Sermon preached March 22, 2009
Scripture Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
My guess is if you have noticed the sermon title for this morning you are a little nervous. That’s o.k., but I need to tell you that the most provocative thing about this morning’s sermon is the title – the most provocative, but I hope not the most interesting.
While I stole the words from the title of a Julia Roberts film, the idea behind it comes from an older source, the Walt Kelly cartoon strip “Pogo.” Perhaps the most famous line from the Pogo strip was “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This Lent I have been preaching about wilderness, about wilderness as those experiences that are challenging, risky, frightening, difficult; experiences that disappoint and hurt. We know that kind of wilderness in our lives as human beings. I have also talked about the biblical image of wilderness as a place that is both difficult and a place where we meet God. More on that later.
Wilderness as experiences of difficulty, disappointment, and hurt – and the odd thing is that we are quite good at taking ourselves more deeply into that very wilderness. We have met the enemy and he is us. Sometimes we are, in fact, our own worst enemies. When we go to bed at night, we are sometimes sleeping with the enemy, because he is us, she is us.
There is this wonderful scene from the Woody Allen movie “Annie Hall” that illustrates this beautifully. When I post my sermon on my blog I will include a link to this clip (see the end of the sermon here). The movie is about the relationship between Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, and Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton (in an Oscar winning performance). Toward the end of the movie, Alvy goes to Los Angeles, a city he despises, to propose to Annie. She turns him down, after which Alvy gets into his car. He is not a good driver and trying to back out of the parking lot, he hits one car, then another, then another. Scenes of a childhood Alvy in a bumper car ride are interspersed. Things are going badly – wilderness. A policeman arrives on the scene and asks Alvy to get out of the car. Alvy tells the policeman not to get angry, to be nice, because he has had a difficult day. The policeman is not sympathetic. Alvy continues to plea for a nice tone, telling the policeman that he has a problem with authority. When he drops his license on the ground, and the policeman uses a harsh tone to ask him to pick it up, Alvy does so, then tears it up. It is delightfully funny, and serious. Wilderness, we have met the enemy and he is us.
The people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and Moses, “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.” The Hebrew people were in the wilderness. It was a time of difficulty and challenge, but it was the way out of slavery. Still, the difficulty loomed large for many, and they did what so many of us do so well, they made matters worse. We have no food, no water. Well, we may have food, but we don’t like it very well. When things are a challenge, complaining about them always makes them better - right? Or does the wilderness get even deeper?
Here is where the Biblical story gets ‘weird, mysterious, even gruesome” (Feasting on the Word). In the story, God is none too pleased with all this complaining and sends poisonous serpents among the people. Those who get bit, die. Soon the Israelites sing a different tune – “Help!” They beg Moses to intercede on their behalf to God. Moses does so and God proposes an ingenious remedy – make a serpent, Moses uses bronze, put it on a pole “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” And so it was.
I want to get at this healing part of the story in a minute (I think that’s promise number two for something yet to come), but one important point in the story is that we human beings have the remarkable capacity to make our lives worse, to deepen our wilderness experiences. Every night, we can be sleeping with the enemy – we have met the enemy and she is us.
The story in Numbers reminds me of another story which illustrates this point – the story of Asclepius. Asclepius is the Greek god of medicine and healing and is often depicted with a staff around which is wound a serpent. In the United States, a familiar medical symbol is the caduceus, a staff around which is wound two snakes, and the staff has wings. It may have some link with the story of Asclepius. Anyway, Asclepius is the son of Apollo and Coronis, but he did not have an auspicious beginning. While she was pregnant with Apollo’s child, Coronis fell in love with another (Isychus). The jealous and enraged Apollo sent his sister Artemis to kill Coronis, and she did. But Apollo finds himself grief-stricken. He met the enemy, and it was himself. Placing Coronis on a funeral pyre, Apollo rescues his child, a son, Asclepius.
That we are implicated in our own wilderness, that we are sometimes, even often, our own worst enemies is not simply an idea ensconced in our oldest myths and texts. The New Testament offers similar analyses. In John chapter 3, there is a lot said about God’s love, but I want to bracket that for a moment – promise number three, and you are now worried about how long it is going to take me to get there! But after wonderful words about love, John notes that sometimes, even when light comes into the world “people loved darkness rather than light.” Cryptic, to be sure, but at least one possible meaning is that we are often implicated in our own misery. We are often our own worst enemies.
By now, you get the general point, and I think it is helpful to get more specific. How are we our own worst enemies? I am going to suggest four ways very briefly. The list is not exhaustive, we could think of more I know. I came up with this list pretty quickly, and I did not have to look very far, no farther than the mirror.
We can be our own worst enemies when we neglect the way our physical, emotional and spiritual lives are intertwined. Here is one presupposition I have about life, that it can be difficult. We will encounter wilderness times no matter how wonderfully we live. We can be the nicest people in the world, but someone won’t like us and it won’t feel good. We will make every effort to accomplish something, and we will fall short. People we love will get hurt, some badly, and somewhere along the way people we love will die. Just this week forty-five year-old Natasha Richardson, an actress and wife of actor Liam Neeson, died as the result of a fall while skiing. There will be wilderness. Our capacity to respond to such wilderness experiences with a measure of strength, dignity, integrity, and grace depends, in part, on how we care for ourselves physically. I push myself a lot. I don’t always get the sleep I should. I don’t always eat as well as I might, and I can tell when I have pushed too hard, too far, for too long. I lose some creativity. My patience becomes thin. We are our own enemies when we forget that link between care for ourselves physically and our emotional and spiritual lives.
We are our enemies when we let our negative thoughts and attitudes become automatic, when one negative thought leads to another – click, click, click – and we do nothing to slow that down. See if this sounds familiar. You have worked hard during the day, and are now at home. You are the first one there and you have gone to some trouble making dinner. No one has helped you, though you didn’t ask. It might have been nice had someone offered, though. And your partner, where is he, where is she? Again, running late. You are kind of annoyed – creeping into the edges of the wilderness. Then you remember those other times that they have been later than anticipated for dinner, stopping off some place you didn’t think was very necessary. What could he/she be doing this time? Your annoyance is building. You realize, once again, how underappreciated you are. Doesn’t anyone even care that you went to all this trouble? Why can’t people be on time – annoyance is growing into anger, you are now knee deep in the wilderness and you are bound and determined to take everyone else there with you. Not terribly helpful. Or you make a mistake, and you feel bad – a bit of wilderness. But it is not the first mistake you have made and your mind suddenly kicks into hyper drive, reminding you of the stupid and silly things you have done wrong, and it seems like this is something you have done before, and you feel really pretty incompetent about now and you begin to wonder if you get things right very often at all and you are now meeting the enemy and she is you!
If we can be our own worst enemies when we beat up on ourselves we can also be our own worst enemies when we refuse to admit that we are wrong, mistaken, when we don’t apologize when we should because we are too proud, or we are ashamed, or we are too fragile. There are probably not too many deep lessons to be learned from the 1970s television show “Happy Days,” probably even fewer from the character Fonzie. But there was one episode that has hung with me all these years. I don’t remember the circumstances, but one time Fonzie realizes that he needs to apologize to someone, and the humor comes when he physically cannot say the word “wrong” as in “I was wrong.” It just wouldn’t come out – and that can be true to life for some of us, maybe more for us men. "Sorry" can be hard. When it is required it usually means we are in a wilderness of some kind already, but refusing to say it usually makes the wilderness even worse.
Finally, we can be our own worst enemies when we consistently sacrifice creativity for same old, same old, when we consistently elevate security above adventure. There is no question that the wilderness experience for the Hebrews was difficult, but it was a new thing, it was a way into a whole new life. Some were willing to sacrifice this life of freedom for the old familiar life of slavery. Security, sameness, slavery over risk, adventure, new life – but we should not be too hard on them for they is us quite often. I am not arguing that security is not an important value, nor arguing that there is a lot of good to be carried forward from the past – my favorite music gets older by the year. What I am saying is that we can become slaves to security, to sameness and thereby intensify our wilderness experiences. How is it that the church where we proclaim a God who is about new life, new creation, making all things new, resurrection so often gets stuck in its ways, gets hamstrung by its familiar way of articulating its ideas. For many of us in the church, we think we can get the basics of the faith by the time we are fourteen and thereafter we really don’t have to ask many questions about our ideas of God, Jesus, the Bible. In how many other areas of our lives are we content to let our fourteen year-old understanding stand? The philosopher William James penned a line I have come to love. “Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas.” We are our own worst enemies when we don’t let our experience teach us, don’t let it lead us to ask questions, to make needed changes.
We have met the enemy and she is us, he is us, we go to sleep every night with our own worst enemies. So where is there some good news? It is all over the place, even in these texts. God is with us, even in the wilderness, even when we have made our wilderness harsher, God is with us. God never gives up. God desires life for us – eternal life, which Eugene Peterson renders “whole and lasting life.” This is not just about what happens to us in the future, it is about living life now! God loves – God loves the world. God is about love. God is about healing. God is not interested in wagging a finger at us telling us how silly we are when we make matters worse – “God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world.”
Even here, in the messiness of our lives when we have done everything we can to make them messier, God is present. God seeks life. God seeks healing. God seeks to illumine life. That’s grace. That’s the gospel – the good news.
Admittedly, there is a little mixed news in this good news. One method God seems to use in offering healing is having us look at how we wound ourselves. Moses holds up a serpent, and Jesus uses this image to talk about his own ministry. When Jesus dies we see just how we can be our own worst enemy. Many of Jesus’ co-religionists feared the kind of openness and change he sought, and were glad to have him silenced. Rome could not abide someone who challenged the value system of the empire, one who proclaimed God’s love for all and the need for compassion and justice, one who proclaimed that the title “child of God” should not be reserved for the imperial family alone. So part of the healing God seeks to bring into our lives requires us to look at our ability to wound ourselves, look at it with honesty and with humor. I don’t know about you, but there is an ironic humor in that snake story – who really wants to look at the thing that bites you in order to get well!
Yes, we have met the enemy, and often he is us. We have also met the God of Jesus Christ who loves us even then, who is with us in the wilderness, even the wilderness of our own making. Open up to the healing and transforming love of God. In it we find the strength to admit our mistakes, our shortcomings, our wrongs – for God loves us as we are. In that love we find the strength to change, for God desires for us whole and lasting life. Receive. Amen.
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall"