Holding Our Snakes in the Light
Scriptures: Numbers 21:4-10; Psalm 107: 16-22; John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:1-10
And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” — Numbers 21:8
Before I start, I want to thank the worship team today: Karen, Jennie, Brooke, Elena, Rebecca. The gratitude and joy coming through the images, songs, prayers and scripture readings is palpable.
I want to thank my companions this Lent season: Matthias and Gail and Ann and all the people in the Lenten Class. Also, Sito and Kent and Jesse and Meade and Kevin and Crisely, who have been some of my recent conversation and prayer partners during this Lent season. And to my companion and great Love in joy and struggle, Alli O’Connell, who puts up with my all anxiety and hand-wringing, and frantic 12th hour writing sessions after weeks of procrastination…
And a special thank you to Michael Brown, who wrote me an honest and compassionate note of disagreement back in January, prompting much of the meditation you’ll hear in my teaching today. I invite you all to join us after service for a facilitated conversation on the topic.
But first: What comes to mind when you think of “snakes”? Scary? Creepy? Dangerous? Intriguing?
Well, 8th Day: here we are in the 4th Week of Lent, a little over halfway through the journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Just like the Pandemic, we’ve come a long way but we’re not done yet…
We are still in the desert, wandering our way towards the land that God has shown us in our visions and dreams, and perhaps some of you are, like me, beginning to get a little impatient.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the Israelites cry out to God and to Moses in Numbers 21. “There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food.” They have broken free from the their enslavement in Egypt, and bravely followed Moses out into the desert, trusting that God will provide…but now, the going has gotten tough. It’s that famous moment in any adventure movie when the once merry band of travelers starts — to — drag.
As punishment for their faithlessness, God then sends venomous snakes which bite and kill many of them. The people beg for Moses to pray to God for a solution. In one of the strangest gestures I’ve encountered in the Bible, Moses is instructed to make a snake and mount it on a pole; he
makes a serpent out of bronze, sticks it on a pole, and when anyone who has been bitten by one of those snakes looks upon it, they are healed.
In my initial reading of this scripture, I thought to myself: “ah, yes. This is a reminder that we ought not question God. The serpent is like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the great tempter that lures Adam and Eve away from God, and into their own bodily desires. In this reading, we see a continuation of the struggle between sinful human beings trying to go one way, and an almighty God trying to pull and prod and force them back onto the righteous path, — even using his power to smite and poison his own people, if that’s what it takes.
Lent, for me, is often a time that I return to my father’s Irish-Catholic roots, to his small New Jersey parish called (you guessed it) St. Patrick’s. My grandfather, Vincent Aloysius Dooley, passed away on Ash Wednesday, 1998. he was the first person I knew who crossed over to the other side. His and my grandmother’s faith was about service, and humility, and community. But it was also very much about control: control of the body and control of the mind, to fit the rules and strictures of the church. In this version of faith, our natural impulses, our bodily desires, were not to be trusted. Human desire was seen as the way of the serpent in the Garden, not the way of God. A life in God required nothing less than absolute submission to God’s will, which could not be divined or understood by ordinary people, but was handed down from God to the priests (all men, all celibate), and then dictated to ordinary people like us. The job of the faithful was not to question, or to feel, much less to create something new; but to submit to a pre-existing, set of fixed truths. To BELIEVE, even against all the impulses of one’s own mind and body.
As I meditated on this passage from Numbers, I realized that my initial reading of it was very much in line with this “control-and-submit” kind of Christianity. This is the Christianity of Empire. For many people, especially in the West, it’s the only kind of Christianity they’ve ever known.
But is it the Christianity of Christ? Psalm 107 says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; God’s love endures forever.” As Matthias Everhope asked me the other day as we were conversing about these scriptures: “what if we were created in oneness with God? What if God really does love us? What if we’re not stuck in some eternal battle between our will and God’s will?”
What if our relationship is something more like a dance?
After this conversation, I returned to the Numbers passage. I realized that it says absolutely nothing about punishment, or about God struggling with the Israelites.
4 the people grew impatient on the way
5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
The idea that the snakes were sent as a punishment is something that I had imposed upon the text. It simply states that when the people became impatient with all this “journey through the desert” business, they grew cynical and spoke against God. They wanted out. They wanted to go back. They believed that their old life, their life under the empire in Egypt, though perhaps soul crushing, was really the better deal, all things considered. It was more predictable; they had food and water and familiar rituals. Never mind that they didn’t have political rights or respect or freedom. Amid all the unknown of the desert, the known oppression of Pharaoh seemed like the better option.
So why does God send snakes? Why not strike the people down with lightning or fire in some dramatic show of power?
Within the Christianity of Empire, snakes are understood to be a symbol for evil; for the deceitful, slithering ways of earthly desire. But when we look at the longer history of human civilization from which the Christian faith tradition emerged, we see that snakes are a multifaceted and complex symbol of the paradoxical connection between death and life. Some anthropologists argue that for millions of years, snakes were the only significant predators of primates, and that this explains why fear of snakes is one of the most
common phobias worldwide. Snakes do represent venom and death. But snakes also shed their skin, modeling the process of rebirth and change. Snakes also live among the roots and branches of trees, and in swamps and rivers, giving them intimate knowledge of the earth. And their venom, though poisonous when received through a bite, is also a key ingredient in many medicines. The thing which kills us can also be a source of life.
“Take the snakes away from us!” the Israelites cry out. But God does not take the snakes away. God does not drive out the snakes, as St. Patrick (supposedly) drove out the snakes from Ireland. God instead teaches them how to heal from venomous bites. God instructs Moses to “make a snake,” to use his creativity and craftsmanship, to create a work of art, and to raise it up. By gazing upon this symbol of paradox, by meditating on the twin potential for death and life, poison and medicine, within the very same creature, we are healed.
So, to rehabilitate our understanding of serpents from the Christianity of Empire, we might see things this way: the very same earthly desires and impulses that can poison us can also be the source of healing.
Back in January, shortly before the insurrection at the US Capitol, I made an announcement after worship about ways that we, as individuals and a community, could take action against far right extremists like the Proud Boys, whom I referred to as “fascists.” This was - I felt - a justified comment. My own study of history tells me that the Proud Boys did not come out of nowhere, but are part of a longer history of political movements that seek to build up the power of their own in-group, and rule over other groups by force.
Instinctually, it felt like the right thing to say, to inject a sense of urgency both in myself and in others, to drive out this anti-democratic strain of politics in our country. Michael Brown sent me an email after that service, taking issue with my use of that term. My instinctual response was to tell him to buzz off! Thankfully I followed the advice of a college mentor, who told me, “never send an important email when you are HAT: H-A-T, hungry, angry, tired.”
The truth is, I was all three of those things when I made that announcement at service. Hungry for an end to the Trump era. Angry that far-right extremist groups were openly organizing political violence on social media. And tired from a 24-hour internet-fueled news cycle that provides us with all the information we could every ask for and, seemingly, none of the solutions we need to heal our fractured nation.
So I sat on Mike’s email. I gave it a slower read the next day, and wrote a more measured response. Over the next few weeks and more email exchanges with Mike, I started to understand that while my own interpretation of the Proud Boys’ political ideology was not necessarily wrong, the words that I used to describe them in worship introduced the same kind of venom that has poisoned our country’s political discourse.
I reached out to a friend of mine who is more of a political centrist, and who comes from a rural conservative town, to ask for his perspective. He chuckled when I told him the story. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been called a fascist, a racist, or a sexist by liberals who claim to be
non-judgmental and loving.” It got me thinking about how we discuss politics here in 8th Day, and what kinds of venom might come through the words that are inspired by our passions and our convictions. I wondered: if a conservative walked through our doors today, would they feel at home here? Would we, as a community, be able to extend to them a Gospel kind of love? Would they feel safe and held enough to be vulnerable with us? Authentic? To offer their gifts?
In the wilderness of post-Election turmoil, the uncertainty of whether our country would indeed have a peaceful transition of power, one of my snakes came out, bit me, and — if only for a moment — poisoned my speech. Thanks to Mike’s honest but loving act of honesty, I’ve had the chance to raise that snake up into the light, and in so doing, to begin healing the cynical part of my psyche that doesn’t want to trust God, that wants to sit on the throne of judgment and declare that those who I disagree with, and those whom I fear, are irredeemable. Are deplorable.
I’ve had the chance to raise up to the light that part of my psyche that wants to be seen by others as the most righteous, the most revolutionary, the most woke.
The internet and social media, for all the creativity and connection that they have indeed inspired, can also serve as a kind of pseudo-wilderness: a place where we get to feel like we’re being brave, without really being brave. We can call out, mock, and humiliate those we disagree with and those we fear without actually working towards concrete solutions to our problems — which is the whole point of democracy.
Biologically, we’re wired to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs, a phenomenon that psychologists call “confirmation bias.” The internet allows us to stay safe and cozy within the cocoon of the known. If we’re not careful, the venom of contempt — which I decry as a political progressive, and a Love-centric Christian — can rise up and poison our speech and our actions just as much as anybody else’s. That’s what I’ve learned through my conversations with Michael Brown and others both within and without 8th Day since Mike raised the issue with me.
Which is more important to us: healing our nation’s political divide - or taking a stand for our political convictions? As I ask this question, I wonder also: is it really an either / or choice? Is it possible that we can do both?
The truth is: I don’t know. Because just as I have hardly any close friends who live in poverty; or who suffer from the daily realities of racism and classism; I also have hardly any close friends who are politically or culturally conservative. Is that really what God wants? Is this comfortable and familiar separation from people whose beliefs and experiences do not affirm my own really what God wants? Psalm 107 says:
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story…
3 those God gathered from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south
The only stories I can really tell are from the North and the East and the white and the expensively-educated. I’m not so sure that I’m one of the “redeemed of the Lord”…at least, not yet.
Nonetheless, I give thanks for “God’s unfailing Love” (verse 15), for the way that my conversation with Michael Brown has allowed God to break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron, even when my impulse was to stay behind that gate; to stay within that prison of my own fear and judgment and self-righteousness.
I have very few memories of my grandfather, Vincent Aloysius Dooley. He died when I was 8, long before I knew what Catholicism was, or theology, or scripture, or sin. All I knew of him was that he fought in the war, and loved the Mets and was very, very hard of hearing. I knew what it felt like to sit on his lap and play with his glasses, and suck on sugar-free candies while my parents and aunts and uncles and grandmother talked about whatever complicated stuff the adults talked about. I knew nothing of what my grandfather thought about God or righteousness, but I did weep at his funeral at St. Patrick’s church, and I weep every year on Ash Wednesday because I know that he loved me. I know that we knew God’s redeeming love together, through loving one another in the simplest, most instinctual of ways.
As we head down the final stretch of the Lenten season, I want to ask you, good people of 8th Day, what chains, what self-imposed afflictions are keeping you from Love? From trusting in Love?
What forms of death are you clinging to, in order to avoid stepping into the unknown? Into the wilderness of uncertainty that lies between where we are today and the Promised Land, the Beloved Community of Love and Justice that God has planted in our visions and our dreams?
What chains, what afflictions and forms of death might show up as we navigate the deserts we must cross to answer God’s call, whatever that might be for you and for us as a community: racism, political polarization, poverty, loneliness, homelessness, hunger, fear, abuse, the countless
forms of poison in our human-made systems that are crying out to be healed, so we can return to Love?
As you ask those questions, just remember to not banish the snakes, but to hold them up to the light as our ancestors did.
Remember that we find life by passing through death and that oftentimes our most potent medicines come not from our highest and best thoughts, but the lowliest, earthliest, and most instinctual.
I’ll finish with the gospel of John, chapter 3 verse 14:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes may have eternal life.”
Amen, and hallelujah.