Category: Sunday Morning Sermon
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
“HOLY EYE CONTACT”
March 11, 2018
Christ Lutheran Church
Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
Many of you are now getting used to it. For the last month we have faced each other during worship in this “antiphonal” seating arrangement. Even though we have been doing this for 6 years and it has become a Lenten tradition, every year it still takes some getting used to it.
This last week I was reminded once again of how disrupting this seating arrangement can be. The Indianapolis area Lutheran pastors gathered here at Christ Church for the annual renewal of ordination vows with Bishop Gafkjen. As we gathered in this space for worship, several of them commented on how “surprised” they were by this arrangement. They had been in this space before but it never was like this. It caught them off guard.
I remember that we had a similar reaction when we began this arrangement for Lent. We were “surprised.” Suddenly it was different. It was disruptive. I remember struggling with where to stand and how to distribute communion. We were jostled out of our comfort zone. Worship no longer meant looking at the back of someone else’s head but looking at each other, eye to eye, face to face. We were uncomfortable that someone was looking at us. What did they see? Did they like what they saw? Faced with such prying eyes, our first reaction was to avoid eye contact. We looked away hoping that if we don’t look at them, they won’t look at us.
Have you noticed how no one makes eye contact in an elevator. Everyone stares at the numbers over the door or stares at their watch or a sign on the wall. No one wants to make eye contact with anyone.
When we walk through a crowd of strangers, we do the same. We avoid eye contact. We do not want some stranger to think we are watching him, evaluating him or judging him. We do not want to threaten him. He might retaliate by looking back at us with same critical eyes. We carefully pick our way through the crowd always looking away, staring at the ground or something in the distance always avoiding eye contact with someone else.
We live in a world where we are always “looking” and passing judgment on one another. We are constantly evaluating and being evaluated. We cannot avoid it. We take tests and receive grades. We are measured by the bottom line. We are judged by what we see in the mirror. A bulging waste line, graying hair, deepening wrinkles and fewer admiring glances all judge us. We work hard and dress well to win approval.
However, we can never escape the pressure. We always feel that someone is watching and measuring. We are always afraid that we will fall short and that someone will disapprove. We don’t want to be ignored or left behind. We worry that our lives will not matter. So, we try to soften the criticism and dodge the judgment. Everyone gets a trophy. No more letter grades. Everything is “pass-fail.” Everyone gets a prize. No one should feel badly about themselves.
It never works. Just when we think we have it made, we are ignored. We are left off the team. We are not invited to the party. We are passed over for the promotion we thought was ours. We try to convince ourselves that we do not need their approval, yet we are excited when someone important pays attention to us. We are caught between a rock and a hard place. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Our restless hearts crave the approval of others, yet we avoid anyone who would judge us.
It is impossible to escape criticism and the feeling that we are not good enough. If we had only worked a little bit harder, prepared a little better and responded a little quicker, the evaluation would have been better. We reap what we sow. We get what we deserve. When you make your bed, you gotta sleep in it.
That is where the Israelites found themselves in today’s First Reading. They were sick and tired of wandering in the wilderness. They complained, “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Slavery in Egypt was better than this. They blame not only Moses but also God for having brought them to this forsaken place. God did not take their insolence sitting down. God responded to their faithless complaining by sending a swarm of poisonous snakes. Many were bitten and many died.
They got the message. They had brought this upon themselves. The invasion of poisonous snakes was not just some quirk of nature or a rash of bad luck but a sign of God’s disapproval. They deserved this fate. They had brought this upon themselves. They begged for mercy.
Then something amazing happened. God did not abandon Israel. God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent in the likeness of those fiery, poisonous snakes and mount it on a pole where all could see it. Then, when the snake bitten would look up at the bronze serpent on the pole, they would live. The bronzed serpent was not some magical object that possessed supernatural powers of healing. Rather it was a sign of God’s commitment to have mercy on His people in spite of the poisonous snakes and even though they did not deserve it. It was the sign that God still loved Israel.
How ironic that the image of God’s judgment against them became the image of God’s desire to save them. The sign of God’s disapproval became the sign of God’s approval. Therefore, when they looked up at that serpent, the face of God’s anger had become the face of God’s love.
In today’s Gospel Jesus compares Himself to that same bronze serpent in the wilderness. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” The bronze serpent became God’s promise of mercy. Look upon the serpent; believe the promise and you were healed. In the same way Christ is lifted up on the cross. The tool of death becomes the tool of life. There on the cross God’s own snake bitten son is God’s promise of new life for us.
However, just as the poisonous snakes did not go away for the Israelites, they also still swarm at our feet. Our lives are still under scrutiny. Strangers still evaluate us. Bosses still judge us. Peers still criticize us Teachers still grade us. Coaches still evaluate us. God still makes demands of us. But now the stinging bites of criticism are not the last word. The value of our lives does not depend on our ability to measure up to the demands the world or the demands of God.
Why? Because a bronze serpent was lifted up. Because Jesus was lifted up on the cross. Because God loved us so much that God decided to suffer the criticism for us. Because God offers us a fresh start and a new beginning. God now values our life not because of what we can do but because of what Jesus has done for us.
St. Paul says it well into today’s Second Reading (which is also on the cornerstone of this church), “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
That changes everything. The “antiphonal” seating of this space portrays that change. The assembly is divided in half with each half facing the other with the altar, baptismal font, paschal candle, ambo and most of all, that huge cross in between. There Christ is lifted up just like that bronze serpent in the wilderness.
Here we gather around Christ just as Israel gathered around the bronze serpent. Christ is at the center of our life together. His cross silences the judgment and ends the criticism that would do us in. His cross offers mercy instead of judgment and forgiveness instead of criticism.
Such seating may get us out of our “comfort zone.” We may feel uneasy making eye contact with someone sitting across from us and looking at us. We wonder what they see in us. They worry what we think of them. We both prefer to remain unnoticed staring at the back of each other’s heads, not having to look in each other’s eyes nor see each other’s face. However, with the cross between us, our eye contact is different. We now see each other with the eyes of Christ. As we look at those sitting across from us and they look at us, we both look past, around and through . . . the cross. The cross becomes the prism through which we see our neighbors, not as critics passing judgment on us but as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The cross reminds that these people are not rivals to whom we must prove ourselves but friends for whom we pray, care and love.
God comes to us cross-shaped in the words, actions and faces of these people. Through them we make eye contact with God. There we meet the God who assures us that we no longer have to prove ourselves. When someone brings us a home-cooked meal when can’t cook for ourselves, when a Good Samaritan stops to lend us a hand, when someone defends the “ugly duckling” teenager that everyone else picks on, when someone tutors the failing student for whom no one has time, when we are forgiven by the same one we have hurt, . . . we have come face to face with God . . . who is no longer our critic but our friend. God looks us in the eye and . . . smiles.
Our world is impatient. Bronze serpents on a pole, a crucified carpenter’s son, the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine, a kind word in a time of need, prayers from friends gathered for worship, . . . they do not seem to be enough. The world demands that we must still prove ourselves. Nothing is for free. We must earn it.
But we know better. We can be patient. We can live with the poisonous snakes still swarming around us. We look up at the cross and make HOLY EYE CONTACT with the one who speaks to us those memorable words of today’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life.”