Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9
You might know by now that I tend to love the stories in the Hebrew Bible that kind of leave you going “what?” I don’t know if you join me in my love for those stories. Some people don’t. But to me, these are the stories that make the larger story of our faith come alive. They make me laugh and sometimes squawk with indignance and scratch my head. I had a professor in seminary who said that some of what we read in the Bible is the kind of thing you’d tell eight-year-olds over the campfire; this is how tradition got passed on.
It’s often hard to preach on these stories, though, because they can also be pretty challenging in how they depict God. In today’s reading, we have God sending poisonous snakes to bite and kill people in the wilderness after they complained about manna one too many times – again. We’ve gotten used to this kind of theological challenge in Numbers by now, and honestly, yes, I do sometimes question my decision to preach through this particular book in the midst of a pandemic.
God, in the book of Numbers, can often come across petty. You want meat? Eat it until you’re sick of it. Don’t like the bread I gave you? Here are some snakes. I can love these stories because I hold this vision of God somewhat loosely. I think we can clearly see the Israelite people’s understanding of God evolving and changing over time in the Bible – and no, I don’t just mean in the New Testament, I mean across the span of the Hebrew Bible too – and I’m happy to talk more about this sometime if you’d like.
I believe that God has always been the God we meet in Jesus, even in the Old Testament. I do not believe that Coronavirus is like a poisonous snake God sent because God got mad at us. I do believe that a book like Numbers can have a lot to tell us about ourselves in relation to God. And it also seems to me that a story of plague and healing in the wilderness is pretty relevant to today.
Plague – illness – is also over the news these days, but so is healing. There are, among the horror stories and dire warnings, stories of survivors being wheeled out of the hospital to applause after weeks on a ventilator. There are stories of promising new drugs being tested, and potential vaccines going to the next stage of trials.
So many of our hopes, right now, are focused on the healing of a disease. Including mine. But there’s more to the healing we need right now than that, isn’t there? There’s more to the cultural trauma, the economic impact, the individual emotional toll than any vaccine will fix. And meanwhile, the old problems, the things we used to talk about, haven’t gone away, even if we talk about them less now.
This week there was another story in the news, and it wasn’t about Coronavirus at all. It was about a young black man named Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in February while out for a run, because two white men with guns decided he looked like a robbery suspect. Neither of the men were arrested until this week, after a video of his killing went viral. I read that story, and later in the day I went out for a run. Being white, I did not fear for my own life.
On a friend’s link to the story on Facebook, someone commented, “There is a sickness in this country, and it’s worse than Coronavirus.” And they were right, because while this may be a long and costly two years, Coronavirus will come and go. But the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and the racism that so insidiously spreads its roots in our hearts and minds will continue to be with us for a long time.
And it’s no secret by now, I think, that Coronavirus has only served to highlight that racism and the structural injustices our society is built on. You might say that Covid-19 has magnified our national pre-existing condition. Maybe you’ve heard that in DC, black residents have been diagnosed with Covid-19 at twice the rate of white residents – a trend which is reflected in other areas of the country as well. It’s people of color in our country, not exclusively but disproportionately, who don’t have jobs that allow them to stay safe at home, who have to choose between going to work sick or not being able to feed their families, and who are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions in the first place. And then there are those who still have no choice but to go to work at places that refuse to make sure they are safe, as the virus rips through meat packing plants.
Last week I talked to you about fear, and the largely personal fear I’ve experienced since “pandemic” became a household word back in March. And I acknowledged, then, that there are many others who have more right to their fear than I do. There are also those, like Ahmaud Arbery, or like anyone who struggles daily to put food on the table, for whom the threat of Covid-19 may not be the biggest threat to their existence they face when they walk out of their house on any given morning. The old problems have not gone away just because there is a new one. In Numbers, God sends a plague; but it seems to me we as a society can be pretty good at creating our own plagues.
Maybe this isn’t the kind of comforting sermon you were hoping for today. It’s a hard season to be in the business of good news. Often reading these stories in the news tends to lead me farther down that road of despair that, the one that just says everything is going to hell and there’s nothing I can do about. And that’s probably how it felt there in the wilderness, too, when after everything they’ve been through, all of a sudden there are snakes to contend with.
In Numbers, the people repent, and they ask God to take the snakes away. And God, in response, tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and when anyone gets bitten, they can look at the bronze snake and live.
I always thought this was a strange and kind of annoying response. Why go through all this rigamarole? Why can’t God just take the snakes away?
But maybe healing isn’t as easy as that. Maybe God doesn’t just take the problem away. Maybe we have a part to play in it all, too. For ourselves, for others, for our community, our country, our world. Maybe we don’t just have to sit there, as paralyzed as we may feel.
There are those of you who may have reason to fear for your own lives, or the lives of your sons, when doing something as innocuous as walking or running around your neighborhood. And there are those of you whose skin looks like mine, who are probably more shaped and formed by the racism we live and breathe than we’d even like to believe about ourselves. And our jobs are not the same here – white people, it’s our job to undo this thing that our ancestors started – but there is plenty of need for healing in this world, from the physical to the spiritual to the structural – and plenty of bronze snakes for us to hold up to counter the poison.
I never thought that “speaking out” had much effect until this week I saw how the massive outcry about the lack of justice for Ahmaud Arbery led to the arrest of his killers. Being aware matters. Talking about the sickness matters. Learning how to recognize and address the sickness in yourself matters – in fact, I’m going to make some resources available on how to do this. Using whatever gifts you have to work for a better world matters. God will work with us, but God won’t do it all for us. Sometimes healing is our job, too, and sometimes it takes repentance – not just to stop a virus, but to stop some of the things the virus shows us about ourselves.
Did you know Jesus once compared himself to the bronze snake? It’s in John 3, in a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Jesus healed a lot of people in his time. He knew that physical suffering was real, and that it wasn’t what God wanted for anyone. He also knew that healing was about more than that: that it was about repentance, and forgiveness, and liberation, and love, and abundant and eternal life.
And he tells us it can happen. And he calls us to be part of it. Even now.