Fiery Serpents on the Way to the Promised Land

“We’ve made some progress but, we still have a distance to travel,” stated [Representative John] Lewis of Atlanta on the 53 anniversary of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma over voting rights
“From Mount Hor [the Israelite wanderers] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom [given the refusal of Edom’s King to give them safe passage]” Numbers 21:4

What if the first generation who followed Moses out of Egypt
were not unlike the brave souls who crossed over Selma’s Bridge fifty-three years ago with sights set for the Promised Land?

Like the recent re-enactment of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma, by the time we get to the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible – we witness the next generation. These are the grown children of those who fled Eygpt; these are the ones who never knew anything else other than living as tent-dwelling Bedouins in a raw, forsaken, wind-swept desert. Though born in liberty, they were the offspring of those condemned to captivity.

In fact, the only one amongst them who had never known the lash of the overseer’s whip was Moses. Moses – born into privilege. Moses – educated by the best that Pharoah’s household had to offer. Moses – who was adopted by a princess and raised as a ruler’s son.

So when the Book of Numbers talks about the second generation of escaped slaves being bitten by fiery serpents because of they rejected the provisions of our Sovereign Lord (Numbers 21:4-9), I find myself wondering what is not said. Is there more to this account than stated? Could there be more to this story particularly when we consider that fifteen hundred years later Jesus uses this incident to prefigure his death?

When extensively hiking the deserts of California, recognizing poisonous snakes AND treating snakebite – is a necessary skill when traversing its wind-swept and rocky terrain.  Take heed, unlike the ancient account from the Book of Numbers, gazing upon a bronze snake set upon an upright pole won’t be found in backpacking first aid manuals or elsewhere. But nevertheless, both ancient scripture and current medical treatment underscore the venom’s systemic threat, potentially causing paralysis, severe swelling, difficulty breathing, cardiac arrest and death.

Fifteen hundred years later, Jesus used this account and image when speaking to a prominent religious leader who came to him under cover of night.  “If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how can I tell you about heavenly things?” Jesus said, “…[for] just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:12, 14)

Millennia later, you and I read this account and ponder what Jesus meant by these words. Save this. What if the only thing that can heal the likes of us is nothing short of a systemic remedy, one that treats toxin ravaged souls as well as bodies? What if the crosses we wear and those posted on church steeples and elsewhere are as holy witnesses – testifying that God-in-Christ sustains not by taking us out of the wilderness but by remaining – even in the most godforsaken places and times.*

*Inspiration is credited to Professor Terence E. Fretheim’s  outstanding commentary on this passage

 

When All Seems Lost

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.’” Genesis 17:1

It is dusk.  Overhead, the dark blue canopy of the night sky envelopes him.   From one horizon to another, the sky is awash with stars.   Even in his advanced age, it is so quiet that Abram can hear his own labored breathing.

By this time, Abram, later known as Abraham, was “…as good as dead.”  (Romans 4:19).    Nearing one hundred years old, he and his aged wife, Sarah, were childless.   Still, under the massive canopy of the night sky, God reiterates the promise – that Abraham will be the ancestor of a “multitude of nations.”   Later in this same chapter of Genesis, scripture records Abraham falling on his face and laughing, saying to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?   Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

The author and Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, writes, “Metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery.”   Concerning this account of divine promises still unfulfilled –  invariably the long-awaited child remains the focus.   Yet what if the language of metaphor is also at work in this exchange between Abraham and God?  What then?

It is written that when the Lord appeared to Abraham, God said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”   Take note that this phrase – I am – emphasizes that not only is a divine exchange underway – but that a pivotal dimension of God’s self-is unfolding in real-time.    The I am becomes as much about Abraham’s new identity (and the rest of us) as it is about God.

In Hebrew, God Almighty – El Shaddai – is made up of the root name of God, El, followed by another word designating an aspect of God’s character, Shaddai.   Shaddai is associated with nourishment, strength, power and supplying God’s people with all that they need.

“I am your Sustainer; walk before me and be blameless.”

When all seems lost….when the cacophony of strident voices denounce the cries of those who suffer; when the fragility of our common life is pulled asunder by those who profit from it; when futility engulfs us and we wonder how we will go on.

God says to us, we who would dare go on laboring for justice, defending the vulnerable, advocating for the least of these…

“I am your Sustainer, [Dan and Marilyn, Rhonda and Robert, Steve and Elizabeth, Walter and Katherine…]; walk before me and be blameless.”

And from one horizon to another, the sky is awash with stars…

Reconstitution of the Heart as a Spiritual Discipline – Ash Wednesday and Beyond

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Last week and on Ash Wednesday, there was another school shooting – this time in Parkland, Florida.  Among the heartbreaking images, was of an anguished parent.   A cross of ash was etched across her forehead while her right arm clutched another woman overcome with terror and grief.    As if hitting the replay button, a crescendo of news flashes and responses from DC and elsewhere followed:

“Let us hold those affected in our prayer,”
or “Our thoughts are with the students, parents, teachers and first responders,” and this,
”Now is not the time to talk about [the lie that shackles the very institutions charged with protecting its citzenry].”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me,” wrote the psalmist.

Take note there is no mention of cleansing the heart. Nor is the psalmist’s petition to amend or correct it.
Instead, its author implores the Creator God to act…decisively.

We know that the Holy Writ sees the heart more than a mere organ within the human body.  As the seat and foundation of human personality, the heart is the determiner of one’s ability to differentiate and understand, impacting the choices made even when the welfare of the many is at stake. But this same heart when diseased behaves as scar tissue. It becomes wholly desensitized. Reduced to cauterized tissue: the heart becomes hardened, unable to distinguish truth from fiction, the material from the merely trivial, the indispensable from the consumable.

Going back in Biblical history, the repercussions that come with the hardening of the heart are well documented.  One extreme example is recorded in the Book of Exodus – where chapter one records what had been a pattern of lethal violence directed at children.   Years later, Moses, who had raised in the royal household, is sent back to Eygpt by God to confront Pharoah. However, even on the heels of this directive – Yahweh cautions him – lest Moses hold onto the expectation that reasonableness and good intentions will be sufficient to change the despot’s disposition.

“When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform all the wonders I have put in your power; but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 4:21)

Given the devastating implications, why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? For that matter, why would God harden anyone’s heart? Or could the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the vast multitude of pharaohs since then be the inescapable outcome of their cruelty; a callous indifference kept under a guise of respectability?  Was what ailed Pharaoh then a malignancy; that insatiable and diabolical malady that renders senseless any appropriation towards the good, the just and the peaceable?

So what of us, who are summoned to confront the pharaohs of our day? What of us, tasked with unmasking the pretense of religiosity and self-righteousness; who speak for the marginalized, the foreigner, the forgotten, and this fragile, blue planet we call home. We whose hearts are also at risk of being hardened, by the very forces we face.

Perhaps the reconstitution of the heart is a necessary spiritual discipline – not only for those whose hearts are hardened – but those of us who are at risk. What if last week’s alignment of Ash Wednesday AND Valentine’s Day was not coincidental at all?

Unison Prayer – 2 Kings 2:1-15

Unison Prayer

  God of the Whirlwind, you have gathered us to be wholly present in this moment. Acknowledging your providence, we offer our gratitude for this place of worship and community – even while we ponder what lies ahead.  What if as in days of old, we too have been passed the mantle of discipleship?  What if as Christ’s followers we are summoned to be the champions of mercy, the beacons of justice, and the embodiment of love?

  In this season of life, give us the grace to ask for a “double portion of your spirit.” So that by faith we might step into the riverbed of life’s Jordan – aided by your mercy, claiming the charge and blessing given us at baptism. In the surety of your promises, we boldly ask this in Jesus’ name, the One who was and is and is to be. Amen.

Prayer(s) for Illumination – Isaiah 40:21-31 & 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Dear Friends:

Inspired by the work of Maren Tirabassi, author, poet, workshop leader and pastor, AND in the context of this week’s State of the Union Address, I offer two Prayers for Illumination in anticipation of this Sunday’s lectionary readings.

Prayer for Illumination – Isaiah: 40:21-31

You, the Source of All That Is and Was and Is to Be, just as you spoke through generations past, offering them words of assurance and inspiration…we too have been sustained by your Word.   But now, many of your children find themselves overcome with trepidation. Long-standing divisions have resurfaced; the assaults upon the land and it’s most vulnerable continue on relentlessly. We concede that we know not from day to day, much less week-to-week what the future holds.

So allow us to hear these words afresh…as if perceiving them for the first time.   For you are God.  The One who is as near to us as our own breath.  The One who strengthens us in our weakness.  The One who calls us by name.   Hear now these words of scripture, we pray…

Isaiah 40:21-3 (NRSV)

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Prayer for Illumination – First Corinthians 9:16-23

God who speaks to us through the living Word, we are a people caught between competing loyalties…. particularly now.    As Christians, we discover that when we seek to make God’s love known through our actions as well as our speech, then the Gospel becomes real.   But as depicted in this ancient but relevant text, Christians can also do irreparable harm when self-serving actions and/or policies undermine the costliness of the Gospel and thereby the beloved people of God.   O God, as people of faith who are free in Christ – save for the utmost obligation to love – open our hearts and ears to the hearing of this passage.

First Corinthians 9:16-23  (NRSV) 

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.