Bob Cornner

Bob Cornner
Visting St. Andrew's Torrance

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Bishop, the Serpent, and the Cross

What is the relationship between the bronze serpent that Moses raised up in the wilderness and Jesus being raised up on a cross just outside the walls of Jerusalem? The story from the book of Numbers says that God sent serpents into the campsite of Israel to punish them for their grumbling against Moses and against God (See the passages for this coming Sunday below).


When I was very young, perhaps in my early 20s, I had my first appointment with the Bishop of Los Angeles, The Right Reverend Francis Eric Bloy, to see if he would accept me as a postulant for Holy Orders. I remember waiting nervously in the small waiting area of the Diocesan offices. There were many important looking men coming and going from the Bishop’s office upstairs.

Here I sat with an overly short haircut that went very wrong the night before this interview was to take place. The barber had misunderstood what I asked for and so he cut swaths of hair off in a rather irregular pattern. My wife “fixed” the irregularities by cutting my hair ever so much shorter. There I sat in coat and tie with a bad haircut. I could feel the cold sweat on my hands and feet, a sure sign that I was not at all at ease.

Finally, the receptionist called my name, “Robert, the Bishop will see you now.”

I followed her to the elevator and she escorted me up the one floor ascent and brought me into the outer office where I met his very kindly secretary. Again, I stood in front of her nervously waiting for her to escort me the few additional feet into the presence of Bishop Bloy.

The Bishop’s office was dark with a desk lamp focused downward being the only light in the room. The Bishop seemed pre-occupied. When I approached his large desk, he rose and extended his hand to me to shake. I wondered if my cold and moist handshake would tip him off that I was feeling more than a bit anxious in his presence.
He motioned me to sit down across the desk from him and then he cut straight to the bottom line.

“Tell me, young man, why do you want to become a parish priest?”

I began to quickly compose myself and took a deep breath, but before I could open my mouth, I heard the Bishop say: “And don’t give me that love crap.” He went on to characterize the life of a parish priest in less than inviting ways. He called church parishes “dens of vipers” and I could see that he was very concerned that I might not be up to the task of dealing with the snakes that I would encounter as a priest.

The church was a den of vipers?

I had never had such an experience of the church growing up at St. Cross so the Bishop’s warning words sort of rolled off of me or flew above my na├»ve head and I began to see that his description was his own painful and deadly experience over his long ministry. I began to feel sorry for him and to lose my sense that my time with him was about me and my qualifications. For some reason, he decided to share his own snake-bit life as a priest, but probably more as a bishop.

At the end of our time together, the Bishop stood up, shook my hand and told me that I was a fine young man and that my next stop was the Standing Committee whose approval I would need to go forward as a postulant. I left the office a little confused as to what had taken place. I had barely said a full sentence during the entire time I was with him and yet he smiled at me and sent me onto the next step with his blessing.

Den of vipers? The church? Really?

Over the course of my life since that late afternoon meeting with Bishop Bloy, I have not forgotten what he said to me. He was older and wiser than me and had experienced rejection by Episcopalians who left the church over his stand favoring civil rights. He had been vilified, spoken about with venom and biting remarks, and attacked with false accusations and innuendo. The afternoon I saw him, he must have been feeling the toxic poison of having been bitten by the very people he was called to love and serve and lead.

Our text from Numbers makes sense to me. Moses was called to love and serve and lead the children of Israel. Things were not going well. The water was scarce and bitter. The food was boring. Never mind that in each case of complaining Moses interceded on their behalf to God and God responded with more water and a greater variety of food.
Despite their responsiveness, the leadership of both God and Moses was less than stellar in the opinion of the people.

But I would suggest that the attacks on Moses and God were not the first signs of conflict and accusation. Just as Bishop Bloy called the church a den of vipers, perhaps the only serpents let loose in the camp of Israel were the ones that were released as accusation, quarreling and bickering by the very people whose community suffered under such behavior.

Sin when it is full grown becomes the very wrathful and deadly consequence of sin.

The vipers that attacked the people of Israel or any community are the vipers of mistrust and accusation that lead to a deadly environment that lacks faithfulness, compassion, empathy for others, and a sense of community in the midst of adversity that pulls together.

The sin of the community kills the community. Moses pleaded with God to rescue the people from their own behavior and God told Moses to fashion a bronze serpent, an icon of what was killing them, and hold it up for all to see. Those who chose to look upon the icon survived the deadly attacks of vipers in the community and those who did not look upon the bronze serpent did not.

Is this a bit of magic? No, I would suggest that it is much more than magic. The bronze serpent appealed to the idol worshipping community of Israel who still doubted and mistrusted the God who had delivered them from Egyptian slavery and the less than impressive Moses who represented that God, but it was also a way of bringing the people to a full awareness of their part in the sin that had turned the community upside down.

As the AA slogan goes: "Denial is not just a river in Egypt," but a way of avoiding responsibility for one's actions and changing based upon the revelation that the snakes that were killing them were not from God, but were let loose within the community, by the community.

Jesus says: "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." Jesus' death on the cross holds up to us the very sin that only God’s love and life-giving offering of life can remedy. Salvation begins with a moment of clarity that breaks through our personal and corporate denial of our part in creating a viper’s den.

What put Jesus on the cross? A world that often resembles a den of vipers is a world filled with fear and accusations; a world that does not trust God or any other human being; a world whose toxic ways are denied by most and grieved and suffered by the whole creation.

To believe in God's love and care and vision for the world as a place of abundance and justice and compassion comes when we come out of the denial about our mistrust of God’s goodness that leads to grumbling, accusation, fear and violence. To receive this grace of God we must first own our part in the toxic environment in which we live.

Lent is a time in the wilderness for us.

Bishop Bloy has long since died, but the impact of his words shared with me have stayed with me and have come to make sense to me in a way that Bishop Bloy might not have experienced in his ministry. He seemed to me to have suffered greatly.
Moses died in the wilderness and never saw the Promise Land. He seemed to me to have suffered greatly.

Jesus died upon a Roman cross, not in the wilderness, but outside the gates of Jerusalem where everyone could see his dying; where everyone can see the consequence of our sin of envy, mistrust, lying, dishonesty, and violence. The cross of Christ is the beginning of human salvation because like the bronze serpent lifted up by Moses, we finally come face to face with the enormous wrath that we have let loose on ourselves through our mistrust of God's love, caring, leading, and giving of himself.

Have I ever set a viper loose in the world? Have I accused others falsely? Have I believed false accusations about others as if they were true and passed them on to others? Have I acted as if God's love and generosity were limited and therefore scarce? Have my thoughts, words, and deeds made the world a more loving and compassionate place in which to live?

The confession we use during Lent is rich and full. It is written in full view of the cross of Christ and offers us the promise and gift of starting over again and again. May God give us all the grace to turn towards the cross and find the compassion and love of God being offered to us all.

The Litany of Penitence

Most holy and merciful Father: we confess to you and to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,

Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.


Almighty God have mercy on you, + forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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.

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

John 3:14-21

Jesus said to Nicodemus, "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.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but 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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."