Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Snakes on a Pole

Today I conducted an inter-faith service for the blessing of healthcare workers at Baptist Hospital of Miami's chapel. I did a good bit of research for the homily, and I think it's pretty good work.

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Let me read to you the Mission Statement of Baptist Hospital.

Baptist Hospital, a voluntary not-for-profit general hospital, is dedicated to providing the highest quality inpatient, outpatient and emergency health care services to all, in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ and the Judeo-Christian ethic, regardless of religion, creed, race or national origin, including, as permitted by its resources, charity care to those in need, and to timely provision of new and additional health services as medical needs develop.

This week is National Pastoral Care Week in hospitals around the country. Why does our hospital have a Pastoral Care Department? Why do we have positions for clergy on the board of the hospital? There are lots of good answers to these questions. I'd like to take a few minutes to give one good answer.

Take a look at the [stained glass] window with the pole and snake. This is the symbol of medicine we're all familiar with.

The symbol has had quite a history of meaning over the many centuries. There is a controversy as to one snake vs. two. The staff with the wings of Mercury or the staff with no wings. Nonetheless, we know that the symbolism goes back to an ancient story recorded in the Torah, from the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the story from the book of Numbers, God's chosen people are marching through the dangerous desert on the Sinai Peninsula. Along the way, they come across a large group of poisonous snakes and many people are bitten. In the middle of the desert and before knowledge of modern medicine, there is little hope for them. They cry out to God for help. God tells Moses to assemble a metal snake quickly. Then, raise the snake on a pole. And everyone who looks at the snake on the pole will live. He does and they do.

It is interesting that snakebites today are cured with anti-venom made from using the venom of the snakes themselves. The source of the affliction becomes the source of the cure. There may be a lesson for us there, but we need to move on.

Hundreds of years later, the pole turns up in the history books again. In the book of 2 Kings we learn that the good King Hezekiah finally destroyed the snake and pole because people had been worshipping it as an idol. People were confusing the means of God's healing with God himself.

Much later, Jesus, often called "The Great Physician" referred to this pole and snake. As recorded in the gospel of John, he said that he will be the new snake lifted on the new pole -- a cross. As a Christian minister, I believe that those who are sick and look to the cross will be healed. In that cross, we see the sickness of mankind. We see the spiritual sickness of people who would crucify another human being, and we see a physical body broken and dying. However, when we look at the cross, we also see the source of our cure. The greatest picture of our affliction is the greatest picture of our cure. But again, we need to move on.

That symbol of Moses' pole and snake is powerful for us today. It reminds us that God is the one who heals. Not only does he give us the gift of healing when we are sick, but he also gives us the means of that same healing. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the pole and snake were the means of healing.

Today, God has given us modern medicine. He has given us good minds, and a great wealth of knowledge discovered in the past from which to provide healing for our patients. He has given us good technology to be able to investigate new ways of providing healing -- from the development of needles and X-rays, to the sophisticated computers, robots and scanners we have today. We understand so much more about the human body than Moses did. But there are many things we do not understand. There are many useful therapies that we use because they work, but we're not sure why. Sometimes we are baffled by good outcomes, sometimes we are baffled by bad outcomes. Because we are not healers.

Here at Baptist Hospital, we openly acknowledge that we cannot heal anyone. Only God can do that. Let us not mistake the means of God's grace for God himself. Let us remember that our great scientific understanding is a pole and snake -- it is a great gift of God for the healing of those he loves. We do not bow down to the science, but to the one who gives us this good gift. And we do our best to use this good gift with diligence, precision, compassion and courage -- for we are the bearers of this modern pole and snake.

From the earliest of times, people have regarded healthcare as sacred work. Everyone who works at Baptist Hospital is doing the healing work of God. Some of us are holding up the pole, some of us are making the snakes and poles to be held up by others. Some of us are gathering sick people together and bringing them to the poles. Some of us are helping in various other ways. All of us are being used by God to heal our community.

So, why do we have a Pastoral Care department? Why do we have clergy on the board? Why is Jesus mentioned in the Mission statement? There are many reasons, but here is one:

To remind us that our work is sacred. We work in a hospital. We work in a holy place. We take care of sick people. We do the work of God. Friends, as your chaplain, I'm here to remind you -- you work in a hospital. You do the work of God.


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