Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Look up

Numbers 21: 4-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 11, 2018

         This chant, “Hospodi Pomilui”, written by Russian composer Lvovsky in the 19th c., is sung in Russian Orthodox churches in worship on the Eve of Holy Rood or Holy Cross. It means “Lord, have mercy” and the words are sung seventy-five times, reminiscent of the scripture when Jesus tells his disciples that they must forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times or seven times seventy. In the service the bishop stands in the center of the church, holding the cross above his head. As he lowers the cross, the choir sings in decreasing volume, to the point of pianississimo—as the cross touches the floor. Then the cross is raised again and the choir rises in a crescendo of triumph.

         Although the eyes of the worshippers are drawn downward as the cross is lowered, ultimately we are compelled to gaze upward. The psalmist asks, I lift my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? We know that God, that power and mystery, does not reside only above us but around us and beneath us and within us. We do not look up as in location but in attitude adjustment.

Asclepius with serpent-entwined staff
The Israelites are in dire need of an attitude adjustment. Not only does the food stink, but there’s not enough of it. Not only is God’s idea of rescue a long, hard walk but God has rescued them only to kill them in the desert. In another passage in Exodus, the Israelites complain to Moses, “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!” Basically they’re saying that slavery with comfort food is better compared to this tortuous freedom where they have to depend on God and each other.

         And then we read that God sends poisonous snakes among the people; the snakes bite them, and some die. God doesn’t send the snakes as punishment for all their complaining; the people come to that conclusion themselves. “Where did all these snakes come from? God must have sent them to punish us.” By coming to that conclusion we can see they do know they need to trust God, but they aren’t doing a very good job of it. They own up to the simplest of parent/child relations: bad behavior has its own consequences. Their complaints bite back.

         God sends snakes to bite people just because they complain about the food? Sounds a bit ludicrous to me. Sometimes my kids used to grouse about what I cooked for dinner but snake bites? Jesus said “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Maker in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7: 9-11) God gives good things, not snakes, right?

Seraph means 'burning one'
But in Hebrew, the word used for fiery serpent is seraph, as in the seraphim, celestial beings in the court of heaven. In early Judaism these were six-winged flying snakes who also sang the praises of heaven. Literally, seraph means ‘burning one’. These were the angels who touched Isaiah’s lips with burning coals in order to purify his speech. Those who looked upon the seraphim directly would be incinerated due to their intense brightness and heat.


         If God does send fiery serpents it is to remind these downcast Israelites that what they long for is not what satisfies the stomach but what satisfies the soul—the companionship of God. Sometimes what we long for the most, we also avoid the most. We long for closeness with God, “to shake the hand of the universe”, but we also fear and doubt the intense brightness and heat of such love that can cut through our despair. Like Dante, many of us to seek to find heaven by traveling straight through hell.

Brazen Serpent Monument by Italian sculptor Giovanni Fantoni.
Mount Nebo, Jordan.
(Photo: Dawn Chesser)

         God then commands Moses to take a staff, to fashion a bronze serpent coiled around it, and to have everyone who has been bitten to look upon it and they will live. This sounds an awful lot like the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god associated with healing and the medicinal arts. It also sounds like God is violating the second commandment about idol worship. But what are rules and laws if they can’t be stretched now and then to show mercy and love? Eventually this pole with a bronze serpent would be destroyed because it became an object of worship for the people of Israel—something to hang onto rather than point the way.

         These days we are overwhelmed by whole host of needs, causes, news stories, and theories, and our own needs pointing us in any number of directions. We feel like we’re wandering in a desert of our own, trying to find our way. We spend a lot of time looking down, carefully putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes despairing. We spend a lot of time looking around us, at all the demands for our time, our energy, our resources, doing what we can to be faithful and compassionate, to live into God’s Beloved Community.

         But often I think we forget the power of looking up, the healing power of awe, the reminder of how small we are and yet so very rare and precious. Who stops and looks up at the Canada geese as they honk and fly over in their V formations? Have you ever paused to witness the river of birds, the flocks of grackles as they make their way home for the evening? Have you closed your eyes and listened to the hushed flutter of their wings? How about cloud formations or the night sky?

Parker Curry in awe of Michelle Obama's portrait (Photo: Ben Hines)

         Children spend a lot of time looking up because everyone and everything is taller. Who was captured by a photograph of 2 year old Parker Curry looking up at the portrait of Michelle Obama in the National Portrait Gallery, her little mouth forming a perfect O of wonder? For all of us amateur art critics, that portrait is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

Kikito by French photographer and artist JR

         When was the last time any of us looked up at a piece of architecture or art? Last September, artist and French photographer JR installed a massive photograph of a child named Kikito looking over the border fence from Mexico into California as though he was peering over the railing of his crib, compelling border guards and others to look up at his sweet face. 

Eyes of the Dreamer by JR

         In October JR built a massive dining table across the U.S./Mexican border in the town of Tecate and painted on the table “the eyes of the dreamer”, one eye on each side of the border. From an aerial view these eyes are looking upward to the sky, as if that were the only limit. People gathered around both sides of the table to enjoy a giant picnic of good food and festive music, with half of the band on each side. The table became a bridge. And with the border fence bisecting the table, a cross was formed.

         In John’s gospel we are reminded that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up on a cross so that we would be saved, healed through him. When I was a teenager, that story saved my life. The idea that someone loved me so much as to die for me meant that my life had worth, that I was loved beyond measure. More importantly, I was part of a church that lived out that unconditional love and acceptance. And looking up at the cross reminds me of that. Because that kind of love comes at a cost: the kind of love that lays down one’s life for friends.


         Where does each of us need to look up and be healed in our own lives? How do we need to look up in our life together as a church? What are our sources of contention and complaint and how are they coming back to bite us? Where do we need to let go and let God? The cross reminds us that there are things we can no longer not see. When we look up at this cross, what do we see there?

         In the end, the Christian faith isn’t intended to be comforting so much as a transformation of our hearts and lives. Heads up, because before we get to Easter, the cross goes before it. Lord, have mercy on us. Amen.

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