The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, March 11, 2018

“For God So Loved the World” A Sermon on John 3:14-21

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC, March 11, 2018.]

So here we are, past the halfway point in Lent, and wondering what to make of these last few weeks before we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A few years ago, Martin Sheen starred in a film called “The Way,” a fictional story based on a real pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James, made every year by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, to the shrine of St. James the Great, the brother of John, the "beloved disciple," traditionally the author of today's Gospel. In the film, the hardships and companionship of the pilgrimage open up the mind and heart of those who walk the way.

Lent can be, if we let it, just such a pilgrimage. And as every pilgrimage must have a destination, so too does our Lenten way: Jerusalem.

And, in fact, the pull of the readings over these past weeks has been to point us, along with the disciples, toward Jerusalem. Toward that brief, shining, joyous triumphal entry into the City. And toward the Last Supper, where Jesus promotes the disciples from “servants” to “friends,” and, in a shocking gesture of humility their Master—their teacher, that is—washed their feet. Their apprenticeship, he is saying, is over.

But also this pilgrimage leads to the Garden, where Jesus is betrayed and arrested, and then betrayed again, this time by Peter, and then—to the Cross. And yes, of course, ultimately to Easter but first we have to grapple with the way to the Cross, through the past few weeks’ reading.

Two weeks ago, Jesus rebuked Peter in the harshest terms when he tried to turn Jesus away from the path of suffering and death. Last week, after driving out the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple, Jesus spoke of his death and resurrection, in terms of the Temple’s destruction.

And now in the readings appointed for today, we are invited to see Jesus in the bronze serpent that was lifted up to cure the Israelites whose complaints along the way in their pilgrimage from slavery to freedom caused God to punish them by sending poisonous snakes among them. Well, to heal the ones who hadn’t already died from the snakebite, anyway.

And in the Gospel reading we flash back to almost the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, so that we can be told of the judgment that we are to face at the end of our own journeys. But we are also given the key to the whole pilgrimage, laid out clearly for us, so that we can view the whole story, looking back briefly, before we continue on our own journey to Jerusalem.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

So often we hear of Christian teachers condemning those whose lives they decry as “unbiblical,” breaking fellowship with other Christians for being too lax, turning a dour expression upon high spirits or frivolity of any kind. Urging us to fear the world, to distrust it, to pull away from it, in case we become unclean by association with—well, pick your target. There are more than enough to go around.

Now Lent may seem an odd time for me to preach against asceticism. And in fact, I’m not preaching against asceticism in general, but against asceticism for its own sake. The great ascetics withdrew from the world not out of hatred of it, or fear, but because they knew from their own personal experience, that their love of the world and its joys made it harder for them to fulfill their own unique callings from God—to become their own best selves, to love God and their neighbors, and to do the work that they were born to do, to translate that love into action.

Sometimes we need to simplify our lives to understand what’s important. Nearly fifteen years ago, I lost my home, most of the books and other possessions I had spent my whole life gathering together. All but a very few were gone forever.

The shocking thing was the realization that that I had not in fact lost anything that I in fact needed.

Much that I had loved, but nothing I had needed. And the loss of those lesser loves clarified my life so that I could see what was in front of me, a new path that led me to be able to hear the call to serve in our church.

So asceticism isn’t a good in itself; it’s a stripping away of the incidental to see the essential. A turning down of the noise to let the small still voice of the Spirit rise up. But don’t take my word for it;
let me repeat those words of Jesus again:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

And the Evangelist goes further still, quoting Jesus as saying “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The point of our pilgrimage to the Cross isn’t to suffer for suffering’s sake. It isn’t to despise the crowd that we will soon represent in the Palm Sunday Passion drama. It’s to see in the world what we have missed, that the judgment has come, and it’s not imposed on us by God—we are not, contrary to Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” who dangles us, like a loathsome spider over a flame, by a strand of our own web.

Now, that’s dramatic Eighteenth Century preaching, and I’m sure it was the collection plate was especially heavy that day, but it’s bad theology. And not at all biblical.

No; the judgment is self-imposed. As Jesus says, “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.”

Jesus tells us that “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God,” so we know that those of us who can feel securely righteous can just bravely stride out into the light, sure of our reward.

But what keeps people in the dark, rather than in the light?

We could easily write off the people who hesitate to approach the light as the obviously evil, malevolent and manipulative, enjoying being the villains of the piece. But Jesus’s words about them give me pause.

He says: “all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

In other words, they’re ashamed. They’re afraid. They don’t believe themselves to be worthy. Or, worse, they believe their errors, their sins, make them beyond forgiveness.

Or, as I was told early in my sobriety, I suffered from delusions of terminal uniqueness—that everybody else could find forgiveness and reconciliation, but not me. Telling your story at an AA meeting—will help you see this—I forced myself to talk about what I saw as the darkest, worst moments of my life, only to be surprised when the room rocked with laughter—not mocking, derisive laughter, but laughter with the attitude, “That all you got, kid?”

The laughter of those who’d been through the same, or worse.

And that experience is far from unique. In his semi-autobiographical novel The Light and the Dark, C.P. Snow depicts his closest friend Charles Allberry, as searching yearningly for God, but not being able to believe. But he’s come close on two occasions, as Snow has his fictional counterpart Roy Calvert say: “I’ve had the absolute conviction—it’s much more real than anything one can see or touch—that God and His world exist. And that everyone can enter and find their rest. Except me. I’m infinitely far away for ever. I am alone and infinitesimally small—and I can’t come near.”

It’s far more common than you may think. Maybe you’ve heard of “Imposter Syndrome,” which has been described as a persistent nagging belief that one was a fraud, that all our achievements were the result of luck, or seeming to be more competent than we in fact are. And, worst of all, the utter terror that some day, we’ll be found out for the fraud we are.

In case you’re wondering, about 70% of people experience this phenomenon.

So people stay out of the light for reasons that are eminently understandable: shame of sins, actual or exaggerated in the mind, fear of rejection by God. Fear of unworthiness, of having every black thought about themselves vindicated, and their worst fears of who they are be affirmed.

And that’s why Jesus tells his disciples again and again: Be not afraid. And in today’s gospel, he tells us, believe that his mission is not to condemn, but to save, to heal, not to judge.

We sing “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” as a standby at St. Barts—it’s practically our anthem—but maybe we don’t take the lyrics to heart:

“There is no place where earth's sorrows
are more keenly felt than heaven:
there is no place where earth's failings
have such gracious judgment given.”

But it costs us something to accept forgiveness: pride. We have to come forward, in all our imperfections, trusting in the love of our God to see us as we are, flawed and marked by life, worked on by time and events, hurt and in need of healing. We have to trust.

And it is very hard to trust.

But I take comfort from another verse from our hymn:

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

And if you have known one person—just one—who has loved you just as you are, unconditionally, or if you have been that person for another—than you know that our mind can rise to that kind of love, and if we can do it, God will do it.

So the judgment is, ultimately, one we pass on ourselves.

We can exile ourselves to the darkness, in self-inflicted fear. Or we can put aside pride, and fear, and step into the Light, knowing, in that wonderful phrase of Leonard Cohen’s, “every heart to love must come—but as a refugee.”

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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