Please enjoy the full text from our sermon on 3/15/15, written by Pastor Lourey Savick and titled “Real and Fake”
The Israelites wandered through the wilderness, mumbling against their leadership, doubting God’s call on Moses and Moses’ ability to plan for their future. God sweetens their water, provides them with food. God makes their circumstances easier, but also disciplines them for their many complaints. Then, the day comes when the Israelites speak not only against Moses but against God, as well. This time, punishment comes quickly in the form of deadly snakes, “…so that many Israelites died.” (Numbers 21:6b)
The people, shocked by the consequences of their mumbling, are humbled and go to Moses to admit their grave mistake. “And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” (Numbers 21:8) Moses does this, making the snake out of bronze, and it works just as God said.
This is a mysterious strategy for God to employ. God could just banish the snakes, or heal the people directly. The people could repent directly to God and cut out the middle-snake. This solution is especially odd when we think practically about this tribe of nomads lugging around a metal snake statue until it eventually becomes an idol that must be destroyed. (2 Kings 18) Why does God use a sculpture of a snake to do God’s reconciling(healing) work?
Humankind has not grown out of difficult times. We have not completely armored ourselves against doubt. Every day people still suffer, worry, “stress out,” and grieve. In the worst of times, it can take super strength to turn to each other instead of pulling away to numb our pain and fear. In order to be healed, each Israelite had to choose to look at that snake. In some ways, looking at that snake was more difficult and more honest than wailing rehearsed and empty pleas at what they thought of as a demanding and strange God. God was interested in the kind of change that would come from facing oneself, and the source of harm, with open eyes. That change could only happen by personal choice. In order to be healed, each Israelite had to choose to look at that snake. The snake on the pole was fake, but the reckoning was real. The healing happened in the decision to face the facts of what was going on.
And, what were the facts? That this generation of Israelites was helpless in the wilderness. They gave up easily, refused to adapt, and had no way to capitalize any of their assets. The source of their survival, and the value of their lives, depended on their relationship with God. Grace preceded and provided for them, free and abundant, and promised to lead them home. Their reluctance to recognize and trust that grace threatened their survival as an entire people. God had promised to be faithful to them. God demanded that they learn to see.
It is no surprise, then, that when John seeks to describe why the symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ is important in the life of faith, he references this snake story. We, too, must be taught to see grace at work in the world and in our lives. We can’t adopt this awareness from someone else, or get by with rote gestures toward a God who remains a stranger. Each of us receives restoring wholeness by facing ourselves as participants in a relationship with God. What we choose has real consequences for our shared future. Moses made a bronze snake that stood for the poisonous relationship between the Israelites and God, and God’s healing grace. In John’s gospel, we read that Christ came to die on the cross as a sign of how broken and dead we had become. Christ came to awaken our sight because of God’s love for us. It was an act of forgiving and renewing. Our cross is just wood. The original cross was just plain wooden beams. That doesn’t matter. Each of us is invited to look to the symbol of the cross and learn to see that grace is real, for us.
This is not to say we always can, or will. It doesn’t mean that it will happen on a neat time table, or in ways we can predict and control. It doesn’t mean that we will never lose sight of it once we see it. And many times, we will face the challenges of life and family together, but from different perspectives on grace. Another troubling part of the snake story is the loss of so many, even after the bronze snake is hoisted up. What happens to the families for whom some are bitten and look, and some are bitten and can’t? What about those who are in such agony that they can’t focus their eyes on the signs of grace? What about those for whom this healing happens very slowly, or in fits and starts? We aren’t meant to segregate into classes of faith, but to love one another–Christ gave us the example of walking together in love. How do we lovingly share our trust in grace with those who are struggling to see?
1. Cultivate compassion, but remain/return to yourself.
From “I Like You” by Sandol Stoddard Warburg:
And I like you because
When I am feeling sad
You don’t always cheer me up right away
Sometimes it is better to be sad
You can’t stand the others being so googly and gaggly every single minute
You want to think about things
It takes time
I like you because if I am mad at you
Then you are mad at me too
It’s awful when the other person isn’t
They are so nice and hoo-hoo you could just about punch them in the nose
I like you because if I think I am going to throw up then you are really sorry
You don’t just pretend that you are looking at the birdies and all that
You say maybe it was something you ate
You say the same thing happened to me one time
and the same thing did.
Compassion requires that we see the ways we are the same, and recognize that each of us is beloved by God and has sacred worth. Compassion makes it possible for us to respect another’s sadness enough to let it be, in shared silence. Compassion helps us remember that the same thing happened to us one time. Compassion helps us to value each other enough that we run the risk of offending and being offended, and also helps us practice forgiveness.
Compassion is not throwing out our joy to take over someone else’s sadness. We can make room for others’ feelings without crowding out our own truth. This is difficult, and takes practice, but it is important, because habitually adopting someone else’s grief or fear is not loving–it is performing, play-acting. It turns our relationships false, whereas witnessing to hope grounded in personal knowledge of grace is servant-hearted, and open to complex truth.
2. Remember that grace is free, for and from you.
Grace is free in the sense that we don’t earn it. It is also free in the sense that we don’t control it. Loving relationship and true community demands that we show up and be ourselves, even when we feel unfinished or uncertain. So often we can resist the call to reach out because we don’t know the right things to do or words to say. We don’t want to badger our neighbors, and we may begin to feel like we must be doing the wrong thing if our actions don’t seem to get results. We have justified fear of being rejected as hypocrites. We are not hypocrites if we share hope from our personal knowledge of grace. Pretend joy, or repeating the stories of others in place of our own story opens our relationships to falsehood. Telling our true stories and revealing the joy that springs from renewed hope opens our relationships to real transformation. Remember, we are not the ones to dole out grace. God will reveal grace through us, whether or not we say the right things, and no matter how long, or how many intertwining relationships, it takes. Our goal should be to become ready and resilient volunteers.
3. Keep trying.
God ended up using a bronze snake with the Israelites because the many previous attempts did not work. Many Jesus followers despaired when he was crucified. What seems like failure in the short term may be part of a longer success story. Sometimes our attempts to be loving, compassionate, and honest witnesses result in embarrassing mix ups or angry confrontations. If that happens to you, it doesn’t mean that you are done. Say you wound a grieving friend, and he slams his door in your face. If the two of you are going to heal, you’re going to have to be willing to come back, and knock. Bad experiences are much less damaging if they are surrounded with good, and even neutral, ones.
4. Let the intention drive the action.
In a message about real and fake, this is a crucial point. We can get tied up in knots trying to think of what is the “right thing” for our neighbor, and never do anything at all. Or, we can depend on pre-approved options designated by commercial interests, or on social etiquette gurus whose job it is to merely prevent personal embarrassment or offense against acquaintances. We have to beware of applying cheap balm that doesn’t heal. Neither of those responses testify to the saving power of the grace we have received. They are hollow interactions, and do not help to guide us in loving one another. Still, whatever we do, even if it is in error–too much, too little, premature, belated, relying on the resources of others or emerging daringly from our own hearts, if we do it with the intention of loving and sharing healing grace, God can use it for good. We never know how another person will receive us and our actions. We cannot predict which gestures will inflame and which will soothe. Beginning with compassion, we also must trust the worthiness of our best efforts. Even if the best we can offer are a few corny cliches, even if what we say rings false in our ears, I firmly believe that truth of the love and hope behind our words will transform our offering into real witness of grace.
I want to take just one more moment to ground that belief in the context of my own experience. When I returned from my field education term in Africa, I was a broken person. I had sunk into an incapacitating depression, and I was returning to a life in Boston that had been ripped apart by my leaving. Beautiful new things were taking root in my life, but I had no way of knowing that at the time. I couldn’t look friends in the eye, and I had a hard time getting out of bed. I felt estranged from my family and friends, and I was flat broke. I did a variety of things to change my situation, and eventually I was able to heal and grow. I still think of that whole period as the most important of my life so far in terms of my personal formation. But, God willing, I will never forget what got me out of bed and back to class on that first day, before I had anything else.
The phone rang. I answered it reluctantly–I was still adjusting to the time difference–and heard over the scratchy connection the voice of a young catholic seminarian with whom I’d studied, calling me from the village from which I had just returned. He called me by a nickname and asked me about my flight home. He laughed and wished me a good morning. He said nothing unique or special. If anything, our conversation was brief and awkward. But that phone call helped me face the next day, and then the next, until other joys began to return.
The ministry we are talking about this morning is hard work, and it involves a lot of trust. It means usually not knowing what kind of effect you are having, and facing down many fears about phoniness and magical thinking. Moses might never have known how many poisonous bites were given, and how many Israelites were saved by a fake snake on a pole. Still, he trusted the very real grace of God to do the good work God had promised, and he trusted it enough to let it lead him. I pray that your sight will be clear, and your courage great, as you testify to grace with your lives in this aching world.
Also see: Order of Worship 3 15 2015 PDF