Are there times when God’s anger is good news?
I realise that this is a dangerous question. More than one person at our virtual service this morning grew up in a religiously abusive environment. In such a context there is very little good news about an angry God. Here is the god who looks at you and, like a drunken and abusive dad home from a bender, finds you perpetually wanting and screams your inadequacies at you. And I realise as well that, just floating around in our culture, there is a picture of God’s anger in which God is always ready to rain lightning strikes down on people who have failed to love him enough.
So, let me be clear: that isn’t what God is like. 1John is right when it tells us that God is love. God loves you beyond limit and beyond measure. And, more than that, that isn’t what I mean by the anger of God.
What I mean by God’s anger is what we witness today as we watch Jesus in the temple.
As Jesus makes a whip and chases people around, as he flips over tables, is this good news? Or, if we prefer, because this is the Gospel – in English, good news – and I reckon that our ancestors got that name right, how is Jesus’ anger good news? How is it good news for the people visiting the temple? And, maybe this second question is harder, how is it good news for the merchants selling doves and sheep and for the moneychangers?
How is Jesus’ anger evidence that God is love?
I’m going to invite you to cast your mind back – maybe to your childhood, maybe to a more recent time – and see if you can remember an occasion in which someone became angry on your behalf. Maybe you got ripped off by a neighbourhood kid or by a neighbourhood merchant. Maybe a teacher was cruel to you. Maybe you were the victim of a still more serious injustice. And someone who loved you and wanted the best for you blew their stack. They got red in the face, maybe even spit flew out of their mouths (this was before masks and physical distancing made that sort of thing impossible) and they told the person who had hurt you a thing or two.
What was that like? What did that feel like?
There are a lot of ways that a loving parent tells us that they love us. And one of them is this kind of anger. When you witness this anger you say, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain.
And that’s what Jesus does on behalf of the poor people coming to the temple today. He blows his stack at the folks who are getting rich by selling stuff to them at a criminal markup.
Now, I need to stop here and inert a kind of footnote. There is a long and disastrous history of reading this story through the lens of antisemitism, so that this story and ones like it are, somehow, Jesus versus the Jews. No! No, Jesus is Jewish, the people getting ripped off are Jewish, the people doing the ripping off are Jewish. This is an argument within a family. If it’s helpful, imagine Jesus as a faithful and committed Episcopalian, someone who has no intention of leaving the Episcopal church now or ever, let alone starting a new religions. And Jesus runs amok in an Episcopal church gift shop that has been ripping off other Episcopalians. (I don’t know if that analogy totally works, but it’s the best that I’ve got.)
If the poor people in Jesus’ time were anything like the poor people of today, they were ripped off all the time. In a funny way, they were almost used to being ripped off. I knew a guy in Spokane who was being treated in a totally unfair way by his landlord. And he said: My landlord is rich, I’m not. My landlord has a lawyer, I don’t. There’s nothing I can do.
And maybe the poor folks coming to the temple say the same thing. Maybe they say: We’re going to get hosed trading money. We’re going to get hosed even more buying our sacrifice for the temple. There’s nothing we can do.
But then Jesus loses his temper on their behalf. And maybe they feel something similar to what you felt in that memory that I invited you to examine a minute ago. Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like Jesus is hurt. My pain is his pain.
Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper on their behalf is God.
This is good news.
But what about the merchants? What about the money changers? Surely this is nothing but bad news for them – they were having a good day, a god week, a good fiscal quarter. And suddenly their coins and running in the gutters and some dude is sending their tables airborne.
Again, I’ll invite you to cast your mind back. See if you can remember a time when someone loved you so much that they lost their temper with you. Maybe this was a teacher who knew that you were not trying anywhere near your best. Maybe this was a neighbour who discovered you stealing something. Maybe this was a friend or a partner who named your selfishness in unvarnished terms.
What was that like?
Well, if you are anything like me, it was no fun at all. If you are anything like me, you may have resented that anger. Maybe you sulked, maybe you retreated into silence, maybe you became angry yourself.
It is only with time that you came to say, Gosh, I really needed to hear that. It’s because of that anger that I started trying and I got into college; it’s because of that anger that my conscience grew a couple of sizes larger; it’s because of that anger that I realised that I was being selfish and that I wanted to do better.
And maybe with time you said, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain. The love me enough to blow my stack.
Because when we make a mistake, when we fall short of the mark, when we sin, what is frequently the behaviour of someone who doesn’t love us? Sometimes they will get angry. But as often as not, they will shrug. I was just listening to a popular song, the words of which contain ancient wisdom, wisdom that Jesus new:
The opposite of love is indifference.
Now, like you and me, I suspect that the merchants and the money changers don’t experience this moment as love, especially if Jesus’ whip gets anywhere near their behinds. But maybe, after a while, they too will say, You know what? That was the day that changed my life. That was the day that I understood that I wanted to be someone else. Someone kinder and more loving.
And they will remember and say Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like he is hurt. My pain is his pain. Jesus loves me enough to blow his stack.
Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper with them is God.
This is good news.
So. When you suffer injustice, know that Jesus is angry on your behalf. That Jesus will flip over tables for you. And when you hurt another person or hurt the world, know that Jesus loves you so much that Jesus will get red in the face and tell you the unvarnished truth. In both cases, Jesus’ love for you is fierce and abiding and huge. It is a love that will lead you into life.
This is good news.
The name Sarah, or its previous iteration of Sarai, appears more frequently in the Bible than that of any other woman, 55 times in the Old Testament and 4 times in the New according to the womanist Hebrew Bible scholar Wil Gafney. Granted, the list of women with names in the Bible is a pretty short one, but this points to the significance of Sarah in the story of God’s people.
Despite her importance in the narrative and her role as the matriarch of the people of Israel, I know I tend to only think of her as a supporting player in the stories of others – in the wanderings of Abraham, in the abuse and exile of Hagar and Ishmael, in the birth of Isaac.
But in today’s reading from Genesis God points to Sarah by name as being blessed by God (twice in fact, God repeats the words “I will bless her” two times) and that “she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Of course this proclamation is not spoken directly to Sarahm but to her husband Abraham, and I wonder how much he might have told her about his conversation with God. After all, Abraham does not have a good track record of treating her well or protecting her. Abraham is her husband, but also her brother, and he switches between those roles throughout the narrative depending on what best suits him and protects him. This happens most famously in the chapters before this one, as Abram and Sarai travel through Egypt and Abram travels as Sarai’s brother and gives her, traffics her in the word of one Biblical commentator, to Pharaoh in order to secure his own safety and wealth.
Interestingly, at the conclusion of that part of the story, when Pharoah realizes he has slept with Abram’s wife, it is God who is furious and punishes Pharoah (the text says that God afflicted him with ‘great plagues’) and not Abram himself. God seems to be more aware and present to Sarai’s trauma than her husband.
Another source of Sarah’s pain, I might suggest, comes from being unable to bear children. During this time and this culture, being childless would be one of the worst shames for a woman, who was (at least in the Bible) always considered the one to blame….the metaphor being a barren field rather than unfruitful seed. But in today’s reading God announces that Sarah and Abraham, despite their very advanced age and inability thus far to have children, will indeed bear a son and this son will be the sign of God’s covenant and promise and hope.
God has articulated this covenant three times before to Abraham, but this is the first time God names Sarah in God’s promise. Right after the passage we heard this morning, Abraham suggests that God might consider Ishmael – his child with Hagar – as heir instead. Abraham sees a child being born by Sarah as a ridiculous impossibility given their age and Abraham tries to point God toward a more realistic and achievable plan.
But God names Sarah. As in their journey through Egypt, God is there for Sarah even when Abraham is not. In Egypt God saw Sarah’s pain even when her husband did not, God stays in relationship with Sarah even when her husband offers God an easier alternative, God promises life to Sarah even after she has suffered so much pain even at the hands of her own husband.
This is not just a story of the way God stays in relationship with Sarah through pain and trauma, but the story of how God stayed in relationship with the people of Judah during a violent and traumatic time in their history. (and with all of us). One scholar suggests that we might read the Book of Genesis as ‘survival literature”, written by the people of Judah in the time of the violence and trauma of the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. Many of the stories of the Book of Genesis, including the ones of Sarah and Abraham, were likely written during this period, known as the “Babylonian Captivity”, when the center of Jewish life and worship was destroyed by the Chaldeans led by Nebuchadnezzar, the monarchy was killed, and many were deported to live in exile in Babylon.
Through these stories, through characters like Sarah, the Jewish people tried to make sense of what was happening to them and where God was in the aftermath of the unimaginable. God meets Sarah in the midst of her trauma and abuse – of being childless and married to her brother and trafficked to Pharaoh – and renames her and reiterates God’s promise to HER – that life will be created in HER body, that she will be the mother of a new nation. God does not take away her pain or her past but meets her in it and creates the possibilities of new meaning and new life from that pain and loss.
I, for one, need to hear these stories right now, in this time and in this Lent. One year ago today, this very day, the first case of Covid was announced in Oregon and recently we have passed the unimaginable number of 500,000 deaths. There has been a renewed reckoning with the violence done to black and brown bodies through the systems of white supremacy and the state. And many of us, I know, have our own stories of particular grief and loss throughout this year.
Yet, just as God was with Sarah, God is with us, offering a horizon of hope. These stories were written millenia ago to help our ancestors of the faith make sense of a hard time. I think they invite us to similarly tell our stories, to share our pain, with each other and with God, so that we too might see how God is with us and is calling to us by name. Last Wednesday, I had the privilege to help lead the first in our Lenten series from grief to joy, 28 people came together to learn about lament and to name their own particular laments in this time. It was a holy time and a holy space
I think by telling our stories of pain and grief, by listening to the stories of others, we meet God in a powerful way. God met Sarah in the most painful part of her story, in her childness and in her marriage to Abraham, and offered a relationship and the possibility of new life. God did not take away the pain of her past but rather offered a new way to make sense of it through relationship with God.
The first hymn we heard this morning was “The God of Abraham Praise” and it is one of my favorite hymns, but I do think we have too long given short shrift to Sarah….a complicated and brave and really human character. God named Sarah, God was with Sarah in her pain and trauma, God made an impossible promise to her and God was with her when that promise was fulfilled. So yes, let us praise the God of Abraham, but let us also praise the God of Leah, the God of Rebekah, the God of, Hagar and the God of Sarah and the God of all those whose stories of survival and hope speak to us still. Let us praise the God who was there with them and is here with us now and will always be with us forever.
Jesus heard that they had driven the man out, and when Jesus found him, he said,
Do you believe in the Son of Man?
The man answered,
And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.
Jesus said to him,
You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.
This year in Lent, the lectionary – the schedule of readings that we follow across the year – gives us a series of questions posed to Jesus. Two weeks ago, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark, in the night, and asked:
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?
One week ago, the unnamed woman at the well came to Jesus in the day, at high noon when there is most light, and asked:
Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?
Next week, as Jesus gets ready to go to Bethany, where Mary and Martha and Lazarus in his tomb await, the disciples will ask Jesus:
Rabbi, the crowd was just now trying to stone you. And are you going there again?
And today, the disciples ask a question with which you and I may be familiar:
Whose fault is it?
Whose fault is it? being an ancient question, a question as old as human beings and as old as language. This time, whose fault is it? takes the form of a question about theology and about disability:
Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?
Given that whose fault is it? is an ancient question, given that it is wired into the human condition, I’m going to venture that every one of us knows a bunch about this question, that every one of us has asked it more than once.
I grew up in Canada and, therefore, I am constitutionally required to dream of playing professional hockey. Whose fault is it that I have neither the skill not the physique for that dream to ever come true? I spent high school secretly in love with Christy Crookall. Whose fault is it that we never went out on a date? (Well, maybe that’s a bad example. I have some idea whose fault that is.) When I started as Grace’s Rector almost five years ago, I thought that I would have access to all of these mentors, all of these elders who had been in my life for years and who had shared their wisdom and experience with me for years. But then one after another of them died: my friend Chris; my father-in-law, Bob; my teacher, Don. Whose fault it is that they died?
Or to choose the example that we are, all of us, living right now: Whose fault is it that we are enduring a global pandemic?
The disciples come to Jesus and they ask: Whose fault is it? Who sinned? And Jesus says:
Nobody sinned. Neither the man nor his parents.
And then having answered the question in with these words, Jesus goes on. He says something more and he does something more. He says:
The man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.
And then in a startlingly intimate gesture, one that is probably shocking in our regular, 21st-Century understanding of germ theory and that is especially shocking during these days of social distancing, Jesus makes a paste out of dirt and his own spit and massages it with his fingers onto the man’s eye. Go and wash, he says (just like past two weeks, here is water: remember Nicodemus and the water of birth, remember the Woman and the water in the well) and when the man comes back, he can see.
The end. And they lived happily ever after.
Except that isn’t the end. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, where the story tends to move on from miracle to miracle in an almost breathless way, John keeps the camera lingering on this scene. And as John does, we see that the follow-up to the man’s healing is hardship, it is scepticism and accusation. The man gets cross examined, his parents get cross examined. The religious authorities can’t believe or, maybe, they can’t tolerate that Jesus has performed an unscheduled and unauthorized miracle.
Even though there is healing, even though Jesus is present, brokenness and hurt remain. Jesus gives us something more difficult and more complicated than a happy ending.
What if we decide that this story is about us right now? We come to Jesus, and we say:
Whose fault is it?
Who sinned that there is a pandemic rewriting our economy and our lives?
And Jesus replies:
Nobody sinned. Not you, not your parents. This happened so that God’s work might be revealed.
And then he heals us.
And then, notwithstanding the revelation and the healing, things stay difficult and complicated.
What might that mean? How might that be good news?
Now, two caveats before I go on. First, there is no question that there are things our leaders could have done better, things that we as a society could be doing better right now. Our response has been too blasé and too selfish for too long. For five Senators to be briefed on COVID-19 and to use that information to sell their personal stocks – well, that is pathetic and selfish and unethical in equal measure.
Second, I don’t want to suggest that God caused this pandemic, that God dropped COVID-19 upon us like frogs onto Egypt. God does not introduce suffering into our lives. But, as Richard Rohr said just a couple of days ago, I am convinced that God does use our suffering to teach us.
Those two caveats named, this whole thing is no one’s fault. As far as we know, there is no Pandora who found a can labelled COVID-19 with big red letters on the top that read, Do not open, and said to herself: I wonder what happens if I open this?
Nobody sinned, not you nor your parents.
Here is how, maybe, Jesus is healing us and will heal us, how God’s work is and will be revealed in this time of crisis, and how things will remain messy and complicated anyway. I’m going to focus on five heavily overlapping categories. Let’s call them justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath.
Justice. As with so many crises – think of the hurricane that hit New Orleans fifteen years ago – the crisis that is COVID-19 is most magnified for those whom Jesus calls the least of these, our siblings. To have access to health care is a privilege. To have the kind of job, as I do, in which working remotely is possible is a privilege. To have a home and to be able to stay in it when I feel sick is a privilege. Many people have few or none of those privileges. And one of my hopes for this time is that we will remember our duty – and duty is an old-fashioned word, but it’s the one that fits right now – to those with few or no privileges.
I am enormously encouraged that, after being stalled out for 16 years, the federal government has passed legislation mandating sick leave for employees. Now, those who study legislation say that it doesn’t go far enough, that there are too many exceptions. But it remains a meaningful step closer to justice. And even if you don’t particularly care about justice, it remains a meaningful step closer to a less icky world. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be at a restaurant in which the chef is there and cooking even though they have a gastrointestinal complaint because they can’t afford to stay home.
In a similar vein, I am so heartened by the sudden and radical reduction in pollution above the factories of China, a change that we might call justice for God’s creation. What if this whole thing were a reset button and we decided that we didn’t want to go back to frantic pollution? What if this whole thing were an invitation into deeper justice, into remembering the dignity of every human being and of all creation?
Humility. As Paul famously says, there is a deep temptation to look upon those outside of our family or city or state or country, maybe even those outside of ourselves, those who aren’t me, and say to them:
I have no need of you.
I can do everything I need on my own. And by that what we generally mean is that there is credit limit enough on our Mastercards to pay our bills. And so we move through the world a little bit like gods, independent and in no way interdependent, in no way reliant on one another or on God.
A crisis like this one reveals that such a story was always high fiction, that autonomous individualism was always a God damn lie. We are here for our sojourn on this earth thanks to God’s pleasure and thanks to the cooperation and support and generosity and kindness of our neighbors.
May we humble enough to recognise that and say thanks for that.
Lament. We live in a culture that is profoundly uncomfortable with grief. That is in a mad hurry to get over loss, to get back to mandatory optimism. And there is a huge cost to living in this way. We are deprived the gifts of grief.
Our own John Hammond, who is one of the kindest and happiest and most loving people I know, describes himself as being in an apprenticeship with grief. I want to suggest that his apprenticeship correlates heavily with his kindness and his happiness and his loving nature. By giving full expression to his tears, John is able to give full expression to his joy. The two: they are inseparable. Grief is the price of admission for love.
The ancients new this. A full third of the psalms are psalms of lament. These are psalms in which people of deep, deep faith say: why? Why is the world like this? Why, God, aren’t you doing your job? What if we could express that kind of lamentation? Maybe we might discover a little bit of the joy that John knows.
Community. And this one overlaps pretty heavily with justice and humility – what if we rediscovered that we live in neighbourhoods? What if we rediscovered our vocations as neighbours? Here at Grace, we have created Circles of Caring, inviting us into to stay in community and to move deeper into community as we weather this storm. It is my hope that some of the friendships that we discover during this crisis will remain come its conclusion. And where we live, what if we found deeper relationship with the people who live next door and down the street? What if, both inside and outside of church, we asked the questions that my colleague Alissa Newton crafted and that Jeanne shared with us this past week:
- How is the Physical Health of your Household?
- How is the Mental Health of your Household?
- What do you need?
- What can you offer?
Sabbath. There is a beautiful poem that more than one of you have sent my way. It is by Lynn Ungar and it is called Pandemic. It begins this way:
What if you thought of it as the Jews
consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of
I’ve lost track of how many people have told me across the years that some unwelcome and unchosen event – a car accident, an illness, a job loss, some other tragedy – was the first time that they had slowed down in years. I didn’t want it to happen, they say, I wish it hadn’t happened, but in a funny way, that time in the hospital bed was a gift. I was still enough, silent enough to understand things about myself and about the world andabout God.
What if this unwelcome and unchosen event were something that kind of gift, if it were something like a sabbath for our whole culture? An opportunity to be still and to know God?
So: justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath. Five ways, maybe, that Jesus is healing us and that Jesus will heal us. Five ways, maybe, that God’s work is being and will be revealed. The messiness remains, the hurt remains. But even in Lent, Alleluia, Jesus is in the middle of it. Even in Lent, we kneel before him and say, Lord, I believe.
The Samaritan woman can see someone at the well as she approaches…a man, she realizes, as she gets closer. The text doesn’t say, but given the time of day it’s not unlikely that they would have been the only two people at the well. Most would’ve already done their water fetching in the early, cooler hours of the day. Why is she there? Based on what we “learn” about her life later in the passage – that she has had multiple husbands – she may be a scorned woman on the margins of society. It’s not necessary to extrapolate from this that she would have been seen as a loose woman or even a prostitute, because in first century Palestine a woman couldn’t initiate divorce, so her five former husbands must either divorced her or died, leaving her possibly with no stability or support in a deeply patriarchal society. And here sits another man, and not just any man, a Jew. Why is she there?
Jesus can see someone approaching the well as he sits, resting his aching dusty feet. It’s a woman, he realizes, as she gets closer. He knows he’s in Samaria so the fact that she’s a Samaritan woman doesn’t surprise him the way his Jewishness surprises her. We know why Jesus is at the well, because the text does say. He’s tired and thirsty, and he’s alone because his disciples have gone to find food. But why is he at this well? In the two verses that come before today’s reading, John tells us that, “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had go through Samaria.” Judea, in the southern kingdom, inhabited historically by Jews, with the capital city and center of worship in Jerusalem. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, where worship centered on Mt. Gerizim. And Galilee, up here. So of course Jesus had to go through Samaria to get there. And yet, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans in this time was so deep, so imbedded – for centuries’ worth of reasons that can be summarized as, “They worship God wrong” – that most Jews would say, “I’m going to Galilee but of course I have to go around Samaria, over the Jordan, through the Decapolis and back over the Jordan into Galilee finally. You know how it is.” But Jesus, a Jew, had to go through Samaria. So why is he really there?
Why are they there, together?
They are there for a conversation.
Last week’s Gospel reading was also about a conversation, between Jesus and Nicodemus, and when we have back-to-back stories with a similar setup – a one-on-one conversation between Jesus and another person – there’s an opportunity to ask what we can learn, not just from today’s story but from comparing it to last week’s. There are two things in today’s story that I want to highlight.
First, the questions. Nicodemus opened his conversation with Jesus with a statement. The Samaritan woman opens with a very cut-to-the-chase question: how are you talking to me? And the questions continue, from the minor – how do you plan to get water without a bucket? – to the major – should we worship in Jerusalem (remember, where the Jews worshipped) or Mt. Gerizim (where the Samaritans thought worship should be centered)? And finally to the most incredulous question of all, the one she asks not of Jesus but of her fellow villagers – “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She is curious and persistent; she wants to know. In addition to the contrast with Nicodemus’s statements, there’s a contrast with the disciples who, when they return with food, are, reasonably, shocked to see him speaking with a Samaritan woman but who keep their mouths shut, who don’t ask the question that John tells us is running through their heads – “Why are you talking to her?” Imagine what they might have learned from Jesus about crossing boundaries, about the inclusivity of the good news, had they asked. But their lack of curiosity kept them from knowing more about Jesus and more about God in this moment.
The second distinction in this conversation is their vulnerability. Jesus is naturally vulnerable – he needs water, something the woman can get for him. As a woman alone with a man, the Samaritan woman is culturally vulnerable. In order to make his point about living water, Jesus needs her questions; he’s vulnerable to how she interacts with him. And, as her eyes are opened to the living water Jesus offers, she shows her vulnerability in how deeply she needs it, saying, “give me this water.” As Jeanne told us last week, Nicodemus is also in a vulnerable position coming to Jesus. He’s well-respected, in a position of influence among the Jews, and Jesus is a radical. But rather than embrace this vulnerability, he diminishes it by coming to Jesus under cover of darkness. This is such human behavior, it’s so relatable. Feeling vulnerable, we hide in order not to be exposed, not to be truly known.
And yet, when the moment of greatest vulnerability comes – when Jesus tells the woman that he knows about her husbands – she doesn’t flee, she doesn’t accuse Jesus of being wrong, she doesn’t defend herself. She has been exposed, and yet because Jesus too has been vulnerable, and because she has practiced vulnerability already in this conversation and had it rewarded with more conversation, she gets the gift of knowing and being known.
She is known to Jesus. He knows about her husbands, yes, and about her current living situation, yes. And at the risk of being flip or even sacrilegious, Jesus knowing that is sort of like a “cool Jesus trick.” But it’s how he responds to knowing this about her that really shows us and shows her who she truly is. She is known to Jesus as one deserving of this living water. I’m so glad last week when Jeanne read John 3:16 during her sermon that she didn’t stop there but kept going through John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus’ knowledge of this woman leads not to condemnation but to the offer of eternal life, living water, Godself.
And then Jesus is also known to the woman. There’s a Greek phrase ego eimi, and while it’s typically translated “I am” its meaning is something more like, “I always have been, am and always will be.” Capital I, capital A, capital M. John, as the Gospel writer most explicit about Jesus’ divinity, has Jesus speaking this phrase 24 times in his Gospel, considerably more than any other Gospel. And the very first time it appears in John is here when Jesus responds to her saying “I know that Messiah is coming,” by saying, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” This way of saying “that’s me,” (ego eimi) would be familiar from the Torah – for example, Moses encounter with God in the burning bush – and the writings of the prophets like Isaiah. Knowing now what she does, she leaves her water, the reason she came there in the first place, to share this knowledge.
As Jeanne mentioned last week, John loves a metaphor. And there may not be a better metaphor for the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ – the knitting together of spiritual and earthly – than the simple act of communication. Sitting face to face with another human, over a well in the hot sun, in a hallway at work, in the dark, over dinner. Talking gives embodiment to our thoughts and feelings and instincts. It takes all of those things, none of which are tangible, all of which are spiritual, and turns them into words that another person can hear and share in and by which we are known. When the woman leaves the well, without her water jar, she has not had her physical thirst quenched. When the chapter ends, Jesus has not eaten the food the disciples brought back. Perhaps John is telling us that they have been filled by these encounters.
A final word that needs to be said in a sermon about how conversation makes us known to each other, in the midst of a global pandemic, which we now know requires us to stay apart, to keep our bodies away from each other. I’d like to suggest two things. When you do have occasion to safely talk with someone ask questions and be vulnerable. Are you feeling worried? Lonely? What are you missing, and how are you staying connected? Get to the good stuff; let deep conversation become as second-nature as singing happy birthday twice while washing your hands. Stay known to each other. And second, talk to God, pray, meditate, write, whatever that looks like for you. Become known to God and yourself as one deserving of living water.
Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biologically. Our lives all begin in the water and darkness of our mother’s bodies. We are water creatures first, floating with eyes sealed shut as our bodies are knit together cell by cell, being prepared for the first sharp intake of breath that is our very first act on this earth.
Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biblically. The first creation story in Genesis describes darkness over the face of the deep, with God’s first creative act the sharp exhale of breath which inspires and inspirits cosmos.
Today’s Gospel begins in darkness. We are not accustomed to encountering Jesus in the dark, especially in the Gospel of John in which, from the very first verses of the prologue, Jesus as the very essence of God is described as the light of life, a light which the darkness would not overcome.
But Nicodemus arrives in the dark. Certainly there may be practical reasons why Nicodemus seeks out Jesus in the night. He is a prominent and well-respected leader and perhaps he does not want to be associated with this radical teacher who just created chaos in the temple, upending tables and chasing people with whips.
Maybe, and I like this more generous reading of one scholar, Nicodemus is a dedicated and diligent scholar and teacher who took seriously the rule of his community to study always, even in the darkness of night as others slept
And because this is the Gospel of John and the author never met a metaphor he did not like, the darkness might symbolize Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, his confusion about who and what Jesus is.
But honestly, it is hard to understand why Nicodemus is there that night. And maybe he does not know himself. Something called Nicodemus out in that night, maybe an itch, a sense that this man, this strange shaggy man from Galilee has something to offer him, a well-respected teacher. Maybe Nicodemus had heard or seen firsthand this Jesus: seen a dove alight on his shoulder or was a wedding guest at Cana and had sipped an extraordinary vintage and marvelled at the story of where it had come from.
I suspect even Nicodemus did not know why he came. He opens the conversation with a statement not a question, and does not even seem to be speaking for himself. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God” he says. I wonder if he is afraid to ask what is really on his heart. Afraid to own his own wonderings.
Nicodemus does not ask a question but Jesus seems to sense his yearning. And there is a wildness and poetry to Jesus’ responses here, like he has been waiting to start sharing about how everyone is invited to experience the kingdom of heaven. “Amen” he says, “no one can see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.”
But Nicodemus does not follow, he can not keep up. He responds to the poetry and metaphor of Jesus with literalness and fact. And I get it, I really do, I understand Nicodemus’ dogged earnestness is trying to translate Jesus’ words into something he can grasp….into the physical experience of literally being born again.
And also, to be honest, there is something so radical in Jesus’ language that it is no wonder Nicodemus does not follow….eventually he throws his hands up with the response “How can this be?” when Jesus continues to double down on this image of birth as an explanation of how we come to have life in the Kingdom and life in God.
Because what Jesus is doing, quite remarkably, is painting an explicitly feminine image of God. Jesus does not correct Nicodemus for responding with the language of birth and wombs, but only corrects the literalness with which he takes Jesus. The metaphor still stands….that being born into the kingdom means being born of water of water and spirit of God just as we are born of water and breath of a woman.
So no wonder Nicodemus did not get it. I mean, given his cultural, social, and religious location and gender…why would he? And, when he responds “How can this be?” perhaps it is out of confusion and frustration, or perhaps it is out of comprehension and disbelief. Perhaps, at some level, he gets what Jesus is saying but it is so radical, so beyond his imaginings, all he can say is “How can this be?”. How can it be that being born into the kingdom, that being born as a child of God, can be at all like being born of a woman?
And while certainly I am employing a 21st century feminist lens to this reading, there are echoes of Jesus’ language in the Hebrew scriptures with Wisdom personified as female in the Book of Proverbs and images of God giving birth to creation in the Books of Deuteronomy and Job. In Deuteronomy God rebukes Israel saying “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
This birth language not only points to a feminine image of God, but an earthy one as well. John’s Gospel is often labeled as the most ‘spiritual’ Gospel, and certainly the author of this Fourth Gospel often describes Jesus as if he is already half-way back up to heaven.
But I would suggest that what the Gospel writer might be trying to do here, what Jesus might be trying to do, is to knit together the heavenly and the earthly, the spirit and flesh, and suggest that it is in our very earthiness, in these very bodies, that we encounter God. Like we are born of through water and woman we are born through Spirit and God.
When our son Seth was born it seemed he never stopped crying. While he was born full-term, it always seemed to us that the harshness of this world was too much for him and he could have used a couple of extra months in the womb before he came into the world.
But in the world he was and he was none too happy about it. The best way I found to comfort him and end his tears and screams was to take him into the bathroom and turn out all the lights and turn the tap of the bathtub on full blast. Somehow the combination of darkness and the sound of water was familiar to him, reminded him of where he came from and there he found peace.
Maybe that is what Jesus was doing in today’s Gospel, trying to remind Nicodemus where he came from, from the womb of God and to get him to feel that in his heart and in his body, not just try to reason it out with his mind. Jesus is calling Nicodemus, calling all of us, to encounter God in the physicality of this world, of our bodies.
And maybe that is why God gave God’s only son, to paraphrase John 3:16, not so that Jesus could atone for our sins and guarantee a place for us in the afterlife but rather so that we could physically encounter God in flesh and bone and learn that what is Spirit and what is flesh is inextricably knit together.
I think Nicodemus learns something of this. We encounter him two more times in the Gospel of John. A few chapters from now Nicodemus, in the light of the day and in front of his fellow leaders, defends Jesus and calls for a fair trial for him, a trial he never has.
And finally we encounter Nicodemus in the most unexpected of places, the foot of the cross. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, take Jesus’ body down from the cross. The Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. I imagine them, together, washing Jesus’ body so tenderly with water
Life begins in water.
and then burying him in the darkness of the tomb.
Life begins in the dark.
This is the story of the man, the woman, the snake, and God.
God has set up this garden, this paradise. In it, there is everything a human being could need, everything that a human being could want. The weather is so pleasant and the conditions otherwise so favourable that it doesn’t even occur to anyone to wear clothes. And the food! If you want a carrot, just pull it out of the ground. If you want a smoothie, pluck a mango and turn on the geothermic-steam-powered blender. If you want a BLT, go to the bacon bush.
But God says: Do not do one thing. Everything but this one tree you may touch. This tree, you must leave alone.
But our heroes can’t do it, won’t do it. In what is officially a staple of folk tales and horror movies – don’t look in the room in the back of the house, don’t open the box, don’t read out loud from that alarming leather-bound book that you found in the cabin’s basement – the delay between God’s command and humanity’s breaking of that command is measured in minutes.
The serpent shows up and says: God doesn’t want you to touch that tree, to eat of it, because God knows how awesome it is. And God doesn’t want to share that awesomeness with you. Which is totally selfish of God.
To which the woman replies,
But God said that if we ate of that tree, we would die.
The serpent smiles in a serpent-like way. You aren’t going to die.
You’re just going to know things.
And so the woman eats. And she gives the fruit to the man and he eats.
Thanks to oil paintings, this is the moment in the scene when we maybe hear the crunch of apples. But actually, the text just says fruit tree. If you want to imagine the man and the woman peeling oranges or the juices of cherries running down their chins, you totally can.
They finish eating. They look at one another. And everything changes.
The serpent was telling the truth. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Our heroes do indeed know things now. And they don’t die, not this instant. But they do know about death and they know that it applies to them. And this knowing itself is a kind of death. And they know as well that they are naked. And so they sew themselves clothes out leaves.
This is the beginning of fashion. It is the beginning of shame.
What is the moral of this story?
Here are three possible morals.
One. This is a story about the origins of sin.
Maybe you know how this one goes. This is the moral that you will get if you are hearing this story while sitting on Saint Augustine’s knee. In Uncle Auggie’s telling, this is when sin shows up, even though that word appears nowhere in the text. Even more specifically, this is when original sin shows up.
Things were perfect. And then through our sin we ruined it. Or if you’re feeling misogynistic (and let’s tell the truth, the institutional church knows a thing or three about misogyny), things were perfect and then the woman ruined it. Either way, God leaves this wonderful tree, this dessert, in the middle of the garden. And like a kind of crappy, passive-aggressive parent setting a test-slash-trap, God leaves the room and says:
Don’t touch the dessert.
But they do touch the dessert.
And because we are reading this story paired up, thanks to the lectionary, with Paul talking about sin and with another story in which Satan tempts Jesus, we get point and counterpoint. Adam and Eve, the dessert eaters, are the problem: Jesus is the solution.
Now, lest we be too, too hard on Augustine, there probably is something to this reading. (Not the misogyny part but the sin being loose in creation and Jesus being the solution to that part.) This world is not as it ought to be. Most of us, maybe all of us, sense that. I was in a waiting room on Thursday morning and I glanced at a newspaper, the headline of which announced that there were children fleeing Syria who were freezing to death in refugee camps.
That kind of horror: it ought not to exist.
And maybe we need a story that explains how the selfishness and violence that makes that horror possible came into being. Augustine has an answer for us: the very first people broke things and their very first sin is still echoing through the world.
Whether or not we need that explanation, we assuredly need to know that Jesus is present in that refugee camp with those children. We assuredly need to know that Jesus is, indeed, the solution, that as Jesus’ hands and feet in this hurting world, we can change things. There is something unexpectedly and profoundly moving about that old icon in which Jesus, who has descended to the dead just like the creed says, is grabbing Adam and Eve by the wrists and pulling them, like two people on the verge of drowning, out of death and into life.
But let’s also acknowledge that this reading is a huge trip hazard for a whole lot of folks, that for many people this is the reading that makes Christianity incoherent. Why did God put this tree in the garden which, as the text tells us, the man and the woman desire? And what does it mean that once they eat they discover nakedness? Throw into the mix Augustine’s understanding of sin, and many people’s understanding of sin, which is to say that sin overlaps heavily with sex, and you can see how God and God’s church don’t come out of this story looking very good.
As the wonderful singer-songwriter Josh Ritter puts it:
Eve ate the apple because the apple was sweet
What kind of god would keep a girl from getting what she needs?
That’s a fair enough question. And if Augustine’s moral is right, it may be a question that proves the antitheists right when they say that we should shake off the handcuffs that are belief in God so that we can get on with enjoying our lives and enjoying our sexuality in particular.
Two. This is a story about God, about the one whom Jesus will one day call Father, acting like the most loving of parents.
There is probably nowhere in the Bible where God is more like a human being than God is at the beginning of Genesis. Later on in the Bible, God is a pillar of cloud, a burning bush, a whirlwind, a still small voice, a sound from the sky that might be words and might be thunder. But at the beginning of Genesis, in one of the most beautiful images to be found anywhere in scripture, God walks through the garden in the cool of the day, just the way that you or I might. God is enjoying God’s creation, with all of its beauty and wonder.
And God, for reasons that make sense to God and may or may not make sense to us, God has allowed danger into creation, evil into creation. And into this world, God has brought children.
To bring children into the world is to have no fewer than two goals in tension with one another. The one is that you want your children to have a good and a complete life, full of love, meaningful challenge, friends, learning, and so on. We want, in other words, our children to know the world, know themselves, know God. The other goal, the one in tension with the first, is you don’t want your kids to get hurt, whether hurt means the bruising of their bodies or the bruising of their hearts.
And so we try to insulate our kids from hurt or, at a minimum, to delay as long as possible the time when hurt will come. We try to see if we can postpone the day of disillusionment or disappointment. That’s because we know that, when that day comes, something breaks. When the day comes, for instance, when a child understands that their parent cannot solve every problem there is, it is the end of a kind of beautiful innocence.
What if that is what God is doing when God says, Don’t touch that tree, the one that will tell you about death? What if God is saying to the man and the woman, I just want childhood, your childhood with its fleeting, fragile innocence, to go on a little longer?
Three. This is a story about the importance, the holiness even, of accepting boundaries and limitations.
Earlier, we talked about how the man and the woman desired the tree – or, in the strange, passive voice that the New Revised Standard Version gives us, that the tree was to be desired. But here’s the problem with reading stuff in translation. The very best translatuins give us, maybe, 85% of the sense of the original text. The English translation of this story doesn’t let us know that the Hebrew is full of puns, so that this story in origin has a whimsical, playful feel to it. And other nuance gets lost: the word that the NRSV renders as desire in this passage, nehmad, is precisely the same word that in the final of the ten commandments, it renders covet. As in:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s spouse, nor their servants, nor their animals, nor anything that belongs to your neighbour.
You shall not nehmad these things.
The tree was nehmad.
So, if we are going to use the same translation here in Genesis as in the tenth commandment, the tree was coveted. Or, in less awkward English, maybe something like: The man and the woman coveted the tree.
God says to the human beings: Here is paradise. Here is abundance. Here is enough.
And then God adds: But if paradise is going to work, if you and everything else are going to thrive, you must be content with enough. You must not take too much. You must not cross the boundary into covetousness. You must not nehmad.
Suddenly, this is a story for our time. For you and me, right now. Because there is enough on this earth for everyone to live, for everyone to thrive. Be content with that, says God. Be happy with that. Because what there is not are the resources for everyone to have too much. Do not nehmad more than you need. Or you will bring death into this world.
But the snake, who these days goes by the name consumerism, smiles and says: God is just kidding. God knows how much fun it is to nehmad. And God doesn’t want you in on that fun. Go ahead and eat. And if you break the tree or something else in the process, never mind. You can always buy another one. It might even be covered by warranty.
And we have eaten. And we have brought death into this world by doing so. We are perilously near to breaking this earth and breaking ourselves. It is not too late to make a different choice. But it is dangerously close.
Three possibilities. A story about sin, a story about love, a story about healthy limitation. Probably a story about still other things. Assuredly a story about us. A story about how God has given us paradise and said, This one tree you must not touch or you will die. A story that offers us a choice between the advice of God and the advice of a snake. A story that asks you and me the question, whose advice will we take?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
When I told my husband that I was going to talk about darkness this morning, he said, “You’re not going to make it one of those interactive sermons where you ask everyone to close their eyes, are you?” He’s not a big fan of audience – or congregation – participation, if you couldn’t guess. If you’re like him, rest easy. I am not. But I am going to say something that as a young person going to church I would’ve loved to hear a preacher say – feel free to close your eyes during this sermon. As I was preparing for today, sitting on our couch at home in the evening, I found myself frequently looking out our front window at the darkening night sky as I considered how we talk about darkness, how we behave when we come upon it and what we might be missing when we behave that way.
In our western, technologically-developed, white-dominated society, when we say darkness, we often, almost always, are speaking of something negative. We talk about dark moods, being afraid of the dark, people who are the “black sheep” of their family. And like no one else in the history of our world, we push the literal darkness out of our lives. We yell to our kids to “come inside, it’s getting dark.” Even after we close our eyes, we leave nightlights on to show us the way, our electronics blink in the corner of our rooms, in my room the humidifier and the baby monitor both shine bright. If I got to the kitchen for a drink of water, the microwave and oven clocks provide all the illumination I need. That is the absolute totality with which we, in our society, have shunned darkness, because we believe about darkness being inherently scary or evil.
So if that’s a baseline for how we talk about darkness, it’s no wonder how we typically behave when we encounter it. We run, we turn our backs, we lock the doors, we pull the covers over our heads, we ask our parents to reassure us that everything will be ok. I don’t know if this is just me, but man can I literally let my own thoughts about darkness, not even the darkness itself, terrify me. I’ll be going to bed, slowly turning out lights as I head toward the bedroom where my husband is already asleep, and my feet will start to move quicker, my heart rate goes up, my gut just tells me to move through the darkness quickly and get to my bed, to my little reading light.
That’s why Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in this morning’s reading is so unusual to me. Now a story about a burning bush in what may have been the middle of the day may seem an odd reading to provoke a conversation about darkness…but I’m going to use the definition of darkness that Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor gives in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark. She writes, “darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me – that I want no part of – either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” And there’s no doubt that fire is one of those things that invokes fear, whether it’s opening the oven to flames to just smelling smoke somewhere it shouldn’t be to the absolutely devastating and terrifying impact on life and livelihood we saw in the California wildfires last year…and in the Gorge the summer before. Fire is a force that, rightly, makes us turn and run. It is a powerful darkness.
So we might expect Moses to behave the way we humans typically do when we encounter something terrifying…turn and run, possibly even leaving behind our flock that our father-in-law had entrusted to us. In the grips of fear, we take flight and put as much distance between us and the darkness as we can. But Moses didn’t do this.
First, we hear that “the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed,” which suggests that the fire maybe didn’t look like a typical brush fire. No, this blaze is described as being different, as not consuming the thing that it was burning. That gives us the sense that something strange, something unknown, something maybe to fear, was present. And yet Moses’s response is “I must turn aside and look at this.” While he would go on to have many more direct encounters with God, this was Moses’ first. It’s not like this was a common occurrence for him, God showing up in dazzling form. It’s not like Moses knew what to expect, or that he could assume from past experience of God’s presence that he ought to investigate. We get the sense from the reading that Moses was compelled and curious, and it’s at this point – when the Lord sees that he’s turned aside to approach the burning bush, that God then speaks to Moses, calls his name. And then Moses is afraid and he hides his face.
There is a lovely children’s book by the author Lemony Snicket called The Dark that I read to our kids about a young boy named Laszlo who we’re told at the start is afraid of the dark, the dark that lives in the same house as Laszlo, in the closet, behind the shower curtain, in the basement and, at night, across all the windows and doors of the house. Every morning Laszlo opens the basement door, stands at the top of steps and says “Hi” down the stairs to the dark, hoping that by visiting the dark in its room, the dark won’t come to his room. And then one night the dark says “Hi” back and tells Laszlo it wants to show him something. So Laszlo follows the dark around the house, finally down into the basement, where the dark shows him a chest of drawers full of lightbulbs. Laszlo says thank you, and, as Lemony Snicket writes, “The dark kept on living with Laszlo, but it never bothered him again.”
Who of us, if we heard something in the dark – the dark itself – asking us to follow it to show us something, would go along? Who of us, if while out walking alone saw a bush consumed by a strange blaze would get closer to investigate? And if we chose not to, who of us might miss the voice of God? Might miss hearing God call our name? Might miss being given a gift to help us understand and see our darkness. Might not see the “the way out” that Paul writes to the Corinthians about in his first letter to them that we heard from this morning.
There’s a lot in that passage we heard from 1 Corinthians. First, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of their heritage in the Israelites who were led into the wilderness by God through Moses, a journey that began with Moses encountering God in the burning bush. Second, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the destruction and death that befell thousands of those Israelites, their ancestors, because of their turn toward evil. Why bring this all up? Why remind the Corinthians of these terrifying ends that many Israelites met at the very hand of God? Because, as he says in the final sentences of the reading from this morning, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” He is reminding the Corinthians that despite the centuries they have on the Israelites, they have not somehow succeeded in separating themselves from the darkness of temptation, whether through special knowledge or spiritual awakening or even proximity to Jesus Christ. They are still confronted by darkness too. And then Paul writes – in one of the most perplexing statements in his writing – and there are many – “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” That verse has always sent my brain into spirals.
Paul says God will not test you beyond your strength. What would it look like to be tested beyond your strength? When my mom died in 2012 after seven months with brain cancer, I was not enduring. I felt tested way beyond my strength, and so I did two things – I drank a fair bit of wine and I slept a lot. All I could do for months was avoid the darkness of her death, and alcohol and sleep facilitated that avoidance.
I’ve often fixated in those verses on the idea of God “providing a way out” and asked what that looks like. But I think maybe it’s the “ability to endure” that is the way out. In the Greek the word translated as “ability to endure” has the connotation of “to carry on under,” which is to say to be burdened by, to feel the weight of the burden, the weight of the darkness, of the temptation. For me and the death of my mom, it was finally feeling the weight of the darkness – picturing my mom ill, recounting conversations we’d had in her final months, thinking about my own immortality – that was the way out. The way out was to go further in.
There is a risk here in romanticizing darkness. In terms of literal darkness, the places on our planet that are best lit are not the ones that are most populous only but the ones that are most populated by the wealthy. Many people on our planet do not have or have been denied access to electricity, and therefore to the ability to light the darkness, and in many places and many ways this contributes to poor health, to oppression by those with resources and power, and to individual harm. In addition, we risk ignoring that there are privileges in whiteness, in seeing and in mental health that allow some of us to simply to explore the dark areas of our lives and the world when it’s most convenient for us. I think we combat this by practicing darkness in the way we do the spiritual practice of prayer or meditation: by saying yes to exploring dark things when they become known to us, not just when we choose. By making attention to darkness an everyday part of our lives. By believing and amplifying the voices of those whose skin color, whose mental health, whose life circumstances, mean that they experience darkness regularly and without warning or without their choosing.
Lent means, literally, springtime. The sun is out, at least it was, the days are longer. But our rebirth in Lent must necessarily come out of the darkness of winter. There are wonderful opportunities in Lent still to explore both darkness and rebirth, to accept that God may inhabit the darkness in our lives and to go to God there. I wish I could say that when I went deeper into that darkness of losing a parent, I discovered a loving and kind God of comfort. I didn’t. I discovered that I believe fewer things about God than I once did, but that the ones I still believe I do so more deeply and fiercely than ever. Was that worth it? No. I would rather have my mom alive. But I can say that to the God I know now, the God I would not have met had I not gone into the darkness.
Are there times when a poison is its own cure?
Today we hear the story of Moses and the people of Israel meeting snakes in the wilderness. It is an extraordinary story, a weird story, and yet somehow a powerful story. With Moses’ help, with God’s help, Israel has escaped from slavery in Egypt. And as sometimes happens, the glow of freedom is fading. Like a young person who has moved out of their parents’ home and, after a week of saying, “I’m free – I can do whatever I want!” they are now beginning to grumble and say, “I’m lonely, and no one seems to be washing the dishes.”
They start to complain. They say to Moses:
Why have you brought us out Egypt to die in the wilderness?
There is no food and no water and we hate the food.
(That is a line that suggests to me that the comedy of scripture is underappreciated.)
It is shortly after the people pose this question that the snakes show up.
Now, somewhere along the way, when folks first started telling this tale around the campfire, it became part of the story that God sent the snakes to bite the people, that God sent the serpents to teach an ungrateful people a lesson. I don’t know if I think that God does that sort of thing, but I admit that I kind of love this element of folk-tale comeuppance. There is something satisfying about the kind of Brothers Grimm slapstick justice: here is an echo of the guy who in boastfully announces that he is invulnerable and then is promptly crushed by a falling piano.
Regardless of why it happens, the snakes are here. And the people are soon dancing around in pain and grabbing their freshly bitten ankles, more than one of them falling over dead, X’s drawn over their lifeless eyes.
They turn to Moses and say, “help us.”
And Moses, who probably could be forgiven for celebrating this development –after all, the people of Israel can be pretty obnoxious – jumps into action. He resumes his ongoing conversation with God, he prays to God. And God tells him what to do:
Make a serpent. Put it on a pole. And then have everyone look at it. They will be cured.
Moses digs out the collection of bronze and his hammer and his fire and he gets to work. He puts the serpent on the pole and, the people look at it.
And they live.
The poison is its own cure.
Now, if you have ever taken a course on classical literature and mythology, then you may be noticing right now that there are echoes in this story of the Ancient Greek god Asclepius, the god of medicine, whose symbol is a pole with a serpent wrapped around it. (The pole and the serpent remains the symbol for medicine to this day.) Somehow across the Ancient World, there is this notion that if you have been hurt by a snake, you need to encounter a snake. There is this notion that drawing near to the thing that hurt you (or at a minimum to a safe or symbolic version of the thing that hurt you), is what is going to make you well.
And maybe that sounds odd until we remember that this notion of a poison being its own cure is not confined to the Ancient World. The famous and suspicious home remedy that involves trying to cure a hangover by consuming some of “the hair of the dog that bit you” – in other words, by getting up in the morning and drinking more alcohol – is an identical strategy. Or if you prefer a more evidence-based, or at least a more sensible, perspective on reality, consider what a vaccination is: a vaccine is a sterilized version of the very disease that it protects us against. I understand that a lot of anti-allergy medications are manufactured in a similar way.
And speaking of snakes: we cure the poison from snakebites by administering an anti-venom which is made out of… snake venom. (You may have seen a nature show in which one of those somewhat misguided animal experts wearing khaki shorts “milks” a snake to get venom out of it.)
Similarly, the psychological notion of exposure therapy is about doing the thing that you fear: if you are afraid of heights, go climb a ladder; if you are afraid of looking silly, go out in public wearing a goofy outfit; if you are afraid of rejection, give people opportunities to say “no” to you. This is the very thing that your Mom or your Dad told you when you were learning to ride a bike and you had your first really good crash: get back on, start riding again. This is what is going to let you test your limits, to grow.
Two weeks ago, Corbet shared an amazing sermon with us about resiliency. And the notion that the poison is sometimes its own cure is related to what he shared with us. Corbet talked about the research that says that resilient people have a vigorous support network, are able to reframe the stories of the things that hurt them in a way that gives them meaning, and they are adaptable. It is adaptability that we are talking about today. When we encounter the poison in a symbolic or safe way it frees us up to walk through the world with greater freedom.
Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be safe. There is fascinating research that says that children who have had a significant fall – say out of a tree – are actually less afraid of heights than those who have never had such a fall. That is the opposite of what you might expect. My guess is that what the research suggests is that the opportunity to test our limits – to get hurt and say, “that was bad, but I was able to survive it” – invites us into resiliency. That’s an important and hard lesson for those of us who are charged with the care of children. We have an instinct to protect our children from as much hurt as possible. But if we get carried away, we may end up inadvertently nurturing brittle people.
There are, of course, real and significant limits to a poison being its own cure. If you have a hematoma under one of your fingernails, you aren’t going to make it better by whacking it a second time with a hammer. If you are afraid of cars, the solution is not to run back and forth across the I-5.
Could we think of building the bronze serpent as a parable? A parable about appropriately and generatively engaging with the poison that has hurt us.
Three things happen when we follow the example of Moses’ parable. First, we name our pain out loud. Second, we allow the possibility that our hurt might have something to teach us. And third, we open ourselves to the presence of God in our hurt.
I’d like to spend a little time with all three.
First, naming. As Moses creates the serpent, he says: This is the thing that hurt you. He names that out loud.
There is something powerful and insidious about unhealthy secrets. They can end up having this huge gravitational pull over our lives. There is a reason that, in the Harry Potter books, Harry and Dumbledore refuse to participate in the practice of not saying Voldermort’s name. They are unwilling to give him that kind of power.
My cousin Mike – this is a sad story with a happy ending – was a closeted gay man well into his forties. (This was not 50 years ago: this was in the early teens of the 21st Century.) My read is that Mike had a story that his Dad, my Uncle, could not handle hearing the truth about Mike’s sexuality; that his Dad would blow up or disown him, that the news would kill him. Mike had a partner he had been with for 18 years. And his partner was never mentioned in the Christmas letter, never at a family gathering.
I don’t know what happened. But Mike – maybe with his partner’s help, maybe with his community’s help – found the permission to come out late in his Dad’s life. There was recently on Facebook a photo of Mike and his partner and his Dad and their whole family. It was a glimpse of the Kingdom, of what can happen through naming.
On a justice front, something similar is happening right with now with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. This is about what happens when people have the courage to name something. A year ago, it was an accepted and immutable fact that Harvey Weinstein was untouchable. And then some courageous women named his behaviour. And that changed reality.
It’s a big deal to name hurt out loud.
Naming leads us into learning. Vaccination, which we talked about earlier, is about allowing your immune system to learn from an illness, to become resilient. Our hurts, if we allow them, give us a similar opportunity.
I want to be careful here. Because I don’t want to get into a facile theology in which everything happens for a reason and God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Those are problematic statements; they are often more about consoling the person speaking than consoling the person who is in pain.
What I am trying to get at belongs more to the realm of paradox. I think about certain griefs, certain hurts in my own life. This is stuff that I didn’t want to happen, stuff that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Somehow if I know anything about compassion it is because these things happened. Somehow if I know anything about justice it is because these things happened.
I have, as I’ve told you before, lost track of how many people have said to me: the time after the car accident was a spiritual awakening for me; the time after I got sick was a spiritual awakening for me; the time during my divorce was a spiritual awakening for me. Even though I didn’t want this thing to happen, it allowed me to understand something about myself, about my neighbour, about God.
I we allow them, our hurts will be our teachers.
Last, as the people look at the serpent on the stick, they are invited to see God in their hurt, to recognise that God is present in their woundedness. I don’t mean that God is responsible for their woundedness, that God sent the snakes (although that is a way of reading this story). Rather, I mean that they are invited to see that God shares in the pain.
My guess is that this is why John draws on the imagine of the snake on the pole when talking about Jesus on the cross. The message of the cross is that God endures and accepts the worst kind of violence and humiliation. And because of that, we are able to say that God shares with us in our suffering. There is no pain or lostness so great that we cannot say to God: You know what this is like.
If indeed we can read the story of the snake on the pole as a parable about naming, learning, and seeing God in hurt, then the question for you and me is:
What are the serpents that have bitten you and me?
We all come here wounded. We all come here wounded by trauma, grief, by an experience of unfairness – the list goes on. What would happen if we were to name these things, to learn from them, to see God in them?
We might be able to look at the serpent on the pole, to look at Jesus on the cross, and live.
One of my theological heroes, the Franciscan priest and author and activist, Richard Rohr, has said that in all of his years of attending church he has never ever heard a sermon on the Tenth Commandment:
You shall not covet.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s ox or donkey or sports car or lawn mower or flat screen TV. You shall not wish you were dating your neighbour’s spouse (let’s broaden the lens a little here from scripture, and not assume a heterosexual male perspective). You shall not covet someone else’s stuff or someone else’s life.
If Rohr is right about never encountering Commandment Ten as a sermon topic (and anecdotally, his experience is consistent with my own: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on this subject myself) then: how come? How come those of us who have the privilege to preach are ignoring or dodging God’s prohibition on covetousness?
Well, maybe preachers recognise that covetousness is an almost universal phenomenon and we are nervous about a subject that is likely to touch a nerve in, well, everyone. Covetousness certainly has been and remains a part of my own life. During those times in the theatre business when I was underemployed, I coveted the career opportunities that some of my peers had. During high school, when I was telling a story about how everyone but me had a girlfriend, I coveted the romance that some of my classmates had found. And to this day, I kind of covet the effortlessness with which some folks appear to navigate social situations; I don’t share the common fear of public speaking – standing here is pretty natural for me –but I find cocktail parties mildly terrifying.
Now to be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting any of the things that I just named: it is good and fine to want to gainfully and steadily employed, to want romance in your life, to want to navigate social encounters with a degree of ease. What distinguishes covetousness from a dream or an aspiration is that covetousness assumes a perspective on the world based around scarcity and resentment. It assumes that, if I am to have the things that I want then you need to not have them. I need to take them from you. If I am going to win, you have to lose.
Richard Rohr’s guess – and maybe this is a variation on what I just said – is that preachers don’t touch covetousness because we recognise that so much of our society is built around it. To look at the ads at the Oscars or on the bus or on a billboard is to see one monument to coveting after another. Here in the ad is a bunch of young, athletic, beautiful people. And they are having the best time on a beach or at a party while surrounded by their equally young, beautiful, and athletic friends. The message is clear: if you want to be young, beautiful, and athletic, if you want to be happy, if you want to be lovable and loved, you need the goods or the services that the people in this ad have.
Occasionally, Madison Avenue will wink just a tiny bit in one of these ads. I remember a Home Depot spot that kind of mocked the competition between two neighbours, both of whom wanted to have the most beautiful lawn. But the ad didn’t wink too much. It said: even though a lawn war is silly, even though coveting your neighbours grass is demonstrably ridiculous, you should probably still buy our lawn care products.
Better to be safe than sorry.
I have wondered, sometimes, why I find it so demoralising, so draining to walk through Lloyd Center. Maybe what wears me down so much is the unexamined and unnamed religiosity of the place. In that building there are a thousand and one messages that say: this is the place where you will find your freedom. We have the keys to the kingdom here. If you are to find healing, you need this stuff; if you are to find belonging, you need this stuff; if you are to find meaning, you need this stuff.
Most of us have tried entering into the contract that Lloyd Center and places like it offer: we have bought the new necktie or phone or whatever. And for a while it worked: we had a rush of satisfaction and happiness for a few hours or maybe even a few days. But then it wore off and we realised that we needed something else, something more if we were to be happy if we were to fill the hole in our lives. This built-in dissatisfaction is, of course, by design. The consumer model would fall apart pretty fast if you could buy one and only one iPhone and then be happy forever.
I think that I have told you before about my friend Barbara. Barbara is in her nineties, she is one of the people whom I see when I preside at the Eucharist over at Holladay Park Plaza. I look forward to seeing her every month. Much like the recently deceased Charlotte Creswell, Barbara has a palpable joy and palpable faith – a joy and a faith that she has chosen despite some significant suffering in her life. Barbara said to me once:
We have to be careful about what we worship. Because we will worship something.
You and I will worship something.
I spend a good part of my time talking with folks about faith. And pretty often, someone will say to me about one of the things that we say in church:
I don’t know if I can believe that.
And you know what? Good. God invites us to question. God expects us to question. I just wish that we would expand that questioning, so that when we stand in the middle of Lloyd Center and see its promises that our credit cards will allow us to buy love and freedom, we might say to ourselves:
I don’t know if I can believe that.
Scholars who study rabbinical interpretation, who examine the long Jewish history of interpreting scripture, tell us that the Jewish tradition tends to give special attention to the first and last items in a list or a sequence, that these items are set apart or emphasised versus the rest of the list, that they are tied together. Thus, in the Ten Commandments, this final commandment – you shall not covet – is tied to the first commandment – I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me.
This linking makes a lot of sense to me. Because it seems to me that coveting is all about directing our love and our energy towards something that isn’t God, about having other gods before God. What we find at Lloyd Center – call it capitalism, call it consumerism – in a very real sense, is a religion: it is a promise that you and I will find healing in stuff, that we will find belonging in stuff, that we will find meaning in stuff.
At the far entrance, there is actually a statue within a fountain made out of coins. Could we call that an idol to money? It isn’t too hard to imagine Jesus outside of Lloyd Center. It isn’t too hard to imagine him seeing that idol, picking up his whip of cords, and going berserk.
To let go of covetousness is hard. It is an act of vulnerability and hope. It is a choice to go through the world saying that there is enough, and that I have enough, and that who I am is enough. I need to be something more, I don’t need to get something more in order to be loved by others or by God.
Keeping the commandment to not covet, in other words, isn’t just good for our neighbour, it isn’t just good for creation, it is good for our very souls. Setting aside covetousness allows us to be genuinely happy for other folks’ successes. Keeping the Tenth Commandment, hard though it may be, allows us to follow Jesus’ commandment: to love God, to love our neighbour, and – amazingly, amazingly enough – to love ourselves.
 Richard Rohr’s Meditation: Community as Alternative Consciousness. Accessed March 03, 2018. http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1103098668616&ca=bb8b4e6d-8bc4-4bc3-b3fc-facb2ed56d19.
 “Lent 3B.” Girardian Lectionary. Accessed March 03, 2018. http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/lent3b/.