Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lift High the Snake -- A Sermon

I was driving behind an ambulance the other day and noticed what looked like an big blue asterisk on the back.  In the middle was a pole with a snake.  And I start thinking to myself, if I’m having an emergency, do I really want a guy with a snake on his truck to come help me?

But then, you look at your doctor’s office and you see snakes there, too.  In some instances you’ll see two snakes wrapped around a winged staff, in some, just the one like on the ambulance.  That’s because there was some confusion a while back between two Greek gods.  

Hermes used to carry a rod with two snakes called the caduceus, but he was the patron of liars and thieves.  Which is what you might think of when you get your doctor’s bill.  Then there’s the less well known god named Asclepius who carried a rod with just one snake -- and his job was healing.

That’s all fascinating, you say, but what are all those snakes doing in my bible?  Especially, why is God sending fiery snakes to bite his people just because they were complaining (as they always seemed to be)?  

What kind of God kills his people just because they kvetch?  And if this God is so petty, why does Jesus later equate himself with that serpent?

First thing is to remember is that the story in Numbers was written down many generations after the events.  Sort of like you deciding to write down the events of Henry Hudson based solely on oral history handed down through your family.  The details are certain to be hazy.

There’s every reason to believe that there probably were snake bites during Israel’s time in the wilderness, and perhaps there was a bronze serpent on a pole used for healing in some way.  But did it have to happen just as it was written?  We’ll never know.

Still, remember where the people had just fled from -- Egypt.  Not only were Egyptians familiar with Greek gods, but they had their own snake gods.  The pharaoh wore a crown topped by a rearing cobra symbolizing the Egyptian goddess Wadjyt whose job was to spit fiery venom on the pharaoh’s enemies, and thus save him.  For Egyptians, it was simultaneously a symbol of salvation and destruction.

Now, let’s set the scene.  The people aren’t just kvetching.  They are impatient.  They’ve been free from Pharoah for, what, two, three months?  And they STILL haven’t reached the promised land.  What’s more, things aren’t looking good, what with little food and water -- and what food they do have, they don’t like.  Moses was supposed to be some kind of savior for them, but it seems like he’s just made their crisis worse.  It’s almost like reading headlines today.

Anyway, considering they were complaining about how bad things were under Moses and how great they had been under Pharaoh, and because it was fiery snakes that God sent, it wouldn’t be surprising if what God was saying something like, “There’s your Egyptian Wadjyt for you.  Let’s see how well it protects you now.”  Or, more concisely, “Wadjyt is attacking you which means you are now Pharaoh’s enemies, not his friends.  There’s no going back.”

Still, hoisting the snake onto the pole and making the bitten people stare at it to be healed is confusing.  Some scholars say you’re supposed to look at your sin - acknowledge your sin before you can be forgiven or healed.  But the serpents were the agents of punishment, not the sin itself.

All we can say for sure is that the Israelites already recognized the serpent on the pole as a sign of healing, so it made sense to them to use one.  Besides, it acts as a sign that the same God who can destroy them really prefers to heal.  Just as surely as God could bring destruction upon those who despised him, he would also heal those who repented.  Whether we like it or not, Israel saw God as jealous and dangerous as well as loving.  It was for the foolhardy to abandon him.

That still leaves us with Jesus who late at night, alone with a timid believer named Nicodemus, says, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

He equates himself with the bronze serpent lifted high to rescue the people not only from their snakebites but from their lack of faith.  He alludes to his impending crucifixion, of course, but the symbol he uses is the ancient symbol for healing.  The gospel writer wants us to be clear about who Jesus is -- the one who will heal us if only we look to him and trust.

And what does he heal us from?  Our own foolish lack of faith.  Our own mindless wandering away from God who gives us life.  Perhaps our own impatience in our times of crisis --  which we can relate to these days.  Most importantly, he is here to heal the broken relationships between us and God. 

But unlike the bronze snake in the wilderness -- where you just look at it and are instantly healed -- with Jesus, you look TO him, and the healing is inside.  It comes slowly over a lifetime, but it is more powerful than any serum.

His healing is of the soul.  It brings light and calls us to leave the dark behind.  When you look upon a cross, Jesus lifted high upon the cross, it is your renewed chance to embrace that light, embrace that healing, embrace a new life in God’s love.

Because in the end, we know true healing doesn’t come from a serpent or even from an ambulance or a doctor, but from Christ alone.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

10 Words - A Sermon

I saw a cartoon recently where there was a picture of a man all burned up from a bolt of lightning, and a voice balloon coming from the sky saying, “Now if I had called them the 10 Suggestions, I might have gone a little easier on you.”

You hear that sometimes, “They’re the 10 Commandments, not the 10 Suggestions!”  Well, here’s the funny part.  They’re not the ten commandments.  Even though we rehearse them together every Sunday in Lent, and even though we always say, “You shall / shall not…” the truth is, that’s not what it says.

Well, not exactly.

In the Hebrew, they are called the Ten Words or Ten Sayings.

In fact, if you go to literally translating the words, it doesn’t REALLY say “You shall…” either.  A literal translation of “You shall have no other gods but me,” is “Other gods will not exist over my face.”  Even more literal: “No exists to you gods other above/over/before my face/presence.” 

And you might say, “So?  What difference does that make?  It’s just words, just semantics.”

True, but sometimes the WAY you say something is important.  Now, understand that the 10 Words are still part of the Jewish Law, but isn’t it interesting that Jewish Law starts with sayings rather than commands?

Think of it in terms of your family.  Though we all tend to lay down the law every now and then, especially with our kids, fact is, it has a more lasting and positive impact when we phrase things in terms of identity.  “In our family, we do things this way.”  “We’re Kramers, we don’t do that…”  That sort of thing.

That is at the heart of what’s happening in these 10 Sayings.  “We don’t kill,” “We keep the sabbath holy,” “We honor our mother and father.”  In these early days of the people of Israel, when their identity is being formed, these  statements form the core -- the very heart -- of who they will be.

Not that this is all warm and fuzzy.  These are clear categories of behavioral expectations, and as we see throughout the old testament, God does not mess around with those who don’t take it seriously.  You’ll get a sample of that next week.  

In fact, you get a foretaste of it in today’s Gospel with -- of all people -- Jesus Christ.  In one of his rare outbursts of righteous anger, Jesus makes a whip of cords, overturns the moneychangers’ tables and says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  

You might be surprised by this outburst, yet it happens in all four of the Gospels -- a rare event -- so it’s important.  What could lie behind such vehemence?

How about a total disregard for the heart of Israel, the law itself?  Sure the money changers were changing money for the worshipers from Roman denarius to temple money so  they could pay the temple tax and yet have no graven image enter the temple.  Sure, the sellers of doves were providing the animals needed for sacrifice to those who could not afford to raise their own.

But serving others was not their main motivation.  Neither was worship of God.  No, each passage makes clear that their interest was making easy money on the backs of those who could least afford it.  Because the rich did not have to resort to money changers.  They had currency in various forms at their desposal.  They owned their own sacrificial animals.

The poor or regular folks needed these vendors, and just like today, the poor paid the most for the simplest services.  Money changers charged exorbitant rates these pilgrims could not afford.  But they had no choice if they wanted to enter the temple.  The animal sellers sold their doves for far more than they were worth, but if you have nowhere else to go, you pay.

To add insult to injury, these vendors were parked in what was called the court of the gentiles - the only place where God-fearing gentiles could come to worship.  They weren’t allowed inside.  It was the most crowded part of the temple because everyone passed through to get to the inner parts -- so these vendors were taking up space from those who were there to worship.

Taken altogether, these merchants violated the very spirit of the 10 Sayings about who Israelites were as a people.  They did not honor God, because they were using worship of him as a mere excuse for doing business, and they did not honor their fellow humans because they saw them only as a means to making money.  

What Jesus was saying is quite simple.  “This is not who we are.”

So whether you want to call them commandments or sayings or words, they are statements of our identity.  This is who we are, this is how we live together because of how we relate with God.

When you look at them during this lenten season -- and I do hope you will give them more consideration than the brief rehearsal we offer each Sunday -- trying saying it like this, “We’re members of God’s family.  We have only one God, we don’t make images of God to contain him, we don’t abuse his name …”  

You will find this makes them so much more than mere commands.  Amen.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Losing Your Life - A Sermon

There’s a doctor named Sanjay Gupta who you can see on TV regularly.  He is the medical expert for CNN.  Recently, he did a special called “Saving Your Life.”  On the local public radio station, there’s a regular medical show called, “How To Save Your Life.”

These are good doctors giving out good advice to people who want to live healthier lives.  Nothing wrong with that.  If that’s as far as it goes.

We just want to approach such shows or any of the countless books, DVDs, shows, or workshops on staying healthy with a grain of salt.  Because no matter how healthy we keep ourselves, we WILL one day die.  And no matter how healthy we are on that fateful day, when we get to it, we will know that our purpose in life was not merely to die looking good but something more, something deeper.

I mention these shows about saving your life because of their titles which bring to mind our eternal struggle to somehow beat death.  And by death, we usually mean physical death.  It was the same struggle in Jesus’ day, and he faced it head on, much to the discomfort of his disciples.

On a day when he asks them to dig a little deeper into the purpose of his ministry, into his very being, Peter starts to catch a glimmer.  “You are the Christ,” he says, but has no idea what it means.  When Jesus tells him this will mean suffering and death, Peter will have none of it.  After all, if you’re perfect, if you’re on the side of God, how can you possibly have to deal with death?

Isn’t that what we still think?  Don’t we still see death as a tragedy, especially if it comes unexpectedly or to someone who is young?  Don’t we secretly think of death as all too final?  I mean, we’re still arguing about the death penalty because we see it as the “ultimate punishment.”  When a soldier or a cop or a firefighter dies in the line of duty, don’t we say they made the ultimate sacrifice?

All I’m saying is that death goes against our instincts, and we try to avoid it at all costs.  Which makes Jesus’ statement to his disciples troubling.  Even more so, however, when he says to them, “Oh, not only am I going to die, but if you want to remain my followers, YOU are going to have your own crosses -- quite literally.”

The disciples were given notice -- they were going to have to face death head on.  Not only face it but -- as they learned -- embrace it.  We have these bodies for a reason, Jesus says, and we are called to make use of them while we inhabit them.  But we fall into sin when we think taking care of them IS our purpose.  When we become proud of our bodies and -- by extension -- all the things we acquire which shout out to the world “Health, Well-Being, Strong, Wealthy!” then we start to lose the real life that we are meant to live.

Case study:  Abram.  Here is a guy who gave up a lot to follow God.  He left his father’s house and his adopted home to purse a dream and a promise.  The promise was that he would have children.  Well, that promise was fulfilled for Abram when his son Ishmael was born.  Now Abram was wealthy and had everything.

Until one day God comes knocking again and gives him two very strange commands.  First change your name.  What?  Why?  To understand, it helps to remember the power of names.  They predict and proclaim a person’s future.  Abram meant “Exalted Father.”  Kind of catchy.  Now he was to get rid of that.  In fact, Abram was feeling rather exalted.  But God changed it to AbraHAM -- father of a multitude.  It’s a reminder that he is not here to be exalted but to be a blessing to all nations, as God commanded when they first made their covenant back in Haran.

Second, God commanded him to be circumcised and to circumcise all the men in his household.  Now that’s a conversation I would have loved to hear:  “Guys, I just had a talk with God, and this is what he wants us to do….”  Why make this permanent mark on their bodies?

Perhaps because now that he had a son -- the one thing he lacked before -- he was getting too full of himself.  Perhaps he thought he had done this himself or that life was complete.  Circumcision attacks the very pride of a man back then.  Abram had to be marked for life in exactly the area where he was feeling the most pride.

God says, “This is not what you are here for, and though you will have other children as promised, remember that the purpose of your life is neither to stay alive, nor to make little copies of yourself for when you are gone.  It is and always was to walk with me and to be a blessing to all the world, not yourself.”

Maybe we get a hint of that these days.  Life is full of uncertainty.  Jobs for one, are never certain.  Our futures are clouded.  Health care is becoming ever more expensive even as it becomes harder to insure.  We wonder, when will it all stop so we can just go back to living our lives? 

Jesus says, maybe never.  Maybe living our lives isn’t the point.  Just to let you know, I’m intensely uncomfortable with this.  I feel like the disciples, after Jesus said, “We’re headed toward death, not glory in this world.”

I’m not sure any of us can fully embrace the idea that the homes we worked for, the jobs that defined us, the retirement plans we had made are NOT the point of life -- but there it is.  Perhaps this season of Lent -- and this season of uncertainty called economic crisis, are here to remind us that we are on this earth for something more, something deeper.

So, I’ll simply ask you to consider what that something more is in your life.  Take these next few short weeks and assume you’re not here merely to acquire stuff and look good when you die.  Ask yourself, “What is my purpose?”  Or better yet, ask God.  Amen.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Glory of these Forty Days - a Sermon

If you were here on Ash Wednesday, you would have sung a hymn that we don’t get to sing all that often.  “The glory of these forty days we celebrate with songs of praise..."

Glory?  What glory?  This is Lent we’re talking about.  You going to find glory in giving something up?  Or taking something on?  IF we even did that.  Now, let’s see a show of hands -- and be honest -- who gave something up or took something on?  

Thought so.  

Oh, but maybe the song’s not talking about us.  It says, “for Christ, through whom all things were made, himself has fasted and has prayed.”  So, the glory is in Jesus being driven out into the desert by the Holy Spirit where he fasted and prayed.  By the way, when it says “driven”, Mark uses the same word he uses later when Jesus drives the mone changers from the temple.  It’s pretty violent and not at all glorious.

Or Noah in today’s old testament -- glory?  The earth was destroyed.  He sat in a boat filled with animals.  Where’s the glory in that?  

Now the hymn mentions a few other characters who are not in today’s lessons.  Maybe they’ll help explain that word “Glory” as applied to these 40 days we’ve just entered.

Moses on the mountain.  Another 40 day sojourn -- not to mention a 40 year traipse through the wilderness.  Well, he got the commandments, but he also got the whining Israelites.  Others mentioned in the hymn don’t have 40 days to their credit, but they do have something in common with Jesus, Moses and Noah.  Elijah had to hide from the king for a long time for fear of being killed.  The prophet Daniel, as you might remember from Sunday School, was thrown into a lion’s den for praying to God.  And John the Baptist lived in the wilderness proclaiming the coming of Christ -- until he was arrested, that is.

So what’s up with the glory?  Well, glory itself is an interesting word. From Hebrew which  means, among other things, weight.  As in, significance.  Gravity.

So these forty days have weight.  They certainly had weight for Jesus.  Though Mark just says he was tempted, in other gospels you hear how Satan tempted him to be more than what he had come to be -- more popular, more powerful, more prestigious.  For Jesus, that time in the wilderness was a sorting out process.  What will he do with his time here?  How will he see his mission?

As it turns out, that time fasting and praying IS the glorious part of these 40 days.  It has gravity because it’s that time when we remind ourselves to turn to God, when we remind ourselves that without him, none of the rest of our lives has meaning.  Like Noah, adrift with animals and his little family -- but bereft of all the rest of society.  I can only imagine he sat there often wondering what the point was.

That’s not so different from us, is it?  Often we feel adrift, don’t we?  Or lost in the desert.  The problems of the world seems so big.  Sometimes just our own are overwhelming, let alone the huge problems that circle the globe and seem more than we can even contemplate.

Then we are left with fasting and prayer.  

So the glory of these forty days is that they point us back to the thing we need most -- God.  They give us the medicine we need to get through our desert or drifting times -- fasting and prayer.  Prayer is obvious -- communion with God.  But fasting, too, because it strips away all the unnecessary things in our lives -- even down to food itself because our purpose is not to consume, it is to be with God.  Our purpose is not merely to exist but to LIVE.

Because at the end of those 40 days, there is the promise of a rainbow, or resurrection.  They promise that even in the midst of death, God is with us and promises to hold us through it all -- and walk with us until it is our time to pass through the veil of death into eternal life.

That’s why we begin the season of Lent with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  To remind us we are not God -- but that we can always turn to him.  And in turning to him in prayer, aided by fasting, we find him and in finding him we find anew the purpose in our lives -- and the strength to live them.

“Then grant us Lord, like them to be, full oft in fast and prayer with thee, our spirits strengthen with thy grace, and give us joy to see thy face.” Amen.