told him, “Well, you have come to the right place. Here you must take a vow of silence and you can only break that silence every two years and even then you can only say two words.”
The man agreed and after the first two years, the abbot came to him and asked, “It’s your day to speak. What are your two words?” “Awful food!” the man replied. Two more years went by and the abbot came to him and said “What are your two words?” “Hard mattress!” the man exclaimed. Two more years went by and the abbot again came to him and asked, “What are your two words?” “I quit!” “Well, no surprise here,” the Abbot replied, All you’ve done since you got here was complain!”
We all do it, don’t we—complain? We don’t like the cold weather or the humidity or the traffic or the price of gas. There is always something we can find to complain about without much effort.
The Old Testament passage today is from the Book of Numbers. It tells about the time when the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. It was a time of great discontent, during which the people complained about the lack of food and water, had conflicts over leadership, and were in general rebellion against God. The Hebrews wanted their freedom but on their own terms and were unwilling to assume the responsibility that comes with it. As the story unfolds, God sends poisonous snakes to rattle their cages and remind them that they have been delivered from slavery at God’s hands. As a remedy for those who were dying, Moses set up a bronze serpent on a pole. Those who were bitten by a snake and then looked at the bronze serpent would be cured. Although this may appear to boarder on sorcery, it was really a demonstration of their faith in God when their life was in danger. That faith saved them. The deadly serpent becomes the symbol of healing just as the cross—the instrument of Christ’s death—becomes a sign of salvation.
Salvation. Here is buzz word that we find either explicitly or implicitly woven into all three Scripture readings today. The Hebrews are saved from the poisonous serpents. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus that they have been saved by grace and not through works. Jesus gives Nicodemus the good news that God did not send him into the world to condemn it, but to save it and that God sent Jesus to do this work out of God’s enormous love for us.
So far, so good. All of this is nice to hear on this Refreshment Sunday when we are relaxing a bit from the onerous trappings of Lent. But just when you thought it was safe, Jesus reminds us of the fondness humankind has for darkness over light. History bears witness to this truth. The ancient world was filled with human sacrifice, conquests after conquest, ethnic bigotry, persecutions, tyrants, and class rule. The Middle Ages brought revolutions, expansionism, the Crusades, warlords, religious persecution led by Christians, and wars fought for every reason known to humanity.
The Enlightenment and modern world was not much different: the introduction of guns, slavery and the Klu Klux Klan; the oppression of women, the Holocaust, two world wars, genocide and the Atomic Bomb. Just within a span of the last forty years we have seen two advocates for freedom and civil rights violently assassinated: Martin Luther King in Memphis and Harvey Milk in San Francisco.
Not many years ago, a young man was horribly beaten and hung on a fence to die because he was gay and a black man was tied to the back of a pickup truck, his body dragged behind it for miles. Now we have the internet as a vehicle of spewing hatred and the age of pervasive bullying. To this list we can add any number of things, not the least of which is the greed that brought us to recession three years ago and the wars that continue in so many places on the planet. Humankind has often loved darkness rather than light; has often chosen to live in the shadows. Like the Hebrews of old, we moderns want free will on our own terms and are unwilling to assume the responsibility that comes with it.
Frederick Buechner says it plainly: “If there is a terror about darkness because we cannot see, there is also a terror about light because we can see. There is a terror about light because much of what we see in the light about ourselves and our world we would rather not see.”
Atheist philosopher Nietzsche postulated that merciful behavior by human beings doesn’t come naturally to us. He hated Christianity for its ethic of mercy, its consideration for the outcast. For him, an ethic of compassion without a prior assertion of a God of compassion is the ultimate delusion. People just aren’t built that way, he taught. It’s not natural.
I don’t agree with most of Nietzsche’s premises about the folly of Judaism and Christianity but I think he has it right when he says that the only commendation of mercy that makes sense is theological. There is no other motive for mercy other than this is the way God really is, and therefore the way God’s world is meant to be.
On the first Sunday in Lent, I suggested that the one thing we might all give up is any grip that fear-based religion may have on us. What is the difference between fear-based religion and the kind of religion to which Jesus invites us? Where do we find the good news here today? I believe that we discover it y looking through the lens of the Gospel where we find enough light to be able to see ourselves and our wrongdoings truthfully.
The good news today is that God loves the world enormously and that God refuses to let our darkness overcome the light that shines through the healing rays of God’s mercy. God welcomes us just as we are—warts and all. And therein lies the wonderful gift of grace and the promise of new life.
Theologian Paul Tillich preached a classic sermon that brings that truth to us in a rather profound way: “Grace strikes us,” said Tillich, “when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.
“It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure has become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything. Simply accept the fact that you…are…accepted!”
Douglas Hall is a Canadian theologian who has written a lot about what Christianity means in the United States and Canada. He suggests that we are not motivated by the same fears of our ancestors. Hall suggests that what eats away at us is the gnawing suspicion that we may be superfluous—unnecessary—an accidental species with no purpose. He believes that one of the reasons that the church exists is so God has a community in which to save people from meaninglessness, by reminding them who they are and what they are for. The church exists so that God has a place to point people toward a purpose as big as their capabilities and to help them identify all the ways they flee from that high call. The church exists so that people have a place where they may repent of their fear, their hardness of heart, their isolation, and their loss of vision and may be restored to fullness of life. That is, for me, salvation.
Today, on this Refreshment Sunday, at the mid-point of Lent, we can take a deep breath and be assured that God sees us as we are, not as we ought to be; that we are loved in spite of everything we may hate about ourselves and in spite of the darkest of sins for which we have already been forgiven. So relax a bit on this Refreshment Sunday and simply accept the fact that you…are…accepted!