Looking at the Cross: What Do You See?
Lent 4, 3/15/21
Every three years we hear this bizarre story from Numbers, obviously, because it pairs with the excerpt from the Gospel of John. An excerpt that contains one of the most well-known verses of scripture – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life.
A well-known verse for sure – but also a difficult verse out of context. True of most scripture verses – but this one for sure. Which is probably why the times I most hear it used, or shouted or painted on a board that a person is holding high above their head – it is being used in a way that denounces or divides. And in context – I find it hard to believe that was the intention of John, who attributed it to Jesus in this unique conversation.
But – before we get there – let’s get back to the snakes. The Israelites are tired of the situation there are in. Can you relate? They are tired of what they are living through – and they want it to end already. So it seems God takes their bitterness and bites them with it. It’s not a pleasant story for sure – but it has a ring of – giving them a taste of their own medicine – to me.
Of course, that’s not the exit route the people wanted – so realizing their perspective needs to radically change – they repent. And the process of forgiveness and healing is an odd one. God doesn’t just send the serpents away – he has Moses make a statue of the very thing that scared them, harmed them, and in some cases, well caused some of them to die.
I always feel the need when I summarize a story from scripture in the way that I just did – to be clear that I do not take it literally. Because I do not believe God harms or destroys – life. God is Creator. God gives life – and life eternal.
Which is part of the reason Jesus uses this example with Nicodemus (that’s the person he is speaking to). And for us, the teaching about repentance – is heard within the context of the fourth week of Lent – as we are one week closer to the cross – which thankfully – also means one week closer to resurrection and new life. Liturgically and otherwise.
And to explore that teaching – I want to talk briefly about – lacrosse.
I know you didn’t see that segue coming!
Earlier this week while both of these scripture stories were circling around in my heart and head – I went for a walk and took in a podcast. This one is called Snap Judgement – its great – google it – lots of stories of all sorts!
The episode I listened to is called “Medicine Game” and it’s about a girls lacrosse team in the Midwest – specifically a group of all-native American girls who are told they are not allowed to play the game that came from their ancestors.
I’m sure you like me know that lacrosse is a native American game. What I didn’t know was that it is also called the medicine game. It is considered sacred. It is a game that was given by the Creator, to be played for the Creator, and has been known to have healing power.
Now I’m not going to tell you the story I heard on Snap Judgement –like I said- Google it - google Medicine Game.
What first connected with me – was that lacrosse was a game about healing. This image of the serpent on the stick – you’ve seen that image with the American Medical Association – so that was interesting and connected with our readings.
But then I started remembering my own experience with lacrosse – which like the girls in the story – I played in middle school and at the beginning of high school.
But then I stopped because I wasn’t very good – never made varsity. – I was goalie and I wasn’t very good.
I wasn’t very good and the protective gear wasn’t long enough for me. Being taller than average back then – there would be these gaps in the gear – and those lacrosse balls often whacked me just where there was nothing to protect me.
So in addition to some bruises to physically remind me of how bad I was – when we lost – more painful was how I felt inside. Because whenever we lost, which I remember was often – it always felt like it was entirely my fault.
All of us at different points in our lives experience that feeling. Its part of being human. That internal isolating sense that we are unworthy. Our middle school and high school years are chock full of experiences that have us feeling that way – aren’t they? Because it is the time in our life when we most look to our peers our social groups to validate our worth. (Not something we easily let go of, well into adulthood)
I’m sure all of us have more than memory of that time in our lives when we did not feel part of the team – felt excluded and alone.
Jesus calls himself in this conversation – the Son of Humanity. Jesus connects all of us through him. One of the most important phrases in the Eucharistic Prayer which we’re about to hear is when the priest says – Jesus shared our human nature.
Our humanity is what connects us to one another. And there are aspects of our humanity that we do not want to see. That is what repentance is all about. Just like the Israelites had to look at what they were most afraid of – the representation of what was poisoning them (metaphor there, right?).
We too have to see the full humanity of the one who came to save us. Not a statue – not a representation – but the actual human being in all his vulnerability and weakness. For the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
How else does our religion connect us with the full humanity of ourselves and everyone else?
In this conversation Jesus is having with a rabbi – Nicodemus – who is so confused by this whole notion of being born again (you know this conversation) – what he insists we believe is not a doctrine or a dogma – but like the Israelites – a lived experience.
The 20th c. theologian Karl Barth said, “[Jesus on the cross] is a truth we cannot understand -- we can only stand under this truth.” Our real reactions to this sight matter. Here is a Savior who came among us “with loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7), a Messiah who, “although he was a Son, learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). John’s Gospel implies that the cross is not to be understood; it is simply to be seen. (WorkingPreacher.org)
When you gaze at the humanity of Jesus – in his suffering – what do you see? It isn’t looking into the past – its looking into the solidarity with humanity in our present. It is what gives us courage to look at our humanity – where I feel weak or helpless. It’s what gives me empathy for that girl I was in middle school – empathy for parts of myself right now. Compassion and empathy for the vulnerabilities all of us have – and are around us in ways that are hard to take in.
This is why using John 3:16 to exclude people I find almost heretical – for Jesus stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross so that all might come within his saving embrace – not through doctrine or dogma – but through a shared understanding of our humanity. God shared our human nature – so that we would come to know that it is through our humanity that we abide in God.
Lift high the cross – the love of Christ proclaim. What do you see when you stand underneath that truth?