I have a friend, an older priest mentor, who has the most remarkable baptism story I have ever heard. It begins with my friend – let’s say his name is Alex – as an 8-year-old boy, sitting around a dinner table with his large extended family – aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins – talking about baptisms. The tradition in his family was to name sons after a family member, and then for that family member to serve as the boy’s godfather. So at this family gathering, godfathers were telling tales about the baptisms of their godsons – who had cried the loudest and who had been too fat to fit into the family baptismal gown. Alex, the youngest, sat there waiting for his turn, and sure enough, eventually someone turned to Alex’s uncle, also named Alex, and asked, What about little Alex’s baptism?
At this point, Alex recounts, his mother made a slightly strangled noise, and when he looked up, he saw that her face was entirely drained of color. Alex looked over at Uncle Alex and saw that his mouth was hanging open in shock. Oh, no, Alex’s mother said and looked down at him with eyes full of tears. It turned out that in the chaos of raising a house full of boys, Alex’s mother had simply forgotten to get her youngest son baptized. She’d thought that she had, but when she was forced to reach back for memories of the moment, she realized that the moment had, in fact, never happened.
The story gets a little fuzzy for me here; I remember that Alex’s mother was so upset that she would have whisked him out the door that instant and thrown him in the nearest baptismal font, but the family, I think, was away on vacation at the time. They found the local Episcopal church and were somehow able to schedule a baptism for the next Sunday. When the whole family arrived at the little country church, Alex, who had never been to a baptism before and who knew only that they happened at the font, stepped into the church, saw the font, and immediately walked over to it and stood there, waiting. It wasn’t until the liturgy was well underway that his family realized that the baptisand was missing. Someone spotted him standing alone and confused over by the font and went to retrieve him. And later, much to his mother’s relief, Alex was finally baptized.
Believe it or not, this is where the story really gets interesting. As the family left the church, Alex, buzzing with excitement, ran ahead, following a path that lay next to a small stream. As he was running, he suddenly saw a flash of brown slice through the grass at his feet. He looked down and saw a long copperhead snake rear up and bury its fangs into his calf. Alex screamed in shock and pain; within seconds, Uncle Alex, newly-minted godfather, had beaten the snake away and was sucking the venom out of Alex’s little leg. He was treated successfully and ended up just fine – bitten, but still saved, now in more ways than one. Like I said, a remarkable story.
When the people of God are bitten by poisonous serpents in the story we heard today in the book of Numbers, there is no one to beat the snakes away with a stick, no one to bind their wounds and carry them to safety. The people die, lost in the wilderness, far away from the Land of Promise. But for them, this is really nothing new. The people of God have been dying in the wilderness for a long time. It feels like a thousand years since they walked through the waters of the Red Sea and danced to Miriam’s song on the other side. They’ve been on this journey forever, and along the way they’ve actually been bitten many, many times. They’ve been bitten by the fear of scarcity or of violence. They’ve been bitten by boredom and frustration, and by the sharp sting of doubt. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” they whine again, as the fangs of their mistrust sink deeper into their faith. The people of God have been bitten over and over again; the snakes of today’s lesson are in many ways just one more bite to be endured.
The miracle of the wilderness is not that the people never get bitten. The miracle of the wilderness is that every time they do, they feel something stir deep in their memories. Every time some fear or doubt or lack lashes out at their heels, the people find themselves reaching back for the Red Sea – recalling the moment of walking on dry ground as the water stood up like walls beside them, of finding themselves saved on the other side, reborn, blessed and free. And as their minds turn back to the memory of this moment, they find that their hearts, too, have turned back to the God who made this moment possible in the first place. They repent, beg for strength and mercy, pray that the Lord their God will save them once again. And the Lord always does. This time, the Lord tells Moses to mount a serpent of bronze on a pole so that every time the people find the burning snakes snapping at their heels, they can look up at this sign, lifted up on high, and live. God saves them from snakes with a snake, the exact image of that which threatens them, to show them that even the thing they fear the most can be, in his hands, a sign of life.
My friends, there is nothing to prevent us from being bitten. There is no magic potion, no perfect prayer; there is no law, no wall, no weapon, no amount of money that will keep these snakes away. Nothing can prevent us from being bitten by serpents of a thousand different stripes – the serpents of fear, anxiety, and want; the serpents of loss, grief, and loneliness; serpents that slither in because our sin has taken us far off the path of righteousness and serpents that show up for no reason at all; serpents of illness, pain, and death. Not even our baptisms can keep the snakes at bay – again and again they come slicing through the grass, surprising us, rearing up and lunging at us with fangs bared and full of venom.
The miracle of our faith is not that we never get bitten. The miracle of our faith is that whenever we do, God is there to stir a memory deep in our hearts. God is there to help stretch our minds back to the stories of our baptisms, stories we remember because we were there, or because of others who have told us, or because of the long, long memory of the Church. God is there to help us recall the promise of that holy sacrament – that the waters of the font are his gift to us, that in these waters we are buried with Christ in his death, and that as we come up out of those waters we are reborn by the Holy Spirit, saved, blessed, and free. Each time we turn back to these stories of our baptisms, we find our hearts, too, turning back to the God who made these stories possible in the first place, turning back to him with love and with repentance, praying that he will save us, once again.
And God always does; God always already has. God has already saved us, once for all, by giving us his Son, lifted high upon the cross, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. God has already saved us from death by death, even death on a cross, to show us that even the thing we most fear can be in God’s hands a sign of life – that the cross, which reeks of shame and suffering and oblivion, can be in God’s hands a place of glory, a sign and source of our salvation. God’s Son is lifted up on high so that even as we find the snakes of suffering snapping at our heels, we may look up and live. And yes, those serpents can cause real pain; they can test our faith and try our endurance. But the sign of the cross means that their venom is of limited potency; their bite can only burn for so long. More than this, the wounds they inflict can themselves be transformed by God’s grace into places of strength and healing, of repentance and mercy and grace. Yes, we are bitten, but by the power of the cross we are still saved.
So if you find yourself being bitten – when you find yourself being bitten – take heart. You are in good company. Not just the company of fellow travelers along this particular journey, but all the company of heaven – this great extended family that stretches around the world and back through the centuries, this gathering of friends and neighbors, sisters and brothers, all connected by the great story of our baptism. For in this story, we are not forgotten, but claimed, called, chosen as God’s own sons and daughters. In this story, the snakes of the world fall away to dust and all that remains is mercy and light, love and life. In this story, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes his story may not perish but may have eternal life. Look up. Look up at this story, your story, and live.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
The Fourth Sunday of Lent, 11 March 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia