Sermon preached March 15, 2015
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
The Beatles, “I’m a Loser” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukWRRNqMAZ4
Following up on that song, I found out that there are quizzes on the internet to determine how big a loser you may be. I have no intention of telling you how I scored.
I really don’t want to talk about being a “loser.” Most of the time, it is not a helpful category for talking about human lives. Instead, I want to talk about something related – how we, as humans can mess things up. Sometimes when we mess things up, we feel like we are losers.
Sometimes we mess things up simply by making mistakes. Recently I ran into a clergy acquaintance of mine. As we were chatting, he mentioned that his father had died last summer. I said I was so sorry, and that I did not remember hearing that. Turns out I had sent him an e-mail conveying my condolences. I felt like singing a chorus of ‘I’m a Loser.” We all make mistakes, though I hope this one was not hurtful.
Sometimes our mistakes are not making silly choices or being forgetful, sometimes they involve choices between two good things. Life choices are not always between good options and bad ones. Some of the challenging choices in life are between two good options – perhaps between educational choices, or vocational choices. We make a choice that is not a bad choice, but later may feel like we should have made the other choice. We feel like we may have messed up.
So here is kind of an embarrassing mistake from my childhood. I was filling something out that asked about my favorite actress. I had not really thought about that much. I knew more actors than actresses, but I saw the name Sophia Loren in the newspaper, so put her name down. It was kind of an embarrassing choice for an elementary student. Sophia Loren was as much a sex symbol as an actress then. However, she has also said some wise things, among them, “Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for living a full life.”
Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for living a full life, and we can live with some of the embarrassment that may accompany our mistakes. While at times we may regret making one good choice over another, we typically live with the good choices we make.
There is another kind of messing up, though, that is more problematic. It is our ability to take what is whole and break it, to take what is good and misuse it, our abilities to be mean or petty. We mess things up by our failure to see our own messes, and by turning away from the hurts of the world.
Francis Spufford, in his wonderfully titled book Apologetic: why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, writes insightfully about the human tendency to mess things up. He does so using a slightly more colorful word. What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, “stuff” here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch. (27) We are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love, scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling (30).
Theologian Marjorie Suchocki, an acquaintance of mine, also writes in powerful ways about our capacity for messing up. She says that as humans we have natural capacities for sustaining ourselves, defending ourselves, and for relating to others. These natural instincts to sustain ourselves and defend ourselves are not sinful, but they can easily turn into instruments whereby we contribute unnecessarily to the ill-being of others…. The very openness that invites relation also makes us vulnerable, and sometimes we try to close ourselves off in protection. (In God’s Presence, 71)
I don’t mean to pile on here, but one more theologian on the human condition and our ability to mess up, Barbara Brown Taylor. We really are free to make disastrous decisions. Our choices really do have consequences…. Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life. (Speaking of Sin, 47, 62). Her book is called, Speaking of Sin.
I prefer to speak of messing up because the idea of “sin” has so often been used in sinful ways, creating shame, holding it as power over someone. The fact, however, is that we mess up.
I was leading a youth group on a work trip in Arkansas. We were at a camp that worked with physically and mentally challenged children. Our tasks were primarily maintenance. There was a camp counselor there who worked with our group, and at times, I felt he interfered too much with how the adults I had brought were trying to work with our group. I was upset and was talking with some of the adult chaperones when I noticed this young man out of the corner of my eye. He probably heard my frustration with him. I should have handled the situation differently. I still feel the wrong I did to him. Remember that strong feeling memory bank I told you I have?
I remember trying to help our son as he was trying to connect with some boys in the neighborhood. I offered advice – do this, not that – until finally he just said, “Maybe I should just be someone else.” My advice had really stomped on his spirit. I had been insensitive. I still feel that moment.
Where is God when we mess up – either deliberately by our attention or by our inattention? So from our Scripture reading for this morning the answer is pretty simple and straightforward. We mess up, God sends snakes and we die. Amen – time for the offering and benediction.
We really need to read this passage with a metaphoric mind. That’s how the gospel writer reads it. The Numbers story is about humans messing up. Freedom is hard. The people were thinking that at least as slaves there were regular meals. Here they had no food. Or, I guess there was food, but it was not very good food. Not every step on the road to freedom is an easy one, and the people wanted to turn back. They were snakebit before any snakes even arrive on the scene in the story. That’s like us, we are snakebit, but we are the ones who stuck our hand in the adder’s den.
We are snakebit, but healing comes. Healing comes through looking at a snake. Somehow healing happens when we truly see our capacity to be snakebit. The gospel writer in John uses this frankly weird and frightening story to make sense of Jesus, and God’s love expressed in Jesus. In Jesus’s death on the cross we see something of the capacity of human’s to mess up big time. The imperial powers don’t want anyone messing with their rule. Religious authorities can crush creativity. Jesus dies, he gets lifted up. Then we find those beautiful words from John. For God so loved the world the he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
God is about healing. In Greek and Latin there are similar words for healing and salvation. God’s love is a healing love, a love that heals through the wreckage. That is not always easy healing. We need to see the snake, need to see our own ability to mess things up. I have come to think that the idea of forgive and forget is mostly b.s. bogus sensibility. Forgiveness is in not really in forgetting, it is in how we remember, how it is we look at the snake, at the wreckage. My favorite definition of forgiveness remains that of Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist and a therapist. “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, 25).
God is about healing love. How is this God of healing love with us when we mess up?
God is with us as forgiveness. Forgiveness is about new beginnings. It is not about forgetting the past, it is about re-weaving it into our lives. If I could take back some of the hurtful comments I have made in my life, if I could remove those moments when I stepped on somebody’s spirit, if I could change those times when I wasn’t sensitive enough to others and to the world, I would. I cannot. Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past. It is making our way through and learning from the messes we have made and trying to do better with the help of God and in community with others. Henri Nouwen wrote about “living through” our wounds and discovering they will not destroy us. When we wrong others, we also wound ourselves, and we need to live through it by the grace of God, and in God’s grace, we can discover, in Nouwen’s words, “your heart is greater than your wounds” (Henri Nouwen: writings selected by Robert Jonas, 40).
God is also with us as the courage to say “I’m sorry,” and that takes a fair amount of courage in our culture where accepting that one has done wrong seems anathema. So “Happy Days,” the television show was not necessarily a theological gold mine, but I remember one episode where “Fonzie” tried to say he was “wrong” and could not. It was an archetypal moment in our culture. How often do we hear apologies phrased, “I’m sorry if someone was hurt or offended…” which seem to imply that the problem is in the sensitivities of others and not with one’s own actions. When we mess up, God is with us as courage to say we are sorry.
In her analysis of the human situation, Marjorie Suchocki writes, We are such creatures that it is probably not possible for us not to sin, given the fragility of human existence (71). Yet God is with us. God does not abandon us to the poisonous snakes of our own making. God is healing love. God is forgiveness. God is courage. We can make fewer and less harmful messes, even if we cannot completely avoid messing up. God as healing love does not want us to live in constant fear that we might mess up. Maybe God is a little like Sophia Loren, “mistakes are part of the price we pay for living a full life.” God’s intention is life, is healing, is wholeness. God wants us to live with both sensitivity and adventure. God desires that we be sensitive to our ability to hurt and wound, and yet that we also live with creativity and adventure. When we mess up, we look to God’s healing love, and there we find forgiveness, courage, new beginnings, fullness of life. God so loved, God so loves, that there is life, even amid our messes. Amen.