Saturday, March 10, 2018

Year B Lent 4 2018 HOPE is the Thing with Scales

Year B Lent 4  
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“HOPE is the thing with scales” 
Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.  

Numbers 21:4-9 From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 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.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  

Ephesians 2:1-10 You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 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 grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.   

John 3:14-21 Jesus said, “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. “For 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” 
My first sermon, of sorts, ever given here was on these passages, and that seems like so long ago, and yet it was only six months. Six months as of yesterday. These were the texts given for Holy Cross day, and it is apt that these are also used for our preparation for Holy Week. 

Today’s Gospel reading, however, skips the setting of Jesus’ teaching. Imagine the scene.  A leader of the Jewish faith, Nicodemus, someone who has just witnessed Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple comes slinking in.  He comes at night. Can he not sleep? Is it he wants no one to see him? What brings him to Jesus we do not know, but we do know he is wanting something.  His slithering in at night makes a strong point. It is hard to trust things coming in from the Darkness. Jesus spoke to Nicodemus that night, and God speaks to us now. 

I have always found this an interesting Sunday in the Lectionary, taking an obscure passage from the Hebrew Scriptures’ Book of Numbers because of the nod it gets in the Christian Scriptures.  The passage tells of a time when the grumbling Hebrews forgot the multiple miracles of their redemption from slavery in Egypt, and happened upon a den of vipers or some other slithering serpents.  People began to die from the wounds inflicted. Moses, despite being down a few less grumblers (And what leader does not at times daydream of that?), Moses did the pastor-ly thing, and prayed for his people.  A word of the Lord came to him, saying: "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake, and people looked to it and lived. 

This symbol of death became a deliverance from death.  We spoke on these symbols we surround ourselves with a few weeks ago. Something dark, and feared, and despised, becomes not just a symbol of hope but hope incarnate.  Look to the stylized snake and be delivered from the poison of the snake. 

Look to this symbol of something feared and have HOPE. 

HOPE is that thing with feathers, according to Emily Dickenson. 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers - 
That perches in the soul - 
And sings the tune without the words - 
And never stops - at all - 

But in today’s reading, HOPE is that thing with scales, brazen and deadly. But when those who were afflicted looked at it, they found their HOPE. 

While it may seem superstitious and hokey to us nowadays who understand medicine and poison. But if I found myself bitten in a desert I have to admit I would look at that snake. Our cynicism is much easier when we are not the ones bitten. 

And we all have heard about the power of belief. Doctors prescribing sugar pills have worked miracles, or so the recipients of the benefit have declared. I do not know the nature of the symbol, psychosomatic or miraculous, but we are told that it worked. 

Is the cross of Christ any different?  That is the point Jesus is making to Nicodemus.  Our Gospel reading contains the most quoted verse in our society, John 3:16, but it is encapsulated in a story fascinating and sad.  Nicodemus starts exploring rebirth, and his literal understanding is holding him back.  

John 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 

Nicodemus is given a metaphor he can understand.  “Remember that snake of Moses who delivered the people?  The Son of Man,” a self-referential euphemism of Jesus’, “must be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  So if you get bitten by a snake, if you look to the snake and believe, you will live.  

So Jesus is telling Nicodemus, when the Son of Man is lifted up, those who look to him and believe will also live.  How was Jesus lifted up? On a cross of course. He had not been crucified yet, as we are only in chapter 3 of John. The Cross was to come.  But we know. We have our own “bronze snakes.” We call them Crosses. How many can you see from where you are right now? 

I am wearing one, and maybe you are, too.  We paraded in behind one this morning. We will face one when we say the creed in a bit.  The cross is our bronze snake. It has come to mean so much to so many. 

The Cross is our scandal and our salvation.  It reminds us of the sting of death we deserve according to our biting of the forbidden fruit, for which we were promised that we would surely die.  It is our salvation in that if we look to it and believe, we are promised eternal life. Promises and heartache, and the one that binds it together, Jesus. 

And because of this obscure passage from Numbers we see the point Jesus is trying to make, that what to the world is deadly or shameful, can become for those who believe a source of HOPE. 

HOPE is a one of the most underrated of the virtues. It is said that you can live 4 weeks without any food, you can live 4 days without any water, 4 minutes without any air, but not even 4 seconds without any HOPE.  

Think about it, much of what ails us in our society is a deprivation of HOPE. School shootings? No hope that things will get any better. Suicide? No HOPE that the pain will ever stop or get any better. Loneliness? That this is all there is, and no HOPE that things will ever change. Racism? That the past is doomed to stay with us, and no HOPE that we can ever get past what has already transpired. Or from the side of privilege, no need to see things any differently because you need no HOPE when you have already arrived. 

HOPE is the basis of Numbers when people looked at the snake, and HOPE was the foundation of the talk Jesus had with Nicodemus late in the night from John 3. 

And Jesus promises us HOPE, too. 

John 3:16 “For 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.” 

And I cannot quote that verse without the next that goes with it. 

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

John 3:16 can so easily come to divide.  There are those that are in and those that are out.  But John 3:17 from Jesus’ own mouth shows that all are welcome and wanted. And in that we find our HOPE. 

Paul put it this way in today’s Ephesians reading: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Ephesians 2:9-10 

Think about it, you are the HOPE of God. God wanted you to be with God forever so much, he bought your ticket before you were born. It is at Will Call, waiting on you to show up and claim it. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

Yesterday, more than 500 people gathered at St. Paul’s downtown to look at Race in Richmond through the lens of St. Paul’s history. Our bishop Shannon Johnston was there, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was there, and we had the opportunity in a loving and safe environment to talk about the hard things that have shaped the world we live in today. And we met out of HOPE. I was so pleased that some of St. James the Less were there. I even took my kids. If things could not get any better, we would not have gathered 500+ to have these good, hard conversations.  

Bishop Curry reminded us that the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached is God’s Dream and Vision for the world, his HOPE if you will. And for 2,000 years God has been at work in the world, nudging, pushing, inviting, and weeping for us to bend history, and ourselves, to move into that Dream and Vision that really is for our best. 

Why would I drag my kids to sit in Church for 4 hours on a Saturday night? I did it so that we could be in on what God is doing, so that we could claim that dream and vision. I do not know about you, but God is at work in this world and I for one want to be a part of it. 

And God is at work in Ashland. Last Sunday afternoon I received an invite from Pastor Randell Williams to come together as brothers and sisters in Christ at Shiloh Baptist. And I encourage you to add it to your calendars TODAY! May 10, 7 pm at Shiloh Baptist, I will be preaching and our choir will be singing. And God will be glorified. And we will take one step further into God’s Kingdom. 

Yesterday we held up the Unpardoned Sin in American life, Slavery and Racism, symbols of death and our own Holocaust. And as we hold them up, I am fearful because they are rightly scary things, but I also see signs of HOPE. Even in this most despicable of sins, God’s Children can bring glory to God by not ignoring it, but proclaiming that together we will make it to Zion, and none can be left behind on this march to the very throne of God.  

If you are bit by a snake, look to a snake and find your HOPE. If you are doomed to die, look to that symbol of death and find your HOPE. And when we hear about the tragedies and sins that divide us, do not turn your head and look away. Stare the evil in the eye, and declare that in Christ you have HOPE, even in this. And when you refuse to live in fear, God’s dream continues in you. 
We’re marching to Zion,  
beautiful, beautiful Zion,  
we’re marching upward to Zion,  
the beautiful city of God.

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Blessings, Rock