March 18, 2012 Gospel: John 3:14-21 Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 1st Reading: Numbers 21:4-9 2nd Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
Victor Kaufmann has planted 10,000 trees by hand on his property in the state of Washington in the last ten years. A couple of hundred years ago the land was wooded. It was logged and then used as pastureland and for growing oats. Vic is returning the land to its former state. He is sharing the good news with the earth. Birds are returning the area. The trees capture carbon in the air. The trees breathe it in and make oxygen. They clean the air of pollutants. “For God so loved the world…”
Often we humans have thought that the good news of God’s love is just for us. We have thought that we are the only ones who can praise God. We have seen ourselves as the pinnacle of creation. God saved the best for last.
The Israelites in Moses’ time got caught up in selfishness and self-worship, in their own aches and pains, in their complaining, in their desire for their favorite foods. They griped and complained when God saved them from slavery. They turned up their noses as the manna from heaven that God provided. They pitched a fit at every little setback they encountered.
Anyone who’s ever had kids, or nieces and nephews knows this ungrateful gripe. I saw my 12 year old niece cast her Christmas gift to the side with a sneer this year. I am guessing I probably didn’t get her what she wanted. I know I’m out of touch. I’ve been told what isn’t good enough about the food I make. Past middle-schoolers from this congregation have laughed at the car I drive and the clothes I wear. I know I have just brought a little person into this world who will someday be able to share his opinions about how I do things and don’t do things, just like I did to my parents as a teenager and am still prone to do now and then.
We’re all guilty of these shenanigans. I’m sorry to say not much has changed since the Old Testament. It is so easy to be selfish—I wanted that parking spot, why can’t that person see things my way, I should have what I want—this or that food or gadget, it is my way or the highway, my plans are so much more important than other people’s. We are arrogant. We put ourselves in the center, and isn’t that another form of idolatry?
We are self-centered, but God doesn’t want to punish us. I don’t believe that God sent snakes to bite people and kill them. Instead, isn’t it true that we provide poison enough? God wants us to see the poisonous attitudes for what they are because they hurt us the most. When I am selfish I tromp all over other people’s hopes and dreams. And when they are selfish, they might do the same to me. It is a matter of treating other people the way we want to be treated so that life is better for everyone.
God wants us to see something bigger than our personal preference. God wants us to look at the bigger picture like God does. “I lift my eyes unto the hills,” the Psalmist writes, “From whence my help comes.” When I look beyond my own little world, I see a whole beautiful universe that God created.
When you go for a walk outside, don’t you just feel that your troubles come into perspective? When you look up at the stars at night on one of these clear nights that we’ve had lately and you see the bright planets shining in the West, don’t you forget all your troubles? When you look down and see a little bug struggling along, don’t you feel a kinship with that creature—a shared experience of life? When you look into the eyes of another human being, whether at the pantry, or at the store, or at a friend’s, don’t you see a world at least as important, as deep, as joyful and as troubled, as yours?
In today’s Gospel reading we see that God’s love is bigger than we conceived of it. God so loved the world. God so loved the cosmos—the universe. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And God called it good. There were no humans to enjoy it at first and still it was good. God created the sun and stars and they were good, all on their own. God created animals, and God called them good. We are one little piece of God’s good creation and God delights in all of it. God wants us to lift up our eyes from the tunnel vision of “gimme, gimme, gimme.” God wants us to have so much more richness in our lives. God wants us to love God’s good creation, too, to share in the beauty of it, to enjoy it and appreciate it.
For the Israelites, Moses put a bronze serpent on a stick to get people to look up from their complaining and to put their hope in God. They had been wallowing in their own misery. Now they find themselves looking up. What might they have seen? They saw each other and what was going on in another person’s life. They saw animals—snakes and other of God’s creatures having their own struggles and joys. They surely saw mountains and the sky and clouds and the sun. By looking up, their minds got out of the tunnel vision rut and expanded their imagination and opened their minds to hope.
Some say the serpent on the pole was a precursor to the cross. It is pretty hard to complain when you look up and see Jesus on the cross. God doesn’t mind listening to our troubles. God knows what it is like to have troubles. See God there on the cross? God is walking with us in our troubles. God is feeling every ache and pain. God knows all about it.
But God knows all the joys of life, too, that sometimes we miss when we make an idol of ourselves and never look around. There is so much to appreciate! Spring is coming! The snow was beautiful this week. I get to live on this beautiful planet in this beautiful galaxy, in this gorgeous state. We have enough food and water. We can appreciate our pets. I have a healthy child.
Do I really need to focus my attention on getting more stuff, or can I look to the cross and see how Jesus gave himself away for the sake of this beautiful world so that all might have access to love, so that we might learn to sacrifice and not put ourselves first so that other might have basic necessities. If I don’t spend my money on Easter candy this year, which my baby doesn’t eat and I don’t need, maybe I could buy more groceries for the pantry. If I spent less time in front of the televisions, maybe I could have a meaningful experience helping someone who could use a hand.
Hope is an upward spiral. On our own, all we can be is selfish. But in our moping around, occasionally we come upon something like this pole or a cross or 10,000 trees and our eyes follow it up and we see beyond ourselves to the greater world. And our eyes meet the eyes of our neighbors and our hearts sing from the connections. And we forget ourselves and find hope and meaning in using our gifts to help others. And those connections feed us and lift us up so that we can feed others and lift them up. And we find our connections in other people, in animals and plants, in experiences, in connections we make, in just sitting back and enjoying God’s good creation. And in enjoying it, we want to preserve it and take care of it, to be good stewards and appreciators alongside God of all that God has made.
I don’t know if Victor is at all religious, but I would say he is one of God’s servants, whether he knows it or not. He plants the trees. He watches the seasons. He cares for the earth. He gets his family and friends to help him. He is hopeful. He keeps his head up. He is not thinking of himself. And let me add that he was 75 when he started this project, so it is never too late!
Paul writes, “For we are what he has made us.” We are also God’s good creation, made to praise him. Just as the trees clap their hands and the mountains bow before the LORD, we are made for hope. We are made to have life abundant and share it generously. We are what he has made us. Or as Vic says. “I just do what I am.”