Kelly’s sermon preached March 14, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Mar 14, 2021 in Lent, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 14, 2021

Faith is full of questions and paradoxes, isn’t it? You may have heard Paul Tillich’s quote before, that “the opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty.”  And so it makes good sense that in the Episcopal Church, we teach our faith by asking questions.  The Catechism in our prayer book follows a question and response format. And many of you know that the Godly Play curriculum embraces questions, too.

For example, the story of Creation begins by asking students, “what is the biggest present you ever received?”  I love the questions posed in Godly Play…and I’ve learned a lot from the answers that children give in response.  Children are so wise.  To this question about the biggest gift or present, I have heard children say “my dog.”  Or “snow.” Or, “the ocean.”  I think it’s so interesting that even very young concrete thinkers name experiences as the biggest present they’ve ever received. 

Today in the scriptures, we hear about gifts that God gives to God’s people throughout the ages.  Experiences of God’s love. In the Old Testament, a bronze serpent is given to heal those bitten by snakes in the wilderness.  In the gospel, God’s very self is given in love to all who will receive him.  In Ephesians, we hear that we are graciously given new life, and a seat at the table with God in the heavenly places. And in the collect today, we prayed together for the bread which gives life to the world.

These are very big presents…big, experiential and occasionally paradoxical gifts that can be hard to wrap our minds around, especially in a culture that speaks more often of reward and positive reinforcement than it does of freely-given gifts.   

I’ve been reading a book about paradoxes lately, and what I’ve learned is that we as humans often want to split a paradox rather than holding the tension between two seemingly contradictory truths.  So, for example, that children are both wise and immature is a bit of a paradox.  Here are a few more: PAUSE In the annual meeting a couple of weeks ago, outgoing vestry member Andy Lukens spoke of the paradox of St. Michaels  being both so much bigger than the facility, and simultaneously being a very special place that matters.  Joe Hanan noted that we have been in isolation for over a year now, and yet you are connected deeply and intimately as a community.  These are paradoxes about your identity and communal life here at St. Michael’s..   There are paradoxes in our Christian faith as well..Maybe for some of us, the concept of God as both almighty judge and loving gift-giver is a paradox that is hard to hold in our minds or our hearts. Or perhaps that of God as an immanent and relational lover of souls, yet also transcendent and omnipotent and powerful.  Maybe you are trying to hold a personal  experience of pain or grief alongside love and hope, or accept your divine belovedness alongside a frustrating weakness or tenderness about yourself.    

Paradoxes abound, and holding them together individually and communally is both challenging and freeing. It takes courage to keep the edges together…marrying joy to sorrow, or the sacred to profane, or the hope with frustration.  And yet this is the work of being in relationship with God and one another.

Today, we hear the people of God grappling with a paradox, too.  God has rescued God’s people from slavery in Egypt and promised them their own land.  Obviously God is with them, and for them.  But they are stuck in the wilderness, struggling with food insecurity and doubts of all kinds. So, in their suffering, they split the paradox, assume the worst, and ask, “Why, God,  have you brought us out here to die?” This is not the most rational assumption, given their history with God.  But then, in the third quarter of their 40 wilderness years, poisonous snakes appear and bite the people, multiplying their loss and suffering.   God’s motives in this turn of events is hard to discern, unless you are willing to hold the paradox of God  both as one who allows for poisonous snakes to exist, AND one who longs to heal his people from their physical affliction and from the mistaken assumption that God is punishing them or seeking to destroy them. 

Another paradox arises today in the letter to the Ephesians.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

This ancient letter is thought by scholars to be a homily, intended for widespread distribution to many churches in the ancient world.  It  reminds us that we are not saved by our own good works, but that we ARE created for good works, and for a way of life in Christ that is given to us by God’s grace.  The difference in english is only one word- one preposition.  But that difference  shifts the action from us to God, and it is so critical to keep in our minds, lest we fall to one side of the paradox or the other and miss the point.  Perhaps you’ve seen how this can happen among Christians.  On the one hand is a kind of functional atheism that declares we must do everything right, or else.  Often this message creates insiders and outsiders, pride and shame…and rarely grace.  But on the other hand, there is a kind of fatalistic resignation– an assumption that God has ordained everything, and that there is nothing we can or should do to alleviate the suffering of others, or the injustices of the world.  Neither of these split forms of the paradox are holding the tension of the scriptures given to us today….scriptures that challenge us to believe God loves us and saves us because of who God is…that it’s not all up to us, and yet simultaneously  that what we do in response to God’s love matters very much. That is, essentially, what Lent is about- taking the time to examine our reactions and responses carefully, but without fear. 

The Rev. Winnie Vargese said it well in a recent lenten sermon, saying  “Do not underestimate your capacity to sin, nor God’s compassion to forgive: God’s grace is unearned, waiting, abundant, and already done.” It can be hard to keep our divine belovedness in one hand, and our human vulnerability to sin in the other, without splitting the paradox. And so, we lean into Lent each year to remember both sides, and hold on as we experience the paradoxical gifts of God together.

Such gifts–healing, grace, love, salvation- these are not earned by being good enough. The are not negated by pain or suffering. They are not positive reinforcement for doing the right thing or believing the right thing.  They are simply given by God because of who God is– a giver of good and abundant gifts, who loves us, and has faith in us.  In receiving these gifts, we are able to reorient ourselves toward God, and recognize good gifts in one another more freely.

So, on this 4th Sunday of Lent, more than halfway through a whole penitential season given to us in the wisdom of the Church to reorient us to God’s divine gifts, I find myself thankful for the scriptural paradoxes and liturgical seasons that help hold the tension of paradox in my own life– paradoxes between power and vulnerability, strength and flexibility, discipline and spontaneity. And I give thanks for you, a community that at least by my seeing is generous, caring, and connected to one another, even in the midst of an isolating and lonely pandemic. 

We are given to one another in this particular time, through this community, and we share a paradoxical way of life in Christ—a given-ness that is abundant, free, and worthy to be shared in love and service, thanks be to God. 

© 2021 Kelly Ramer Moody. All rights reserved.

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