Here’s a slightly different post this week: my awesome church let me preach another sermon this morning. What follows is the text of my remarks. See you next week with a new essay!
“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”
Many of you know that in addition to teaching just down the road at Bosque School, I write a blog. The last time I had the opportunity to stand here and speak to you, I posted my remarks.
Shortly after I put that essay online, a woman wrote to tell me that I “gave the most erroneous ‘sermon’ on one of the most beautiful gospel readings.” She implored me to stop preaching, and to pray and talk to my spiritual advisor.
I just thought you should know what you are getting into.
Seriously, I am grateful to be speaking again, and you are warned.
Today we heard an odd little story from the book of Numbers.
Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt, but this morning, they are not grateful. They are like kids in the backseat four hours into a ten-hour road trip. They are bored and they are hungry. They are kicking the front seat and taking turns asking, “Why did we have to go on this stupid trip, anyway?”
So God, Yahweh, does what any loving parent would do: he sends poisonous snakes to bite them, and they die.
(It’s probably best to let go of that analogy about the kids in the back seat now.)
As the snakes slither through camp, though, the Israelites get it. They go back to Moses and say, “Hey, Mo, our bad. Can you do anything about the snakes?”
Yahweh steps in and tells Moses to make a snake and raise it up on a staff. If anyone else gets bitten, Yahweh explains, she can gaze at the snake on the stick and live.
Notice that Yahweh doesn’t make the snakes don’t go away. That feels like it might be important.
Let’s leave the Israelites wandering in the desert
for the moment and shift our gaze to the New Testament.
Years ago, I was talking with a friend who was wishing she had a place like St. Michael‘s in her life. She said, “I’d love to have a church like yours, but I don’t believe in God.”
“Oh,” I replied, without giving it any thought, “you don’t have to believe in God to go to church.”
That conversation kept popping into my mind as I thought about today’s readings. In his letter from prison to the Ephesians, Paul writes that “by grace you have been saved by faith” and in John’s gospel we hear that “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found this whole believing business to be hard. I think part of why I’ve sought out faith communities my whole life has been to surround myself with believers (people like all of you), so that I can hop onto your faith and ride it like a train clear into glory. One time when my parents were visiting, I woke early and looked out the window. I saw my father sitting outside on the deck as the sun came up, praying the rosary. Those are the moments that carry me.
If I came to church only on those days when I could say with certainty that “I believe,” and have any idea what I meant by that, I would spend many Sunday mornings at home.
I think that’s why I’m normally over there, singing with the choir. Over there, I don’t have to think about believing. When the spirit breathes through us, turns our bodies and breath into instruments, my critical mind goes silent, and I know God.
But this moment, this space, is about words.
So I’ve been trying to make sense of one of the most beloved passages in scripture: “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.” Think about it—that one sentence feels like it captures the whole thing: the whole New Testament, the whole mystery of faith in less than thirty words.
I’ve been imaging this scene:
Jesus is talking to God over some heavenly dinner table in the sky. He is begging his father to let him go live on earth. And you’re, you know, God. You can keep your child safe in heaven. You can save him from every scraped knee, every broken bone, and every heartache. I’d understand if God had said no.
But of course, to do that, God would also have to deny his son the full moon tilting over the Sandias, the feeling of the sun warming bare skin, that swelling thing your heart does in the presence of glorious art, or music, or poetry. That whole ability to feel embodied love.
Every parent lets him go. You cross your fingers, say a prayer, and watch your child walk out the door. You so love the world that you send your child into it, even though you know there’s a crucifix waiting on every hill.
“Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already…” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having a rough Lent. On Ash Wednesday, when those children were gunned down in their school in Parkland, I lost my footing.
I began Lent swinging from grief to anger, wobbling from cynicism into despair. Some days it’s just too hard to love the world. Some days the world (this beautiful earth, “our island home” as we’ll say when we celebrate the Eucharist) feels so old, and heavy, and tired.
In the second week of Lent, when my own school conducted a lock down drill, we drew the shades, turned off the lights, and sat on the floor in my classroom against what we euphemistically call the “safe wall.” Nineteen teenagers and I sat in complete silence for more than twenty minutes while we waited for the all clear. Every one of us was imagining what it would be like if this were real.
As the drill ended, I had to give the kids a break so I could compose myself. I had to figure out how to move out of the swirling morass of love and terror and cynicism and sadness that threatened to swallow me. I had to take a deep breath, turn on the lights, and remind myself that God so loved a world that was every bit as broken as this one.
It has been a rough Lent.
And yet, the days are growing longer, this morning there is actually a little water in the air, and today’s gospel calls us to believe. When Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light,” I think he is reminding us that we are called to love the world. That to sink into the darkness of cynicism and despair is to be “condemned already.”
To believe in the resurrection is, I think then, to keep believing that this tired, heavy, broken and breaking planet is bathed in light and remains worthy of our love. To believe in eternal life is to believe that in the long game, the eternal game, love doesn’t just win, love has already won.
Oh—remember those Israelites we left wandering in the desert?
When Yahweh answered their prayer, he didn’t make the biting snakes go away. Instead, he gave the Israelites what they needed in order to survive them.
On this fourth Sunday of Lent, as we yearn toward Easter, as we trudge on together toward resurrection, that feels like it might be important.