Posted in Sermons, Writing

“How to be Alone”: a sermon on Mark 1:35-39

Mark 1:35-39 Common English Bible (CEB)

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.  Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!” He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

 

Today, dear friends, I invite you to consider solitude. Yes, even at VDS, we can gather together and consider solitude, even we can slow down from our rushing days and sit in the silence, even we can turn off our dinging phones and buzzing social media notifications and adopt a contemplative spirit, even we can pause from wondering “what in the world is the construction crew doing now?!” and rest in what Kelsey Davis says, “is the sound of the new world being built.” And, I’d add, even we can ask an extrovert to offer a word about solitude. A friend texted me the other day and said, “often it is introverts advocating for solitude when in reality it can be helpful for all people…it’s good to hear about solitude from an extrovert.”

And y’all. I am an extrovert. I may be speak in a quiet voice sometimes, or think for a long time before speaking, but I love people and I love being around people and I get my energy from spending time with people. Solitude for me has sometimes been very unnerving, because I equate it with isolation. I recall a favorite five-year-old friend of mine who cried when her grandparents told her she had to sit in the corner (of the same room) so she could calm down to eat at the dinner table. Her grandpa said, “I think you just need a bit of alone time so you can calm down.” My friend Sofia, with great big alligator tears said, “But I don’t want lonely time!” Alone time…Lonely time. How often do we get alone and lonely confused and wrapped up in each other? The connotations that we conjure when encountering these words are sometimes, but not always different.

For me, “isolation” brings to mind images of friends living “off the grid” and “Into the Wild” and hermits choosing to live away from a community. Isolation seems to always come with a relationship in tow–being isolated from something or to something, always gaining a definition in view of another thing. People’s experiences of isolation can be very different, affected by mental health, social ostracism, racial segregation, and incarceration. Though in this message today, we will together consider benefits of finding solitude in alone-ness, we must consider the ways in which our society strips and withholds contemplative, chosen solitude from some folks and forces isolation.

Considering solitude, however, for me, brings up images of kayaking alone at dawn, sauntering along a quiet path at Radnor Lake, finding stillness in the midst of a warm summer day at Centennial Park, and even, drinking wine alone in my room watching reruns of the West Wing. I name these experiences as solitude because I choose it, because I have agency over how I am alone. I used to never choose to be alone if I could help it, even now preferring to be “alone” in one room…within reach of my best friend on the other side of the wall. Being alone is hard, hard enough that a book entitled “How to be alone” by Sara Maitland, was published in 2014, examining how people in Western, American culture vilify alone-ness. The American dream is individual achievement, agency and freedom…and yet people who are alone creep us out, garner strange looks in the street, cause us to worry about them, and even fear them. Maitland considers that “normal people” do not live alone, unless they are individual intellectual, the solitary writer, the singular scientist working alone in a lab; we scrupulously hold our introverts to a standard of extreme giftedness…otherwise we ostracize them.

However, Jesus, though ostracized in his own time and we ought to consider how we continue ostracizing Jesus in our time, Jesus knew how to find solitude. And let’s be honest, it was hard for him. The gospels are chock full of him trying to get a moment’s rest, a moment without crowds following him, a moment to take a nap, a moment without his cell phone vibrating in his pocket telling him to read CNN to find out the latest media blitz or letting him know his mom wanted to talk to him or reminding him it was time to do his homework. Maybe it’s anachronistic, but let’s face it: Jesus was a busy dude. He had a lot on his mind, and that’s why it’s so important to see him in Mark 1:35-39 finding some time to himself, even if it was before dawn, so he could pray. Alone. In solitude.

When I was a first year at Oberlin College, three friends and I spent two weeks in France with the Taize community. In case you’re not familiar with the monks of Taize, they are an ecumenical Christian community that ministers to people all over the world, seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly. At that time in my life, I had no intention to be a serious Christian, to seek theological education, to answer a call to ministry. I was on this trip with my friends and I was interested in contemplation, and so, hey, I found myself at a monastery in southern France, in January. I spent a good bit of time singing, drinking tea with folks from France, Indonesia and Colombia, writing in my journal, and walking around the nature paths the monks had fashioned over the years. One evening, my friend suggested that we go into a silent retreat for the last six days of our trip. Everyone agreed and looked forward to it…and I wasn’t so sure. Me? Be quiet for SIX DAYS? That didn’t only sound BORING, that sounded SCARY. I was afraid to be silent. Afraid for those around me to be silent. Afraid to be faced with myself.

Those six days turned out to be some of the most important days of my life. While I was in silence, I truly felt “IN” the silence–it surrounded me, not with an overwhelming pressure like that of isolation, but with a warm, soft solitude. Though I still went to communal worship and ate communally, I did not speak to anyone, and no one spoke to me. Initially frightened of this experience, I discovered in that time that I was not alone, that in the silence I was faced with myself but I was also faced with God. God was with me in the silence, and we were alone together. When it was time to leave the silence and return to the world of conversing aloud together, I was ready to speak, yet I also did not want to leave. How could I maintain this spirit of solitude within myself, even as I returned to the hustle and bustle of collegiate life?

When the disciples finally find Jesus alone, praying in a deserted place, they were relieved. “Lord, we’ve been looking everywhere for you!” “Why would you go off by yourself?” “There’s people who need to talk to you!” “We need you!” I imagine that Jesus shook his head calmly as he told them that they would travel together to a new place, as he dusted himself off and prepared to preach, for that is what he came here to do.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “Solitude is the garden for our hearts, which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit. It is the home for our restless bodies and anxious minds. Solitude, whether it is connected with a physical space or not, is essential for our spiritual lives. It is not an easy place to be, since we are so insecure and fearful that we are easily distracted by whatever promises immediate satisfaction. Solitude is not immediately satisfying, because in solitude we meet our demons, our addictions, our feelings of lust and anger, and our immense need for recognition and approval. But if we do not run away, we will meet there also the One who says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you, and I will guide you through the valley of darkness. Let’s keep returning to our solitude.”

Friends, let’s consider solitude, along with Jesus, as a time or space or mindset in which we process our experiences in preparation to return to the world to do what we were meant to do. Solitude, meaningful as it is in so many ways to so many different people, must often be cherished as a time of preparation. My partner put it this way: “Solitude is quiet time away from everybody to just revert to your sole self. Away from the world and it’s quiet. It’s important to value that because the rest our time we are blasted with information 24/7: we have phones that constantly buzz and ding, social media apps to update, news to read. It’s important to trust who you are without all of that before engaging with those outlets because they can affect so much in powerful ways. It’s important to value who you are without all of that; as just a person existing; it is the most important thing in the world that you are centered and love yourself fully before bringing anyone or anything into your life. That starts with being ok with, truly comfortable with solitude and appreciating it for the rare times one can find it.” We must consider how our time of solitude, in which we renew ourselves, prepares us to do the work which we are meant to do: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Naturalist writer Wendell Berry writes, “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.”  How do we find the balance of alone and together? Picture a dandelion, all white and puffed up in the summertime. As the wind blows, the seeds scatter. Each of them has the memory of belonging together, but each of them has their own work to do. They carry their communal identity with them, their identity of “dandelion” literally written in their DNA, but they scatter to the four winds and begin a new process of creating together-ness from alone-ness.

At Vanderbilt Divinity School, we have the opportunity to create community together by learning together. In some ways, this means we must learn how to be alone together. In All About Love, bell hooks writes, “ many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” There is a community aspect of solitude, in which we respect each other’s individuality while seeking flourishing together.  Once we inhabit solitude and let it inhabit us, once we enter into being alone not as something to be feared, but as a path to renew ourselves, we can consider the ways that solitude prepares us for living communally. Henri Nouwen writes,  “Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our center and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.”

Often, perhaps because I feel at home in nature and love gardening, there are no better illustrations for theological concepts than ones from creation. Though I have not always known, and still do not expect to master the concept of “being alone” for some time, if ever, I look to butterflies. Butterflies know how to be alone. They actually spend most of their life as a caterpillar, prompting many social media memes about self-love, self-image and transformation. These monarch caterpillars, a lovely delicate lime green color, spend their time munch-munch-munching along on milkweed leaves, drinking the sweet leaf milk and growing nice and round because this time is a time of preparation. Caterpillar prepare physically to enter a space of great solitude: they enshroud themselves in chrysalises. Here they stay for a couple of weeks, their bodies changing and gaining different colors and their tummies full of milkweed fueling them as they become what they were meant to be. After a time alone in their chrysalises, these miraculous creatures emerge as butterflies. But, they are still not ready to join their siblings in flight: first they must dry their wings, often still wet with the orange dye from their transformation. After that time of solitude, the butterfly is still preparing to take to the sky. They strengthen their wings, flapping slowly, and then–they alight, fluttering with such abandon, traveling towards their destiny, whether it be the beautiful lupines in the garden next door or the mountains of Mexico. To transform within their time of solitude, preparing to take to the sky, requires that they lean into their choice of alone-time, that they lean in to the possibility that being alone will give them what they need to flourish. They must give themselves over to becoming. This is the risk of solitude. Actually being prepared to do what you were meant to do.

In a canoeing memoir entitled “Listening Point,” which my father read to me at bedtime while I was growing up, naturalist writer and Minnesotan Sigurd Olson describes the meaning of the book’s name: He says about the location that inspired him, “I named this place Listening Point because only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard. Everyone has a listening point somewhere. It does not have to be in the north or close to the wilderness, but someplace of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.”

Friends, today I invite you to explore solitude. Whether that means taking a break from noise, from social media distraction; relocating yourself physically to an environment where you feel comfortable; or drawing into yourself, into your own inner chrysalis, I invite you to find your own “listening point.” Where you may be present, alone with yourself and that which is Holy to you, enshrouded in a love that prepares you to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. May it ever be so.

 

This sermon originally preached at Vanderbilt Divinity School, March 21, 2018.

Posted in Sermons, Writing

“In Sight of Snakes”: a sermon on Numbers 21:4-9

Numbers 21:4-9

They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea[a] road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” So the Lord sent poisonous[b] snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died. The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.

I’m not sure I have Good News to share today. When you preach, you’re supposed to have Good News to share, but I’m not sure I do. You see, today’s Scripture is about snakes. Yeah. Snakes. And I know that this is the first time that I’m preaching in this congregation, and I wanted to have some Good News to share with you–but today’s Scripture, coming to us from the book of Numbers, is about snakes. Not my favorite topic to discuss when I’m new here. Because, y’all, I’m afraid of snakes. When I was growing up in Michigan, I spent a lot of time outside, camping and hiking and kayaking with my family. My dad was an avid gardener, mostly collecting various Michigan wildflowers and cultivating them in the rock garden outside our sun porch. Sometimes, dad would come inside from working in the yard with his hands cupped gingerly around “a surprise,” inviting me to close my eyes and open my hands to receive the “gift.” One time it was a cricket, one time a monarch butterfly, one time even a tiny baby bunny that had become separated from its mother…and one time, it was a very small, very slithery, bright green baby garter snake. Seven-year-old Anita was not pleased.

Almost everyone has a snake story, about being out hiking and seeing a snake, about getting creeped out by the snakes on nature documentaries on PBS, about finding a snake in a place where it shouldn’t be. Furthermore, almost every human that ever lived had a snake story. You see, scientists have been researching over the past several years to find out whether a fear of snakes is inherent in human evolution. A recent study confirmed that infants as young as 6 months old will display a fear reaction when confronted with pictures of snakes…and spiders, for that matter, but that’s another sermon.

This evolutionary bias against snakes makes sense. For early humans who didn’t have the benefit of modern medicine, snakes posed a huge danger, particularly venomous ones. They might attack when ambushed as early hunter-gatherers searched for food in the tall grass, or in the rainforest, or in the desert. There’s also the fact of how they move: it doesn’t make sense to us. “Undulating” is usually the word that comes to mind for me as I watch a snake slither across the television screen in a shiny, slippery ribbon. Some scientists are actually stumped as to how snakes actually accomplish motion, some slithering at speeds as high as 6 miles per hour and some with the ability to climb trees. Snakes are good at showing up where we least expect them, such as the 6-foot-long Black Snake my uncle found coiled up on the motor of his kitchen refrigerator in his cabin in the Smoky Mountains; or like the large python that my friend in Ghana found sleeping in his bathtub one morning. Humans have pegged these unnerving serpents as animals-to-watch-out-for since the beginning of time, most ancient cultures preserving art and legends that depict snakes as necessitating great respect.

Just think of the imagery of snakes that we find throughout history, and even today, in our culture. Ancient legends regard snakes as everything from guardians to demons to healers. The mysterious properties of snake venom are perhaps responsible for this, containing the potential for both harm and healing. Snakes are associated with the symbols of healing across ancient mythologies, such as being entwined around the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, often depicted on hospital symbols today. More often, though, we lose the positive recognition of snakes and associate them only with the satan, the devil. They are depicted as cunning and sly. The Bible contains images of snakes as enticing tempters who spread gossip and incite sin. Just recall the Garden of Eden story: who is the bad guy? Who starts all this trouble? Yeah, I thought so. The snake.

With all this in mind, we can understand just a bit of how the Israelites were feeling as they wandered in the desert. They had been walking in the wilderness for decades at this point. The original generation of people who had escaped from Egypt was passing away and the younger generation was becoming cynical, wondering if they would ever arrive at the promised land. The mentality of the wilderness was one of confusion: “What are we even supposed to be doing?” “We’re bored!” “We’re hungry!” “Even if we had food, it would be bad!” “We’re tired!” “WHAT GIVES?!”

And then, to top off all the complaining, God sends snakes (!) among the people. Suddenly, the people can only look down at the ground as they walk, as they camp, as they continue to find the manna in the mornings among the dew. They are fixated on what is around their feet, listening for a rattle of danger, a hiss of death. Imagine the anxiety, the fear, the division they must have felt. Many of us today recognize, and resonate with, these emotions in our own lives and in our own cultural contexts.

So Moses prays to God to remove the snakes. But God is in the habit of surprising us and God does not remove the snakes. Instead, God points the Israelites to focus in another direction. Instead of looking down at their feet, fixating on the presence of venom at the ground-level, God bids the wilderness-wanderers to look up–at a serpent of another sort. A bronze snake, which Moses affixed to a pole and lifted high into the air, so that one who had sustained injury from a serpent might look at the bronze snake and live.

Wait, wait, wait, did God just entice Moses to erect an idol? Isn’t this story about the same group of God’s people who got into trouble with a golden calf? The same people who do a lot of complaining, only to repent and then start complaining all over again? What is God playing at, here?

At this point in our snake story, it’s not surprising that we, Christians in a modern context, would be puzzled by this turn of events. Theologian and prolific writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

“For some reason, Christians seem to jump to conclusions whenever there is a story with a snake in it. Sinister music starts playing in our heads. We sniff the air for brimstone as we reach around behind us trying to find the [garden hoe to whack it with]. This is probably because we all believed our Sunday school teachers when they told us that the snake in the Garden of Eden was really Satan in disguise. Or maybe it’s just that old snake-hating gene looking for a just war theory? But whatever it is, it won’t work in this story. There is no Satan in Torah. All of the snakes belong to God.”

All the snakes belong to God. Not to worry, everyone, because these snakes are God’s special snakes that occupy our story of venom and healing, of fear and salvation. (!) The adjective describing the snakes in our Scripture today, from the Common English Bible, is “poisonous.” The Hebrew word that describes the serpents is “serapim,” which means “to burn” or “fiery.” This “serapim” should bring to mind the “seraphim,” the flying fiery serpents mentioned in the story of the call of Isaiah the prophet. The Biblical seraphim are the heavenly beings that guard the throne of Yahweh, the God of the people of Israel. Seraphim have a twofold charge in religious lore: to destroy and to protect. These seraphim are no doubt a far cry from the sweet pink-cheeked cherubs we can find as knick-knacks in Hallmark stores. These fiery serpents have some awesome power, some power that confounds death and life and exists somewhere in the in-between. With the connection with these famous angelic beings, the people of Israel (and those of us reading their story) would be smart to be at least a little wary of these serpents who slither among them in the wilderness. They know the snake stories, and are wise to be afraid.

Rev. Christopher McLaren from St. Mark’s’ Episcopal in Albuquerque writes in a sermon on this text:

“I think we have to admit it. This is a strange story. It is hard to explain, ambiguous and numinous all at the same time. The story is a story of salvation, of saving help, but it is a dark story of salvation. The story tells us something that Christians often don’t want to acknowledge, that somehow in the hands of God, evil and good, threat and promise, life and death are all intertwined. It is hard to explain it, but we know intuitively that we are onto something. The truth is not simple or easy. It is complex and paradoxical. Deep truth is not easy to understand, it is not always tidy. It is a weird reversal of sorts. Moses takes the very image of the evil that is afflicting and frightening the people and recreates it into a salvation for the people. He takes their anxiety and fear and pulls it up from under them and puts it up on a pole and makes them look at it. He makes them stare their fear and anxiety in the face and, in doing, so they are saved. They find life in the midst of death.”

This theme of life in the midst of death is not unknown to Moses, whose life was made possible by his mother helping him escape death declared to Hebrew baby boys by pharaoh’s edict. This theme is not unknown to the Israelites, who experienced the Passover of God’s spirit that allowed them to live while the firstborn of Egyptian families perished. This theme is not unknown to me, who pursues a ministry of presence in the midst of a culture characterized by separation, distance and distraction facilitated by always-new technologies, self-centered individualism and ideologies that pass for patriotism. This theme is not unknown to us here at Seattle First Baptist Church, who by gathering here seek life, seek to know and be known, seek community in the midst of the death-dealing forces that control our world. In fact, it is appropriate to remember this particular snake story, replete with references to suffering and salvation, halfway through Lent. The gospel that is paired with today’s reading is this: in the gospel according to John, Jesus is visited by a man named Nicodemus, who arrives under cover of darkness. Nicodemus comes wondering who Jesus is and what he’s up to. He inquires how to gain eternal life and Jesus responds, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”

Now THIS is a strange snake story. Why would Jesus compare himself to a snake, with all their messy cultural associations? And for goodness sake, we still have questions left from the Old Testament text: Why would God not take away the snakes? How could asking the Israelites to look directly at the thing they fear actually heal them?

Friends, Lent is the time when we remember being in the wilderness and live in the liminal space between life and death, between the miraculous birth and the death and resurrection of Jesus, between being bitten by the situations of our world and our lives and the promise of justice that Jesus’ life-conquering-death story shares with us. And in this in-between time, where we live so much of our lives, God is asking us to look at that which we fear the most. The disciples had lots of practice doing this, as over and over and over they voiced fear and trepidation to Jesus, who always responded, “Do not be afraid. Follow me. I will be with you.” So during Lent, we join Jesus’ very human disciples as they accompany him in his ministry, as they follow God’s very human Child and help him do the very human work of spreading the gospel of good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives, and liberation to the oppressed. Minister and poet Jan Richardson wisely reminds us that “to follow God does not often mean traveling with certainty about where God will lead us. Rather, following God propels us to be present to the place where we are, for this is the very place where God shows up.” In the midst of uncertainty, of all of the ways we experience wilderness in our lives, we know it can be hard to present. God is always doing Something New in our lives, inviting us to practice being present and join the dance of the Divine. Standing on the cusp of the Something New is pretty overwhelming, especially, say, if you are finishing a degree and contemplating a move across the country and meeting a bunch of passionate, kind people you want to do ministry with. It’s hard to be present when I have to return from Seattle to Nashville to finish required classes and write a few more papers, but I know that God will show up there, too, hopefully with some extra motivation and some editing skills and perhaps some chocolate. Just as God shows up here, with us, right now, with what we need to be present where we are.

In this story, the Israelites had to be present where they were. The physical pain of a snakebite and the ensuing complaints and cries from families and friends called them to be present, right then and right there in the wilderness. While they were being present, perhaps angry and frustrated and hurting, perhaps they realized, ever so slowly, that God was there, too. Perhaps they realized that God was not going to take the snakes away, God would not take the origin of the fear and the pain away. But God would point them in the direction of healing.

Friends, we know by the simple fact of living in this world that God does not always remove the source of pain. There are not always clean breaks, easy answers, equal shares of hurt, fears that get banished once-and-for-all. Often we must hold onto pain far too long for any of our liking. Sometimes we are even afraid of letting go of our pain. Like the Israelites, we can only look down at the ground, at the source of our pain, wandering in the wilderness staring at our feet, absorbed in our own worlds. The fears and hurts we carry with us, that are written on our skin and enfleshed in our hearts, sometimes become part of our identity such that we can get stuck in one place. Barbara Brown Taylor asks, “What concrete things do we focus on that epitomize our fear? In what sense do these things become idols that keep our fear in place? What is God capable of doing with these idols, once they have been plucked out from under our feet and set up on a pole where we can see them clearly? How does God respond to our fear, both in the wilderness and at the foot of the cross?”

In this Scripture text, we find that God shows the Israelites, those complaining wanderers, that moving towards healing is possible if they face their fears directly. To confront any fear or past hurt or injustice, we must know the shape of the challenge, what it looks like, how it moves, so that we can figure out how to move beyond it. We must shed light on that which is cast in shadow, not only the hidden parts of our lives, but also the pieces of our cultural identities and lives which we keep under wraps, which we deny and brush under the rug. It is only by exposing the forces that divide us–racism, nationalism, classism, heterosexism, misogyny and many others–that we can begin to confront them. And, it seems, in a world that is bent on dividing us, we have no choice but to create the beloved community amongst ourselves, so that we can fully participate in the larger world. Can you visualize it, the beloved community? Can you hear it calling, this world that is possible? To do this, we must move towards healing, towards restoration, though the wilderness may be full of snakes, and though we may not be sure in what direction to fix our attention.

The snake story we consider today points us to recognize that we live in the tension, between that-which-harms-us and that-which-heals-us. The bronze snake on the pole may look at first glance like the death-dealing forces that every human life encounters, but we are surprised to find it is really the anti-venom, the healing that might sting at the time but that allows us to continue. Snakes in ancient mythology symbolize this tension but also symbolize transition and transformation. They shed their skin. Snakes show us that living between death and life can be dangerous and can be healing. We all live in this space of tension, but we also have the potential to be transformed on our way to healing. And friends, the Good News is that transformation is possible. Though we remain mostly the same person as before, the process of healing can resemble a sloughing-off of skin. Like the snakes in our story, there is something different between the snakes that slither among God’s people and the bronze serpent exalted on a pole; perhaps this, too, is a matter of shedding the layers of myth, legend and superstition about snakes representing sin, evil, and the demonic. As we journey towards healing, we must acknowledge the layers that we let go: maybe we let go of lies about ourselves, whether self-told or from others. Maybe we slough off the pieces of ourselves that have not obscured our true identities as beloved children of the Holy. Maybe we shed the myths about ourselves, our families, our cultures, our world that have been proven only to deal in destruction instead of give life abundant. This transformation, this shedding of skin, requires vulnerability. Are we willing to face our fears, our pains, our challenges head on, eye-to-eye, looking up instead of down? Transformation is a worthy risk.

The Hard News is that transformation is also a process. Healing is not a one-time event, it is a sometimes slow, somewhat tedious process of sloughing off the dead skin, the layers of pain, the rough edges left by trauma and trial. Moving forward in the journey through the wilderness is not made possible by a single moment, but many moments of complaining, doubting God’s love and liberation, and falling into sin…and then repeating this process over and over again. The Israelites are tired and hungry and wonder what it truly means to be the chosen people, and then here God comes, saying, “Look into the eyes of your past. Gaze upon that which scares you. I will be with you through it all.” I kind of wish that it wasn’t a snake a pole that I had to look at to be healed; I have to admit it’d be a lot nicer if it was a cricket, or a butterfly, or a bunny…but the truth is that the Israelites, that we, have to look at a snake. This may not be a necessarily comforting message, but it’s an honest one.

God’s people had to choose to face their fears directly, to look in the eyes of the bronze snake and believe they would be healed. Church, a choice lies in front of us as well. How often do we know what it might take to heal ourselves, to heal our world…and yet we make a different choice? We look away. We hide our eyes. We lack whatever it is that gives us the strength to be vulnerable…perhaps we don’t trust God to come through for us, perhaps we don’t believe in the power of this snake on the pole, the thing that God Herself placed there so we would use it to heal ourselves.

So, church, what if we look directly at that which scares us? What if we face our fears directly? What if we risk vulnerability and simply focus on God’s presence with us, at all times, no matter what fears come our way?

Transformation takes time. Though we may not want to spend time wandering in the desert for forty years, though some of us may feel like we have been, we must acknowledge that this shedding our fears and moving beyond our pain is a process. When God instructs Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole, God does not say that the people will all be healed at once. God leaves the snakes. The snakes may continue to pose a threat to the people. But whenever someone is bitten, they must only choose to look in the direction of the bronze snake and they will be healed. By turning their attention to the possibility of healing, by looking their fear square in the eyes, they will not perish from their wounds but persist. God’s people in this story show us the very process of living in sight of serpents: fear, anxiety, pain, healing, redemption…then again: fear, anxiety, pain, healing, redemption…then again and again and again. We face our fears. We confront our pain. We are honest about our needs. Over and over we must choose to fix our gaze on that which is life-giving, that which is life-affirming, even and especially in the midst of the powers of the world that seek to keep us looking down, concerned with the venom poised and ready at our ankles.

Maybe there is some Good News in this snake story after all, moving in ways that are hard to understand, and showing up where we least expect it. Dear friends, when we are in sight of snakes, focusing only on the anxiety and hurt that holds us captive, remember this: God is with us all the time, in all places. God never leaves us to face our fears alone. The Holy One shows us how to point our vision toward healing. As always, the Good News is complicated, it’s difficult, but it’s real. It’s honest: God’s presence is with us at all times, through the pain, showing us the way to healing, accompanying us and holding us at every turn. May it ever be so.

 

This sermon originally preached at Seattle First Baptist Church, March 11, 2018.