“Look and live,” begins the refrain of a hymn from my childhood. One of those 19th century American revivalist hymns. Not my favorite, even at the time; focusing as it does exclusively on individual salvation. But a refrain I have never forgotten: “‘Look and live,’ my brother, live. / Look to Jesus now and live. / ‘Tis recorded in His word,…/ It is only that you look and live.” The hymn’s verses exhort: “I’ve a message full of love….Look and live.” “Life is offered unto you,…if you’ll only look to Him,” to Jesus. As a child, I had no clue that the phrase “look and live” comes from the book of Numbers and its account of Moses setting a serpent of bronze upon a pole in the wilderness. More important, I lacked a compelling picture of what “look and live” might really mean – beyond a vague nod to the afterlife. The true story of two men named Kevin, recounted a week ago Friday on National Public Radio, the story of two men, one black and the other white, who met in a life and death situation, grants an image, an icon even, of the experiential and communal possibilities of the refrain from that old hymn.
Ten years ago, Kevin Berthia was living in the San Francisco Bay area. His infant daughter had been born premature. Her medical costs climbed to a quarter of a million dollars. Kevin saw no way out from under his huge debt. He fell into deep depression and went one day to the Golden Gate Bridge. Kevin had never been to the bridge before, didn’t even know how to get there – he had to ask for directions.
Kevin Briggs, a California Highway Patrol officer, was also there on March 11, 2005. Kevin Briggs saw Kevin Berthia standing on the sidewalk; they made brief eye contact and then Kevin Berthia went over the rail and Kevin Briggs thought he was gone – having jumped to his death. Kevin Berthia had stepped over the four foot high protective railing, but he had not jumped off the bridge. Instead, he was perched precariously with his feet on a little pipe ringing the outside of the Golden Gate’s north tower – his face toward the bridge, back to the open air and the fall of hundreds of feet down to the water below. “I was overwhelmed with everything,” Kevin Berthia said recently. “It’s like everything that I was ever bothered by, everything that I was ever dealing with came up on that one day. And I just felt like a failure. All I gotta do is lean back and everything is done. I’m free of all this pain.”
Kevin Briggs thought Kevin Berthia seemed angry. Kevin Berthia explained: “I was just mad at myself for being in that situation and I was embarrassed. But somehow the compassion in your voice is what allowed me to kinda let down my guard enough for us to have a conversation. We talked for the next hour and half about everything I was dealing with. My daughter, her first birthday was the next month. And you made me see that if nothing else, I need to live for her.”
A stunning photograph records the scene. Kevin Briggs the Highway Patrol officer leaning over the guard rail talking to Kevin Berthia, below him, on that ridiculously skinny little pipe, clutching the vertical bars of the railing. They look like prison bars. Kevin Berthia’s head is bowed, pressed against those bars; the prison of his depression and shame. But after an hour and a half, Kevin Berthia looked and lived; looked at Kevin Briggs’ face, took his hands and clambered back over the railing to safety, to his daughter, and to life.
Neither man expected or particularly wanted to meet again. When they did, it was the first time Kevin Berthia was able to talk about everything that happened that day. Officer Kevin Briggs assured him that it was o.k. to talk about it. “I’ve found that out with my own depression and things that I kept bottled up for decades.” Kevin Berthia acknowledged the bond they share. “You know, we’ve been through similar things in our lives and I’ve never been around anybody that’s seen me at a more vulnerable state. The greater picture is that I need to be here for my daughter. You know, she’s ten now and, had you not been there, I wouldn’t get to see her grow up. I don’t trust a lot of people. So for you to never judge me and just to have that trust, that’s what keeps us afloat.”
This morning’s scripture readings all pivot on life and death. The letter to the Ephesians presumes that there is a living death, a death that is more than a momentary end, but an on-going mockery of life. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world,…the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” (Ephesians 2:1-2) What bad news – people live a death of bondage, incompleteness, and futility. Worse still: not just some, but every one of us, teeters or has teetered over the railing of that bridge. “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” (2:3) Which renders the good news all the more miraculous; we need only look and live. “God,…out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him….For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (4-5, 8)
How simple the saving grace pictured in our first reading from the book of Numbers. (21:6-9) When the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness, are bitten by poisonous snakes, they need only look at Moses’ serpent of bronze and live. Simple, but not easy. As simple as Kevin Berthia looking into Kevin Briggs’s face – but not easy to overcome the depression and shame weighing down his head; not easy to resist the deadly tug of hundreds of feet of open air down to the water. Instead of simply looking at the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole, how much more habitual, how much easier, for the Israelites to keep their eyes glued to the ground – watching for snakes, wanting desperately to avoid them, while expecting every moment to be bitten. Simple, but not easy, this accepting God’s saving grace.
Our gospel reading from John also invites us to look and live. “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.” (John 3:14) And then comes that most familiar Bible verse; I wonder if it takes on a different resonance in the context of “lifted up”: “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (3:16) This is the first of three times in John’s gospel Jesus speaks of his being lifted up. Immediately before that opening line in today’s gospel reading, he says: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (3:13) Here we trace the great pendulum swing of John’s theology of the incarnation. God’s eternal Word, God’s saving grace, flows out and down, so to speak, from God’s heaven and takes up residence in our neighborhood, in our world, in our flesh – yours, mine, Kevin Berthia’s and Kevin Briggs’. Then the pendulum continues to swing, back up to God and God’s heaven. Jesus being lifted up refers to several distinct moments, paradoxical but inseparable, each one disclosing more of the fullness of the motion of God’s saving grace. Jesus – lifted up by being crucified, raised from the dead, and glorified.
Today’s gospel reading introduces this being “lifted up” theme, with the promise that if we look to Jesus we will live. Later, the second time the theme is sounded (John 8:21-29), Jesus is engaged in a dispute about what it means to be children of Abraham and says: “I am going away and you will search for me, but…where I am going you cannot come.” His opponents ask, “Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying ‘Where I am going, you cannot come?’” To which Jesus replies, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, you will realize that I AM.” Lifted up in crucifixion reveals Jesus’ identity as God, rightfully bearing that ancient and holy name, I AM. And the third time, as we will hear next Sunday, being lifted up encompasses life and death/death and life for Jesus and establishes him an icon of our eternal life in God, if only we look. (John 12:23-24, 32-33) “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus proclaims; but “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain;…if it dies it bears much fruit.” Jesus continues, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself”; the gospel writer adds: “He said this to indicate the type of death he was to die.”
What deadly mockery of life do we act out this morning? What living death – not just as individuals, but especially as couples and circles of people, families and neighborhoods, organizations and businesses, white folk, black folk, English speakers, citizens of the United States, human beings in a beautiful, fragile world of other creatures? What poisonous serpents bite us? What prison bars do we clutch, perched on what little pipe, ringing the tower of what bridge?
It is saving grace on this Fourth Sunday in Lent – a season in which we often focus on doing and discipline – that we hear instead of God’s mighty life-giving love for us precisely when we are as good as dead. There will be time and need for action, later, for rehabilitation and making reparations. But this morning, in this moment, it is only that we look and live. Look to Jesus lifted up. Look up and live!
[Resources and credits: The words and music to the hymn “Look and Live” are by William A. Ogden, 1887. The story of Kevin Berthia and Kevin Briggs was first broadcast as the “Story Corps” segment during National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” show on March 6, 2015; a transcript can be found at: http://www.npr.org/2015/03/06/390970491/ten-years-later-two-strangers-revisit-what-might-have-been-lost; accessed 03/16/15. The photograph is by John Storey, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.]