A reflection on Numbers 21:4-9 by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski
Some years ago in my seminary training I had to find a church in which to serve an “internship” in preparation for ordination. This required me to attend a number of churches and discern if I thought they would offer me the opportunities for formation that I needed. One church stands out for me in part because of the sermon preached that morning. The preacher, a fine priest and one I had great respect for, offered a sermon on pride. He spoke vigorously about the sin of pride, of the need to examine our consciences to see the various prideful ways we live, of our need to be humble and the virtues of humility. It was a fine sermon. The problem though, it seemed to me, was the context in which this sermon was offered – given to a congregation of aging white haired people, mostly women, for whom the sin of pride was probably not their biggest sin. An examination of their consciences would probably reveal that their greatest sin was too much self-denial and self-abasement. I think often of that sermon as I ponder the context in which I offer Sunday morning reflections, to whom am I preaching?
Around that same time in my formation for ordination I became interested in St. Ignatius of Loyola. Born in Spain he lived in the 1500’s and is credited with authoring the spiritual discipline called the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.
The Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius created were designed for use by the ordinary person as well as by persons entering into a vowed religious order. The exercises are lead by a Spiritual Director who guides the directee through them over a period of four weeks, or longer. Essentially the Exercises assume that God and Satan are active players in the world and in the human psyche. The main aim of the Exercises is to assist the individual in his or her ability to discern between the good and evil aspects of life through a process of prayer, self examination, and discernment. There is a basic understanding in Ignatian spirituality that the human soul is continually drawn in two directions: both drawn towards Godliness, and at the same time drawn away from God by distractions that cause broken relationships in the world. A principle aspect of the Spiritual Exercises is the examination of conscience. This examination becomes a part of daily living, a method for one to prayerfully review what one has said and done over the course of a day. It is a process for us to consider the ways we have been selfish, angry, hurtful, judgmental, prejudiced, and then the exercises help us make decisions about where to make amends and how to live the next day in a manner that serves our higher purposes and God’s desire for us.
Our scripture reading this week from Numbers points us in this same direction, an examination of conscience. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for some time now. They are tired and complain bitterly of the plain old manna, the food God has provided to satiate their hunger. They want real food, with seasonings and spices like they had in Egypt.
All of Lent we have been hearing stories from the Old Testament about the covenant God makes with God’s people – a covenant of faithfulness, land, and children with Abraham and Sarah, a covenant with Noah to never destroy the people again with devastation, a covenant with Moses of how to be in relationship, God with God’s people through the 10 Commandments. But today we hear a story that strains those covenants that God has made. Despite the covenants God has grown weary of these complaining angry people who fail to see their blessings and only see what, in their estimation, is lacking. God reacts with anger and a poisonous snake. The people are forced to take some time to stop and think about how they have behaved, how they have been thankless and bitter. In essence they are forced to do an examination of conscience. As a result they want to change their ways, to focus more on gratitude and a sense of being thankful for what they have. God responds in a curious way. God asks Moses to make a bronze serpent which God blesses. The bronze serpent, inspired by God, is a human made construct, made by human hands and then blessed by God. As such it becomes a source of healing for the people.
Lent is a season in which the Church offers us human made constructs that are both inspired by and blessed by God with the intention of growing us in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another. The Ash Wednesday service invites us to observe a Holy Lent by doing a number of things: prayer, fasting, reading scripture, and examining our lives.
Lent points us to spend time examining our consciences, to ponder the ways we are contributing to the brokenness in our lives and in our world and then taking the time to make amends. Sometimes as women the primary place we need to make amends is with ourselves. The treacherous serpent that poisons us may be of our own doing, a failure to honor who we are. The great commandment, which we pray in Lent, reminds us that we are to love self in the same way we are to love God and others.
Women are culturally raised to be self sacrificing, giving to others as we nurture children, spouses, friends, congregations. We pour ourselves out in many ways, often forgetting to take care of ourselves and nurture our inner most being. As women our greatest sin may be a broken relationship with self, and therefore a broken relationship with God. Examining our consciences, building our covenant with God, accepting our humility and our humanity may mean honoring the gifts God has given us, the ways in which we are strong and smart and beautiful. Truly loving ourselves and honoring our God given gifts will ultimately enable us to love God more fully, to love others more deeply. In this the same serpent that may poison us can become the very serpent that heals us.