March 18, 2012
Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent
March 18, 2012
The Rev. Bradford Ayers Rundlett
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
When the Hebrew slaves fled Egypt they had to cross the Sinai Peninsula – 23,000 square miles of dry, barren, rocky, inhospitable desert, with almost nothing that would sustain a human being. Moses told the people “God will provide.” And the Good Lord did.
“Manna, manna, manna; holy Moses! Is there anything else to eat?”
It was the same old thing – breakfast, lunch, and dinner - day after day, night after night.
The word “manna” could mean several things: resin from the Tamarisk tree, plant lice, fungus, lichen, or something else – we don’t know for sure. But they all sound quite appetizing don’t they? Whatever it was, it got old. The mutton stew they had in Egypt was gourmet by comparison. So they complained.
“We eat manna for breakfast, manna for lunch, and manna for dinner too! Moses, is this the best your God can do?”
That was a big mistake.
We can take what happened next in one of two ways – (1) either God has quite a temper and let these people he just freed from slavery know in no uncertain terms that their complaints about provisions are entirely unwelcome, or (2) the fugitives were simply so preoccupied with their unwavering diet and general misery they didn’t notice they were headed straight for a nest of poisonous snakes, and reasoned later that God put the snakes there to teach them a lesson.
I favor the latter explanation; it just makes more sense.
Vipers are very poisonous and quite common in that part of the world. They are ambush predators. They blend in with their habitat and wait for desert mice to stroll by. On this occasion it was a large number of people that happened to cross their path – of course humans are much larger than mice, so they were perceived as a threat to the snakes. That being the case, the snakes did what snakes do when they’re agitated; they bite, and inject their venom. A lot of the exodus people died.
That did take their minds off the manna, and at least for a while they stopped grousing about their limited menu. They realized that compared to vipers, the “Sinai special” wasn’t so bad after all, it’s free, they should thank their host for it, and be grateful for leftovers.
All in all, it was a spiritually transforming event (which is why we have this story); whining about what we don’t like or don’t have keeps us from realizing what we do have. It was a painful lesson (most lessons are) which they would forget, and remember through more painful lessons. But at least for a while they got how important it is to have an attitude of gratitude.
In this forty day season of Lent we’re called to do some rigorous self-examination, and among other things notice that to some extent we’re all whiners. Admit it; it’s true. We complain about the weather, our aches and pains, politicians, traffic, how no one else in Northern Virginia knows how to drive, the cost of everything, loud TV commercials, our jobs and some of the people we have to work with, our next door neighbors, long boring sermons . . . well, the list goes on and on doesn’t it.
Whining may not be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but given how much time we put into it, I think it should be. The first seven - wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony – certainly are problems, and they make plenty of trouble for us. But finding fault with God’s creation and providence is something most all of us do every day, multiple times a day. Seven sins get the headlines, but the eighth is more common than sand in the Sinai, and as deadly as a desert viper.
We’re pretty adept at noticing the little imperfections in other people, and life in general – Jesus warned us about that. It’s our own failures we need to recognize and confess. They weigh us down, wound us and the people we profess to love; they turn us sour and keep us from noticing all the better things in life too - that’s not good.
We can do better; God made us for better. Life is generally less painful and a lot more fulfilling when we accept life’s gifts, when we live the way God wants us to live. And the grace to do that is available to us - if we’re willing to accept it. In fact I have a lot of friends who work on this every day, and they’ve become quite accomplished at developing “an attitude of gratitude.”
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. “AA” as its most often called, is a recovery program based on 12 simple and powerful steps. Individuals who suffer with the disease of alcoholism, and individuals with other addictions, compulsions, and problems, have discovered that practicing these steps can be life saving and spiritually transforming.
Listen . . .
1.We admit we are powerless over alcohol (and you can substitute anger, bitterness, a lousy attitude, compulsive gambling, spending – just about anything that’s running and ruining your life) — that our lives have become unmanageable.
2. We have come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.
4. We make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. We admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. We are entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. We humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.
8. We make a list of all persons we have harmed, and are willing to make amends to them all.
9. We make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so will injure them or others.
10. We continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong promptly admit it.
11. We seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understand God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. And having a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we try to carry this message to other alcoholics, [add share this discipline with other people] and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The spiritual discipline of “the steps” requires dedication and courage. But, I can tell you that individuals who stick with it, who really work at it, do develop an “attitude of gratitude,” a sense of serenity; they live in a state of grace.
There’s some dispute over who actually wrote the Letter to the Ephesians but it’s clear enough, according to the author, that God’s grace is stronger than sin and death; “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once lived” the writer declared, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of [his] great love . . . made us alive together with Christ.” “By grace you have been saved.”
John’s quite adamant about the grace of God too “God so loved the world,” he wrote ”that God gave his only Son . . . not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
In these forty days of preparation for the great festival of Easter we’re called to conduct an honest and thorough self-examination, express sincere contrition befitting our sins, and open our hearts and minds and spirits to the grace of God.
That’s pretty frightening, especially given that many of us have in the core of our being some sense that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t loveable; that we’re not worth God’s love and mercy; that we are failures.
That’s a lie.
“We are who God made us” the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians insisted. “[We were] created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
We need to get rid of all those deep and terrible thoughts of unworthiness, step into the light of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and live in the grace of God, recognizing the immeasurable, innumerable gifts and blessings that God heaps upon us every moment of every day and night.
Our lessons this morning call on us to live simply and gratefully. A source of grace for that spiritual transformation is the twelve steps, and I would like to add these two rules – (1) watch out for snakes, and (2) enjoy all the free, sweet, abundant manna from Heaven that God gives you.