March 11, Fourth Sunday in Lent:
Number 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
When Thomas Merton met Thich Nat Hanh in 1966. He noticed that the young monks in the Buddhist monastery didn’t do much meditating, instead they did a lot of gardening and dish washing, so he asked Thich Nat Hanh about it…how did they teach meditation to the young monks. Thich Nat Hanh, who like Merton had a wry sense of humor smiled and said, “We don’t teach meditation to the young monks. They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors.” (Rohr, Contemplation in Action p. 79)
How many of us still need to learn that lesson?
Since we’re all gathered here, it’s safe to say that something in us is interested in “being spiritual.” We want to experience God, the Holy, the Divine…we want to understand what it is that we’re doing here…we want to live out our faith…work for reconciliation and peace and justice…bring about God’s reign in the world……and we often want it so badly…and work for it so hard, that we don’t realize that we’re still slamming doors.
Last week, the Israelites were at Sinai…receiving the law…the covenant with God…and then they set out again into the desert. They’ve been out there a long time…a very LONG time…wandering…they’re close to the promised land…but not quite there…and they’re still slamming doors—metaphorically.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” There’s no food and no water, and this manna stuff is awful!
It’s a very human—a deeply human—response. “Come on, God…We’re doing all this stuff down here…what are you up to?” (slam!).
We’re in quite the state here…need a little help (slam!)
And now with the poisonous serpents?! Thanks a lot, dude! (slam!)
Ok, Ok. We give. Enough with the poisons serpents.
All legitimate complaints, no doubt. But then this story gets really weird…so there must be something else going on…
God says to Moses, “make an image of this poison serpent…the thing that’s hurting you…the thing that is tormenting you…the thing that’s really a very thinly veiled metaphor for that part you that you refuse to recognize…put that up on a pole and if someone feels a little venomous…they can look on it and live.”
It’s an image that Jesus picks up on…”Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
That phrase…”Son of Man”…we hear that a lot. It’s how Jesus refers to himself in all of the Gospels…in fact the Gospel writers put this self-description into Jesus’ mouth over 80 times. Clearly, it’s important.
The original Hebrew phrase (ben adam literally Son of Adam) was “simply an evocative way of saying, ‘human being” (Jewish Annotated New Testament p.63). The prophet Ezekiel uses it this way over 90 times. But between the time Ezekiel was writing (during the Babylonian exile in the early 6th century BCE), and the time the book of Daniel was compiled (around the 2nd century BCE), its meaning had expanded. Daniel uses it as a term for a divine being who comes at the end of the age to judge the world. The Gospel writers use it in both of these senses…”human being”, and “heavenly judge,” and in another messianic sense of “one who is to suffer and die.” So when we hear Jesus use it today, we’re not quite sure how he means it.
Is it, “end-times judge,” or “suffering messiah” or “the human one” It’s hard to know…But here at least, its linked to this image of being something that is lifted up…the thing we can look on and live…but like the serpent…its also something that torments us…something we have a LOT of trouble seeing in ourselves, and admitting to our selves.
The problem with much religion, says Franciscan teacher and author, Richard Rohr, is that we spend so much time “desperately trying to become ‘spiritual’, when the Christian revelation [is] precisely that you are already spiritual (“in God”), and your difficult but necessary task is to learn how to become human.” (Naked Now, p. 69).
It’s Jesus’ humanity…his humanness that is lifted on the cross. And it’s our own broken, finite humanness that we often have the most trouble with.
The author of the letter to the Ephesians (probably not Paul, BTW), writes, “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.”
We are what he has made us—fully human AND in the image of God…fully human AND already spiritual “In Christ Jesus”…made for good works, which God prepared to be our way of life…
That’s an integrated life…fully human AND revealing the divine in us and through us…but in order to truly reveal that divine light, we have to stop slamming the door on our humanity…and on the humanity of others.
“It is in our humanity,” Rohr goes on, “that we still are so deeply wounded, so needy, so unloving, so self-hating, and so indeed of enlightenment. We seem to have spawned centuries of people trying to be spiritual and religious, whereas our record on basic humanness is rather pitiful.” (Naked Now. p. 69)
We’re still slamming doors.
We live in a split and fragmented world. We live among people who cannot accept or forgive certain parts of themselves…we are people who have trouble accepting or forgiving certain parts of ourselves…when we look on the cross, that’s what we see…those parts of ourselves that can’t forgive…that wants vengeance, that requires someone else pay for our own brokenness. We see our humanity broken and doing the breaking…pierced and piercing…
Richard Rohr again: “Divided people…cannot accept or forgive certain parts of themselves. They cannot accept that God objectively dwells within them (or others). This lack of forgiveness takes the form of a tortured mind, a closed heart, or an inability to live calmly and proudly inside your own body.” (Naked Now. p. 160)
We need to empty our cup. We need to stop slamming doors. We need to seek and embrace our humanity because it is through our humanity that we will come to find and know our connection with God. It is through our humanity that we will come to see and to know that we don’t have to strive after, or work so hard to find a connection with God, because our connection with God is always present and unbreakable.
So how might we do that? How might we learn to leave the doors of our soul open, and begin to accept and nurture our own blessedly finite, gracefully broken humanity?
I’m glad you asked. Here are some practices—some further Lenten disciplines—for you to consider, to help you along your journey towards God…and towards your own humanity, again courtesy of Richard Rohr.
“If you want other to be more loving, choose to love first.
“If you want a reconciled outer world, reconcile your own inner world.
“If you are working for peace out there, create it inside as well.
“If you notice other people’s irritability, let go of your own.
“If you wish to find some outer stillness, find it within yourself.
“If you are working for justice, treat yourself justly too
“If you find yourself resenting the faults of others, stop resenting your own.
“If the world seems desperate, let go of your own despair.
“If you want a just world, start being just in small ways yourself.
“If your situation feels hopeless, honor the one spot of hope inside you.
“If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will always see God beyond you. For it is only God in you who knows where and how to look for God.” (Naked Now, 161)