March 26, 2006

TEXT: Numbers 21:4-9

When a cowboy applied for an insurance policy, the agent asked:

“Have you ever had any accidents?”

“Nope,” replied the cowboy. “But a bronc did kick in two of my ribs last summer, and a few years ago a snake bit me on the ankle.”

“Wouldn’t you call those accidents?” asked the puzzled agent.

“No,” the cowboy said. “They did it on purpose!”

You may have heard about people who are “snake-bit.” No, it doesn’t refer to an encounter with a poisonous serpent. Snake-bit persons are those who have made bad decisions in the passed which have now placed in bad situations where they made more bad choices which placed them in more bad situations. They seem to have gotten into a continuous downward spiral without any hope of breaking out.

The origin of using the phrase "snake bit" to describe those people for whom the ball of life never seems to take the right bounce, is in the story we heard today from the Book of Numbers. The Hebrew people were wandering in the wilderness complaining that circumstances were not what they expected or deserved. After all, they gave up the security of living in Egypt, even if it was in servitude, to follow Moses who promised them a land flowing with milk and honey. They complained that they were dying of hunger and thirst. And to add insult to injury, God sent poisonous serpents to bite them. Nothing seemed to go right for them. They could have called their book, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”It’s easy to become depressed when you don’t think you deserve what life brings you.

The Berks Jazz Fest always has a Blues component which has a large following. It’s only natural since Blues is at the heart of jazz. The Blues started in the 19th century as a form of folk music developed by the black slaves. Originally blues were very loosely structured songs performed by individual singers, guitarists and banjo players. The lyrics were usually sad and dealt with every day issues of slave life. When the blues spread from the country to urban centers their content included more happy aspects, but basically they remained a musical cry of despair against some form of bad luck or injustice.

Blues for Mister Charlie is an explosive drama set in the American South in the early 1960's, when the Civil Rights Movement was galvanizing the nation. James Baldwin's play deals with a racial killing in a small town, the aftermath and the ensuing trial. The play explores racial attitudes and the brutality, fear and contempt which underlie them. “Mister Charlie” is the white man for whom the Blues are sung. Baldwin expresses a hope for racial healing in which blacks, as Baldwin said, "with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it".

This what God did in the wilderness. God ordered Moses to erect a bronze serpent so that when people looked at it, they were healed. Only by confronting their demons could the Hebrews hope to escape them. Only by naming that which bites them would they be rescued from their affliction. It was a reality test for them.

We have a misconception of the meaning of snakes. We think of them as negative creatures, sly and devious, yet God uses the snake as a symbol of confronting that which is inside of us that causes the real harm in our lives. In the Garden of Even, the problem wasn’t the apple in the tree but the pair on the ground. The serpent only pointed to that which was in the human heart.

The ancient Greeks recognized the snake as a symbol of healing because it sheds its skin and apparently renews itself. The caduceus is the medical symbol. It’s a staff around which are coiled two snakes. If you were serious ill, you would go to the Temple of Asclepias, the god of healing, where the priests would give you a strong drug which would induce sleep. You would lie down on a cot, and while you were dreaming, snakes would be slither around underneath you. When you awoke, you would tell your dream to the priest-physician who would then diagnose you ailment and prescribe treatment. The healing came from within. Snake watching became the means by which the healing was drawn out.

Healing must always come from within. If you have been reading your newspaper this week, you know how much darkness there is in the world. The Iraqi War has moved into its third year and terrorism has not abated. The murder rate in this country continues to climb, and we have been shocked by tragedies that have occurred within seemingly stable families. People in many parts of the world are being exploited, poverty and suffering afflict our own cities.

More than a century ago we erected the Statue in New York Harbor whom Emma Lazarus called “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name, “Mother of Exiles.” "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she with silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The New Colossus was to be a symbol of hope for those looking for a new life on this continent. Today that lamp is flickering as Congress seeks to enact legislation that would make undocumented immigrants felons and criminalize those who seek to apply the biblical principles of hospitality. We should remind ourselves that those who founded this nation and settled this area were themselves “undocumented immigrants.” The serpent in the wilderness was a symbol of hope and restoration to wholeness. We must not allow the Mother of Exiles to be a useless and obsolete emblem what this nation once meant to the world.

This past week I again had the opportunity to hang out with the jazz men and we had some interesting discussions Kenny Blake, a very good saxophonist, is also a deep thinker. We talked about how the world is sound, how everything is vibrational, everything is in relation to everything else. When there is good resonance, the world is whole. When there is discord, that balance is disrupted. Violence, war, global warming, alienation of persons, political oppression are all harmful to the planet and contrary to God’s intention for humanity.

Snake-watching in the wilderness was not enough to save all the people. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so was the Son of Man be lifted up so that light may once again illumine the world. That is the Light to which we must turn our eyes. It is the example of Christ which we must seek to emulate.

Whenever we find we are snake bit, it is a symptom of our having wandered away from God. It is then, we need to focus once more on the reminders of God's grace. We need to look up and see the reminders of grace God has placed in our lives so that we will be brought to our senses and not only say: "Oh, yes. Now I remember." but that we will also go on to change whatever we need to change in order for us to live as God intends.

-Harry L. Serio