Via Creativa: What Now?
Have Faith

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached March 11, 2012 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Numbers 21:4-9: "Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people"
John 3:14-21: "For God so loved the world ..."
Hebrews 11:1-3: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for ..."
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song comes from singer-songwriter Jack Johnson. The Hawaii native almost followed his father Jeff into the family business of surfing, but after a surfing accident decided to become a musician instead. "When I Look Up" is a short song that was on his 2010 album "To the Sea." Let's learn it this morning:

When I look up at the stars
As I walk in the night
Down the street by my house It feels good

When I look up at the stars
As I walk in the night
Down the street by my house It feels good

The light from the moon,
Is afraid of the ground
So it falls behind spaces,
And hides behind clouds

When I look up at the clouds
As they move through the night
With the wind As I walk down the street

The light from the moon,
Is afraid of the ground
So I step on the shadows,
Of my own feet

As we check in this week on our wandering Hebrew brothers and sisters from old we find them this morning doing what they do best - complaining.

"The people spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.' Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, 'We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.' So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, 'Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.' So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live."

For the record, let me say that I love all of God's creatures, except perhaps roaches, spiders and especially snakes. When I first moved in with Wanda her son Jamie had two ball pythons. Small snakes by snake standards, but snakes nonetheless.

One night I came home alone. Jamie had joined the Air Force and Wanda was in Arizona on a business trip. I let the dogs in the house and immediately heard Loki yelp from the hallway. I ran to see what was the matter, and nearly fell back down the steps. There, behind the door to the hallway was one of those blasted snakes.

I got the dog away and called Wanda in a panic. "One of the snakes are loose!" I gasped into the phone.

She laughed at me. "Well, I'm three thousand miles away. What do you want me to do?"

I admit, I was stumped. It ran through my mind to find a nice dog friendly hotel until Wanda came home from her trip - but then I couldn't leave the cats alone to fend for themselves. I tried to think about anything else I could do that would not involve actually picking up that snake and putting it back in the aquarium where it was supposed to be.

This is the power of the snake - that scaly, slithery reptile that we - whether rightly or wrongly - associate with all manner of evil. And there was one loose in my house. All I could think to do is lock the house up and let him have it all to himself.

This was not even a poisonous snake, but that did not matter - it was a snake and that was reason enough to flee the premises for as long as it took for him to no longer be there.

Our Hebrew brothers and sisters understood about snakes. They lived in closer proximity to them than any of we modern day, four sturdy walls and solid floor house dwellers ever will. My encounter with the snake came because the wily little creature discovered a way to slither out of its cage. The Hebrews weren't so lucky. The scriptures tell us God sent these snakes precisely to punish them for their complaining while God was leading them to the promised land.

The attack though, came with its own healing, if the Israelites were willing.

That night, I slept in my own bed, undisturbed by the snake. I got a pillow case and tossed it over the nasty serpent. I gently picked it up, turned toward its cage, and screamed the entire way there. The key to getting from the hallway to the cage was this: I looked up - away from danger - and stayed safe.

The cure for the Hebrews was much the same - minus the pillow case. Look up - look up to the bronze serpent on the pole, and be saved.

When I look up at the stars
As I walk in the night
Down the street by my house It feels good

When I look up at the stars
As I walk in the night
Down the street by my house It feels good

The light from the moon,
Is afraid of the ground
So it falls behind spaces,
And hides behind clouds

When I look up at the clouds
As they move through the night
With the wind As I walk down the street

The light from the moon,
Is afraid of the ground
So I step on the shadows,
Of my own feet

I had a lot in common with those ancient Hebrews that night I came home to find one of those ball pythons curled up in the hallway - we both whined about unimportant things. Sure, it seemed like the end of the world for me when I found that slithery, slimy, scaly serpent lurking in the hallway. But, in reality, it was a harmless snake. Sure, it could bite me and that would hurt, but the snake did not have the power to actually kill me. My reaction was way out of proportion to the situation.

So, too, with these whiny Hebrews. They had been wandering in the desert and they were hungry and God had provided for them. Manna rained down from heaven every single day to make sure their sorry, ungrateful butts were taken care of along their journey. But they got tired of manna, day in and day out. They were yearning for some steak and potatoes. They were yearning for a good ox or sheep or deer meat, something, anything to break the monotony of manna in the morning, manna in the evening and manna at supper time.

They started to whine about what was on the menu and accused Moses of taking them out into the woods to kill them. Then the snakes showed up. Some of them got bitten, and some of them died.

This still happens today. Sometimes, when we start complaining about the little irritants, when the details of life seem to get all blown out of proportion, the snakes show up. Asps come out of every corner in the form of criticism, in the form of despair, in the form of apathy, in the form of hopelessness and anger. And when that happens, bits of us begin to die - and very important parts of us sometimes do die. When we get tied up in the details - about how life sucks because of the idiot driver in front of us, or the person writing the check in the grocery line in front of us after buying one of everything in the store, parts of us start to die off - and usually the best parts of us.

Our patience dies, our generosity dies, our compassion dies, our ability to see the humanity in all our brothers and sisters begins to die. Get tangled up in the snakes long enough and your faith begins to die as well. The only thing that can save you now is a little perspective.

Look up.

When I look up at the stars
As I walk in the night
Down the street by my house It feels good

When I look up at the stars
As I walk in the night
Down the street by my house It feels good

The light from the moon,
Is afraid of the ground
So it falls behind spaces,
And hides behind clouds

When I look up at the clouds
As they move through the night
With the wind As I walk down the street

The light from the moon,
Is afraid of the ground
So I step on the shadows,
Of my own feet

What the story of our ancient wandering Hebrew friends reminds us of is this: we all get snake bit. Spend just a few months on this twirling blue-green planet and you'll get your sweet little feelings hurt by this person or that person.

Spend a few decades here and you're likely to amass such a collection of solid resentments that you can build a big old wall around your castle of damaged feelings and smashed dreams and completely shut the world out. No faith allowed here. If we can't see it, we won't believe it.

Those who have faith though, will look up and keep looking up, no matter what. When the snakes are all around and you don't know what to do. When you're asking, "What now?" and the answer is "Have faith. Look up!" the choice is ours. We can stay in the snake pit, or we can take a chance on healing and look up.

Those who look up - who look away from their own troubles, who look away from their own snake bitten lives, are the ones who are saved. Those who stop thinking about their own wounds and start thinking about the wounds of others are the ones who are healed. Those who can look up, even though the pain in their own lives is so great, and can help those around them who are in pain, are the ones who are healed because of their faith. Their pain is eased only when they look up long enough to ease the pain of others.

Jubilants, I invite you this morning, have faith look up! Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from the band whose music helped me to survive high school and my early 20s. The Who formed in 1964 in England and over their long career the band has sold about 100 million records, charted 27 top forty singles and have numerous gold and platinum albums to their credit. This song appeared on their 1974 album Odds & Sods. It's called "Faith in Something Bigger."

[Verse] It may be warm but the snow is going to fall,
Enough to cover us all.
We've gotta be strong then and follow a path again.

[Chorus] We've got to have faith in something bigger,
Faith in something bigger,
Faith in something big inside ourselves.

In our Jesus story we find one of the most popular, and one of the most misused, verses in the entire Bible. John 3:16 is plastered on placards at football games and has been used to preach that Jesus is the only way to gain not just a relationship to the Holy, but life everlasting.

In the Southern Baptist church, I grew up believing that anyone who did not believe in Jesus - and more specifically that Jesus died for your sins and you had accepted him as your personal savior - had a one way ticket to the fiery pits of hell. What makes this belief such a tragedy is that this beautiful verse, which is meant to bring us all closer to God, has served to divide Christian against Christian and Christian against anyone else who doesn't believe exactly as they do.

The irony here is that the book of John is the least literal gospel in the Bible. John was the last book written, almost 100 years after Jesus' crucifixion. John is full of beautiful metaphors about Jesus. He's the vine the, he's the living water, he's the light of the world, he's the good shepherd, he's the resurrection and the life. None of these things completely capture the essence of the Holy as embodied through the life of the Christ. Instead, they all seek to describe the indescribable - to catch a glimpse of the mystery that Jesus embodied.

To take those deep words of mystery and turn them into a concrete theology that you can club non-believers over the head with is to abuse this beautiful scripture. To make these metaphors into literal laws and creeds is to deprive them of their true meaning and purpose - which is to give us faith.

Faith is not something concrete. Faith doesn't fit into set dogmas or creeds or anything that gives us a feeling of security. Faith, in and of itself, is nothing we can lay our hands on. Instead, as the author of Hebrews so eloquently wrote:

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible."

Faith, Jubilants, is assurance of things hoped for, the conviction that though we can't see, though we don't feel it, though we can't taste it, though we can't hear it, we still know that the Holy is at work at all times in, through and around this blue boat we call home.

The Holy is in the air we breathe, the water we bathe in, the trees we pass every day, the ground we walk on, the sky we look up to. The sky we look up to look up, Jubilants. Look up and you'll see, that "for God so loved the world" God was willing to give us this amazing child named Jesus - and if we believe - if we have trust in him and the things that he did while he was here - we'll live forever.

There are people who live forever, y'know. People who are gone, but their names, and their deeds, are never forgotten. Names from history like Mother Teresa, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Gandhi, King - these men and women live forever because they are remembered. There are members of your own family, or friends, who keep on living to this day because in your minds they walk, they talk, they breathe and they keep influencing your life.

There's a spiritual practice called walking with the ancestors. It's a fairly simple practice. You head out to the woods alone, but you don't walk alone. You take an ancestor or two with you on the path and you have a conversation with them. You know them, and they know you because you are all part of the same universe, the same fabric.

When we walk with our ancestors we realize that the veil between life and death can be a very thin one, indeed. Our ancestors still walk among us, they still inspire us, they still create faith within us - that faith in things unseen - that faith that everything we do see was once part of the unseen realm.

"For God so loved the world," Jubilants, that God gave us this mystery called Jesus - to teach us about big, expansive love - a love without exclusion. To teach us about having faith in something bigger.

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] It might be cold but the heat of our love will melt,
The snow we never felt.
We're young and hardy again, we bow to weaker men.

[Chorus] We've got to have faith in something bigger,
Faith in something bigger,
Faith in something big inside ourselves.

People often confuse faith with hope. As we read in Hebrews, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, but it is not hope. We hope all sorts of things. We hope we win the lottery. We hope we don't get sick. We hope we get home safely. We hope someday we'll find the one who will love us more than anyone. Often, though, hope can be a source of despair because we don't see those hopes come to pass.

Faith, now, is a whole different matter. Faith does not hope for anything. Instead, faith is assurance. Faith is the knowledge that even if our hopes never come to pass everything will be just fine. Faith is the knowledge that though the Holy is pure mystery, it is the best source of assurance we can ever latch ourselves to. Faith is the unshakeable knowledge that no matter what, no matter how many shattered hopes and dreams we have, no matter how many snakes tear at our hearts and our souls, all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

This, Jubilants, is faith. And when you have faith, there is nothing in this world that worries you. When you have faith there is nothing in this world that shakes you. When you have faith you realize that there is no such thing as good news and bad news, only events and how you choose to react to them.

When you have faith, Jubilants, you radiate from the inside out. Everyone can see it. Everyone is moved by it - even the snakes. Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm tells the story of a Thai monk who, while meditating in the jungle with several other monks, was approached by a king cobra. As the snake approached, the other monks froze in fear, but the older monk simply reached out his hand and patted the snake on the head. He said to the snake, "Thank you for coming to visit me." The snake closed its hood, stopped hissing and lowered its head to the ground.

A few years later that monk visited Brahm's monastery in Australia where they were wrangling with the city council over building permits. The monk went to see the town mayor who had a rather large stomach that protruded over his pants. The Thai monk, who didn't speak any English, saw the mayor's belly and began to pat it. The other monks were horrified. They certainly wouldn't get their building permit now.

To their surprise, the mayor began to laugh and giggle. He loved every minute of that old monk rubbing his belly. The building plans were approved.

The moral, Brahm says, is that Thai monk came from a place of such faith, a place of such pureness of heart, that he could pat king cobras on the head, and mayors on the stomach, and they both loved it.

"I would not recommend you try this," Brahm warns. "At least until you can care like a saint."

That's what true faith gives us, Jubilants, that faith in something bigger that makes us care like saints. This kind of faith - that "for God so loved the world" kind of faith - gives us amazing power over the snakes in our world, whether they are actual snakes or political snakes. We tame the wildness in this world by embodying that amazing, world-encompassing love.

It all begins with faith - that assurance that no matter what the challenge, we can meet it when we remember that God loves the whole world - in its beauty and its ugliness. God loves the whole world - in its most divine and most profane state. God loves the whole world - the sinners and the saints. God loves the whole world - Democrats and Republicans. God loves the whole world - gay and straight, bisexual and transgender. God loves the whole world - insert your categories here, because they are all covered.

God sees the world, warts and all, and the only emotion that comes to mind is love. God did not come to condemn the world - so why do we think we have that right?

True faith means you finally get it - you finally understand that the only way to walk through this world is with love - with the assurance that what is unseen is real and what is real was once unseen. The Holy moves in, through, and around us at all times. Only by faith can we walk in that mystery. Look up, Jubilants, be healed, have faith, and pat that snake on the head.

[Bridge] The more we learn, the less we believe to be true.
The more we prove, the more remains to be proved.
We've gotta be strong then and follow a path again.

[Chorus] We've got to have faith in something bigger,
Faith in something bigger,
Faith in something big inside ourselves. Inside ourselves

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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Endorsed by such religious leaders as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop John Shelby Spong and named one of the Best Spiritual Books of 2008, Whosoever founder Candace Chellew-Hodge's first book Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians is making an impact in the lives of LGBT Christians.

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