Epiphany 2C 2019
The Rev. Karen Calafat
Wedding at Cana
I fell in love this week.
I fell in love with Mary Oliver and geese and grasshoppers.
I fell in love with Maira Kalman and trees and whimsy.
I fell in love again with The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and dreams and justice and equality for all God’s children.
And I fell in love again with Jesus and surprise, abundance and grace.
My heart has been full this week of love, admiration and hope. That is not to say that my heart has not also be broken and hurting and burdened for the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the government shutdown – from people who live paycheck to paycheck and find themselves now in financial straits, to people who planned vacations to National Parks and now are being turned away, to the anxiety and stress that we all feel in these times of contention and “he said”/“she said”. Not to mention the heartbreak for the families of those killed in Syria, including four Americans. I hope you have lifted all these situations in prayer, for we definitely need God’s mercy and guidance.
But if you are like me, I must have a break from the seemingly constant bad news and look for positives… look for places of hope. And that is where I fell in love this week.
Mary Oliver was a poet who died this week at the age of 83. Her instruction for living was:
Tell About it.
Mary didn’t ascribe to Christianity because she “had trouble with the Resurrection,” but she was incredibly spiritual, prayerful and hopeful. She lived a horrific childhood that scarred her for life. Her solace was in nature and poetry. She believed poetry should not be “fancy,” but clear, accessible and understandable. She was a cancer survivor for years and wrote a sequence of poems titled “The 4th Sign of the Zodiac” about her illness that are worth reading. Her poem "The Summer Day" is one of her most famous:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Many of Oliver's poems are a joyful celebration of life and nature. She wrote a poem about Geese that I was listening to while walking on the Trinity Trail Friday afternoon. I am sure I looked akin to the Cheshire Cat as the poem ended and I simultaneously happened upon a small gaggle of geese – a surprise… a miracle… a gift. Thank you, God! Thank you.
My next love of the week is Maira Kalman, an illustrator and story teller who has had her share of suffering in life as well. She has written and illustrated many children’s books and is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker Magazine. You might recognize her whimsical artwork on the covers. Maira starts her days reading the obituaries – the daily reminder of her own mortality serving as the ultimate wake-up call. She says, “Reading the obituaries every morning makes you really conscious of the fact that you have a very limited amount of time.” (Echoing Mary Oliver: What will you do with your one wild and precious life?)
Having heard Maira speak about her love of trees and enjoyment of them on her daily walks in Central Park, I was especially attentive to trees this week. I often go through the forest of daily life and completely miss the trees. It was a wake-up call to pay more attention to my surroundings – not just the trees, but the clouds, the centipedes on the sidewalk and beetles on the pebbles; the people, and all God’s creation.
Attentiveness to all of God’s children is part of what inspired the late, great Martin Luther King, Jr. His “I Have a Dream” speech is as powerful today as it was the day he spoke it in 1963… and as much needed:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama —little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be plain and the crooked places will be made straight, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope. This is the faith…. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brother-hood.”
Martin Luther King’s Dream is a reality for some, but a long way off for others. How do we continue to make progress toward that symphony of all humanity?
I think “the mother of Jesus” (as John refers to Mary in his gospel) has the right instruction for us. “The mother of Jesus” simply says, “Do whatever he tells you.” ‘Do whatever Jesus tells you to do.’
Did you notice the servants at the wedding did just what Jesus said? (Amy Richter:) And they got to participate in Jesus’ first sign, his first miracle. They just did what Jesus told them to do:
“Fill the jars with water” and they do.
No arguing, “We need wine, not water.”
“Now draw some out” and they do.
No complaining, “What’s that going to achieve?”
“And take it . . . So they took it.”
No, “Hey, Jesus, I have a better idea . . .”
They just do the simple, straightforward things Jesus tells them to
do and they get to participate in a miracle.
Do whatever Jesus tells you. Water becomes the finest wine. The mundane becomes miraculous.
Jesus tells us all some very simple, straightforward things to do. Jesus tells us to: love, share, give, serve, listen, learn, worship, pray.”
Love him. Love her. Love them. And those you don’t really like, love them, too! Share your money, your time, your particular gift, your ability with that child, with that elder, with that family. Worship with your parish family. Pray wherever you are.
Listen for what Jesus tells you to do.
You may participate in a miracle.
You may be part of making King’s dream come true for all God’s children. If you follow Mary’s advice and do “whatever Jesus tells you to do,” I dare say you will find renewed faith and hope in your own “wild and precious life.”
July 22, 2018 - Proper 11B
Now that is one conversation I would like to have listened in on… Did you catch the opening line of the Gospel reading? “The apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.”
To understand this clearly, it is necessary to look back a couple of weeks. Earlier in the 6th chapter of Mark, we heard that Jesus sent the twelve disciples, you know: Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, (the other) James, Thaddeus, Simon and Judas – were sent out 2x2 and given “authority over unclean spirits.” In chapter 3 we were told these guys went out and “proclaimed that all should repent... and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
Now, if I were a betting person, I would bet that some of their teachings were rejected, especially teachings about repentance – about turning around and heading another direction….
We don’t know about the pairings of the disciples or exactly what they were teaching, but we can be sure their stories were everything from great successes to great disappointments. Can’t you just imagine ol’ Bart and Andy sitting at Jesus’ feet, filled with excitement and sharing a story about what they had been up to? How they encountered someone in the grocery line that needed a word of blessing or encouragement and they were paying attention enough not to miss the opportunity.
Or Tom and Jim sitting at Jesus’ feet feeling a little disappointed because they tried, but were not very successful in their attempt to heal and teach? How they stood on the corner offering free prayer and hugs but had no takers.
Or Thad and Johnny trying to explain to Jesus some great idea they thought they would try and were met with resistance “because it had never been done that way before.”
An interesting and important point to note is that Jesus didn’t call them to succeed, but to be faithful. To go out and do as they had been commissioned to do. The results were less important than their faithfulness.
There is room for everyone in this story. Can you imagine having the opportunity to sit with Jesus and give an accounting of what you’ve been up to. I don’t know about you, but I love it when I have the wherewithal to be aware of being of use to God or inspired by God. I have begun a simple experiment for a few weeks at the QT convenience store just down the street. I stand at the door that additional 4-5 seconds and hold the door open for the next person. Some people are surprised at the gesture and express their gratitude. Some don’t seem to notice and just barrel on in or out without a thank you or acknowledgement. It is just a very small act of kindness, but I read somewhere recently, “Of all the things you could be in this world, be kind.” One gentleman approached the door and said, “Oh, you embarrass me.” Indicating he should be holding the door for me. I just smiled and said, “No embarrassment at all. You have a great day.” Something happens when I take those few seconds, look a stranger in the eyes and extend a simple act of kindness. There is a connection. I become a better person and I hope they experience a moment of care that makes a difference in their day…. Or at least a difference in that moment of their day.
I have been hearing stories of experiences at our own 4Saints Food Pantry – Just imagine sitting at Jesus’ feet and saying: “I donate 25 gallons of milk each week (because when I was a little boy, we never had enough milk at home;” “I walk people’s groceries to their cars and am honored to listen as people share a sliver of their life story with me.” Or as a 10 year old boy reporting, “Jesus, I handed out cold water to people who were sitting in the heat while waiting to receive their groceries.”
I have seen a few new faces volunteering at 4Saints, so I imagine there will be new stories to tell while sitting at the feet of Jesus. Maybe it will simply be, “Jesus, I care for your sheep….”
Maybe some of you would sit at Jesus’ feet today and say, “It has been a long time, Lord….. I am tired…. I have little to offer…. I don’t know what to do….
Maybe you’d say, “I have done nothing, Jesus, but I sense you calling my name…. I am ready now…. How will you use me to love your sheep?”
Jesus’ response to all who come is the same, “Come on, let’s go away and rest a while….”
Your grief and disappointment are heavy, “Let’s go away and rest a while.”
Your accomplishments are worthy of celebration, “Let’s go away and rest a while.”
You give much of yourself caring for my sheep, “Let’s go away and rest a while.”
You work hard to provide for your family while being my light in the world, “Let’s go away and rest a while.”
Jesus models the importance of re-fueling -- of taking time away in solitude for spiritual replenishment. It is not easy to do! Our need to be busy and productive is hard to curb. The demands of life don’t stop. We even see here that Jesus was literally chased down by people needing something from him. I am sure that sounds familiar to some of you who have many responsibilities – someone is always clamoring after you for something and it is very hard to ‘go away and rest awhile.’
We read, “Then hoards of people chase him down….. he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; …people at once recognized him and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
These people had needs and they knew they did. We sometimes hide our needs or try to ignore them… We are rehearsed in saying we are “fine” when indeed we are not fine. It reminds me of several months ago when I was going through an especially difficult time and struggled to contain tears at the simplest question, “How are you?” My therapist suggested I practice answers to “How are you?” by saying things like: I am better… I am ok right now… I am getting better day by day… I am on the right path…. Then one day Marsha dared to ask me, “Are you ok?” -- Well, I hadn’t practiced an answer to that question!
We all have needs and the people in today’s story were well aware of their needs. They had hope in the One they had seen and heard about. They rushed to him just to touch the hem of his garment.
If you were to sit down with Jesus today,
Jesus extends his welcome to you. Tell him what you’ve been up to, how you are, and what you need. Accept his invitation to “come away and rest a while.”
Come away and rest a while… Come to the altar today, to Jesus’ table… better yet, “rush” to the altar, crowd in on Jesus, touching even the fringe of his cloak; open your brokenness before him and be filled with his healing love.
Happy Father’s Day to all you wonderful dads…. And even to you just “good enough” dads! I hope you have heard from your children… or that you will before the day is over. And if you don’t, I hope you do whatever you need to do to remember the things you love about being a dad. And If you need to make amends with one of your kids I hope you will. Or if you need to make amends with you dad, why not now? Why not today… tomorrow may never come. This is my first Father’s Day without my dad and it is a bit of a strange sensation. There are things I wish I could say to him, things I wish I could hear from him…. First anniversaries seem weighty. But more, I ache for the dad’s separated from their children at our southern borders. I know the whole thing about “Illegal Immigration” is complicated and effects people in different ways. But I also know that inhumane treatment of desperate people and children is not acceptable -- ever. What have we come to that politicians are quoting scripture to justify appalling actions? I do not have the solutions, but I know terrorizing moms and dads and their children is not the answer. I spent some time Friday calling elected officials to express my concerns…. I didn’t know what else to do, but I had to do something. I hope you will do something, too. For now, I wonder if we might pause for a few moments of silence to offer our own concerns and thanksgivings on this Father’s Day and to lift up concerns for the children and families, who are being terrified and traumatized at our borders. Can we do that? Can we silently together seek God’s direction and plea for God’s mercy for those in greatest need and despair?
Amen. Thank you.
This has been a full week: returning from an amazing, inspirational pilgrimage (which you will hear more about in the weeks ahead); attempting to establish a new rhythm of prayer, meditation and discernment; preparing for Vestry Retreat (which just happened yesterday and Friday); listening to the news and being appalled by the words and actions of our elected officials; and oh, yeah, trying to understand the Kingdom of God enough to create a sermon for this moment.
In verse 30 of Mark 4, it is almost as if Jesus is thinking on his feet – kind of like, ‘How can I explain this to you?.... Let me think… “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?
“The Kingdom of God” (He basileia tou theou) – is used 14 x in the Gospel of Mark. It is an important concept that is difficult to explain or simplify. And Parables… well parables seem to leave us a little in the gray, mystery of life. The definition of parable, (para ballo), – is “stories thrown alongside our lives; short, provocative stories that require the use of imagination”. Nibs Stroupe writes: In using parables Jesus is seeking a shift in our imaginations, a shift in the way we see ourselves, see God, and see others. Such a shift may seem small and insignificant, but here he compares it to a mustard seed, a tiny particle that can have miraculous powers. In using parables, Jesus seeks to stimulate his audience’s imagination so that they might perceive the power and presence of God in a new and immediate way.
I wonder if I might take some liberties with today’s parable and offer a new parable. Would that be okay? Are you willing to tag along with me on a new parable imagination?
The mustard seed is just what it is… small, inconsequential; totally surrendered to the soil and to the process of becoming a bush.
It doesn’t wish to be a strawberry or okra. It just is what it is and trusts in the soil to make it be what it is.
Can we imagine that God is the soil and we are planted in God – we, the tomato, squash, lemon tree, mighty oak, petunia, or what have you, are rooted in the very creator of the universe to become all we are created to be?
Nadia Bolz-Webber – “I want to be her when I grow up” Echoed by several other people – Made me think how sad that must make God –
Don’t want to be someone else – want to be the most genuine, authentic me that God created. It doesn’t do any good to wish to be a snapdragon if God created you to be a mustard bush. Nor to try and be a mustard bush if you are created to be a mulberry bush.
It is for us to be so deeply rooted in the soil – so deeply rooted in God – that we mysteriously become what God created us to be, by God’s grace, even. Your one very small speck of a life on this planet is of utmost importance to the Creator of the Universe. Indeed, without you, the universe would not be the same. The universe needs mustard bushes, mighty oaks, tomatoes, eggplants, soy beans, roses, etc… You get the idea…. Diversity is a gift from God!
We need people of every color and flavor to be a representation of God’s creation. Can you imagine a world if mustard bushes were the only foliage? How boring… How sad. One of the beauties of Italy is the variety of vegetation that gives incredible hues to the landscape. I cannot fathom looking over the hills in Tuscany or Umbria and seeing only mustard bushes. The vistas would definitely be lacking without the variety of foliage and colors.
I have to believe in the Garden of God’s creating – that soil where we are the seeds, surrendered to the grace and mercy of God – beautiful growth beyond our imagining is possible. Growth that includes all sorts of people – Growth that covers a world of differences unified under one sun and one sky.
I imagine God’s garden being unified in its diversity. A world of people of every shape, size, age, color and orientation growing together, resting in God’s grace together as the seed rests in the soil, surrendering to the process of growing roots and becoming what it is created to be.
Is that not a beautiful image? Does that not make you want to embrace a mustard bush if you are a mulberry? Or stand beside a cedar if you are a pine? Or enjoy the fragrance of a rose if you are a tomato?
It is in standing strong with our brothers and sisters who are different from us that we are the living, breathing Kingdom of God here and how. We must stand for justice for those less powerful than we are. We must love those who are deemed unlovable by society. We must embrace those who are outcasts for any variety of reasons.
“God does not look on the exterior and neither should we.” God “looks on the heart” and so should we. The love of Christ is our inspiration, indeed it is our mandate to love ourselves – to become the best mustard bush we can possible be. To trust ourselves completely to the work of God in our lives – in the deep, dark, dirty areas of our lives where God’s grace covers all and we soar to being all God created us to be, being empowered to break down barriers, being beautifully unified even in our diversity, being freed to love as Christ loves…. And do you know how much Christ loves? Do you? Christ loves THIS much (open arms wide as if on cross). Christ loves enough to open up completely for you, for me and for every one of God’s children. Jesus loves this much! Jesus shows us how to love God, love our neighbors – even those from other borders – and how to love ourselves. This is how we are to love, because this is how Christ loves us.
Easter Sunday 2018
Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
No wonder we all want to come to church on Easter Sunday. There is something powerful and uplifting in that word: Alleluia! Say it with me again 3x: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
We use that word on Easter because it is the most triumphant, joyous, empowering Sunday of all Sundays. It is the day of great rejoicing that God, through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit conquered death and sin for us all. Life wins! Love wins! Jesus is risen!
Easter could be likened to a New Year’s observation for our spirit, for our soul. The Church’s New Year begins in late November or early December with the season of Advent where we wait in anticipation to celebrate the birth of Christ. The global New Year, of course, begins on January 1st. It seems appropriate that we observe a spiritual New Year – a spiritual rebirth, awakening, or at least a spiritual remembering. And what better day to celebrate that than on Easter Sunday!
It is interesting that our New Year’s Eve celebrations are in the dark of night and Resurrection also happened in the dark of night. The first sentence of our reading tells us so: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” While it was still dark….
While it was still dark.
While it was still night.
While she could not see.
While she thought death held sway.
While she grieved.
While she wept.
While it was still dark, resurrection began. (©Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com)
Mary Magdalene is the one who sees Jesus first because she chooses to remain in the darkness. Peter and John leave when they see the empty tomb, but Mary stays, bewildered and bereft. (Nadia Bolz Weber:) Mary “remains present to what is real, what is actually happening.” She does so even when what is real feels unbearable.
In his Easter Message, our bishop, Scott Mayer, reminds us: “The Cross was not the end. The power of God’s love reached into the Tomb and vanquished death, changing the world forever. …The love that reached into that Tomb in Jerusalem can reach into your life, into my life, and raise us up out of all the small ways we are dead. Where we feel dead to joy, to love, to new relationships with our neighbors, that love can bring resurrection. In all the dark personal tombs in our hearts, that love can bring light.”
It is that Light that draws us together on Easter Sunday, and quite frankly on all other Sundays. Perhaps you’ll come back in a couple of weeks… when we will look at the conversation Thomas, the one who had difficulty believing the resurrection, had with Jesus and see how the Peace that he promises us might take up more space in our hearts and minds… However, today, we consider the love and power of the Risen Christ that make us Resurrection people. Not Christians above the fray and challenges of life in this world, but Resurrection people who know hard places -- barren, broken places -- but cling to a compassionate Christ who knows exactly what it means to face difficulty.
At times, we are alone in our grief, loss, trials and disappointments. That is why it is important to be part of a faith family. I watch you, indeed I have experienced you, loving each other through hardship, reminding each other of the love of God, offering hugs, meals and conversations that shine even a pinhole of light into the darknesses of life that we sometimes must endure.
While it was still dark… while it was dark, Jesus was raised to life. Resurrection happened in the darkness. We do not know how. It is a mystery known only by God. God is not afraid of the dark places. God is with you in the darkness whether you realize it or not. Jesus comes in the darkness. It may take a while to recognize him, just as it took Mary a while. As a matter of fact, Mary didn’t recognize Jesus until he called her by name. And that same Resurrected Jesus calls each of us by name. It is for us to be still and listen. Be still and know. Be still until you hear Jesus call your name. It may come in the form of the person sitting at your side offering a word or act of kindness that is life-giving and affirming. It may come through a stranger who says just the thing you needed to hear. It may come while it is still dark in a means you cannot imagine, but Jesus knows you and calls you by name. You can handle anything life hurls your way because you are a Resurrection person. The “tombs” we encounter in life are just the thresholds to new life and greater beginnings. We need each other because as life cycles, when one is in a place a deep darkness, surely another will be in a place of light and life. We can help, support, love and encourage each other. We are a Resurrection Family and together, we can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things.
This Easter, this Spiritual New Year, may Christ who rose in the darkness lead us into new life, new light, and new hope. May we know him in the half-lit places, the shadowy places, the hard places and the very dark places. May we dare to linger at the tomb until he calls our names. And may we always share with hope the good news of God's greatest mystery. (adapted from Debie Thomas)
Alleluia. Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
March 11, 2018
I suffer from this horrible thing called ophidiophobia – the fear of snakes. I hate snakes! I mean I really hate snakes! They are my number one fear. In fact, I hate them so much that even reading today’s scripture made me uncomfortable. I am so afraid of snakes that even reading about them or having to think about them creates a bit of anxiety in me. Apparently, I am not alone as in a recent Harris poll, 36% of adults in the United States report a fear of snakes. About 8,000 people in the US are bitten by snakes each year and 7,995 of those survive… only 5 die. (You have no idea how challenging it was for me to do the research on this topic! At 3:30 Friday morning and I couldn’t go back to sleep because every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was rattlesnakes!)
On my hike from Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon last fall, my prayer was to see no “S’s” – no Snakes, no Scorpions. My prayers were answered. I saw neither, but one of my hiking buddies did and of course she had to tell me. There were 6 of us on the trip, but we all hiked at our own pace and met at whatever destination was on the docket for the day. When Barb caught up with me, she said, I have to tell you, I came across a rattlesnake that was about 3 feet off the trail. I heard the warning sound and froze in my tracks until it slithered away. I was then terrified to make the hike back through that area to our hiker’s dorm at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the canyon. Barb offered to lead the way and I followed at a safe distance and in the snakiest area, she watched to the left of the trail and I watched to the right. I hate it that my fear almost immobilizes me. I must do a lot of self-talk and a lot of praying to hit the trails and pursue my passion for hiking. I was grateful to have my friend “snake sit” me for a few miles that day.
Moses was the “snake sitter” for the Israelite people who were encountering asps and dying right and left, presumably for grumbling against God. How quickly their gratitude for being delivered from slavery in Egypt gave way to griping and complaining in the wilderness. Their complaints sound almost comical if closely followed: “There is no food and water here and we detest this miserable food.” It sounds like something that could be attributed to Yogi Berra: “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”. In other words, we don’t have any food, and it tastes terrible, too! (The wording of the complaint is reminiscent of the wonderful line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck tries to speak well of a farmer-preacher by proclaiming that he “never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too.”)
Moses’ serpent-on-a-pole shows up again in the Old Testament, at 2 Kings 18:4: “[Hezekiah] removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke to pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” Cameron Howard writes in Feasting on the Word: The Israelites had forgotten the living, free, dangerous God who commanded the construction of the serpent of the wilderness, and they focused instead on a bronzed, domesticated, manufactured idol that they could see and understand. Perhaps (we need) to break up our bronzed serpents and to turn our attention instead to the God of the wilderness: dangerous, maybe, and unpredictable for sure, but always present, always faithful.
(Doug Bratt:) “That bronze snake, however, has no power to grant any generation eternal life. Those whom the snakes bite but whom God heals eventually still die. So Someone Else had to dangle from another kind of pole in order for people to live forever.
When Jesus discusses his earthly mission with Nicodemus in John 3, he refers to this story of the bronze snake. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
Jesus follows that simile with the memorable description of God’s redeeming love. “For God so loved the world,” he tells Nicodemus in John 3:16, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The cross in John’s gospel, like the Numbers’ bronze serpent on the pole, doesn’t just symbolize God’s righteous fury with God’s children’s sins; it also points to the Lord’s gracious life-giving power.
Yet there’s a difference between the life-giving bronze serpent and Jesus Christ. Numbers 21 doesn’t say that that the Israelites had to believe God would heal them when they looked at the bronze serpent. God simply tells Moses that anyone whom the snakes bite can merely look at the bronze serpent and live. There were probably skeptics who doubted that God could heal those who merely looked at the bronze snake. Once they were bitten, as theologian Scott Hoezee notes, you can imagine they stared pretty hard at it. (I definitely could have hiked that grand canyon with more confidence if I had had a sure remedy for a snake bite in front of me.)
Jesus, by contrast, doesn’t claim that just looking at his cross or him will save anyone. Instead he insists that those who believe in the power of the crucified Christ to save us from our sins will be saved. Jesus refers to Moses’ lifting up the bronze serpent to give life to the people as a metaphor for Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross and then raised from the dead.
Snakes in the ancient world were a symbol of both death and danger and fertility, life, and healing. A snake represented Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. The modern symbol of the medical profession is also a snake wrapped around a branch. The medical professionals at Mayo Clinic offer this advice if you are bitten by a rattlesnake:
Remain calm and move beyond the snake's striking distance. (Well, it seems a little to late for that! And remain calm??? Even as I write this about snakes, my heart rate has increased…)
Remove jewelry and tight clothing before you start to swell. (Not in case you start to swell, but before you start to swell.)
Position yourself, if possible, so that the bite is at or below the level of your heart.
Clean the wound, but don't flush it with water. Cover it with a clean, dry dressing. (Doing all this while remaining calm!)
During Lent, we give something up or take something on as a discipline to call our attention to our need for God. Snakes have been associated with temptation since the Garden of Eden. I wonder if we might apply some of these Mayo Clinic steps to our temptations in life?
When faced with temptation, remain calm and move out of striking distance. Do not be impulsive but remove yourself from whatever wants to have a chokehold on your life and interfere with your walk with God.
Be aware of where your heart is. Remembering the love of God, who sent his son Jesus that we might have life – life abundant, life eternal.
When life gets snaky, and it sometimes will, remember God is with you and promises to never leave or forsake you. That is God’s covenant to us, a covenant of love, a covenant of life, a covenant of life eternal. Amen.
Tucked away somewhere in my mother’s attic is a small, 5-drawer cardboard jewelry box from my childhood. It is white with bright yellow flowers on it and a little stuffed doll that snaps on top. In one of those drawers, cheaply lined with felt, are my Sunday School attendance pins collected during elementary. One of my prized possessions was my 5-year pin from the United Methodist Church. I was so proud to have never missed Sunday School for 5 years straight.
Then fast forward some 20 years Jesus’ call to ordained ministry tiptoed onto the horizon of my life. I have shared with you how I ignored, even laughed at the prospect for 3 years, until my nearest and dearest friend got on the band wagon and said, “I think this is seriously a call and you should pay attention to and stop brushing it off.”
So clearly, I was not as bright the first 4 disciples who responded immediately to Jesus’ calling. Did you catch that in the reading? “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” And then again, “Immediately Jesus called the next two,” who obviously immediately followed as well. The word “immediately” shows up over 40 times in the Gospel of Mark, so we are sure to come across it again in Year B of our lectionary. The tempo of the story is hastened by the use of this word. It is almost as if Mark can’t wait to tell the story of the Good News of Jesus and his actions.
The foreshadowing that occurs in this reading is in the first sentence: “after John was arrested,” which indicates to us that proclaiming God’s kingdom is not free of danger and challenge, though few of us experience the danger of being imprisoned for sharing “The Good News.” And that is how Jesus ministry begins in this gospel. John the Baptist had preceded him in preaching, “Repentance,” but Jesus added something VERY important: believe in the good news. Repent, yes, but also believe in the good news. It is peculiar how so many traditions get stuck in the repentance mode and completely neglect the “good news” part.
When I lived in California, we frequented the Hollywood Bowl for lovely symphony performances in a beautiful outdoor setting in the foothills and under the stars. There was a tunneled walk way leaving the bowl and leading back to the bus stops for easy exit. There was always a man with his bull horn in the tunnel preaching repentance: “Sin no more. You are going to hell.” “Repent now. God is coming.” I feel sure he believed he was fulfilling his “call” to preach and his dedication can’t be belittled, but he only got half of the message. It was disturbing really. I wonder if anyone ever turns to God as a result of a such a message? It is sad really. And I passed a billboard yesterday that read, “You WILL meet God when you die. Call 1-800… for the truth.” The truth is, we are meant to meet God in our living. We are meant to meet Jesus along the way. We are meant to experience the Holy Spirit in our living and not just wait for our dying to “meet God,” where presumably that repentance piece comes into play.
Repentance is important. That is why we do it almost every Sunday of the year. Our Confession of Sin disappears in the triumphant season of Easter when we focus on the fact that Jesus died for our sins and rose again in glory. (Just as a point of instruction: perhaps you notice I pause after saying, “Let us pray also for the forgiveness of our sins.” It is my hope that in those few seconds of silence, you will search your heart and actions and truly repent of anything that has interfered with your relationship with God in the prior week. So, if you haven’t before, maybe today you will take advantage of those few seconds of silence before we repent of our sins.)
Repentance is for us and for our good. In The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr, the Women’s Book Study is reading, the author states: “We are not punished FOR our sins – we are punished BY our sins! Sin is not some arbitrary list of little bad things that God tests you on. Sin is not a word for certain things that upset or hurt God. Inside the Perfect Flow (which is how Rohr describes the Holy Trinity – F-L-O-W, flow), inside the perfect flow, God could only be “hurt” if we are hurting ourselves, just as, in effect, the risen Jesus tenderly says to Paul in the book of Acts, “It is hard for you when you push back against the goad.”
Therefore, when the Holy Spirit moves and invites us to fuller life and being and we resist that, we are pushing back against the goad, we are costing ourselves a deeper walk with God; we are denying God’s grace and falling short of our true nature and calling.
In reflecting on my lack of immediate response to Jesus’ call, I found another piece of Rohr’s book poignant. He says, “It’s our vocation to become who we are and all that we are.” My therapist asked me this week, “Who are you?” (I really thought it was a rhetorical question until the 3rd time she said it!) “Who are you? What is your true nature?”
Who I am now is a compilation of all the experiences life has brought -- and sometimes thrown -- my way. I believe I am still becoming who and all God created me to be. I believe it is a lifelong journey. I can’t imagine a life that is stagnant and unchanging where opportunities to say “yes” to God stop coming. Isn’t it wonderful that God created us to continue growing, changing, becoming… and that God’s grace is sufficient to cover even when our response is not “immediate”? Life is a mystery really, a beautiful, unfolding, life-giving mystery.
Following up on Lainie’s sermon last week, I hope you are listening. I hope you are experiencing Jesus’ call in your lives. It is not a once and done experience. Our initial response to Jesus is just the beginning of becoming fishers of people. Responding to God’s call, immediately, or slowly, once or over and over again, is saying YES to a new way of being, a whole new life, a whole new identity. And saying “yes” is just the beginning, not the end.
Perhaps the beginning is early in life, stored away in the memories of a jewelry box, or perhaps the beginning is today, right here, right where you are. In all times, Jesus’ invitation is to “repent and believe the Good News”… the Good News that God is for you, God is with you, God is within you. Let go of the things that cause you to push against the goad and be embraced anew by the grace of Christ that empowers you be all that you can be.