Looking up, looking forward

The unfinished East Cross at Kells, County Meath, Ireland

Text: Numbers 21:4-9 

Once every three years we celebrate Snake on a Stick Sunday, thanks to our reading from the Book of Numbers. It’s not one of the best loved stories in the Bible, that’s for sure. God seems to be a little extreme. And the people are not very attractive either. 

Truly, all through this book the people have been miserable. They might have been liberated from slavery in Egypt thanks to God’s mighty arm, thanks to the pillar of fire and the parting of the sea, thanks to God hearing their cries of despair, but very quickly they have come to hate everything about being in the wilderness. God did provide, and Moses and Aaron and Miriam tried to make things work, but the people were disobedient and complained to them about absolutely everything. And Moses complained back to God: why did you give me these people, God? You see how it is, don’t you?


Perhaps the worst was when they came near the Promised Land, which was the destination all along, and the leadership sent spies in to check it out, but the spies came back and said they were scared because they thought they saw giants in the land. And so, some of the people got together and said: That’s it! We’re done. Let’s choose us a captain and let’s go back to Egypt.

Now there is a joke that every church has a Let’s Go Back to Egypt Committee. They’re the folks who insist whenever things in the parish get a little rough, maybe the rector left, maybe the numbers go down, maybe a well-beloved program starts to wither: let’s go back to what we used to know, to what we used to do. We don’t want to be where we are and we don’t want to go somewhere new. We just want to go back. I mean, yeah, we were slaves, but you know, it wasn’t so bad, and the food was great, not like this miserable food.

But I digress. 

The snakes were not the only pestilence to come among the people in the wilderness. There were also fires and a plague and one time the earth opened up and swallowed some of them. I guess you can say that the sojourn in the wilderness was a time when God had to practice tough love with the people.

But unlike with the fires and plague and earth opening up to swallow folks, this time with the snakebites, God also provided a way for them to be healed by commanding Moses to create a bronze serpent and put it on a pole so that the people could look at it when they have been bitten. And instead of dying, they would live. The snakes didn’t go away, and they didn’t stop biting, but their poison no longer caused death. It’s weird, but it worked.

So what I love about this story is the recognition that it is by looking at what has harmed us that we can be healed. 

In the last year, we all have suffered a lot of loss. Families have been unable to be together during holidays or even regular days. We haven’t been able to hug each other. People have lost their jobs, businesses have closed, some for good. Children haven’t been able to be with their friends at school or visited with their grandparents. People have died, sometimes alone and afraid, some of them our family members. The pandemic has been a trauma to our communities, to our families, to ourselves. It has been a time of grief as well as anger and frustration. 

And even as the pandemic raged, we’ve seen in this year serious civil unrest, social turmoil, political polarization, a deadly insurrection at our nation’s Capitol. People have been unspeakably horrible to one other, bullying, screaming, deliberately coughing on other people, taunting, showing utter contempt. Beating and killing each other. At least one high profile kidnapping plot. Even if we have not witnessed those things in person we’ve seen them on our screens. Many nights I’ve awaked in the dark all curled up in a ball or clenching my teeth or my fists and wondering what on earth is going to become of us.

And our parish has suffered loss as well. The rector moved away and some of our friends have dropped out of sight and our pledges are seriously down.

We have a lot to grieve. So many losses and so much harm to grieve.

Now of course we are seeing light at the end of this long dark tunnel. More and more of us are being vaccinated against the ravages of the coronavirus, fewer and fewer are succumbing to illness in the community around us, and we know the day is coming soon when we will be able to sit together inside and sing together and - oh how wonderful! - eat together.

And in light of that light, it is tempting to just shut the door on the past 12 months and dust off our hands and say, thank goodness that’s over, it’s over, it’s in the past now. But of course, as William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” The past stays with us until we deal with it. Our grief, our frustration, our sorrow, sickness and death, loss, fear, disappointment - all those things will still have power over us to keep us from growing, to keep us from regaining our balance, our health, our happiness, to keep us from getting to our promised land, from finding new life as a parish even in the midst of continuing adversity - because there is always going to be adversity - unless we find a way to heal.

So on this Snake on a Stick Sunday, God has a bizarre suggestion for us, but it just might work:

Look at the thing that has harmed you, that which has given you grief and sorrow, that which has made you ashamed or frightened you. Don’t turn away from it but look at it squarely and without flinching and see it for what it is, and go ahead and grieve.

And then, through the grace of God, it will no longer have power over us, and we can be healed.