A sermon for Lent 4 by The Revd Dr Maria Gwyn McDowell of St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church in Portland Oregon. March 14th, 2021
Every church has a “back to Egypt” committee. I heard that this week, “every church has a back to Egypt committee.” Right now, that committee is excitedly planning our first full Eucharist together, or working out a coffee hour that is safe, but, together! Where we can touch each other at the passing of the Peace and hug each other over a hot beverage.
We have probably never been more eager to sign up for a committee, happy to help out, eager to do whatever it takes to get us back to where we belong!
The longing is irresistible.
I have felt it acutely this Lent, this longing. I don’t come from the Episcopal tradition, and I often miss praying the way I have prayed most of my life. So a few weeks ago, my wife and I started a weekly chanted evening prayer service, so that for 20 minutes we can hear the words of God in the melodies and rhythms of the world we come from. We stand and kneel, cross ourselves, move our bodies in a deeply familiar way. As Elizabeth said after our first evening, it just feels so natural.
Sometimes, perhaps often times, we just want to go back to what we remember, to the familiar, the comfortable, the safe.
Because right now, we don’t feel safe. We are tired of seeing the same walls, walking past the same landmarks, having the same conversations with the same people. Right now, right now is awful. A year of masks and isolation and arguing over how far flecks of spit travel in the air when we speak, run, sing, or sneeze. A year of violent insurrection, of civil resistance, of more black and brown bodies dead in the street.
And when right now is awful, there is nothing we love more than to reminisce, to wax nostalgic. To wish for the familiar, the normal, the natural. So we fantasize about a past that was perfect. Or good enough. Or at least, better than right now, which is awful.
What the Hebrews do in the desert, the desert they have been wandering through for years, literally walking by the same landmark of the Red Sea, the place they entered the desert in the first place, is what we do all the time. Bored and frustrated, filled with grief and loss, in pain and suffering, we want to escape the present by going back to our past.
But our past usually isn’t as rosy as we remember it. Even as I feel a deep comfort in praying in the sounds and movements of the Christian East, I am acutely aware of its denigration of women, its outright rejection of openly queer humans made in the image of God, its dangerous flirtations with nationalism and ethnocentrism. I can edit out parts of that past as I celebrate it in the present, but it is never really gone.
The real problem though, is that not only is our past not as rosy as we remember it, our present misery may very well be because of all those things we don’t want to remember about our past.
The Hebrews, like all of us, were quick to forget what God did in light of all the things they wished God was doing right now. We don’t want to remember that perhaps listening to warnings about wearing masks anytime we feel sick, and diligently washing our hands, might have reduced the death toll of the present. Or that wearing masks earlier and without complaining might mean businesses open by early spring instead of mid-to-late summer.
We really don’t like being reminded that the higher impact of Covid on people of color isn’t because of some natural susceptibility to disease created by an excess of melanin, but because white folks have created a world where people of color live higher stress lives with fewer resources and support. A world where food and shelter and, if you are lucky, health care, depend on going to jobs that increase exposure.
We don’t like to be reminded that dead black and brown bodies left lying on the street might have a direct connection to a history built on race-based violence.
We forget that in Egypt, we were once slaves. Or slave owners.
Our history frightens us. We are simply terrified of what honestly facing our history means for the present. We are afraid that examining the prayer language or music of our past might mean no longer praying in ways deeply familiar and comforting to us. We are afraid that justice for black and brown lives means injustice for white lives. We are afraid that justice for the poorest of the poor will mean the end of the rich, and the almost-rich.
We tell ourselves lies about our history because it absolves us of responsibility to change the present, and we are afraid that changing the present means losing everything.
It is into this fear that God enters. God enters into the fears of her desert wanderers who long for the rich foods of Egypt instead of manna from heaven. God is born into a Judean family crushed by the brutal fist of the Roman empire. God is with us as we mourn the loss of friends and family, as we face the reality that our history of violent conquest lives on in the violence of our present.
God enters into our fearful, difficult, and sometimes truly awful reality. God enters into it. Into us.
But God does not fix us.
God does not fix us.
God does not stop the snakes from biting. She does not pull her people out of the desert. The horrible, dark side of this story in Numbers is that this generation, escaped from slavery, wandering in the desert, bitten by snakes, it is a generation that dies before ever entering the Promised Land. This version of the story is written by a people looking back and wondering, why did those who suffered slavery never get to see the promised land? The answer appears to be one that I admit I (along with centuries of Jewish rabbis who have commented on this text) am uncomfortable with. It appears that this wandering band of former slaves brought it on themselves by failing to trust God, and God punishes them.
We may want to interpret our present sufferings as God’s punishment rather than the consequence of choices made be our ancestors, choices over which we have no control.
But that story of failure and punishment, that isn’t the full story of God’s people, or our God.
This band of complaining, untrusting, dusty wanderers, they keep on going. They keep on going because in the midst of their whining and complaining and idol making and infighting, God never, not once, deserts them.
God just keeps on inviting them into the life promised to them from the very beginning of creation: a life of abundant, joy-filled, shared participation in the flourishing of all creation. And they, and we, keep on responding to that invitation, sometimes in spite of ourselves.
Jesus, Jesus is one more part of that ongoing, constant, persistent invitation to join with God.
The wonder of John 3:16 is not that God so loved the world, but the way God loved the world. God loved the world by repeatedly entering into it: through prophets and poets, singers and dancers, whose jangling tambourines and powerful prose remind us of God’s constant and persistent invitation to join with God in loving creation.
We are invited to love all of creation with God, but, and John reminds us, we are more likely to reject God. In this play of language between light and dark, John points out that our response to God’s persistent invitation is to persistently refuse to receive it.
We don’t want to receive God because God doesn’t fix our suffering. God does not make suffering go away. God does not erase our history or its effect on us.
God enters into our fearful, difficult, and sometimes truly awful reality and invites us to see it for what it is, to see our part in it, and to repent.
This snippet of conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is an invitation. It is an invitation to a frightened man, fascinated by this table-turning prophet, to join with God. It is an invitation to see the snake that bites, to see God hanging on a lynching tree, or interned in a desert camp, or huddled without parents in a border shelter, to see all these horrible things for what they are, and to have compassion. It is an invitation to wrestle with a past that creates so much of our present suffering.
It is an invitation to see how God wrestles with that very suffering. It is an invitation to have compassion, to suffer with, and God suffers with us.
It is an invitation to join with God, walking into our future through our present sufferings, opening ourselves up to a world that needs us to walk alongside it. To grieve our losses, to resit and repent of anything we do that causes suffering, whether to our kin made in God’s image, or to creation itself. Today, we are invited, like the Hebrews in the desert, like Nicodemus in Jerusalem, to join a God who persistently, consistently, eternally and forever, unto the ages of ages, longs to be with us.