Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Numbers 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. 5The 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.’ 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The 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. 8And 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.’ 9So 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.

Yesterday Carmen and I had a rare first-day-of-spring visit to our island lair, a piece of paradise near Kingston, and we remembered snakes. You see, the trouble with owning a piece of paradise is enduring the occasional biblical-style plague, a kind of modern testing, where nature wants to know precisely what a family will endure to remain in place.

First it was spiders, big ugly ones, that had a habit of dropping down to eye-level just to say “welcome, this is our place too.”

Next, a flood. Water everywhere, enough to delay a building project that still begins an annual conversation, “so, what do you think, we build next year?”

Then beavers, mice, ferrets, wind and, of course, snakes.

Let me back-up. We have a very unusual camper-bus, a gift of my father, carefully converted to provide basic living space. Think of Partridge Family meets the Hatfields and McCoys. The first snake dropped in at dinner, landing under my feet. The next snake was resting on the windshield wipers, staring me in the eye. I knew we had a problem. It seems that a black hood and a large V8 is the prefect venue for snakes. We couldn’t count them.

All day Isaac and I would open the hood, grab a dozen snakes for transfer to a trusty tub, wait ten minutes and try again. With the tub full, it was off to the other side of the island where, like modern Irish saints, we drove the snakes away. Oddly enough, they never came back, and our early island sainthood was confirmed.

What are little boys made of?
Snakes and snails, and puppy-dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and everything nice,
That's what little girls are made of.

Some versions say “snips and snails,” but since no one knows what a ‘snip’ is, and owing to our theme, we’ll go with snakes.

So snakes are bad. Bad for Adam and Eve, bad for the Egyptians, and bad for the Israelites. In one of the first and best examples of what would later be known a kvetching (in Yiddish), the Israelites say ‘Why [Moses] 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.’ Think George Costanza in the wilderness. And then his mother: “What, you’re too good for manna now?”

Then in verse six we get one of the most bizarrely understated descriptions in the Bible: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” Not much of an action sequence, hardly the stuff of a good B movie. Just a statement of fact and the story continues.

In an oft-quoted summary, an aboriginal elder was heard to say “I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know it’s true.” The elder was referring to some story of her people, and trying to explain how factual and truthful are not the same thing. You see, we are a people of the facts. We have some ambivalence about what truth can be known, but we love facts. Our aboriginal elder, and a generation of literary theorists is trying to say something else, that our obsession with ‘the factual’ is getting in the way of seeing truth, even it it’s only my truth, or your truth, or the truth we claim for our little tribe of people.

So, I don’t know if the terrible story of the snakes in the wilderness happened this way or not, but I know it’s true.

The reason I know it’s true, the reason I can be certain it’s true, goes back to all that kvetching. In Numbers 11, just ten chapters back, the people are fed up with manna. “We remember the fish, we had in Egypt; and the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.” And now we have manna: day in day our manna, manna, manna. So God sends quail. A bit gamy, but now they have manna and quail. But here we are, ten chapters later, and they are back at it. And even before they begin reciting Egyptian recipes, God sends snakes.

You may have noted a bit of a pattern here. It seems to go: calm, complaining (disobedience), anger, punishment, repentance, reward. Like a desert band of toddlers they make a lot of noise and always get what they want. And each time it’s better than expected, with the latest example being the best one yet: a bronze pole that requires only a quick glance and you are make well. This seems a far cry from the cut-and-suck method discussed at length on Bayou Bob’s Rattlesnake Ranch website, the source of all my knowledge on such matters. See me after for full details: truly, you need not fear snake venom.

The reason I know it’s true, the reason I can be certain it’s true is found in a wonderful book by Jack Miles called “God: A Biography.” In it, Miles tries to imagine the Bible as literature and God as a literary character. Not to say that God is fiction, but to help understand how God changes throughout the 66 books of the Bible. So in the beginnning, God is alone in the universe, longing for companionship, planning a world rich with life and beings to interact with. Add humans, and we are much more than playthings, we are partners of a sort, having a relationship with God, and doing all the things that make relationships difficult. God, accustomed to solitude and being fully in charge, must gradually adjust to this new reality and does so in a variety of ways:

Adam and Eve: cast out for snacking and operating a nudist camp.
Noah: trying to start over, having regretted the whole human thing.
Abraham and Sarah: playing favourites, working toward an outcome that we might call religion.

Jack Miles suggests that God’s character matures and relaxes into a relationship with us, and the amount of smoting decreases and eventually stops altogether. And this is certainly our experience, the smoting stopped but the disobedience ongoing.

The other reason I know it’s true, the reason I can be certain it’s true is not found in the details of the story, but in the pattern. The original pattern was calm, complaining (disobedience), anger, punishment, repentance, and reward. But if we boil this down, and distill from it an essence, it might be something as simple as disobedience, repentance, reward [meaning forgiveness]. So we could be really bold, and reduce it further still to simply disobedience-forgiveness. And I only suggest that because repentance is a grateful response we make, and not vital to the function of forgiveness. God forgives whether we repent or not, so says Paul and Luther and Wesley and more than I can name.

So all we’re left with is disobedience-forgiveness, maybe the only human theme we’ve got. Taking the first half of our theme, I begin with the squeamish: There are, it seems, lots or people who are deeply ambivalent about disobedience. They don’t like Augustine’s “original sin” and they don’t like to think that children can be bad and they really want to believe that we are all basically good people and we make the occasional mistake. Poppycock.

In the news this week: An Austrian man admits that he willfully abused and confined his own daughter for 24 years, since the Reagan years, and will spend the rest of his days in a hospital for the criminally insane. Here in Toronto, a 15-year old uses a mixture of sexual threats and awkward text messages to coerce another teenager into killing a 14-year old girl she had never even met. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, four more Canadians die in combat trying to defeat an insurgency whose favourite trick while in power was to behead teachers in front of the children to reinforce that education is contrary to the Taliban way of life.

From reading the news this week it seems to me that we should be knee-deep in snakes, disobedience and a willful disregard for each other the most obvious theme we’ve got. Thank God that God rethought direct divine punishment because it would be constant, much in the way that human sin is constant and our naïve disregard for it is constant too. And I only highlighted one week in the unfolding story of human living: choosing almost any other week, it would only be worse.

So all we’re left with is disobedience-forgiveness, the heart of today’s text and the theme above all themes both in the Bible and in our everyday. This past week a brave band of curious people gathered for a little food and an introduction to the three great themes of scripture to act as a guide to the rest: exodus, exile and Emmanuel. For those of you who didn’t make it, I just caught you up, and I hope you come on Thursday. So I distilled to three great themes of exodus, exile and Emmanuel: but even as I recount it now I regret that I didn’t superimpose “disobedience-forgiveness” as the uber-theme, spanning the others and acting as the glue that makes sense of the entire book.

Forgiveness follows disobedience, and this is God’s business. Forgiveness is the thing that we struggle at and sometimes get right and often get wrong and usually make conditional and do too late and forget to do at all. No, forgiveness is God’s business, the thing God does best of all, the thing that defines God much more than love or salvation or even creation. God forgives and began forgiving the moment God made companions on the way. And thanks be to God, that we have this ultimate hope, this pinnacle of Godly achievement, that we can live and learn, and try to follow, with God’s help, Amen.


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