The Art of Resolving Resentment
Homily by The Rev. Marcia McRae
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bainbridge, GA; 4 Lent, 15 March 2015
Year B RCL: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
If I were to ask you to stay standing for the sermon, I wonder how that might help us gain insight into the uncomfortable scriptures we hear today.
It would feel uncomfortable to stand
for the whole sermon!
Jesus' curous self-reference to Moses' snake-on-a-stake1 confronts us with our 1st reading when Moses does as God says to do & makes a bronze serpent & sets it a pole. Didn't God tell us last week in the 10 Commandments: You shall not make for yourself an idol...in the form of anything...in heaven...on earth...or...in the water? Yes, God did.
The key word is idol. God says: You shall not bow down to them or worship them. The complaining people with Moses do not worship the snake. [That happens later. In 2nd Kings, Hezekiah destroys that bronze snake.] Disturbed by what seems like magical healing when people look at the snake, rabbis note that by looking up, the injured actually look up to God, their Father in heaven.2
These insights may help with this uncomfortable part of our scripture, but what about our other questions? Why does our loving God, who is leading God's chosen people, send poisonous snakes? As one scholar notes:3 The people say it's because they have sinned by complaining, &, the scholar says to notice: God does not say that's the reason. What about all the other times in the Bible [especially Psalms] when people complain to God & no snake bites them?
Notice how the people complain: “There's no food, no water. We detest this miserable food!” If they have no food, how can they complain about how bad the food is? It's like me complaining, as I stare into the fully stocked refrigerator, “I'm starving! There's nothing to eat!” Of course there is, it's just not what I want to eat.
We get unreasonable when we're hungry or in difficulty. We can't see the solution right in front of us. We couldn't see it if it were a snake & bit us.
The snakes bite & help complainers see things differently – they see themselves anew. They ask that God take the snakes away. As God so often does in the Bible & in our lives, the remedy is different than what we ask. Notice: Snakes are biting the people, yet the people live.
Has anyone here been bitten by a snake? How did you get healed? [Response time.] Know this: I have never been healed just looking at the snake [the caduceus] on my doctor's building. Something else is required to deliver me from what ails me.
Deliverance does not come (as) the people with Moses expect.4
Deliverance does not come as the people with Jesus expect.
When Jesus is lifted up on that cross, like Moses lifts up the snake, the disciples, the leaders, all involved see only death. Yet like that healing snake-on-stake, Jesus heals our broken relationship with God. What looks like a disaster on the cross is a new beginning for abundant life. Jesus forgives us from the cross. Forgiveness is essential to healing in this life.
We want past hurts, broken relationships to be different. Like the people with Moses, we say: take away the snakes/the problems/the hurts.
God says: “Look at the problem, face the challenge.”
Look at the destructive resentment we see in action on both sides of the issue in Ferguson, Missouri.
Look at the forgiveness & invitation to meet & get to know each other that the University of Oklahoma Black Student Union President offered the racist fraternity.
God says: Look at My Son, Jesus, lifted up on that cross, exalted on that cross.” Today's Gospel uses the double meaning of the words “lift up”: Literally lift up & to exalt. That double meaning confuses humans who see “the cross (as)...profound humiliation & defeat. [Our Gospel tells us]...crucifixion, resurrection,...ascension are...a single movement of divine [action]...(Like the people bitten by the snakes, we look at what brings death) in order to receive life...5
As scholar Lance Pape says of today's Gospel, To believe the Good News of Jesus requires trust & belief about what happened on that cross AND to “let our...lives be transformed by...Jesus...”
Part of our transformation takes place in
the healing work of forgiveness.
We can trust Jesus to work with us through our past hurts & resentments to a new perspective on life. [I commend to you Bishop Benhase's latest e-Crozier about forgiveness & our Forgiveness Forum.]
Trusting in Jesus, we confront “the inconvenient truth that God’s purposes...are not synonymous with our...(perspective) of happiness, health, & safety.”6
Trusting Jesus, we can exercise the gift of healing that we offer through forgiveness.
Trusting Jesus, we can let go our hold on resentment.
Resentment lives in the darkness of the past that didn't go as we wanted.
Resentment is living today & demanding that the past be different, especially that someone would have behaved differently.
That's a good way to stay miserable.
Know this: Forgiveness is not reconciliation. You can forgive someone without speaking to them, without reestablishing a relationship. You can forgive a dead person.
We can see clearly in the light of God's love when we accept that we can't change the past.
We can re-frame how we think of past hurts.
We can change our demand that things would have been different into a preference that they would have been different.
The snake of someone's sin bit me:
I can complain about how bad that was, how it should/shouldn't have happened & I will stay mired in the past.
I can re-frame my complaint & say: I would have preferred that it had/hadn't happened. This loosens my hold on anger about the past & makes it easier for me to let go of that hurt. Letting go comes by God's grace that fits us for the work of ministry, as Paul tells us in Ephesians.
The Lutheran liturgy in its confession offers a deeper sense of this than our general confession. Our Lutheran Brothers & Sisters say: “forgive us, renew us, & lead us, so that we may delight in your will & walk in your ways…”7
Renew us, Jesus.
Forgiveness renews us.
Forgiveness reaches beyond just your own life,
just my own life.
Forgiveness shines new light in the darkness.
When you forgive, you shine,
you glow with the Light of God's Love.
The American College Dictionary. Ed. in Chief: C.L. Barnhart. New York: Random House, Inc. 1966.
Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press. 1984.
Fever, Kyle. “Commentary Ephesians 2:1-10”. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2393. Accessed: 12 March 2015.
Harper’s Bible Commentary. General Ed.: James. L. Mays. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary. General Ed.: Paul J. Achtemeier. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers. 1985.
Holy Bible with the Apocrypha. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.
Howard, Cameron B.R. ”Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9”. Accessed: 12 March 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2393.
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary. Accessed: 14 March 2015.
Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Lectionary Page. http://www.lectionarypage.net/. Accessed: 16 Feb. 2015.
Limburg, James. “Commentary Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22”. Accessed: 12 March 2015.
Pape, Lance. “Commentary John 3:14-21”. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2393. Accessed: 12 March 2015.
Tenney, Merrill C. Handy Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1965.
Voyles, Robert J. Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment. Hillsboro, OR:
The Appreciative Way. 2010. “Teaching Forgiveness” www.appreciativeway.com. 2014.
1 Phrase inspired by Howard, Cameron B.R. ”Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9”. Accessed: 12 March 2015.
2 Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. P. 326.
3 Ibid. Howard.
5 Pape, Lance. “Commentary John 3:14-21”. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2393. Accessed: 12 March 2015.
7 Fever, Kyle. “Commentary Ephesians 2:1-10”. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2393. Accessed: 12 March 2015.