Face the Snake

Sermon preached at Service for Justice and Reconciliation Metro NY Synod, January 17, 2014 Text: Numbers 21:4-9

This is a Service for Justice and Reconciliation and our Biblical ancestors are in the room to deliver some bad news: There are no short-cuts on the way to justice and reconciliation. Our ancestors are here to admit that THEY became impatient on the way when they had to go AROUND the land of Edom. Another translation says that they became discouraged on their winding wilderness journey. Well, where we read impatient or discouraged, the original Hebrew combines two words. The first meaning short and the second being “Nephesh,” a word we translate as breath or life. So we might say our ancestors are feeling short-changed in their lives and short of breath. They are literally saying …we can’t breathe. We’re choking out here in the desert and we can’t hold out much longer.

Can we blame them? They’ve been heading somewhere without getting anywhere for a long time. They’ve lost the spring in their step and the song in their heart. Justice delayed is justice denied. And it feels that not even Moses, who was like their bishop, has their back. Not even God is on their side. Just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, here come the snakes, sinking their poisonous teeth into the worn out legs of a worn out people. It’s a nightmare come to life. … Help Us! they cry. Do something! Get rid of these snakes! And Bishop Moses prays for God to take the snakes away.

It’s clear in the story that the snakes are a consequence of human sin. Way back in the garden of Eden, the snake is an embodiment of evil. The wily serpent comes to poison the trust between God and people, between one person and another. And here we see the serpent appear again on the wilderness march to freedom– a whole slew of fiery serpents on the attack.

Now the story gets really strange. “Here’s what you do Moses,” says God, “make a model of a poisonous snake out of bronze and put it on a pole and everyone who gets bitten should look at it and they will live.” Now this is not at all what the people wanted. They wanted God to get rid of the snakes! But God doesn’t do that. “Make a snake of bronze.” says God… AFTER the venom is flowing through their system attacking their vital organs, breaking the body down, THEN if they look at the bronze snake they will live. After the people get bitten.

Wouldn’t it be better not to be bitten in the first place? Well it would be. It surely would be, but we’ve already got the poison in our system and there’s no wishing it away. And it’s likely that if we try to pray it away or add a few multicultural songs and try it sing it away, we’re going to get the same answer our ancestors received– Face the snake, people. You want peace? First, you have to face the snake. You want justice? You want reconciliation? First, you have to face the snake. Take a good look at what’s biting you. God knows, we don’t want to but we need to.

We needed to have our attention drawn to Michael Brown and the passionate, angry young people out on the streets in Ferguson. We needed to see the tape of Eric Garner’s final moments and the video of 12 year-old Tamir Rice crumpling to the ground. Because WE need to face the snake in order to be healed.

Some of us, and by us, I mean White people, some of US bristle at being told to face our racism because we don’t consider ourselves to be racist. We’re nice people. We do all kinds of very good kind and caring things. We have friends or even family members of different hues. Doesn’t all this talk about racism just stir things up, foster negativity and make things worse?

Some of us don’t want to face the way the venom of the past continues to lurk in the organs and systems of our body politic. We think of the Middle Passage, of Whites Only and lynching as ancient history. The church dealt with race, now we’ve moved on to sexuality. And when it comes to all that talk about white privilege. It often makes no sense to those who struggle to get by every day and honestly don’t feel privileged in any way shape or form.

But we all live in a society where race and ethnicity still matter when it comes to the economy, housing, education, criminal justice and often where you worship. We are all part of a segregated society that incarcerates a larger percentage of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. We are part of a divided society where some people don’t have the privilege of not facing the snake. The mothers of Trayvon, Michael, Eric and Tamir had no choice. The little girl in our afterschool program who was about to jump of the top of a playground slide because of classmates calling her an ugly African monkey had no choice. The children going to prison feeder-schools (like the ones near the New Horizon prison in the South Bronx built for 10-15 year-olds) can’t ignore the snake that swallows them alive. Maybe if the SCHOOLS around there offered a New Horizon, there would be no need to build the prison. For many of our sisters and brothers, EVERY day is another day of facing the snake, no choice about it.

In watching the movie “Selma,” which I hope everyone will be able to do, we can see the key tactic of getting the violence perpetrated against non-violent protestors on the news so that people around the nation will see the snake in action. And although I didn’t notice it in the film, one thing that Martin Luther King later wrote about is that part of the intimidating arsenal utilized in Selma included throwing snakes at the marchers. That’s right. Throwing actual snakes into the crowds as a scare tactic. Talk about facing the snake.

I’m glad we’ve gathered together to reflect and pray and stand together. But when I saw Dr. King’s call to White northerners to travel down to Selma to experience the reality there, to march in solidarity, it made me wonder what that might mean for us. Dr. King called on people to experience some dislocation for the sake of reconciliation. Northerners traveling south. Outside of their comfort zones. I wonder if we might hear that as a call to us to some dislocation too. Maybe next time instead of meeting to pray in an area of wealth and privilege, we might meet in Flatbush, Brooklyn or the South Bronx. To place our bodies, along with our prayers, in a stance of solidarity. Rabbi Abraham Heschel was one of those who traveled south to join the marchers. When I marched in Selma, he said, I felt my feet were praying. Maybe instead of getting down on our knees, it’s time to get up on our feet. To go where the bite of injustice is most keenly felt. To listen and learn. To listen and learn and take our marching orders from those whose voices have been silenced or ignored.

Listening to voices that have been silenced reminds me of planned shrinkage– and no that’s not a new name for our strategic plan. In 1976, Roger Starr, New York City’s Administrator for Housing and Urban Development, announced a policy targeted for the South Bronx that he called “planned shrinkage,” a purposeful cutting back of city services such as police, fire and ambulance as well as the shutting down of hospitals and schools. He stated that the city could thereby “accelerate the drainage” of the most battered sections of the Bronx. So people in downtown Manhattan made plans for people in the Bronx. White people once again made plans for the lives and property of Latino and African American people without their voice. Without their consent. Now well-planned shrinkage, as our church and many denominations are proposing for the sake of growth may be exactly what we need, but we need to remember this history and say NEVER AGAIN to planned shrinkage that privileges the voice and expertise of outsiders over the voice and expertise of those on the ground– especially where race is a factor. This is not to say that outside voices cannot bring a helpful, new perspective but only that there’s nothing helpful and nothing new about dislocation without representation.

The call for the reverse of this, for reconciling dislocation is not only one that came from Dr. King. It comes from a higher authority — Jesus “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” That’s dislocation for the sake of reconciliation. “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross.” That’s dislocation for the sake of reconciliation!

Would fewer people attend a service in the Bronx or in Brooklyn? Which, let’s face it, is a small inconvenience compared to the risks taken by those who traveled to Selma. Is it a problem for us to expect that kind of dislocation? If it is, then that’s all the more reason we should do it. And do it again. Make it our new normal.

Our struggles with dislocation are a reminder of our condition. The effects of poisonous snake-bite include blurred vision, weakness, numbness, and paralysis. That’s what happens to the body. It happens in our civic and religious bodies. It happens in the body of Christ. But our snake-bitten ancestors suffering from their own blurred vision, weakness, numbness, and paralysis out in the wilderness are also here to witness to some good news. Some very good news.

They discovered that when you face the snake, you find yourself facing God. God was right there in the midst of what was biting them. God was right there in the middle of the attack with the anti-venom. Right where they thought was only poison, pain and death, there was God with power to heal and save.

John’s gospel has it’s own mini sermon on this text: Jesus says “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must I be lifted up.” When we see Jesus lifted on the cross, with nails biting into his arms and legs, we never again need to face what’s wrong in us and what’s wrong around us, without seeing at the same time what’s right in us and what’s right around us and what’s right in us and around us and above us and below us is the love of God…for God so loved the world. That’s what we see when we face the snake. When we stare down evil, when we face racism, and any godless ism that has it’s teeth in us…what we find staring back at us is the love of God, more potent than any poison. The antidote of LOVE. The remedy of LOVE. For hate cannot drive out hate Only LOVE can do that. For God so LOVED the world…Death where is your victory, death where is your sting?!

The work of salvation is finished. But the work of love goes on. We have not yet reached the Promised Land. “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public” says Cornell West. Peace and Justice-making love is the work we’ve been given to do along the way in THIS wilderness.

Here’s something I ask myself. Why do we insist on boundary training workshops for our ordained leaders, but not anti-racism training or multi-cultural, cross-cultural community training which is not for Whites only? Now I am not speaking against boundary training workshops- exploiting one’s position to sexually abuse and take advantage of others causes terrible damage to individuals, families and congregations. It’s a poison for sure. However, I would propose that racism and zenophobia or fear of the other, fear of difference, does even more damage. Look at the mounting toll in Nigeria. Pakistan. Gaza. Jerusalem. Syria. France. Ferguson. Or closer to home where we can see the signs of international fissures in our own mirrors. Our own pews.

Maybe the reason we mandate healthy boundary training is that our insurance policies require it. But does the insurance industry dictate our priorities or does the Word of God do that? I think every clergy person, and perhaps all who would exercise moral leadership, should be required to take dismantle-the-boundaries training too. Dismantle the boundaries that marginalize, divide, deport, incarcerate and keep us from truly seeing one another as Police Commissioner Bratton courageously called for, truly loving ALL our neighbors as ourselves as God calls for.

What if no pastor could get a new call in this synod without boundary training AND dismantle-the-boundaries training? Is that so far fetched? I know it’s hard to force people to do something they don’t want to do, but our lives depend on it. Our church depends on it. Our city depends on it. Our planet depends on it. How can we not do it? What about our larger gatherings, for Lutherans, our synod assembly? We’ve dedicated untold hours of assembly time to sexuality. And that’s good! But what about racism and it evil twin, poverty? Pastors who identify as LGBTQ can be ordained now HOWEVER getting a call is still a challenge in many quarters. What about clergy of color? How easy is it for clergy of color to get a call? What is mobility like for our clergy of color? It’s not a zero sum game where concern for one erases concern for the other. As Dr. King reminded us so eloquently: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

How many of our congregations know the abundant joy of dismantling boundaries? The kind of joy known by my home congregation in New Jersey, a predominantly White congregation, that called an African American woman to be their pastor and had such a fabulous experience that when she left they called another African American woman pastor. In fact, this predominantly straight ,White congregation called a lesbian African American pastor.

That’s the kind of boundary-busting joy too many congregations are missing out on! The kind of boundary-busting joy that offers a foretaste of the day when every wall is torn down and every stone is rolled away, – the snake is crushed under foot and our blurred vision is rinsed clear in the waters of the river of life and we can see as we are seen and love as we are loved. Don’t you want to break out some of that boundary-busting joy right now?

Don’t you want to break out some of that my-house-shall-be-a-house-of-prayer-for-all-peoples joy? That swords-into-plowshares joy? That I-will-pour-out-my-Spirit-upon-all-flesh joy? That in-our-own-languages-we-hear-them-speaking-about-God’s-deeds-of-power joy? That good-Samaritan-at-the-well-and-on-the-road joy?

The road is long but that’s no reason to lose the spring in OUR step or the song in OUR hearts. “Don’t be discouraged when trouble’s in your life. God will bear your burdens and remove all the sting of misery and strife, that’s why we’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord; trusting in God’s holy word.. God’’s never failed us yet. We can’t turn around…. We’ve come this far by faith!