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Rector's Reflection: Snakes On A Plain, March 9, 2024

Beloved members of St. Martin’s,


We get a pretty weird first reading this Sunday, which is then referenced in our gospel, so there seems to be some ‘splaining to do.


Numbers 21:4-9 is one of the stories told by the Priestly school to explain why they believed God periodically had to punish the people of Israel, and it is a specific type of story known as a “murmuring story.” Exodus 15:22-26, Exodus 16:2-12, Exodus 17:3-7, Numbers 14:1-8, and our first reading this weekend are all places where the people of Israel are made to look like whiny, ungrateful, impatient wretches. Just like we all can be.


In almost all of these stories, something wonderful has been done for the Israelites, and they respond not with gratitude but with murmuring (translated often as “grumbling”). In the reading we have today, they have just been delivered from probable defeat at the hands of the Canaanite king (the king of the people that were there before God gave the same land to the Israelites). This king had fought them once before and managed to take some of them captive (21:1), and so they had begged for God to hand the Canaanite king over to them- and God does (21:2-3). So you would think they would be sitting in what my granny would call “high cotton.” Things should be great, right?


Wrong. They immediately turn on God and start complaining. And look at their complaint—it’s actually kind of hilarious. Woody Allen stated it this way: “The food here is terrible, and the portions are too small.” And you can tell that at this point God is FED UP (pun intended), so the writers believe that God sends poisonous snakes to start striking the people.


The original “snakes on a plain.”


These slithery chums seem to wake the Israelites up pretty quickly—and rightfully so. I grew up in copperhead and water moccasin country, so I can, unfortunately, imagine what this was like. They people immediately ask MOSES to pray to God to take away the snakes (obviously realizing that their standing with God might not be very high at this point).


Have you ever been around someone who complained all the time? I have. It’s maddening. And the thing is, often grumblers have no sense of perspective. EVERYTHING is a grievance worthy of World War III to the kvetcher. They also often grumble just loud enough for their loved ones to still hear the griping, but not so loud that they can’t try to deny it if caught. Gripe, gripe, gripe. Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. I mean, you don’t have to be Pollyanna. But not everything you don’t like is worthy of complaint.


Let’s face it, that is how those Israelites have been acting all through their time in wilderness. They have complained, and they have complained some more. And the thing is, human nature being what it is, when all you look for is what is wrong, all that you see is wrong. And the first few times they did it, God patiently tried to assuage them. Hungry? Here, eat the same bread the angels ate, and meanwhile, I’ll just have quail drop down in front of you—all you gotta do is pluck ‘em, clean ‘em, and roast ‘em. Thirsty? Moses and Aaron will strike yon rock over there, and fresh water will come a-gushing out.


Complaining and the lack of gratitude and perspective that come with it are a deadly poison to the soul. So no wonder then that poisonous snakes rise up among the people. It’s a symbol of the poison they have been loosing into the world, rather than marveling at all the good things they do have: Family. Freedom. A return to their homeland. A God who cares for them again and again. A leader willing to give up his own comfort for their sakes. And even though they claim that God has sent those snakes among them because God has finally had enough of the constant kvetching, I suspect that they knew that those snakes had sprung up from every disagreeable complaint that had fallen from their lips and gone splat like a lead balloon on the hard, rocky ground at their feet.


And it is often the case that in order to get well, you have to be able to name what made you sick, and evaluate what role you yourself might have played in your illness in the first place. So since their poisonous complaint set loose poisonous snakes among them, the solution is to fasten a visual representation of what is attacking them. In other words, God orders that they Israelites have to look on the image of their own guilt and ingratitude. They have to look upon those poisonous snakes, and realize that the real problem was their own poisoned hearts and souls. Admitting that they had set the snakes loose among themselves was the crucial first step to healing and health.


Instead of looking for the “snakes” in our lives, perhaps we could try looking on even small blessings with gratitude. Parishioner Jeanne King is an excellent practitioner and proponent of gratitude. She reminds me by her example that it’s okay to name the potential snakes, but then to look beyond them for what is good. Soon you realize that for every “snake,” there are ten gifts to be grateful for: the rising sun, and to be, as the Norwegians say, “up and not crying;” the spring peepers already trilling; playing peekaboo with the baby in the grocery checkout line; being warm; having friends. And knowing this: that God so loved the world, and you and me, that God loves us even through the snakes and the complaints. And isn’t that a wonder?


In Christ,


Mother Leslie+


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