Recognizing What’s Killing Us | Lent 4 | 15 March, 2015

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

In the last seven months of serving here at Columbus Mennonite, I have been asked the same question a number of different times, “Do you ever get tired of being the gay pastor?”  Even though I don’t think I’ve given the same answer to any of the many people who have asked this question, I think I’ve finally decided on an answer that feels right to me.  So here and now, once and for all, hear my reply: Do I ever get tired of being the gay pastor?  It sure beats the alternative. 

You see, I used to answer this question in a lot of different ways because I constantly found myself trying to live in the tension between, on the one hand, recognizing that being the “gay pastor” is something that is immensely meaningful and life-giving in important ways, not just for me but for lots of other people.  I don’t ever want to downplay the fact that I believe what Columbus Mennonite has done in calling me to serve as your pastor is part of a movement towards more just relationships with the LGBTQ community.  It is truly something to celebrate.

But on the other hand, there are lots of instances where I wish I could cast off that identity.  For one thing, it’s not like I come to work everyday and sit at my gay desk and answer my gay phone and use my gay computer to plan my gay Sunday School lessons.  Being the gay pastor is something to celebrate, but it’s also something very ordinary. 

And there are plenty of other instances where I wish I didn’t have to be the “gay pastor”: Every time I feel the need to justify my existence in yet another religious setting.  Every time another person asks me, “What about Leviticus?”  Every time I realize that I am subconsciously worrying that something I’ve done or said or worn has come across as being “too gay” (whatever that actually means).  Every time I attend another meeting knowing that either explicitly or implicitly I am one of the bullet points on the agenda.  Every time I am faced with the question of whether the convention this summer in Kansas City is going to be a safe place for me. 

Like the Israelites wandering around the desert hoping to reach the Promised Land anytime soon, I too find myself thinking at times that I would rather go back, that things were better before or at least not that bad.  Sometimes I too feel like the Promised Land is just an illusion because the struggles of the dessert feel so real.  Sometimes I fear that I am not strong enough to live within God’s movement toward liberation.   

Over and over again in the accounts of the Israelites, we read of the many ways that they not only wandered around the desert but also wandered away from their trust and reliance on God and God’s liberation.   It’s as if they begin to forget what their lives were like in Egypt.  They cry out, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”  It is not explicit in this passage, but the other stories of the Israelites complaining in the desert make it clear that they often found themselves longing for what meager comforts they did enjoy in Egypt. 

It is as if they have forgotten that they were slaves.  It is as if they do not remember the slow death of the system of oppression that held no future for them, at least not a future that was primed for human flourishing.  It is as if they had never considered that liberation and salvation are never truly safe. 

In their forgetting, they begin to complain.  They begin to question Moses and his ability to lead them anywhere worth going.  They begin to separate themselves from their covenant to the God who brought them up from Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  And then the snakes show up.  Not just any snakes, but fiery serpents that bite the Israelites forcing them to turn back to Moses and to God for their deliverance.  They repent, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.”

Now, God could have just healed the people, sent the serpents away, and been done with the whole affair.  But instead, God has Moses make a bronze serpent to raise up among the people.  In order to be healed, they needed to come out in the midst of the assembly and look upon this bronze serpent, almost as an act of public repentance for the ways that they have turned away from God, their liberator. 

In this bronze serpent raised up for all to see, Moses creates a symbol that helps the Israelites recognize what is killing them, but I think in order to understand this passage we have to get past the idea that the snakes are the point.  In order to truly understand what is killing the Israelites we have to remember that it is their complaining and their turning away from the liberation of God back toward the oppression of Egypt that is the point.  The bronze serpent is merely a symbol of the agent of death that is meant to turn people back to the healing liberation that God provided and continues to provide. 

I am convinced that we need to get past the idea that the bronze serpent is the point of this story, because in the book of 2nd Kings we later find that the Israelites have failed to do this very thing.  In chapter 18 we read that as part of a series of religious reforms, King Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.”  The people had forgotten that the bronze serpent was a symbol of death.  They had forgotten that it was meant to point them toward the God who provides the healing.  They had failed to recognize what was truly leading them toward death and what was calling them ever toward eternal life.   

With all this in mind, we then turn to the passage in John where Jesus draws comparison between himself and the snake being lifted up in the wilderness.  He says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  I, for one, did not realize or remember that John 3:16, one of Christianity’s most beloved verses, has such an odd lead-in connected with such an odd story.  What’s more, I have to wonder if Christians have made the same mistake that those Israelites eventually did.  Have we failed to recognize what is killing us?  Have we displaced the source of our salvation? 

I think that too often we no longer recognize the cross for what it is: a symbol of death, a symbol of an oppressive system that puts even the most innocent to death.  Too often we treat the cross like a magic symbol that wards off not just vampires but somehow magically wards off our sin without asking anything from us.  Instead of recognizing that the cross points us toward the God who is calling us out of slavery, out of violence and oppression, instead we think that the cross represents our salvation because it somehow satisfies a God who requires such violence.  When, like the Israelites in the desert, we look upon the Son of Man lifted up, it is not the cross that is our glory.  Our glory is in the Son of Man who is so completely committed to the liberating power of love that he risks everything, even his life.  This is our healing and our salvation.

The words of John 3:16 are so beloved to many people, but they must not be divorced from their context: “For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” 

People loved darkness rather than light.  This is the judgment.  People would rather turn back and submit themselves to the slow death of Egypt than participate in the liberating love of God.  People would rather remain enslaved to their systems of oppression than identify with the God who says “no” to violence, who, in the resurrection gives a final “no” to all the ways we crucify one another and ourselves.  Just as the bronze serpent raised up in the wilderness was meant to turn people away from Egypt, so too is the cross a call for all of us to turn away from all forms of violence and oppression.  These symbols help us realize that we need to recognize what is killing us before we can begin to live eternally.   

Do I ever get tired of being the gay pastor?  Yes, but it sure beats the alternative.  I need this to be my response so that I remember that the familiar comforts of living in the closet represent the slow death of an oppressive way of life.  Being the gay pastor beats the alternative because I spent too many years trying to live an alternative that failed to offer me life to the fullest.  For too long, I was unable to recognize what was spiritually life-giving and what was spiritually life-taking.   At some point I began to realize that it was not my sexuality that was killing my soul, but the suffocating and isolating walls of the metaphorical closet. 

In our Lenten series we have been considering how the various aspects of creation become part of our hermeneutical community, or, in other words, how creation helps us to interpret our lives together.   This past week I have been trying to meditate on snakes, but for a long time I was struggling to figure out what they have to teach us.  I was going to bring a real one into the office for inspiration, but I’m pretty sure Gwen and Mim would not have appreciated that. Snakes get a pretty bad reputation in scripture, and the passages we read this morning sure didn’t help any.  I had a hard time getting past my preconceived notions of snakes as representative symbols for evil.  But the more I thought about God continuing to call us from oppression to liberation, from death to life, the more I realized that snakes give us a beautiful example of this continuous act of rebirth. 

Once every couple months, snakes go through the process of shedding their skin.   I read that this happens because the snake continues to grow but the outer layer of skin doesn’t.  The dead skin literally cannot contain the growth experienced by the snake and so it must break free.  In order to do this, it seeks out rough places to rub its head against, causing the already stretched skin to split.  The shedding can take some time as the snake wrests itself free of the dead skin, slowly emerging, usually a brighter, richer color than before the shed.  People who own snakes as pets are warned that pulling the dead skin in order to help the snake could actually end up harming the newly-formed scales underneath. 

If you get a chance this week, I encourage you to look up YouTube videos of snakes shedding their skin, and meditate on the ways that God is helping you to recognize the dead skin in your own life.   

In a few minutes, we are going to sing a song that has a special meaning to me because it helps me remember the call to new life.  Some of you already know this, but if you dig back through the church archives, you’ll find my name all the way back in March of 2009, almost a full 5 years before I started coming here regularly.  This was because I was here at the end of a spring break tour with the Camerata Choir from Bluffton University.  One of our songs that year was an arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine,” which also included a solo that I sang in worship that morning.  In 2009, I was still trying so desperately to live out that alternative that I’ve now come to realize was crushing my soul.  In 2009 as I sang those words, I could not have imagined the new life that God has called me to and continues to call us all to in this place. 

And so, my wish for you, my friends, is
– That even when you find yourself wandering in the desert, you would know that you are meant for freedom.
– That you would always be able to recognize the Egypts, the crosses, the closet doors, or any other symbols of death that God is calling you out from and saying “no” to.
– And perhaps most importantly, that you would always know what it means that God so loved the world.