Bronze serpents and steel needles

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent from the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid


The process of healing the Israelites from their snakebites sounds awfully familiar these days. In order to counter the poison that was killing them, they had to engage with it directly, to look it in the eyes, to stare it down. And Jesus talked about bringing evil into the light, to expose it to the righteousness of God, the compassionate and perfect judgement of God, who sent his Son not to condemn the people, poisoned by sin and kicking at serpents, but to save them.

There are so many allegories we could wrestle from the story of the bronze serpent, including our need to stare down racism and white supremacy, to bring into the light the continuing misogyny, harassment, and gender-based violence that runs rampant around us. 

Then, too, the process of producing anti-venom for a poisonous snake bite includes coming to terms with the original biter, taking its venom and teaching a body to produce its own antidote, antibodies to fight the poison. It may remind us of the process to make a vaccine: teaching a person’s immune system to recognize and resist the particular poison of a new virus. Researchers and developers have spent long hours staring down the coronavirus that has killed millions around the world over the past year, and upended life as we knew it almost everywhere. They stared it down, and crafted the equivalent of a bronze serpent, so that the people who are exposed to a pandemic virus might look upon its steel needle-tooth, and live.

This past week, our youngest daughter signed my husband and me up for shots next weekend at the new mass distribution centre in Cleveland. I am excited to get stabbed in the arm. I am grateful for the hair of the dog, the anti-venom, the vaccine developed by agents of mercy, and tested on angels of courage and hope (I met someone recently who participated in the trials). I am discouraged by the messaging of some religious leaders who stand between the people and the serpent of bronze, and seem to be trying to persuade them to look away from certain vaccines, not for reasons of efficacy, safety, or communal health, but for reasons of personal moral purity. 

Just in case you have heard those messages and are concerned, I would like to assure you that there is no conflict that I can see for a Christian receiving any kind of vaccine. 

I find no issue of moral purity here. For one thing, generations have passed in the laboratory between stem cells used for research today and any cells derived from a donor decades ago. They are not from the same body. They are a bronze serpent made in its image.

For another, it is the work and will of God to wrestle life even out of death. Personally, I have heard the stories of too many people who have terminated or been advised to terminate pregnancies for too many different reasons to render any sort of judgement over the decisions that led to the donation of foetal cells to research more than thirty years ago. And we do not know the stories of the genetic ancestors of the cells used in research and development today. We do know that it is God who is able to wrestle life out of death. The scientists working with the genetic lines descended from donors to heal the sick and spare the suffering are doing the work of mercy.

In fact, with respect to my brothers in Christ, I find the moral purity argument to be a shame, and a betrayal of the love we should have for God and for our neighbours. Jesus himself found it more important to heal the person suffering in front of him than to maintain his personal purity with regard to the Sabbath, on more than one occasion. If we follow his example, we will do what we can to protect and promote the health of those around us, since we are all suffering under this pandemic.

A moral use of the vaccine, then, might be to receive it thankfully; to share it, helping others to access appointments; and to lobby for equitable distribution locally, nationally, and globally, for the sake of mercy.

I don’t know which vaccine we will get next weekend, but I will take whichever is offered, since that is what gets us closer to community immunity, and personally speaking, closer to getting back together with y’all. 

The people found their way into the snake-infested territory through impatience, selfish grumbling, ingratitude against God, and concern each for their own comfort over the salvation of the whole people from slavery. As long as each person sat in their own poison, death pursued them. But when they looked to the sign that God had given them of hope and of mercy, they were made better, and not only as individuals, but the community recovered, and they were able to move on from that place.

They were able to move on.

We are encouraged for our own safety to get vaccinated, to look upon the needle of steel and live; we also do it for the sake of the whole community, to pull our community, our county, our country, the world out of the pit of a pandemic, to restore some of the life that we have missed this past year; in too many cases, to make a new life out of grief; so that we, too, can move on.

Jesus said, “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. …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.” (John 3:14-15,17)

Amen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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