Contradictions in the Wilderness

4th Sunday in Lent 2018

Rebecca Gordon, lay preacher

In the name of the one, holy and living God. Amen.

“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.” John 3:19

Today I’d like to talk about contradictions.

It’s the fourth Sunday in Lent, the fourth Sunday in our journey through the hard emptiness of wilderness to the even harder place of the cross. We know what’s coming, and yet we trudge along anyway, in the crazy hope that something waits for us on the other side of that cross. In the same way, we’re told that the Israelites traveled 40 years, in the crazy hope that they, or their children, or their children’s children would see that promised land. And sometimes, like us they grew tired, frightened, and angry.

My partner Jan and I won’t be with St. John’s on Good Friday evening. As many of have heard me say, I’m a nice Jewish girl who goes to an Episcopal church. (Maybe it’s only half-true, at least according to 23 & Me, who recently informed me that I’m exactly 49.9% Ashkenazi Jew. I figure that other 0.1% on my Papa’s side is the Mongol he always resembled a little bit.)

In any case, this is one of those years when Eastertide overlaps with Pesach — or in English, Passover — and Friday is the first night of Passover. Jan and I will be sitting, as we have for the last 30-odd years, at a table full of women, eating symbolic foods and retelling the Passover story from the book of Exodus. We’ll remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and that therefore we must never allow anyone to be a slave again. We’ll remind ourselves that none of us are free until all of us are free. The exodus story appears in several places in the Hebrew bible. And in the book of Exodus there’s also a part of the story where, as in today’s passage from Numbers, the Israelites get angry and frustrated with Moses. “Were there no graves in Egypt,” they ask him, “that you had to bring us out into the desert to die?” The women around the table often pause at the at that point in the story to talk about the hardship of pilgrimage, about leadership and its costs, and about the risks of accepting a leader — whether it be Moses, Black Lives Matter, or Monseñor Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

The way of the wilderness is hard. Harder still, for the women who sit at the Pesach table every year is accepting the contradictions buried in God’s liberation of the Hebrews. Sure, we Hebrews get to enter the land of Canaan, and it is indeed full of milk and honey, but it turns out that it’s also full of people who were already living there. Told from a Canaanite’s point of view, the exodus is not exactly a story of liberation. It is not just the story that lifted up Harriet Tubman, leader of the Underground Railroad, whose people called her “Moses.” As the Native American theologian Robert Allen Warrior has written, for the Canaanites, the exodus story is a history of massacre and occupation. Liberation and occupation–opposites entwined in the same human history. What are we to make of this contradiction? I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Along our Lenten way through the wilderness at St. John’s, we’re given the weekly lectionary readings as signposts. But sometimes—and I’d count today as one of those times—the signposts seem to be pointing in opposite directions. It’s confusing out here in the wilderness. Take today’s readings, for example. Are we supposed to save ourselves through good deeds? Or by recognizing that our deeds alone cannot save us?

On the one hand, we hear in Numbers that the Hebrews performed evil deeds. They treated Moses badly and were punished with the bites of poisonous snakes. But then, as so often happens in these Hebrew bible stories, God relents. (One of the joys of being Jewish is we’re used to arguing with The Divine, and on occasion even winning the argument.) In this case, God declares that bitten pilgrims can be cured, if they will turn their gaze on the bronze viper Moses has affixed to his staff. Just as they have been condemned to a painful death because of what they did, they can also be cured through their own actions, through something they do.

But what is it they have to do?  They must recognize that they cannot save themselves by themselves. They must look to the visible, physical sign of God’s presence in the snake on the staff. That willingness to look, to recognize The Divine in the world, is a kind of faith. It is the faith that confesses (from the Latin for speaking “with faith”) that we cannot liberate ourselves by ourselves.

Most biblical scholars don’t think that St. Paul himself wrote the letter to the Ephesians, but the passage we heard today is very much in keeping with one of Paul’s central messages — that we are justified not by our works but by faith. “For,” says the letter’s author, “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.” We cannot save ourselves through our good works.

But really, why not? After all, how bad are we really? Think about St. John’s: we house the Gubbio project so that five days a week people can sleep here in safety. We make room for the Julian Pantry, so people can feed their families (whether directly by eating the food we provide or by selling it on the street–we don’t inquire too deeply!) We stand as witnesses to police and ICE violence. We’re basically pretty good people in a pretty good congregation that proudly hangs a Black Lives Matter banner on the side of our church. We do our best to live out our faith, to be the kind of people the Letter to the Ephesians describes: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Lent — I always come up with two contradictory ideas. On one hand, like the folks at St. John’s, very few human beings are truly evil. Mostly we do our best, and sometimes it’s close to good enough. Certainly not deserving of the condemnation mentioned in John’s gospel today. Few of us are big enough to be truly terrible, to deserve to be cast out into the outer darkness. And yet. And yet. When you consider humanity as whole, it does seem to be true that — as the Rite I version of the general confession has it—“There is no health in us.” We torture each other. We slaughter each other in the millions and turn millions more into refugees, literal wanderers in the wilderness. We enslave each other and the planet, all for greed. There is no health in us. We are not so bad, and we are a scourge. How can both things be true?

And this brings me back to the contradiction I mentioned earlier. I don’t think it’s an accident that liberation and oppression are so often opposite sides of the same human-minted coin. That truth is implicit in the kind of creature we are. And that is why, as the authors of Ephesians and Numbers tell us, as our namesake evangelist John tells us, our health depends on turning and looking to the signs of grace that God offers us. For John, that sign is the person of Jesus.

When I decided I wanted to go to seminary, I went over to CDSP, the Episcopal school at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I talked to a professor there about how I understand the Incarnation — the physical presence of God incarnated (made flesh) in humanity. “I think the divine is incarnated in human history,” I told him, “whenever human beings come together to struggle for justice.”

“Yes! Yes!” he said. “And I think you’d be really isolated here.” So I went across the street to the Unitarians, because they don’t care what outlandish thing you think, as long as you do it respectfully. Over the years I’ve become more orthodox, more interested in the actual person I secretly call “the Jesus guy.” But I still believe what I told that professor that day.

This past week, the Vatican announced that it has cleared the way to recognize the sainthood of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador. (It’s more than a little ironic that this should come just as the Trump administration is planning to end Temporary Protective Status for people who have come to this country to escape violence in El Salvador.) You may remember that Romero was an ordinary, relatively conservative Salvadoran priest, who, through his willingness to look clearly at the lives of poor people in his country changed his understanding completely. Though repentance (which is the Lenten task of all of us) he acknowledged that there was no health his country: a country (supported by our own taxes, by the way) that used its military and police to enforce the power and wealth of a very few families by torturing and terrorizing poor people.

Romero could have led a safe and comfortable bishop’s and then archbishop’s life, enjoying the perks that a accrue to a prince of the church. But he repented — re-thought–his own and his country’s situation. Romero, snake-bitten in the desert, chose to gaze at the visible sign of the incarnation. He looked full on at poor people organizing for their own liberation, and in so doing, he allowed God to liberate him.

It cost him his life. Almost 38 years ago, on March 24, 1980, an agent of the US-backed right wing death squads murdered Oscar Romero while he was saying mass. But Romero, and we, too, as we accompany the Jesus guy on his way to the cross this Lent had one more contradiction to encounter. The cross is the most glorious contradiction of them all, that very real and tortured death that–whatever you believe about the actual Resurrection 2,000 years ago–leads to the life of the Divine within and throughout creation. Or as Romero said in his homily on the day he died, “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ, will live like the grains of the wheat that dies. It only appears to die. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies” and rises again in the people’s Easter.

San Oscar Romero, presente.


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