I want to begin this morning by telling you two quick stories about one of the best pastors I ever knew: my friend A.
She was the Emergency Room Chaplain at Yale New-Haven Hospital – and she was a fixture in some of the most difficult and terrifying moments that people go through in a place like that.
Working in a hospital is a standard part of training for most pastors, and as you might imagine, going to the ER is where some of the biggest lessons occur.
But truth be told, they’re very thoughtful about how much time you really spend there.
When you’re a chaplain intern and you have to go meet the Lifestar helicopter on the roof of the hospital, then go down and wait with a family member in the ER, it’s an experience that it takes a while to process.
This was what A. did all day, every day.
And it was perhaps all the more remarkable, on the face of it, because it was a ministry that she had come to later in life, well after she was not only a mother, but a grandmother.
Ordained ministry was something she came to after her retirement.
Prior to divinity school, A. had a thirty-year career as a preschool teacher, much of it not far from here, in Wilton, Connecticut.
That’s cool, right?
On the face of it, it seems like a big leap, although A. did not particularly see it that way.
She was one of those people who, if you asked her about it, would just sort of shrug, and it took me a while to understand why.
She spoke fondly – proudly – of her time as a teacher.
In fact, I’ll never forget her description of her very first teaching job.
She was hired just a couple of weeks before the start of the school year, when someone pulled out of their contract at the last minute.
She was thrilled to get the job. On cloud nine.
But then the very next day, the preschool director called her.
“I need you to come have lunch with the Smiths,” she said.
“I’m sorry?” said A.
“I need you to come have lunch with the Smiths,” her boss said again. “You will be teaching their youngest daughter, Marietta.”
She paused, and then said: “The Smiths are…very active…in the life of the school.”
A. agreed and the next day, she arrived at the Smith family home.
It was an imposing old house set well back from the road behind a significant gate – the kind of gate that was actually supposed to keep people out.
Not that it would be bad if you were in, by any means.
It was one of those homes where everything was just perfect.
Mrs. Smith greeted her at the door.
She was beyond immaculate, too.
Marietta stood behind her in a lovely little dress.
The director of the pre-school was already there, looking nervous.
“Ahh,” said Mrs. Smith, scanning A. in a heartbeat and smiling faintly. “You’re so good to come. We’ll be having lunch on the porch.”
The lunch, as you might guess, turned out to be a whole other interview.
Where she was from, where she had studied, what her husband did, how much television her own children watched, how often they had sweets.
Many years later, when she spoke about it, A. could not remember all of the questions.
However, she did remember the one about sweets, because it was during her answer to that question that Marietta, who had been sitting there quietly, reached across the table for the mustard dish, and taking out the little spoon, began absently to start scooping mustard onto her mother’s forearms and spreading it out with her pointer finger.
Have you ever been in one of those moments when you’re like, “Is this reallyhappening?”
Relatedly, of course, there is the kind of moment when you’re like, “This isn’treally happening.”
Apparently, that’s the moment that Mrs. Smith and the director of the preschool were having, because their impulse was to keep their eyes locked on A. and listen with rapt attention about her views on children and sweets.
But then the most remarkable thing happened.
A. turned to the child and said, “Marietta Smith. You will stop putting mustard on your mother’s arms this instant.”
The child dropped the mustard spoon, looked up silently for a moment, and ran.
A. looked at the preschool director, who looked as if making budget had just gotten a whole lot harder for fiscal year 1974.
Then she looked at Mrs. Smith, who was in tears.
“We just don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m her mother. I don’t know what to do.”
What followed was the first honest conversation that anyone from the preschool had ever had with Mrs. Smith.
Many years and many chapters later, when A. was offered the job of becoming the ER Chaplain at Yale-New Haven Hospital, she told them she would accept on one condition.
“What’s that?” they asked.
“I need to go down to the morgue,” she said. “I need to know that I can look at a body and see the person someone loves.”
Reluctantly, they agreed.
But it’s probably obvious enough that A. the Chaplain was doing something that A. the young teacher had done so many years before: she looked where others refused to look; she went where others refused to go; she spoke when others refused to speak; and she learned to see the person someone loved where others saw only a problem to be solved or a mess to be cleaned up.
That’s a long preamble to this morning’s Scripture, which is a famous passage from the Gospel of John.
You surely heard John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”
It is a beautiful, hopeful assertion of the power of faith and the wonder of eternity.
What is less obvious, perhaps, is that Jesus says these famous words in a passage that anticipates his own death.
At the very beginning, he remembers a strange story about healing from Moses’ ministry in the wilderness, when the great prophet puts a bronze serpent on a pole, so that those who have been bitten by snakes in the wilderness can look on that bronze serpent and live.
Jesus then explains, “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.” (v. 14-15).
We may well gloss over that in order to get to the ringing affirmation of sheer belief.
John does not want us to do that.
For John, even the worst and hardest parts of the story of Jesus are important.
They tell us about a God who loves us so much that we will not be abandoned, even if in some sense, we might even deserve to be.
“For God so loved the world…” he says.
Some people hear that and suggest that it should be easy to believe in a God who would do that – all the more so when the stipulated benefits are so worthwhile.
Along those lines, the philosopher Blaise Pascal advanced what we’ve come to refer as “Pascal’s wager,” which is that if there is a God, and believing means eternal life, then you might as well believe. Because if that turns out to be wrong, and there is no eternal life, you really haven’t lost anything by believing.
There are people who read John 3:16 very much in that spirit.
But I think something deeper is going on.
Because the spectacle, the gruesome political theater of crucifixion was designed to be hard to look at.
It was designed to horrify.
It was designed to remind those who saw it about what it meant to go up against the power of the Roman Empire.
It was supposed to teach you to look away, shut up, and do what you were told.
But not everybody did.
Somehow, despite Rome’s best efforts, there were people who looked where others refused to look; people who went where others refused to go; people who spoke when others refused to speak; people who could gaze upon the very face of death and see the person someone loved where others saw only a problem to be solved or a mess to be cleaned up.
The Empire called that sedition. Jesus called it faith.
It’s how he lived. And it’s how Jesus tells us we must live.
Somehow, in every generation, and in every place and time, there are those who look to Jesus and find the courage to live as those who see…to live as those who will name the elephant in the room…to live as those who find a way to love what the world is quick to deem unlovable.
That’s what it is to look at the one lifted on a pole and see the Son of God.
It teaches us not to look away.
It is to see the face of Christ in an angry little girl and an imperious matriarch, to see Christ in a body in a morgue and in a person coming in by Lifestar helicopter, and in any number of other faces and places.
To be a Christian is to refuse the world’s various strategies for keeping things quiet and tidy, and for pretending that things aren’t happening or don’t matter.
Because in God, we know better.
We all know that the world is messy. Life is messy. People are messy.
But many don’t know that it’s o.k.
Even fewer understand that it’s o.k. to go ahead and say so, because the world has tried to convince them that nobody could ever look with love on whatever mess they see.
To be a Christian is to know otherwise.
Because God is good and transformation is possible.
Because people try and fail and try again and fail again, and wow can they ever disappoint you…but every now and again, they stick the landing.
They climb the mountain.
They kick the habit.
They make the grade.
They drop the mic.
They find a way to leave you breathless with the courage of what they just did.
But they can’t do it alone.
They can’t do it without the ability to reject the false conspiracies of silence that tell them to keep quiet and keep things the way they are – to look away and to settle for less, if they know what’s good for them.
They can’t do it without God. Nobody can.
Jesus says that for those willing to look, willing to learn, and willing to grow, there are many chapters yet to be written, and so many truths just waiting to set us free.
That may not matter to the world. But it matters to God. It matters to Jesus. And it matters to those called to new life in him.
My friend A. is someone who stood with people in the moments when truth beckoned to them in a new way.
She wasn’t afraid to name what she saw.
I am glad to report that with her help, Marietta Smith and her mother were among those who chose to walk toward a brighter light, all the way back in 1974.
That light is beckoning to us now, too.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”
May God’s grace strengthen us to look fearlessly and live.