Weekly Preaching: October 15, 2017

October 11th, 2017

It would be hard to name a passage more revealing of human nature, and more mind-boggling in terms of what God is like, than Exodus 32 (which the lectionary weirdly crops way short at verse 14; we will continue to verse 24). The people: impatient, still stuck in Egypt in their souls, amnesiacs, irresponsible. And then, God: raging, then changing the divine mind, talked off the ledge by Moses. I can’t do much better than this short excerpt from my new book, Weak Enough to Lead, which introduces the idea that Moses led God:

Moses had to have lived in a constant state of exasperation, for Martin Buber was right: “Whenever he comes to deal with this people, he is defeated by them.” Exodus 32 provides the most dramatic example of his failed leadership, but in that moment Moses discovered a renewed calling. 

Moses was far away on top of the mountain for longer than the people had anticipated. So they concluded that Moses was delaying (why?), and began to refer to him as “this man Moses,” not “our beloved Moses.” So they fashioned an idol, a golden bull, the kind they’d seen back in Egypt, connoting strength, potency, virility. At that very moment, God was telling Moses what their gold was supposed to be used for: to adorn the tabernacle.

The Lord saw their lunacy first and told Moses, speaking of them not as “my people” but “your people” whom “you” (Moses, not I, the Lord!) brought out of Egypt. Moses turned the tables just as swiftly, referring to them not as “my people” but as “your people whom you” (the Lord!) brought out of Egypt. Down in the valley, Aaron his brother had proven to be an effective but wrongly directed leader. Once the calf was finished, they threw a big party. When Moses happened upon the scene, Aaron violated Jim Collins’s rule for Level 5 leaders (leaders attribute success to others and apportion blame to themselves) and explained how “they” were set on evil. He bore no responsibility. Hilariously he recalled what transpired: “I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ So they gave it to me, I threw it into the fire, and out came this bull calf!” (Exod 32:24).

What Moses achieved in this moment astonishes us. God was determined to pour wrath down on the people and be done with them. But Moses argued with God, marshalling his case that God should relent: “Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind” (v. 12). And Exodus 32:14 reports that “the Lord changed his mind.” Moses led God! Oddly enough, as Michael Walzer observes, Moses was “rather more successful with God than with the people.” Moses, struggling to lead the people for decades, had pretty fair results in leading God, pleading successfully on behalf of his people.

The preacher need not provide moralistic take-aways, although they are the low-hanging fruit. Let the story stand. Let people see themselves and others in it. Most importantly, let them get a glimpse of the severe holiness of God struggling with the tender mercy of God.

The violence at the end staggers. I recall what I learned from Jonathan Sacks on a similar passage: 1 Kings 18. Elijah slaughters the Canaanite priests — but Sacks points out that the rabbis were appalled, noting that God never told him to kill them. I think it’s healthy and hopeful for clergy to wonder out loud if Moses, or the writer of Exodus mis-heard God, just as we all do. Scripture is still very much inspired, precisely in sharing moments when people act in ways contrary to the larger heart of God known throughout Scripture.

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This week, I’m skipping the Gospel. Matthew 22:1-14 just strikes me as yet one more of Jesus’ angrier, mystifying parables. Too much value in Exodus and Philippians to go there.

Our Epistle reading, Philippians 4:1-9, is my parade example for beginning Bible students on the virtue of reading slowly and interrogating the text as it interrogates us. In quick succession, Paul says Rejoice always. Do not be anxious. With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. These three are tightly knit together. Let’s ponder how, now as we prepare to preach and in the sermon itself.

Phil. 4:6, the least obeyed command in the Bible: “Have no anxiety.” We are anxiety-riddled, and the very demand not to be anxious feels like piling on. I was anxious. Now I’m anxious about my inability to be non-anxious and I’m failing God. How should we have no anxiety?

“Let your requests be made known to God.” Okay, Lord, cure my anxiety — or fix the situation giving rise to my anxiety. But read Paul more slowly: “With thanksgiving let your requests be made known…” Paul must be mixed up: it’s supposed to be we file our requests, and if God complies, then we give thanks... right? No. “With thanksgiving let your requests be made known.” We begin with gratitude. Jesus invited the crowd to be rid of anxiety by pointing to the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field; they are arrayed in beauty, God provides for them (read Matthew 6:25-34!). Notice what God has done, feel the blessings you neglected to pay attention to (which is probably why you got into the anxious mess you’re in). Could it be that gratitude is the antidote to anxiety?

The psychiatrist Martin Seligman has written (in his great book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being) about anxiety. He shares that studies show how gratitude alleviates anxiety and depression (not entirely, but by a significant, measurable percentage). My personal observation is that it is impossible to be anxious and grateful at the same time. Something about gratitude — not merely feeling thankful but actually expressing it in a note, a phone call, whatever — calms and even reverses anxiety, at least in the moment.

That’s when the joy comes in: “Rejoice always.” How? By not being anxious. How? By sharing your requests with God — with thanksgiving. And then, when this becomes habitual and natural, we get to the goal of the thing: Peace. “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

The Roman emperor boasted that he was the guarantor of peace, the pax romana. But how did he keep the peace? By wielding a bigger sword than anybody else. If you marshal enough well-drilled troops with clashing armor, you get peace, right? Or was Dorothee Soelle right? “Armed people have no peace.”

God’s peace is never won when the vanquished cower before threatening spears, or when everybody in the house walks on eggshells, fearing the one who demands on peace at home. God’s peace is a gift, it lifts up and ennobles the weakest, it delivers justice and hope; God’s peace is all love, compassion and that curious strength that embraces rather than strikes. It thrives in the soil of gratitude; joy is its flower.

How intriguing that Paul dictates out loud, with the emperor’s Praetorian guard listening through the bars, that God’s peace will “keep” your hearts: the Greek word means to “guard.” Paul is in prison, guarded by men with weapons; but who’s really free, and who isn’t? In God’s hidden script, it’s the armed soldiers, and the emperor himself, who are not free but are in chains, while Paul is free as a bird, protected from them by the peace of God.

The other piece here, the culminating strategy to discover joy and peace, is this text I often read at funerals: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Robert Hughes wrote insightfully about the Culture of Complaint in which we live. Political campaigns, relationships, reactions to schools, government, and the guy cutting you off in traffic — all causes of rancor, and we harbor suspicion about everything and everybody.

But Paul suggests that having the mind of Christ requires another mental posture; if we are to have any chance for joy, it will never come if we seek out reasons to carp and grouse. The Christian is one who focuses on what is true and honorable, who delights in justice and purity, who notices the lovely and gracious, appreciates and strives for excellence. We praise; we encourage; we choose to think on the good.

The singer-songwriter Jewel’s lyric goes like this:

It doesn’t take talent to be mean
Please be careful with me
I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way.
I have this theory that if we’re told we’re bad
Then that’s the only idea we’ll ever have
But maybe if we are surrounded in beauty
Some day we will become what we see
The beauty that is everywhere was crystallized and definitively embodied in Jesus, who is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. 
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