Good morning! I’ll stay really still. Okay, there we go!
Weeks ago, when Pastor Leah invited me to preach during Lent, I’d been speaking with her and a group of folks from our community about discerning my call to chaplaincy. I mention this experience of community because in my meditation on John 3:16 in the weeks before. I had been captured by its communal aspect much in the way the anthem repeated “for God so loved the world,” so was I repeating in my mind and in my heart “for God so loved the world.” I felt like those words had something to tell me about that very familiar verse. And so, today, I invite all of you to explore how the readings invite us to not look at our own dis-ease but rather to consider how God invites us into the wilderness to look at our shared dis-ease together.
Let us pray:
God of relationships, connect us today to you. Remind us that you are connected to yourself on this day just as you were when you breathed forth your spirit, yourself, making creation from the depths of chaos, speaking light through your child into darkness. It was good. It is good. Remind us that we are created in your Divine image to be in relationship. And, God, guide me to exercise my power to create with you today a space where we can risk together. Risk seeing our dis-ease together so that we might be nurtured in hearing of our fears together. And, as each of us speaks your wisdom, might we listen. Amen.
Something really important happens in those verses before John 3:16. Right? Which have become so familiar that you see the placards at the sporting events. And, in many ways, that placard for me is a symbol of how those words in scripture have been stripped of their deep, I would say, communal meaning. Those words, “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so much the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” So, to understand the words that follow, it’s useful to consider the story of Moses that we read in Numbers: God’s people are still in the wilderness, right? So, they’ve left Egypt and they’re not in the Promised Land yet. They’re in the wilderness. Lent is a time that can be intentional where we can remember and reflect on this wilderness. And, God’s people, much like us, are impatient. Why are they still in the wilderness? The food’s horrible, there’s no place to rest, and all I can see is dust and dirt, I’m tired! We, too, become impatient in our dis-ease. Whether it’s the small things that become big things in our comfort or the large things that just set us back. “what is going on in our lives, God?” We ask. And so, God’s people spoke against Moses and spoke against God. Now, I think this is an important turn here, right? Because the people aren’t speaking to Moses or to God, right? They’re speaking against. Right? This is this is a signal to me that they’re out of relationship. Right? If something’s going on between you and I or in our community, a response that keeps us in relationship is to speak to one another, so I want you to hold on to that, right? They’re not speaking to God or to Moses they’re speaking against God and against Moses. Does that mean that when we speak to God or speak to our leaders that we should have only pleasant things to say? No, right? There’s the difference between conflict, right? “I’m gonna get into it with ya!” And confrontation, being face to face. We often mix that up, right? So, hold onto those ideas: the idea of speaking to one another, speaking to God, confronting one another, and conflicting with one another.
And then there comes that part about the serpents. The poisonous serpents. And, so, whenever I see something like that in Scripture I always ask myself did, “God really send those poisonous serpents?” Leah and I were kind of just in here a moment ago and I was thinking of the same example which was like: I’ve never seen the movie Snakes on a Plane, but this is what that reminded me of, right? And I hear the movie is pretty hilarious, but just the idea of “snakes on a plane” you’re like, “what? That can’t be for real!” And that’s kind of what I think here, right? Because guess what, where else do we see a serpent in Scripture, right? Right in the beginning, and that one’s talking, right? So, was there a really a talking serpent? Did God really send poisonous serpents? I don’t know. And, I don’t think it’s important whether we decide, “Well, God did send the serpents,” “Didn’t send the serpents,” “were there even serpents?” Because I think, symbolically, they’re really powerful, right? We don’t even know if there was really an actual talking serpent in the beginning. The symbol of it is really powerful. I think what it points out to us is that when we talk against one another and against God, something gets in us, something that is poisonous, right? It’s that separation from one another. That breaking of relationship, whether it’s with one another or with God. So what God asks Moses to do in putting that serpent, right? Making a sculpture of a serpent and holding it up for the people to see is to create a space where they all look together at what they are afraid of. Looking together at their dis-ease. Now, were they poisonous serpents? I don’t really know, right? But, I can imagine, after spending, or in the midst of spending 40 years in the wilderness, that there were probably all kinds of things that caused dis-ease: thirst, hunger, right? Those big things? But, ultimately, I think the thing that was most dangerous was that when the people are separated from one another, they can’t possibly survive the wilderness alone. Right? When we are separated from one another, we cannot face our dis-ease. We are made to be in relationship. So that symbol to live by is the symbol to take a moment to pause and to look up together at what makes us uneasy. And, so, we have this background in that space going into John. Jesus references it, and, once we take a look at that story, we can get a sense that Jesus is talking about something really specific here. He’s not talking about that placard, right? John 3:16. Which, in my childhood, was used as a shorthand way of saying “you should believe in a specific way so that you, individually, Chad O’Neil, can be ‘saved.’” I’m not entirely sure what that meant. Saved from what? When I look at that story about Moses, I think that Jesus had something else to say. That he was going to be held up in front of the people to not only remind us of our dis-ease but to tell us that he is in dis-ease with us. He lived this throughout his life. He didn’t stand in the open areas and tell people what they should do or that it was a blessing to them that they were facing calamity, starvation, hunger, sickness. He went to them in relationship to be with them in their dis-ease. In his place of power, he risked himself to be with others in those uncomfortable places. We share that same call and I can imagine you might be thinking, “but, Chad, you walk into emergency rooms and hospital rooms. That’s an uncomfortable place. Not everyone is called to walk into those same uncomfortable places. The places where you’re called to the dis-ease of others are different, but they’re just as important because there are places where relationship can happen. Right? Whether it’s the desert or the coffee shop, when we connect with one another, we are connected with God. This isn’t about a specific method of belief, a formula of doctrine, this is about relationship. Jesus has held up in that way to remind us of the space for relationship.
So, that brings me to another question that I like to ask at this point, which is: “hat if we understood belief more like relationship?” What would these well-known passages look like? What would happen to them? What happens to the serpent when we replace it with the things that break us from one another? But these could be political arguments. They could be values. They could be real serious decisions that we make in society. So, today, I want to take a moment and take a risk to say some things that might be a little strange, and to acknowledge that I can do that from a place of power, right? This is really important. Just as Jesus takes those risks from power, we need to make sure that we check our privilege in our power when we’re thinking about the dis-ease of others, right? It might be really easy for me to stand here and talk about the poor and all these other things that I don’t experience, right? But it’s important instead to acknowledge my power, right? I am a white male who is straight and Christian right? I don’t know if you all know but that’s a big deal in this country, right? A really big deal. And, so, the way in which I acknowledge that privilege is to take risks, right? Because I can take them, right? It’s not to point fingers at the marginalized who Jesus stands alongside of, but to, rather, take a risk. And, I take this risk not as a way to create conflict, but to invite us to confront some really serious issues. So, I want you to imagine a pole, right? You might look at these trees. And instead of a bronze serpent wrapped around it, what if there was an AR-15 wrapped around that pole? What would it be for us not only here but nationally, in our country, to look at that symbol of death? What would we have to say to one another? Would we listen? Ultimately, would we take the risk of being in relationship? What is it to hear someone say something that makes your blood boil and to still be in relationship? Would we, in facing our fears together, whether those be the fears that I share as a father who has a child in an elementary school of getting that call, of hearing that news story, or the fears of someone else who thinks that the only way they can protect themselves is by holding on to a tool that is designed to kill? Those are two very legitimate fears. And, I think often what we do is we break relationship because it’s really hard to hear our fears together when, honestly, we can’t see where they meet. Because those two things don’t seem to meet for me, right? It doesn’t make sense, but I know that when I walk the into rooms of people who are facing things that I don’t understand, that I haven’t experienced, that the best thing for me to do is to stop and listen. What do I hear? What are they risking? Where are they vulnerable? And I do that from my place of power, right? So, hear this invitation to risk vulnerability with others fears in your reality, right? I don’t know where each of you are. I don’t know the vulnerability that you carry with you. These kinds of conversations might be dangerous for you. They might not be a wise idea, right? So, it’s important to know that when we look at our dis-ease together, when we open paths to wholeness, that we risk vulnerability in our individual positions of power. That we can know that there is strength in vulnerability, much like the young students from parkland, in their vulnerability they were able to speak truth to power, right? They flipped the script. And, Jesus promised that there is power for those who are vulnerable. And the realization that when you do have power, the idea of the first coming last isn’t necessarily just about, you know, order of what? Salvation? Order of who comes to where? But, an order about your place in the world. How will you use your power to create opportunities for connection? So, we get all that coming into that often-referenced verse, right? “for God so loved the world…” and it changes it for me. I hear “for God so loved the world that God gave God’s only child so that everyone who relates to his child may not suffer in isolation, but, instead, would experience wholeness in relationship. What might that look like for you where you are? What might it look like for those who maybe you have a hard time relating to? Stop and listen. And, so, I take this time now to stop and listen. Thank you.
– CUCC Member in Discernment, Chad O’Neil