Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 11, 2018
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 John 3:14-21 Ephesians 2:1-10
First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho
Pastor Andy Kennaly
Well this has been a busy weekend, busy as a bee. The bee keeping workshop Saturday, another one coming up Wednesday, my mind is all the buzz regarding hives, frames, tools, and getting ready for spring flowers and nectar flows and, hopefully, a bit of honey if the bees make enough to share. I have ordered two new packages of bees, which means I’ll get two boxes, each containing about three pounds of bees, which is about 5,000 bees in each box. There is one bee in each box that stands out, and it’s contained in a separate cage. You know what that bee is called? (Queen). If you’re American, that bee is called the Queen. But if you’re Slovenian, that bee is called the Mother.
In Slovenia, a country with a very close tie to the heritage of beekeeping, language referring to bees is elevated above common words used for other creatures. If you have a pet or some type of animal dies, the Slovenians say it dies, but if a bee dies, it perishes, which is what they would say as if a human person perishes. Those packages of bees will establish what we Americans refer to as a Colony, with a Queen. But Slovenians tell us the Mother bee is head of the Family. Rather than Colony, it is a Family, again a human reference point. Bee species may vary, such as the Carniolan, Italian, Buckfast, or Black bees, and we call them species, but in Slovenia they use another human, social term by referring to these lines as races. Certainly, bee keeping is an important part of Slovenian culture, and even the terminology used in their language claims the centrality of this identity and heritage, and perhaps more accurately indicates what a bee really is. Bees are more than an agricultural component or a feature of a commercial industry, but they are living beings in relationship, with an order to their society, and their rhythms and patterns go well beyond the wooden box, linking each family to a larger creation and the miracle of life.
Friends, this morning’s scriptures have a similar dynamic as what I just talked about in regards to how Slovenians view bees compared to how Americans generally do. In many ways, as we read about Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up on the cross, and people sick in their troubles calling out for God’s help, even as God’s grace saves us in Christ, many of the terms and images and identities that come to mind have a particular slant to them already. As we read these words, our mind as it’s been trained filters our understanding and shapes our assumptions. But, my friends, this is not exactly helpful. Some of these verses may even sound familiar, like John 3:16, probably the most famous verse of the entire Bible in our world today. But the flipside of this familiarity, is that we overlook something even more profound. Worse yet, the church tends to overlook the true source of transformation, and it has failed in its calling to embody Good News, all the while thinking through spiritual pride that it has succeeded.
If you look at the four lectionary passages through a lens of faith development, Numbers 21:4-9 is the Old Testament story of the people in the wilderness dying from snake bites until God has Moses make a brass serpent on a stick, and this represents one level or stage of spiritual development. The Psalmist picks up on this and takes it a bit further. John’s Gospel mention’s that story from Moses and sets the stage for a new interpretation of God’s saving power in Jesus. Then Paul, who experiences on the road to Damascus the Risen Christ, shares in Ephesians a framework that brings it all home as we see interpretations, experiences, and the depths of faith growing.
If we would summarize quickly what the basic, core dynamic at work in this progression involves, it would be this: While God is at first perceived as a judge condemning the unrighteous, this shifts to relating with God in a loving way because God only intends healing and wholeness. But it’s even more than that, even more special and cosmic, which Paul alludes to as he says, “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
This is like Richard Rohr, that Franciscan Priest in New Mexico talks about when he says that God does not send Jesus because people messed up creation, as a type of Plan B because things just didn’t go right the first time. Rather, Plan A has always included everything created in and through Christ, and in Christ everything drawing back into the Godhead. Plan A is Incarnation and Presence, Peace and all Good. As Paul says, “by grace you have been saved,…and raised up with him” it’s his way of saying that it is through Christ that we participate in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that John calls Jesus God’s only Son is another way of sharing encouragement that we don’t have to look any further. There isn’t something or someone else that we’re missing or waiting on. In the Jesus Way, Christ is fully realized, and through Christ we gracefull participate in the divine dance of love. That’s why Christians were first called, “People of the Way.”
Our world struggles with stages of faith. One of the reasons there is such diversity in the Christian Church is because people are just at different places in their understandings and experiences of God. Human culture itself is evolving, and changes don’t come easy. But one change is especially critical: making the switch from seeing God as a condemning judge to experiencing God as love itself. If people don’t make that switch, then all of this won’t make any sense.
Another change is related, and might be even harder for 21st Century Western thinkers. It involves the switch from seeing Jesus as the only embodiment of God’s divinity on earth to experiencing God in all things and all things in God. If people don’t make that switch, then new life in Christ loses the fullness of it’s effect.
But something has to take place for these changes to occur. It involves finding our center, In CHRIST. That’s the term Paul uses so much, In Christ.
Plan A for God has always included creating us in goodness and for good. We wrestle with sin, we face anger, we struggle with violence and greed and a whole list of vices, but nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ. We can’t be separated from ourselves, and we are found in Christ. It’s like having a rainy day fund, or an emergency fund. You don’t put it in your regular checking, not even at the local bank. You park it somewhere else, someplace that is outside the everyday billing or the temptation of splurges. That way, the funds are protected and when an emergency does come, you have a clean source, a safe back-up; not to help bail you out because things are screwed up, but to reflect your intentionality and good planning that was there all along. Basically, centered in Christ, we are saved by grace through faith, trusting that our life essence is protected, sheltered, loved, and nurtured, connected to its source of life itself.
In addition to finding our center in Christ, we also need a change of perception. Like putting on a different prescription when our eyes change over time, perceiving reality through our mind, filtered by our ego, only gets us so far and ultimately works against us. Opening our hearts, trusting through faith in God’s larger, healing Presence; this perception of the heart helps us see what God reveals through Christ in ways that we couldn’t pick up before. That’s the judgement talked about in John. God is revealing the light in Jesus. Jesus the Christ is not condemning, like a sentence being passed, but is decisive in uncovering and disclosing what we have preferred to hold in darkness. Jesus reveals our need for God, our desire for grace and forgiveness, and helps us in claiming our true identity as creatures blessed by God, carrying the divine image.
Much like Americans may have a hard time calling an insect a Mother and with terms of endearment call a colony of bees a family, so too, Christians in the Western Church have traded a biblical understanding of who we are in Christ. Under the social and cultural molds of Neo-Platonism, rationalism, and the Industrial Revolution that favors Industry and extreme forms of individualism, viewing life in terms of commodity while seeking profit, we have not been trained to claim our identity as divine beings created in unity with all things seen and unseen. Even though, for example, our liturgy sends us forth from communion, this sacrament claiming Christ’s body given to us as we re-member Christ in the world (re-member), as we give form to the Spirit’s work, as we live out the incarnation of Jesus in our time; we have been trained by a church that is only sharing part of the story. The sin/redemption model pushes judgment and sin in a condemning way. We hold ourselves down, and are encouraged to do so. We sit in darkness, and are afraid to turn on the light. You don’t have to live into your identity if you deny that identity to begin with. Like John says, “those who do not believe are condemned already.”
One of the things about bee keeping that I most enjoy is realizing that I am a visitor. Looking in on a family of bees going about their life in the hive, catching a glimpse of the mother doing her thing, I am coming alongside a system of life that is ancient and elemental, and has built within it, creation creating itself through the power of God. I am the guest when I visit the bees, and my role is to help the bees, as if they need my help. In management, my ulterior motive is to get honey and other benefits from this ancient system – my intentions are not pure, but party selfish – hopefully in ways that don’t harm the bees. And yet the bees give me far more than honey. They help me pray. They broaden my perception. They remind me to raise my awareness that all life at its core is centered in Christ, who holds all things together.
This Lent, maybe you can decide on a hobby that takes you outside of yourself. More than that, maybe we can all pray for God’s Holy Spirit to fill us, renew us, and send us forth to serve one another in Christ, but first of all to remind us of who we are, in Christ. You are a divine being, a spiritual being having a human experience. Let that light shine, for that is the power of the Good News and the source of the healing and wholeness God lifts up through the cross of Christ Jesus our Lord. May God transform us from the inside, and renew Christ’s Church as we emerge with a message to share from our identity held in the care of love and grace. May God be glorified now and forever. Amen.