Good morning beloved of God. It is a delight for me to be in the pulpit today, and to preach a sermon based on last summer’s theme: “Is That Really In the Bible?” We have actually gone on this summer to “No, That Really Isn’t In the Bible,” so I’m a year behind. But no matter, someday I’ll catch up.
Take the reading for today – the whole bit about snake handling: “…they will pick up snakes with their hands, and drink deadly poison; it will not hurt them.” Is that really in the bible? No. Thank you very much.
Well, I suppose you want more of a sermon than that. It’s true though, it’s not really in the bible. It was added later. That whole section after verse 8 is not in the oldest and most reliable New Testament manuscripts. Doesn’t it make you curious about the fruit loop who added that section? And why? And what kind of a day were they having?
Nevertheless, there are whole groups of people who not only consider it to be authoritative, but who put their whole claim to Christianity in snake handling as the only true sign of real faith. Did you know that? Often found in America’s south, they have managed to blow this text way out of proportion, and make it a major mark of the Christian life.
Honest to Pete, of all of the verses in the New Testament, they had to choose this one. They certainly have managed to major in minors here. And so, there are a number of regular snake-handling services in some of these churches. And of course many of these snake-handlers have been killed by playing with poisonous snakes.
Consider this very recent news story: “A ‘serpent-handling’ West Virginia pastor died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual, just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before. Pentecostal pastor Mark Wolford, 44, hosted an outdoor service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia Sunday, which he touted on his Facebook page prior to the event….
“Robin Vanover, Wolford’s sister, told the Washington Post that 30 minutes into the outdoor service, Wolford passed around a poisonous timber rattlesnake, which eventually bit him. ‘He laid it on the ground,’ Vanover said in the interview, ‘and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh.’ Vanover said Wolford was then transported to a family member’s home in Bluefield about 80 miles away to recover. But as the situation worsened, he was taken to a hospital where he later died….
“Wolford told the Washington Post magazine in 2011 that he was carrying on the tradition of his ancestors by engaging in snake handling. ‘Anybody can do it that believes it,’ Wolford said. This is a sign to show people that God has the power.’
Wolford said he watched his own father die at the age of 39 after a rattlesnake bit him during a similar service.”
Come on. In his sermon a couple of weeks ago, John Ginrich said, “when you come to church, be sure to bring your brain along.”
We don’t need more gullible church leaders dying from snake bites to prove their faith. We don’t need more superstition as a substitute for vital, effective and relevant spirituality. We don’t need more harmful religion that masquerades as the real deal.
Our own Brethren movement has had a whole long history of resistance to this kind of stuff: the religion of ignorance and intolerance, the religion of violence and corruption, greed and abuse. Hurtful religion wherever it occurs as a substitute for authentic faith.
It leads me to say that, God knows, some of us have been victims of abuse in the name of faith. Whatever the motivation, wherever harassment or humiliation is used in the name of God, and results in psychological trauma, that’s abuse. Wherever fear of hell and judgment of God are used to control a child or anyone else, that’s abuse. Wherever beatings, confinement and neglect are used in a religious, or any other context, it is abuse. Any act by words or deeds that shame or diminish the dignity of a person is spiritual abuse.
It often takes a lifetime, if ever, to recover from the sort of harm that wears the name of God and is done in the name of Jesus Christ. The wounds are deep.
And I consider our church to be a refuge for any who might have come from such a place. In the name of Jesus, we receive your anger;
We stand with you as you claim your status as a loved child of God;
We offer a place where the welcome is wide and the love is real;
In the name of Jesus, we embrace you as family as we remind each other that the loving God seeks your healing and wellness, and that this can be a place of trust and protection.
We don’t need more harmful religion that masquerades as the genuine article, whether they come from snake-handling ministers, controlling and obsessive parents, so called religious experts in the news or politicians who use scripture to back up their intolerance and bigotry. We’ve had enough of all of that.
You might be interested in one study by Phil Zukerman, which showed that “the least religious societies tend to be the most peaceful, prosperous and equitable, where people tend to flourish, while decreasing both desperation and economic gluttony.” The study found that:
1. Religion promotes tribalism. It divides people rather than uniting them.
2. Religion endorses some of the very worst human impulses: a sense of superiority, racism, misogyny and war making.
3. Religion practices self deception and ignores practical and scientific truths (like telling people that poisonous snakes can’t hurt them.)
4. Religion redirects morality to arbitrary religious rules. So parents, for example, forced to choose between righteousness and love, kick queer teens out into the street, or moral pundits see no problem endorsing laws that would force women into illegal and dangerous abortions, or laws that divide immigrant families while ignoring the rule of law, sending these same families back into places where their very lives are threatened.
5. Religion seeks and wields power and wealth for the purpose of self-perpetuation, even when it harms society at large.
I agree with all of that. But the thing is, so did Jesus. Right? He’s the one who said it first. The bible says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love…consider others better than yourselves…let the children come to me, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven…do not judge…welcome the sojourner and the alien…love God and love one another – the rest is all commentary.
The ancient prophet Micah says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” That’s good.
He wasn’t the only one who protested against counterfeit, superstitious and harmful religion. Mingling truth with error. The snake handling religion of his day. The outward form of empty religion. Acts of devotion that are self-glorifying; the claim to be religious without the stuff of faith; religion which uses the sacred texts for the purpose of exploitation, domination and an excuse for xenophobia, racism, sexism, unquestioned patriotism and violence. Time after time in history the church has become, itself, a spoke in the wheel of injustice.
That’s not the church I’m looking for. That’s not the church we intend to be. What do we stand for? Find our Vision Statement in the bulletin. Let’s read it together:
We create a Christian community, called by Christ to be inclusive, caring and peace-minded.
We affirm that people of any race, ethnic identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, economic status, faith tradition, or life situation are welcome in our congregation.
We believe in compassionate service, stewardship of creation, respect for diversity and nonviolent reconciliation for differences among all people, nations and faith traditions.
We claim no creed but the New Testament, as exemplified by the life of Christ. We strive to follow the way of Jesus.
Through these efforts, we seek to grow ever closer to the mind and heart of God.
We can’t afford to major in the minors. We have too much to do as the people of God to mess around with handling snakes. Especially these days. There are matters of justice, acts of kindness and service to a broken world, ministries of humble care for those who are enslaved to the systemic evils of the Empire.
And that’s all I know about snake handling.