I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move. – Alfred Lloyd Tennyson
Our congregation is taking a “slowed-down” approach to Lent this year. Our main theme is “Restore My Soul” – finding ways to feel renewed and refreshed in the faith. We are focusing on being “un-busy.” There’s just too much in our culture that fights against a deeper, richer spiritual life.
I chose to use coloring again for my personal Lenten discipline as a means of reflection and self-expression. Especially with my current physical challenges from knee surgery, I need to be intentional in reflecting and listening to the Divine. So, I pulled out one of my favorite coloring books which has page after page of labyrinths to color. I flipped open to a fresh page and saw this:
The colors of a completed labyrinth from a previous Lent bled through the page opposite of the new labyrinth I began coloring today. I paused to wonder, “What echoes from my past am I walking with today??”
Positive or negative, challenges or success stories, I have internalized all of these past events. Some memories are faded, others push through with more of an impact. All of them are a part of me. All of them are essential to who I am and how I serve as a pastor and a chaplain. And even the hardest memories can be an asset and inform how I serve. But they also can be triggers and block me from doing my best.
Stumbling. Falling. Trying again. That’s a life that walks with Christ, day after day, year after year. Walking in the Divine’s grace and love. Always until forever.
Just in front of my parking space yesterday was this mossy trunk of a stately oak tree. The grass wasn’t sprouting yet. The branches were bare, and last year’s leaves blew around on the ground beneath her. No sign of spring anywhere…
I had a moment of familiarity. The cold, dark, and windy days we’re having, one after the other, are getting to me. I don’t mind the cold so much. It’s that grey and gloomy sky that seems to be stuck behind a blanket of clouds forever. I’m feeling tired and mossy. It’s true.
Ok, Ok. That’s a bit melodramatic. But that’s March in the MidAtlantic. The weather flip-flops between cold and grey, and has just enough peeks of sunshine to remind us that winter will, eventually, go away. But what seems to predominate are the gloomy, rainy, sleety days. It’s… tiresome.
I drove around, a little grumpy, a lot discouraged. I had received news lately (for myself and people I care about) which have not exactly been something to celebrate. Then there’s the general muck-and-mudslinging of our political mess here in the US. It was all getting to me.
At just the right moment, God seemed to weigh in, just to remind me that I was not traveling alone. I spotted these beauties later in the day while waiting at a stoplight. (It’s a little off-kilter, but I only had one shot before the light turned green!)
Just a bit of color. A patchy blue sky. A reminder that, yes, I can get through this day/season/struggle. And you can, too.
Yes, you will go out with celebration, and you will be brought back in peace. Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you; all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Isaiah 55:12 Common English Bible
The lectionary editors brought these texts to us in Lent, of all times, because they contain elements of the journey to the Cross that are worth our thoughtful consideration. Both of the texts deal with questions of disbelief and wonder, judgment and grace. And isn’t that what we know to be true about the narrative of the Crucifixion and Resurrection? The stories that, very soon, we will be reading during Holy Week?
Today let’s take a step back and consider how God uses these two stories, the portion from the Hebrew Bible in Numbers 21, where the Israelites meet “snakes on the plains”, and the Gospel of John, where we listen in on a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. What is there message for us, the Church, today?
THE ISRAELITES AND MOSES
This story is part of the Exodus narrative, the journey of God’s people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The themes of humans rebelling, Divine correction and mercy, and then God providing all they needed (not wanted) are told over and over in the book of Numbers. Our text this morning begins after the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister, and Aaron, the high priest. Moses is still leading the people (and will until they reach the banks of the Jordan River). They had just been turned back from Edom, losing that battle. God directs Moses to go around Edom, not engage them in battle again.
The loss in battle stings. They people were frustrated. V4 says they were “impatient” – a better word might be discontented, or discouraged. The Hebrew suggests wanting to “shorten” the time or cut to the chase. Weren’t they supposed to have a God who could do ANYTHING? And if God is so powerful and Almighty, couldn’t they have something to eat besides Manna?
In this moment of change, where their first goal was frustrated and they were embarrassed by losing, they responded the way we might. When something doesn’t go the way I want, first I get a little mad. Then I get mouthy. Then… I have a choice to make. Because it is what I DO in that moment of decision that shows where my heart truly lies.
Logic doesn’t always work. The Israelites were defeated by Edom. God directed Moses to lead the people around them. This made for a longer trip. Like kids the back seat of the car, they complained. “Why aren’t we there yet?”
But to be clear, it wasn’t their complaining that was the real problem. It was their “speaking against” God’s provision and leadership. It was a pattern of wanting to do things by what their human minds thought was the best course of action. Their faith was on shaky ground. If they couldn’t see it, taste it, touch it, and experience it, they didn’t believe God could do it. It wasn’t that their faith wasn’t strong enough. It was that they made choices which defied God leading them through these difficult circumstances.
So… the snakes. I can tolerate snakes. I appreciate that black snake that has visited our back yard in search of small rodents. (You go, dude.) I don’t even mind copperheads, as long as they nest some place else. They have their place in the ecosystem, even if I don’t exactly like it. But God unleashing snakes? Really?
It should not surprise us, we who are lovers of God, that there would be a way through this crisis. A place of mercy. An option to be healed.
The seraphs had a bite that burned like fire, and killed. But if the Israelites only looked up to see the bronze seraph on the pole, as God asked, they could find their healing. In the moment of crisis, even when they did not understand why, or like the circumstances they were in, they could look to God for mercy. If they were a “stiff-necked” people… (NO I’m not looking!) …well…
Consider that the very image of their pain, the seraph, was what prevented their death. Perhaps they had the memory of the blood of the Passover Lamb, smeared on their doorsteps, which brought death to the households of the Egyptians, but saved them. In any case, those who accepted the offering of mercy and healing, responded to the covenantal God who delivered them from slavery.
There was a choice to believe. Or not. To look up. Or Not. And this was the quandary where Nicodemus, a Pharisee, found himself. To put the Gospel reading in context this morning, let’s recall the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was known to be a Pharisee. He was one of the leaders of the Jewish faith atthat time who were not too thrilled with this upstart rabbi, Jesus… One of the leaders who were actively plotting to see Jesus killed. But Nicodemus, to his credit, comes to see Jesus because of his unanswered questions:
Who is this guy and what is God doing?
Jesus, in his fashion, answers in a circuitous way: In v. 3 Jesus tells him that you can only truly see the work of God in your midst, the KINdom of God, if you have been given new eyes, or in biblical language, “be born again.”
(An aside: The phrase “born again” has been co-opted by some Christians to mean a specific prayer, moment in time, and religious response. I’m not saying that isn’t a valid understanding, but it is not the only interpretation and application of this text!)
If we understand this phrase, “born again” to mean more than just a one-time moment, there is a richness to Jesus’ response. It suggests the concepts of regeneration, renewal, being delivered FROM something you understood before, being born TO something new. It suggests a process, a lifetime, a concept that includes growth and change, acceptance of God’s guidance and… dare I say it? Obedience!
Twice in the third chapter, in v4 and v 9, Nicodemus says, “How are these things possible?” I read these words to be more along the lines of confusion, not disbelief. I think Nicodemus came to Jesus because he truly wanted to understand. He wanted to see and believe. He just didn’t see how it could be true. In the words of Commander Spock from Star Trek, “it is not logical!”
Jesus uses words which are the language of choice, of expectation, and of revelation. Nicodemus, aren’t you a teacher of the law? Didn’t you spend a lot of time studying this? What are you choosing to see, Nicodemus? What did you expect God was doing, Nicodemus? The responses are gentle, calm, but to the point.
V 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
Jesus uses language and images that someone who has studied the Torah should immediately grasp. There is kindness in his rebuke but also clarity. V 14 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness” (this is a simile, Nicodemus, are you paying attention??) so must the Human one be lifted up…
Just as God brought healing to rebellious, doubting, complaining people bitten by snakes (remember that from the Torah, Nicodemus?)
So must I (Jesus) be lifted up for your healing.
This image of the Crucifixion is on our minds in this Lenten journey. From the other side of Holy Week and Easter, we can superimpose the image of Christ on the cross, Christ first being raised and suspended on the transverse beam of the cross. Dying there. Being buried. And then, on Easter morning, Christ being lifted up, resurrected from the grave.
But even though we are still in Lent, we must not forget that Jesus being lifted up includes the action of the Ascension, of Christ’s return to the right hand of God, a place of power and judging. We must reflect on the exalting, the empowerment that Christ gave us through the Holy Spirit, to effect change in ourselves and in our world. We are lifted up from where we live in the struggle and frustration of day-to-day sin and pain. Where it is far too easy to say, “Lord, no. Not again!”
This choice we must consider, one of believing and choosing to live empowered lives, Holy Spirit lives, is the process of following Christ. If we share in this life with God, we are “lifted up” people. We experience the same love of the covenantal God for the people of Israel. We are relationally drawn to God, and to one another, and how we live out our faith should demonstrate to the world around us that we are CHANGED!
Where do we take this message of healing and mercy and hope and grace, Church? How does it impact our lives personally?
One of the problems with the Gospel message is that it seems to have two classes of people: the IN crowd, and the OUT crowd. The Jesus people and those… SINNERS. The people who love light and the people who love DARKNESS. If we are people of redemption, people who want to demonstrate love and forgiveness, what do we do with this?
First – can we bring light to the darkest situations around us?
As a church, you already do – donating food, helping the homeless, providing safe clothing for children, and volunteering in many other places around the community. Who have you ignored? Who are you too uncomfortable to go and serve? We all have our areas of challenge and are ill at ease. Who are you choosing to NOT serve?
As a person, just walking around the planet, what could you do? Who can you listen to, provide safe haven for? Whose voice needs yours to amplify its cause? Many times we sit by, silently, and shake our heads and say, “oh that’s a shame.” (I do it, too.) Our youth, like the ones in Parkland, Florida, are showing us the power of a few voices. They are bringing the light of their very lives into a very dark conversation. And we can do that, too. We can bring our voices alongside others who are marginalized and ignored.
Second – Can you expose the lies of darkness for what they are?
When wicked things come into the light, it is hard to stand the stench that they bring. Our first response is to shudder and look away. Snakes. On a plane. UGH NO THANKS. But someone, like Samuel Jackson, in the film Snakes on a Plane, has to lead. (spoiler alert!) You might have to yell at people to strap in, and then punch a hole in the side of the plane so that the snakes get sucked out… and people can live.
That “stench” may be how you feel about politics… and as pastor, I can NOT tell you who to vote for. But I CAN tell you that you need to examine the deeds of politicians as they are brought to the light. And then use your gift of citizenship to campaign and vote.
Third – and perhaps the hardest – can you, in your heart of hearts, experience change? Can you embody the love of God – a love that, as we learned in John 3:16, “so loved the world” that Christ was sent for us?
How does that change express itself? Perhaps it is in realizing who God loves and how God loves them. In the gospel of John, it was the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the Samaritan woman at the well.
For us, it is a Love Unknown… A way of caring for people we don’t really know, but who we think are not love-able by God.
There’s the people we might be so quick to condemn because of their life choices… “for God so loved…”
Or the people who have seemingly rejected God… “for God so loved”
The people who sit beside us in the pews… “for God so loved”
The people we work with (and sometimes disagree with us)… “for God so loved”
God demonstrated love through Christ to us, not because we understood it, but because our humanity, our stubbornness, our sinfulness demanded it.
My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me; love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. O who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?
This morning I put on my robe and reached for a purple stole. I have two… but I chose this one.
I pieced this stole last year from odds and ends and purchased purple swatches. Considering I had never created a stole before, it was a work of much guesswork and happy accidents.
As I wrote last year, I was a bit uncertain how to finish this stole. The embroidered findings of a cross or bread and cup would not show clearly on the piecework. And it needed something, oh… a little more personal!
And then… as I rummaged and searched for the right finishing touches, I found the family heirloom lace and knew… a commercially created cross would not work. Carefully, I trimmed and sewed pieces of this lace on my stole. I would wear the handwork of my foremothers around my neck.
On Easter Sunday, I will wear more of my family’s heirloom lace on my white robe. As I pray and sing and offer Communion, I will again wear the legacy of my family’s faith. This lace trim, created by my great-aunt Maurine, was painstakingly sewn on late into the night on Holy Saturday last year.
Not everyone gets to wear their family’s love on their sleeve. I know that as I celebrate on Easter Sunday, I bring my family with me. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins bring a sense of “grounding” to my faith. I wear a labor of love!
I serve from a place of privilege, for I know I am encouraged and prayed for, welcomed and loved. I worship in safety. I can express my beliefs without fear of persecution.
Walking, I can almost hear the redwoods beating. And the oceans are above me here, rolling clouds, heavy and dark. It is winter and there is smoke from the fires… Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. “Be still,” they say. “Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World
I came across the lace looking for something else. My grandmother, great-aunt and great-grandmother created them as trimmings for pillowcases and collars, tablecloths and handkerchiefs.
I have held these pieces of lace many times, turning over in my hands, running them between my fingers, looking at the fine crocheting and tatting. Usually I gently fold them back up and put them in a small box labeled “Logan.” (Logan, Ohio is where many of my relatives lived.) But then I realized… I could use this trim on the Lenten stole I was trying to finish!
I remembered going to church where my grandparents worshipped in Logan. If I close my eyes to remember, the sights and smells come flooding back… The creaky sound of the carpeted floors in the sanctuary. The stained glass and dark, polished (very hard!) pews. The robes and the music… this would be a fitting use of their lovely handiwork!
When I wore my new stole at church on Sunday, I felt wrapped in the love of my family. It was a very simple stole, made of a patchwork of various purple prints, and trimmed with this crocheted lace. But I knew… my family was there in spirit, hugging my neck, represented as I prayed, and offered the Bread and Cup.
The stole was a reminder of the faith of my family through the generations to the present. They have encouraged and celebrated many milestones in my work and ministry. I am so very grateful.
Be still… watch and listen… You are the result of the love of thousands…
I knew my job list for today when I went to bed last night. I wasn’t excited then, and I wasn’t as the day went on. It was a simple list:
Clean the house (most of it) in preparation for a bunch of Johnnies coming for a few nights next weekend
Do an estimate of the taxes and start that blasted FAFSA
I’ll admit it. My attitude sucks when it comes to doing these tasks. I reflected on why that might be. It’s not just that they are time-consuming and never seem to be finished (though that is a large part of it.) And I also recalled last November, when I tried to focus daily on 30 days of Thanksgiving, and had remarked on my tendency to whine.
So, I tried to turn it around… Why is it a good thing that I have to clean my house?
I have a place to live
I have the energy to clean
I have indoor plumbing (!)
I have cats who leave tokens of their love everywhere (cat hair; not headless mice!)
I have clothes to wear and food to eat
Now then. What’s so good about taxes? And FAFSA? This was a little harder.
I have an income
I have a high enough income that I have to pay taxes
I have a child who is a good student and doing well in college
After 9 years, I almost understand FAFSA
At the end of the day, the floors got a once-over, the kitchen had an initial cleaning, and the bathrooms are not as disgusting. I will never be an accountant or run a housecleaning business. But I am grateful for the many, many good things that these two chores represent.
Celebrate always, pray constantly, and give thanks to God no matter what circumstances you find yourself in. (This is God’s will for all of you in Jesus the Anointed.)
One day can be a lot like another… But today, at the end of the day, I changed one role for the other.
I stepped out of my chaplain role and donned my pastor’s robe and stole, and assisted in leading the Ash Wednesday service with my pastor and friend, Jill. We shared soup and rolls, and Scripture from the Psalms. It was an evening of prayers, of miscues, of wrong notes and hard topics. It was a night with the subtext, “Welcome to a service where we are all going to remember that we are mortal.”
Ash Wednesday is that time of solemn reflection, of admitting that this life we worry about every day is so… Temporary. It is a day of pastoral irony that we, who are supposed to inspire, encourage and remind others of the joys of the eternal, have the most visible stain of mortality on our hands. My thumb and forefinger had black in every crease, every wrinkle, every hangnail.
It was especially poignant for me in that today is the anniversary of my dad’s death in February 10, 2000.
Today as I read Scripture and left a cross on the forehead of my patients and their families, I remembered him, and my mom, and my sibs. I remembered the waiting, the wondering, the sad relief. It isn’t something I think about every day. But I did today…
Remember you are formed from the dust of the earth…
And to the dust, you will return.
Ash Wednesday is just the beginning of the journey through Lent. It is a wandering and reflecting time. There is time for introspection and repentance, but life does not stay in the morose and mortal. For these next 40 days, we are taking an intentional journey towards the Cross and an empty Tomb. Death does not stay defeated!
But for tonight… We reflect. We consider. We remember….