Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lent 4B Snakes on a Plain

On Sunday, March 22, I delivered a sermon based on Numbers 21, the story of the Children of Israel in the wilderness, and how, in the midst of their journey, they came upon hard times, not the least of which included fiery serpents. I used some illustrations in my sermon which cannot be seen very clearly on the YouTube presentation, and so those pictures are included here.

Here are the Youtube videos I had promised to include on this blog for your viewing pleasure - or at least to make them easier to find.

I haven't found the key for embedding the videos here, but you may cut and paste the links to see and view them.

Part 1 Sermon from Lent 5B

Conclusion of Sermon from Lent 5B, delivered at Holy Trinity, Madera, CA

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Snakes & Spring

New Life comes from shedding old skins and pressing through the darkness toward the light. Spring is the season of new beginnings and of growth. – Karen Kaiser Clark

As most of you know, Spring and Lent mean the same thing. Lent, which finds its root in the Old English word “lencten” (where we get the word “lengthen”) refers to the increasing daylight for which Spring is famous. Well, that and for new growth; but that’s the point, isn’t it? The days are getting longer, the flowers and trees are in bloom, and life is being restored.

That’s the way of things eternal in this, our valley. Life is being restored. We turn our eyes up towards the mountains in the east and we see the winter’s snowpack glimmering in the sun. The Sierras are ready to send that snow back into the valley via rivers and creeks; and the farmers and ranchers are preparing to irrigate their farms and ranches so that the rest of us may enjoy the bounteous fruits of their labors.

This image is such a contrast with the story we see in the Bible’s book of Numbers, where the Israelites are wandering through the wilderness, and in the midst of their wandering, they’re beginning to do what children everywhere do when a trip seems to be taking too long. They start whining and complaining about everything.

Why’s it taking sooooo long? Are we there yeeeeeet? I’m hunnnngry. I’m thirrrsty. I’m hottt. I’m tirrred. I wanna go hoooooome!!!

In the middle of the crankification of the wilderness, we find that God has become the quintessential parent. He sees their grumps, and he raises them. The stakes have become quite serious at this point, and the wanderers discover that they have really overplayed their hand. God’s ire is manifested in the form of fiery serpents, and for the children of Israel, the chips are now officially “really down.”

When the chips are down, what do you do?

If you’re smart, you look to see how you got to where you are, and you figure out what you need to do to overcome the adversity that’s got you down, and if you haven’t got what it takes to prevail, you go where you might find the help you need, and you dig down deep, swallow your pride, confess your need, and pray your prayer for relief will be heard.

And that’s exactly what happens. The people who are being snake-bitten have confessed they have been less than grateful for all God has done. God has relieved them from slavery, delivered them from their oppressors, fed them with miraculous bread (manna) and meat (quail), and slaked their thirst with an abundant supply of water; and their response has been to question Moses’ leadership and God’s intentions.

They come to realize they’ve not had a very good attitude, and they realize their only hope for survival is to make their confession before God, and to place their hope entirely in God’s hands – and more than that, to trust in God’s abundant mercy.

God, of course, had mercy on them. Moses crafted a bronze serpent, mounted it on a pole, and those who gazed upon the bronze serpent found relief and healing for their bodies. That, by the way, is how the image of snakes twined upon a staff came to be a primary symbol for medical practitioners.

God’s desire, of course, is not (and never has been) the death of sinners or the punishment of wrong-doing, but to bless people that people may be a blessing to one another. What stands in the way of God’s desire, though, are the actions and attitudes we bring with us wherever we go. That is because we so often forget who we are and who’s we are: children of God.

Jesus reminds us of God’s desire when he applies the story of Moses and the snakes to his own life and ministry in the Gospel of John. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” he says, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Our job is quite simple, really. We’re to stop acting like snakes. We’re not to snap unthinkingly at those who come to within striking distance. We are not to be venomous in our dealings and attitudes. Rather, we are to look up to the Creator of the universe and give thanks. We are to gaze upon the One who lived and died for us, the One lifted high upon the cross for us and our salvation, and we are to give thanks.

In hindsight, I suspect we would discover that it is often we who have been the fiery serpents. It is time to shed our skins, lift up our eyes, look, live, and give thanks to God.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Victory by the Inch

Victory is won not in miles but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later win a little more. – Louis L’Amour

Reading this line by Louis L’Amour, I am reminded of General Patton’s standing order that his troops were always to gain ground and never to retreat. As Patton (played by George C. Scott in the movie) said, “I don’t like to pay for the same real estate twice”.

I wonder if that isn’t how God sees your life and mine in the larger scheme of things. “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun …” (Victory, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina). If you know this song, adapted and arranged by W.H. Monk (no relation to the television detective), you know I left out a key word – one which will not normally be heard in Lent, and which won’t make its return until Easter. Be that as it may, the plain fact of the matter is that the war is over, and there is no need to pay more for what God has already won. That is good news, indeed.

However, before one breaks into too much singing, dancing, and celebrating, one must understand that there are still “mopping up operations” going on, and those operations include us. We aren’t the people God wants us to be yet – not by a long shot.

We are still lazy (some of us); we are still egotistical (some of us); we are still envious of others (some of us); we are still gluttonous and lustful (some of us); we are still calling the shots with insufficient input from God (some of us); and we are still unwilling to place our lives before God to make of us what he knows we can be. In other words, many of us are reluctant to let God be God. We want to stay in control. We want to stay in control of our feelings, our emotions, our lives, and our wills.

I could go on and on, but you get the point – we’re frail, fragile, and finite human beings. We are, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, “humble little (people) with much to be humble about”.

Some may look at their lives and despair of all the work that needs to be done, or where even to begin to make any headway towards holiness. I know I shouldn’t even have to buy clothes, being covered as I am with fluorescent orange construction cones, and wrapped like a mummy with yellow caution tape. Still, I guess that maybe the key to our faith is the idea that God looks to us for progress, not perfection. Perfection is in God’s job description and not in ours. That, too, is good news.

One of the things I like best about the concept of “progress, not perfection” is that it eliminates the futility of striving for the unattainable, or the frustration of the unobtainable. God didn’t give us the Ten Commandments so he could have the joy of laying down the Law when we messed up. Rather, Law was given as a sign of just how much he loves and cares for us.

When our children are young, we teach them to look both ways before crossing the street, don’t we? We teach them to buckle up when they get into the car, and we teach them to not take drugs, smoke, or drink (even if we may not be so pure in those areas ourselves). Our goal isn’t to be hypocritical, but to share some of what we have learned: that life is better when you pay attention, exercise caution, and minimize the toxins you put into your system. We learned many of these lessons the hard way, didn’t we?

So it is with God’s laws. Many of us will be reviewing some of those laws this Sunday when we go to Church and recite the Ten Commandments as part of our liturgy, or hear them in the reading of the first lesson. We need to remember that they are commandments, not suggestions, but their value isn’t in pointing out how far short we have fallen, but to see where God is leading us.

He has given us life and freedom, for which we give God eternal thanks as he transforms our lives and our characters. We are called to honor those who brought us here (remembering we didn’t get here on our own); we are to bring life to others, not destruction; we are to be faithful, honest, and true; and we are to be content with what we have, for all we are and all we have is ultimately from God.

Knowing that should keep us humble as we inch our way forward in this, our valley. Let’s worry less about the Miles, and put more joy into our Smiles. Peace.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

In the Beginning

I have never before operated a blog, so I hope you will be patient with me as I learn the processes by which these things work.

It was suggested that blogging might be an effective way in which to share my thoughts with the world at large - you one or two faithful readers who may dare count yourselves as "the world at large" for the sake of my poor, fragile ego.

For those who may find this site by accident or even, dare I dream it, on purpose, it is my hope and ambition to examine the propers for each approaching Sunday (Using the Revised Common Lectionary as adopted by The Episcopal Church) and ponder how those lessons might apply to us in our daily living.

I may, from time to time, try my hand at discussing other matters as they occur.

I am truly glad you have found this humble little blog of mine, and I hope you will check back every so often.


Fr. Keith