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Monday, March 16, 2015

The curse of a moral compass

My sermon for this week was based on John 3:14-21.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

When I was a kid, I used to love watching nature shows like Wild Kingdom and New Wilderness...most of the time.  There was one event in nature that always upset me: animals killing other animals.  I was even more upset when it dawned on me that there was a cameraman behind the lens filming all this who could have stopped these atrocities.

In my naive, childlike logic, animals should all get along, and if they didn't, the cameraman should put down his gear and save the animal who was being oppressed.  My parents patiently tried to explain to me that that was how animals lived.  They didn't have fridges and cupboards full of food, they had to run it down on the Serengeti.

This was when it first dawned on me that one of the things that separated humans from the other animals is that we have these things called "morals", "ethics" and "values".

Some philosophers will claim that these things are all man-made and therefore to be ignored: we should look out for number one, live a more or less self-centered and selfish existence, and to hell with the rest.

While I cannot disagree that morality and ethics are man-made, I also cannot deny that I have them.  While it might be alright for animals to eat their young, it is not so for us.  While it might be alright for animals to kill their competition, it is not so for us.  While it may be alright for an alpha male to force himself on his harem, it is not so for us.

Like it or not, we are shackled with a moral compass.  It is simultaneously our greatest gift and our greatest curse.  And I think this is the point that John is trying to make in his Gospel for today.

John (in the voice of Jesus) draws on an obscure little passage from the Book of Numbers (21:4-9) that likely would have sunk into Scriptural obscurity had it not been for John's mentioning it.

In this passage, God is so upset with the Israelites' complaining (bear in mind, he had just recently freed them from Egyptian captivity) that he sends a plague of poisonous snakes on them.  They beg Moses for help, so he fashions a serpent of bronze which he places atop a staff.  He then instructs those who have been bitten to gaze upon the bronze snake and they will be cured.

So this is kind of ironic (in the Alanis sense of the word): the people have to look at their problem in order to solve it.

The crucifixion is exactly the same.  Let me explain.  The crucifixion represents, if nothing else, a failure of human morals, values and ethics on every single level.  From Judas and the Disciples' respective betrayal and abandonment of Christ; from Pilate and Herod's cowardice and apathy at not defending Christ; from the fear, anger and jealousy of the Pharisees who did not want their political, religious and social superiority threatened.

Fail, fail, fail.

Despite our highfalutin morals, values and ethics, a man was put to death who preached only that God loves us, and that we should love one another; that we should forgive; that we should attend to the needs of those who are less fortunate.

The problem, like the snakes afflicting Israel, is human nature.  It is, it seems, human nature to be greedy, to be selfish, to be self-interested, to be jealous, fearful and to betray.  This is not a judgement: this is just minimally observant.

When we contemplate the crucifixion, whether or not you believe in it, we are contemplating the failures of humanity, both on a global scale and on an individual scale.  We are forced to contemplate how our systems fail us and how we are complicit in them.  We are forced to contemplate how we fail ourselves and each other.

We are, in short, forced to contemplate how and why we allow innocents to suffer, and how and why we do so little about it.  Not only that, we are forced to contemplate how we actively perpetrate these crimes.

But that is not the end of the story.  Most people outside the church (and many inside the church) misread the Resurrection, which is, of course, the actual conclusion of the Crucifixion.  Most people think the story ends with the Crucifixion and that Christians worldwide celebrate a guy being killed.  Not so.

We celebrate the "life" principle of the Resurrection.  That principle which states that no matter what the forces of evil, the morals, ethics and values that Jesus (and not necessarily his followers) represents: peace, love, justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance.

Like Moses and the snake, we are being asked to gaze upon that which plagues us: our own human weakness and failings.  We are being asked to gaze on that in order that we can overcome it.

This Lent and Easter, I hope and pray that we may all overcome.

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