Weekly Preaching: October 11, 2020

October 7th, 2020

The COVID season stretches on. Some are in house, others still online. Regardless, we who preach can be sure our people are exhausted — like most of us. Our texts speak, surprisingly enough, to what happens when people get exhausted. Idolatry, anxiety, division. I just put out a video to my people about how to maintain spiritual equilibrium during an ugly election season. Tone is everything for the preacher, especially in these texts. It's time to be tender, to name the exhaustion, the brokenness, and to love while preaching — even on a prophetic type of text.

Exodus 32:1-14 (and really, you must continue past v. 14 to the end of the story to make any sense of this) always makes me laugh out loud, or shudder. The sheer psychological genius of the narrator invites us into a theological intimacy that is stunning. The people, their souls still stuck back in Egypt, grow impatient at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They deduce that Moses is “delaying.” Why would he delay? Isn’t it just their rush to move on, or to shrink back? They refer to him as “this man Moses,” not “our beloved Moses.” Martin Buber was right: “Whenever he comes to deal with this people, he is defeated by them.”

They fashion an idol, a golden bull, the kind they’d seen back in Egypt, connoting strength, potency, virility. Hard not to take a hard look at the golden bull on Wall Street in New York! Up on the mountain, God was even then telling Moses what their gold was supposed to be used for: to adorn the tabernacle. Hard also not to grin over the adjacent statue, the "Fearless Girl." Is that the church, not cowed by the bull and all its cultural trappings?

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!” (v. 24). Out came. I’m not big on a sermon retelling a story in great detail. But this one is just so delicious, so revealing of human nature at its most religious and most flawed.

What Moses accomplished next astonishes. Moses talks God out of raining wrath down upon the people. “The Lord changed his mind” (v. 14). Philosophically, this is absurd. But the Bible’s God is in this with us, with give and take, suspense, jockeying back and forth — which is what love does. Failing in leading the people, Moses leads God — as Michael Walzer observes, Moses was “rather more successful with God than with the people.” Does this text tell me something about how to lead my people? — maybe by leading God? or advocating for them with God instead of venting my frustration with them?

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

The violence at the end leaves me numb. 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 misheard 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.

Karl Barth called Philippians 4:1-9 “one of the liveliest and most allusive in Paul, or anywhere at all in the New Testament.” And it’s so personal. Paul calls out two people by name! For me, “Rejoice always” and “Do not be anxious” feel like piling on. I’m already anxious, and veer toward melancholy — and here’s Paul (or is it God?) ordering me to feel differently. Like, it was bad enough already…

George Hunsinger, in his new Brazos commentary, is wise on this: “It is not a matter of elation but of resilience. Nor is it basically introspective but Christocentric.” He quotes Martin Luther King: “Abnormal fears and phobias expressed in neurotic anxiety may be cured by psychiatry; but the fear of death, nonbeing, and nothingness, expressed in existential anxiety, maybe cured only by a positive religious faith.” I think I’d lean way more sympathetically toward mercy on the anxious and fearful, who aren’t so easily fixed. But the notation of “existential anxiety”: that’s huge. It’s what we can genuinely and faithfully address in the church.

Regular anxiety might be something we can help with too. Read the text slowly. “Have no anxiety… but with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Paul must be mixed up: it’s supposed to be that 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 — and 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 — and 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 (v. 7).

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 — which is how Caesar guaranteed his much bragged upon pax romana. 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 thing is in v. 8: “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.” With so much negativity and rancor, what good counsel! But it’s not positive thinking. It’s finding, and attending to the beautiful. Jewel’s best 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
Someday 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. Of him, St. Augustine wrote, “He is beautiful as God, beautiful in heaven, beautiful in his mother’s womb, beautiful in his parents’ arms, beautiful in his miracles, beautiful under the scourge, beautiful in laying down his life, beautiful in taking it up again, beautiful on the cross, beautiful in the sepulcher, beautiful in heaven.” Ponder him, his beauty, his excellence, his grace. Anxiety will slide down a little. Be grateful. Know some joy. This will preach, friends.

I’m skipping the Gospel, which reveals Jesus in a not-so-beautiful tirade. 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. Maybe you have a great angle on this one; share it with me if you do!


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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