A sermon by Meighan Pritchard
Prospect United Church of Christ
Seattle, WA October 15, 2017
When my niece was a baby, I enjoyed bouncing her on my knee:
This is the way the lady rides: clip clop clip clop
This is the way the gentleman rides: gallopa gallopa gallopa gallopa
This is the way the farmer rides: galumph galumph galumph galumph—
and doooooown into the ditch.
She would laugh and squeal, and we would do it again and again. But when she was smelling pungent, as babies sometimes do, or when she was having a meltdown, I could hand her back to her parents and say, “Your baby.”
This appears to be what God is doing. “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” And Moses has to say, “Ahem. 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? What is all this talk of smiting? Take a deep breath. Count to ten. But please don’t destroy or abandon your people.”
It’s an extraordinary conversation. Moses is counseling God and actually gets God to change plans. This is not the God or the theology of the New Testament, where God is always ready to forgive, God loves us and wants to have a personal relationship with each of us. No, the Israelites in this story do not have a personal relationship with God. They only know God, whom they call Yahweh, because Moses acts as intermediary. And this God can smite with rage. This God has very human characteristics, and right at the moment, God has had it with these silly humans.
So I wouldn’t want to be Moses in this story. You know, no pressure: you just have to talk God out of wiping out all of your people because they are acting so foolishly.
But I really wouldn’t want to be Aaron. He’s like the student teacher who has been left in charge of the classroom when the teacher is called away. He is not prepared for this and does not have good classroom management skills. When the people come to him demanding gods, he seems to panic, and he just gives in. He takes all their signs of wealth—all their gold earrings—melts them down, pours that gold into a mold, and makes a calf.
The people know he made this calf. But they worship it. They are seeking a god to worship, and if they don’t know where the real God is, they’ll take this idol. They make sacrifices to it, worship it, eat, drink, and then get up to revel. The Hebrew word for “revel” is suggestive; it hints that there may be some fairly outrageous and inappropriate behaviors going on.
This is a people living outside the rules. No rules, no God, no leader to maintain order. It’s a free-for-all.
Rules and regulations—sounds like such a drag. But rules form the infrastructure on which we hang our society, our morals, our goals. I once heard that children who have a fenced playground will play clear out to the fence. But children who have a playground with no fence will stay much closer to the building. The fence provides a safe boundary; it demarcates their space in a good way.
Rules are like that. Imagine trying to navigate around town if there were no commonly recognized and enforced rules of the road. Sure traffic is bad now, but imagine if we did not all agree that red means stop and green means go, that you’re supposed to stop at the stop signs, that you drive on the right hand side of the road. No rules, and we’re just in gridlock all the time. It’s chaos.
Clearly, under Moses’ leadership, the people have felt God working to help them, to get them through this time in the desert. That has been comforting and has provided a certain stability. But these people don’t know how to have direct access to God through prayer. They think only Moses can give them access to their God Yahweh, and they suspect Moses isn’t coming back. They want some kind of divine presence, some kind of guidance. So they make their own.
Last week, when we talked about the Ten Commandments, we mentioned some of the idols we worship: money, sex, greed, success, security, addictions, technology. There were others. All of these can tempt us, can offer to give shape to our lives. None has God at the center, and that’s what leads us astray. None offers a worthwhile moral compass or a way to live supportively and compassionately in community.
The Israelites want a god, but they haven’t developed the patience or faith to wait for Moses to return so that they can experience God’s presence in their midst again as a guiding force. I find it interesting that we have our own bovine statue, and it’s on Wall Street. It’s not a golden calf, but it might as well be. Wall Street is the center of the god of money. It’s where people come to bow down and serve that god with their time, talents, and treasures. It is a secular place, where success, greed, money, technology—all those addictions and false gods—can be served.
Washington, D.C., is our national center of power. Power in itself is neutral—it can be used for good or evil purposes—but the temptations in D.C. are many to worship power or to use it for personal gain. In recent months, we have seen one regulation after another gutted or rolled back. “Regulation” sounds like such a pesky word. But regulations are like the fence around the playground. They are protections: protection of our national parks against fossil fuel exploitation; protection of our poorest from having to go without health care; protection of women seeking affordable reproductive health care; protection of our immigrants; protection of our LGBT people; and on and on. These protections are actually freedoms. They are rights. And in the name of the god of money, or the god of fear, or the god of greed, they are being stripped away. Our God of love and compassion is not at the center of these changes. There is much reveling going on.
So it is more important than ever that we live into the alternative. Live with God at the center of every rule. That’s what the Ten Commandments are all about, as we explored last week. Put God at the center and worship no other idols. Take care of yourself and each other. Practice faith, hope, love, patience, compassion.
There are plenty of places where we see people living by God’s rules, living for the greater good, living with love and compassion. Here are a few examples.
We see this God alive in community this week in the midst of the terrible and deadly wildfires in Sonoma County. Neighbors are checking on each other, people are stepping forward to help each other out, people are taking in those who have lost everything, people are scooping up pets that are wounded and taking them to vet clinics, which are treating them for free. Police, firefighters, mayors, and others are putting their lives on the line for days at a time with very little sleep. With cell towers down and power off, a local radio station in that area has committed itself to 24/7 coverage of the fires as a way of helping people know when they need to evacuate, what’s going on, where they can go. These people are living by rules of love and compassion, and they are bringing their whole selves to the effort to rescue and care for their neighbors.
We see our God alive at the center of the fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure projects such as coal export terminals, oil refineries, methanol factories, and natural gas plants. Rather than commit to this old technology that is burning our planet, people are protesting in all sorts of creative ways to get out the message that we can do better—that we are prepared to kick our addiction to the false idol of the fossil fuel god and learn less harmful ways to live together so that all can live for generations to come.
Yesterday afternoon people from a variety of faiths and backgrounds came together to bless a totem pole that is making a journey from British Columbia through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and more states until it reaches a museum on the East Coast. These totem pole journeys began in 2013 as a way of gathering people together to learn about and fight the fossil fuel projects that threaten our regions and our planet. People of faith, environmental groups, and tribes have united to say “We draw the line: You may not destroy our home, our water, our air, our soil, our people, our animals.” And when we unite to fight for the greater good of God’s creation, we are all stronger. Our fight is just. And in the Pacific Northwest, we have an impressive track record of knocking down proposed coal export terminals, proposed oil export terminals, and other proposed fossil fuel projects. The proposals keep coming, though, and we have to keep standing together, have to keep saying we worship a God that calls us to live with God at our center, with the Ten Commandments at our center, with rules about loving each other and ourselves at our center. These life-giving rules do not allow us to rape and destroy God’s planet for our own personal gain or for the profit of a select few.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he knew that these were good people who were trying to live with God and Christ at the center of their lives. He loved this church. Like Moses, he had to be away from them—in fact, he was in prison. So he sent them a few more guidelines on how to live together as a community of Christ. Help each other resolve your differences. Rejoice in God in all things—imagine being able to write such joyful words from prison! Take everything to God in prayer: center in God. Focus on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. Keep practicing the spiritual discipline of living by God’s rules, and God’s peace will be with you always.
We know that God will not disown us like a parent who says, “Not my child.” Our God is near. Our God invites us, always, into a closer and deeper relationship. Our God challenges us to live by God’s rules of love. And when we can actually do so, we are freer, our communities are healthier, and our world is in better shape.
We can always choose to live outside the rules. But what you may have noticed if you have ever made that experiment is how out of control things feel. Living by the rules can be challenging. We make mistakes. We fail. But the gift of God’s grace is that we get to keep trying. Ultimately, living by God’s rules is about living a life that has meaning, a life rich in abundant love, a life poured out freely for the greater good. May we continue to strive to live such lives. Amen.