Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, has written several poems about snakes. Here is one:
What lay on the road was no mere handful of snake. It was the copperhead at last, golden under the street lamp. I hope to see everything in this world before I die. I knelt on the road and stared. Its head was wedge-shaped and fell back to the unexpected slimness of neck. The body itself was thick, tense, electric. Clearly this wasn’t black snake looking down from the limbs of a tree, or green snake, or the garter, whizzing over the rocks. Where these had, oh, such shyness, this one had none. When I moved a little, it turned and clamped its eyes on mine; then it jerked toward me. I jumped back and watched as it flowed on across the road and down into the dark. My heart was pounding. I stood a while, listening to the small sounds of the woods and looking at the stars. After excitement we are so restful. When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.[i]
Joan Halifax is a Buddhist Roshi who works with people in hospice and death row. A recipient of the TED award in December 2010, in her book, “The Fruitful Darkness” Halifax contrasts the idea of poisonous plants and creatures as evil and dangerous, with the idea that they are actually “protectors” of the habitats in which they live. She writes:
“Poisonous” plants and creatures can be invoked as protectors, protectors of place. Within a bioregion, they protect the deeper forest and are allies to their ecologies. As allies of human beings they protect against drowsiness and insensitivity, preventing us from charging through the fragile terrain with a heavy foot and a blind eye. They teach alertness and respect as we interact with place. They also evoke certain qualities within humans. One can, like the jaguar, stalk and enjoy the night, blend with the environment and disappear into its body. Protectors teach humans to sing like the wolf, to go inside like bear, and to relax like snake.
Human beings have for a long time destroyed the protectors of the wild regions. For many humans these plants and creatures are dangerous and mean suffering or death. They represent something evil in the world…. They excite the impulse to eradicate, to kill… wolf and mountain lion are shot; coyote is poisoned. That which requires one to be more careful, more mindful is eliminated….”
No doubt our scripture reading this morning from Numbers evokes our sense of danger as we recoil from the descriptive images of snakes biting and killing humans. It’s confusing to consider snakes becoming a vehicle through which God calls humanity to mindfulness and restores health in the staff of Moses. Last week Jesus transformed the temple, the place where God resides, into his body – God is in Jesus. This week in our reading Jesus once again changes an iconic image of the Hebrew people, Moses’ staff, into himself. Jesus becomes the means through which God transforms the world, restores health and well-being.
Both of these readings plant us firmly in the context of what God is doing in and through the lives of human beings. What God is doing is known as “Covenant.” Some suggest the entire Bible is a story about the covenant making that God is undertaking between humanity and God. Various scholars will site any number of Covenants God makes – with Adam and Eve and the consequences of free will; with Noah for whom, after the flood, God promises to always show compassion to human beings and all creation. With Abraham and Sarah – a covenant to love and bless God’s people. With Jesus through whom the covenant of forgiveness, grace, and compassion, are brought fully into human life in the Christ, the Word made flesh, Jesus.
In Numbers the story follows a common pattern: God liberates God’s people from that which binds them. But life continues to be challenging and the people complain that God has not done enough. God punishes the people for complaining. Moses pleads with God to relent from the punishment, God does, and health is restored. In the context of the people who told this story 3000 years ago this view of God made sense.
But there are many problems in hearing this story through our modern context. It reflects a world view in which God seems to be a petulant, vengeful old man who gets angry and punishes those dependent on him for the merest of infractions or the slightest hint of disrespect.[ii]
As Christians we value the human qualities of relationship that we understand to be part of God’s nature. And yet, we need to be careful not to limit God through those same qualities. God is being, God is relationship, and God is much more.
Viewed another way we can understand the complaints, not as a breaking of the rules, but as a distortion of the relationship between God and humanity. The Book of Common Prayer, on page 848, defines sin as a “distortion” of relationship. Complaining in the reading from Numbers is a distortion of the relationship because the people are unable to trust in God’s fidelity, trust that God has their back, trust that God’s compassion and love will prevail, even in and through adversity.
Of course the people have wandered in the desert for many years eating only a bland food called Manna, something like soggy communion wafers. They want real food, like they had in Egypt. They are tired and anxious. They are fearful of the dangers of the desert and the reality that there are snakes that bite and kill. They complain bitterly. Who can blame them?
What’s important about this story is not how literally we hear it. Rather there is a truth within this story that speaks of the reality of the life of faith. The snakes in this case are a metaphor - there are dangers in this world that threaten our faith and yet they also call us to be attentive and mindful. As Joan Halifax suggests, that which we perceive as dangerous can serve another purpose. And, as Mary Oliver writes, “When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.”
From perceived dangers we can learn to be attentive, alert, respectful, recognizing that what we perceive as dangerous may actually serve as a process for transformation. That which challenges our faith may be the very means by which we grow in faith and become transformed through God’s love.
All we have to do is believe this, right? That’s what the Gospel says. But the word “Believe” has its root in a word that means “belove.” We are not called to believe in Jesus as some set of concrete rules, rather we are called to love, to belove God, belove Jesus.[iii] Think about that when we say the Nicene Creed in a few minutes. “We belove God…” How might that change your understanding of the Gospel or the creed - to ponder them through the idea of love? How might that feel dangerous? Or challenging? Or transformational?
[i] — Mary Oliver, "May"
New and Selected Poems, Volume 2
Beacon Press, Boston, 1992
[ii] Paul Nancarrow: Process and Faith blog http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2012-03-18/fourth-sunday-lent
[iii] Marcus Borg, March 16/17 presentation at Christ Episcopal Church, Grosse Pointe, MI