Soothing Our Souls

Soothing Our Souls

Sunday, October 15, 2017
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 23)

Focus Theme:
Soothing Our Souls

Focus Prayer:
God of Aaron, Miriam, and Moses, you stayed the hand of your wrath when we fell into idolatry and discord; and when we forgot our deliverance, your love for us remained unchanging. Transform us and our world into a place of justice, love, and peace. Welcome us to your wedding feast where all are invited to be gathered in. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Exodus 32:1-14

When 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." Aaron 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." So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He 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!" When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." They 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.

The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they 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 worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now 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."

But 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? Why 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. Remember 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 for ever.'" And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

All readings for this Sunday:
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23 and
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Focus Questions:

1. Do some Commandments matter more than others? Why or why not?

2. What is the image of God in this story?

3. Why do you think Aaron, of all people, responded to the people's demands?

4. How "manageable" is the God that you worship?

5. What do you think is God's "final word"?

Focus Theme:
Soothing Our Souls

Reflection by Kate Matthews

Many years ago, as a young newlywed, I used to have the most wonderful--and memorable--conversations with my new mother-in-law, a devout Methodist raised in Lower Alabama (or L.A., as her son called it) by a Primitive Baptist-preacher father. Virginia Huey was a college professor with outstanding delivery. From time to time she would pause for emphasis just before quoting one of her favorite Bible verses, Galatians 6:7, in a low voice: "God is not mocked." A chill would run through me, because I knew she was speaking of matters of ultimate seriousness, and the unique place God holds at the center of our lives, personally and in the community of faith.

This week's story about our ancient ancestors-in-faith breaking the very first Commandment while Moses is still up on the mountain, talking with God, inspires that same sense of ultimate seriousness. The people of Israel are on a very long trust-walk, an extended pilgrimage in faith, after escaping from bondage in Egypt and witnessing a whole series of remarkable events, great wonders that sustain them on their way. The sea parts for them and swallows up Pharaoh's chariots, and manna and water are provided (in rather spectacular ways) just when they need them most and in spite of their grumbling and complaining. They have a great leader who seems to walk with God, and the promise of a new home, a land flowing with milk and honey, to look forward to.

Most of all, they are free, out from under the yoke of Pharaoh and his minions, Pharaoh and his burdensome system that extracted their lifeblood and took the lives of their children. God had heard their groans and their crying out, and had sent a leader, Moses, to bring them out of Egypt and set them on the path to the Promised Land.

How should we live?

But things haven't been easy, and the tests have come, one after another. And then there is the matter of how God wants them to live as "a priestly kingdom and a holy people" (Exodus 19:6). God has made a covenant with them, and their response, at first, sounded just about right: "Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do" (19:8). Promises have been made, then, on both sides of this covenant of faithfulness and care, a covenant one would expect to endure, even in the toughest of times.

Our text this week, from the beginning of chapter 32 of Exodus, however, tells us what happens when God takes God's time--or rather, when Moses appears to be dragging his feet. The people at the bottom of the mountain do not like waiting interminably while their divinely appointed leader, at the top of the mountain, continues his long conversation with God. Perhaps they have other priorities and more pressing things on their minds. Perhaps they are restless and hot and longing for their new home.

Where is Moses?

In any case, the scholars seem to agree that the people identify Moses' presence with the presence of God: if Moses is there, God is with them, and if Moses isn't there, well, obviously God has left them on their own. And most of us don't like to be left on our own, especially in the midst of a wilderness, without some clear goals and an action plan, not to mention a healthy dose of reassurance that everything is going to be okay. This is definitely an anxiety-producing situation.

Whether or not our image of what happens next is informed by the scene in the movie, "The Ten Commandments," or perhaps some vivid church-school texts, it's easy to think that the people suddenly fall into a loud and raucous orgy before their new false (and foreign!) god, a great golden calf, a work of human hands that they decide to worship instead of the God who has been with them since the days of their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, the faithful God who heard their cries, freed them from slavery, provided them a leader, a covenant, and the promise of a new home. We might think that we would never do something soÖprimitive, so crazed, so uncivilized. So terribly, and clearly, wrong.

An ancient but current problem

After all, we memorized those Ten Commandments a long time ago, including the one about having no other gods before the One True God, the one that forbids fashioning idols from anything on the earth or in heaven or in the sea (Exodus 20:4-5a). However, it's tempting to think that the first commandment was more commonly broken in ancient times, back when idolatry was a big problem, so we focused more on the next commandments, about taking God's name in vain, honoring the Sabbath, and so on. (Whether Christians actually pay much attention to the second and third Commandments is another good question: is the Sabbath kept holy? Is God's name not regularly taken in vain?)

This week's text provides an excellent opportunity, however, to revisit that first Commandment, and to reflect on just how quickly, and how easily, we give in to the temptation to fashion, and worship, lesser gods of human making, especially in times of anxiety, and whenever we want what we want, right now.

Fearful without a leader

If we read the story closely, we see that the people, growing restless and feeling vulnerable to attack, are worried about being without their leader, the one who stands in for God and should protect them from their enemies. Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson note that the term "go before" refers in Exodus only to YHWH or Moses, so the people are really saying that they need someone or something new to stand in for God, since Moses appears to have disappeared on that mountain.

In other words, scholars say that they didn't turn to foreign gods but simply wanted the reassurance, the comfort, of something/someone else standing in Moses' place; Walter Brueggemann, for example, finds it likely that the golden calf is "an alternative representation of God," and "not idolatrous, but simply a competitor to the ark of the covenant as a proper sign of divine presence." And Frank Anthony Spina writes: "By identifying the calf with YHWH, the distinctive personal name of the Israelite God, Aaron shows that Israel is not actually turning its allegiance to another god. Rather, it wants a form of the deity that is simultaneously visible and portable." (However, I confess that I'm a bit perplexed by the several times the plural "gods" is used in this passage [vs. 1. 4b, 8b], if they're referring to YHWH, who is, of course, One.)

A religious need

Gene Tucker describes the even more puzzling response of Aaron, Moses' brother, to the demands of the people: "Aaron as religious leader responds to a religious need with a religious solution: a cult object, an altar, and a festival." And that festival is a worship service that could be considered "kosher," Gerald Janzen writes, well, except for that troubling golden calf. Spina, however, notes the possibility of a "gross profanation of proper worship" in the phrase that Israel "rose up to play," although other scholars don't really focus on that point.

Two important notes at this point: first, Walter Brueggemann, in several places, observes that it's possible that we are reading about a controversy about the legitimacy of one priestly tradition over another. Aaron thus represents a disobedient tradition with "enormous power, prestige, splendor, and wealth" (which seem to tempt religious leaders in every age), while Moses represents the authoritative tradition.

Brueggemann proposes that we may not be reading, then, about "a brotherly exchange, but competition and conflict between rival priestly groups with their competing interpretive voices" about, we note, those matters of ultimate concern. Brueggemann's words about "those who benefit too well from holy things, who lose critical self-awareness, and who begin to think they are the producers of the holy" also brings a chill to the reader, and the great scholar echoes my mother-in-law several times, when he too reminds us that God is not mocked.

The soothing of our souls

But I also wonder if our theme, "Soothing Our Souls," suggests that we consider the problems caused by our sincere desire to meet the deep needs of others, spiritual and otherwise, often under stressful conditions (certainly Aaron was operating under stress!), when our judgment might not always be optimal and the results and consequences even less so. In a well-intentioned desire to keep the peace in a congregation, for example, do we avoid shining the light of the gospel on an issue before us? Do we place our authority and our responsibility to "produce the holy" and the perceived needs of the institution above greater goods?

Gene Tucker makes a second important point about the multiple sources or traditions in the text: the story itself comes from "older pentateuchal sources, most likely the Yahwist," with later deuteronomic additions that recall what happened in "1 Kings 12:25-33. When Jeroboam rebelled after the death of Solomon and established the Northern Kingdom, he set up golden calves in Bethel and Dan, saying, 'Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt' (v. 28; cf. Exod. 32:4). In the deuteronomic tradition of the seventh century and following, if not earlier, one of the functions of the story of the golden calf in the wilderness was as polemic against a concrete problem, the corruption of worship in the Northern Kingdom." A in-depth Bible study offers the opportunity to provide a thought-provoking reflection on the historical setting of the text and its sources.

Longing for better

Whether it occurs on the way to the Promised Land, centuries later in the Northern Kingdom, or today, in our own faith journey, there is still a very real and persistent human tendency to shape gods that we can manage and manipulate, and from which we can receive a strange comfort to soothe our souls. Perhaps these false gods, these idols, represent something we long for, or long to be. Perhaps they provide spiritual junk food to feed our deepest hungers.

Like the ancient Hebrews, we may think we are fashioning a better representation of the God we worship, perhaps even fashioning this God--ironically--in our own image and likeness. Or maybe we're longing for something and someone so much better than what we see around us, especially in a world full of human brokenness and sin. Beverly Zink-Sawyer sees in this story and in our own life today "a longing to worship and put our trust in something mysterious and greater than ourselves. Some might call this the human quest for spirituality. This story reminds us that not all objects of our spiritual longing are equal." Again, sobering words.

False gods today

There are many contemporary false gods, beginning with money, prestige, success, celebrity, and power. Like the ancient Hebrews, we may succumb, for example, to a foolish faith in military power and its symbols (some of which can be manipulated, and some seemingly having developed a fearsome life of their own). The bull calf fashioned by Aaron suggested not only fertility but also military might. Gerald Janzen observes that the people of Israel seemed to have absorbed a sorry lesson from their former oppressor, Egypt, when they turn to "a wisdom based in fear and expressed in overwhelming controlling and coercive force." Consider, then, what makes us feel secure today. What do we place our trust in? What soothes our souls?

We might also take an even closer look at the God we consciously and intentionally worship in our life of faith. Brueggemann writes thoughtfully about the Israelites in their fear and longing for "an available, produced God" when both Moses and God seem absent: "The people who seek to reduce faith to palpable certitude are intensely religious, hungry for god(s) (v. 1)." While our ancestors in faith fell to the temptation to worship a fixed, finite object in God's place, we too are prey to the same temptation, it seems, when we make God too manageable, too comfortable, and even too fixed, one might even say "monolithic," since that word itself suggests a large, stone block: the epitome of an idol, strong and immovable and so reassuring. (No wonder we use it metaphorically for our financial security, among other things.)

A God who moves

Brueggemann provides a challenge to the church to encounter a God who is not monolithic but instead is dialogic, and therefore a God of movement and change, and risk as well. What if God is in dialogue with us, just as God was in dialogue with Moses in the latter part of our text? Brueggemann writes that "the church, summoned, formed, and empowered by the God of all dialogue, has in our anxiety-driven society an opportunity to be deeply dialogical about the most important issues," and this is directly reflective of the kind of God we worship: rather than a sign of weakness, a God who is willing to be in dialogue with us overcomes our "lust for absolutism [that] eventuates in idolatry, a flat, settled God without dialogic agency who cannot care or answer or engage or respond." Obviously, though, we ourselves need to be willing to be in dialogue with God.

We close with that mountaintop dialogue, then, in which Moses boldly steps between the weak, fearful people and the God who reacts like the parent of a teen-ager who has finally gone too far. (As the mother of three former teenagers, I know, just a little bit, how God feels. Just a little bit.) Scholars write beautifully about this scene, beginning with Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson, who describe the kind of faith Moses had in the face of this God of dialogue: "Radical trust in God evokes an audacious faith; it not only permits but requires questioning."

Radical trust and audacious faith

Beverly Zink-Sawyer also finds a kind of comfort in the thought that we have been made "in the image of a God" with deep, deep feelings--"not only the negative emotions of anger and disappointment expressed in this text but positive emotions such as love and forgiveness." And Gerald Janzen writes most evocatively of the way Moses addresses God: "Moses 'implores' God. (The Hebrew verb means, literally, 'make someone's face sweet or pleasant.' I remember the sight of a little child reaching up with her hands to push her mother's angry face into the shape of a smile.)" As a mother (and a daughter), I love that image.

Walter Brueggemann also sees a tender and "parental compassion" in God's response to Moses' imploring on behalf of the people, but he also sees the larger picture in the way God, throughout the biblical narrative, lovingly remakes the covenant with the people each time it is broken. And Frank Anthony Spina reminds us that the ancient promises of God flow from God's irrepressible grace, with "judgment...never God's final word." Thank God for that! Amen.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, 21st century
"Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 19th century
"Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers. (Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains.)"

Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 20th century
"There is no avoiding the fact that we live at the mercy of our ideas This is never more true than with our ideas about God."

Colin S. Smith, The 10 Greatest Struggles of Your Life, 21st century
"Saint Augustine defined idolatry as worshiping what should be used or using what should be worshiped."

Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, 20th century
"The absolutely alienated individual worships at the altar of an idol, and it makes little difference by what names this idol is known."

Joe Thorn, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, 21st century
"'Keep yourselves from idols.' The warning isn't given to them because it wasn't a real danger or because there was an off chance someone might fall into idolatry. It was given because this is our root problem on any given day. It is what we, especially as followers of Jesus, must fight against.'"

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 21st century
"When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what's more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around."

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