Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Lent March 15, 2015
Yesterday was Pi day. 3-14-15, the first five digits of the ration between the diameter and the circumference of a circle. We celebrated with an ice cream pie made with an Oreo crust. My wife Delea reported that there were no piecrusts to be found anywhere. Which inspired her to use the Oreos.
In a column about pi in yesterday’s Post Cornell University mathematics professor Tara Holm, writes that that pi has been calculated to over 12 trillion digits, at which point the computer doing the calculations ran out of space. Then she notes that 16 digits are sufficient to ensure the correct orbit of the international space station and 39 digits allow calculation of the volume of the observable universe to the nearest atom.
It can be mathematically proved that the digits of pi will never end and never repeat. There is no imaginable practical purpose to calculate pi to 12 trillion digits. But there is something about human nature that seeks to know and understand better even what cannot be perfectly known.
Each year the members of our confirmation class write their spiritual autobiography.
An autobiography in itself is a fairly simple task, not much more difficult than calculating pi to five or six digits. As Luke began to tell the story of Jesus, you begin a little about your parents, and the story of your birth, siblings if you have them, the different places you lived, something memorable about growing up with these people in these places, what your most important talents and interests are and how they emerged, and a little about your current hopes and plans for the future.
A spiritual autobiography looks at these common human experiences and considers what role God plays in them. Where God might be leading you in the future.
How God works in our lives, and where God is leading us, like the ration of pi, can never be perfectly known. But there is nothing more valuable to human life than the work of examining our lives and seeking out even approximate answers, working hypotheses, to these questions.
Faith isn’t just a gift we receive that miraculously transforms and saves us. As the Apostle Paul tells us, faith helps us examine our lives for the way God has helped, guided, encouraged, and is preparing us for taking our next steps as free men and women.
The story in the book of Numbers sheds some interesting light on the way we learn to use faith to perceive God’s work in our lives. Remember, the children of Israel lived all their lives in the darkness of slavery in Egypt. Suddenly they were awakened and dragged into the full light of God in the desert. As when a person has been in the dark a long time, and then is suddenly brought into full sunshine only to feel pain and confusion and a desire to get back into the dark, the children of Israel want to close their eyes and go back to Egypt rather than face the fearful challenges of living as free men and women.
The fact that God uses poisonous snakes to bite and sometimes kill the bleary eyed, ignorant, fearful children of Israel disturbs us. And if the story ended there it wouldn’t be worth telling. But Israel’s children had already learned something by this time about how God works. Some of them knew enough to go to Moses, and ask Moses to speak to God, and God did what God always does, and brought healing and goodness out of evil.
The point of the story isn’t just the healing. It is the way they came to the healing, and the purpose for which God brought them into the desert, to learn to face our fears, not just their fear of the snakes, but our fear of not having enough, of not being enough to live true, righteous, free lives. And to learn to that God as was not trying to destroy them by bringing them out of Egypt, but trying to transform them into a free people who would rather fight for righteousness and die than return to Egypt. And ultimately to learn that they could trust that in all things God was not seeking to destroy them but to lead them into larger life.
These are the lessons they learned by examining their experience over and over, and turning it into a grand story of salvation, the birth of a nation of free people living under God.
Jesus uses the well-known image of the snake lifted up to remind Nicodemus that God leads people out of bondage and darkness into light.
The point is something like this: "the world pierces us with experience. And we take that experience and project it back into the world by the way we talk about our lives. Which means there is a turning point within us that makes all the difference." (Eva Brann) We make meaning out of snake bites and sunshine. And we only discover the truth and meaning of our lives by examining our lives, by telling and re-telling the story of our lives, and by connecting our life to God’s life.
The work of self-examination, of searching for God in our lives, is central to Lent.
Of course the young men and women in our confirmation class don’t have much to be afraid of when they examine their lives. And maybe that is why it is such a good thing for them to start to examine their lives now, and to consider how God has been present, sometimes bothering them, sometimes guiding them, sometimes inspiring them to fight harder for what is true, and good, and just.
But it is equally good for each of us to take some time to review our lives and consider how God has been with us from our mothers wombs to the time and place we are now. And to lift our eyes to the cross which has one way or another been placed before us all our days. And to remember that the light of Christ is available not to point out our flaws and sins, but to give us courage to keep trusting in God and to keep facing our fears and keep doing the work of fighting for righteousness in our selves and in our world rather than returning to darkness.