Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin
March 11, 2018
Let’s name it. Sin is an uncomfortable topic. In church we seem to either be consumed with each other’s sins or we avoid “dwelling” on sin because “we are forgiven”. Rarely to I have conversations with folks willing to engage in naming, confessing, repenting. It’s a shame, because when I have had those conversations with people, it’s amazing how much joy comes from them. It downright liberating. And every time I witness that liberation, I wonder, why don’t we do this more?
This is why I am so grateful for the resources of Disrupt Worship during this Lenten season. In particular, I am grateful for the confession. While, I am fully aware of the need and value of individual confession and forgiveness, I long for a day when we, as a whole church, can fully name, confess, and repent, of our collective sins. I long for it because I have been a casualty of those sins. I have ignored the sins, allowing them to fester. I have benefited both consciously and unconsciously from these sins. I have wounded others and have wounded myself. I have been complicit, and I am desperately longing for liberation.
The scriptures for this Sunday provide a wonderful opportunity to unpack this distinction, between individual and corporate sin. And, if we, as preachers and teachers, do our task well, we find liberation from some harmful theology that can attach itself to these serpentine texts.
An individualistic read of the Numbers text, might leave one asking, why does God punish the people for complaining? We find ourselves worried that God might punish our own complaining. It’s this kind of harmful theology that pushes some folks who struggle with mental illness to believe they are at fault for their illness, or that the world would be better off without them. This woefully painful theology convinces people to stuff down their feelings, “keep a stiff upper lip”, or silently seethe until the pain and hurt seep out in explosive, damaging and destructive ways. But such a theology is born out of looking for the individual sin instead of the corporate sin. Yes, individuals were whining and complaining. But this was not unlike any other time during their wilderness journey. The Hebrew children had been whining and complaining ever since they left Egypt. What made this time different?
I would venture to say that it was the collective sin that was left undone. In previous times of complaint, somewhere there was truth in the complaint. This complaint is a bold faced falsehood, a literal bearing of false witness against God and Moses. No one rebukes it, corrects it or helps the people see the truth. Just prior to this story, we are told of a great victory that God has given to the Israel, who then makes a vow to the Lord. Yet still, the people complain. It’s as if they have become so focused on their individual wants, that they lost track of both the larger story and the larger community.
Let us consider the corporate sin. What if the broken relationships within the community is where the snakes came in? What if the snakes are just signs of their communal sin? They have been on this land before, walking by the Red Sea. There were no deaths by snake then. Yet this time, their selfish lies have consequences. They have spread seeds of discontent and the fruit of poisonous snakes has been revealed. As it is with collective sin, the most vulnerable are struck dead. Sin has consequences and Corporate Sin yields its consequences wherever it may.
The people cry out for relief, begging for God to take away the snakes, to make the sin go away. God’s response is not to provide what they want, but rather what they need. They must look upon the image of their sin. They must face it, dare I say, name it, confess it and repent. Then, God’s healing is revealed.
What is the sin that needs to be named and faced in your community?
What are the serpents lying in wait that are tearing apart your people?
I urge you, to see this text as a lesson. Face the snake. Look upon it. Confess the sin and live.