This has been quite a week: as we have acknowledged a full year of being under the tyranny of Covid, as the House and the Senate passed the American Relief Bill, and President Biden signed it into law, as a growing number of us are getting vaccinated or eagerly awaiting our turn. Even as we see welcome glimmers of an end to our social distancing, this week has reminded us of how much we have lost over this year—the lives gone, the grief unshared, the learning disturbed, the precious fellowship muted, the wonders of music restricted to audio or video recordings.
I have found it difficult to escape the question, “Why did this happen? Why did God allow this?” in my musings for sermons, in my personal conversations, in my own thoughts. And so, when I read the lectionary texts for this week, I felt the push to try to put forth an answer—as incomplete as it will be, as impossible as it is to put enormous ideas into simple terms.
How do we understand the story found in Numbers 21 where the Israelites encounter snakes in the wilderness that bite them and cause death? They cry out to God to take away this new horror from a difficult life in the desert, and what does God do? Does God, the creator of all, zap the snakes? No. Does God, the all-powerful, create a force-field to propel the snakes away from the chosen people? No. So what does God do? God tells Moses to fashion an image of a snake in bronze, and put it on a pole, and hold it aloft, and that will provide some protection for those who have been bitten. It seems a very lukewarm response to a deadly situation.
And when we look at Psalm 107, a psalm that tells the story of hard times, of wandering in the desert or sitting in darkness and gloom, of oppression, of sickness, of dangers on the seas, of all manner of difficulty, the story is that one calls out to God, God responds, and we are then to give thanks and “consider the steadfast love of the Lord.” But what if we don’t see God’s hand in what is happening? What if the hardships continue? What if they don’t cease? What if the image before our eyes, which morphs from that bronze snake to Christ on the cross, doesn’t provide total protection from evil, from death, from all that can steal our joy? How does giving thanks make up for all that we want? Why is that supposed to be our response? Why are we to offer up “the way that we love” as Joseph Martin suggests in the anthem we will hear later. “We give our thanks in the way that we love.” What does love have to do with it?
Which brings me to John 3:16, the infamous verse that is plastered on sign boards and lifted up at football games and sometimes used to condemn people—to split creation into “with us” and “against us.” If you have heard me struggle with preaching from the gospel of John, you have heard me talk about the dark side of the very nature of the Johanine community—the racism/ethnic hatred that peeks out in the picture of what John calls “the Jews” even though he and most of the people he was speaking to were Jewish. Every time I read those words (and I choose not to read them in our Scripture lesson—the words that say, “those who do not believe are condemned already…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…”) every time, I am saddened, just as I was saddened by watching the human heartache in Meghan Markle and Prince Harry as they talked with Oprah. The damage done in breaking us, our brothers and sisters, into levels, into colors, into subsets, is untold. But we try to hold onto the good, while leaving the rest for another day, another sermon.
For John 3:16 is a profound statement of good news from God. It says, God loved us. God loved us so much—that God, who could have been an authoritarian leader—a far away creator—a power-hungry dictator, is not that. God loves what God has created. God loves and continues to recreate a relationship with us—with a bow in the clouds, with a promise in the stars, with a law of love written in stone. But all that wasn’t enough—it didn’t do enough to right the cosmic imbalance, the war between love and fear, the way that humans choose pride and power over relationship and truth. God so loved that God sent God’s own heart, God’s own Son, to show us the way.
John 3:16 doesn’t tell a story of God waving a magic wand to “fix” what was wrong with the world. God insisted on being born, into this very world, and walking in our shoes, and struggling with human feelings and human issues, and being willing to go the distance in fighting the good fight, and running into the evils of tyranny and all the havoc it wrecks on our world. God, in Jesus, wasn’t just born, but lived and died—seemingly without changing much if you live in a Good Friday world. If you live in a Good Friday world, all you can see is that powers and principalities are just too strong—they get the last word. And they place their nastiness and their evil aloft, hung on a public cross, for all to see.
But if you live in an Easter world—you know that death is not the last word. Worldly power does not have the last word. Those who plot and plan and live lives that are not well lived do not have the last word—because God so loved us, because Jesus came to be Emmanuel, “God with us,” because the Spirit still animates and pushes us to be more than we can ever imagine. Because there is power that the world doesn’t know. There is something greater than any empire, any ruler, any oppressor, anything. That is the message of Easter. God gets the last laugh.
It doesn’t negate all the pain and suffering. And it doesn’t answer the question “why”? And maybe that is where the answer that the book of Job lifts up to this same question, might be as close as we can get in this existence—that the answer to “why” is not understandable for us. We don’t have the capacity to hold all the events of the universe in our brains, as much as we would like to try. But the fact that we don’t, maybe can’t, understand “why” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respond to the blessings that we do have, the comfort we do feel, the miracles brought about by prayer and science, and the gift of a relationship with God and partnerships with one another.
A thankful response. A grateful response. An acknowledgment that we have a part in making our world a better place, but we are not able to do it alone. We know that words and meditations are not enough—that action is required (some assembly, maybe much assembly, is required). But what does that action look like? How do we choose? What do we choose? Does it matter what we choose?
Spoiler alert. I don’t have the final answer to those questions either. I think a part of a faithful life, part of the life of a faithful community, like our very own UPC family, is to continue to ask those questions (and try out some answers) and then reassess and recommit and keep talking and keep praying and keep listening and keep doing the work of justice and mercy and love while walking humbly with our God.
Some might ask, well why is church important for that? Aren’t there civic groups? Aren’t there political groups? Aren’t there other places, other groups of people, who are working toward that end? And the answer is yes—there are others. Here is what I think we as church people can bring to the conversation.
We, as people of faith, have a long history of trying to right wrongs (and admittedly we aren’t always on the correct side). We have a history of generations, millennia long travails. And we know the importance of bedrock, of source, of guiding principle. For there is difference in basing what you are doing on a theoretical idea of justice, or an idealized vision of world peace, or even an internal knowing of “what is right.”
We, as Christians, as part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, as part of the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, believe in a God who chooses to be in relationship with us—as hard as that might be, even for God. As Christians, we see the ultimate image, the quintessential experience of that relationship in Jesus. And as John 3:16 puts into words, that relationship comes down to love.
Not a “The Bachelor” type of love, where it is scripted and pretty much just for show. Not a namby-pamby, saccharine love, that looks sweet, but dissolves in hot water. But a love that stands by even when things don’t go your way. A love that provides strength and a smile and a helping hand and a voice when needed and the insistence that we will move on together. A love that knows righteous anger—and how to use it. A love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. A love that never ends.
And if our guiding principle, our bedrock, our shining star, is love—if that is the magnifying glass we always take out to inspect what it is we are doing, how it is that we are thinking, and where it is we are going—then, we need to spend a moment to gauge where that love came from in the first place. For it didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It isn’t something that we manufactured. It was a gift from God. A gift that is not only given to us, but given that we might share, that we might participate in the spreading of it.
And this swings us back to the psalmist’s idea of a thankful response, a grateful response. Saying thank you, reminds us of the gift. Saying thank you, reminds us of the Giver. Saying thank you, reminds us that we are in relationship. Saying thank you, reminds us that we are not alone in this journey. Saying thank you, is what will sustain us through the rough patches (which will surely come). Saying thank you, will tie us to those who have come before, those who stand side by side with us now, and those who will follow after.
Saying thank you, reminds us that the story doesn’t end with “God so loved”—that was just a new beginning. For God so loved that we might love, as the first letter of John puts it, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” (1John 4:11-12)
We have lived through an entire year of pain and heartache and fear and loneliness. We have been bitten by the snakes of misinformation and inequity and slow response and not enough. We have celebrated the heroes who valiantly tried to get as many of us to the finish line as possible. We have mourned, as best we could, those who had to leave our company too soon. We have learned how connected we are as a world, even as we felt more and more disconnected from each other. We have needed each other, even if only as a voice on the phone, as a little square on a screen, as lines of ink on a page, as a bag of goodies shared.
I don’t know that we will ever understand “why” on this side, but maybe that is the wrong question to ask. More important, more telling, is “so what did we do about it?” What did we do in spite of what happened?
And that question does have answers, big and small. The small we, UPC we, created online spaces to worship and pray and discuss. We helped power the response to hungry people through the West Orange pantry. We lit candles and made signs and added our voices to those crying out for racial justice and peace. We put our faith into action. We loved as God first loved us, as a thanksgiving.
May our grateful response continue to grow as we run the race set before us—
I have to say, I am so honored to be on the UPC team,
May God bless us that we might be a blessing of love,