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Lift High The Cross

  • March 11, 2018
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for March 11, 2018 (Lent 4, Year B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3,17-22; John 3:14-21

Title:               Lift High The Cross

“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” (John 3:14-15).

My dear friends, this is what I wonder: when the Lord is lifted up, how does that lead us to a new and different kind of life, to a life that is eternal?

Somehow, as the community of disciples prayed and talked and meditated on all that had happened with the death of Jesus, somehow their thoughts turned to this ancient story from the desert wanderings of the tribes of Israel.

And a very odd story it is. The people become impatient. The people complain. So poisonous snakes are sent to teach them a lesson. But when the people repent and plead for help, instead of removing the problem, instead of taking the snakes away, a treatment is provided. A way to neutralize the poison.

And the remedy that God provides seems to require the people to do something that they were just commanded NOT to do! To make an image of a creature, lift it up in the center of their community, and look at it – in a worshipful kind of way! Very strange, indeed.

Now, what does this tell us about the cross, about the Lord being lifted up, and about the remedy of eternal life that God provides for us – and for the world?

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman – 10 March 1913.

Listen: if you are ever in need of an example of someone who refused to complain about her situation in life, and who instead took matters into her hands to affect change, then look no further than this saint of God!

Her initiative, her toughness, her refusal to quit resulted in the freedom of hundreds of people from a life of degradation and suffering.

You must remember that she came from nothing. She had no resources, no education. When she fled to freedom in the North, she had no friends, no where to live, no food to eat. Nothing! And yet Harriet Tubman did not let that stop her!

Once, after bringing many others to freedom along the Underground Railroad, she felt an intuition that her elderly parents were in trouble back in Maryland.

But she had no money for another journey, so she asked the Lord to help her. Harriet was directed by God to go to the office of a certain businessman in NYC who was supportive of her cause.

How exactly was she directed? No one knows, but Harriet always knew when God was speaking to her.

First thing in the morning, she went to the office to ask for $20 – a decent sum back in the 1850s. The businessman said to her, “Twenty dollars! Who told you to come here for twenty dollars?”

“De Lord told me, sir.”

“He did! Well, I guess the Lord’s mistaken this time!”

“No sir,” replied Harriet, “de Lord’s never mistaken! Anyhow I’m gonna sit right here – and I ain’t gonna leave, and ain’t gonna eat or drink – until I get money enough to take me down after the old people.”

So Harriet sat down in the waiting area. Sometimes the office was full of people, other times it was empty. Time and again, the workers there told her, “Go on, Harriet! You’d better go; there’s no money for you today.” And she would say, “No sir. I’m not going to stir from here until I git my twenty dollars.”

In the afternoon, after sitting there all day, she fell into a deep sleep in her chair. The people coming into the office for business asked about her and some of them felt sympathy for her. At the very end of the day, when Harriet finally woke up, she found herself to be the recipient of not twenty but SIXTY dollars – all the contributions of those who walked in the office that day and made a donation to her cause.

Soon after, when Harriet made it to her home plantation in Maryland, she found that her father had been caught helping other slaves escape and he was about to be tried and punished – most likely, to be hanged. And so, in the manner that Harriet was accustomed to speak, she said, “I just removed my father’s trial to a higher court, and brought him off to Canada!” (Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, 1869: pp.58-60).

Like the tribes of Israel, God led Harriet Tubman to a new life of freedom. And what did she do with this newfound freedom? Did she complain about her lack of food and water, about the new troubles she faced in the North?

Did she focus on those poisonous snakes which kept biting at her ankles? Or did she look up and trust in God and join in what God was doing in the world?

Some people seem unable to bring their eyes up off the ground. All they can see are the problems and troubles of life. All they can do is whine and complain.

But Harriet Tubman? She trusted in God and kept her eyes on the prize and would not allow any hardship to distract her. She knew what God called her to do and nothing was going to stop her.

When the Lord is lifted up on the Cross, how does that lead us to a new and different and eternal kind of life? Because the Cross is about sacrificial love for the sake of others.

Recently I had the chance to counsel a young sailor down at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. When he was 18 and in high school in Missouri, he enlisted in the Navy. He married his high school sweetheart and she came with him. Now they have a 2 year old daughter and he is part of a submarine crew.

This young man came in to talk with a chaplain, because he’s discouraged. He told me that life is really difficult on the sub – that his leaders are mean and hyper-critical, and that everyone in his unit is negative toward one another. And then, when he goes home, he starts acting in the same way toward his wife and daughter. Nasty and grumpy and mean.

But he does not want to be that kind of person. He feels himself becoming a kind of person that he doesn’t like, and he’s discouraged and doesn’t know how to not be affected by his toxic work environment.

To be honest, the young man had a legitimate concern. And we discussed ways to talk with his chief about the nastiness within the unit.

But, I pushed hard to remind him of the big picture. Yes, he has problems in his work setting. But the truth is that this young man is incredibly blessed.

First of all, he was born in the United States! Sure, we have lots of problems, but the truth is we live in one of the most prosperous and safest societies that has ever existed.

And what is more, this young man has his health, he is married to a young woman who loves him, he has a healthy daughter, and he is working in a submarine. Really, do you know how cool that is? And how many 8 year old kids would LOVE to go to sea in the submarine?

And in just a few years, he will complete his tour of duty, get a FREE college education, and he will be incredibly proud of what he accomplished. Because he was willing to serve even when it was not easy.

In the big picture, this young man hit the jackpot! But he couldn’t see it, because of the snakes biting at his ankles. That’s all he could see.

Like the Israelites complaining about the manna even though they were free! Free at last. No more slavery. No more oppression. Free to make their own choices.

Complaining is one of the temptations most common to all people. And yet it is the least effective way to make positive change.

And do you want to know the hard truth? No one likes complainers. No one wants to listen to your list of complaints, or to me whining about my petty troubles. Honestly!

And it seems that God doesn’t like listening to complaints either! That’s what I get from this strange and ancient story.

Don’t get me wrong: looking up at the Cross means that we join God in the work of sacrificial love which sets people free!

We must work to change things for the better, to leave the world better than we found it. But we will never do that by whining and complaining.

Make no mistake about it: the world needs to change! Humanity needs to change. We need to change how we live.

For God so loved the world that God could not leave it just the way it was!

So, when the Lord is lifted up on the Cross, how does that lead us to a new and different and eternal kind of life?

Because the Cross changes our perspective. We stop obsessing over our own problems, we give up on whining and complaining, and we answer the call to sacrifice for the sake of others in the way of Christ.

“Lift high the Cross. The Love of Christ proclaim. Til all the world adore his sacred Name.”

Are you ready to answer that call? To look up at the Cross and follow that standard in the way that leads to an eternal kind of life?

Let’s make it happen! Amen.

 

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