Sunday, March 18, 2012

Third Sunday in Lent (The Politics of Fear)

Snakes! Real snakes -- slithering, coiling, climbing, with fascinating ability to move and navigate without limbs! Harmless garter snakes, long black snakes, rattlesnakes, tree snakes, cobras, water snakes. Snakes that we've been taught to fear ever since the first tale was spun about the Garden of Eden.

Bronze, metallic snakes -- crafted in the middle of a wilderness in an ancient time, fine metals taken out of Egypt now smelted and reshaped to represent that long sinuous body. Probably the same meld of metals that were used to create the golden calf, but this new snake-like idol is actually endorsed by God to be made and mounted and stared at.

Then too there are human snakes -- not an indictment to be thrown around lightly, but true all the same. Snakes very much embodying the attitudes of that first snake in Eden, convinced of its own rightness and pleased to undermine others' perspectives, determined to protect its own skin and worldview by any means necessary. Snakes who put others down, snakes who know only that they must come out on top, snakes who deny any possibility of being wrong.

Real snakes, bronze snakes, human snakes, weaving this Sunday's Old Testament and New Testament stories together with the stories of our present day lives.

The story of snakes in Numbers (21:4-9) is a delightfully bizarre piece of the Israelites' history, from a time when the people were wandering for a generation at God's direction. As often happens when we're traveling but someone else is in charge of the trip, the people become impatient and anxious. "Woe is us! We will wander until we die! There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food" (21:5b) ... which means that there is food, they just don't like it! So God sends poisonous snakes to bite at them for their whining, and soon the people come to Moses, repentant. At God's instruction, Moses sculpts a serpent of bronze that is set high on a pole, and when people look at the bronze snake after being bitten by a real snake, they are healed of the poison.

God rescues the people from their fear by instructing them to look at and name the thing that scares them. And, not only does God rescue them, God calls the bluff on their dissatisfaction so that they had to take back their lies and tell the truth to one another: that God was, in fact, taking care of them in the wilderness. So the people name their fear, and they start telling the truth, and they are healed.

If a bronze serpent could have that effect today, I'd be inclined to suggest that we build a really big one, because naming our fears and telling the truth continue to present a challenge to us, all these thousands of years later. We could make a long list of occasions when our fears and our avoidance of the truth -- whether individually or socially -- have needed some serious intervention and healing! Just think of the fears in your life, the fears in our lives, that startle us like an unexpected snake and make us want to cover our eyes! Yet you and I know that none of our individual fears or nightmares go away just because we hide from them. We step toward healing when we tell the truth about what keeps us up in the middle of the night.

The same is true on the larger social scale. We still collectively flinch and hide our eyes to avoid racism (to name one obvious example); it's so much nicer to believe the lie that we live in a post-racial society. So we shield our eyes at Trayvon Martin's death -- whose story is only finally reaching the mainstream news -- and when the publicity buzz over Trayvon ends, then we'll tell ourselves that his death was an exception ... and we'll not look directly at the snake to realize that this is the very real and frightening norm for young Black and brown men in America. We're going to have to gather up the courage to name the snake of racism if we will ever be healed of it.

Sometimes fear doesn't bite us directly. Sometimes fear distracts us and makes us flinch so that we just trip over ourselves....

...Like the Israelites who were genuinely afraid of those poisonous snakes, but most of all they were afraid of dying in the wilderness. They worried that food would run out, that springs of clean water would be hard to find, that wandering would turn into lost; the snakes became a more tangible, more immediate thing to be afraid of.

...Like this sham of a debate about women's health care. I respect that there are different views on the the matter of abortion itself, but the current range of new laws and inflammable comments over contraception and ultrasounds and women themselves represent a snake that we're being given to distract us. Because women's health care is tangible -- you can pin it down to one pill, one gender, one activity -- while matters like poverty, oil consumption, education, or foreign relations are harder snakes to pin down. Those snakes are more difficult to name because they are multi-faceted, more difficult to tell the truth about because money is involved and our own privilege is at stake. So fear is manipulated, politicked, so we don't see all of the snakes.

Snakes, biting at our heels. Snakes, permeating with their poison because we're unwilling to say that we're afraid, unwilling to look and see that something's not right, unwilling to 'fess up to one another that we're living in the midst of an overwhelming plague of snakes! Snakes that confront us, and snakes that distract us, and snakes that sneak by us.

But God says to the Israelites, "Hang up the snake, look at it, tell the truth about it if you want to be healed."

And Jesus says to Nicodemus (John 3:14-21), "The Son of Man will be lifted up like a bronze snake, so that those who look at it and tell the truth about it can be healed. He will not be mounted up so that people who look at him feel guilty and ashamed. He will be mounted up so that the truth can be examined in the light, out in the open, until the fears and distractions and snakes fade away, until there is healing."

The bronze snake in the wilderness was both a symbol of what the people feared and a reminder of what they were missing in their preoccupation with complaining. When Jesus retells the snake story to Nicodemus, Jesus becomes the bronze snake of the story. Jesus becomes the symbol of what we fear -- the fear that maybe God isn't with us, the fear and experience of suffering, the fear that we all have death coming to us, the fear even of God -- and Jesus becomes the reminder of what we are missing because of our fears and distractions -- the reminder that we are missing some incredible scenery along this wilderness journey, the reminder that we are missing the reassurance that God is feeding us along the way, the reminder that we are missing being ourselves when we let fears poison us, the reminder that we are missing being responsible when we let snakes distract us and hide the truth.

The Gospel of John is a book full of "I AM" sayings: Jesus says, "I am the bread" and "I am the way" and "I am the shepherd," etc. Here in John 3, Jesus implies one more: "I am the bronze serpent!" Jesus is the bronze serpent, calling out our fears, encouraging us to name the truth, shedding light on the politics of fear, and healing us -- over and over again -- by keeping us in the company of God.

And that's good news, despite all the snakes!

Sermon preached 3/18/12 at Grace United Church of Christ.


Purple said...

Love the images you draw for us with the snakes and then move into naming a claiming fears. I did not go the John 3:16 route with mine, but I really,really like the interpretation.

Rachel Hackenberg said...

Thanks, Purple!