Lectionary: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad... In the name of God who is Trinity in Unity. Amen.
Today is Laetare Sunday, also known as Refreshment or Mothering Sunday. The word Laetare means “rejoice.” In the tradition of Mothering Sunday, we give thanks for our mother church, that is, the church in which we were baptized, the Mother of our Lord, and the motherliness of God.
In our time, the association of the color pink with all things female provides an unmistakable embodiment of the feminine. I can picture God smiling, knowing this was coming for us…
We talk a lot about God the Father, but not so much about God the Mother even though doing so is true to Scripture and Tradition. For example, the prophet Isaiah tells us that God desires to comfort the people of Israel “As a mother comforts her child.” (66:13) Our Wisdom literature talks about the feminine character of God using feminine names and images for God. Jesus talks about the motherliness of God in the Gospel of Matthew, saying: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”
There are times in our lives when we need God to be motherly for us. At all times, we need to know and experience the loving nature of God, which Jesus talks about in our gospel reading today, saying: "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 so loved the world. All of the meanings of the word love come into play here. God’s love for all that is created is so far beyond our ability to grasp that we tend to place ourselves outside of it.
I’ve had conversations with people that sound like this: God isn’t concerned with the details of our lives, just the broad strokes of human history. Or… I’m so messed up, I’m not worthy of God’s love. Or… I’ve done terrible things. I’m not worthy of God’s forgiveness.
But Jesus goes on to connect this important phrase: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Whenever we rebel, when we make mistakes or act badly, how does God react? The way God always reacts: to save us from death and restore us to life.
In our Old Testament reading, Moses is leading the people out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land. On their way, they mostly whine about what isn’t right. They complain that they have no food, so God gives them manna. Then they complain about the manna.
Put a snake on a stick, God says, and lift it up so they can see it. Anyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. While this may sound a bit superstitious at first, what it really is, is a concrete way to move the people from dysregulation to wellbeing.
Fearing death, when they look at the serpent on the stick, they remember God’s presence with them and God’s authority over all life. When we fear death, we look at the cross of Christ and remember God’s victory over the power of death.
God always meets us where we are and leads us to where we need to go.
Back when I ran a shelter, we had a woman come in who took emotional power over the other families by concocting curses, claiming herself a witch. Being in the deep South, most of the women we served were Bible-belt Christians, yet they came to believe that this woman had the power to curse them.
The woman would leave a thin line of ashes (a symbol of death) across the doorway of the person or family she was “cursing.” When they awoke and saw that they had been “cursed,” they panicked. In about a week’s time, this woman had almost complete control of the way the women and children in that shelter behaved toward her. They did her chores, gave her control of the TV, and no one crossed her.
It’s no surprise that this woman’s need for control was self-protective. It was also imaginative and quite effective. She didn’t trust the others, so she controlled them. They feared her, so they complied.
My staff was working hard in individual and group meetings to speak rationally about this, but their assurances went unheard, and the fear and anxiety continued to ratchet up. So, one day, at a house meeting, I confessed my Puerto Rican heritage and my great-grandmother’s claim of being a bruja (a witch). I told them that she had taught me some things and that I knew how to undo the curse magic. (I didn't.)
I walked into the kitchen where we had bread dough rising, took a handful of it, and went over to the doorway where the ashes had been spread. I scooped the ashes into a pile and plopped the bread dough on top of it. I covered it with a towel and spoke a prayer over it, using familiar words: light, love, life’s victory over death.
When the ritual was over, I lifted the cloth, picked up the bread dough, and the ashes were gone. They had been absorbed into the sticky dough. The relief in the room erupted into joy. Like the Israelites in exile, the women in my shelter had to be met where they were and their attention had to be redirected from death to life.
Even the woman who claimed to be a witch stopped cursing people and began to trust the other women and establish friendships. Peace was restored to our shelter household.
Bread is life. It is Eucharistic and powerfully symbolic to us. Back then, I let the chaplains at the shelter connect the dots for the women. Now it’s my turn.
Jesus is the “true bread which gives life to the world.” When we trust that, when we rely on it, we have eternal life, that is, “he lives in us and we in him.”
The word love used throughout this gospel refers to a deliberate exercise of judgment, a decided preference for one out of many options. It isn’t about feelings. It’s a decision by God to choose us, to choose life for us.
The last thing Jesus says in this gospel story is that God has already decided our final judgment: “And this is the judgment [he said], that the light has come into the world…” If we choose to trust and rely on that light, which is Christ, then everything we do will be done in God.
This doesn’t mean we won’t mess up. God knows we will. It’s part of being human.
So how does God react when we mess up? The way God always does - leading us from death to life. God comforts us like a mother comforts her children and protects us like a hen gathering her chicks under her wing to keep them safe.
Knowing this, trusting it, we give thanks to God who, as our psalmist says, is good, whose mercy endures forever, who gathers us from all directions, delivering us, healing us, doing wonders for us from age to age demonstrating over and over again God’s choice to redeem not condemn us.
Relying on this truth, we know, as the writer of Ephesians verifies, that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing. Our final judgment is life in the light of Christ.
I can’t think of a better reason to rejoice. Laetare!