March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
Happy Pi Day! For you non-mathematicians, March 14, is a very special day. You know, 3.14, the first 3 digits of π. Math teachers around the country, especially those who teach at precisely 1:59 in the afternoon when Pi Day falls during the school week, make a big deal of it: Pizza parties, Fraction Fests, Decimal Dances. All the nerds geek out. I bake pie.
π Day is an annual chance to celebrate math, baking, and a beautiful mystery, the amazing ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, an infinite constant, in fact, a transcendental, non-algebraic[i], nonrepeating decimal baked right into the cosmos. How did God ever think of this?
Of course, today is remarkable in another way, too. As our opening litany marked for us, we’ve circled the sun in a pandemic. A year of infections and grief, masks and Zoom calls, saliva tests and shutdowns, an infinite but constant sense of anxiety and fear. We’ve discovered our deep need to be together, the emptiness of singing to our computers, the strange reassurance of cardboard fans stuffed into bleachers. We’ve been cheered by children’s paper stars and hearts glued to windows, and heartbroken by the pictures of nurses holding phones to the ears of the dying. We’ve circled the wagons, accepted limitations, and embodied a love for neighbor we hadn’t known we could trust. It’s been a year in which resilience and anguish, transcendence and terror have been strangely baked into our daily lives. How could God have ever prepared us for this?
We’ve nearly come full circle in our witnessing of racial violence and injustice, too, as Derek Chauvin faces trial in Minneapolis. While some of us may have turned away from previous examples of racial brutality, George Floyd’s death, live-streamed for us to watch in real time, made it next to impossible to rationalize or ignore. The racial discrepancy of virus rates and access to health care only amplifies our growing awareness that justice is being denied[ii]. And now we hear that even the beauty and charm of royalty won’t protect people of color from ridicule, suspicion and hatred[iii].
The raw brazenness of the abuse of power in the midst of all the other social and political turbulence of the year, has forced us to consider the ratio in our lives of privilege to bias, has made us recalculate our relationship to white supremacy and systemic disparities. How can God ever forgive us for this?
Does God really forgive, or are we left to suffer the consequences of our brokenness?
When God’s people were wandering in circles through the wilderness, they complained of the pain and monotony they experienced. Day after day, waiting for an exit plan, they moaned in hunger even while grumbling about the food God provided. The scriptures claim God punished them for complaining, by sending poisonous snakes. Even as God delivers the Israelites with the miraculous bronze staff, the snakes don’t disappear; they’re still on the loose, biting and reminding their victims of their sin[iv].
Is this the way God responds to our complaints too? We despair of losing our faith, lament of the ways we’ve been cut off from community, cry out against the mandates and restrictions, so God sends a pandemic to teach us a good lesson? What kind of love is this? Is God so vindictive, that even in freeing us from destruction, God leaves threats behind?
Or are we forgetting that our π-Baking God doesn’t work in algebraic formulas, equating the finitude of our sin to the transcendence of grace? Have we overlooked the amazing irrationality of God’s eternal love for us? Is it just coincidence that the scribes of former years numbered the verses of the gospels, making our text start today at precisely John 3:14??
This passage of John[v] can be read with a sense of danger and foreboding, too. Yes, God longs to send us love and salvation, but for many people who hear these words, the risk of not believing sounds worse than a snake bite in the desert. God loves the world, they hear the gospel proclaim, so you’d better be faithful. God loves you, you know, so you’d best get on board, or suffer for eternity. Really? Is that honestly what we’re supposed to discover in the good news, in this verse which has been called the best news in all the gospels[vi]? Or is it our own self-condemnation that we project onto God? Is it the presumption that God’s punishment is always equal to God’s promise?
This gospel reading has some other baggage written into it, too, which may need a bit of unpacking. There are all these contrasts between light and darkness in the gospel of John. The image of light shining in the darkness is powerful and good, a reminder to us that even the flame from a single candle, or the kindness of one act of compassion, will outshine the despair.
But those of us who have been studying anti-racism have learned to be cautious of using this kind of language. When the colors of people’s skin are described with the same terms used to contrast those who are good from those who are bad, saved from condemned, we may want to try using some new terminology.
Maybe rather than contrast darkness from light, we can envision God’s brilliance bringing clarity to the murkiness of our contempt; God’s love illuminating our haze.
What the gospel declares is that in the face of boundless, irrepressible love we tend to behave like groundhogs. We hide ourselves from grace. We shut down, retreating into our fears rather than being claimed by God’s eternal goodness. In the depths of our regrets, and the recognition of our failures, we blame God for giving us the freedom to choose selfishness. We turn our back on God’s compassion for the whole cosmos, and stay stuck in the muck, complaining that we don’t like needing to be reconciled. Like those silly images of people who drown while waiting for God to save them, we resent the lifeboats and rescue lines God provides.
God loves the world. Hear that. Trust that. Let that shine through your foggy fear and apprehension.
God doesn’t love some people and leave others in the wilderness. God loves all of us and restores us from the pretense that some can be saved while others are left behind, that some can be crucified while others are left feeling blameless, that some can live and ignore the dying of others. God holds the world in wholeness, in kindness, in healing, in compassion, in mercy, in love, love, love. Just as God saved the people from their complaints in the desert, so God still saves us from our fears, our self-loathing, our doubts, our blaming, and our being blamed, and comes to restore us to life.
God doesn’t just offer us a lifeline, but raises up the whole cosmos in an irrational, unfathomable, transcendent, amazing mystery of eternal grace. And then, like a perfect circle that rolls ever onward, God invites us to continue the never-ending series of love, by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
The first sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery was on this text[vii]. “God’s love is all inclusive,” Dr. King preached, “It a big love… a broad love… too broad to be limited to a particular race… too big to be wrapped in a particularistic garment… too great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God.”
When we look to the cross, Dr. King continued, “We find the supreme example of God’s love…. The scene on Calvary …is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is God’s way of saying to (all of us), ‘Come home; I still love you.’[viii]”
I still love you, God is saying. I’ve never stopped loving you. Whatever punishment you have inflicted on yourselves, or believed I was sending you, will never outshine or outlast my never-ending love for you. Longer than any pandemic, deeper than any sense of despair or doubt, clearer than any encumbered metaphor, and stronger than the power of empire, prejudice, hatred, or fear, God’s love is transcendent, irrational and eternal, an infinite constant. It’s baked it into the very fabric of creation. You can’t reach its limits and it will never stop granting you life.
Happy Pi Day, dear friends. Happy Day of the Constant Irrationality of a God of Love. Have a slice of that. Trust the sweetness. It’s for you. It’s for the whole universe.
Thanks be to God.
[i] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcendental_number. “In mathematics, a transcendental number is a number that is not algebraic—that is, not the root of a non-zero polynomial with rational coefficients. The best known transcendental numbers are π and e.”
[ii] Nambi Ndugga, Olivia Pham, Latoya Hill, Samantha Artiga, and Salem Mengistu, “Latest Data on COVID-19 Vaccinations Race/Ethnicity,” Kaiser Family Foundaation, Mar 03, 2021. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/latest-data-on-covid-19-vaccinations-race-ethnicity/
[iv] Numbers 21:4-9
[v] John 3:14-21
[vii] Kerry Hasler-Brooks, Christian Century, Living in the Word, March 14, Lent 4B (John 3:14-21) Feb 16, 2021. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/march-14-lent-4b-john-314-21
[viii] Martin Luther King, Jr. “God’s Love,” Sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, September 5, 1954, Stanford University, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/gods-love-sermon-dexter-avenue-baptist-church