Moses, Patrick and Snakes in the Wilderness
“Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”
What an amazing coincidence that I would happen to begin my ministry here in Douglassville, Pennsylvania on St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Imagine! An Irishman from Boston....and even more amazing is that the scripture would direct us to dealing with snakes.
Our Lenten Journey brings us together in a Wilderness filled with serpents. You know as well as I do what those serpents are. You know what destroys the creatures of God. You know what sin is and how it kills. It is said that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Many take that literally, forgetting that one of the snakes he drove out of Ireland was the slave trade driven by a loathsome fellow by the name of Coroticus. Children, young men and women were put to the sword to cower the people. Nobody was safe from this pernicious trade. So Patrick warned the the Terror of Ireland in a letter that if he didn’t cease desist from the slave trade, his soul would be in grave danger. The letter was delivered to the soldiers of Coroticus, and with that his army began to disperse, rather than take on the rage and rant of so marvelous a character as Patrick of Ireland. Children, young men and women by the thousand were saved from the serpentine scourge of slavery.
So as Moses lifted up the serpent in the Wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that all who look to him may be saved and have life that will never end. There is no magical quality either to a bronze serpent lifted up in an ancient Wild place. It is simply a sober warning that something that looks like this can kill you. When Jesus is lifted up, we now know, this man can give you life eternal. This is my promise to you. Jesus is the same today yesterday and tomorrow. He is the only true constant, the North Star by which we may lead our lives. He is the incarnate love of God, he is Forgiveness. He is Eternal Life with all power over sin and death.
Allow me to explain in very simple terms. I want you to know a little about me. I was born in Somerville, MA just outside of Boston in a solid working class neighborhood on Sunday morning September the 9th, 1945 at 11:05am. My mom and dad didn’t get along very well. They fought a lot, they separated and eventually they were divorced. I grew up with my mom, my grandmother and my uncle. My dad used to come visit me on Sundays when I was a child and we’d go off on day trips together. That was so much fun. He’d take me to see his family up on the North Shore. But then when I was 8 years old the serpent struck my dad. On December 27, 1953 my dad died of complications from diabetes and heart trouble. This was the “signature” moment of my life. And when I went to church which my grandmother pretty much required me to do, I had to pray a prayer that said “Our Father who art Heaven”. I searched the lovely clerestory of our church and I couldn’t see God and I certainly couldn’t see my dad. I cried myself to sleep many’s the night in those days, or as the Psalmist says in the 19th verse of today’s Psalm; “I cried out to the Lord in my trouble.”
Then one day on the way home from church, I sauntered along the brick sidewalks of Cambridge and Somerville, which are so common in that part of the world, I ran my hand along a chain link fence in my reveries, and caught a leaf off a somewhat overgrown and straggly hedge. As I pressed my nails into the substance of that leaf I heard something in my heart that said; “Don’t you know that there is a special place in my heart for your dad?” I stopped dead in my tracks. There were no words; just silence; a sheer silence. All I ever heard when I prayed was silence. Now the silence spoke to me not with words I hasten to add but with a sense of Presence. And that Presence brought me a message to my heart; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for your dad?” There, now I said it out loud and gave voice to that which spoke in teh Silence in my heart.
So I ran home as fast as I could. In those days I could do such a thing. I burst into the kitchen where my grandmother was presiding at the kitchen stove which was like an altar to her. There she stirred, and chopped, salted and peppered good things to eat and I tugged at her apron string and said; “Ma, is there a God?”
“Of course there is”.
“Ma, is there a Heaven?”
Now somewhat irritated by this interruption to her routine, she snapped her wooden spoon upon her spider (this is what she called her cast iron skillet) and she said; “Yes, of course there is!”
“Ma,” this I said with a little trepidation and another tug to the apron; “Is my daddy there?” I phrased the question carefully, knowing what my grandmother thought of my dad and the other Irish she knew at the time. She was English, and the thought of an Englishwoman spending an eternity with an Irishman must have given her pause. I say that because there was a hesitation in what she said next. Not long, but there was a noticeable moment or two.
Then the unforgettable happened: she bent down, and gathered me on her knee, held my head close to the nape of her neck, and it is as though I can still smell the aromatics of her hair and then she said; “Yes, of course he is”.
She drove the serpents of sadness, doubt and despair out of my life. Now could I rejoice again. Now I knew that there really is a God, that there is a Heaven and that my dad was there.
Some of the religious folk had said that my dad couldn’t go to heaven because he didn’t go to church. Other than my grandmother nobody was particularly religious in my family. And my grandmother’s theology was so generous as to allow for an Irishman, a Roman Catholic and one that didn’t even go to church, to be right up there with the angelic host of heaven.
I decided to become a priest soon after that. I decided that it was all true, all the stuff I heard in church week after week; that “God so loved the world that everyone who believes in him will not die but have eternal life” and that “Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him”.
So then, as I begin my time with you here for these few months, let me begin by lifting up Jesus high enough for all to see. His love is far more generous that you can possibly imagine. His forgiveness is just as generous, and whatever it is that’s bothers you is of no bother to Jesus because his love for you is far more vast that anything you can possibly fathom. And then there is that business of eternal life and heaven. Death won’t kill life, but don’t wait until you die to know about it. Heaven is now in the love you bear for God and for one another. Right in your heart of heart and even in the silence you hear when you pray.
Thus our Lenten journey continues. Watch out for the serpents! They are real. But watch first last and always for Jesus! For whatever serpents there are will flee before the gaze of the Love of God.
In the Name of the Father and of The Son and of The Holy Spirit.