Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Sunday, March 14, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here: TLC Worship Service 3/14/2021

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Have you ever been around someone who complains about everything? The food is too hot, the room is too cold, the people are too loud. It can be frustrating and demoralizing to hear nothing but complaining all the time.

I wonder if that’s what God felt like being in relationship with the people in the desert [Numbers 21:4-9]? Valerie Bridgeman Davis describes the people this way: “persistent complainers that wanted to be delivered but also wanted to be comfortable.” Today’s complaint was just the latest complaint of the people. Prior to this they had complained about:

  • the hardships of desert life
  • having to eat mana
  • the leadership of Moses and Aaron
  • a lack of water
  • that they had no grain, figs, grapevines, or pomegranates

And now in today’s complaint, they threw it all at God: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food!

And so in response to these persistent complainers, what did our loving God do? God sent snakes! In response to their complaints, verse 6 records: “The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” One might imagine God saying, “After all I’ve done for you?  Well, here, take this.”

As I think about this relationship between God and the desert wandering people, I think of an opera … I think of how an opera exaggerates every feeling and makes every feeling a dramatic song.  It’s not helpful to read these stories literally, as if God actually sent snakes because the people complained, but allegorically.  These stories speak the basic truth of our relationship with God: God works on our behalf and we don’t see it.  Instead, we complain and wonder where God is. 

The story Lutheran professor Mark Oldenburg sees in this First Reading is an illustration of our Second Reading today [Ephesians 2:1-10]. Oldenburg writes: Putting the two readings together help us see that the Israelites were already under the domain of death even before they were bitten by the snakes …” Oldenburg continues: “Kvetching against God is part and parcel of being “dead through trespasses” as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1. The snakes simply made what was already going on obvious.”

Because the people lacked faith, because they didn’t remember what God had done for them, because they couldn’t imagine God with them in their pain, the people were already dead in sin. Yes, life was hard, but God had delivered them from bondage in Egypt, had given them leaders, had provided food and water in the wilderness, had given them the law, had led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But instead of faith to celebrate God’s work on behalf of the people, and faith to believe that God would indeed continue to work, the people were dead in sin, they couldn’t see anything other than their own concerns.  

In the end, the problem was not snakes. It was not snakes that were killing them, it was their lack of faith that was killing them. And it was not a bronze serpent on a pole that would heal them. Their healing would come from obeying God’s word, from following God’s direction. A serpent on a pole would not save them, but believing God’s word, in faith trusting that because God said it – it must be true – that is what would save them and lead them to life.

Friends, on this Fourth Sunday in Lent, just over half way in our journey of  prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, this story from Numbers today is a mirror held before us. In honest confession and repentance, we are called to confess our similarities with the Israelites in the wilderness. Blessed with so much, we give thanks for so little; surrounded by abundance, we see only scarcity: gifted in so many ways, we grumble and complain. God has done great things for us – but do we recognize it? Do we trust that as God has provided, that God will continue to provide?

But, friends, I want to share today a caution …

The caution is that we need to be  very careful, and very precise, about just what exactly God is giving us, and what God has not given us.  Responding to this story, we might imagine that the simple lesson is to give thanks for what we have in life: to look around at our blessings and to give thanks for these blessings as gifts of God. But the deeper call upon the Israelites in the wilderness, was not to dwell on material comforts and blessing – instead, the invitation to the people was to see and recognize God’s work among them, even as God’s work lead them to uncomfortable and challenging places. 

They were invited, as they left behind all that they ever had known, to believe that where God was leading them was to a place of life and salvation, even if the journey was uncomfortable and difficult. And the people were called to trust that God’s healing would be found where God said God’s healing would be found, even if the place and location of that healing sounded ridiculous: a bronze serpent on a pole, a crucified savior on a cross.

I think this is an especially important distinction to make, because what if, friends, the material blessings and comforts we enjoy, are not given to us by God? What if what we think are the gifts of God, are actually the by-products of sin? What if they are the result of a system built to privilege some at the expense of others?

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019, the median white household family income was $76k; the average Hispanic household income was just $56k and black household income just $45k. On average, Hispanic household income was just under 75% of white income and black household income was just over half of white income.  
  • The average net worth of white families in the Boston Metro area in 2018 was $247,000.  The average net worth of black families was Zero. Zero. The average net worth of Hispanic families was $2,717.
  • Across the United States, the net worth of white high school drop outs was $82,968; the net worth of black families with college degrees, who had finished college was only $70,219. Let that sink in: the average net worth of college educated blacks was lower than that of white high school drop outs!

Economist Jeff Fuhrer and a member of St. John Lutheran Church in Sudbury,  Massachusetts, in a presentation to members of Trinity and St. John, Sudbury, Massachusetts a few weeks back, pointed out these differences are not the result of personal behaviors. The difference in household wealth cannot be explained by differences in work ethic, educational attainment, home ownership or any other personal behavior. The differences are the results of generation after generation of policies, that have intentionally funneled wealth towards some and away from others.

Policy after policy created and perpetuated wealth for white people and denied access or stole wealth from black and brown people. These policies affected all aspects of life: from obtaining GI Bill benefits, to securing home mortgages, to facing tougher and longer prison sentences. The United Stated Department of Agriculture, well into the end of the 20th Century, was known as “the Last Plantation” and settled a lawsuit brought by black and brown farmers against the USDA for systemic patterns of racism that denied farm loans to black and brown farmers and drove the number of black farmers nearly to the point of extinction.

It is NOT God’s work to privilege some while exploiting others. The wealth and material blessings of our lives, for those of us who are white in the United States, did not come from God, it came from human sin. What we have came not from a God of love and peace, but from vast, complex, and sophisticated systems of racism and white supremacy that continue to permeate every level of society in every corner of this country.

Friends, our thanksgiving today, is not in the wealth, material blessings, good luck, health, or the fortunes of our lives. To give thanks for wealth, and the material blessings of our lives, based on systems of exploitation, is actually to give thanks that the snakes of racial prejudice have bit someone else, and spared us. The Good News, the only good news for which we as Christians give thanks: the Good News of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, as we heard in our Second Reading today, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.”  (Ephesians 2:4-5).

The Good News, is that dead as we are in our trespass and sin, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17). God sent the Son to announce God’s love for black and brown people … for African, Latino/Latina, Asian, and Middle Eastern people … for the flow of migrant children at our Southern borders … And, God sent Jesus Christ to announce God’s love for those of us who have not yet left for the promised land – for us who are stuck dead in systems of racial hierarchy – for us who are complicit in these systems through our ignorance, indifference, and innocence. God sent Jesus NOT to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him, in order to lead us into the new promised land of racial justice, equity, and healing.

This weekend, the “On Being” radio show and podcast with Krista Tippet featured an interview with Ocean Vuong – a Vietnamese American. (Click Here for more). On the show he reflected on the fact that his life is a product of war – his Grandfather was an American Army soldier from Michigan, his grandmother a Vietnamese woman from Saigon. He writes: “No war, no bombs, no deaths = no me.”

Ocean and Krista didn’t explore the Christian dimensions of that profound statement, but I did.  Isn’t Ocean Vuong’s story the story of God’s work in Jesus Christ? Our true thanksgiving today, is the way in which God meets us in our violence and warfare, in the ways we devour and destroy each other, precisely in that serpent on the pole, squarely in the violence of crucifixion on the cross, in order to lead us to new life, healing, and hope! Isn’t Jesus Christ the possibility of new love and resurrection in places of death?

God never abandoned the complaining Israelites in the wilderness. Even though they turned their backs on God, God continued to love them, to provide them with a means of healing and hope, even as God continued to lead them on their journey to the promised land.

To us, complaining grumblers; to us, dead in the sin of racist systems and structures; God does not abandon us. Instead, God gives us the means of our salvation: the work of the crucified Jesus Christ who took upon himself the violence of humanity in order to lead us in new ways of love and life.

Confessing and repenting of our sin, may we give thanks for the forgiveness of Jesus Christ; may we see in Jesus Christ the means of our salvation; may we give thanks for the ways God in Christ is right now leading us our bondage, into new ways of life and hope.   

Thanks be to God.