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Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21
This has been a long week. Monday brought a trip with colleagues and friends to Oklahoma City for the annual Muslim Day at the Capitol, where we once again stood as the interfaith community to welcome Oklahoma Muslims to their capitol building, as a counter to the people who always show up to try and yell at them that America is for Americans, and that means certain people, with certain looks, certain skin tone and certain faith expressions. Good news? We outnumbered them about 10-1. And many of us had time, including some of our Muslim friends, to engage in a little intersectional work, talking with legislators about a cruel bill that would further penalize the LGBTQ community, ostracizing would-be parents and the kids needing families in the foster care system. One of those bills is dead…another needs some work.
Tuesday was a panel discussion with the Sierra Club to talk about environmental justice, and the ties between pollution and racism, exploitation of resources and disenfranchisement. It was a more politically diverse crowd than you might imagine as leaders and community members begin to see the impact of climate change and realize that “business as usual” can’t be the call of the 21st century.
Wednesday – back at the Capitol with The Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Conference of Churches and Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry holding a press conference in opposition to adjustments to a house chaplaincy program that seem to be based on a desire to make the opening prayer in the House more of an echo chamber than a representation of the people. Or maybe it’s just a deliberate move to make sure that the House never hears from a liberal female preacher (or maybe just a female preacher at all) calling them out with scripture…or, heaven forbid, an Imam praying at them with a reminder that God doesn’t quite fit in the box in which they think they have God carefully contained.
Thursday started the initial joy of a bond approved for an undocumented woman who has been held at the county jail on an ICE hold for a month, her mental and physical health deteriorating rapidly. But then the complications, and the cost, of a federal bond process. And then the little network that we are slowly building here responding in kind with accompaniment, finances and motivation to help this woman get freed so she can at least worry about her future with her family, at home.
And all of this overshadowed, believe it or not, with a rollercoaster ride of organization and outrage as teachers all across this state demand that their union finally lead on the decade long decline in school funding and teacher salaries. I stood at the school board meeting as the superintendent and a union officer made a public declaration in support of a plan to strike. I held phone call after phone call with various leaders, teachers and parents, in an effort to encourage the union to be more aggressive and we hosted a meeting here Wednesday night that was a planned vote of 200+ local teachers to stand apart from their union and go their own way. But the union listened, changed their announced date for the strike and started showing the same frustration and anger that the people they are supposed to be representing are showing. So, instead of 200, we had about 45, and good discussion about next steps.
Oh yeah, and about a dozen of you gathered in the fellowship hall Wednesday night, under the able facilitation of Rev. Nancy Eggen, to continue the White Privilege curriculum, learning about how we might change a world that we didn’t necessarily make, but which needs us in order to change.
And all of that brings me to this passage from John, setup by the passage from Numbers. For one of the things that all of these issues from the past week have in common is theology. It drives those issues because theology shapes our character, which, in turn, shapes our ideology. And whether it is prayer or racism, the care of the planet or the responsibility towards the stranger, the orphan, the marginalized, the theology that drives us is fed by our character. For who we think God is and what we think God is up to in the world matters.
This passage from chapter 3 of John’s gospel contains verse 16 – perhaps one of the most famous, and maybe infamous, passages in the New Testament. It has been quoted and re-quoted, present at most sporting events in bright sharpie on a poster board held by someone whose theology most likely has them believing that is the best thing one could do as a Christian. But, as Gandhi reminds us in his “seven social sins” we are covering during this Lenten sermon series, a little knowledge without character is deadly, just as one line, out of context, can be very misleading.
We usually hear John 3:16 alone, and therefore miss the larger story. For John 3:16 is a call to us, set in the framework of John’s whole story about Jesus. It is a response to a man named Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, and a leader used to privilege and entitlement who seemingly cannot understand a God who works like Jesus claims, nor a God whose love is so strong that one can be born anew in it’s glow. And Jesus knows he needs to hear that God loves the world. The disciples do too, which is why in the very next chapter Jesus then takes them to the world, to a small town in Samaria, on the other side of their borders, so that they can meet who the world is. Because the world, Jesus will teach us with his love, may very well be the last place on earth we think God would love.
Of course, it is more complicated than just reading a single passage out of context. When people read, or are taught, that John 3:16 is about the sacrifice of a man by God to show us how much God loves us, there are theological assumptions behind it – a character of Christianity, if you will. This is why character matters when we discuss knowledge. What we do with knowledge, what we even think knowledge is, gets shaped by our character. If you read scripture looking for a judgmental God whose vengeance waits for all us sinners and a Jesus whose bloody death is the only thing that could expiate God’s wrath, you can find it. I promise. And then you can read verse 16 as a summons to exclude those we think God does not love rather than an invitation to participate in spreading God’s vast and amazing love. And if you look in scripture for a God whose love is so deep and wide that nothing can separate us from it, not death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell – well, you can find that, too. And then you can read this verse as one of welcome and grace.
When John makes reference to the passage from Numbers, claiming Jesus needs to be raised up like the snake, we hear the familiar refrain – For God SO loved the world – which we assume, of course, is an indication of degree. God loved the world this much, which is why God gives God’s son. We get that assumption from the translation of the Greek word outos into King James English. However, in the English of that time, “so” also meant in this manner. This, coupled with the way the Greek word is used elsewhere allows many translations to interpret the passage this way: God loved the world this way. Now, let’s look at Numbers 21. Rev. Carl Gregg puts it this way:
“…the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt. And they are growing impatient with year after year of hiking around the Sinai Peninsula. They don’t like the food and there’s not enough water. And in one of those classic Hebrew Bible moments, God responds to their complaints by sending “poisonous serpents among the people.” It’s kind of like treating a broken arm by smashing the patient’s toe with a hammer. Your arm may not feel better, but you’re too busy screaming about your toe to complain about your arm.”
But the people stop complaining and start looking to God to stop the snakes. In response, God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, to raise it up and let it heal the people by reminding them to trust in God. This is the symbolism that John evokes here, saying that Jesus being raised on the cross is meant to remind us to trust in God…so that when we look at him “raised up”, maybe on a cross, maybe on Easter, we can be healed from the anxiety of the ways of death and hate. What has happened, however, is that John 3:16 has become a slogan, a gimmick designed to grant entry – read the verse, say the Jesus prayer, get some water on you and you’re done. Now get on with your life and know that all the things you hate and all the things you love are now sanctioned by a God who sits way up on a pole, stoic and bronzed.
That idol must be broken. It must be shattered into pieces so that we might find the living God who would reside in our hearts, asking us to become more compassionate, to seek justice and spread hope and to find the mark of our faith not in a marketing scheme or a well-formulated set of judgments we always aim at other people, but in our efforts to be born anew to the manner in which God uses love. As we encounter new stresses, new suffering and concern we should not be seeing the wrath of God visited upon us for misdeeds, but rather be asking – where is God in all of this? How can I be part of God’s mission? Where can I sow God’s love?
These are the theological challenges of the 21st century. The world is changing and while God is eternal, our theology is not. God is still speaking – are we still listening? And this kind of challenge requires more than a simple slogan or glib nod to a religious membership…it requires a practice of faith. So, if you know that this change needs to happen, and you still need some kind of touchstone passage to use, then I suggest you set John 3:16 aside – too much baggage. Might I suggest instead Micah – “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Or, perhaps look to the knowledge Jesus passes on, read with the character he teaches us – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not enough to say that salvation comes from doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, from loving God and neighbor. It’s not enough just to know this. We must live in such a manner everyday, especially when no one is looking.
May we learn to love the world in this way— as God so loves the world. Amen.