Monday, March 12, 2018

Snake Handling

“Snake Handling!”

In the Name of One God; the Most Holy, Undivided, and Everlasting Trinity. Amen

When Joshua, #2 son, was well into his rebellious teen years, he came one day to the church’s Adult Bible Study. The class was open to everybody including the intellectuals as well as to the more evangelical sorts, and all the rest. There was some discussion of a biblical story that stretched our credulity, I do not recall just now which one it was…perhaps the one about Jonah and the Whale, but my son expressed some doubt over the literal truth of the story. One of the more rabid evangelicals in the group admonished my son to believe or else. Josh, being Josh, chose the “or else” option.  Then he tossed the bible on the table, somewhat irreverently, and said; “It’s just another book!” The evangelical expressed outrage and a vigorous discussion ensued, folks lining up on both sides of the literalist divide. that was way back when in West Virginia, where such discussions were not unusual. I found the whole thing delightful. 

I was so proud of Joshua and said so. He insisted on thinking! I encouraged him to think critically about everything. I encourage everyone to think critically!
Joshua loves to read. He always did. All books are sacred to him. He comes from a very long line of people who think that way. The Celtic monks, for instance, who transcribed much of Western Literature during the so-called “Dark Ages” preserved much of what we have left of the Classics, not only The Bible, but also the Greek and Roman Classics. All written words are sacred. 

I introduced Joshua to the Gilgamesh Epic so he would know that the Biblical Narrative is based, in part, on literature predating it by many centuries. Written as early as 2100BC it is the earliest Epic poem known to scholars. It contains a Creation Story and a Story of the Flood. It deals with the quest for eternal life and the fact of death, the search for deliverance from oppression and injustice and other such Biblical themes. 

The literary fragments of the Bible, the stories, ideas and themes, all come together over a very long time. The Pentateuch, The Histories, the Wisdom Literature, the Psalter, the Prophets and so on were at long last collected into a set of scrolls we call the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Then of course there was the Christ event, the Pauline record of interaction with Christians throughout the Mediterranean world, the Gospels, and that curious Book of Revelation written during the first persecutions so often misinterpreted and misunderstood. The word “Biblia” from which we derive the word “Bible” means library. It was not given to us via some sort of Divine Federal Express delivery system. The Bible came to us over time and from many sources.

There are stories that do stretch one’s credulity from time to time, and we have one in today’s Hebrew Scripture. The story of serpents in the wilderness is a case in point for me. Especially, the part about God asking Moses to take a serpent and lift it up on a Bronze Pole.  Anyone who got bit by a serpent, merely by looking at the pole would be just fine! Oh really!

Still there is something in the story that seems to “catch” something of our nature as human beings. We complain. That’s understandable for folks wandering in the wilderness. There was no food, no water, and they were facing death. Just try living a few days without power in the Merrimack Valley and the see what happens. It is downright dangerous to upset the well defined routine of the general population. Tragically, it seems, there is always someone who dies from carbon monoxide poisoning or suffers a heart attack from over exertion shoveling heavy wet snow and the like. The serpents who bite are not just the kind we might find in the Ancient Near Eastern world. There are “serpents” of all sorts that can “bite” into human vulnerability during our own wilderness experiences in the wake of these Nor’easters that have assaulted us recently.

We erect our own bronze poles and warn one another about the proper placement of generators and over exertion when you get to be my age and beyond. 

If we understand the Sacred Writings at their deeper and more metaphorical levels we have much to learn from them. As my dear friend, the late Professor Harvey Guthrie used to say of the Hebrew Scripture during my seminary career; “We do not take the Bible literally. We take it seriously!”

So too it seems did Jesus. As the story stood in the Sacred Writings so it stood for him as we read in today’s Gospel. “Jesus said, “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.” The vast majority of Hebrew scholars down through the ages understood every word of Scripture as informing the meaning of all the others. In today’s Gospel the Rabbinical mind of Jesus referenced the moment in the wilderness when Moses lifted up the serpent. 

What is going on here in this Gospel? Think about it. Jesus understood that he must suffer. He understood that we must all suffer. When we ask why God allows us to suffer, we ignore something central to the Gospel. The very symbol of our salvation is the Cross. Jesus did not find a way around suffering. Jesus found a way through it!
And note this. The juxtaposition of the lifting up of Jesus with the next sentence in the Gospel is striking. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
How compelling is this proclamation for us. Suffering and redemptive love exist entwined in a living dynamic. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it but that the world might be saved through him. 

Do we love the world like Jesus did? Or have we become so jaded and cynical that we capitulate to the darkness. It is tempting do so so. But we are children of the light. 

Which brings us to today. Unfettered gun violence in the streets; the nation’s schools, concerts, movie theaters and churches! And the hammerlock held on Congress by the NRA! The prospect of a conversation between the likes of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. If that doesn’t shake your soul I don’t know what will. How can any of us talk about salvation in our current historic context? Rising sea levels, and one hundred year storms every few weeks it seems…I could go on.

But listen; “God so loved the world”. Imagine it! If God so loved the world why wouldn’t we? If the snake in the wilderness is lifted up, and if Jesus is likewise lifted up, perhaps there is hope that we might love the world like God did and does still. In fact God requires it, under the authority of Jesus, you and I shall love the world as much as he did. And we shall we love one another as much as he did.   And as the old spiritual put it; “We shall overcome!”

And how much did Jesus love the world? That brings us back to the cross, doesn’t it? Redemptive love and suffering become a unified dynamic in Jesus. Lift him up dear ones so that all the world might see. He stretched out his loving arms on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

The fulcrum on which the love of God turns on how much we are willing to love the world and one another.

We are all God has left. I am persuaded that all who dwell in the darkness of sin and self will remain there until they see some glimmer of light. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle; “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” 

But you are the children of Light. You are the repository of the Dream of God. Let your light so shine before others that they may see the good you do and glorify the One who came to save us.

You see, salvation is not a fait accompli, a done deal, as it were.  It is rather a Way. It is the Way of Jesus. It is the Way, the Truth and the Life. You cannot get there, or be there on the Way unless you are filled with the love of God and the love of one another. 

Joshua and I still have our faith and our doubt. They live side by side along the Way. Funny thing though, when the chips are down Joshua calls me for a prayer like the day his best friend was in a very serious automobile accident. We spent the night in prayer keeping the vigil of hope against hope. Thank God I will be officiating at Chris’s wedding later this May. Chris too is now a child of faith. I prayed of course and then I encourage Joshua  and Chris to pray too. Thus we journey on the way, the truth and the life together.

In the Name of One God; the Most Holy, Undivided, and Everlasting Trinity. Amen

Fr Paul

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