March 11, 2018
Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-21
+ Today is Laetare Sunday, also known as “Rose Sunday.” Laetare, as I remind everyone every year on this Sunday, is Latin for “joyful” and it is called this because on this Sunday, the traditional introit (or the psalm that was said by the priest in the old days when he approached the altar in the old Latin Mass) was “Laetare Jerusalem”—“rejoice Jerusalem.” It’s also known by other names. “Mothering Sunday” or “Refreshment Sunday.” It is, of course, traditional on this Sunday to wear the rose or pink vestments. And to have simnel cake, which we will have at coffee hour, thanks to Sandy Holbrook.
It’s a special Sunday. It is sort of break in our Lenten purple, so to speak. We don’t normally do things during Lent like bless new stained glass windows. But we can on this Sunday. We can, because we are rejoicing a bit today. Notice how I said, rejoicing “a bit.” It’s a subdued rejoicing. We’re still in Lent after all. We might get a break from the Lenten purple. But we don’t get a break from Lent. After all, the purple returns tomorrow.
But this Rose Sunday is a reminder to us. We are now passing into the latter days of Lent. Palm Sunday and Holy Week are only two weeks away and Easter is three weeks away. And with Easter in sight, we can, on this Sunday, lift up a slightly subdued prayer of rejoicing.
No, we’re not saying the A-word yet. We’re not allowed to be quite that joyful today. But, we’re close. The Easter light is within in sight, though it’s still pretty far off.
Now, I know Lent can be a bummer for us. I know we don’t want to hear about things like sin. I don’t want to hear about sin. I don’t want to preach about sin. Most of us have had to sit through countless hours listening to preachers go on and on about sin in our lives. Many of us have had it driven into us and pounded into us and we just don’t want to hear it anymore. Yes, we know we’re sinners sometimes.
But the fact is, we can’t get through this season of Lent without at least acknowledging sin. Certainly, I as a priest, would be neglecting my duty if I didn’t at least mention it once during this season. As much as we try to avoid sin and speak around it or ignore it, for those of us who are Christians, we just can’t. We live in a world in which there is war and crime and recession and sexism and homophobia and horrible racism and blatant lying and morally bankrupt people and, in looking at all of those things, we must face the fact that sin—people falling short of their ideal—is all around us.
And during this season of Lent, we find ourselves facing sin all the time. It’s there in our scripture readings. It’s right here in our liturgy. It’s just…there. Everywhere.
I certainly have struggled with this issue in my life. As I said, I don’t like preaching about sin. I would rather not do it. I’d rather be preaching about peace and all that our new window represents. But…I have to. We all have to occasionally face the music, so to speak.
The fact is, people tend to define us by the sins we commit—they define us by illness—the spiritual leprosy within us—rather than by the people we really are underneath the sin. And that person we are underneath is truly a person created in the holy image of God.
Sin, if we look it as a kind of illness, like leprosy or any other kind of sickness, truly does do these things to us. It desensitizes us, it distorts us, it makes us less than who were are. It blots out the holy image of God in which we were created. And like a sickness, we need to understand the source of the illness to truly get to heart of the matter.
Alexander Schmemann, the great Eastern Orthodox theologian, (and I believe he’s echoing the Protestant theologian Karl Barth here) wrote,
“Essentially all sins come from two sources: flesh and pride.”
And if we are honest with ourselves, if we are blunt with ourselves, if we look hard at ourselves, we realize that, in those moments in which we have failed ourselves, when we have failed others, when we have failed God, the underlying issues can be found in either our pride or in our flesh.
This season of Lent is a time when we take into account where we have failed in ourselves, in our relationship with God and in our relationship with each other.
But—and I stress this—Lent is never a time for us to despair. It is never a time to beat ourselves up over the sins we have committed. It is rather a time for us to buck up. It is a time in which we seek to improve ourselves. It is a time in which, acknowledging those negative aspects of ourselves, we strive to rise above our failings. It is a time for us to seek healing for the “leprosy” of our souls. The church is, after all, according to the early Christians, a Hospital. And, in seeking, we do find that healing.
In our reading from Numbers today, we find a strange story, that also is about healing. The Israelites are complaining about having the wander about in the desert. I guess sometimes it’s not a good thing to complain to God, especially when God, in reality, provided everything you need. So, according to the story, God sent poisonous serpents on the poor, ungrateful people. The people acknowledge their sin—the fact that they maybe shouldn’t complain when things weren’t really so bad. So, God tells Moses to “make” a snake, put it on a pole, and raise it up so all the Israelites can see it. And in in seeing it, they will live.
Now, in case you missed it, for us Christians, this pole is important. For us, this is a foreshadow of the cross. If you don’t believe me, then you weren’t playing attention when I read our Gospel reading for today, which directly references our reading from Numbers. Jesus then, in that way, turns it all around and makes something very meaningful to his followers—and to us—from this “raising up.” Just as the poisonous snake was raised up on a pole, and the people were healed, so must Jesus be raised up on the cross, and the people also would be healed.
As you have heard me preach many times, the Cross is essential to us. And not just as some quaint symbol of our faith. Not as some gold-covered, sweet little thing we wear around our necks.
The Cross is a very potent symbol for us in our healing. Gazing upon the cross, as those Israelites gazed upon the bronze serpent that Moses held up to them, we find ourselves healed. And as we are healed, as we find our sins dissolved by the God Christ knew as he hung the cross, we come to an amazing realization.
We realize that we are not our sins. And our sins are not us. Our sins are no more us, than our illnesses are. Our sins are no more us than our depressions are us, or our disappointments in life are us.
For those of us who have had serious illnesses—and as many of you know, I had cancer once—when we are living with our illness, we can easily start believing that our sickness and our very selves are one and the same. But that is not, in reality, the case.
In this season of Lent, it is important for us to ponder the sickness of our sins, to examine what we have done and what we have failed to do and to consider how we can prevent it from happening again. But, like our illnesses, once we have been healed, once our sins have been forgiven and they no longer have a hold over us, we do realize that, as scarred as we have been, as deeply destroyed as we thought we were by what we have done and not done, we have found that, in our renewal, we have been restored.
In the shadow of the cross, we are able to see ourselves as people freed and liberated. We are able to rejoice in the fact that we are not our failures. We are not what we have failed to do. But in the shadow of the cross we see that we are loved and we are healed and we are cherished by our loving God. And once we recognize that, then we too can turn our selves toward each other, glowing with that image of God imprinted upon us, and we too can love and heal and cherish.
See, sin does not have to make us despair. When we despair over sin, sin wins out. Rather, we can work on ourselves, we can improve ourselves, we can rise above our failings and we can then reflect God to others and even to ourselves.
So, on this Laetare Sunday—this Sunday in which we rejoice that we are now within the sight of that glorious Easter light—let us gaze at the cross, held up to us as a sign of our healing God. And there, in the shadow of that Cross, let us be truly healed. And, in doing so, let us reflect that healing to others so they too can be healed.
See, it is truly a time for us to rejoice.