Sermon for St. Christopher's, Lubbock, TX
The House of Bishops met last week at Kanuga, a retreat center in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Its a beautiful location, with miles of trails that go up into the hills, and in the winter when the leaves are off the trees, you can see quite a ways when you get up on the ridges. I love to run there, but this year the daylight savings time change has meant that the sun doesnt come up until almost 8 am. Thats also when breakfast starts, and I had a meeting almost every day at breakfast. Its impossible to run trails in the dark, when you cant see the rocks and tree roots.
I did go out running the first day when I didnt have a meeting and could go a bit later, and I got up to the top of a hill in a light rain. The next morning I ran on the road in the dark, in a cold and freezing rain. It was pretty grim. For me, running is important prayer time, and it has an important element of coming home, even in strange places. But its hard to find much comfort in the dark, cold, and rain, when theres only one streetlight a mile and you have to slow down because youre not quite sure where the road is.
Sunday afternoon I got out again, up into hills that were glorious, even in the mist. By Tuesday the sun had finally come out and it had gotten quite a bit warmer. We had some time off that afternoon, because wed worked in the morning and would work some more that night. I took off for the hills, and just after I got started another bishop came up behind me and asked where I was going. I was sincerely hoping he wouldnt join me, because I wanted some peace and quiet, but I said, up the hill, and when we came to the road just ahead, he went left and I went right. The view from the top was glorious, and so was the journey down. Just as I left the top, here came the other bishop, who had gone up by another way. The next day he said to me, I didnt join you, because its clear to me that we run for different reasons. You run to join the cosmic harmony; I run to exorcise the demons. I wasnt so sure that he was right, but its an interesting perspective on why we pray.
Something like that is going on in the Sinai, with Moses and the bronze serpent. The Israelites wandering in the desert are filled with demons they complain about the lack of food and water, they grumble about the food that God does provide, they say they would have been better off as slaves in Egypt, they whine and complain, why did you turn us out of that comfortable prison? And then they encounter a plague of poisonous snakes, and a bunch of them die. We dont know much about those snakes. Maybe theyre supposed to be a reference to the tempter in the story about Eve, Adam, and the apple in Genesis. Maybe theyre just snakes. But the cure that God provides is to put the image of a snake up on a pole and invite those who are bitten to look at it.
This isnt just sympathetic magic. Its a reminder to the wanderers that the same God who made the snakes made them. Here, look at what Ive made, and remember me. Your healing consists in turning back, coming back into relationship, remembering your dependence on the giver of life.
Jesus does something similar when he tells his night visitor, Nicodemus, that his own lifting up will bring healing (salvation) to the world. Just as the serpent is lifted up and becomes a sign and vehicle of healing for the wanderers in the desert, so Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, and then lifted up again into heaven, to be the healing of all creation.
Nicodemus comes running to Jesus in the dark, seeking a way home to God. Jesus tells him that he has to look toward the light, the light of the world, in order to find his way home [those who do what is true come to the light]. My friends diagnosis of our running styles or motivations is simply two perspectives on that same reality. He pushes out the demons and the darkness that keep him from seeing the light, and he fairly accurately notes that I look for the harmony, the presence of the spirit, in seeking a well-lit way home. Nobody can run in total darkness, you have to have some light to keep on the homeward road.
Where and how do you find the light? Your presence here this morning says that you know that light is found in faithful community. The great celebration around the consecration of your new bishop is a collective turning of the community once more, a conscious refocusing for a new chapter of relationship. Youve given thanks for the life and ministry of Wallis Ohl, and his light-filled leadership among you, and youve recommitted to seeking the light in new company. The task of Bp. Scott Mayer will be to hold up the cross, and to point toward the light, but it is a task he shares with each and every one of you. None of us can go home alone we go in company, like those wanderers in the desert. Moses challenged them to look back to the creator of all for their healing and their deliverance. Like the 70 elders Moses got to help him a bit later on, all of you share that work with your new bishop.
The task of all the leaders God calls in our midst is to hold up the healer of us all, the one we know in Jesus. Its not irreverence to say that the snake on a pole is an image for Jesus on the cross. God uses many ways to point us back to relationship, to turn us back to the journey, to work conversion within us. Thats what Paul is getting at in Ephesians when he says weve been saved by grace through faith that weve already been made for relationship, and that the grace to keep that relationship growing is a gift, not something we can accomplish on our own hook. Our task is to keep looking up like the psalmist says, I lift my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come. Keep lifting your eyes heavenward, expecting to find God at work. Its like getting out the door for a run, whether its a dark and stormy night or a balmy afternoon expecting that all we really have to do is show up, and God will find us. Thats what prayer and the spiritual journey are about showing up showing up and being willing to be put to Gods work.
The season of Lent is about developing our capacity for showing up, for turning toward the light. In an economic season like this, that may involve simply recognizing our dependence that we cant save ourselves, that we need the presence of the spirit in this community. Thats why you showed up this morning, isnt it?
When we keep showing up, eventually some of that light begins to shine through us that grace that Paul talks about and we become light bearers for others, Christ-bearers (Christophers) for those who are struggling to find their way home in the dark. That is why Jesus is lifted up, that we might see the light he bears for the whole world, and turn toward it. Jesus didnt come to condemn or to be darkness, he came among us so that the whole world might see light even in the dark of night, even in despair, even in death.
Show up and look for the light. You can do it by driving out the dark or by focusing on the light driving out the demons of fear and anxiety or by seeking the harmony of heaven. Theyre different aspects of the same journey. Which do you choose?