Sunday, October 30, 2011

What People Will Do For God

What People Will Do For God
Exodus 35:20-35
October 30, 2011
Stewardship Dedication

And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the LORD’S offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments.  (35:21)
            If you look around long enough in the Bible, you can find just about anything. Today we find a story about an unbelievably generous offering. Moses has challenged the people of Israel to give to God out of their resources. He asks if anybody has a generous heart. Then he turns them loose.

Pretty soon, the people come running back. They are pushing wheelbarrows full of gold and silver. They bring fine linen and priceless jewels. All of it is given to God. As one Bible scholar says, “This story is a stewardship dream come true.”[1]

I know our church’s stewardship team is optimistic. They believe this can happen again, and today could be the day. The only problem might be if somebody murmurs, “It’s still a dream!”

            This Bible story offers up an extraordinary moment. The people give freely. I scratch my head in wonder, especially after all the events that we have heard from the book of Exodus. Moses is raised against all odds in Pharoah’s family (2:10). He discovers somehow he is a Jew, and murders an Egyptian who was beating up on a Jew (2:12). Running off to the desert, God finds him (3:4). Moses has his burning bush moment, when God sends him back to Egypt to lead his Jewish people out of slavery (3:12). It’s an amazing story.

            God gets the people out from under Pharoah’s thumb (14:30). Then God feeds them (16:13-14). God gives them fresh water (17:6). God protects them from enemies (17:9). Then God gives the greatest possible gift to a tribe of liberated people: God gives them ten Holy Words to guide them in their freedom (20:1-17). It’s a gift of continuing speech.

            But freedom doesn’t begin so well. The people cash it in on a golden calf (32:3-6), in one more futile human attempt to shrink God down to manageable size. When there is every reason for God to blast them back into the sand, God forgives them (32:14). This forgiveness is a gift that reveals God’s character: the Lord is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (34:6).

            All of that leads us to this moment. The God who speaks with Moses is going to set up shop with them. God needs a human meeting place. So what our story reports is the very first Building Campaign for the people of God. It had to be a movable building, for the people will keep wandering in the desert for three and a half more books of scripture. But this tabernacle, this tent, will be the place where God meets them for worship, instruction, and identity. The way it works is this: the people assemble for worship, they learn about steadfast love, and they remember who they are.

            This is the reason why the offering is so overwhelming on the Sabbath in our text. It’s a very simple principle: we give our money freely to anything that gives us meaning, value, and purpose.

            Picture the conversation between a teenager and her father.
  •  “Dad, I need to get a new phone.” What’s wrong with your current phone? 
  • “It doesn’t work so well since I dropped it in the toilet.” Why did you do that?  
  • “But I need a new phone.” What kind of phone do you want? 
  • “Well, all my friends have an Apple iPhone 4S.” What’s so special about it? 
  • “It does all kinds of cool stuff: you can order books on Amazon, check movie times, use it as a GPS, and see how many point the Steelers are behind.” Does it make phone calls, too? 
  • “Sure Dad, you can even do Skype and look at the person you are calling.” Dad: I remember when phones made phone calls. 
  • She says, “Well Dad, anybody who is anybody has the iPhone 4S.” He says, “So this phone will give you meaning, value, and purpose.” 
  • Absolutely! “But that’s what you said about the last phone before you dropped it in the toilet.” She looks at him with big brown eyes. 
  • He starts to thaw. How much does the iPhone cost? 
  • “They are having a sale. If I don’t get the extra memory or any of the apps, it’s only 649.” He considers this; I think I have seven dollars in my wallet. 
  • “Funny, Dad. It’s six-hundred-forty-nine.” That is a lot of driveways to shovel and children to babysit. 
  • “But Dad, I already have three hundred dollars saved up.” (He has seven bucks, she has three hundred.) Dad wonders: Why do you need this phone? 
  • She replies, It’s like you said: it will give meaning, value, and purpose.”
            Does she get the phone? I don’t know if she gets the phone. I do know that people give their money to just about anything that gives them meaning, value, and purpose. That’s why the Israelites were giving their money to God. They know the Source of their bread. They know that, unlike that cell phone, Pharoah no longer owns them. Israel knows that the wrong they have done has been forgiven. The people are free. The best expression of their freedom is their generosity.

            That leads me to notice three important insights that we can learn from this story.

            The first is this: generosity is the name of the game. Generosity is the fruit of meaning, value, and purpose. Generosity is a much better word than stewardship. “Stewardship” is a manager’s word. You take care of what you have; that’s stewardship. “Generosity” means you give it away. You give it, not merely to the church, but to the world! And behind that, to the Maker of the world! When was the last time you made a really generous gift? Not the token amount or the cautious sum – when was the last time you truly emptied your wallet for something or somebody?

One of the awkward things about growing up in American culture is that our culture silently tells you to draw a circle around your life. The circle defines you. It confines you. It declares, “I will share this much, but I won’t give any more.” That’s it. No more. The circle is drawn in fear. Unless God intervenes, we will live inside this circle most of our days.
It happens early, by the time we become little children. Do you remember Shel Silverstein’s “Prayer of a Selfish Child”?  It goes like this:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my toys to break,
so none of the other kids can use ‘em. Amen.[2]

But the generous person knows how to step over the line, to move outside the confining circle. Generosity is a learned habit where we extend ourselves beyond all confinement. Israel discovered that generosity is the primary virtue of God. Rather than hold back in fear or strike back in punishment, God keeps giving and giving and giving.

And even in the desert, they decide they want to be like that! They will not be self-absorbed, self-contained, self-reliant, and ultimately self-centered. They will step over the invisible circle, and they will be generous. “Generosity” is the word.

            The second thing is that generosity is a group activity. It is not the private donation of a wealthy individual but a communal work.

            I know a congregation, sadly, that struggles to understand this. I worked there for five years, and then I moved up here twenty-one years ago. They have the same number of people attending that they did twenty-one years ago, although the contributions are about twenty-five percent less. 

            When you scratch below the surface, you might discover a few reasons why. How did the congregation get started? A wealthy factory owner built the church for his workers. They didn’t have to do a thing. The factory owner didn’t ask them to pay for the preacher. He simply deducted some money from each worker’s paychecks and called it a “pledge.”

            Then they had another millionaire, a man who learned about electricity from Thomas Edison. He went off to Ohio and started Dayton Power and Light. Made a lot of money, but never forgot his home church. He got the notion in his head that the tall steeple should be illuminated at night, so he gave thousands of shares from his company to set up an endowment to perpetually pay for the steeple lighting. Last time anybody checked, the fund was making enough money to pay for the whole electric bill, with more than enough to spare.

            Then they had Jim Fuller, another millionaire, who died and left behind $37 million for his family to fight over. At the request of the family, I did a five minute funeral for which they paid me fifteen bucks. His attorney was so embarrassed that he added another eighty-five. The finance committee at the church wondered out loud if Mr. Fuller might remember the church in his will. After replacing the furnace for them three times, he did not. The congregation panicked; it was running out of millionaires. Fortunately they did not give away much money for mission.

            Well, take a lesson from Israel: there were no millionaires in the desert. Those were the days before Las Vegas, you understand. The account from Exodus 35 is clear. Everybody participated. Everybody gave generously.

And everybody gave different gifts! For those with gold and silver, it was gold and silver. For those with fine jewelry, it was fine jewelry. For those with skill in spinning tapestry, they spun the tapestries. For those who could carve wood or work with metal, they carved the wood and worked with the metal. The point is everybody took part as they had the ability and the opportunity.  Every gift was valuable and costly. Each gift contributed to the greater good.  No one could do it alone; all of them could do it together.

Those of you who ask for money, perhaps for an alumni fund or a marching band, know that participation is the key. Before a foundation gives a nickel to a college, they want to know how many graduates are giving something. The marching band will sell you a small box of oranges, in the hope that next year you might buy another. Each gift matters, and together the gifts will overflow.

In fact, I stopped the scripture reading a few verses early because it keeps going on and on and on about how much the people contributed. The people were so generous that they gave more than Moses needed. So much so that Moses had to send word throughout the camp, “Stop giving! We have too much!”

Generosity is the name of the game (three cheers today for the Generosity Committee!). Generosity is a group activity. And the third insight is certainly the most powerful: generosity changes everybody who practices it. If we are generous as God is generous, God will change us, shape us, make something better of us. That is a promise that we cannot know unless we take the steps to grow in our generosity.

It’s there in our story. Over and over again, there are descriptions of what was going on within the givers.  “They came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering.” Those phrases are repeated: everyone whose heart was stirred, everyone whose spirit was willing. As they give, something beneficial happens to them. Giving is good for the givers, and it is good for us.

That is why we offer ourselves to God this day. We are taking part in the perpetual gift exchange that God establishes with the world. We receive, we give. That’s the flow of the thing. If we receive well, with thanks and gratitude, we give well – and we are changed in the motion.

Generosity is not a natural inclination. It is a learned behavior that counters our human fear. Generosity undermines all caution. We hurl ourselves into the arms of God because we trust that we will be caught. And we hurl ourselves into the arms of God because we love God so much.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a writer in spirituality, has a great perspective on this. "Abundance," he writes, "is not measured by what flows in, but by what flows over. The smaller we make the vessel of our need, the sooner we get the overflow we need for delight."[3]

There is a story about a husband and a wife traveling around the world. In Korea, they saw a field by the side of the road. In the field, a boy pulled a primitive plow while an old man held the plow handles and directed it through the rice paddy. Both the boy and the old man were singing church hymns. The husband was amused and took a snapshot of the scene. "That's a curious picture. I suppose they are poor," he said to the missionary who was their interpreter and guide.

"Yes," was the reply. "I know that family. When the church was built in their village, they were eager to give something to it. They had no money, so they sold the only ox they had and gave the money to the church. This spring they are pulling the plow themselves." The husband and wife were silent for a few minutes, until the wife said, "That was a real sacrifice."

The missionary said, "They did not call it that. They thought they were blessed that they had an ox to sell."

The two tourists had not much to say. But when they reached home, they took the photograph to the church and told their pastor about it. "We want to give more money to God,” they said, "and we need you to give us some plow work to do. Until we saw that scene and heard the story, we never knew what joy, sacrifice, and generosity are all about. Now we want to find out for ourselves."

How about you?
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, New Interpresters Bible, commentary on Exodus, p. 962
[2] Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1981) 15.
[3] As quoted by Martin Marty, in his newsletter "Context."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

No One Sees the Face

Exodus 33:12-23
October 23, 2011
William G. Carter

The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

We are moving with Israel through the wilderness. The stories we hear are signals to us that the journey will continue long after anybody arrives at the Promised Land.

  • God brings Israel out of Egypt. It is a gift of liberation. From point forward, the struggle will be to remain free. The people are no longer slaves, no longer bound to Pharoah. But they will be tempted to fall back into the predictable and confining methods of brick-making. They will skip the Sabbath, thinking they are free when they are no longer free. It’s a recurring human issue.
  •  God gives manna as a gift. It is the daily bread for which Jesus teaches us to pray. It can sustain all of us, and there is just enough to feed everybody. The continuing challenge will be to trust that is true, to take only enough bread for today, to avoid the temptation to hoard more for ourselves at the expense of others, to continually express fresh gratitude to the God who provides the same daily gifts.
  •  God gives the Law on Mount Sinai. This is the gift of Torah, of holy instruction. It is particularly hard to keep from distorting this gift. We are tempted to push up against the Law and think we know better than God. Or we are tempted to reduce the Living Torah into iron-clad policy, becoming ourselves inflexible and obnoxious. Or we are tempted to use God’s very Words as a club to whack others who are still learning to be obedient.
 The challenges are exposed in the wilderness. They never go away. The church, like Israel, will continue to work out its salvation with awkwardness. The gifts of God identify our issues. What happens in the desert does not stay in the desert.

In the story for today, we gain a glimpse of how our true relationship with God will proceed. Moses senses that he is at the point where he can make a notable request. He says, “Lord, show me your glory. Show me the fullness of your face.” God says no. God will remain out of sight. God will not be obvious to us or our children. All God will grant anybody is a fleeting glance.

This is a defining moment for Israel and for us. Revelation will not come readily. God can speak, God may converse. God will offer life-giving words. But God will not show us everything we want to see. Some of the truth will be withheld. This is the kind of God we have.

Now, I don’t know how you feel about that. Maybe you came to church today with the hope that I or somebody else could offer you the magic formula for how you, too, could understand all the holy mysteries of the universe. A lot of people want that. A lot of Christian churches promise that. They write books, offer seminars, hand out charts. Some of them offer “forty days of purpose,” while others suggest forty days of Lent. There was a group of my acquaintance that proclaimed a proper diet would open your mind to God’s presence, while another group practiced long, silent prayers.

In the end, I asked, “What did you see?” The clearest answer: “a cloud” or “a fog.” One pious woman once told me she had a vision and saw Jesus’ wounded feet. I said, “Anything more than the feet?” She said that was it.

This is one of the most awkward things about religious faith. No one sees the face of God.

A lot of people are not content with this. They would like to say something different about the Deity. You can go to some places, they call them churches, but they are really set up more like movie theaters. The lights dim, the soundtrack begins, and video engineers begin to manipulate the senses.

Cue the sound technician. A thunderous orchestra swells through the sound system. There is the roll of tympani drums, a flash of light, footage of a magnificent waterfall, beneath it all a Bible script: “the God of glory thunders…” Everybody says “ooh” and “ahh.” They sit inside, sheltered and protected, watching a clip of a waterfall with a Bible verse.

More and more, that’s what passes as a religious experience in our land – a manufactured, Technicolor miracle. Technology can be used to manipulate people into a temporary suspension of disbelief. Then the show is over, the lights come up, and people leave essentially unchanged, back to over-consume their potato chips and harass their neighbors. On the way out, they fill buckets with cash to keep financing the Big Production.

Yet once the lights return and the amplifiers are turned off, the truth seeps back in. God rarely overwhelms us. God never shows us everything we wish to see. Sometimes God doesn’t show us very much at all. People will go decades of their life, like old Abraham and Sarah did, without so much as a whisper from the Lord. And in this apparent absence, one kind of religious huckster after another will try fill the gap, manufacture some meaning, and make a few bucks to maintain the illusion that they have seen the Lord.

Israel knew the truth: God is hidden. When Moses came down the mountain and made his report, they already knew in their bones what he would say. Israel’s experience is our own. It’s not that God is not there, or here; but that God cannot be manipulated.

We can hear it in some of their prayers. Psalm 27, for instance. It starts strong and declarative: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” The presumed answer is “Nobody.” Then the affirmation is repeated, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” And the presumed answer, again, is “Nobody!” The Psalmist goes on to say, “I want to live in God’s house all my days. I want to behold God’s beauty. I trust that God will shelter me and keep me safe.” These are clear, resounding declarations. Faith announces that God protects us.

But then the Psalmist slips a bit. She says, “My heart says, come, seek God’s face! Your face, Lord, do I seek . . . Do not hide your face from me. Do not cast me off.” (27:8-9)

Over and over again, this concern recurs, especially in the Psalms. “You hid your face, I was dismayed.” (30:7) “How long will you hide your face from me?” (13:1) “Why do you hide your face?” (44:24) “Do not hide your face from your servant.” (69:17) “Why do you hide your face from me?” (88:14) . . . and over and over again.

God is elusive. God remains out of sight. This is what Moses learns. It is the same truth that all of us learn. There is always a thick fog in front of God’s face.  

A few years ago, a woman in Miami declared she saw the face of the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. She sold the sandwich on eBay for $28,000, an astonishing sum since the sandwich was ten years old. Shortly after that, I found a little plastic item in a novelty catalog. It was a kind of cookie cutter that leaves an impression of Mary’s Son on a grilled cheese sandwich of your own. Out of deep reverence, I bought one of those for my father for Christmas. Given how God is so elusive, this little gift seemed ridiculous enough to reinforce the point. I would add that, out of deeper reverence, even though he laughed after he opened the package, Dad never actually used the gift.

Is God out of sight because God doesn’t like us? In our text, we can hear Moses badgering the Lord on this point. Four different times, he exclaims, “If we find favor in your sight . . . if we find favor in your sight . . . Lord, will you go with us if we find favor in your sight?”

This tires God’s ears’ “Of course, you have favor in my sight,” says the Lord. Favor is not the issue. You don’t have to keep asking if God loves you. Of course, God loves you. If God didn’t love you, God would never have snatched you out of Egypt, fed you with manna, or give you the Torah. Favor is not the issue.

Well, maybe it’s something else. Maybe the problem is not with God; perhaps it is with us. After all, Jesus made a promise of his own on the mountain top. Remember? He said, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). It sounds possible that we might actually see the Holy Face, if we are pure enough in heart. So that could be why some of us never see it; not going to mention any names…

Along those lines, there was a period in British history called the “Nineteen Year Winter,” from 1135 to 1154 AD. A season when the country was coming apart, it was popularly called “The Great Anarchy.” The Anglo-Saxon history books described it as “a time when Christ and his saints slept.” Or to put it another way, there was such a total lack of purity within the country that absolutely no one saw God.

Is this hiddenness truly one of God’s attributes? Or is it evidence of human impurity? A bit of “yes” to both, I’m sure. It could simply be the description of an honest religion, where we have to trust what we cannot completely see.

Some years ago, a Hebrew scholar by the name of Richard Eliot Friedman wrote a book called The Disappearance of God. He read the Bible carefully and traced how God slipped more and more into the shadows as the pages went on. In the Garden of Eden, God walked and talked with Adam. By the Tower of Babel, God stopped appearing to the whole human race. In the wilderness, God appeared as a pillar of fire and spoke the commandments to all, but then never spoke directly to the people again.

In the Hebrew Bible, God appears last to King Solomon (1 Kings 9:2) and then the verb is retired. On another rare occasion, God ignited a huge bonfire of wet wood at the request of the prophet Elijah. After that, God stopped doing any more public miracles. It was quiet for about nine hundred years. People remembered the deeds, recited the ancient words, and had to get along without any epiphanies.

This was the world into which Jesus was born. To read those stories, the angels began to sing, a new star was thrown into the sky, and things began to happen. Yet these special moments were not obvious to everybody. In fact, they were largely out of sight. Jesus stayed incognito for thirty years, learning to work with wood, keeping the religious customs, largely blending in.

Then for a brief period, give or take thirty-six months, things began to happen around Jesus. Local events: a crowd fed again with enough bread for one day; the sick and infirmed healed over here, a few over there; rumors of a dead man walking, a blind man seeing, a windstorm squelched. But none of it was obvious to large groups of people, except as one person over there was changed, another here, another there . . . and we have little record of what happened to those witnesses.

And then came the final revelation: the same Jesus who some of the people began to regard was divine was murdered. If God was present that day, it was hidden in God’s restraint. There was no punishment for the people who condemned and crucified Jesus. Instead Jesus uttered a prayer, “Father, forgive them; they do not understand.” His spoken prayer was answered in silence, in sheer silence . . . and hidden mercy.

This is God’s way in the world. To stay just out of sight. To tiptoe through the fog. To refrain from casual banter when there are planets at stake and human hearts to win.

Sometimes I wonder: what does God’s face looks like? On any given day, is God smiling? Or is God frowning? Is God’s countenance passive and serene, like the fat Buddha? Or is God full of emotion, passion, and energy? We don’t always know. But we trust God is here.

That’s why we are going to sing the next hymn. It’s a communion hymn and the opening line announces, “Here, O Our Lord, We See You Face to Face.” That seems to counter the very story we have heard today from Exodus, except that the very next lines declare, “Here would we touch and handle things unseen / Here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace / And all our weariness upon You lean.”

This is what faith propels us to do: to reach for what we trust but cannot see, to claim what we believe but cannot prove. It’s the reaching and trusting, the claiming and believing that make faith real. If God were merely our Errand Boy, answering all our requests, we would simply put in our orders and believe the lie that all the planets orbit around us.

Instead we put our trust where it really belongs: in the God who brings us out of Egypt, the God who gives us what we need, the God who brings us alive by the Word that is still speaking. 

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Temptations of Milk and Honey

Deuteronomy 8:11-20
October 16, 2011
William G. Carter

Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.

We continue our way through the desert. The way is barren. The journey is treacherous. The road is unpaved. Israel has left slavery in Egypt. Pharoah is long out of sight. The familiarity of affliction is replaced by the fear of the unknown. The people of faith are on their way to a Promised Land, even if they cannot yet see it.

            No wonder the people of Israel told these stories. No wonder the Christian church kept these stories and told them as well. The life of faith is a pilgrimage away from dark shadows of slavery and moving toward the place of great promise. We put Pharoah in our rear view mirror and leave behind the places of pain. We strain to see what good land God preparing just out of sight.

            Just a few verses before our text, Moses reminds us of the goal:

The LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.

            Now, that’s a destination worthy of our hope! Elsewhere that’s called “green pastures, still waters.” It’s where we want to move, where we want to go. Like those advertisements that come from the travel agents. I don’t know where you want to go, but I have seen pictures of where I would like to travel: the ice-blue fjords of Norway, the sunshine-drenched fields of Tuscany, the great pine forest, the purple mountains. Sign me up, Moses, I would like to go.

            I don’t know if the description of the Promised Land was the carrot on the stick to keep God’s people on the move. Maybe so. Flowing streams, abundant harvests, figs, pomegranates, olives, and honey; that sounds so appealing. All the bread you can eat. All the wine you can drink. That’s quite a sales pitch! And the tag line comes right out of Psalm 23: “You will lack nothing.” That’s enough to keep Israel moving for forty years!

            But no sooner does Moses say it when he adds a cautionary word: when you get there, he says, don’t forget about God. When your belly is full, when your money is multiplied, when you move into the big house on the hill, do not forget about God. That is the warning. And it’s a pretty good warning.

            You see, it is one thing to be tempted in Egypt. When you are enslaved, you are tempted to forget your dignity. The hours are long, the tasks are heavy. Every ounce of energy is directed toward carrying your great burden and getting through the day. It is all you can do. Life is not your own in Egypt. You are shackled to the forces that keep you down. Slavery demeans you. It pushes you to serve without benefit or blessing. The temptation is to start believing that is all there is.

            It is one thing to be tempted in Egypt, and it’s another thing to be tempted in the wilderness. In the wilderness, confusion sinks in. You don’t always know if you are headed in the right direction. The pillar of fire, the column of smoke – those are helpful, if not a bit vague. When you are in the wilderness, you may be free but you might not have everything you need. Temptation comes in the shape of worry, of fear, of doubting that there really is a Promised Land. People find themselves in the wilderness of illness and worry if they will ever feel better. Or they stumble into the wilderness of unemployment and doubt they will have anything to eat. It’s better than Egypt; at least you are free. But you are tempted to doubt that God is paying attention.

            There is temptation in Egypt and temptation in the wilderness. But today Moses warns of temptation once we reach the Promised Land. In the Promised Land, you might never notice how your soul is at risk. “Take care,” he warns. “Take care that you do not forget God.”

            David Goetz lives outside of Chicago in perfect suburban town. How does he describe it? “Seven-year-old birthday parties in which the party favor your son scores on the way out costs twice as much as the gift he brought; the one-ton SUV in the driveway; the golden retriever with a red bandana romping with two children in the front yard; the Colorado winter vacations; the bumper sticker trumpeting ‘My daughter is an honor roll student at Hubble Middle School.’”[1]

            He and his family go to the perfect church. The worship services are lively and there’s always a lot going on: another study group, another stint on a church committee, another year as the youth coordinator, another mission tip to a Third World country. All of these are good things. The church has good music. The people look just like him. It’s everything you want in a church. Just one thing missing: God.

            Everybody is running so fast, doing so much. Sometimes he looks around and wonders, “Why are they here? Why are they really here?”

            You know, it’s a pretty good question. I have lost count of how many letters of recommendation I have written for college applications, honor societies, and the like. All these kids climbing the mountain of success, many getting into the university of first choice – which is at least two hours away from here. Maybe they return at Christmas, slap me on the back, and say, “What are you still doing here? You ought to move to Boston!”

            A few of them come back to get married in the old home church. They come in early, introduce me to the people they love, talk about their dreams. We joke and laugh and catch up. Then I ask the question, “Where are you going to church?” Silence. Awkward silence. I smile benignly and wait them out. “Well, Rev. Bill, we can’t find a minister like you…” (That’s code language for “We haven’t looked very hard.”)

“But after we get married, and settled down, and pursue our careers for a while, we hope to have children. Maybe we can bring them back to get baptized here. Wouldn’t that be great?” I will look at them with love, and wonder, sometimes out loud, have they forgotten God?

            It can happen. Moses knew it can happen. Moses knew it is possible for a parent to drive kids home from soccer, pass by a church, and one of the kids says, “Mom, what’s that building?” She says, “It’s a church.”

The daughter says, “What’s a church?” Her brother says, “That’s where we have to go on Christmas Eve before we can home and open packages.”

And she says, “Oh, I love Christmas! I already have a lot of things on my list.”

Is that far-fetched? No. According to the latest demographics that I have seen, on this given day, twenty-two percent of the people who live in this zip code are going to a church or place of worship. Twenty-two percent; used to be higher.

The really interesting thing is about forty-three percent tell pollster George Gallup that they attend church every week. I wonder why twenty-one percent of the people are lying. Maybe they feel guilty. Of course, that doesn’t even touch the fifty-seven percent who don’t go and don’t care. When asked about his lack of church attendance, one man confessed to the news reporter, “I outgrew the need for all of that.” Now he stays home . . . to worship himself, I think.

You know how many narcissists it takes to change a light bulb? One. He holds the light bulb upside down and the world revolves around him.

            Is this good for us? Is this healthy for us? In a world where people scream at one another on news shows in order to make their point? In a nation where elected officials would shut down their offices rather than pursue the public good? What they are saying is, “It’s all about me.” “Look at me.” “Give me my fifteen minutes of fame, and then give me a million dollar book deal to tell my story…and then give me a ghostwriter since I don’t know how to write.”

There is something toxic about a society that focuses only on money, stuff, busy-ness, and achievement. I say this because it’s true. In one recent year, I knew four young adults in our community who spent time in drug and alcohol rehab. There were probably many more, but families tend to be quiet about this sort of thing. I began to wonder, what is it about affluence that could be so deadly? Are Mom and Dad too busy to be attentive? Are Junior and Missy too over-programmed? Is there moral pollution in the air?

I came to believe it is something far deeper. These kids live in a world on Red Bull and amphetamines. Everything is jacked up and fast. Nothing is pondered as they avoid boredom and race on to the next hollow pursuit. They are given trophies for activities where they merely show up, not because they actually competed and won anything. They are told to keep busy, just like their parents. Our world over-amplifies their individualism, telling them to proclaim their self-importance rather than give themselves to any matter of actual significance.

And then they come to know, at the center of it, that the money, the stuff, and the busy-ness are hollow pursuits. That creates despair. In one last desperate attempt to fill the holes in their souls, they dump in whatever substance they can find. This is what they do, when they have so much.

“Don’t forget about God.” This is Moses’ warning. Even if you can’t see God, stop and remember that so much of life comes as a gift. That’s how the good things come to us – as gifts, as gifts worthy of deep thanks. The first door to a deep faith is the door of gratitude. We walk through it as we affirm how little of life begins with ourselves.

We remember, too, that wherever we locate ourselves – whether enslaved in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, or enjoying the Promised Land – that we never outrun the need for a Power greater than ourselves. That this Power is personal, and that it is good – these are potent revelations. True wisdom begins with an awareness of how small we are and how great God is. God’s greatness is in caring for each of us in our smallness.

            In the church, this is the truth to which we point. God is greater than us, more loving and forgiving than us. And that’s good news. This is what gathers us as a church. This is the heart of a faith that can grow.
            Now I understand that growing your faith is not quite same as serving on a committee. Committees have their purposes. They teach us patience, they help us develop skills in forgiveness, and sometimes they even get things done. All of this is good. For these reasons alone, everybody should serve on a committee.

But we have to always keep in mind that the church, at its heart, is about God. We learn about God, we talk about God, we try together to join God in doing the work that God most wants to get done in the world. And God is at the center of it. Right in the middle of all things! We must never forget this or take it for granted.

For the last few meetings of our elders, I have tried out a suggestion that I read in a book. If the church is focused on God’s business, then it has to discern what God wants the church to do. So instead of saying, “All in favor, vote by saying ‘aye,’” I started asking, “All who believe this to be the will of God, say yes.” It’s been a hoot. All of sudden, the action on last month’s financial statement becomes a matter of holy purpose. Or the decision to give money and volunteers to assist flood victims becomes something that we really think God wants to get done.

It’s not a gimmick. It matters deeply that we perceive God to be active in the most mundane of daily matters, that we trust we are here because God was here first.

These days, rather than ask that blushing couple from Boston, “How did you meet,” I might be more inclined to ask, “How do you think God brought the two of you together?” I ask and let them squirm. Usually they don’t squirm very much at all, and seem delightfully surprised that somebody asked the question.

We live in a time when so many forces would squeeze God out of our lives. There can be no more important work than pausing right in the middle of things to ask where and how we have seen God in the moments of each day. Do you ever do this? The ancients called it the prayer of “examen,” the prayer often at the end of day when we examine our lives for traces of grace.

God’s love is largely unseen when it happens, but simply stopping to ask the question can train us to remember God, the living God, the God who brings us out of slavery, the God who leads us through the barren places, the God who is significantly more important than all the gifts of a Promised Land.

Whatever else you do, says Moses, don’t ever forget about God.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

[1] David Goetz, Death By Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs From Killing Your Soul (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2006) 5.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Factory in Our Hearts

Exodus 32:1-14
Ordinary –
October 9, 2011

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.

A few years back, we took a confirmation class to Wall Street. There were no protestors that weekend, but there was a soup kitchen. The Saturday morning was spent providing a morning meal to an assortment of street folks who dropped by. Some had not slept yet and others had not yet dried out. Suffice it to say, it was not only an opportunity for service by our young people; it was also an education.

But for me, the real insight came shortly after we left. We decided to walk over to the World Trade Center site, not far from where we had spent the morning. We came around the corner and there it was: an enormous metal bull. It was eleven feet tall, sixteen feet long, twisted as if in motion, the symbol of aggression and prosperity.

Maybe you’ve seen it, the “Charging Bull” statue of Bowling Green Park. All the tourists admire it and click pictures with their iPhones. If you sneak a peek down below, you will see it is anatomically correct. Well-polished at that! This bull is sculpted from bronze, not from gold. But weighing in at 7100 pounds, it is a most impressive structure.

Like its Old Testament counter-part, the Wall Street Bull inspires confidence and activity. It is necessarily larger than life, a mascot to consumers and investors. I’ve heard sermons about the Golden Calf that emphasize the gold. They say something like this, that the people hand over their jewelry so it can be melted down and fashioned into something they can worship. They are worshiping their own greed, says the preacher, and their costly sacrifices are actually celebrations of their own affluence.

I suppose that might be a pretty good stewardship sermon, especially in a week when protestors occupied Wall Street and denounced the national greed that has twisted our economy out of shape. A quick survey of preachers who are tackling this lectionary text today belies a significant critique of Charging Bull Economics. One minister in New Jersey, for instance, posted a chart of the ratio of pay between CEO’s and their workers. You have probably seen these statistics. In Japan, a CEO typically makes eleven times the wage of an average worker. In Germany, twelve times. In Great Britain, the guy at the top makes twenty-two times the average wage below. And in America, the ratio is 475 to one. And so that preacher concludes, “The bull calf many worshiped in antiquity has become the Wall Street bull many people worship today.”

Well, that’s interesting, even if most of us can’t do anything about it. The point would be it’s all about money and greed and astronomic wages. It’s all about the gold. That’s interesting. But that’s not what this story in Exodus 32 is all about. It’s not about materialism. It’s about what happens when Moses takes his time coming down from the mountain.

He was up there to talk with God. For twelve chapters, Moses has had an exhaustive conversation with the Lord. God is spelling out the implications of the Ten Commandments. The Big Ten did not cover every topic, so God is filling in some of the details. What exactly does it mean to honor Mom and Dad? It means don’t curse them, don’t strike them. If there is a prohibition against coveting, what about property management? God gives that some attention.

A few of the chapters have to do with worship: who can draw near to God? How shall they approach? How shall they decorate the sanctuary? What kind of incense should they use? Back and forth, Moses goes up and down the mountain to have these conversations with God. It takes a while. When Moses does not quickly return, the people grow anxious. “Where is this Moses?” they ask. “What has become of him?” “If he is not around, who shall go before us?” Those are the questions that create the golden calf.

As is often the case, the people raise questions about Moses when they really have questions about God. I don’t know if you realize that, but sometimes people will stir up noise about God’s representative as a displaced way to cope with their anxiety.

The minister up in Syracuse took a vacation and some church people went berserk. He had surprised his wife with a cruise to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. They were cruising to Spain. The day after he left, a thief broke in and stole the offering money before it could be deposited. Thousands of dollars evaporated. Payroll checks were going to bounce. The church secretary felt unsafe at her own desk.

Within hours, the phone lines were buzzing: where did the minister go? How could he leave us at a time like this? Can we trust a minister who goes away? Doesn’t he get too much vacation any way? We would never abandon our fellow people if we had a job like his. There was talk of a petition, informal gatherings in living rooms, other complaints allowed to surface, rumors about the actual status of his marriage – and how much of this noise was actually about him? He was on a cruise with his wife. Didn’t matter – absence and anxiety.

People will stir up all kinds of things when there is absence and anxiety. That is what prompts all the noise in our Bible story. Moses is out of sight. He is not rushing back to hover over his people. This absence is what stirs up all the anxiety. Where is he? What has become of him? Who shall go before us?

And as I’ve suggested, these really aren’t questions about him. Moses is merely the target. The questions are really about God. After all, where is Moses? He is spending time with God.

Most of the tribe says, “That doesn’t matter. Moses is supposed to be spending all his time with us.” They think that’s the issue. But the real issue is the kind of God that they have. The kind of God that all of us have. There are at least four characteristic that make our kind of God difficult to have:

First, God is quiet. God speaks only when necessary. “Day to day pours forth speech,” says the Psalmist, “but there are no words.” (Psalm 19)

Second, God is out of sight. God does not make a lot of public appearances, and even then they are ambiguous epiphanies.

Third, God seems indifferent. Indifferent. God does not seem to notice our striving or care about our achievements. God does not give special rewards to the spiritually successful, no special blessings to those who show up in worship every week. Just like everybody else, they contract cancer, have uncontrollable children, and encounter their share of bumps.

Fourth, God is immortal. Or to put it in plain speech, God is on a very different schedule from the rest of us. Prayers are not answered on demand. Predictions cannot be made. Promises still wait to be fulfilled.

Quiet, invisible, apparently indifferent, and immortal: these holy attributes are revealed when Moses delays in coming down from the mountain. The anxiety of Israel is exposed when the people discover what kind of God they really have. Somehow they already know in their bones that they cannot go back to Egypt, they cannot go back to the way things were, they cannot return to what was predictable even if it was oppressive. They are moving through the wilderness stage by stage, a bit at a time.

While they wait one more time to move on, they it becomes apparent what kind of God they have. The God of Israel is a God who wants the chosen people to stick it out, to stay faithful over the long haul, to live within the sacred bounds of covenant, to remain patient and to trust what they cannot yet see.

And they don’t want that.

For better or for worse, Moses’ brother Aaron, the associate pastor, suggests an alternative. “Give me your gold earrings,” he says. “Bring them here.” And everybody does this. The text emphasizes the point: all the people bring all their gold.

When Aaron melts all of it down and shapes the molten gold like a cow, there is an interesting little detail that often overlooked. The people speak up and talk to themselves, and say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” These are your gods -- plural, small “g.” Yet Aaron has a theological education, so he corrects them. “Tomorrow,” he says, “will be a festival to the Lord!” Uh-oh. He uses God’s proper name, Yahweh, normally too holy to be spoken by a Jew, and usually translated “the Lord.”

And it’s not just the misuse of the holy name that is the problem. It’s that Aaron the priest, who ought to know better, has reduced the great God Yahweh to a shiny little statue made out of earrings. The God who brought Israel out of slavery with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand is boiled down to a figurine that most scholars believe was quite small. After all, it was made out of earrings donated by people who had been oppressed slaves for most of their lives. How big could it have been?

Every Jew and Christian agrees: the name of the sin is idolatry. Out of their anxiety, the people forgot the Second of Ten Commandments: don’t make for yourself an idol, shaped like something down here on the ground. God is jealous and wants no competition. The big issue about the Golden Calf is that they could reduce God to something so small. It happens, you know. It happens all the time.

Aaron’s big mistake was simplifying God, making God easy, tangible, and less mysterious. It’s deciding that you will not take God as God is. Instead you will decide what kind of God you want.

Rather than a Deity who is unpredictable, you spell out in specific detail what God is doing, where God is going, and the kind of behaviors that God demands. You might even declare the kind of people that your predictable God particularly loves – and exclude everybody who does not live up to your expectations.

Rather than a God who is completely free to do whatever, to go wherever, to reach whomever, you locate God in one specific place, one single spot, and you legislate what will happen whenever you go there. God becomes identified with one church, or one group, or one program. As long as all of that is intact, you don’t have to deal with a God who stays on the move.

We do this. All of us do this. At the church camp where the staff keeps going back year after year after year, it is a major disruption at the arrival of something or somebody new. In the congregation where the same people keep doing the same volunteer work in the same exact way, and everybody expects the same results, good people will risk burn-out and boredom for the sake of continuity. It’s a great distraction from looking at the much bigger picture.

When it comes to Sunday morning, the same people may sit in the same pews, hoping to sing the same hymns surrounded by the same friends, and hearing the same announcements at the same time of the year. And nobody pays attention to the quiet calcification of the heart, the loss of breath, the diminishing hope. Because God has been made much smaller.

The high demand of the cross becomes a piece of small jewelry, no blood or nails visible. The even higher joy of the resurrection is reduced to usher schedules, printed agendas, and the last person left to turn out the lights.

This kind of idolatry is in the American air. It’s in the world’s drinking water. It’s in the church’s baptismal water. Religious people are often the ones who will do anything they can to make God manageable. They will print book after book, pamphlet and pamphlet, attempting to remove all God’s holy ambiguity and explaining away every mystery. They will take their great Christian freedom and boil it down to habits and clich├ęs. If you don’t believe me, go over to the parking lot of the Christian bookstore and look at the bumper stickers on all the Christian cars.

It’s not that they are wrong. Just small. Their faith is too small. In the great line from J. B. Phillips, our God is too small.

This is the truth about us, the religious people, the offspring and adoptees of Israel. In the attempt to deal with our anxiety as we make our way through the wilderness, we create a smaller, simpler god. “The human heart,” said John Calvin, “is a factory of idols.” What we create, again and again, is merely a shadow of the Lord who frees people from oppression, sin, and death.

But the real God, the God of Israel – well, that God defies explanation. In fact, we heard it: when Yahweh the Lord sees the Golden Calf, Yahweh says to Moses, “I am going to blast them back into the sand. I will snort my hot wrath, consume them, and start all over.”

Moses said, “Wait a second. You are going to blast them away? But they are your people. You said it yourself. They are your own people. How dare you wipe them out!”

There was silence. Deep silence. Then God said, “You are right. I will change my mind.”

Now, do you think people like us are capable of changing our minds? What do you think?

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved