Carla Bailey, Senior Pastor
March 22, 2009
Were I to guess, I would conclude that the majority of us in this sanctuary this morning harbor some aversion to snakes. I certainly do. I did some looking for articles about the use of snake venom in medicine. I found what I suspected, that venom from snakes and other reptiles and bugs is used to treat strokes, high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive disorders, immunodeficiencies, pain control, and a variety of cancers. In fact, a leading center for the research of venoms for medicine is the Natural Toxins Research Center of Texas A and M. There, scientists extract venom from some of the more than 450 snakes that live at the facility — one of the largest collections of venomous snakes in the country. The Director of the Center, John Perez, describes the therapeutic value of venom. “Each venom is extremely complex, with more than 1,000 molecules, and many of those molecules can be used in medicines.” The center typically maintains 32 varieties of snakes in its serpentarium, and each snake is “milked” on a regular basis.
I’m pretty sure I won’t be including milking a Diamondback rattler at the Natural Toxins Research Center on my “bucket list”. In fact, after cruising around the center’s web site (http://ntrc.tamuk.edu/index2.htm), I had to take a long, meditative break. Still, the relationship between the venomous snake and the healing art of medicine is ancient and reminiscent of this story in Numbers.
The Israelites were in the wilderness, still wandering. They had long since made it out of Egypt but they weren’t making the kind of progress to an established homeland they believed they had been promised. They had already complained and God provided them manna to eat. But they were still unhappy until, as today’s story reminds us, God had had enough of their complaining so sent them biting, venomous snakes.
It’s a powerful myth – the way poison has turned into medicine. Think of the symbol for the healing arts - the rod of Asclepius, which combines a serpent, ancient symbol of rebirth and fertility, with the staff, a symbol of authority befitting the god of Medicine. The symbol is named for an ancient Greek legend in which Asclepius was said to have learned the art of healing from the centaur Chiron. Asclepius was so skilled in the medical arts that he was reputed to have brought patients back from the dead. For this, he was punished and placed in the heavens as the constellation Ophiuchus (meaning “serpent-bearer"). According to legend, Asclepius fought alongside the Achaeans in the Trojan War, and cured Philoctetes of his famous snakebite.
A similar symbol, the Nehushtan, is mentioned in our story from Numbers. When the people repented of their sin and asked forgiveness, God then told Moses to make a bronze serpent set on a pole. Anyone who was bitten by one of the fiery serpents was to look at the bronze serpent and he or she immediately was healed. It is possible that this Biblical story and the symbol of the Nehushtan influenced the establishment of the Rod of Asclepius, as the symbol for the practice of medicine.
Stories like this one from Numbers, while mythological in nature, point to a reality in human experience – one poison can both kill and heal. It is reminiscent of the Friedrich Nietzsche words “what does not kill us makes us stronger”. It is, to borrow another word from my dictionary of theological terms, a paradox.
It does sometimes seem as if we are choosing between one poison or another, not in an effort to be made stronger, but rather, to be made less sick. Isn’t that true of the use of chemotherapy in treating cancer? We accept what we don’t like because the alternative may be worse. This economic crisis is rife with examples – gambling profits to be used to fund public education, a national debt in the trillions to alleviate the immediate symptoms of the recession, a rescue plan to get consumers to buy more stuff – pick your poison. Remember when the eligible age for the death penalty in New Hampshire was raised from the age of 17 to 18? Were we to believe this was a victory for death penalty opponents?
Examples abound, but such deception isn’t what I want to illuminate this morning. Rather, how the human, painful experience of death is transformed into the very symbol for life.
Think again about the story of Moses and the complaining, wandering people. The entire saga of the people Israel on what seemed like an eternal journey from slavery into freedom, is filled with moments like the one in today’s story from Numbers. This trip just wasn’t fun anymore. How long would they be on the move? When would they have enough to eat, let alone a diet with any variety? Moses has a fine reputation as the leader who possessed enough bravery to confront Egypt’s Pharaoh but I admire his story more for his patience in the tedious work of leading people who were sick of the journey - the drama junkies who wanted all that exciting action like they had back at the parting of the Red Sea. I admire Moses for his tenacity, his bone-wearying work of cajoling, inspiring, and generally bucking up a grumpy group. Then there was his advocacy for the grumps with God, his successful ventures into appeasing the grumpy God who expected a little more gratitude, for heaven’s sake. Didn’t I get you out of Egypt? Didn’t I feed you in the wilderness when you were starving? What do you want from me? Moses was a mediator between management and labor, between parent and child, between the powerful One and the indispensable many. They needed each other – God and that crowd of Israelites – and Moses was the one who kept them connected.
Years ago, I taught a class in world religions at a small, liberal arts college in Wisconsin. I began the class by asking students to explore the relationship between myth and religion, how the human experience of the holy was often explained in mythological stories that explicated the nature of the divine-human interaction. In that effort, I was a dismal failure. For most of the students, it was too threatening to think that their own religious construct might be based more on myth than reality. I have been wary of making the point ever since.
Still, a story like this one, so rich in meaning, has much to teach us about the relationship between us and God, only when it is broken out of its literalism and allowed to flourish as myth. Then, you see, we can think about God’s disappointment with us when we act like whining children. Then we can ponder how impatience with the sweep of human history leads us to think of experience as poisonous bites. Then we can imagine that the very thing that can harm us can be transformed into the thing that saves us.
This season of Lent, which is leading us inexorably to Calvary, is a time when such myths can be bravely broken open. In fact, they simply must be broken open if there is to be any hope for transformation, new insights, deeper understanding. So, for these closing moments, think not of the rod of Asclepius, but of the cross itself – that symbol that identifies our Christian experience and faith. There it is – the cross – that very weapon that both kills and saves, that instrument of death that illumines the experience of betrayal and makes it into an experience of faithfulness.
How shall we understand its ability to heal us if we do not first acknowledge its job to kill us? How can we possibly understand God’s power to bring life from death if we cannot accept that powers and principalities will always hope that death is God’s last word, a movement’s final chapter, a savior’s last act?
Which poison shall we pick? The one that kills us with fear or the one that saves us with love? The one that leads us to death or the one that transforms even death into life everlasting?
I know the one I want to choose. May God give me the strength to choose it. Amen