Snake on a Stick: On Opioids

Notes from
4th Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2018
at Emmanuel UC Waterloo

Jenn Hind, Karen Dixon and David Petro from the Bridgeport Café ministry at Emmanuel UC Waterloo spoke today at Trinity on Church in Kitchener, inviting our folks to participate in their downtown ministry.  I filled in at their church, to confirm for them that Trinity is not dead, just ‘pitching our tent’ elsewhere.
Every 3 years, the whole church hears the same lessons as we begin Lent: 

  • Abram, by his tent on the way, after God said ‘lech lecha’, ‘get up and go’ from his father’s home, to seek a promise of a new legacy
  • Noah, disembarking the ‘teva’, the unwieldy ‘ark’, gets the rainbow arc, God’s disarmament, a bow without an arrow, pointing away from us
  • Moses, coming down the mountain (a 2nd set after a gold calf provoked him to smash the 1st set) with 2 tablets of law, the ‘ten words’ of ‘torah’  
  • Moses, facing slander about ‘manna’, faces ‘seraphim’ snakes, ‘fiery vipers’ and makes a ‘seraphim’, ‘snake on a stick’ to lift up and offer relief

Each of these stories has a matching image or symbol, a ‘brand’ or mark:  Abram’s tent, Noah’s rainbow, Moses’ 2 arches, and Moses’ ‘snake on a stick’.  The first are familiar: Trinity on Church claims ‘pitching a tent’ as our new mark, while Emmanuel and Parkminster claim the rainbow as Affirming churches.  
Brands, marks, signs and symbols, may not carry the inspiration we intend. Others may construe them differently.  Many think Trinity is a cautionary tale of losing a sacred site, near death in a rented tent.  A few think Emmanuel and Parkminster are no longer holy, inviting sinners, and deserve spray pain graffiti.
What does ‘snake on a stick’ mean to anybody?  I showed you images of the ‘Rod of Asclepius’, (Greek god of medicine), and ‘Caduceus’, rod of Hermes (Greek messenger god, patron of thieves and liars).  Whether with one snake or two, wings or not, medical guilds love this sign – from the US military to the WHO world health organization.  You’ll see it somewhere this week!
Those who carry Asclepius or Caduceus on their ambulance or office door, or product branding, or academic certificates, do not believe in the Greek gods.  They present the signifier, and healing as the invisible ‘signified’.  So, what do we lift up as our brand: a tent, a rainbow, a cross?  What does they mean to us, or what is ‘signified’?  Moses’ arches now mean ‘golden arches’ of hamburgers!
You the signs and T-shirts that read ‘John 3:16’.  They show up at sports stadiums, on street corners, usually near TV cameras.  The bible text is:
‘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.’
Those who present the sign intend to bear witness to their faith, and invite others to conversion, to be born again. It does at least reassure their evangelical co-religionists that they are not alone. It’s a coded test, ‘shibboleth’ password to identify who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’.
Ted Scott, 1980’s Primate of the Anglican Church, used to commend these enthusiasts. Then Ted Scott would ask the pious partisan with the “3:16” sign to repeat John 3:17 next: ‘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.’
That’s how we construed it, back in the 20th century: personal conversion balanced with public political commitment.  Me too!  But in this century, I have stretched Ted Scott’s tactic to John 3:14-15: ‘And 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.’  That’s what I indulged at Emmanuel.
The challenge of any of the texts is asking each of us, and each congregation of us, about our witness. What do we lift up, or as I keep saying, how do any of us re-present divinity and humanity? Which Jesus have we re-cognized, and which Jesus do we lift up?  Are our physical statements contradicting our intent?
The ‘snake on a stick’ texts are disturbing.  So is a crucifix, with Jesus hanging on the cross, a reminder of passion and crucifixion, preceding any resurrection or empty cross.  What does Emmanuel re-present to Waterloo on Bridgeport?  Monday, you hosted a public meeting: opioid overdose prevention. Disturbing!
What’s our UCC brand and what does it mean? I’m old, long-tenured, itinerant.  At your meeting, you thought I was likely a cop, or NIMBY homeowner.  My very appearance is a signifier, ‘old white guy’ now.   But 40 years, in the biblical span, I was a baby lawyer, and thought I was a Marxist. So I retold our story:
40 years ago, Litton Industries was built in Rexdale 1978, with federal funding, to make Tomahawk missile guidance systems, second plant on the planet to equip this new US military weapon.  Lots of good UCC folks protested and picketed – my people, our people, in Toronto.  
By October 1982, I was working at First UC Vancouver, doing poverty advocacy, when somebody stole a ton of explosives nearby, drove them to Toronto, and bombed Litton.  I was not surprised, surrounded by anti-nuclear activists – but we were not involved!  Today, we all seem radical anarchist, anti-nuke crazies.
Things changed – and didn’t.  Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iraq-Iran war, and the US-backed Taliban opposing Russians in Afghanistan seemed far away in the 1980’s. The Berlin Wall fell, the soviet republics changed, and the Cold War that framed our politics of nuclear disarmament seemed a lesser threat.
‘The trouble with normal is it always gets worse’ sang Bruce Cockburn. At least the first Gulf War in 1990-91 had the fig leaf of UN backing to ‘save’ Kuwait for Desert Storm.  This was also the first ‘Shock and Awe’ war, ‘video game’ war, beginning of continuous warfare, covert and overt, continuing today.
Missiles became drones, the PPCLI of Somalia became JTF2 snipers, and the language of insurgent or terrorists, IED’s and suicide bomb became too familiar.  In this century, ‘9-11’ led directly to escalation to Gulf War 2, and in Lent 2003 we heard these lessons as Baghdad fell. We wore blue ribbons in protest buttons with faces and names of Iraqi children.  Chretien kept us ‘out’ of it.

What do you stick up on a pole and lift up – what do you look at to live? What causes and fights are you dedicated to? What side of which fence are you on, and who is there with you, and how do you mark that?  My UCC was different 40 years ago.  Flags and brass plaques for WWI and WWII were 40 years old.

There were bronze serpents on poles, ‘nehushtan’, in Jerusalem’s First Temple.  Everybody knew it, in the 8th century, the 700’s, when Israel in the north fell to the Assyrians.  Hezekiah tried to reform and clean up the temple, threw out the snakes on poles (2 Kings 18), so we know they were there.

The snakes on poles may have been a primitive pagan influence, adopted from Egyptian culture, just as Christians adopted fertility cult symbols of evergreen trees at Christmas, and eggs and bunnies at Easter. We can’t throw stones, living in this glass house – so close to the burrow of Wiarton Willie!

‘Snake on a stick’ might reference the Eden myth serpent, whose slanderous suggestions about God’s limits tempted humans. Maybe Moses and Aaron’s staff snake has similar roots, since the Egyptian sorcerers had no trouble matching that trick in the 10 plagues. Numbers tells an explaining story, later than these events, an etiological story. It re-construes, regains, retains ‘signified’ meaning.

After 38 years in the desert, approaching the Promised Land from the south, after many trials, the Edomites – the people of red clay, associated with Esau, rejected brother of Jacob – always a nation blocking Israel from the seaways to Africa and India – the Edomites turned them back into the desert.  Desert war threatens us with perpetual irresolution.  No wonder they – and we – complain!

The people whined and complained – again. Why did you take us out of Egypt, where we were well-fed slaves? Why take us out into this desert to die?  There is no food or water – just this miserable food – manna that falls from heaven each day. They accused God, and they accused Moses.

So God sent fiery serpents, seraphim, and they bit the people, and many died. The people responded to snakes with repentance – we’re sorry for accusing God, and accusing Moses. Let’s stop blaming, and start confessing.  We’ve been blaming the snake since Eve (and blaming women since Adam).  Confess it.

What’s your brand, sign, symbol? We talk about brands and labels, the visual shorthand of symbol, intellectual property, which lose traction, and change their semantic field, over time. Semiotics is the study of how signs work, whether snakes on sticks, or tents, or rainbows, or arches.
Don’t confuse the ring and the beloved, as Augustine put it. You don’t love the ring – but the spouse who wears it. You don’t love the cross – certainly not crucifix but God whose providence permitted it, divine restraint, vulnerability, demonstration or grace, mercy, re-presentation of humanity, and divinity.

Don’t reduce the image to idolatry, as the iconoclasts (ad-busters) say.  Look through, not just to, the signs of covenant.  Whether it’s a tent, a rainbow, arches, snake – or just your physical appearance, like mine as an old white guy, or your brutal old church buildings, forts with no windows for people to see in.

What is your witness: personal conversion 3:16, public political witness 3:17, or snake on a stick 3:14-15?  What would you go to the wall for – live for – or die for? How ambiguous is your witness? I miss our UCC passion for social justice, even more than I credit our therapeutic care for one another. 

Concluding today, I returned to Emmanuel’s public meeting last Monday on opioid overdose prevention and harm reduction.  I’m a fan of opioids, which helped me heal from a broken brain, a brain aneurism 15 years ago.  I know how hard they are to stop.  I don’t want prohibition, or demonization of them.

Harm reduction is a strategy we know from alcohol.  Our UCC still stands for temperance – I am teetotal myself – with abstinence the counsel of perfection, and moderation the moral norm among us.  We engage with addiction and recovery actively, and few of us are untouched.  Let’s carry on with opioids!

Last year, 12 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, and over 70 from opioid overdoses.   Enforcement, regulation, education, and social norms have reduced harm from impaired driving.  When we stop demonizing opioid abuse, driving it out of sight, and recognizing it as one face of opioid use, we save lives.

I appealed to Emmanuel folks, as I did in January to Trinity folks, to schedule an annual visit to your pharmacist to review your medicine cabinet contents, prescription non-prescription, current and left-overs.  House-cleaning matters.  Some seniors abuse pain relievers (and alcohol).  Some in their families steal their medications to begin or continue their own generation of opioid abuse.

I did finish with a reminder that ‘stigma’ comes from Christian tradition, like ‘snake on a stick’.  I carry ‘stigmata’ tattoos on my wrists, semi-colons, from a recent movement in solidarity with young people experiencing addictions, mental health challenges, and suicide all around them.  A period is a grammar mark that the words before make a complete sentence, which can end.  Add a comma below the period, and a semi-colon invites a new phrase to continue.

Yes, we should recognize ‘stigmata’, the marks of crucifixion, on those whose abuse of opioids threatens their lives. Snakes on sticks, and crucifixes, are creepy.  But whose shame is the stigma?  Was it Jesus’ shame to be nailed – or ours, who make it happen again? 

Yes, we should recognize ‘stigma’ around PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the ubiquity of that diagnosis in the community of people who abuse opioids to numb the pain.  One particular group of PTSD survivors are young military veterans returned from our perpetual desert wars, more likely to die after discharge than while deployed.  The shame, again, is ours, not theirs. 

Congratulations to Emmanuel UC and your ministry.  Your Affirming identity, your Bridgeport Café open house days, and your public meeting last week supporting a harm reduction approach to overdose prevention are all good examples of holding up a ‘snake on a stick’, and embracing those demonized in Waterloo.  Congratulations too on your call to Jenn Hind, whom you’ll welcome home to Emmanuel next Sunday morning, as I continue work back at Trinity.

Numbers 21:4-9

4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.
5 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.’
6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people,
so that many Israelites died.
7 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.
8 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.’
9 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.

God still speaks:
Thanks be to God

John 3: 14-21

14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘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.
17 ‘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.
18 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.
19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
21 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.’

God still speaks:
Thanks be to God