4 Lent, March 11, 2018 Numbers 21: 4-9
All Saints, Chelmsford, Massachusetts Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Ephesians 2: 1-10
A Prayer attributed to St. Francis John 3: 14-21
Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life
Fear. It’s a prevalent emotion these days. It’s infectious. It’s virulent; and it surfaces for many reasons. In a cartoon I saw on FaceBook recently, there is a picture of two parents, sitting in a school classroom and talking to their child’s teacher. The teacher is holding an AR-15 rifle in one hand and saying to the parents,“Your child seems to be distracted lately.”
Fear pops up all round us. We worry about where our country is headed and if our world is doomed for destruction. Many of us are beginning to wonder about our safety in what seems to be an increasingly chaotic and violent world. We worry about our economic security and how our health care will be managed. We wonder about the costs of our decisions, and what effect they will have on ourselves, our children, and future generations. For those of us in the later years of our lives, we might begin to wonder about death. It all begs the question: how much control do we actually have?
The Israelites had a lot of fear. Understandable and real fears. They had just fled Egypt where they had been slaves in a foreign land. Their leader Moses had led them to freedom but not first before they survived plagues, death threats, and leaving everything behind. Running for their lives, they were hunted down by a powerful army before they finally crossed the Red Sea to safety. I imagine the Israelites had family members who had died not only in Egypt but also in their flight to freedom. They were burdened by fear and by grief.
In today’s passage from Numbers we hear that the Israelites are not happy in their new found freedom. They seem to be wandering aimlessly. They were surrounded by deadly snakes, lacking the basic necessities of food and water, and fearing for their own lives once again. They were not happy with Moses nor with God; and quite frankly, I too would have become impatient. I too would have challenged my leader and my God, wondering out loud, what’s up with all of this?
Forgive my detour for a moment. Your rector and I discovered that we share some history. While living in Atlanta, we both attended the same high school, a Christian preparatory school. We didn’t know each other “way back then” for our schools were divided: the boys school and the girls school were separated by the administration building. We could have intersected at social events; but I was not a wrestler nor did I play a musical instrument. Bill attended an Episcopal church, and I was a Presbyterian, at least back then. Like I said, we didn’t know each other.
To be honest, I don’t recall having many fears during this time in my life. And yet, I also lived in a bubble of privilege and safety. Poverty did not knock at my door, leaving me anxious about food insecurity. Yes, there were snakes in Atlanta, but we lived in the city. To my knowledge, I was neither oppressed nor discriminated against, and I certainly was not enslaved. In my Presbyterian church, we learned about Moses and God’s laws; and in youth group we sang, “My God is an awesome God.” Even so, God seemed somewhat distant to me and only part of ancient history. The fear of death was never on my mind.
Some people would say that we live in “dark times.” Losing electrical power reminded many of us of the dark and cold ages in history.
Mental illness, and dark nights of the soul, have contributed to violent acts of murder. Movies, like the Darkest Hour, have chronicled times in our history when the world was at war once again. Truth be told there are cold wars and hot wars raging all around us even today.
When people and systems (like families, churches, and countries) become anxious, worried, and fearful, human beings often resort to our lowest forms of animal behavior. We attack others. We flee, even if it means returning to slavery. We freeze because we don’t trust our God to save us from the powers that appear to be greater and stronger than us. Some of us even fight back, killing others in self-defense and self-protection, and who can blame us?
We live in anxious times, and anxiety, whether it is chronic or acute, can make us sick. How then can we maintain our spiritual balance in the face of a world, a society, and systems that invite us to live fearfully rather than faithfully? What can we do when we are afraid about real and imagined threats, feeling that we are living in a world that is spinning out of control, and we have become impatient and angry with our leaders and our God? When the snow falls and the lights go out, to whom and what do we turn?
Ya’ll know this is the season of Lent, right? Liturgically, we use the seasons of our church year to help us focus, and Lent helps us to focus on our sins: to admit those things that we have done and left undone, things we have said and left unsaid. Lent helps us confess that we have lost our way in the wilderness, and divided ourselves against one another. We have forgotten to pay attention to the God, who created us, loves, guides us, empowers us, and saves us even now.
Sin is an ever-present reality, which happens whether it’s light or dark. We call it many things… a mistake, a wrong step, an accident, an unforced error, a trespass, a little white lie, a broken law, betrayal, bad behavior, hurtful words, and downright evil. But whatever we call it, and however we do it, it is sin; and we are all guilty. In Anglican moral theology, a sin is a sin is a sin, no matter how small, no matter how egregious.
Our sins indicate that we are not right with God and so we are not right within ourselves nor with our neighbors. We are out of alignment, soul sick, and the promised land seems far away. All around us we can see broken hearts, broken lives, broken power lines, and broken people. Our God may be an awesome God but our God is distant, only a part of ancient history, and a powerless and ineffective leader right now. What can we do?
Paradoxically, we can turn to God for help; for we believe that God’s power is greater than any one of us or all of us combined. Either God is everything or God is nothing. Either God is everywhere or God is nowhere; and so, we can ask God to use the broken places in our lives to reconnect us. We just need to plug in and recharge by sitting in the presence of God every day. Through prayer and meditation, we can let God’s Power, Presence, and Light come into our souls.
For the gospel of John tells us, and I believe this to be true, that God so loved the world that God gave us a light that shines in our darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. This true light, which is God’s Light, which is Jesus, enlightens everyone; and in Him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike.
To the question that the Israelites once asked in the wilderness, and probably all of us ask at some time in our lives, “Who is coming to save us?” and Jesus answered, “I am.” “I am the Light of the World. And whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” God’s Light and Power can enter into the small and parched cracks of our souls, especially when we find ourselves wandering in the desert or frozen in fear. We need only stop for a moment and let God in, in order to reconnect with our awesome God, who is a real Presence, a real Power, and our Eversource of Light and Love.
It is through prayer and meditation that we can improve our conscious contact with God, drawing ever closer to God’s presence within us and all around us. In silence, we may hear that “wee, still, small voice” guiding us, calming us, empowering us, and leading us. This God is an awesome God, who is infinitely patient with us - forgiving us, despite our impatience, our wrong turns, our stubborn resistance, and our frequent desires to turn back and run! Have faith in me, God says, for I have created you out of my love, to be a human being of love, and as a channel of my love. I have created you as a child of the light to walk in freedom and peace.
St. Francis invites us to be channels of God’s love, light, and power. Through daily confession, we clear our channels. Through prayer and meditation, God fills our channels. Freely given, we can then empty our channels by sharing what we’ve received with others. Just like trucks scatter sand and salt on icy roads during a storm, we can scatter God’s Light, Power, and Love everywhere we go.
God did not come into the world to condemn any of us but to save us, and the root of the word salvation comes from the Latin word “salve” which means healing. Truth be told, we are all part of the walking wounded in our world, and we are all in need of healing. Native Americans say that they travel for 6 days and then stop to rest, so that on the sabbath day their “souls can catch up.” Today our souls are catching up.
Although, as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, we may have been dead through our own trespasses and sins in this world, God is rich in mercy and has made us alive in Christ. By the grace of God, we have our salvation today, and tomorrow, and for all of eternity. Today, do not be afraid of the dark but have faith. Walk as a child of the Light, and shine God’s Light wherever you go. Amen.