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What are you afraid of? Snakes?
Are you afraid of the dark, or change in your life, or maybe afraid to try chanting the Lord’s Prayer?
Don’t worry, we won’t be doing it forever.
Or are you afraid of people not like yourself?
And what do you believe in?
Power, money, prestige – fear itself?
Or something else?
The lessons today have a common thread – fear and belief – and they squarely confront us with these two questions: What are you afraid of? What do you believe in?
In the Old Testament today, Moses leads the people out of slavery and into the desert. No one has a clue where they are going, least of all Moses. They don’t like their food, they are thirsty, and the people are very cranky and believing mostly in their own complaining.
Biblical scholars call this story from the Book of Numbers one of the “murmuring passages,” and the people are murmuring plenty loud, and Moses is fed up.
Listen closely to what happens next in this very curious, and, yes, strange story: God unleashes snakes to slither around among the people. You want something to cry about? Have some snakes.
Then God tells Moses to make a bronze figure of a snake, and hold it up for the people to see: “Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
So Moses makes a bronze snake, puts it on a pole, and when people see it they are healed, just like that.
Well, wait a minute. I thought God got real mad last week with those Ten Commandments. Remember the golden calf? No graven images? What’s with the bronze snake? Isn’t this magic idol worship? Or is this something else?
Is the bronze snake a way for people to look squarely at their fears – snakes – and overcome them?
Look at your worst fears – look at the snake – and the power of fear will be taken away. Fear will be no match for the power of God’s love and grace that, as Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Ephesians, is freely given to us. We don't earn it. It comes to us as a gift.
The story of Moses and the bronze snake is central to the story in the Gospel of John today, where Jesus predicts his own death.
The Cross upon which he will hang is like the bronze snake. The Cross is an executioner’s tool, and it is not to be worshipped like an idol.
But look at the Cross, Jesus says, and look at the snake. Look at your fears.
Look through them to the healing and wholeness that will come in spite of the crosses and snakes that come in life.
By going to the Cross himself, Jesus becomes the window into seeing the power of God’s love and grace.
There is another question that comes with this: What is it you believe in? What is it that you want to believe in?
Is it power, money, prestige – and fear itself?
Much of our world believes in exactly those things, and uses fear to create power, money and prestige. You see this fear-based formula playing out over and over in our election politics in our country.
The Gospel of John confronts square on this belief in fear:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
The word “believe” is not about an assent to intellectual precepts and dogmas. The word “believe” really means “trust.”
What is it you trust?
Is it your fear that your trust? Is it the darkness?
Or do you trust in light and life and grace and Jesus himself pointing the way to eternal life that begins in this life?
The Gospel of John is like a symphony on the theme of grace, love and the meaning of Jesus coming into the world to show us how to live without fear.
With many words, many images, many notes, John’s gospel proclaims that God’s deepest desire is to heal the world, to save all who are wounded, to reconcile humanity to all of God’s creation.
God’s deepest desire is not to destroy life, but to destroy fear – to create, to save, to heal – and for us to respond as partners with God.
“Believe” is an active verb. It calls for action.
Grace is freely given and grace asks for a response freely given by us.
Last Wednesday, Pastor Alvin Edwards, from Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, spoke at our community night dinner. He said that to linger too long in church is a sin, and he is right. We are called to respond to God’s love by giving feet to our belief.
There are many ways to do that, and I want to mention one this morning:
On Monday March 26 – a week from tomorrow – many of us will gather at the John Paul Jones Arena with 30 other faith congregations working together on social justice issues as part of the organization IMPACT, which stands for “Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.”
We will ask public officials to support concrete proposals for transitional housing for the mentally ill, and for employment training programs for young people in our community.
I would like to invite you to join me next Monday evening at JPJ.
Yet I am also aware of the misgivings some of you have about IMPACT, and the method that sometimes feels confrontational.
I know it can feel uncomfortable, especially if you know some of the public officials who are on the stage. For others, I know that the IMPACT mass meeting, called the “Nehemiah Action,” feels stage-y and contrived.
I’d like to share a few thoughts about this today:
First, the issues were chosen at a gathering of our congregations last fall, and everyone in all of our congregations was invited to participate in choosing the issues.
Since then, many hours by volunteers have gone into researching these issues and talking with public officials about solutions.
It is hugely important to these volunteers that people from 31 faith congregations will come to the arena next Monday to stand behind them – and our presence in large numbers gets the attention of public officials.
But there is also something else at work with IMPACT, something at least as important. Half of the congregations that belong to IMPACT are primarily low income and non-white.
Nehemiah Action, 2011
It is no accident that churches with large African American and Latino congregations will turn out in big numbers next Monday night.
It is one night when they discover they have a little power to make a difference how the world operates.
The public meeting next Monday night gives voice to the voiceless, and power to people who rarely believe that they have any power.
And that brings me back to Moses and the bronze snake. What are we afraid of?
Many of us here in this church have more personal power than we realize. Many of us here have entrée into the corridors of government, business, the media and academia. We know how to make the system work for us.
Are we afraid to share our power?
Or are we willing to share that power for just one night even if it makes us squirm a little? Can we be uncomfortable for one night so that others who have so little power can have a voice on issues that matter to them? Can we stand with them by being there?
Jesus lived with people on the margins – with lepers, fishermen and poor people. He lived with people with no power, and then he went to Jerusalem to confront the people with power.
How might the world truly change if we do the same? And what if we did that on more than one night a year? Might there be just a little more hope, and real change in this world if do?
What are we afraid of? What do we believe in?
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Etching above: From the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us: Containing 400 Illustrations from the Old and New Testaments: With brief descriptions by Charles Foster