Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lift High the Cross

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Lent includes Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

The lilacs are budded. Tulips are up six inches in my south-exposed garden, where there’s a blaze of crocuses causing a stir-up of bees. It’s the Fourth Sunday in Lent, when custom calls for a lightening-up of Lenten discipline—even if the author of the Letter to the Ephesians keeps insisting that Christians be wary of “following the desires of flesh and senses.” It’s spring, for heaven’s sake, and we’d be dull clods if we didn’t smell it in the air and rejoice. That’s what this fourth Lenten Sunday has long been called: Laetare Sunday, from the Latin “laetare”, rejoice, the first word of the psalm in the old Roman rite.

Mothering Sunday is another of its nicknames. Tumble back to the 16th century, and you’d find people keeping this as one of their very few holidays. Domestic servants were given the day off to return to their mothers and, with them, attend worship in their “mother churches”, the hometown churches where they’d been baptized and raised.

“Refreshment Sunday” is yet another of this day’s names. Back when Lent meant forswearing meat and dairy products, people were ready by this Lenten midpoint to kick back and be bad… simnel cakes, bacon, and two eggs over easy, please. No accident, that today’s collect asks God to “evermore give us this bread”, even if what’s meant is metaphorical and spiritual, the true bread, Christ.

Real bread has been baked for us, this Lent. Diana Elvin and Elvy O’Brien have been our bakers, so far. I’m hoping there are more bread bakers among you who’d like to provide communion bread for future Sundays. While we may have grown attached to those wafers the nuns make for us, it’s a nice change to get our hands and our taste buds on real bread. Someone has said that the church demands no greater leap of faith than when she asks her people to believe that those wafers are bread.

Speaking of belief, what’s going on in the Book of Numbers with Moses ordering a bronze serpent to be held up on a pole? There was just never a dull day in those days of old. Don’t expect a neat answer to this one. And why even bother? Well, there’s Jesus in John’s Gospel telling us, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Snakes do not make out well in the Bible, do they? Like dragons, they represent evil and the devil. It probably didn’t help their reputation in ancient Israel, that certain neighboring nations had a religion that worshiped snakes. Commentators say that what’s going on in today’s story is that Israel is co-opting that pagan religious image, showing their neighbors (while also showing any backsliders in Israel who might have been tempted to practice snake worship) showing everyone that Israel’s God was greater than the pagan snake-god.

So this was supposed to be a kind of wilderness evangelism. Because of the loyal love of Israel’s God, who faithfully kept the covenant promises made to the patriarchs and matriarchs, if any of those Israelites in the wilderness were bitten by snakes, they simply had to look to the pole in Moses’s hand and they would live.

As far as I can see, it’s open season for efforts at making sense of this story. The commentators don’t seem any too confident in their explanations. And the point in even trying is to catch what our patron St. John has in mind when he revives the image.

I figure that what Moses decided to do was to make it impossible for his people to deny that they had a problem, a problem that could unite them. He put a bronze snake on that pole because live snakes were nipping at their ankles, everybody’s ankles. He put on that pole a graphic image of their problem. I think he knew that this strategy could unite them at a time when something more vicious than snakes was feeding on them.

So far the only thing that was uniting them was their anger and their fear. Remember that these former slaves had taken the biggest gamble of their lives when they stepped off that river bank and followed Moses out of their status quo as mistreated slaves in Egypt, into freedom in a new land that God promised (through Moses) to be flowing with milk and honey. It didn’t take them long to discover that in a long wilderness march, you run out of food and water. Back home in Egypt, they at least had food and drink. The longer and the harder their journey, the more they complained bitterly (even when they were saved from hunger and thirst by the providence of God), sinking into the worst of human nature as “children of wrath”, to borrow a phrase from our second lesson.

How bad did this get? Every time God sent blessing, God’s people cursed. Water for their thirst? Moses found them a well by a rock—it wasn’t enough. Food for their hunger? Migrating quails literally fell on their camp, and a vegan option, manna, condensed on the foliage overnight—they found that menu boring and literally beneath them.

Finally, God is said to have taken a desperate measure to restore perspective: having opened to them all the native resources of the land, God wondered what it would do for their outlook if they noticed one more example of the abundance of God’s creation: the prodigious supply of snakes in that wilderness. It might also be said that God was indulging in a bit of heavenly retribution—but that would suggest that a grumbling people had reduced Yahweh to a grumbling God, and that should alarm us, that people should have such wrathful power.

I think Moses put that snake on his pole because it was the very best and most accurate image he could find to represent not God’s anger, but theirs, his people’s. Were they so angry, so blinded by their complaining, that they didn’t watch where they were stepping, didn’t watch out for one another, didn’t even pay attention to a far worse danger than having to eat leftovers? “Remember the snakes, people!” his rod and staff said, loud and clear. “And remember the power of your own attitude to adversity. It will either carry you through this time of great danger, or it will lay you low. Poisonous attitudes pose a greater risk than poisonous snakes. Try gratitude.”

Does anything carry over from this treatment of Moses’ story to John’s revival of it?

The “lifting up” that must happen to the Son of Man refers to what the church calls the Passion of Christ—his life, his death, his resurrection. His life, his public ministry, lifted up out of obscurity the outcast people of Palestine, in fact the marginalized and ill-treated “little ones” of all times and cultures, lifting them up while casting down the mighty, rendering all people equal in God’s sight. This radical movement he initiated set him on a collision course with the dominant powers of his world, this world, and he freely chose to ride out that collision as he was lifted high upon the cross, punished and executed by the collaborating powers of both state and religion. That neither, nor both, could silence his Word and terminate his power and defeat his love is shown in his being lifted up, raised, from death. And beyond, the fellowship he created constantly lifts him up in Word and sacrament, in servanthood and the practice of his kind of love. All of this lifting up is best symbolized by the cross, which (however partially) unites Christian people unlike anything else.

What was a shameful instrument of death has become a potent sign of the enduring power of loyal love. Like the curative sight of Moses’ pole, the cross of Jesus invites us to stop grumbling about our own little piles of thorns—or our big ones-- and gain perspective.

The cross that has Jesus’s body nailed on it urges us to watch where and how we walk, that we not add to the breaking of Mary’s heart, or the wounding of the Body of Christ, but bind ourselves to God by an attitude of reverence for all life.

The cross that has on it Jesus’s transformed body freed by resurrection, robed as a priest and crowned as a king, draws us to measure the riches of his grace that saves us for good works through God’s church and in God’s world.

And the cross that has no body on it shows no less where loyal love has gone and wants to go still, all-embracing by its cross-beam and joining earth to heaven by its pole.

Like the pole of Moses’ making, the cross of Jesus makes it obvious to us, and undeniable, that we have a problem. We live in a world that resorts to violence, a world where death appears to have the last word. The cross displays what the grace of God can make of violence and death. Like Moses laying claim to a symbol of worldly power and redeeming it for higher purpose in the service of God, Mother Church lays hold of the cross, converting it from representing brutal capital punishment and brazen death, freeing it to stand for the greatest love that calls us to look to it and live.

To look up to the cross of Jesus is to let our attitudes be reshaped to a gratitude that is itself the antidote to venoms that inflame human hearts. It is the sign of the cross that restores in us the divine likeness in which we are made, by which our world is remade in God’s new creation.