Once upon a time, when I was a teenager, my older sister gave me a little stone owl, just big enough for me to close my fist around. At the time I was all about the classics, and the little owl reminded me of Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom, who is often portrayed with an owl. I kept the stone owl on my desk, and whenever I took an exam I brought the owl with me and put it where I could see it as inspiration. I don’t consider myself superstitious – I make a point of walking under ladders, I never pass along chain letters, and I have a special affection for black cats – but I still keep that little owl on my desk. It provides a link back to my childhood, and it reminds me of my sister.
Perhaps you have an object like that owl – a talisman, that you like to have within sight or in your pocket on important occasions, an object that seems to bring you luck or give you confidence. For some people a religious icon might be that object, for others a photograph of a hero or loved one, a piece of jewelry or an inspiring quotation. Human beings value symbols. We have the ability to assign special meaning to certain objects or images, and they can affect our emotions and even behavior. This works in negative ways too, of course. Think of receiving a voodoo doll with pins in it, or those pictures of dismembered babies that are displayed outside Planned Parenthood clinics.
The very strange story from the book of Numbers we heard today conjures up an image that probably makes most of us squirm. Snakes. Venomous snakes. A plague of poisonous serpents, on the loose among the people of God. It reminds me of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones looks down into the cave where he must go and sees the floor writhing with snakes. “Snakes,” he says, with that famous Harrison Ford crooked sneer, “I hate snakes.”
Where does this archetypal fear of snakes come from? It’s no accident that the villain in the very first horror story, the Genesis account of the expulsion from Eden, is a snake. From the beginning of time, human beings have feared and detested snakes. And now, in the wilderness, the people of God are faced with what they fear. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness a long time. This is the last in a series of stories about their grumbling and whining. Freedom isn’t what they thought it would be. Freedom means uncertainty. It means experiencing insecurity about what they will eat and where they will live. Freedom means learning to trust in God’s goodness and grace; and the people don’t much care for it. Moses has repeatedly talked God out of destroying these whiners, and now it seems that God has run out of patience and is teaching them a painful and horrific lesson.
For those of you who picture heaven as somewhere that cherubim and seraphim fly around, you need to know that the word we use to describe the serpents as poisonous is actually “seraph”, which means something fiery. So you might want to adjust your heavenly vision. Presumably “fiery” refers to the burning sensation of a venomous bite.
Once again Moses steps in to save the people, and God relents; but the remedy is the strangest part of the story. Make a “seraph” image and set it up where everyone can see it. Just looking at the image of the thing they fear will give them life. For a people who were taught that images were forbidden and magic was anathema, this is very strange indeed.
Make an image of that which you most fear, that thing which threatens to destroy you. Put it where you can see it, and look upon it, and you will live.
I wonder what it is that you most fear. What threatens to destroy your life? We live in a culture which trades on fear. Every day there are new examples of how fear is used to modify our behavior and our attitudes. The insurance industry uses our fear of loss and death to drive its business. Politicians use fear to seduce us with their false promises of prosperity and security. The movie industry uses fear to titillate and thrill us. The news media create headlines that startle and alarm us, so that we will read what they are peddling. And we are all too ready to cave in to our fear of the unfamiliar and the unknown, opting to stick our heads in the sand and keep on doing what we’ve always done, rather than launch bold experiments and try something new, whether that means remaining in disfunctional relationships, voting for the incumbent at election time, or resisting new ways of being the church in this 21st century world. Fear holds us back from the freedom of new life, as it held back the Israelites from the freedom promised by God after the Exodus. And fear threatens to destroy us, as those serpents threatened to destroy the people of God.
When have you faced your fear? There have been times in my life when I have been faced with a fearful thing and I was tempted to run from it. Sometimes I was brave enough to face it down, and I was never sorry afterwards. The walkabouts in the Bishop election in New Hampshire three years ago were very scary for me, with their open question-and-answer sessions. Last weekend’s conference on preaching to Latino congregations was an intimidating prospect: the conference was conducted mostly in Spanish; we were expected to bring a Spanish sermon to preach in our small groups; and I didn’t understand more than one word in 50 of what our first plenary speaker said. I could have made excuses and not gone, or stayed in my room for much of the time, but I showed up, I listened, and I’m glad I went. Facing the fear is almost always better than avoiding it. You can avoid that root canal for a long time, but sooner or later you will have to face the drill. And sometimes, facing the fear is the way through to new life and new possibilities.
For a year or so around the end of my marriage I attended Al-Anon meetings. One group happened to be exclusively made up of women, most of whom were middle-aged and married to or living with someone who was the alcoholic in the family. I used to listen to their sharing and wonder why on earth they stayed in the marriage, when life was so stressful and the relationship so unhealthy. I came to realize that for those women, fear kept them from exploring freedom. They were terrified of what it might mean to be on their own, even though staying in the relationship was making them sick. Fear can paralyze us, just as much as the bite of a venomous fiery serpent.
Fifty years ago last week a group of faithful people started to walk across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. On the other side of that bridge waited hostile police officers with guns and dogs. The recent movie “Selma” did a marvelous job of conveying the fear of the brave people who kept on walking towards the object of their fear, even though they knew that to continue to walk would mean humiliation, pain, and possibly death. Today we honor their action as heroes of our faith and of our nation, people who faced down fear and so led the way to radical changes for everyone in this country.
As we walk through our Lenten wilderness time, we are coming nearer to Holy Week, the heart of our faith, the dark time of Jesus’ arrest, suffering, and death. Some people choose not to participate in Holy Week services because they are too somber, too redolent of pain. I encourage you to push through that reluctance and attend our services. We know that Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing what likely awaited him there. We know that he experienced profound terror in the garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed to be spared his fate. And we know that in spite of the fear he went forward to face the Cross, giving himself to a horrible death so that all people might look upon him and be saved.
Sometimes we need a symbol to gaze upon, a token to hold onto in a time of fear, of pain, of loss. For some it might be a rainbow flag; for some it might be a phrase from Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela or the Bible. For the 21 Christians beheaded recently in Libya, it was the phrase they shouted at the moment of execution: “Jesus Christ is Lord!”
Just as the serpent on a pole was a symbol of death lifted up to give life, so the Cross, an instrument of torture, is a symbol of death that is lifted up before us so that we may live. It is part of the deep mystery of the Cross that when we face our fear of death, whether it be the death of Jesus or our own inevitable death, we will receive the grace to persevere through the fear, through the denial, through the darkness.
As the old hymn Abide with Me] has it, “Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; heav’n’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.” May God abide with us every step of the way to Easter.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
15 March 2015