I love baseball, and even as winter hangs on, I feel growing joy that spring training season has finally arrived. At least they’re playing now in Florida and Arizona. Soon they will even be here—no matter that it is supposed to snow tonight.
I have probably spent more hours of my life than I care to count watching the national pastime on TV. If you have watched baseball on television too, you may remember a time, not so many years ago, when there would regularly be somebody behind home plate holding a sign with the words “John 3:16.”
Canny baseball functionaries figured out long ago how to muscle those sign-wielding evangelists away from camera range. I’m sure there were a lot of people who saw those signs on TV and had no idea what they referred to. Indeed, if you’re watching an athletic contest and you don’t know how to read a Bible verse, you might think of “John 3:16” as a partial score. “Some guy named John got 3 but some other guy got 16, so I guess John lost.”
If you have always wondered what John 3:16 means, then you’re in luck this morning. It is a Bible verse, and it’s what Jesus says toward the end of today’s gospel reading: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Those who are evangelically minded are attracted to that verse, no doubt, because it summarizes Christianity in a nutshell. It tells you what is behind the Jesus event. God sent Jesus into the world so that we might not die but live. God sent Jesus into the world not because God hates the world but because God loves the world.
The world is a complicated place for all of us—it carries a multitude of meanings. The world is the created order, the planet, the human community, the totality of everything that God has made. The world is also everything else not us, “out there.” It’s at once all that is and all we are afraid of. Jesus uses “the world” in the former sense, our psalm for today in the latter. If there’s a psalm other than the 23rd which people know and love, it is Psalm 121, the psalm we sang this morning:
I lift up my eyes to the hills;
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2)
As deeply as we love that psalm for its depiction of God’s protecting love, many people love it without quite understanding it on the literal level. Psalm 121 portrays the world as a fearful, not a safe place. I lift up my eyes to the hills not because the hills are beautiful but because that’s where my enemies sit encamped all around me. I’m like a sentry at a cavalry fort in the old west under attack by warriors on horseback. Who is going to ride to my rescue? Only God can get me out of this one!
Those of us who seek to follow Jesus will always find ourselves caught in the tension between these two visions of the world: it’s a beloved place, and it’s a scary place. God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to save it. God knows how dangerous the world can be and so sleeplessly watches over us. That double vision of the world places us in a profound tension. How do we live in it together? How do we live in it personally? On this Second Sunday in Lent, I invite you to join me in thinking about the world and how we, as followers of Jesus, make our way in and through it.
How do we live in the world together? This weekend we at Washington National Cathedral are observing our second annual Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. Ever since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut in December of 2012, our cathedral and diocesan communities have joined with thousands of congregations around the country to see what we can do to end the epidemic of gun violence in American streets, schools, and public places. On Tuesday Bishop Budde and I greeted the Team 26 bicycle riders from Newtown as they made their way from Connecticut to Capitol Hill to press for federal legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those with mental illness. On Thursday afternoon we joined other faith leaders as we blessed the two groups of people who know the reality of gun violence up close: the families of victims and the first responders (police, fire, emergency medical teams) as they gathered near our T-shirt display representing the 103 people who died by gunfire in the District of Columbia last year.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” As we think about the world and what it means for us as Christians together, two things stand out as powerfully true. First: Christians care about things like gun violence because we believe God loves the world and wants all of its creatures to live. Gun violence is like any other threat to life that people of faith have always worked against. Gun violence and cancer are both threats to human life. But only gun violence is entirely of human origin. In the same way we have over time lessened the number of yearly deaths due to smoking and car crashes, so can we reduce the number of gun deaths. We Christians care about any threat to human life and happiness because as God does, so do we also try to love the world and all its creatures.
And there is a second truth that emerges for us about the world. It can be a scary place. But as dangerous as we feel the world might be, the good news for us together is that we are ultimately safe in the world. But our safety does not come from our own self-protectiveness. It does not come from living in a gated community or from the barrel of a gun. It does not come from our career successes, our social position, or our advanced degrees. Our safety comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth. It is God who watches over us sleeplessly. It is God who shall preserve us from all evil. It is God who shall keep us safe. As spiritual teachers from the Hebrew prophets to Jesus himself, from Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama would remind us, our weapons and castles will always fail us. When we put our trust in our power and strength, we are always disappointed. The only one who will finally protect us is God, and the only way we will ever really be safe is to live lives of justice, humility, and compassion.
I don’t doubt that many people believe that guns will keep them safe from the threats and dangers of the unknown in this world. I do know, from a lifetime of reading the Bible, that this belief is an illusion. Human life is fragile and finite. In one sense, we are never safe. We are all vulnerable. We are all mortal. If your definition of safety entails living forever without any suffering at all, I’m sorry to tell you you’re out of luck.
But in another sense we are in luck—we are deeply safe, we are all finally OK. And that is because there is one who watches over us, who is our shade at our right hand, so that the sun shall not strike us by day or the moon by night. That one watches over our going out and our coming in from this time forth for evermore. That one is with you even in your fragility, your mortality, your loss, and your pain. That one’s love for you is finally more real and more powerful than anything else that might assail you.
Both together and individually, we hold on to those two truths of the Gospel. We will always be vulnerable, and we will always be safe. Our guns will not save us. Our power will not save us. Our things will not save us. The only thing that will save us is the one who came among us in love to assure us that God so loves the world that we all might have eternal life. You lift up your eyes to the hills: where does your help come from? It comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth.
As we move together through Lent, let’s remember that its real destination is Easter, the ultimate celebration of God’s love for the world and for you and me. Let us use this season to let go of clinging to the things that won’t save us and to turn to the one who will. Easter, like baseball, really will eventually arrive. And when it does, may we all be ready to begin to take in the depth of our safety in the one who so loved the world that he came among us so that we might not perish but have eternal life. Amen.