The Venom of the Serpent is not enough.

( This is my first sermon after a year away from preaching at the three main services at St. Peter’s, Lewes. A lot happened in a year, both in the world and in my own life. Much of the “world” year has been filled with venom. Much of my personal year has been filled with grace. This sermon is written against the backdrop of my year with cancer and my year surrounded by love and care from all sides. It was preached on the 51st anniversary of marriage to Kathryn. So it is a time when I am very conscious of the abundance of life even in a venomous world.)


A Sermon by Mark Harris, November 19, 2017, St. Peter’s, Lewes, Delaware.

May we not be left in a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Amen.

The present seems very much a time in which people tear each other down, 
look for the sin in every soul, 
the evil in every politician, 
Where the ends are sought for which any means are justified.  

That is, the present seems to be a time where we feel it necessary to be very self-protective, self-justifying and in which we take care of ourselves first and last.  You remember Jesus’ comment, that we should be as wise as serpents, as innocent as doves?  We work at being wise as serpents. As innocent as doves?  Not so much. It seems a time when we only seek to be snakes, and particularly to be venomous snakes.

You all know what I am talking about: 
We lived with the spirit of tearing down, 
not building up, 
the spirit for destruction, 
not construction. 

I confess a certain perverse interest in getting all the scoop on just how bad it all is, and I vacillate between delighting in the fallenness or thick headed ness of leaders and despairing the general state of things. But I live knowing that what I’m mostly doing is tearing down.

Of course there is a good bit of that tearing down that is well deserved. 
Too many men have been treating women as objects, with disdain and disrespect, 
too many politicians have covered up too much from their constituents, and have made too many deals to keep themselves in office,
too many white people have been too oppressive to people of color
Too many adults have been cruel of too many children, and the children in turn have learned to be cruel to one another.

And so on….

And catching the various perps out is needed. So we do. But it also becomes delicious to do, since it feeds our real sense that it is a time of destruction, in which we too can be destroyers. We grow to love spitting righteous venom.

And of course it is true not only in civil community. It is true in our religious communities as well.  There are lots of disaffected Christians floating around out there, disturbed, and often appropriately so, by the sins and degradations of those who lead in the church.

It turns out that sin and degradation is everywhere present, and if we are not careful that is all we see, and seeing sin and degradation, we make our decisions with venomous calculation. When we do that we begin to enjoy the possibility of the whole thing crashing down.

That however is a terrible way to live. 

If we live by the venom of the snake of sin and degradation, we will die by that same venom. Taking on the wrath, even the wrath of God, as our primary way of being in the world is finally to make vengeance our byword and mutually assured destruction becomes our end. The hand that slaps the offender comes around and slaps us, for we are all sinners.

That is why the admonition of Paul to the Thessalonians is so important. 

“put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

 We put on faith, love, and hope of salvation. In the face of universal damnation, we live with things eternal, Faith, hope and love, and as Paul says in First Corinthians, the greatest of these is Love. Remember thing things of venom do not last, are not eternal, but the things of faith, hope and love, they do. 

Paul writes, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  And so we ought to do as well.

Jesus ends this remarkable parable we read this morning with the odd and deeply disturbing comment : “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” There is a lot to unpack in this parable.  But I want to note one thing:

What did the first two servants have that the third did not? The first two took what was given and saw it as something to build up, to encourage, something on which to expand. The third saw only the possibilities of failure at the hands of a venomous landlord. He saw poison, and in fear acted in a way that was surely going to poison the relation he had with the landlord. The end result was that the little he had was taken from him. The third servant believed he had nothing, so the little he did have (and he did have something) was useless. His world became an outer darkness,  one of weeping and gnashing of teeth. And we too will live in such outer darkness if we live only in fear.

It seems clear: All the gloom and doom that we see, the vision of sin and meanness and greed and the fear that accompanies it – if that is all we see and experience, then we will be blind in the gloom. It will be hard to mobilize for new action. We will do nothing that endures. 

If on the other hand we take what is given, and find a way through the gloom and doom of personal and corporate sinfulness, we enter a new place, a place of refreshment and new life. We do not have to live forever with venom as our only shield. Love and its abundance is a better way.

That is why the readings this morning are important for NOW.  Now is a time of great dread, the time of darkness. But if that is what we see, and only what we see, then we miss the abundance that is also there, is always there, for that which endures is of that abundance. 

This is not a Pollyanna sort of observation. I don’t think I’m a Pollyanna sort of person. Some even suggest that I have an edge of sarcasm and rough realism.  Rather I believe this is a realistic healing observation. 

The healing of the world begins and ends in acts of faith, hope and love. It does not begin and end in venom, even the venom of the self-protecting snake. It is those acts of faith, hope and love that endure. It is there that we must cast our vision and our work.

What this means for our little community of Christians here in Lewes is this: we need to connect to others primarily with faith, hope and love as our guides, not distrust, guile and hate. 

There will always be the need to be wise as serpents, but we need to teach the serpent in us not to be venomous. And some doves of peace might be in order.

We do not need to poison relationships, even with those who are, in our eyes, wrong or stupid or heretical or just plain boring. When we have reasons, good reasons, to disagree we need to find ways to not become disagreeable, nasty and venomous in the process, for then what little humanity we have will be taken away. And we will live in the land of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Not a pleasant possibility!

All of which calls to mind another epistle, that to the Philippians, where Paul writes,

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”

Our obedience may not be as great as that of our Lord, but it is there. Our obedience begins by bringing out in one another all that is good and right, by lifting up and encouraging one another, not by bringing one another down. And if that means we take the form of a servant, suffering the foolishness of this age, it is a small cross for that which will endure.

And that’s what I know about the Gospel today. Amen.

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