If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 19, 2012

"What Doesn't Kill You....":Numbers 21:4-9

*This sermon was preached on the fourth Sunday of Lent at Zion Mennonite Church. Following the sermon we offered the ancient church's healing ritual of anointing with oil.

Once upon a time there was this congregation that became impatient with their pastor. They had been on a journey together for quite a few years. Some said the pastor made some bad decisions. It didn’t help that he wasn’t considered a good speaker. Others said he didn’t provide for their basic needs. Many of those who complained against him wanted their pastor to lead them back to the good old days before everything changed. Many blamed their current problems on him. Quite a few in the congregation wanted to get rid of him. Their conflict grew worse until it affected the health of the congregation, like deadly poison.

This is not a fairy tale. It’s not about a pastor and congregation that we don’t know. It’s a story about a real congregation we at Zion, know all too well. That’s because it is the story about....Moses and the people of Israel. Whew! That was too close for comfort!

Our Lenten scripture text for today is something of an odd story. Some of us may have a hard time knowing just what to do with it. Some may be turned off by a god who sends poisonous snakes among his people to kill them off for complaining too much. Others may wonder about using a brass snake on a pole as some kind of “hoodoo”mumbo-jumbo magic healing ritual. Before we try to snatch some kind of meaning from this bizarre story, let’s engage the story itself.

Following their liberation from the land of Egypt the congregation of Israel journeyed through the wilderness on their way to the promised land. On this leg of the journey they went from Mount Hor to the Sea of Reeds. Along the way the people began complaining against their pastor, Moses, and by implication against God, since it was God who ultimately brought them out of Egypt. Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food or water, well anyway, we detest the miserable food we have been given. Quail and manna! Quail and manna! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Quail and manna! Holy Moses, give us a break. Switch it up a little. How about some sacred cow burgers on sour Israelite bread?

Now, I can sympathize with the complaints of the congregation. No one likes to be without basic physical or spiritual necessities. No one likes the same old stuff dished out to us over and over again. I too have sat in many a church pew with bib tucked into my collar, knife and fork in hand, salivating, only to be fed the same old sermons without any meat and the same old dry-as-toast programs. I have wearily trudged along through the wilderness of irrelevant, dull routine, maintenance oriented, stuck-in-a-time-warp-congregations without any sense of purpose, vision, direction, or future. And you can bet your life that I have complained about it.

But, as a pastor, I can also sympathize with Moses’ position. I have been on the complaint end of a congregation. I have heard the nasty remarks, the blaming, the finger pointing. He’s not meeting my spiritual needs. His sermons don’t feed my soul. Our congregation is so spiritually hungry and thirsty. What’s his problem? He’s not leading us anywhere I want to go. We just seem to be wandering in the wilderness! Boo hoo!

Now, to be honest, there were those moments as a pastor when I had thoughts that came close to wanting God to unleash some snakes in the pews. But, that would be way too random. In moments of weakness and frustration I did entertain thoughts of some congregational members getting a job transfer, moving back home, or, God forbid, that they might, by the providence of God, kick the bucket prematurely. Oops. If my momentary thoughts during extreme frustration with complaining church members were ever to be written down as a form of personal therapy, they might look closely like our story of the poisonous snakes.

Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. I’m wondering why God would send poisonous snakes among the people. I wonder about this poisonous act of God, like I wonder about Noah’s toxic, genocidal flood. But, I also wonder why God would need to send snakes among them seeing that there was already enough poison and venom among them to kill them off as a congregation. What Moses’ congregation needed was something they could look to for their healing.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take the serpents from us.” And Moses prayed for the people. When I read these words it makes me consider what could have been alternative responses of the people and Moses. The people could have gone to their graves without confessing their own sin. They could have stubbornly insisted that they were right all along. That’s how we get stuck in the wilderness f broken relationships and wounded congregations.

And Moses could have said, “Hey, you people got just what you deserved. That will teach you to complain. The chickens have come home to roost.” Instead, the people confessed their sin. And that was the first step in their healing. The congregation of Israel acknowledged their wrong. Isn’t that how healing usually begins. A husband says, “I’m sorry for what I said.” An employer says to a boss, “Forgive me for complaining about your leadership. I was out of line.” A congregation says, “We have sinned not only against others, but against the Lord.” And those who would be spiritually mature would pray for them; pray for their well-being, pray for their healing, pray for their very lives.

So, Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. When I read about this brass snake on a pole I immediately think of the medical symbol derived from the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Asclepius’ rod is a staff with a snake spiraling around it. It is a symbol of healing.

Another medical symbol is the caduceus with two snakes intertwined around a winged pole. This symbol was appropriated from the Greek god Hermes, the winged messenger of the gods. According to Greek mythology Hermes came across two fighting snakes. He threw his magic wand at them. They became entangled around the pole and stopped fighting. I’m just guessing, but there must be some symbolic truth there somewhere for conflicted relationships and congregations and their healing.

What do we do with this idea----that gazing upon a brass snake on a pole, an image of what can harm or kill us, becomes the channel of healing? Now, I understand that that this part of the ancient story may be a bit hard to swallow. Gazing upon an image of a deadly snake as a channel for healing just sounds a bit primitive and bizarre, if you ask me.

But, I at least have to ask you if this is true: “Can that which hurts us heal us?” I am reminded of snake venom antidote for animals. Small amounts of snake venom are injected into animals to create antibodies that protect animal from snake bites. The same could be said for many human inoculations against harmful diseases. That which could harm us, or even kill us, heals us or protects us.

Wasn’t it the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” His saying resonates with many who have undergone struggles in their lives and have come out stronger persons for it. Granted, significant traumas in life can do us more harm than good. And we definitely do not want to make God into a cosmic teacher who sends bad things our way to teach us good lessons. In other words, God doesn’t hurt us to heal us. We don’t need that kind of cruel God.

And yet, there is something to be said about how God can take our wounds and use them in our healing. God can take the bad things that happen and use them for our good. God can take the poisonous snakes in our lives and make them a channel for healing.

Wasn’t that the case with Joseph, who was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. After going through the pain and poison of being rejected by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, Joseph later re-encounters his brothers as a ruler in Egypt when they come to him during a famine. Joseph is healed from the wounds of his past and forgives his brothers saying, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

All of us have endured different kinds of life trauma, wounds, and poison. Death of a loved one, the pain of illnesses, broken relationships. There is usually enough venom in those events to break our spirits. And sometimes it’s easier to allow the toxins of depression, resentment, and bitterness to course through our veins and destroy our lives. But, often what we have to do is to face these toxic events head on and move through them and beyond them to the healing places of hope, faith, and forgiveness. I believe that it is not God who causes these tragic and toxic events, but it is God who works through these events channeling them toward our healing and making us stronger at the broken places.

I don’t believe God caused the perplexity and poison that Zion has experienced over the past few years. At times it may have felt like we were wandering in the wilderness without any direction. But, complaining and blaming others has not healed our pain and poison any more that it did for the children of Israel in the wilderness.

I do believe that as some of us have faced our poison, admitted our woundedness, and have asked for forgiveness, that there is the hope for healing and wholeness. Not only that but I believe that what hasn’t killed us off, can, with the help of God, make us stronger.

You see, God has this odd ability to take the serpents of our lives----the traumas, wounds, and toxic relationships----and turn them into channels for our healing and strength. There is no greater symbol of this truth than the cross of Jesus Christ. John recognized this truth in his Gospel where he compares Moses lifting up the brass serpent on the pole to Jesus being lifted up on the cross:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)

As God turned the poisonous snakes into a symbol for healing, so God transformed the toxic tragedy of the cross into the symbol for life eternal, life in all its fullness. Not that God caused the poisonous crucifixion, but that God brought life out of it. This is the story we are in anticipation waiting to celebrate on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. If God can transform poisonous snakes into healing, the cross into life, then surely God can transform our tragedies into triumph, our wounds into healing, our weakness in strength. God, let it be so.

Anointing with Oil

Are there wounds that any of us have that need healing? Are any of us going through pain or perplexity that is poisoning our lives? Are their toxic relationships that require God’s healing balm? Has complaining, resentment, and blaming caused the venom to remain within you? Is there any bitterness and poison still left at Zion from our sojourn through our own recent wilderness journey?

We want to offer the ancient healing practice of anointing with oil. It may seem a strange symbol of healing for some of us, as odd as a brass snake on a pole or a man hanging on a cross. But, it may be a channel for healing, forgiveness, wholeness, and strength for you and this bitten body, the church. We invite any of you, who would find it meaningful, to prayerfully go to the front or rear of the sanctuary to receive the sign of the cross in oil upon your forehead as a symbol of your desire for healing and hope, faith and strength.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have life in its fullness.

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