March 22, 2009
The Rev. Tasha Brubaker Garrison
4th Sunday of Lent, Year B
Back again. It’s week four of Lent and I am getting a bit tired, a sort of mental writer’s cramp. So, it was so good to read the words of John. They’ve always been really beautiful, encouraging words to me. They were probably the first piece of scripture that I memorized. If not, they were certainly among the first I learned or recognized given I saw it on banners on every televised football game. I particularly like the version in “The Message”. “No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from the Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life. This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, any one can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness.”
At times, though, I’ve been ambivalent about this passage. I hear the words that God did not send the Son to condemn us, but to save us and my heart lifts. I hear the words everyone who believes in him shall not perish but be saved and my heart sinks as those words seem to so many to mean only Christians are saved (but, then, which Christians? It gets dicey pretty fast!). But in my heart of hearts I hear the whisper I have always heard that says—salvation of others is God’s labor and determination, not yours. Don’t miss the point! This is speaking to you. Can you let it speak to you? What light illumines your heart? What are you looking up to? Yes, those are the questions. What illumines my heart? What am I looking up to? Where am I running to the darkness, afraid of exposure?
Part of the issue is that this piece is pulled out of a much larger story. This is the last part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, who comes to him in the darkness of night to seek light for his soul. He cannot grasp what Jesus is saying. He is too locked in his way of thinking. He leaves too still in the dark, both physical and spiritual. But God is not done with Nicodemus; he does in time open his eyes to new things. It is to Nicodemus that I must pay attention for surely there are parts of me that are stuck in darkness; parts of me that are in need of the light, but are afraid of it too. Certainties will falter, ideas will change, my spirit will be shaken. Familiar sounds better even if it is in shadow.
What Jesus is saying is that salvation is happening now. It is what theologians call a realized eschatology—that is salvation as already in progress, happening right now among us and within us. Responding to Jesus’ light now is to find life, now, and to live in God’s eternal life, now. John isn’t too interested in the question what happens to me after I die? Will I be saved? To him, that is a less essential question. What I have is the minute I am in. That can be a moment of knowing God’s saving love and presence or not. If not, then I am dead in spirit and that is a tragic fate. God-light is streaming into the world all the time, and yet I can put on my sunglasses and draw the curtains. The light can hurt my eyes or my skin when I’ve been out of it for a while.
I remembered, God, one of my fellow chaplains when I worked at the hospital back in seminary. He was a devout Christian of a more conservative strand of our Church family, had very strict views of doctrine and a rigid worldview, a heart that loved a lot, and he was stuck. He was at 6s and 7s with himself, struggling to make life (and he was going through hard times at home), his heart and his experiences as a chaplain squash into his well-defined, existing world and theological schema. If it didn’t fit he fought it tooth and nail. Prayer could only look one way. Belief in God had to fit a narrow slot, and so on. Slowly and persistently the rest of us nudged him to lift just a corner of the lid off, to let in new light and new ideas and new possibilities. Do you remember the Grinch who had a heart two-sizes too small? Well, he had a heart that was two sizes too large for the interior place he was confined to.We wanted him to move into deeper real life, a new birth of soul, and for that gift of grace by which we are saved, as Paul wrote, to touch his heart.
How he fought! How wrong we were to make him reexamine his understandings and views! How hard he tried to shut himself off from looking at his own heart that was wilting and dying! And then one day, something changed. I don’t remember what was said or who said it, but somehow at last he opened his hands and his heart and let the light in. He finally stopped running. What we saw were tears, many, many tears, but we also saw the shadows of death, the spirits of wrath begin to disperse. And while he was in pain—great spiritual pain–life was being born anew from above. He could look up to the cross and see that this death was part of the journey to that life eternal, not the end of the road. It was a small step and a huge step: courageous, humble and all too rare—to be so honest and open and exposed. But he was no longer running towards the dark. It was one of the most beautiful things I have been graced to see. He could begin to allow a larger God in, a more complex God, a lessened need to correct or fix others, a great ability to accept difference and variety. The big heart was taken out of its corset and began to thrive. Instead of worrying about saving souls—as if he could by making people sign on to his views God alone—he began to focus on loving them. The saving God-light could stream in and he could radiate its light. He could look up and see the cross at the center and thereby let God in anew.
Jesus asks me to let in the light, the God-streaming light. But it is a light that shines towards and radiates back from the cross. To be living in the light of Jesus I must have it always refracted through the lens of the cross. It is to look hard at the means of death, quite literally, to look up at the deadly serpent as Moses made the people do, and see through it to God’s life. I must draw up the death within me and hang it up. I must pull out of the dark to die in the light of God’s love my envy, certainty, denials, contempt, fear, control, and all other things that deny life and goodness in me and for others. They must go into the light and I must draw them there so that the God-light can stream in and renew me, grace my spirit with the ability to love others, love God, trusting in God’s presence in the world. I have to see more clearly and constantly the cross acting in the midst of all life, even when I can’t see the other side of the pain and the folly and the destruction. My fellow chaplain is still one of my models and teachers in how to do this.
If I can walk this spiritual path then things will move and things will change. My spirit will, by God’s grace, grow in depth and wisdom and love. There will be more room in me for God-light and less room for darkness or my own self-aimed light. To look up at the cross and believe that the life-giving suffering and loving gift of Jesus’ life for us is real and at work in this world this moment is to live my faith. Even when we do our worst (and that can be so horrific as we know), the cross is still there redeeming, still calling us to new life, still streaming God-light to dispel the darkness. So let me look up, God, and step into that light. Let me bear it into the darkness. Let me be part of your work in the world. Amen.