Sunday, March 22, 2009
The Hair of the Dog
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Numbers 21: 4-9
Hair of the Dog That Bit You
When I read the Old and New Testament readings for today, all I could think of was the hair of the dog that bit you. For those who might not be familiar with the term, the original meaning refers to the supposed therapeutic effect of the topical application of the hair of a rabid dog that has bitten you to the bite wound itself to prevent rabies. The contemporary appropriation of the term is probably more familiar and more frequently employed. It has to do with treating a hangover by having some of whatever you were drinking the night before that caused the hangover.
Although I have never been a consumer of homeopathy, friends of mine have and I could see the parallel there as well, viz., whatever symptoms are manifesting of whichever disease, the homeopathic practitioner will prescribe miniscule amounts of substances actually connected with the disease to help cure it. The substance is put under the tongue and allowed to dissolve.
You may have heard on the news recently that children allergic to peanuts have been being treated in what sounds like a homeopathic way for some years now as an experiment. The allergic child is given the smallest amount of peanut or peanut product every day, very slowly increasing that amount, while the overseer of the experiment watches carefully for symptoms that might need to be treated swiftly if there is an allergic reaction.
Preliminary results look favorable. Some of the children documented in the study as allergic to peanuts have been declared allergy free. On camera, one of the formerly allergic children delighted in taking a bite of peanut-buttered bread.
Anyway, all that is what today’s reading about the serpent on the pole made me think of. If the people bitten by snakes looked on the serpent atop the pole, they would be cured or healed.While incidents in the Book of Exodus in which we have recently been reading, stressed the patience of Yahweh, who always listened to Israel’s needs and intervened to help, chapters 11-21 of the Book of Numbers from which Tony read today, on the other hand, stressed the people’s constant rebellion that led Yahweh to punish them time and again. In Exodus Moses intervened and interceded for the people, and God softened in his anger and turned back his punishment or healed the victims. By contrast, Numbers 11-21 is one series of the people’s murmurings after another––complaints about the lack of food, then the lack of meat, the lack of water, about Moses’s leadership, and so forth. In this morning’s reading, it’s the people grumbling about food again. They just don’t like it.
The constant repetition of the theme of rebellion would not have been missed by the Israelites of the sixth century for whom P, the writer of the priestly tradition of Numbers, wrote. They could look back on the centuries of injustice, disobedience and false worship, the condemnations of the prophets, the failures of the kings, and know that the loss of their freedom and land in exile had been richly deserved. The message was that God cannot be pushed too far without asserting his own justice and honor.
But even at that late hour, he could turn from his anger and spare them if they would only turn to him. More than most books of the Old Testament, the Book of Numbers lets us see why the Pentateuch––the first five books of the Bible––came to be what it is: a gathering of very old traditions and much later added developments. For Israel, each part of the ancient faith tradition had a message for later generations.
Including us. In the ancient faith tradition the Israelites in the desert looked on a bronze serpent, which Moses fixed atop a pole in obedience to God’s directive. Looking on that bronze serpent would heal the people from the bites of the snakes among them––whether those are literal snakes or represent a plague of some sort––that tradition has meaning for us. And that is why the writer of John alludes to the event in this morning’s gospel in verse 14: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
That reminds me of a story. I once did a newspaper interview with a priest who had been the chaplain at Thomaston for years. He was a tough old bird, the antithesis of sentimentality. We talked about a man we both knew of who was in prison and had been convicted of the murder of his wife, whom the inmate professed to love and which murder he avowed was manslaughter, completely accidental. I won’t go into more particulars about the case, only about the man’s conversion.
The man was in an agony of regret about what had happened, completely depressed about the death of his wife and the prospect of years in prison. After he had been there for a few years, he went to see this priest, who had a crucifix up on the wall. A crucifix is different from a cross in that it has the corpus or body affixed to it. This inmate, convicted of the murder of his wife, suffering his own personal agonies tried to talk to the priest about it all. The priest, as he told the story to me, said he simply nodded toward the crucifix. There was nothing else to say.
The inmate, who had had no hands-on experience of Christianity, understood. For him, everything was in that suffering figure, and out of that first understanding came instruction and deeper understanding that carried him into new life and sustained him through the years before his release from prison. I don’t know what has happened to him in years since then, but the story of his conversion does make me think of the serpent on the pole. If the Israelites looked on that serpent, they would be healed from the bites of the snakes among them. If this inmate looked on the broken Christ crucified, he could be healed from the anguish of guilt and regret from which he suffered. And he was. Of course there was never rejoicing in the event, but life lived for God became possible. Hope revived. He could live and not die the death of the spirit or of the mind and emotions. Would the body have been far behind? I doubt it.
Having been raised myself with a keen awareness of sin and its consequences, the need to confess sin and be forgiven, and indeed an awareness of the suffering, crucified Christ––definitely an excessive awareness––I have happily done a 180 in adulthood into the life of the resurrection. I had thought and felt that too much time and energy goes into contemplating the crucifixion and the suffering Christ, and not enough emphasis is placed on the resurrected Christ, which is, after all, the basis of the Christian faith. While hundreds, who knows, perhaps thousands were crucified as a matter of course because it was a usual Roman form of capital punishment, only one man was raised up by God, and that was Jesus, the Christ.
“If there is no resurrection of the dead,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”I became and am a strong believer in the resurrection, the Christ who lives and moves among us and through us as we say yes to his ongoing invitation to the resurrected life and how that plays out in our lives, as our lives.
I repeat, I was early formed in the crucifixion, in perceiving the value of the crucified Christ. But with age and experience and the need for it, came the resurrection and a new understanding, which I advocate for strongly. However, I am not so foolish that I miss the lesson the crucifixion and the power of not just the image of the Christ on the cross but the reality that underlies it: An innocent person acquiesced to giving his life that others might have life. But this has happened before, you might say. We all have heard of heroic actions by different ones through the years. The one that occurs to me in the moment is the airline passenger who helped fellow passengers out of the water at the time of that plane crash into the Potomac River years ago. He kept helping others to safety until he himself quietly slipped under the frigid water in the snowy air. This is the Christ crucified in our time, and maybe each of us could come up with a like story––a person who gives of herself, himself to the point of surrendering life. And that not for a loved one, a family member, but for other human beings, strangers. Like Christ.
And we ourselves wonder whether we would be able to act in such a Christlike way in a similar circumstance. God willing we won’t ever have to find that out, but if it does happen that we are so challenged, may we have the unspoken but lived awareness of the Christ, crucified and raised up, who is at our right hand. Who is our right hand.
We have been impressed by and with the crucified Christ in the circumstances of our lives. When we are up against it and there is no recourse, no recourse, picture, if you will, the crucifix, the body of Christ on the cross, as that inmate at Maine State Prison did. Let the reality that informs that painful image be your recourse where there is none. I cannot predict what you will feel or think. That is between you and God, but you will come to a new level of understanding about the healing to be found in that horror, and the raising up that can follow. More often than not, it is that which crucifies us which also raises us up. There is a season for crucifixion, a season for resurrection.
So, while I had enough of crucifixion when younger and longed for resurrection that was surely waiting in the wings, I learned some of the lessons that that sad event had to teach, was able to know the crucified Christ as the serpent atop the pole, and that gazing on that one carried its own healing for my sins, my sorrows, and the sins of the world. And insofar as we imitate the selflessness of that one whom we recognize and hail as the second person of the trinity, the son of God, we can be part of bringing about the redemption of the world. That sounds way too big, doesn’t it? Way too ambitious, the redemption of the world. How about the redemption of one situation in our small corner of the world, whatever form that might take. Heartfully listening to a friend who has had some very bad news, testing water quality levels in the Sheepscot River to preserve the environment, having affectionate patience with a teenager who is demanding all of that by remembering how it was for us when we were teenagers. These are all acts of redemption, reclaiming for good and so for God that which might go in another untended direction.
As I mention those works of mercy, I think of the second reading today from Ephesians. Paul says clearly in this letter, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith––and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God––not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works...” This is the core of Martin Luther’s great revelation: that all of his works were as nothing. It is and was only by faith that he and we are saved. The good works will inevitably proceed from the faith, but it is the faith in Christ that saves us, that saved that inmate at Thomaston from his guilt and anguish. Who and what that Christ is will be revealed to us as worthy of faith.
Regarding works, as the writer of the epistle of James says, “...faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” I think this is a false dichotomy, yet it comes up again and again in Christian circles as the quality or mettle of one person’s faith as gauged by another. I maintain that the relationship between God and the individual is a privileged relationship and that it is the height of presumption for one person to judge another and what he or she does as far as expression of faith in works. Let us give one another the benefit of the doubt in this department, that we are usually trying to do the best we can at any given time, considering the constraints of work, health, time and all the responsibilities inherent in any life.
Let us trust that we are all looking at the same Jesus, but that he is revealing himself in our lives in different ways, depending on who we are and what our needs, our inclinations and individual histories are. God in Jesus is enough. Let us have faith in him, way more faith even than the Israelites in the desert gazing at the serpent on the top of a pole. The bronze serpent was an inanimate fashioned thing. The crucified Christ was a living man, who died and was raised up and lives now. How much more is he able to do for us who gaze on him than the bronze object that was eventually idolized by the people and broken in pieces by the fervent King Hezekiah, whose heart was after God.
God’s heart is after us. Know that. Be sensitive to that over these next three weeks as we move toward Easter. Remember, and respond as best you can. It’s all for you. Deal with it. Amen.