Rev. Caroline Barnett
Look and Live
21:4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.
21:5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."
21:6 Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
21:7 The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.
21:8 And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live."
21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
If there is one word to describe the Israelite people in the wilderness, it would be “impatient.”
I don’t begrudge them for their agitation. As they left slavery in Egypt, they were promised a land of milk and honey, of freedom, of a covenant life with God. But instead, they are wandering in the desert, eating terrible food, wondering “are we there yet”?
They are impatient to live in the world that God promised them. One with a little less strife and a little more relaxing. They are impatient, and so sometimes it comes out as frustration.
That’s where we find the Israelites in this passage from Numbers. They are impatient, agitated, and angry with God. And then, to make matters worse, poisonous snakes get involved.
I imagine the Israelites thinking: Hold up. Did Moses say anything about the possibility of snakes when we were leaving Egypt? This was not a part of the deal.
In a moment of self-awareness and repentance, the Israelites recognize that maybe they’ve been a little harsh on God— who has freed them from generations of slavery— and so they ask Moses to pray on their behalf.
And yet, even in their repentance, the Israelites still hold on to their trademark impatience.
Please God, just make the snakes go away. Make it all disappear so we don’t have to deal with the snakes anymore.
But God, not one for quick fixes, doesn’t make the snakes disappear, and instead tells Moses to make a sort of public art project, where he fixes a bronze snake on a pole for the Israelites to look at. The snake, the thing that once poisoned them, is the thing that will heal them.
If they just look at it, they will live.
As a part of the Matthew 25 initiative that our church has signed on to, we have been encouraged to actively engage in the world around us by focusing on three things: building congregational vitality, eradicating systemic poverty, and dismantling structural racism.
Each week of Lent, one of the pastors has taken on one of these topics, to share how these problems in our world have biblical and theological solutions.
And that though each topic is complex, sometimes bringing with it a painful history, the Matthew 25 initiative is, at its core, a positive and hopeful vision of how we see God and how we see the Church. It believes that the church is and can be a relevant and bold instrument to share God’s love, justice, and compassion with the world.
But in order to do this, we can’t just focus on what we do well, and we do a lot of things really well. But we must also confront the ways in which sin has festered for too long.
Because to see vitality in our congregational life even if we are worried about the “dying” church, we need to re-evaluate the times we may have been simply complacent.
To eradicate systemic poverty, we need to know how the systems work against our impoverished neighbors as we build newer, better ones.
To dismantle structural racism, we need to acknowledge how racial hierarchy is embedded in our culture— not just in individual prejudices and attitudes, and not just a thing of the past. But structural racism is something that persists today through inequitable access to resources like clean drinking water and grocery stores and educational opportunities.
And it is fortified through laws and policies that discriminate against people of color. There are systems and hierarchies that categorize people based on their skin color or ethnic group, and make it easier for some people to have flourishing lives, while others struggle.
This is not just an issue for us to take up as human beings, but as Christians. According to a statement from the national office of the PC(USA): “racism is a lie about our fellow human beings, for it says that some are less than others. It is a lie about God, for it falsely claims that God favors parts of creation over the entirety of creation… [Dismantling structural racism is] an essential aspect of Christian discipleship without which we fail to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
To believe in a God who loves the poor, the orphaned, the widowed— the most marginalized people in the ancient world— it means we believe in a God who loves the most marginalized in the here and now, and therefore, what we do— in church, in school, in our workplaces, in our personal lives— should seek to uplift God’s children, and confront the ways in which we have not.
Make no mistake: This is a hard thing to do. It is painful to look at all the ways our world has not been what it could be. How our world does not allow for the flourishing of all of God’s children. It is a hard thing to confront, especially if you are white like I am.
Because I am a newer participant in a conversation and struggle that has been happening for a long time.
Because I have never personally experienced racism and discrimination while others carry deep wounds from it.
Because even if I did not create this structure that harms people who do not look like me, I still benefit from it.
For many people in the majority culture, to even begin the conversation of what will take to dismantle structural racism— much less do something about it— causes discomfort and agitation. It can make us feel insecure and overwhelmed. It may bring up feelings of shame and guilt we’re not sure what to do with.
It is enough to make us feel a little impatient. To want to press fast forward on the difficult feelings that arise when we discuss tense topics. To want, like the Israelites, for God to just make it all disappear so that we don’t have to look at the things that have been poisoning us for so very long.
But there is no fast forward button.
There is no quick fix for things as large and as complex as dismantling structural racism, or eradicating systemic poverty, or even building congregational vitality.
Instead, there is only facing the problem. Like Moses, we can place that snake out in the open, so that when we are wounded, we can look at what causes us harm and live.
The only way forward is to face the wound in order to heal.
Just an hour away from here, some people are already doing that. The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery works to bring to awareness to America’s history and current reality of racial injustice. They do this in many different ways, including education, advocacy, and the creation of a national memorial and museum for victims of lynching and racial violence. I know members of our congregation has been involved in their efforts right here in Lee County.
But in all their work, the Equal Justice Initiative knows that “when we engage truthfully with our history, we are better equipped to address contemporary issues ranging from mass incarceration, immigration, and human rights to how we think and talk about cultural moments and icons.” They advocate that we “must acknowledge the truth about our history before we can heal.”
A fun fact about our passage for today:
In addition to Greek mythology, this passage in Numbers is the basis for the Rod of Asclepius, a symbol of a snake wrapped around a staff, which used almost universally by the medical field to signify their calling.
Perhaps it strikes you as odd, as it did for me, that a snake is the symbol for healing when so many people are frightened of snakes, and snakes are dangerous and associated with evil, bad things.
But this story in Numbers about a snake wrapped around a rod reminds us, just as the Equal Justice Initiative does, that healing is impossible if we don’t acknowledge what’s wrong in the first place.
If there is no diagnosis, no treatment plan, no course of action, there can be no healing. And, even then, we know that physical healing doesn’t always work the way we hope it will. But there is no possibility of healing if we don’t start the process by facing our wounds.
Having faith in God does not give us a fast forward button, or a quick fix to the problems we face.
Following Christ doesn’t absolve us from having to confront the ways in which this world— and our place in it— might be more complicated than we wished.
The Israelites, despite their request for a quick fix from God, have to face the snake that once wounded them in order to live.
They have to put aside their impatience and agitation about living in a broken and imperfect world, and as broken, imperfect people and confront it head on.
In many ways, I do hope we are impatient. I hope we are impatient like the Israelites who do not give up on the dream of the Promised Land and that one day they will get there. I hope we are impatient for justice. Impatient for a world that God is bringing, full of vitality and hope and flourishing.
Because impatience can turn into action, which is the ultimate goal of Matthew 25. That we not only talk about congregational vitality, or systemic poverty, or structural racism, but that we, as a church, do something about it. I hope we are impatient to use our hands and feet to live out God’s command to love God and love neighbor.
But if we are impatient because we are uncomfortable looking at the wounds of this world, because we would prefer that we stopped talking about racism rather than eradicating it, then I may be bearer of bad news:
If we want the world to be healed, we have to look at the wound.
But perhaps that is not as bad of news as we think it is, because when we do face the sin of structural racism, or systemic poverty, or congregational complacency, we open ourselves up to the possibility of growth and grace. As daunting or as painful or as frustrating as it feel, by facing these wounds, we get a little clearer image of the kingdom of God, and can start to live into that new life full of flourishing, full of justice, full of hope.
Thanks be to God. Amen.