Originally posted on Mar 18, 2012
Syrian rebels ignited a new front Friday outside the capital, Damascus, in the first significant fighting there since regime forces swept over the suburbs weeks ago. The clashes highlight the shifting nature of Syria’s conflict, with rebels lying in wait to rise up when the regime turns its guns elsewhere.
-San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 16, 2012
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee today accused the Congress of engineering the ‘revolt’ by Union Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi and asked her party MLAs to go back to their constituencies and tell people that the Trinamool did not endorse the budget presented by the minister.
-The Indian Express, Mar. 16, 2012
With al-Shabab on the retreat in the face of gains by African Union (AU) forces in Somalia, the militant group is looking for new avenues to exert control both in and outside of Somalia. The group is focused on recruiting Kenyan Muslims to revolt against, what they term, state-sponsored oppression directed against them.
-Voice of America, Mar. 14, 2012
Political revolutions leave chaos in their wake. Republicans cannot shut down their presidential nominating contest because the party is in the midst of an upheaval wrought by the growing dominance of its right wing, its unresolved attitudes toward George W. Bush’s presidency and the terror the GOP rank-and-file has stirred among the more moderately conservative politicians who once ran things.
-E.J. Dionne, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mar. 15, 2012
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
-Our Numbers passage, written roughly 3500 years ago
Charles Darwin proved that evolution takes place over millions and millions of years, and nowhere in the Bible is it more apparent than in our Old Testament passage today. When people are unhappy, they do their dead-level best to let their leaders know about it. That hasn’t changed in centuries. In a lot of cases, people rise up against leaders with whom they used to be very happy, and such is the case with Moses. Everything was going great- the Israelites had been delivered out of slavery, and they were headed to the Promised Land. As time went on, though, there were certain… problems.
First of all, the desert known in the Bible as Kadesh is the current-day Negev. It is one of the driest, hottest places on earth due to its location east of the Sahara. They were no doubt suffering from sunburn, heat rash, heat stroke… to the point that “survival of the fittest” was taking its toll.
Second, the same people that rejoiced when God sent manna from heaven now thought it tasted terrible, and to top it all off, there was little to no water to wash it down. Whether it was actually terrible is a moot point- they’d been eating it day in and day out for YEARS. In short, their complaints were valid. It was miserable. They may have been slaves in Egypt, but at the end of the day, they could drown their sorrows in the farmer’s market with melons… and olives… perhaps a nice bottle of Claret. They had no idea where they were going or how much longer their current reality was going to be one of hard struggle just to stay alive.
That is when things go from bad to much, much worse. God is angry that the people have lost faith, and the hot, starvation and heat-crazed Israelites are now the hot, starvation and heat-crazed SNAKE BITTEN Israelites.
All of the sudden, Moses doesn’t look quite so bad. The Israelites beg Moses to go and intervene on their behalf with God.
Here is where things get interesting. God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and wrap it around a rod, so that when people were bitten by the snakes, they could look up at this makeshift, portable statue and be healed. My first question when I started researching for this sermon was, “WHY?” Why didn’t God just destroy the snakes? That’s when it hit me. God didn’t change the snake bites. God changed the Israelites. In order to be healed, the Israelites had to look straight at the thing they feared. God didn’t take away the pain of being bitten, God gave them something to take the pain away AFTER THEY ALREADY HAD IT.
In modern-day Portland, God is doing the same thing for us… even though the snake bites are almost always metaphorical. The economy is sinking businesses left and right. There are millions of homeless people. There is gang violence, addiction, mental illness, physical illness, communities and individuals that are aching for a cure.
But God doesn’t offer that. God offers a refuge to heal pain as it is happening, when we are willing to look straight at what scares us the most.
Because a cure would have been destroying all the snakes that bite us in the first place.
The difference between a cure and being healed is in the details. As we read in the meditation, taking blood pressure medication cures high blood pressure… but it doesn’t relieve stress. Anti-inflammatories ease the pain in my wrists, but they don’t get me to stop typing all the time.
So often we reach for a cure, when what we need is healing, and that is the message that runs through our Gospel lesson, as well. I am sure that for those of you who grew up in the church- no matter what the denomination- I could wake you up in the middle of the night and ask you to recite John 3:16, and you could do it. However, I sincerely believe that when that verse is taken in isolation, it leaves out the most potent part of the story.
In the same way that God asked Moses to make a bronze serpent to heal the physical pain of a snake bite, God sent Jesus to heal the emotional and spiritual snake bites of the whole world. I use the phrase “whole world” intentionally, because Moses creating the bronze snake was specifically to heal God’s own people- Israelites, and specifically, Jews in covenant with God. The crucifixion was not only meant for Jews, but for Gentiles as well. The gift of a place to look for healing was extended to everyone, whether they were currently in covenant with God or not… John writes, “Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” Whoever. Believes.
That is the good news of the Gospel, but the next verses are the crux of our relationship with God. “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
THAT IS AN INVITATION.
There are so many people that think Jesus’ message is grace, meaning that there is nothing you can do to get God to love you any more… or any less… and they’re right. However, those people are seeing the light of Christ for a moment, when what God is really offering is the light of Christ for a lifetime. It is a covenant that starts out with the initial promise of forgiveness no matter what… but in order to have a sustaining relationship with God, we have to do the work.
So, if God offers healing for all of the snake bites the world has to offer, why do some people prefer to, as Jesus says, “live in darkness?” Most of the time, it is not a matter of malicious intent, but a lack of understanding how to get there from here.
In preparing for my sermon this week, I called a friend of mine who is a transplant surgeon at the Liver Institute at Methodist Hospital in Dallas. Let’s call her “Dr. Anthony” (mostly because that’s her name). We were talking about the differences between curing and healing, illness and disease. One of the things that really struck me was when Dr. Anthony said, “some patients are overwhelmed with being well.” At BEING WELL??? WHY???
For people that have dealt with long-term illness, they have gotten comfortable with the role of Sick Person.™ Faced with the prospect of getting well, they’re having to cope with things that they haven’t had to deal with for a long time. Bills, housework, kid taxiing, you name it- all of these things are frightening to contemplate when it seems like there is a rushing river of activity AROUND them with no concrete entrance. Trying to jump in with both feet often leads to depression for people who are used to other people managing their lives- their only job has been wrapped up in the cure of their physical disease. The process of healing emotionally and spiritually is daunting.
Dr. Anthony also said that people who receive transplants are often guilty and angry after surgery, and she has to give what everyone on her service calls “The Tiffany Talk.” Intrigued, I asked her to give it to me. Instead, she responded with a story.
“I had this patient who was ordering the nurses around, being unpleasant to everyone around him- to the point that the nurses called me about his behavior. When I got to his room, I said ‘you have been given the ultimate gift of life, and you are being horrible to everyone that has rushed around trying to save you. Your actions are a DISGRACE to your donor’s family.’ By the time I left the room, he was in tears.”
I said, “because they feel guilty that the gift is so huge that they can never repay it.”
Often when we fall short in our covenant with God, there are elements of both these ideas. Doing the hard emotional work to become whole and healthy in the spiritual sense is just that: hard work. So often we rely on the grace of God because it is easier than staring straight at the things that frighten us… and the gift of refuge that God has given us through Christ is so big that we don’t have the first clue of how to repay it.
Dr. Anthony’s response to her patients goes something like this… “you do not realize how big a gift you have given to donors and their families. For the rest of their lives, they will be able to say that they saved someone else’s.” When you do the healing work required in your relationship with God, living in light takes on new meaning. You are more able to let light shine through you to others. God’s gift in sending Christ as healer for the world is God’s gift to us. How you use it is your gift to God.