March 22, 2009
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Fourth Sunday of Lent
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
One of the childhood fears is the monsters under the bed or hiding in the closet. Some children need a night light so they can sleep with confidence. Other times a parent comes in to shine a light under the bed. It is not just children who have a primal fear of the dark. All horror movies have scenes of ominous movements in the midnight hour. Leaves move and seem to make loud noises. Shadowy figures are just beyond our light.
One of the most important evolutionary moments was the discovery of fire. At night a fire would be lighted and the community gathered around it. A sense of security would come. We still have that feeling when we camp, the comfort of the fire in the dark night.
In a vision quest, one of the disciplines is to go out into the woods without light. I have done this and the night gets nosier and stranger. One has to learn to embrace the night and the dread that is there. Metaphorically one has to shine a light on the fear.
Suzanne tells me of her experience in the winter. In the dark of our property she only goes as far as the areas our house lights light up, she does not at night venture past our deck. There is in the winter, as it comes to an end, the movement of animals who live just beyond the light. And not all of them are vegetarians. I think we all have this primal fear in the dark. Our sense of security is less.
In Numbers we have a story of a people who have lost their security by gaining their freedom. They are now out in the desert and the familiar has gone. They have to construct a new identity of a people God has called through liberation.
Here they are lost and fearful. Like any group, or person, who operates out of fear, they project, get negative. The snakes are symbolic of this fear, so the story tells us that God gives them a way to deal with their fear. Moses creates a bronze snake on a pole. Think of it this way: that which they fear is raised to eye level. The people can look the fear it its eye and are healed. They gain a new sense of wisdom.
When we turn to John we are given another image of light - a light shines in the darkness. It is to shine the light onto those fears that make us less and to be liberated from those fears. Like the Numbers passage, John reflects a community which has found hope and then lost it through fear. The times had become difficult, so John writes to remind them that despite the reality of difficult times, of loss and danger, they have a light of a God. Reality is actually redeemed and they should not fear.
We can identify with their concern because we know the church is going through another time of reconstruction. This brings fear. The literature about the future of the church tells us we are currently living through a significant time of religious, cultural, social and intellectual change. When we look at our own context we know the religious world we grew up in no longer exists. No longer is religion privileged and it is under challenge. It is not only religion that is questioned, it is all institutions, for a new world view is taking shape today. To witness to our faith we must learn to address this new reality. This will mean facing those things that no longer work. In part, the tough task is to reconstruct so we can share our gift of faith to today’s reality. A reality that God loves.
Our scriptures reflect a feeling of being caught in a changing reality. There is also a sense of fear because they experience a broken reality. We can identify with their questions. Are we not plagued with fiery serpents? So do we not worry at the rustle to the left and the slither to the right? Have we not been sleepless waiting for the unwanted visitor in the night? Does not death walk our streets in ten thousand subtle forms? What remedy is given in the name of God?
In each reading we see that we are under God’s Grace. God works in the world as it is, to lure it to were it could be. There is light in the darkness that shines in the hidden places of fear. In God’s initial aim God offers wholeness, a possibility for the moment and we are free to choose how to respond and are responsible for our choices. And we have light or wisdom of God to help make choices that offer healing to others and ourselves.
Again John reminds us that God did not condemn the world. We can misread it as God sent God’s son as some scapegoat. However, what John is saying is, God loves this world and is in the redemption business, in each moment shines the light into dark places. God invites the us to journey toward wholeness, to be rooted in the moment where our community is one of service and celebration.
God in so loving the world is about offering the wisdom to see that every part of reality is redeemed and is being redeemed. All of our fears, failures, and brokenness do not define us, what defines us is we live in the light of a redeemed world. We are called to an inner sense of God, to let the light shine in our hearts and then we sense ourselves as fully integrated people. We can offer to God and the world this sense of wholeness, mind, body and soul, and we become the light to our reality for God shines through us.
John speaks of being glorified. It is the appearance of God into everyday events, receiving the world’s pain. The receptive light is in the midst of the world. God blesses the world of human affairs - Christ came not condemn but to bring light. We are to come to our senses through the light of Christ. In this way our actions belong to the light, as John puts it: "their deeds belong to God." Our deeds are to refract the light.
I remember a sermon from my Chicago days. It was a Black Pentecostal church we occasionally went to. "Snake handling is part of our tradition. Why? It is to learn to handle snakes. Why are they lifted up? Why do we risk the bite of a snake? It is because we live in a world of snakes. It is because we need to learn to tame snakes. In doing so we learn to handle Mayor Daly and the racism of our world. With our eye on the prize we are freed from fear. With our eye on the prize we march against death. With our eye on the prize we can overcome. The prize is lifted up so our eyes will not turn down. The lifting up of the prize removes fear - we are redeemed - we are free - we will overcome some day."
The movie and book The Secret Life of Bees is another story that speaks of redemption. It is in a community of unconditional love that allows one to befriend that which imprisons. The heroine of the story is taught in a context of unconditional love to befriend the bees and in doing so is released from her dark past.
All of this calls us to look at those things that bring terror and pain and face them. We have a resource for that facing in the light of God which shines through us and is found in others. Being blessed our vocation is to bless our world. Our call is, don’t act as if God has not redeemed life - salvation has happened - live it!