Sermon, 3/14/21: A Simple Truth Can Be a Hard Truth. But What Is the Alternative?

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4 Lent

Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22   Numbers 21:4–9; Ephesians 2:1–10; John 3:14–21

For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world. John 3:17

Liturgically speaking, we arrive today at mid-Lent.  And our lectionary appointed for this Fourth Sunday in Lent anticipates clearly whither our focus should be, and where it shall be in not so many weeks hence.  In the Book of Numbers, Moses is instructed by God to forge a metal serpent that, if the errant Hebrews in their wandering in the wilderness would look upon it, would heal them of the venomous bites, a clear metaphor of redeeming them from their sin of doubting the good intentions of God.  And the Gospel of John, anticipating the crucifixion of Jesus, compares his pending death to being lifted up as the serpent of Moses’ time.  And, of course, Paul interprets both depictions as an act of benevolence, an act of grace on the part of a loving God.  Thus, may one summarize today’s readings at Mass.

However, that summary leaves me unsatisfied, which, in my mind, is a state different from being dissatisfied.  I want more.  And so it is that I imagine today’s lectionary as a mural painted on the exterior of a vacant building in one of our cities, or as a triptych behind an altar in a small village church, or as a reredos carved of stone behind the altar of a major city cathedral-like church.  No matter its location, it would be fair to ask the question: What motivated the artist so to connect and then to paint these stories, separated from each other by chronological distance?  The obvious answer I have offered in my brief summary.  But could there have been more?

Obviously, I claim to have no direct insight into my unknown artist’s mind.  However, if we were to study closely what each of these three lectionary readings has in common, I suggest that that commonality may be found in two very accessible biblical statements, both of which are in the public domain.  The first is the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, which in its reduced form becomes Jesus’ Great Summary of the Law and occupies a central role in our liturgy.  The second is the Lord’s Prayer. Why do I claim that the Ten Commandments (Decalogue or the Summary of the Law) or the Lord’s Prayer stand behind today’s readings? And even further, what significance does that have for our contemporary condition?

The Ten Commandments, which last week were the focus of our Lenten reflections, is divided into two distinct segments.  The first four commandments extoll the omnipresence and power of God as Creator and Sustainer.  The remaining six teach us how to live with and among each other.  As recorded in the Old Testament Book of Numbers, the ancient Hebrews had faltered in both instances:  They had A) begun to doubt that God was as concerned about their welfare as Moses had proclaimed, and B) become worn down by the pandemic of wandering, yet getting nowhere, and of eating the same food, of lacking not only water, but their favorite drink, and C) did not turn against God, they set upon each other.

Admittedly, the Lord’s Prayer, which came later to occupy a central place in the thoughts of the twelve disciples, was not known, as such, to the ancient Hebrews.  Those on the periphery of the first Jesus Movement and in the diaspora, which would now include you and me, would come only later to understand this prayer as the driving force behind the crucifixion.

I set forth the following argument: The Lord’s Prayer is both a creed and a mission statement, a creed that defines all missionary and evangelical outreach.  So often have we recited this creed, that we need not our Bibles or the BCP*; it is a prayer recited so often by us Christians that even non-Christians are familiar with it.  It is part of our religious psyche.  It has become second nature.  It has, perhaps, become routine, ordinary, commonplace, flat?  But it is that creed, by which Jesus himself lived and laid out for his followers, and which led to his eventual crucifixion!

When the disciples of Jesus asked him to teach them how to pray, it was not because they had never before prayed or heard prayers in their synagogues or in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Indeed, religious law required them to pray all the time: upon rising, at each meal, at noonday, at day’s end, and at night before reclining.  A rather dull, familiar routine had taken hold of their lives.  They felt a need for simple direction and clarity.  And that prayer is grounded in and patterned after the Decalogue.

The Invocation: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai ecad.”  ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.’  Jesus begins his prayer with a creedal invocation that is used to this day by all denominations of Judaism, and are the words that open what we Episcopalians know in our liturgy as “The Summary of the Law.”  Whether on Sunday or at a weekday Mass, we are reminded that it is God who has made us and not we ourselves, to borrow from the psalmist!  The Summary of the Law continues: “And you shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.”  That is pure Ten Commandments.

What next follows is the Connector to the remaining six: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as in heaven.”  Without the guiding and supportive hand of our Creator, we cannot succeed.  And where and how we are to thrive and flourish is in our earthly format.  Our task as followers of Christ, as heirs to God’s amazing grace through the Redeemer, is, with every fiber of our being, to make this place where we live, move, and have our being, as much like the heavenly realm as humanly possible.  And this we succeed in doing if and only if we acknowledge that God is God and not we ourselves.  To ignore this fundamental truth is to force us to attempt again and again Towers of Babel, but only to our detriment and downfall.  It is the omnipresence and majesty of God that is our example, after which we are to pattern our existence. 

Paramount to fulfilling that goal is a simple, yet essential, petition: “Give us today our daily bread.”  The temptation is great to give this petition “a modern-day spin,” such as ‘O God, let me get the best training that I can, in order that I may become successful in my chosen field.”  However tempting it may be to give that first and foundational petition a modern twist, I remain committed to its simplicity.  My commitment is borne out in contemporary United States where, even before—and surely since, i.e., because of—the Coronavirus pandemic, millions of men, women, and children fall asleep (if possible) and rise up in the morning, if possible, plagued by an unrequited hunger to the point of starvation.  The unfathomable is happening in the Land of Plenty, if not before our very eyes, then surely via nightly news reports.  According to our Book of Records, “our daily bread” was crucial to ‘5000 men, in addition to women and children were fed with a few fish and a few loaves.’  No vote of representatives or senators was required to remind Jesus of Nazareth of the centrality of “our daily bread.”

This petition is to be understood both literally and figuratively.  Bread is essential.  Bread is a symbol of all that is required for health, strength, and that needed for everyday life.  Governments and nations have fallen, because those whose responsibility it was to secure this one commodity for its citizens ignored just how essential bread, in its tangible form, is. 

I observed my late German philosopher father-in-law, essentially a quiet man, an introvert more comfortable in the world of ideas than in protest demonstration, become visually agitated when he was asked his opinion on this little item.  In good Lutheranian fashion he would say that we had the good fortune to be born in a land of plenty and into families where there was never a question about our daily bread.  Accident of birth, he called it.  Because of that, said he, we have come to forget that first and essential petition in the Lord’s Prayer. 

Not fundamentally indifferent or evil people, we have permitted routine to cause us not to see, or to forget.  We do well to remember that we are still only stewards of our God’s wealth, which we mistakenly think of as our own.  And while it may well be true that one does not live by bread alone, bread is essential to the physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being of every human being who, let us not forget, is made in the image of God.  And can we really toss this petition as too simplistic?  Yes, if we limit our thinking to tangible, consumable bread, but No, if we think creatively, if we go beyond our routine, if we acknowledge our own need and the needs of others to be sustained and to be affirmed psychologically and emotionally and spiritually.

Everything that we do, everything that we become, everything that we imagine, flows from this one simple but fundamentally essential petition.  Jesus, in this one prayer, taught and teaches us first to pray, to acknowledge that “all things come of thee, O Lord.”  This one simple prayer of Jesus of Nazareth centers us, gives to us the triptych that is situated in our daily world; for that is where God is and where we find God.  This one, brief, simple prayer connects the past to our current condition.  This one, brief, simple prayer informs us what stands behind the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  This one, brief, simple prayer undergirds Paul’s assertion regarding the grace of God.

And as we began with our adoration of God the Creator and Sustainer, so ends our petition where Paul does in his letter to the Ephesians: “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.”  “Barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed.”  ‘Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.’  With this doxology, Jesus brings us back to his point of departure.  God is God and there is none other; God is the Alpha and the Omega.  We do these things and make our petitions, for at the core of our being is the divine spirit and our desire to return to that spirit from which our own spirit comes. 

And so, my sisters and brothers in Christ, when you ask yourselves in the privacy of your own chamber or in public what makes you a Christian, an Evangelical Episcopalian Christian even, and why we gather each week (virtually still, but soon again in our sacred place) from which to go forth in the name of Christ, you need look no further than to the first creed of the church, The Lord’s Prayer.  For it is your baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection and your acceptance of Christ’s creed that determine your salvation and inform your response to Christ’s teaching.  Amen

*Book of Common Prayer