This week’s readings speak of serpents and snakes and being bitten. The psalm is about God’s steadfast love (despite the deadly serpents) and thanksgiving and songs of joy. As I ponder this I reflect on the recent tornados that destroyed so much in the Midwest and here in the southeast.
In Charlotte, seven-year-old Jamal Stevens was lifted from his parents’ devastated house and dropped, 350 feet from his home, onto the highway. He is alive and well. That same storm tore through my sister’s neighborhood, dropping trees on houses and the like. She, her husband, and a grandchild were awakened by the “freight train” at 3:30 in the morning. They are safe, for which I am thankful.
In southern Indiana, 14-month-old Angel Babcock was, for a brief time, the only survivor in her family after a twister obliterated the town. She, her parents, and her two siblings were found in a nearby field, not far from their home. She clung to life on a respirator but was eventually removed from life support.
What in hell?
“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” Really?
The beauty and majesty of the Psalms do not always tell us about the snakes. How we approach those who have been bitten—sometimes severely—will determine the quality of ministry we provide after the 135 mile-per-hour storm has passed. The unfairness of life and its imbalance will make no sense unless we’re sure there is something to be hopeful about.
Rev. Dr. Chris Ayers
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Have you ever been snake-bitten?
Now let's ask the question in a metaphorical sense: have you ever been snake-bitten? Who are the snakes who have bitten you? Have you ever felt like snake-bitten by God?
If you don't like that sermon introduction, any number of get-their-attention snake sermon introductions could be used. Snakes abound in two of our lectionary texts.There are a million snake stories out there. A quick Google search is in order.
A little snake education might also be in order, before tackling the theology.
Snakes have no ears. Most see about as well as Mr. Magoo. They don't have noses but they can smell very adeptly. The fangs of venomous snakes, which evolved from teeth, are among "the most advanced bioweapon systems in the natural world," says Freek Vonk of Leiden University in the Netherlands.
An interesting book on snakes and faith is Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. (Check back later in the week and I’ll have more quotes from the book. Or put another way, I left the book at church.) Covington offers a sympathetic, though ultimately critical, treatment of Christian snake handlers.
"Knowing where you come from is one thing, but it's suicide to stay there," he writes. Much the same could be said for a simplistic, uncritical reading of these texts. God does not send snakes to get us.
Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland have God right in their book, If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person. Gulley writes: “I remember when I first loved my children. It was no on the day when they climbed into my lap, hugged me, and said, ‘I love you, Daddy.’ It was not on the day when they took their first step or babbled, ‘Dadda.’ It was not on the day they quit crying when I held them. It was not on the day they were born. The first day I loved them was when my wife announced, ‘We’re going to have a baby.’ Such is the love of God. God has loved us from the very beginning. . .He did not require us to earn his love. . . God will love us to the end. (p. 173)
And I would add: we will never be snake-bitten by God.
We are in the season of Lent. Folk should be able to do some hard self-examination without fear of divine serpentine judgement.
In the Wedgewood art gallery we have Greta West’s work titled “Lotus Serpent.”
The work is inspired by Hindu creation stories in which snakes are seen more positively.
Tne Hindu creation story tells of the god Vishnu asleep within the coils of a huge cobra afloat on a vast ocean of darkness and nothingness. From the depths, a humming sound arose, forming the primal syllable of Om. The darkness dispersed, the air vibrated with energy, the god awakened and a beautiful lotus flower grew from his navel. Brahma, Vishnu's servant, sat within that lotus, and Vishnu ordered him to create the world before Vishnu himself disappeared. Brahma divided the lotus flower in three, with one part becoming the heavens, another the earth and the third the sky.