1st Scripture Reading: Numbers 21: 4-9 & Psalm 107 (p.831 VU 1&2)
Reflection: “Some lost their way in desert wastes….”
I want to talk a little this morning about a place in Ontario called Elliot Lake. 12 Uranium mines were opened near Elliot Lake in the early 1950’s to supply uranium to the American nuclear weapons program.
The huge amounts of radioactive waste that were generated by the mining of this material were dumped into ten lakes close to the mines. This contamination killed all ten lakes, and 90 kilometres of the Serpent River. This area was and is home to the First Nations people of Serpent River who are Anishnabe people.
A few of us watched a video documentary yesterday, created by the First Nations people for the United Church TV series: “Caring for Waters”. This episode is called “Rooster Rock – the story of the Serpent River”. This was a very moving account of the degradation and devastation of the environment that followed the mining of Uranium in the area, and then the subsequent establishment of a sulphuric acid plant in the middle of the First Nations community of Serpent River, without concern for the effect this would have on this unsuspecting village.
In the reading from Numbers this morning, we heard how the people of Israel, having been rescued from the oppression of Egypt, and cared for by the Divine in the desert wastes as they wandered – didn’t actually get it – didn’t SEE how dependent they were (and we still are) on the grace and goodness of God. Complaining bitterly to Moses that they would almost prefer to return to the slavery of Egypt than to continue in this misery of dependency, they were visited by a plague of poisonous serpents. Many died. You might say that to prove a point, God had Moses raise a bronze serpent over the people that those bitten who looked on it would not die. In other words, the earthly serpent gave only death. The serpent of God’s blessing gave life itself.
I found it interesting that our readings today have to do with serpents, and our video yesterday was about the Serpent River. How coincidental! Or is this one of the ways the Living God speaks to us?
So maybe there are wastelands, and then there are wastelands…. The wasteland produced by the combined effects of the Uranium mines and the sulphuric acid plant on the whole huge area of land around Elliot Lake was all about death and destruction, so that a few could get rich at the expense of the many….and that doesn’t even bring into the picture the effects those products have had in their military/industrial applications.
The desert lands that Moses and his people wandered in for 40 years were life giving. It wasn’t the soft easy life that the people wanted, but there was enough for all of food and water and clean air to breathe. There was enough – and their labour did not provide it. It was provided for them.
In our arrogance we are in danger of forgetting that we humans are subject to a higher order of power than our ability to dig things out of the earth.
I heard a joke some time ago, so forgive me if I don’t get it quite right, but the gist of it was this. Someone who recently died was greeted by St. Peter at the Gate and asked the saint what was the difference really, between heaven and hell. St. Peter said, “I’ll show you.” He took him to a place where a group of thin, angry people were sitting around a large pot of fragrant stew with long spoons attached to their hands, so that they could reach the stew, but they couldn’t get it to their mouths. But they kept on trying, and they kept on failing.
Then St. Peter took this person to another very similar room, with the same table and the same pot of aromatic stew in the middle, and the same spoons tied to their hands. But this group was smiling and laughing and well-fed. The difference? These people were feeding each other.
Within each of us is a spark of the Divine. We do know what is right and what is self-serving. The Living God is present with us, and will work thru us if we stay awake. But be aware: wake up calls will be provided if necessary!
Hymn #313 VU “God Whose Almighty Word”
2nd Scripture Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10 & John 3: 1-17
Reflection: The Rabbi Nicodemus, coming to Jesus in the dark of night, said to him: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” And Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
To be born again? Nicodemus, though a teacher of Jews, couldn’t wrap his head around this concept. Maslow hadn’t been born yet, or published his famous “Heirarchy of Needs”!
We tend to forget, I think, that there is growth and evolution in thought and spirituality as well as in physical, biological systems. If new ideas are presented they are not always or even often greeted with applause and acceptance. So it is easy to judge Nicodemus as an intellectual dwarf, when in fact he actually represents the cream of Jewish society at that time. These ideas of Jesus were very new to these people and though embraced by many – especially the disenfranchised – they were greeted with fear and suspicion by those who held power and influence and wealth.
So we can chuckle over Nicodemus’ discomfort – but have we thoroughly learned the lesson Jesus is teaching here? Even within the Christian tradition there are many interpretations of what it means to be “born again”. Jesus says that what is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.
This has created and is creating great confusion amongst us Christians. Clearly, we are all born of the flesh. We are incarnate in physical bodies – but are we more than biological systems fighting for survival? Our physiological needs, our drive to survive, are at the beginning of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. At this level we might not see ourselves as very spiritual. But when we think about the Nazi death camps and the stories of amazing self-abnegation, of courage and altruism that came out of those places of horror - we can see that some people were able to rise above the pettiness of that survival level. At the top of Maslow’s table of needs are self-actualization and then self-transcendence: the ability to put someone else’s needs ahead of one’s own – or society’s needs ahead of one’s personal preferences.
What is born of Spirit is Spirit. We are all human with physical bodies, but we are all also children of the Creator – created in the image of God. We are also Spirit. We can’t see it, we can’t touch or draw it, but we can know it in our hearts. We know it when we take care of those we love, and those we don’t love so much. We know it when we forgo immediate gratification in deference to the needs of others. We know it when we hear ourselves asking “what would Jesus do?”
Ah, but then Paul in Ephesians says it’s not about what you do! Can you hear me slapping my head with my hand? This is so confusing! We are not born again in Spirit by good works alone Paul seems to say. We become spiritual beings by the grace of God alone, not by doing good works – so nobody can boast about that. But that makes sense, if we all agree that we are children of God, made in the image of the Creator. But then why are some of us not already “born from above”?
We might remember that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark – in the dark of ignorance, maybe? In the dark of being still spiritually asleep, maybe? If we don’t know any better we need to be educated, or if we prefer our worldly ways, then we are choosing to deny our spiritual gifts. Either way it’s a process of moving toward reconciliation with God, of greater and greater unity in the Spirit, with Jesus being lifted up, as the Serpent was lifted up, to raise our eyes and our aspirations to a higher level of spiritual awareness. As we do that we are glorified and we are transformed by that spiritual energy and something really wonderful happens! We “remember” who we are and what we came to do. We know ourselves as co-creators of God’s kingdom here on earth. Doesn’t even Paul say in this powerful letter, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before-hand to be our way of life.”
We are born to shine, people of God. We are born to be glorified as we come to full awareness of God’s great love and grace, and to then express our love and gratitude in and thru the gifts we have each been given in greater and greater service to all of God’s world.
Hymn #559 VU “Come O Fount of Every Blessing”