For once, I’d like to tell you a different kind of story, as least different for me. This story happened planet Earth. I’d like to tell you of a Parish Mission, a mission that seemed impossible. It was to a town that was doomed. Local crime was rampant; it was not safe to travel in the mountains near this place, for it was the home of any number of thieves and other criminals. Law enforcement in the area had been bought off, and the graft went all the way into the upper echelons of the government. The situation was so bad, that the Ruler of the country decided that the best thing to do would be to destroy the town utterly: burn it to the ground and send its inhabitants away. But one man had a different opinion and asked to have a chance to change things. It seemed like an impossible mission.
The town was a central Italian city named Sonnino; the ruler of the area was the Pope; the man was a priest named St. Gaspar del Bufalo, who had just founded of a new community called the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. Gaspar went to Sonnino to preach and he took risks going into that high crime area many wouldn’t: he was offered an armed escort and refused it. The group stayed in an abandoned monastery outside town. One day, Gaspar preached at the mouth of a cave: he’d heard some of the bandits were hiding there, but had no idea if anyone was there to hear his sermon. The next morning, there was a pile of weapons in the town square, and the men were back in town. He accomplished the impossible: the people repented their evil ways and turned to the good. The town was saved, and is still there today in central Italy.
How Gaspar went about converting criminals was to tell them about how God had created them as good people, and that they were capable of living their lives differently. God had already done the work of their redemption through Christ. They were a people redeemed by the Blood of Christ, and that brought a dignity and identity that nothing could take away from them. They were living lives that were not worthy of who they were, there were better people than they could imagine. All they had to do was turn around and embrace their true natures and they could change their lives for the better.
In this weeks readings, we have many themes, but the one that catches my eye is the consistent idea that God is the one who redeems his people by His initiative. The reading from John is related to a story from the Exodus: the people of Israel are grumbling about why Moses brought them out of slavery into the desert and that the food was bad. So serpents appeared among them and caused no end of trouble, and the people repented of their pettiness and asked Moses to pray that the serpents would be taken away. So God told Moses that he must put a serpent on a pole, and that those who looked at the serpent would be cured of the bites. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he will be lifted up in the same way so that people might look upon him and be cured from their disease. Healing is possible, a Mission: Possible.
As we make this turn in Lent, having passed the halfway point, it is good to look and see where we’re at. Some of us have been able to keep up with our promises, some of us have had trouble, I imagine. I’m not going to take a poll about who’s kept to their promises. It is good to remember, however, two things. Firstly: we are God’s creation, we are a good people, Christ has redeemed us by his Blood, and that redemption is a continuing call to live up to being who we say we are. During Lent, through our work, we are trying to uncover that good nature that God has put in us, that desire to live as he has taught us, to embrace that redemption Christ has given us. Secondly: we always stand at the foot of the Cross. The Cross isn’t something that we come to two weeks from Friday; it’s always here in front of us, and it’s something that we have to look at if we’re going to benefit from its saving grace. It means getting gritty with what holds us back, with what frightens us, what keeps us from being that people that God has called us to be. These bites of the serpent have hurt us, but we’re not going to be healed by hiding these wounds, by denying that we’ve been bitten, by looking down in shame and embarrassment. We open ourselves to God’s healing by looking up at the cause of our pain and putting the healing in God’s hands. We open ourselves to God’s healing by looking at the Cross.
As we gather at this table today, we embrace many things. We embrace God’s call to be the best people we can be. We embrace the Cross and look to our Savior for our healing. We seek to be remade in the image of Christ. We celebrate the gift of God’s saving action in the world, for just as God made the first move to redeem the exiles of Babylon, as God made the first move to redeem us through the life of Christ, God calls us forward to accept our own healing.