Sermon March 14 – Snakes on a Plain (Numbers 21:4-9) Rev. Betsy Hogan
It's a very weird episode, this snake on a stick episode in the story of Israel's wandering in the wilderness toward the Promised Land. It’s weird, it seems to come out of nowhere, and it includes some really strange elements of magic and superstition that seem bizarre and out-of-place in the otherwise fairly down-to-earth – miraculous yes, but usually somehow reasonable – stories of the Israelites in the wilderness.
Of which there are many. Because forty years they spent in the wilderness, doing the wandering toward the Promised Land... And at the point we heard about this morning, it is not going well.
Oh, they DID finally get up close to the Promised Land. But when they sent some spies over to do a little recon before making the big crossover, most of the spies reported back that the land was already inhabited. By really tall people. Who looked rather fierce. And so against all the advice of Moses, and against what they’d all agreed (and with God’s blessing) that the plan would be, they'd decided to hold off for a bit.
Which seemed like a smart decision at the time, but all it did was cast them back into the wilderness and back into the wandering, and now with even more limited patience. The manna is getting on their nerves – the same food every single day – the thirst and the heat are getting on their nerves, EVERYTHING is getting on their nerves.
It’s not a new refrain from God’s people Israel. They’ve complained before. They’ve complained a LOT before! But THIS time, it appears, God’s had enough. And so in one of those moves that really makes you cringe if you prefer your Bible stories to remind you that God is loving and kind, God sends snakes. A whole lot of snakes. And not just the creepy ones, the poisonous ones. And the people start getting bitten, and they start getting sick, and some of them even die.
It’s a 'delightful' story. And unfortunately, not much redeemed by its denouement.
Because the people of Israel instantly recognize – perhaps they’re recalling the plagues that God unleashed on Egypt – they instantly recognize that the reason for the snakes is that they've turned their back on how God wants them to live. So they go to Moses to plead with him, we’re sorry sorry sorry, that they’ll never do it again and please get God to call off the snakes.
And Moses does. Or at least, he sort of does. He does pray most fervently, as the Israelites are getting bitten by the snakes they ‘brought upon themselves’, and in the end he is conceded by God a way to end all of it...
But what a weird way to end all of it. Not what we’d expect, and probably not what Moses himself expected: the usual something miracle-y like a sudden rainfall that drives the snakes away, or a whirlwind into which all the snakes are whooshed up into the sky, or even just Moses lifting up that marvelous staff that parted the Red Sea and all the snakes retreating…
No – instead God tells Moses to make a snake out of bronze and stick it high on a stick where everyone can see it. And if they’re bitten, they just have to look at that bronze snake up on that stick, and they’ll live.
Note that there's no mention of a timeline, an ending point for this process.... Presumably that snake on a stick just becomes part of what they carry along as they continue. Just in case someone gets bitten, a day or two days or two years later. And everyone can yell, “Look at the snake on the stick!” and all will be well.
Because the snakes, it appears, never go away. That’s the fascinating bit of this story. As far as we know, the snakes stick around. Presumably still biting people. There’s a solution now – but it’s a solution for the sickness and death problem. It’s not a solution for the snake problem or even the getting bitten problem.
The snakes never go away. Nor can their presence be forgotten, since everywhere the people go, that snake on a stick is in their midst. Remember what happened when we griped and complained, when we turned our back on God? Yup, the Israelites sure do. There it is, cast in bronze -- for their healing, yes, in case they get bit again -- but also for their constant "edification".
It's an intriguing image. That snake on a stick as a talisman, yes, and an instrument of healing --
But also as a hovering reminder of that moment when their worst impulses resulted in a bad thing happening. And more to the point, a hovering reminder of the new reality in which they now have to live as a result.
It really is an intriguing image. Particularly after the kind of exactly-a-year we've had as a global family and in our own communities.
Because there's much about this past year that we'd probably just as soon forget, as we look ahead with anticipation to getting "back to normal". Just as surely as the Israelites would presumably have been pleased to put that whole snake incident behind them, as though they'd never been beset by snakes at ALL.
But they don't get to. And neither do we. The snakes never actually leave. There's a solution for the bites. But the snakes never actually leave.
Which means, for the Israelites, that even IF the intensity of fearfully and actively protecting themselves and those around them from DYING from snakes has abated, the enterprise of now LIVING with snakes has only just begun.
So what do you suppose it looks like for them? We don't have any idea. The blessed snakes are never mentioned again. And so it's very tempting and not at all surprising for us to imagine that everything pretty much went back to normal.
But I don't know that it did. And frankly, I'm not sure it would've been good if it had. And honestly, I have a feeling that's precisely why instead of the miracle the Israelites might well have expected – in which God simply takes away the snakes – what happens instead is the miracle they got.
A remedy for the clear and present danger... but a new normal that still includes the snakes. That still demands awareness of the snakes. A new normal called Life With Snakes. Which still can, of course, bite – even if there's now a remedy for the bite causing serious illness and death.
It's no great stretch for us to imagine how the whole experience might have changed the Israelites. Just think about what it was like for them on the ground. Who would've been the most vulnerable to being bitten when a bite could be deadly? Those who moved the most slowly, those who needed the most rest, those who were already infirm or weaker than their neighbours.
And who would've been most depended on, to keep gathering food, to keep fetching water, to keep finding firewood, putting themselves at risk everytime they went out, but SOMEONE has to look after those things? Perhaps the youngest? The quickest? Whoever they are, the entire community's continued functioning depended on them. Can that simply be forgotten?
I hope it wasn't, for the Israelites. When Moses made that snake on a stick and held it up and the clear and present danger began to fade – I hope the Israelites DIDN'T forget. WHO was most vulnerable, and why. And WHO carried the heaviest load of responsibility, and why.
I hope they didn't forget what it was like to have everything about their lives distilled with such clarity into "what's necessary" and "what isn't". "What matters" and "what doesn't". I hope they were changed.
Because clearly, clearly, at least part of the point of God telling Moses to make that snake on a stick, that would get held up high wherever they went, was to keep that experience alive in their consciousness, continuing to shape them as they lived in community, permanently.
Clearly that was part of the point. It's the only talisman they get, apart from the ten commandments, that they're told to carry with them always. Not just a remedy but so they'll remember. Remember what happened when they stopped living well with each other. Remember who was most vulnerable, who was lost, WHAT was lost. Remember who was essential, what work was essential, who went above and beyond, what mattered. Look at the snake on the stick and remember.
It's been almost exactly a year for us, this pandemic. And we know the snake on a stick remedy for the clear and present danger is already in our midst. Some of us, some of our loved ones, some of our neighbours have been partly or even fully vaccinated. And all of us will be. And the yearning for back to normal, we can practically taste it.
But the remedy doesn't absolve us from remembering. And remembering doesn't absolve us from resolving to make a new normal that's... Life With Snakes. Aware, now, how fragile this system is that we've built – turning away from God who created us people and talking instead of economies.
Because we are people. Made by God to love and be loved. Made by God to protect the vulnerable and value the essential. Made by God to learn and to change, remembering what proved necessary and what really mattered.
No snake on a stick for us, talisman and reminder. But Halifax poet El Jones offers instead the image of glass hands -- hands pressed against windows and computer screens, our humanness distilled into knowing we're made to love and be loved. So listen to her poem, her meditation, her sermon, as the past year becomes the year ahead.
GLASS HANDS By El Jones
Hands pressed to glass
On the fence across from the long-term care home families leave memorials for auntie, kokum, baba
Ink runs in the rain and half-mast flags
A table set with no guests to ask
Like bells ringing in classrooms calling eternal recess
Bless those who grieve
Unable to even leave kisses on foreheads
Bless the nurses as they move from bed to bed
We've scrubbed our hands until they cracked and bled
We read page after page of death announcements in the newspapers
Our elders, repositories of wisdom went first but then the rest of us
Living and dying through this curse
Coughs in lungs and final gasps
Some days feel like we are the last on Earth
Too fast we say, too fast
We didn't even have goodbye
And the wind blows over winter grass
My mother's mantra: this too shall pass.
Ours is not a funeral mass
We learned to mourn on Zoom
Christmas spent in empty rooms
We'll meet when the pandemic is through
But month after month and still the cases rise
In gloom loneliness intensifies
I no longer know your face behind the mask so I learn to know your eyes
But it's not enough.
And we try to bring to mind our last conversation
Amid the devastation we find hidden seams of human kindness
Bless the grocery bringers to quarantine
The minimum wage labourers who clean
The developers of the vaccine
The bus drivers and hospital workers at hour sixteen of their shift
Bless those who believe they will not be missed
It's the vulnerable ones most likely to be lost unseen
This is a lesson for we who have too long turned our heads at inequality
Believed in austerity
Now we understand the severity of policies that leave too many behind
Oh now we have learned to cry together.
Let us forever remember those who cannot come in from the cold
We should never again allow the deaths in shelters
In cell blocks, at home alone
No, let us make a promise in the now for the future beyond this
May we never again value people less than profits
Let us speak our love before the coffins
Let us pause not seldom, but often
May our hearts soften
Let us visit those living in isolation
Let clean water flow from the taps of First Nations
We can re-learn how to care for each other
We can re-learn how to share with each other
Let us honour the dead by committing to the living
Let us honour the dead by committing to giving
We are not broken though we are diminished
We still have time and this is not the finish
There is faith, and hope, and it's within us