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Not Just a Church

Sermon by Rev. Ruth Hamilton, March 11, 2018
Title:  Grace is when God lets us see something we couldn't see before.  

Sermon Texts
Numbers 21:4-9

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

John 3:14-21
14“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“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.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.”
                          

Being born is grace we experienced but cannot remember.  Wordsworth reminds us…

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Birth is the beginning of our journey in this world.   The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star…Our God-given soul is that glorious light, that powerful brightness, the unspeakable joy, our guiding star.

Teresa of Avila also saw the soul as a powerful brightness,… inside of us; an interior castle, of great dignity and beauty in to  which we must enter and journey to the center to be with God.  She writes: I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very crystal in which there are many rooms just as in Heaven there are many mansions[…]

That is why we speak of life as a spiritual journey—from God, with God, to God.

That we get lost, that we can no longer see the way--this is the story of our life, the history of our humanity.

Right after saying that Heaven is all around us in our infancy, Wordsworth goes right on to say:

Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Paolo Freire was a great Brazilian educator, his seminal work was the book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  (Pedagogy—a way of educating)
He understood what Wordsworth meant, that any heaven surrounding infancy can quickly disappear; that the guiding star of our true humanity begins to fade into the reality of our common life.

Similar to this idea that the light of our guiding start fades, Freire says that  we experience ourselves as uncompleted beings, and that we are conscious of our incompletion.  About such uncompleted beings Freire writes:   Within history, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted beings conscious of their incompletion.

But of the two possibilities he asserts: Humanization is man’s vocation.   Becoming a more humane and humanizing person is our soul’s work.

More than any other name that Jesus used for himself was “The son of Man”—“The child of Humanity” –as one scholar has described it “The New Human Being.”   For him, being called the son of God was less instructive than being see as the son of a fully humanized not a fully dehumanized being.

The Old Testament scripture begins:  4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.  It clearly points to the journey nature, the process nature of our spiritual life.  And what happens on the covenant journey with God?

…but the people became impatient on the way.

From that first heavenly moment beyond the prison walls, beyond the bondage of Egypt, these children of God who are  fleeing to freedom with God turn against God and Moses.   

God takes this complaint against the covenant journey very seriously.  God sends the threat of death into their midst.  We say that “God would never do anything to hurt us,” so what does it mean when it clearly says:  6Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.  

The eternal God—who is free to act in this covenant-- understands that bodily death is not the worst thing that can happen to a human.  It is the death of our humanity, the death of our soul’s covenant with God—our life’s star-- that is the greater loss.
 

Death’s threatening wave has a way of getting our attention.   How many times have you heard of a person who came to a new state of consciousness upon facing death, a new understanding of life’s meaning, a return to the that sense of soul--our life’s Star?

In the reality of these death-dealing serpents, the complaining people now fall to their knees and repent of their complaining against God and Moses.  They beg for some cure so they may continue their covenant journey together, bad food or not.

God has Moses make an image of a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, lift it up so that many can see it—the way we project something on a screen for all to see who will see.           

This is God’s grace--the “magic” of consciousness, of seeing something we couldn’t see before, of seeing what is a danger to our soul, to our journey, to our covenant with God and our love of God.

Karl Marx  said that ideology is false consciousness.  The things we often consciously assert can be false.  For instance,  the ideology of American exceptionalism is a false consciousness.  Is it not a  distorted reality?    How many times have you gotten caught up in the chant “USA, USA.”  Maybe not many of you, but most of us have probably been caught up in some false consciousness, some ideology that seems true to us.

Think of the Old Testament prophets who spoke out against the Zionist ideology of Israel—The Israelites claimed to be the chosen people for a chosen land with a chosen capital.  The prophets saw that as a false consciousness.  They would say things like—Thus the Lord says: Do not offer me your chosen rituals in your Jerulsalem Temple but let justice roll down like waters.  Or  Do not tell me you are children of Abraham for from these stones I can raise up children of Abraham.

Grace is that free and freeing gift that allows us to see what we could not see; to break through the false consciousness.  Grace is never something that helps us escape reality but rather that allows us to see reality so that even if in chains, one can begin the journey to freedom and humanity.  Even if sitting in a jail cell, grace gives an open space, a lifting up to see what is real and what is possible.

Those of us who see ourselves as liberal can easily see the oppression and false consciousness of building walls, of mass incarceration, of discrimination against varied human identities.    But Freire and many others would warn the liberal side that it too can dehumanize and distort reality.  The ideology of liberalism can get stuck in a fatalism and negativity, always seeing death and never claiming life.  We become so joyless.

Listen to this short interview I did with a regular guest, Jeremiah, at our Blue Monday Blues:

Pastor Ruth:   So I just want to ask what it means for you to come here on Monday Nights to the Blues.  What does it do for you?

Jeremiah:  Well I enjoy the music, I enjoy the people, I enjoy the dancing, the singing, and it makes me feel like a teenager again.

Pastor Ruth:  How would you say God is involved in what happens here?

Jeremiah:  Well I would say God is involved a lot because in my mind I think God wants people to relax and to enjoy themselves, to have fun and to live life as best they can and freely and openly…so I would say God is involved, uh, 99% of it, if not 100%..

At the end he laughed and added:  I seldom miss a Monday, so if I miss two Mondays in a row, send somebody after me cause I’m not doing well!

Did you hear his joy?  Did you hear how he talked about what God wants for our human lives?  God’s wants us to be happy and enjoy life.  Did you hear how he used the word,  “freely” and “openly?”  We cannot become fully humanized without becoming free.

Some might say why do you all do jazz and blues at the church?  Why don’t you have a soup kitchen or a clothes closet? 

I’m reminded of how incensed the disciples got when the woman poured a whole jar of costly oil on Jesus’ feet, and they complained that there was no time for such generous acts of love, that there were the soup kitchens to operate and the clinics to run [where we are just as apt to carry out our micro-aggressions against the oppressed who we assume need our help]. 

 

Where was the disciples’ joy?  Where was their freedom?  Had their life’s star faded in their own fatalism?

 

We all get into our circles of certainty—right and left and in between.  We close down the possibility for true humanity, we compromise God’s vision.

Paolo Freire said that when it comes to revolutionary education there must be a process of conscientiatizcao--what we came to call consciousness raising.  There must be a process of lifting our reality up so we can see it; of looking at what threatens our humanity—not our body or our wealth or our status or our pride--but our humanity?  That is the only threat that matters.

14“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes/lives in him may have eternal life.

What do we mean by this belief?  It is not a certainty, an ideology--it is a consciousness. 

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes/lives  in him (is conscious of his full humanization) may not perish but may have eternal life.

I do not think Jesus died for our sin.  He died  because of it; because of our dehumanizing ways.  His death on the imperial cross, his death on the pedestal of the status quo, is the eternal consciousness raising.  His death was a sign of what we can do to our own humanity.  We will torture and dehumanize the very one God sent to show us the Way for the journey, the Truth of the journey, the Life of the journey. By God’s grace we can release the grip on our circle of certainty so that nothing can hinder us from our full humanity with God. 

I think of that marker I was shown by the side of the narrow road in Colombia.  We were visiting this large community of displaced people who had been relocated there for years—still living without running water or electricity.  The stone showed the place where a community leader was gunned down by paramilitary gangs, trying to suppress the community’s work for justice and rights.  The marker reads: Rogelio Antonio Martinez Mercado, b. 31 December of 1960.  You were history, now you are memory because you still live in our hearts.  Rogelio—Present, present, present—always present because you fought for your community, your land and your people.…May 8 of 2010.

Yes, Rogelio died but, by God’s grace, he hadn’t lost sight of his life’s star.  He lived and died for the humanization of himself and others. He left trailing clouds of glory—the glory of a Child of Humanity, a Son of Man.

Many years ago now, when the leaders of Westminster were seeking a new symbol for our life together, the Spirit moved us to choose this red spiral.  A spiral is the abstract image of the serpent. 

We chose not a closed circle of certainty but an open spiral of God’s grace—a sign of the covenant journey with God.

Praise be to God for the grace to see the possibility of our full humanity.

Amen