Playing with Serpents

sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent — Isaiah11:1-10; Matthew3:1-12


In his book about growing up on a Wisconsin farm in the 1930’s called The Land Remembers, Ben Logan writes about George the mailman occasionally showing off his two-headed rattlesnake. He’d tried to turn it in for double the 50¢ bounty the state was, at the time, paying as reward for killing snakes. But that was for the rattle. Since this wasn’t a two-tailed snake, the state would only pay one bounty. George protested, saying, “Don’t that beat hell? Ain’t that just like a politician? Don’t even know which end of a snake bites!” (p66-7)

The surprise and humor of that dead snake maybe eases us into the idea today of playing with serpents. I know straight off this won’t appeal to some of you. Snakes may give you the creeps, even talking about them. You may figure the best policy is avoidance, so you’d not be in favor of the prophet Isaiah’s suggestion that “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the viper’s den.” You may just figure that’s careless, bad parenting, rather than a legitimate promise from God.

Actually, I hope you react that this is a weird idea. I’m expecting we have reservations and could still see the reason for a bounty, in trying to get rid of the danger of venomous fangs, keeping our kids safe, and if we happened to kill some not-poisonous snakes in the meantime, ah well.

This perception of serpents goes back to our very beginnings, somehow inherently of confronting a symbol of evil. Whether the feeling comes from Genesis or Genesis picked up on a pre-existing human tendency, that serpent in the Garden of Eden, labeled as “more crafty than any other wild animal” (3:1), is blamed for the corrupting influence of our sin. With that characterization, the story holds a primal fear, an instinctual anxiety.

So I’m hoping you have the sense that the prophet Isaiah’s playfulness must be a bit ridiculous. Maybe, then, you’re also getting a sense of an Advent theme here, about this season of expectations, but twisting those expectations in surprising or peculiar ways. Last week, it was the lesson that our coming redeemer was not cast as a triumphant warrior or valiant leader but as a thief in the night. Our expectations are surprised as we find ourselves yearning for a thief to come and find us. This today is another twisty surprise of our Advent expectations. Not as a serpent coming to redeem us (though John 3:14 does play with that image).

In encouraging you to play with serpents, it’s a worthwhile distinction that I’m not asking you to try the snake handling that some Christian groups do (you might be relieved to hear me say). Still, today I have to take their practice somewhat more seriously than usual, since they cling to a promise from God. They pick up a chunk added onto the end of the Gospel of Mark 500 years after Jesus, which also suggests they should be able to drink poison if they really believe. In either regard, these don’t seem very wise to try. It also seems like the main point is showing off. I’m not interested in you being show-offs, whether it’s related to snakes or much of anything else.

But if we’re not putting our infants into a snake pit to try showcasing how good we are at believing, then what do we do with this vision of Isaiah? As beautiful as this Peaceable Kingdom is, we have to admit it’s un-natural. We know the reputation of big, bad wolves as anti-rancher, snatching livestock, so it’s hard to imagine a wolf living with a lamb. We don’t picture lions as evil, but still can’t really see one eating straw. If the adders and asps are defanged and de-venomed then that’s simply no longer the creation we know. It would have to be a new creation.

That’s exactly what’s promised here. God envisions existence where there is no hurt and no harm, no destroying, not only where we get along peaceably with each other, but that is the shape of all creation. It’s good that God casts this vision for us, since it’s so unimaginable to us. God must have the vision to lead us there, because we simply can’t see how it would work. In fact, the infant playing with serpents seems so far-fetched that we who call ourselves realists would write it off as a utopia, as no place that could really exist. Our challenge amid this season of Advent, then, again with the surprising twist of our expectations, is to see how this reality of God is already coming among us and breaking into our reality.

To start, maybe we’d recognize our relationship with snakes and deadly serpents has changed since Isaiah’s time, and even since Ben Logan’s. Rather than avoiding them at all costs or being rewarded for killing on sight, we’ve come to better appreciate garter snakes of the garden and timber rattlesnakes at Devils Lake and diamondbacks and boa constrictors and enormous anacondas, and other reptiles and serpents, for their place in a natural ecosystem and even as beneficial to us by keeping rodent populations in check. We’re able to make distinctions that they’re not epitomes of evil. We have opportunities to give a closer look through glass at Vilas Zoo. Kids may even have gotten to hold a snake at a nature center? Any pet snakes?

But really to be living our way into Isaiah’s vision, besides the real snakes encountered in safe environments, it is helpful to think of metaphorical serpents. Let’s stick with the thought of where our kids play. There is such a prevalent sense that this is a dangerous world, an unfriendly world. We’re in an age of seeing risk at every turn, of stranger danger and terrorist threat and accidents and germs. We respond with antibacterial sanitizers, padded protection, and warning labels, pretending we can keep kids in a bubble, so they won’t be exposed to these sorts of serpents.

We don’t need to hear Isaiah to be sending kids to play amid traffic, but may hear that pretending we can armor our children and ourselves against every possible attack of this world is going to make us imagine that the serpents are lurking in every dark corner and any moment we may be bitten and take a deadly turn. That worldview already poisons us in turning us directly away from God’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom. Enemizing everything contaminates us with worry, rather than cultivating playfulness, which is the antidote to fear. Nothing overcomes being scared like play.

And so not just kids but all erin-deheisheof us can practice playing with serpents, cavorting and making merry right over their fearsome dens. The picture on the back of your bulletin is one Erin Zimmerman took on the Holy Land trip. It’s a Banksy design of a sort that pop up in protest, echoed by many other graffiti. Along the Apartheid Wall that snakes in amid Palestinian territories and constricts around villages like Bethlehem and tries to poison and strangle life, this sort of artwork on the Wall is playing with serpents, poking fun, insinuating humor, celebrating life.

With that model, we’re invited into the protest. When the world’s vision contradicts God’s, when the serpents are strangling life or threatening us with their fangs, we can respond with creativity, celebrating life, with play. We practice how to make sport and how to laugh at danger.

That’s a valuable Christian practice. Even though an Easter hymn might seem out of place in Advent, here’s a fitting stanza to play with, because it says it so well: “Now hell, its prince, the devil, of all their pow’r are shorn; now I am safe from evil, and sin I laugh to scorn. Grim death with all its might cannot my soul affright” (LBW 129). The dangers and troubles aren’t gone, but because of Jesus we treat them like they’ve already lost their power.

One final bit of this: if we’re getting ready to laugh in the face of death and all its forces, we should recognize that we’re not always just the children playing over the snakes’ den, but may ourselves be the serpents. As that brash voice of John the Baptist calls out the “brood of vipers” squirming out of trouble, that isn’t just an accusation against others but should stick close to home, in confronting the corrupting influence of our own sin.

Still, this call to repentance isn’t about hanging our heads to act miserable. Think of the whole of Jerusalem and all the people going out to the wilderness to John. This is a party. Also together here, we turn to celebrate new life, the new creation. We play off of each other. With that, it’s finding that your addictions and cravings, your secrets and your sufferings, your worries and your seriousness don’t have the constrictive control over you they claim. You’re not stuck in sin. John the Baptist knew they have so little grip on you that you’re cleansed of them as simply as taking a shower washes off dirt, because you belong to God, a God of delight and joy, of freedom for life, of the possibilities of a new creation. So take that serpentine desperation and that instinctual anxiety, and laugh, play, delight it into God’s Peaceable Kingdom.


Repentance for Tragedy?

sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent (Luke13:1-9; Isaiah55:1-9; 1Corinthians10:1-13)
Among great philosophers, the ancient Greek Heraclitus said the only thing constant is change, while modern day mind Dan McGown reminds us that the only certainties are death and taxes.
With that, we’d have to expand the list to note that tragedies also seem all too regular and catastrophes much too common. The exact crises and numbers of victims may vary, but we’re never far removed from some sort of disaster. Unfortunately, it’s always been that way and likely will remain ever thus.

So also, today Jesus is discussing current events, two topics that would’ve been at the top of newspaper headlines or trending on Twitter in his day, though by all accounts, these persecutions and accidents are small potatoes. Other than this passage in Luke, there’s no record of these people killed by Pilate nor even of where the tower of Siloam was, much less the calamity of it collapsing. One is human-perpetrated evil, violence from a brutal despot. The other natural evil, an unintentional mishap, nevertheless causing devastating destruction.

By the fact that Jesus needed to address them, we might suspect these events were evidently a big deal at the moment, but soon faded from memory, supplanted by another horror, some new tragedy in the endless funeral procession. As I was reading past commentaries on these lectionary texts, looking back over three year increments the calamity du jour had been bombings in Madrid and federal government budget sequestration and an earthquake in Haiti and another in Chile and terrorist attacks and an immigration border conflict and after the “Titanic” movie won Academy Awards, which is a twist for not letting the wreckage disappear but resurfacing it for other purposes. Some of these moments you may recall, others are recessed farther back in memory.

I could similarly ask for three examples: what has been the worst news this week? In spite of still being able to name problems, we may say it’s a relief that today we don’t have to address the pressure of the hugest and hardest enduring questions confronting us with shorthand titles like “Paris” or “9/11” or “Katrina” or “Bangladesh” or “Exxon Valdez” or “Hiroshima” or any other days of infamy (a phrase itself that inescapably makes us continue to tremble from Pearl Harbor).

Large scale and small, passing or persistent, we’re continually prompted toward theological conundrum: Does God cause these events to happen? Are they punishment? Is God randomly cruel? Is God inattentive to suffering or impotent to repair it, or actually nonexistent? In official terminology of trying to discern issues of God, evil, and suffering, it’s the question of theodicy. Less officially phrased in protest, it’s “C’mon, God! What gives?!”
As we engage this topic, we might first do well to note that the deaths Jesus is talking about are remote. He isn’t dealing with the families of the victims or those who have been terrorized and traumatized by bloodshed and abuse. The question is more detached and speculative.

Yet we might also note that such distance has become more difficult for us. The pace of tragedy is increased by our 24-second news cycle that so continuously leads with what bleeds and updates us uninterruptedly with the latest shooting or senseless oppression or tower collapsing. The distance is decreased, as threats on the other side of the globe make us worry. Plus that somehow either is used to or unintentionally manages to keep us immobilized in fear. We stress at airports and for food supplies and in schools and over viruses and we attempt to barricade ourselves inside locked houses and big vehicles and with castle laws and even by conversing with those of like mind. This means we don’t do as well at assessing our fears and the problems and crises around us. All of it hits too close to home, so we aren’t able to remove ourselves to ask the larger questions. Even the answers of faith, instead of a firm foundation, become doses of a fleeting antidote, tiny disclaimers of responsibility rather than reservoirs of relief.

We would be well-served by more speculative examination. I always say that at a funeral or in a hospital room is the wrong time to try changing somebody’s theology. We need to be working on this and asking the hard questions so that we’re ready and well-prepared for when we need it, not as we’re grasping at the edge and gasping for breaths in the midst of trauma.

A starting point is exemplified in a phrase from 1st Corinthians, about past deaths being for our sake. Paul recounts stories of Exodus and Deuteronomy about those who died in the wilderness. He writes, “these occurred as examples for us.” This perhaps parallels the concept “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Yet we need to use it cautiously. If a past event may be employed to make things better for us, we are using it well. But we should not and cannot say that the crimes and disasters of history were caused for our sake, as mere learning opportunities. To say from the Holocaust “never again” is a lesson we must continue striving after not just in genocides but in our broad patterns of prejudice, exclusion, and hatred. But to claim that any death any suffering is worth it in order for us to know better or try harder is more than we ought to claim.

There’s another problematic phrase in this 1st Corinthians reading. (For how full of grace Paul can be, this reading instead seems densely packed in obscuring good news.) Besides the stuff on making examples and whether former difficulties were for your benefit, another questionable concept comes in a phrase that gets used at all the wrong times and becomes itself abusive. Though it tends to be offered with kind intentions, I’d almost like to eliminate this idea from our theological grab bag. The phrase is that “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength,” with a corrupted paraphrase as “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

First of all with this, we should clarify that nowhere in Paul’s understanding do the temptations come from God. It is not God who is putting you to the test or trying to see how much you can endure. It’s a despicable direction to say that you just need to put up with it because God won’t give you more than you can bear, so whatever you’re suffering must not be yet to your threshold. That leaves God as the bad guy and is essentially a message for you to buck up.

That distinction may not prove to be much resolution in the face of oppression or natural disasters, but it is critical amid crisis to be ready to declare that God is not causing those harms, or arbitrarily inflicting hardship on you. Instead, as Paul uses this concept, it is we who are testing or tempting ourselves. We are liable to lead ourselves astray and forget about or turn away from the good news of Jesus we share in community. That direction of turning is fundamental to this season of Lent, when we again focus specially on gathering together and being renewed by baptismal blessing from the God who promises to care for us. We re-turn to God.

This also at last returns us to our Gospel reading, which could have a difficult or misleading notion with Jesus talking about repentance. Again, it’s a critical trajectory to trace. Some of Jesus’ neighbors were killed by the vindictive Pontius Pilate. Did God cause it or allow it because they were worse sinners? Our hopeful answer is resoundingly reinforced by Jesus: By no means! How about those smushed when the tower toppled? Was it because they were worse offenders? No, I tell you! Are some lives worth less, because of location or religion or morality? No. Because of gender or age or how much or little good they accomplish? No. Because of some indeterminate quality, an attribute known only to and judged solely by a hidden God, and of which we nevertheless need to be extraordinarily cautious lest we too perish?

Here, for our typical understanding, is where the rub lies. Jesus says, “repent, or you’ll perish like them.” Having been assured that God is not vengeful, capricious, or malicious—much less simply careless—these words cannot stand as threat. Since God is not testing you and since the misfortune of others cannot stand as a warning of divine displeasure, the issue of repentance is not a question of shaping up or reforming your status as a bad sinner or worse offender.

The better solution is to notice what Jesus means when he invites you to repent. Contrary to a sense that repentance is acknowledging how shameful or miserable you are and just how awful your existence must be and turning from the error of your ways, this repentance is turning toward a gracious and loving God who invites you to abundantly shared life. Even in the worst moments, you have hope.

The repentance here is precisely turning away from the distorted image of a God who is out to get you, who is lurking with punishments, standing in the way of your wellbeing. That is the worst of oppressive inventions and the opposite of who God strives to be in your life and for the life of this world. This is not a God who surprises you by dropping towers on you but who surprises you with love, constantly and unconditionally. This is a God of patience. Like when a fig tree refuses to bear fruit and is unable to bring about any good, God is a gardener begging for more time, getting God’s fingers dirty to dump manure around you. This God is like Ann Ward walking into the office in the middle of a cold winter afternoon with a bag of bright green flavorful spinach from the hoop house, bringing good from unexpected places.

“My ways are not your ways,” God proclaims in our 1st reading, “my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” When we expect retribution, God in Christ is ready rather with abundant forgiveness, and continues begging your pardon, with hope for the despairing, who won’t abandon you in the time of trial, won’t give up on you even when you’ve given up.

Repentance isn’t earning that from God, but turning to see God is already and always there



Judas, Easter life, and your place here

7th Sunday of Easter (17May15)

John17:6-19; Acts1:15-26; 1John5:9-13

Near the end of this Easter season of resurrection life and new beginnings, we drag back into the midst death and destruction and tragic endings.

Maybe it takes this long to be up for it. On Easter Sunday everything is bright, golden celebration (if not totally erasing death’s confusions). As the season progresses, dwelling deeper in newness of life, living into it, we can risk asking with Thomas about scars and lingering nail wounds, and how Jesus is made known in breaking the bread, and about those who aren’t part of this flock, and what we should be doing to stay connected to Jesus in the meantime.

With all of that, with seven weeks of Easter under our belts, we can finally muster the courage to be able to consider the worst, to look back to the night in which Jesus was betrayed, at last now to confront Judas and to ask who is excluded, left out, condemned, who doesn’t receive the good news of Easter.

After all, Judas comes up in two of our readings today. And, even though the lectionary for our 1st reading would’ve skipped the hardest verses, and the very point of the reading was to exclude him from the group of believers, still we need to understand the vital question of how he fits in.

In the gospel, Jesus refers to Judas as “the one destined to be lost.” A more direct translation would be as “the son of destruction” or might be paraphrased for us as “the biggest loser.” As the son of death, Judas there might be contrasted with Jesus the Son of God.

Yet for all of his infamy, the guy isn’t really a major character in the story. During Jesus’ life, Judas was just in the mix with the other 12 disciples. And after Good Friday he’s mostly not in the picture anymore.

But that disappearance presents a hard question for us as we gather here. While we may not place ourselves exactly in the same camp as Judas, at some point we have to ask: if he could blow it and get himself excluded or damned, eternally separated from God’s goodness, destined for destruction, well what would it take to lose our place? Just how much unlike Judas are we?

For that, we may ask what makes Judas so bad, what corrupted him. Maybe he betrayed Jesus because he wanted the 30 pieces of silver, he was greedy. Or it may be he didn’t agree with everything Jesus was doing. (Judas was critical of Jesus’ ministry once and it’s often assumed that he wanted Jesus to be a mighty military messiah.) Evaluating ourselves by those standards, we can indeed be greedy and make poor choices for really a trifling amount of gain. We also turn away from Jesus’ mission and want power and dig in our heels when things don’t go our way.

There’s one other description of why Judas betrayed Jesus: the devil made him do it. To me, that’s more terrifying because it’s so helpless. It isn’t about willpower or making wise decisions, but is entirely out of our control. We can fail hugely and suffer the consequences just because we get trapped in evil. We’re captive to sin. We’ll return to the question of how permanent that trap is, how much our wrongs imprison us or separate us from Jesus.

To continue with the story, though, Judas agrees to betray Jesus, and does it with a kiss. That alone could fill a sermon, on how our affection is warped and perverted to accomplish the opposite of love, how we can be two-faced, how when we get the closest is when we can do the most damage.

After that kiss, Judas mostly disappears. When Jesus is handed over to Pontius Pilate in Matthew’s Gospel, Judas repents and tries to return the silver. Of course, they don’t want to take it back. So Matthew says Judas goes and hangs himself.

Acts instead has this peculiar story of Judas using the money to buy a field and tripping and having his guts burst out. The ugly scene portrays a sense that our problems are visited back on us, with a further notion that the curse spreads, to those around us and even infects the land. That’s probably both fair and nasty.

That there are these two different stories of Judas’ death I believe means the Bible writers were trying to deal with this hard subject in all of its disappointing awkwardness, trying to come up with explanations: Would his friends and fellow followers of Jesus have ever been able to welcome Judas back after he handed over to death their teacher and our Lord? If he wasn’t part of the community any more, what would’ve become of him? Would he have found a different leader to follow? Would he have lived out his days lonely and sorrowful? Did he suffer more directly for the wrongs he perpetrated?

Christian history has inflated this to ghastly proportions, degrading Judas to be the worst person who ever lived, worthy of punishment only secondary to the devil. In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is in the lowest pit of hell, suffering the fate of being eternally clawed at and gnawed at by the devil’s sharp teeth, stuck headfirst in one slobbering, painful mouth of the grand demon. That image is literally being trapped in sin forever, without escape and no end in sight.

Not only does that raise bleak prospects for considering our own sins and failings and associations with evil. It’s also a pretty miserable destiny for one who, we’d have to admit, brought to completion the story of salvation. After all, without Judas, would Jesus have been arrested? And without that, then no crucifixion, and no resurrection! Without Judas doing wrong, Jesus cannot overcome wrong. Without the sin, would there be forgiveness?

That’s not to praise Judas, but to recognize first that he isn’t simply excluded from our story. He’s not like Voldemort as he-who-must-not-be-named in Harry Potter. He’s not like Haman, the villain in the book of Esther, whose name is shouted over and drowned out whenever that book is read in Jewish assemblies. Even if the Bible writers tried to write him off, Judas remains part of our story, and in that way part of our community. Even if we’re not ready to confront it, still Judas shows up weekly as part of our gathering in the reminder of the words “On the night in which he was betrayed…” a meal which, after all, was given to Judas and is given to us precisely for the forgiveness of sins.

That also reminds us God can work wonderful things out of our worst actions. Certainly we label current events that hopeful way: that sin or tragedy may yet be turned to something good, that a benefit may even come through death.

Much more, though, here you know your existence is centered by a God in Jesus who brings new life out of death, who confronts sin with forgiveness, who reciprocates to the kiss of betrayal with a kiss of peace. To all that would threaten to exclude you from community and dismember you from this body, Christ Jesus re-members you into being here.

So this isn’t just a hypothetical question for Judas, of whether God could possibly forgive him or if he irreparably destroyed his place among the church crowd. No, this is a word for you. A word of forgiveness, of restoration, of remembering, of bringing you into new life, even if it means restoring ruptured pieces from the old life.

That association with Judas is important for us, vital for us to recognize. See, we often picture ourselves as the do-gooders, as those trying to do the right thing, as so helpful. Flip through our hymnal and the words pile up about how we feed the hungry or care for the distressed, about how we bring light to dark places.

But this is even more important for the other side. This is a word for when you know you’ve done wrong, when you’re the one needing help, when you’re not good enough, when you’re in the dark (which, after all, is at too many points in life and at its end). It’s for when you can’t be or aren’t part of this assembly, when you’re excluded from church. It’s a word for when you’re lonely and feeling abandoned and in danger, when things just won’t go right, when you’re in what sure feels like hell and that damned Satan is gnawing on you.

Here is this vitally essential word for you once again: there is no curse, no wrong that can separate you from the love of God, from the blessing and life of Jesus our Lord. Our faith proclaims that Jesus has toppled the gates of hell. In these very words I proclaim to you, he has freed you from the shackles of your sin and throws away the key. He fills your dead lungs with the Spirit of new life.

In one fun mark of the reversal that you yourself will proclaim, instead of guts bursting out as a sign of punishment, notice that in our hymn we’ll be singing that is “shouts of holy joy [that] outburst.” That’s the only way for it to be. After all, Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done (ELW #366)