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Fourth Sunday in Lent - March 10, 2024

Good morning!

I want to start today by inviting you to our last Wednesday evening Lenten Series if you haven’t already been. The theme is Bluegrass music, and if you want to find out how that connects to God and Lent, join us for our last session on March the 20th during which we get to hear from your fellow St. Andrew people again on how they connect music with spirituality. In the first two sessions Father Jared shared how he connects the two and he taught the history of Bluegrass. And not too few of you people in the pews knew the names of artists and venues and were familiar with the history of Bluegrass, so this last session is going to be great, you don’t want to miss it!

I must admit that I never listened to Bluegrass before. I did not know the first thing about the history, the artists, or the famous concerts of Bluegrass music. I must also admit that I already forgot most of what I just learned…But I love to learn about history, and I love to listen to music. Music is a kind of timeless witness; it is a primary source of history. Primary sources are any material that is created at the time of the historical events like diaries, letters, literature, and music. They serve as proof for historical facts. Like the use of the banjo for example. I learned that it was brought here by enslaved Africans. The banjo was then usurped by their owners, it is a great instrument. It was also used in degrading minstrel shows. Bluegrass musicians are famous for their skill with the banjo. And now finally it is back again in the hands of African American Bluegrass artists to tell their story. The banjo teaches history in the most entertaining way I can think of. Music is important in so many ways.

I listen to music whenever possible; it is like a remedy to feeling blue to me. Or it allows me to be as sad as I need to feel. Which, after a fashion also lifts the blues. Speaking of Blues, there is not really a genre of music I have heard that I didn’t like. I usually find at least some artists and songs that I like. Now, I don’t like the uber-angry crowd, the Death Metal bands. But other than that, this Kraut loves just about all music. I think I spent too much time with Chris Wramplemeyer though because now I have to add bad puns to the list of things that are always swirling around my brain. Music is definitely always on my mind somewhere. If you talk to me and accidentally say the lyrics of a song, I will sing it back to you. Badly.

Spending time with the Gospel reading of today, a certain song I love kept coming to mind. I was humming it and finally I listened to it. It is a song by Rihanna, written for the movie Home. The refrain goes like this, no worries I won’t sing today:

Turn your face towards the sun

Let the shadows fall behind you

Don’t look back, just carry on

And the shadows will never find you.

I love the image that this song paints in my mind. Rihanna sings about the determination to find our way home. Great movie and great song. And great advice: turn your face towards the sun, towards the light. In our Gospel, Jesus says: And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world. Our sun, our light that we are supposed to turn to is the life and the death of Jesus Christ. We face and turn to and follow the Cross. As Jesus says in the beginning of our reading, He, the Son of Man, is to be lifted up. He refers to the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up high on a pole so his people, dying of snake bites, could look at it and live. They were healed. When we turn and look to the Cross, we live. We are saved and healed. Or maybe healed is not really the right word. The word “healed” is not used in either the Book of Numbers or in John’s Gospel. It only says they live. And let’s face it, it is not common to always feel completely safe and healed. In fact, I don’t believe it’s possible. There are a lot of snakes. We cannot simply look and turn toward the sun and light, we don’t get to look to the Cross once, and then we immediately are healed and live happily ever after and forever where the shadows can never find us. Maybe it is more of a vaccine than a remedy? A vaccine works by imitating the infection. This is done with the help of antigens, a weak but toxic foreign substance that jumpstarts our body into producing antibodies which then protect us from that disease.

There is fear in Moses’ camp, because people are bitten by snakes. Then they are made well by a bronze snake. Seems to me the same concept. A small toxic symbolic dose protects them from the real deal. We fear the sting of death, we fear humiliation and vulnerability. We fear to live sometimes. The shadows do find us. We hide from the light.

And still we are always called to carry on, to return to and look to the Cross again. Vaccines need boosts and updates to be effective. Once the Cross was symbolic for the ultimate shame and humiliation of a public and agonizing death. Now it is our vaccine, a symbol of the ultimate love God has for us. It is written that 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.

The Passion of Christ is our vaccine, our protection now. We look to the Cross, and we know that our God intimately knows all the evil this world has to offer, all the shame, vulnerability, and pain. When we see the Cross, we know God suffers with us. By choice out of pure love. As Jesus said: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God the Father carries the excruciating loss of a child. God the Son carries the agony of life and death. God the Holy Spirit carries the frustration over a people who don’t always listen. Not even close. We often choose to turn away from the light of God, the light of the Son. It may not be a conscious decision, but we turn towards the shadows, the darkness, to hide ourselves because we fear our own evil deeds and thoughts.

And always, God’s response is more light, more love. Because God so loves the world, God is love, God can only give faithful love. Never standing still, the love of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit keeps moving in our world. Is with us always. So why do we turn to the darkness?

Did you ever have to physically run away from something or someone?

Turn your face towards the sun

Let the shadows fall behind you

Don’t look back, just carry on

And the shadows will never find you.

Great lyrics, great advice. But when the shadow behind you is say a swarm of wasps for example, I dare you to run towards the sun and not look back. When the shadows behind you are sufficiently scary, you will look back. Shadows like a disease. Shadows like a hostile work environment. Shadows like war. We are biologically programmed to monitor possible danger, not to ignore it. It does not feel safe to turn our back on danger, on the darkness. So, we do look back and thus the shadows do find us. We fall prey to those evil thoughts. The only thing that thrives in the darkness is shame after all.

What then? What if you find yourself alone in the darkness burdened by the shadows of danger and shame?

In those moments, we need to be reminded that the light and the love of God is always and ever present. These reminders are an ongoing and communal effort. By that I don’t mean that you must present a theologically orthodox discourse on soteriology to your brother or sister in need. I mean something much simpler. Hug people. Acknowledge people that society likes to ignore, learn their names and look them in the eyes. Pay compliments to strangers. Talk to the tired single mom at the checkout counter. Show up, be present with your family and friends. Speak truth to power and advocate for your neighbor in need. Every loving act, big or small, helps people see and feel that now is always the right time to turn your face once again toward the light of the Cross, leaving shadows behind you.

Throughout our life, there is no telling how many times the shadows will find us, or what kind of shadows they are. But no darkness can defeat light. And when a brother or sister reminded you of God’s love for you, now, here, and always, it is now your job to pay it forward. Let your loving kindness be a reminder, a bright beacon for your brothers and sisters in the darkness. Turn their faces toward the sun, toward the light. Turn their faces towards the Cross, so we all may live.

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