Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Aidan Owen, OHC
Fourth Sunday in Lent Year B- Sunday, March 11, 2018
Preached at St. Mary’s, Arlington, VA
To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.
|Br. Aidan Owen, OHC|
We are all snake-bit. From Adam and Eve on down, we’ve been trying to find the medicine that will work against the poison of the snake.
The trouble is, as with so many human endeavors, we look in all the wrong places. Nowhere is that truer than in the Church.
The first snake that we hear about, of course, is the trickster serpent in Eden. Adam and Eve, goaded on by the serpent, want to be like God. And so, what happens?
They eat—not from the tree of life—they’ve been eating from that since they were created. No, they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And they do it in order to become like God. The clear implication in this story is that it is the determination of what is good and what is evil that is the chief attribute of divinity, the one aspect of godhood that humankind cannot live out.
From that mythical moment, we humans have been rather obsessed with categorizing and judging: what belongs and what does not belong; what is sinful and what is holy; what is sacred and what is profane; what parts of ourselves or others are acceptable or not. This is not just ancient history. We clearly see the results in our national and ecclesial lives today in schism, rejection of the immigrant, white supremacy, income inequality greater than at any point in American history, the massacre of children in schools, and the list goes on.
This need to judge good and evil also plagued our Israelite ancestors on their trek through the wilderness. They were so excited to leave Egypt, so impressed with the power of their God, who drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea. By now, though, they’ve been wandering for a bit. They’re tired. The text tells us they’re impatient. What they had thought was deliverance seems, in the harsh desert light, to be destruction. And so they murmur against God and Moses.
And if it wasn’t bad enough that they’re starving and thirsty, now they’ve got to deal with poisonous snakes, biting their ankles. I bet they started to complain a lot more bitterly at this point. And I bet they were pretty certain that they could rightly judge the good and evil of the situation in which they found themselves: Egypt, even with its slavery, had food, water, and no snakes. The desert, though God is with them, has become a place of famine, poison, and death. Which would you choose?
But, as there always is with God, this story has a twist. In an astonishing about-face, the very source of the poison becomes, through God, the cure for death and disease. God tells Moses to make a likeness of the snake. And it is when the people look on that which has been tormenting and killing them that they are healed. The wound of the snake bite becomes the womb through which they are reborn into greater unity with one another and with God, and the poison that killed becomes the elixir of life.
Snakes, of course, carry all sorts of associations for us, as they did for our ancestors, most of them unpleasant. They are tricksters, tempters, poison bearers. Satan is often imagined as the great serpent, the dragon or Leviathan. Many monsters have something of the serpent about them. And we can’t forget the greatest contemporary association of the snake with that most evil of houses: Slytherin.
But snakes are also symbols of transformation, healing, and wisdom. They shed their skin. Their poison becomes medicine. They’re close to the earth. They rarely travel in straight lines. And you can’t easily get ahold of one, if you would even want to, before it slithers out of your grasp.
Jesus tells his followers that, like the serpent of bronze Moses lifts up in the wilderness, he, too, lifted high upon the Cross, will be the medicine for a snake-bit people. The innocent one, condemned as a criminal, will be the cure for the judgmentalism, hatred, and violence that plague humanity.
It should shock us that Jesus compares himself here to that most ignoble, that most obscene, that most sensual and tricky of creatures, that creature who so often represents Satan: the serpent.
In this passage, as in so many other stories in the gospels, Jesus identifies himself as the cosmic outcast, the one who is completely outside the boundaries of what is acceptable, and yet at the very same time lives at the center of God’s limitless love for creation. The most reviled animal is the symbol of healing; the source of the venom is the cure itself; the stone the builders have rejected becomes cornerstone of the temple; the wound becomes the womb.
So much for our ability to judge between good and evil.
As he so often does with the despised and rejected of his society, here Jesus upends all our comfortable ideas of what is good and what is bad and reveals the sham of our smug self-righteousness.
The judgment that Jesus is about is not condemnation, which would see our faults and failings and shame us. That is the sort of judgment the world offers. That’s the way that we, infected with an inflated sense of our ability to know what is good and what is evil, judge the world, ourselves, and one another. And that sort of judgment leads only to exile, fear, and shame.
And Lord knows, shame never healed a broken heart.
No, Jesus tells us, the judgment is this: that the light has come into the world and people preferred darkness rather than light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, has come into the world, and we have chosen and continue to choose to live in the dark, to keep the truth of who we are hidden and secret because we are afraid that God will judge us the way we judge one another and ourselves.
We all know the burn of shame and fear, the sense that somewhere, deep within us, lies a truth that, were it known publicly, would lead others to push us beyond the boundaries, to abandon us to the outer darkness. We all have some aspect to our lives that we would rather jettison in favor of a more acceptable, beautiful image of who we should be. Our denied hopes, the unmet yearnings of our deep hearts, disappointments at the way life has turned out, shame at our bodies, memories of abuse and neglect, and the list goes on.
We have been so maimed by the violence and shame of our world, by a society that denigrates and commodifies anyone who deviates from a fantasy norm of the wealthy, straight, white, cis-gendered male that we are terrified to bring all of ourselves into the light. And so we dwell in darkness, cut off from the healing and reconciling light of Christ, and we do so by our own choice.
But to deny the fullness of our experience does not bring healing. It only brings further fragmentation. These parts of ourselves we would deny, are actually the gateway to our salvation. They are the poison that becomes, in Christ, the water of life; the wound that becomes the womb from which we are born into new and deeper life in Christ.
If we, like Jesus, bring to the center that which we have hidden away in the darkness, if we choose to embrace those parts of ourselves we find least acceptable, to bring them into the light of Christ, to lift them high and gaze upon them, we may just find something astonishing happening. We may look up, in the midst of our lives, and find that it is actually Jesus who is, gently and slowly, walking into the midst of the darkness of our lives, shining his light into corners we didn’t even know were there, revealing the hidden wholeness and loveliness within, showing us that there is no place within us that is beyond the revelatory power of his love. In fact, there is no place within us that is not already Christ.
The 10th century mystic Symeon the New Theologian puts it this way:
If we genuinely love Him,we wake up inside Christ’s bodyevery most hidden part of it,is realized in joy as Him,and He makes us, utterly, real,that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,maimed, ugly, irreparablydamaged, is in Him transformedand radiant in His lighthe awakens as the Belovedin every last part of our body.where all our body, all over,and everything that is hurt, everythingand recognized as whole, as lovely,
You see, there is, ultimately no part of us that is truly outside the boundaries of God’s love, and there need be no place within us that is outside the boundaries of our own love. In fact, such boundaries are a fiction to begin with. There are no barriers between us and Christ the Beloved, no inner darkness too deep for his gaze to penetrate. We are already one, and we always have been. There is nothing and no one who does not belong fully to God in Christ: not the serpent, not even Satan, and certainly not you and certainly not me.