A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry United Methodist Church September 13, 2020.
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
Let us pray:
Oh take me in your arms
I want your tender charms
‘Coz I’m lonely and I’m blue
I need you and your love too!”
These lyrics made famous by soul singer Fontella Bass back in 1965 are my prayer to God these days. Rescue me! Or in the old words of liturgy: O Lord, come to our assistance! O God, make haste to help us! Rescue us! The onslaught of tragedy, uncertainty, outrage, injustice, violence, and overwhelming challenges of just getting through our days—all of this leaves me at least riding waves of “powering through” with “just do it” determination filled with positivity and hope then descending into the ebb of exhaustion, discouragement, and fear. Since March, I’ve characterized this time of multiple pandemics as a wilderness wandering that, like the Israelites, includes a big dose of not knowing how long we’re going to be in this experience. We make plans with anticipation and then are led by the data to pivot toward an extended…holding pattern. It’s like being on a plane that keeps circling the airport and you are getting silence from the flight deck and you don’t know how long before you can get to solid ground and get wherever it is you’re trying to go.
Today we catch up with the Israelites during their long wilderness journey out of slavery in Egypt. For context I’ll remind us that they’d barely finished singing their redemption song back in Exodus 15 when they begin to complain against Moses, breaking into a robust chorus of “we don’t have what we need!” And they pick up that refrain again and again right up until the moment in our story today in which they’re having to take a detour—which really sets them off…they complain against not only Moses, but this time they’re coming for God! Their total frustration is clear in their mumbled outburst: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There’s no food—and it tastes terrible, too!” And just when the Israelites thought things couldn’t be more terrible…here come the deadly snakes. One scholar suggests that, instead of the rather pedestrian “poisonous serpents,” a more accurate translation from the Hebrew is “fiery monster snakes.” EEK.
At this point Israel isn’t relating to a cozy, God-is-my-friend kind of deity. They saw what happened in Egypt. (Ex. 7-12) Their primary image is of a God who is free to throw a plague-y fit to get a point across and to get the job done. The Israelites seem to think God took it personally when they laid their grievances at the divine door—and so assume God brought one of those nasty plagues on them! They repent their complaining and ask Moses to pray to God for relief. In response, God tells Moses to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole; everyone who is bitten and looks at this image will live. Wait…what? Wouldn’t it be better to make the snakes go away or stop biting us instead of making an image of one to carry around on a pole? How could looking at the thing that’s harmed you, the thing you’re most afraid of, be a source of healing?
On my annual spiritual retreat this year, I was pushed by God to consider what would happen to my faith in the face of the absolute worst-case scenario. In other words, I was asked to look at what scares me most—and to surrender even more deeply to faith in God’s love and providence. This was not, you may imagine, fun. What do I fear most? In what do I really trust in for my safety? Who do I really look to for affirmation and love? Where does my sense of value and purpose come from? What if all that is taken away? Then what? What if someone I can’t imagine losing, dies? What if I die? Then what? Can I trust God on the other side of all that? Would I? My specific worst-case scenario might be different than yours, and it’s more than I need to share with you today. But the reason I bring it up is that our various worst-case scenarios are a good place to think about what’s going on in this story. What is the “fiery monster snake” in your life? That is, what is the thing that you fear could take your life—your physical life, your comfort, your control, your happiness, your power, your vocation, your reputation, your sense of meaning? If whatever or whomever you fear losing the most were to happen, what then? Where is God for you in that scenario? What happens to your faith?
In the story, the people—and we—are not given a promise that the snake won’t bite, that the pain will be averted, that the danger will disappear, but rather we are asked to trust—to have faith— that we can take on our terror, even after being deeply wounded, and that with God as our guide and healer, we will live—perhaps with even greater freedom and courage for having faced our deep fear. The journey from captivity to liberation is never going to be without danger, pain, and loss. But the promise is that a liberated life, freed from the bondage of fear and injustice and oppression is worth whatever is encountered along the way to get it.
The Israelites encountered a lot. The people have been putting up with each other for a long time out in the desert, eating weird food, drinking sometimes iffy water, and second guessing why they ever listened to Moses in the first place. Part of the reason for the detour in the story today is that the Israelites weren’t granted asylum even to travel through Edom; and then they were subsequently attacked by another tribe in the Negeb. They’re clearly clinging to their last nerve—they are super “short of soul” when the fiery monster snakes show up. It’s a lot. It’s kind of like the ongoing pandemic of systemic racism and white supremacy being highlighted by a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic intensified by a climate crisis, a shameful and growing national wealth gap, housing crisis, a healthcare crisis, a not unreasonable fear of an election being stolen and democracy being on the brink, and all without the support of childcare, school, theater, concerts, sports, physically gathered worship, or—for many of us: hugs.
We are dealing with a lot. And some will balk at the idea that this is a time to trust even more in God’s love and mercy. Instead they will want to fling their complaint against God and make a case for why a life of faith is a waste of energy. That’s been a widely-taken stance for thousands of years and I get it. But I don’t recommend hanging out there for long. Because as wonderful and powerful and brave and kind and generous as humans can be, there is none who will be as steadfast, none who will be able to be as ever-present, none who will put up with us and take all our stuff while still loving us and believing in us the way God has, does, and will continue to do…
// “But… the fiery monster snakes! God must be punishing us or testing us or something!” I’m not going to claim to know the mind of God—our God is a free agent no matter how much we try to domesticate Her. And, I beg your pardon for this aside, but the questions that come to me about wanting to blame God for the snakes are these (based on experience in the world): We impinge on the habitat of creatures—invade the land of others, and then wonder why they bite? We create a habitat that not only allows but cultivates poison and violence and then want to blame God? To make it plain, 2020 isn’t just bad luck or some kind of divine punishment. It is the playing out of “widely and reliably predicted and interconnected disasters that advanced nations of the world could have mitigated or prevented but chose not to.” We were given a heads up. But as a collective weren’t able or willing to keep things from turning into this current mess.
// Our ancestors in faith provide a reminder of how easy it is in the wilderness to forget all that God has given, all God has brought us through, all God has forgiven. Our ancestors remind us that God can put up with our need to complain sometimes. Perhaps the most important reminder is that God will not abandon us no matter what the scenario—that God will bring us into a new place, a new life, on the other side of whatever the fiery monster snake tries to do to us. All we have to do is to stare down our fear and trust that God will be with us and will love us and will hold us and will provide for us no matter what, in this world and into the next.
When we find ourselves staring into our worst-case scenario, perhaps crying in the shower or sitting and staring blankly out the window or at the computer screen, in these moments, we can join the voices of our ancestors who have cried out to God, in need and in trust singing:
• Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. (Psalm 31:2)
• How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions! (Psalm 35:17)
• Rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. (Psalm 69:14)
• In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me. (Psalm 71:2)
• Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel. (Psalm 71:4)
• Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82:4)
• Look on my misery and rescue me, for I do not forget your law. (Psalm 119:153)
• Rescue me from the cruel sword… (Psalm 144:11)
When we’re “short of soul” the familiar soul refrain provides our psalm: “Rescue me/Oh take me in your arms/Rescue me/I want your tender charms/ ‘Coz I’m lonely and I’m blue/ I need you and your love too!” And God responds every time: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.” (Psalm 91:15)
Eventually, when we had forgotten the teaching of the wilderness and made an idol of the fiery monster snake, (2 Kings 18:4) God rescued us again and made it plain. God loves us and the whole world so much that God doesn’t send plagues upon us, but sends the most precious one, Jesus Beloved, who was lifted up to show us what we are capable of—both the good and the bad of it—and to reveal once and for all that the font of every blessing of life, healing, liberation, and hope is found not in any pastor or politician or president or teacher, not in the life or status or comfort or control we seek to protect out of fear. Rather the font of every blessing is God’s heart of outpouring love, grace, and mercy. These gifts strengthen us to be brave, to risk, to give, to keep going, to do what we can, to be lifted up ourselves for the sake of others—trusting that new life is on the other side. No matter what.