Sunday, September 15, 2013
First Reading: Exodus 32:1-6
While Moses was with the Holy One, the impatient people of Israel were seeking other gods: 1When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
QUESTIONS FOR SILENT REFLECTION
Pascal believed there’s a “God-shaped vacuum” in each of us that “cannot be filled by any created thing.” Have you ever tried to use a “created thing” to fill the vaccum in your life? Worship is one way we weekly recommit ourselves to that which is most worthy of our lives. What is the golden calf in your life right now that is diverting your energy and love from The Ultimate in Life?
Second Reading: Exodus 32:7-10
7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! 9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
GUIDED MEDITATION “When God Gets Mad”
This is one of those Old Testament stories that evidently got past God’s PR agent. In this story God is jealous of phony gods, is almost as fickle as his fickle followers, and is mad enough to exterminate the people he has just named his chosen ones. Stories like this one fuel the fiery evangelists who tell groups of people that God hates them. Stories like this one help us justify our own prejudices and hatred. Stories like this give the Church a bad rap.
So we might be tempted to jettison these wrathful scriptures. Maybe we wouldn’t actually rip chapter 32 of Exodus from our Bibles, but we could simply not read it, not talk about it, not preach from it. I could have chosen another text for today’s reading.
Yet to ignore these Angry God stories entirely is to let the literalists control them. I want to talk about the Angry God in this story. And in doing so I have to talk about the Angry Me.
I’ll begin by telling you one way I do NOT try to explain away the anger of this God we meet in the Moses saga. I do NOT make the case that the Old Testament God is violent and the New Testament God is compassionate. Because that distinction is not true. The Hebrew Bible brims with images and stories of a God of tenderness, mercy, and compassion, and the New Testament has its own share of images and stories of a God who is angry. John the baptizer foretells of God’s coming wrath, the book of Romans speaks of God’s ire, the book of Revelation bursts with violent images, and the Gospels mention at least a couple of times when even Jesus was mad. We Christians must be careful not to imply that the Jewish scriptures simply don’t have the nicer version of God that we do. You can catch God having a hissy fit in both Testaments.
So the distinction I make is between who God is and who the Bible says God is. The Bible is a library of stories, poems, laws, and theological musings composed over hundreds and hundreds of years. Often a single book of the Bible was composed and edited over hundreds of years. Within this library are many different understandings of God. And none of these stories, poems, and other writings were written by God. They were written by fallible human beings reaching for words to express their varied impressions about and experiences with the Sacred. Even if human beings COULD fathom the mystery that we call “God,” our language would fail us—as language is always limited, always straining to capture a reality we perceive imperfectly.
it seems to me that God’s wrath emerges in Biblical stories when human beings have felt an injustice and have sensed that if THEY were God in that situation, they’d have been mad and perhaps have used godly might to smite the bad guys. In trying to imagine a Holy response to some atrocity, human beings have ascribed anger to God. What these writers might be saying is that here’s a situation that is not holy, that is counter to the way of Love and Life and therefore should be repudiated as such. “God is angry” is a way of describing a situation that, based on our understanding of what is holy and good, should not be tolerated. So we personify the sacred in these stories and say, quite metaphorically, that God is mad.
I’m not saying that the early writers of Exodus were always self-consciously composing metaphors. I’m saying that I understand the impulse generating these stories metaphorically.
We use our own metaphors today to express our frustrations and angers with injustice and drag God into them. My favorite is from writer Anne LaMott, who expresses her frustration about a situation this way: “It’s enough to make Jesus drink gin from the cat dish.”
The writers of Exodus were right to imagine anger as a holy response to the Israelites. Moses told the people to remain prayerful some distance from Mt. Sinai while he ascended to commune with God. Instead of using this period of time for stillness and silence that would have strengthened them spiritually, the people became distracted, gave up their silent waiting upon God, and commenced a project on the assumption that some new shiny object—a golden calf—could fill the void. God’s resultant anger was a narrative way of expressing some sense of what is sacred and what is not.
I think there ARE times we are supposed to get angry. I can imagine God angry at things counter to sacred living, at things that harm me or others. However, I don’t think godly anger leads to violence. And I don’t think God has favorites. I know I’m capable of creating a God who conveniently sides with me and is mad at the people I’m mad at. I have to be wary of ascribing anger to God because I know how easily anger can arise within me and I very much need to justify it.
Does your God get mad at others? When? Does it ever happen in response to superficial, accidental slights against you?
How do you know what would make Jesus drink gin from the cat dish? And how do you know when not to ascribe anger to God?
Does your God ever get mad at YOU? Does that lead to feelings of shame that can overwhelm and defeat you? Would that really be an outcome a loving God would produce?
Consider ways we construct our own images of God that we worship—and how these images may turn out to be merely shiny objects that distract us from what is really real, what is deeply compassionate.
Third Reading: Exodus 32: 1-14
11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
GUIDED MEDITATION “When God Changes God’s Mind”
And God changed God’s mind! Moses argued so persuasively that God relented. God had a change of heart. God remembered his/her promises and reversed his/her decision to destroy his/her faithless people.
The theological heart of today’s story may be this: although the people of God are faithless, God remains faithful; although God might have good reasons to give up on us, God remains faithful.
Again we see the Bible offering sometimes conflicting theology. Elsewhere God is described as an immovable rock, as the Alpha and the Omega that never changes. Elsewhere the Bible extols the virtues of steadfastness and conviction. But this story shows an alternate insight into holy living: sometimes it’s a good thing to change course. This story says that the sacred thing to do sometimes is to change your mind.
It seems to me that our country may be able to step back from the brink of war because leaders have been able to change their minds.
It’s hard to admit you’ve been wrong. But sometimes our firm convictions are merely wrongheaded stubbornness. Religious convictions may be the most difficult to change. It took me 10 years or more to rethink my understanding of homosexuality, to repent of heterosexism, to affirm LGBTQ people just as they are, to change my mind and, more importantly, to change my heart. It was hard because this was a belief that seemed enshrined in biblical authority. It seemed to me God had already spoken on the topic. But in fact I came to see that I’d been judging others because of societal prejudice, and the belief I’d held was harming God’s children. I had to change my mind, but it felt to me that God was changing God’s mind.
A friend of mine sports this bumper sticker on her car: “If you haven’t changed your mind lately, how do you know you have one?”
I might add a corollary: “If you haven’t had a change of heart lately, how do you know you have one?”
Many churches focus on shoring up the beliefs you came in with. Many churches bolster the people’s convictions about doctrine and assure them, in the words of a beloved hymn, that “God changes not. . . . As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.” Here we want to listen to the Still Speaking God. We open ourselves to the Spirit of Love and Truth.
Where is there some point of dissonance in your life? Ponder the things that snag your attention —things that no longer seem to add up the way they used to. Is God speaking to you through apparent contradictions?
Is God’s compassion and wisdom tugging at your sleeve, calling your name, taking you by the hand to lead you away from a petrified position and toward an openness to a new way of thinking or behaving?
PRAYER: O God, show us where we need to remain firm and where we need to change.