Monday, March 16, 2015

A Snake for Covenant Breakers

Confession time.  Let me tell you about the single worst liturgical mistake I have ever made.  Now, I know what you are thinking: is there one glaring example that stands head and shoulder above all the rest?  Well, in fact, yes there is.  I had been ordained for just three weeks.  Through a myriad of circumstances you really don’t want to hear about – but let me tantalize you by saying they involved the rector being on vacation and a blind supply priest – it fell to me to lead the post-communion prayer of thanksgiving after everyone had received communion.  A simple task, you say to yourself, but the degree of difficulty was heightened by the fact that I did not have an actual prayer book in my hands.

No problem, I thought to myself.  I’ll get it started and everyone will join in and take over.  “Let us pray,” I said.  No, there is one post-communion prayer in Rite 1 and two in Rite 2 and all three begin slightly differently: 

· Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee for feeding us…

· Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us…

· Almighty and everliving God, we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food…

Well, I managed to cobble together an opening sentence that combined elements of all three: something like, “Eternal and everliving Father, we most heartily give thanks for accepting us with spiritual food…”  At that point I ran out of words to say and hoped the congregation would take it from there.  That was my plan.  Given that I had launched into a prayer never before spoken in the English language, no one joined in for all the obvious reasons.  An awkward, dead silence filled the worship space.  The lay Eucharistic minister took matters by his own hands, hurdled the altar rail (no mean feat in full robes), riffled the choir stalls, found a prayer book, and tossed it to me.  I fumble for the page, found it, and said, “Turning to page 361, let us pray”: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed.”  That was the exact moment I committed to myself never again to be responsible for leading any kind of worship without a prayer book in my hand!

As a clunking segue, let me say how much I enjoy humoring you with my worst liturgical mistake, but be certain of this: I will not speak of my worst moral failure, my most ethical lapse, or my single deepest spiritual fault.  Some things are too personal, too vulnerable, too frightening, too vivid, too real.

Throughout our Lenten journey we have been hearing stories of Old Testament covenants:

· God’s covenant with Noah and all of creation, the sign of which is the rainbow.

· God’s covenant with Abraham and all his future descendants that we all will be one family with a common ancestor.

· God’s covenant with Moses and the people of Israel calling them to be ambassadors who live life by the 10 Commandments.

Today we don’t encounter another covenant, only a consequence of being in a covenant relationship.  Today we encounter the inevitability of failure; of failing to live into the promises and vows we make to be in relationship with God.  Today we face head on the reality of sin, of things done and left undone, in thought, word, and deed.

The story of the snake bites in the wilderness and the healing power of a bronze serpent most likely would have faded into Old Testament obscurity had not Jesus tied his life to it metaphorically – “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.”  For Jesus, the wilderness story is deeply revealing of the meaning of his own act on the Cross.

Let me provide some background on this curious episode.  After Moses led the Exodus out of Egypt, the people of Israel spent years wandering in the Sinai wilderness.  It was a barren land with few resources, yet God gave water to drink and food to eat.  The ‘eatable’ substance God provided was called ‘manna’ – a Hebrew word meaning, “what is it?”  Aptly named, this flaky, sticky stuff (imagine having nothing to eat for forty years other than something like communion wafers) was the only food the people had for years on end.  Go figure, they grew sick of it and literally retched to get it down.  You can imagine that they complained bitterly and God, like the chef at a fine restaurant, did not take kindly to criticism of the menu.

The King James Version of the bible says that God sent “fiery serpents” among the people that bit them.  Other translations just say “venomous snakes”.  What exactly these things were is a real mystery.  But no matter, the people were dying and they reason it is because they offended God.  They ask Moses to pray for forgiveness.

Now, this is where the story really gets interesting if you are a fan of the Hebrew language.  God tells Moses to make an image of a serpent and mount it to a pole.  Whoever looks at the snake will be healed, God says, and whoever does not will die.  Notice that God doesn’t specify what material to use in crafting the image.  Moses, as if humored by the absurdity of it all, elects to make the snake out of bronze.  Now, he could have chosen any material – wood (easy to chisel), stone (he had already worked with it on the Commandment tablets), but in play on words, Moses decides to make the snake (nehash in Hebrew) out of bronze (nehoshet).  He makes a nehash nehoshet and do you know what, it works! 

The instrument of rejection, judgment, and punishment becomes the means of forgiveness, redemption, and healing because God’s power works through it.  The people of Israel hung on to that nehash nehoshet for centuries as a sacred reminder of God’s goodness, but destroyed it once people began to believe that it, not God, had mysterious, healing powers.  After that, Hebrew theologians became embarrassed by the details of the event and when the poet of today’s psalm set out to write a song of praise, he or she sanitized the story by omitting the weird serpents and snake pole, saying only that the people were afflicted and God spoke a word so they would be healed.  Most likely the story would have slipped into obscurity had not Jesus breathed new meaning into it.

So, on our Lenten journey with God’s covenants – covenants that serve to remind us of God’s invitation to be in relationship with God and one another- here is what we learn from today’s readings: we fail, we fall short, we do not live up to our part of the bargain.  And God, though God’s infinite graciousness and love, continues to invite us into relationship.  And the sign of this invitation is the Cross.

For us, the Cross is a one-time event.  It happened in a particular place – Golgotha, which lies just outside of the old city of Jerusalem – at a particular moment in time – the best estimate is on the Friday before the Passover in what we now refer to as the year 33 AD (give or take).  But for God, who exists beyond time and for whom all moments in chronological time are always present, the Cross is ever-present.  Just as the rainbow exists to remind God never again to destroy the world in anger, the Cross is always before God as a symbol of God’s deep desire to take our failure and our shortcomings into God’s self in order to foster a covenant relationship with us.

Today we add to the rainbow ribbons (reminders of God’s covenant with all creation), the paper figures (God’s covenant with the entire human family), and the tablets (God’s call to each of us to live as examples and witnesses of God’s dream for all people) a simple wooden cross.  It serves as a painful reminder that each one of us is a covenant breaker; that each one of us has embraced what God has offered, committed ourselves to it, and then come up short – though thought, word, and deed; through things done and left undone.  As the Cross stands in judgment, it also speaks of invitation: “Come back to me,” God says through it.  “I love you.  I always have.  I always will.  Make a small step toward Me and you will find Me waiting to embrace you with open arms.”  When we look at the Cross we see our failures.  When God looks through the Cross at us God sees people God wants to be in covenant relationship with.

Have you ever thought about the Cross in this way; as a snake on a pole revealing all that you have done wrong or failed to do and yet still being the means of healing and grace?  As we continue on our covenant journey through Lent, I will give you a few moments of silence to ponder where you have come up short.  I am not talking about the rookie liturgical mistakes in life, but our deep moral, ethical, and spiritual failures; the things we may not even be able to speak to another person.  The Lord God tells us to name it, to claim it, and to look at the Cross and be healed.  Be healed.  Know that it is you, but let it go.  Let it go and begin to serve again our Lord God with gladness and singleness of heart.