When we Bartons are feeling sentimental, we write. It’s how we process our world. A few years ago, when our son Nate graduated from high school and went away to college, I wrote this post. And this morning, John wrote the following post about Brynn as we process her graduation and our empty nest. – Sara Time is filled with swift transition.
That is the first line of an old hymn that we sang in my childhood church. It has been decades since I have heard it, but today the melody is emerging from the chambers of memory, and the message is more meaningful than usual. Today Sara and I are especially aware of the swift movements and transitions of life and, as the hymn continues, we are especially aware of our need for “God’s unchanging hand.”
It is 6am on a quiet Sunday morning in Michigan. Later this afternoon, we will be at our youngest child’s High School graduation party. Friends and family will come, eat cake, offer words of congratulations, and we will surround our beautiful little girl (young woman!), our last born, as she perches on the edge of the nest.
Pride. Emotion. Confidence, mixed with self-reflection. Gratitude, with a dash of anxiety. Life is changing and Sara and I have been fluttering around the house, and around Brynn, attending parties and ceremonies and final soccer games, seeing to details, surrounding our baby bird, knowing that our time is short, that our efforts have been partial and imperfect, and our power limited.
Sometimes God gives simple gifts of grace. One such gift has been given to us in the last few weeks through our living room window. Almost exactly one month ago, on Mother’s Day (you can’t make up these details!), we noticed two cardinals starting to build a nest on the branch of a small tree just inches from our gaze. A hard-working brown female with a sharp red beak, and an assisting brightly colored male. Through the glass and screen, they didn’t seem to notice our peering interest as they made multiple trips in and out, and the nest of twigs and pine needles took shape. The work continued over the course of about a week, anticipations of the coming grace.
Meanwhile, Sara and I attended the final games of Brynn’s senior soccer season. Twelve years of soccer. Hard bleachers. Long drives. Rain and occasional snow. Mud on the car’s floorboards. Stinky shin guards in the front closet.
The cardinals’ flitting continued, the constructing and shaping of the nest, all along with our daily peering, until finally the mama cardinal settled, nestled, and laid a small egg. We think there was only one egg, but we only caught fleeting glimpses over the next few weeks. She nestled faithfully, and the male checked in regularly.
And there was Brynn’s honors convocation, senior party, the final “march” through the school hallways with younger students cheering and seniors high-fiving and tossing stacks of class notes in the air.
Then the morning came when the mother cardinal was gone, but only temporarily. A little head peered out and shook awkwardly over the nest’s brim. Baby bird had hatched. A wide open mouth. Food brought and baby fed. And the baby grew incredibly fast. Within a day or two, the shaky peering head revealed a spunky jostling adolescent with an odd arrangement of budding feathers that made me think of the awkward years of braces and pimples. And time didn’t slow for the cardinal family. While the building and nesting took weeks, it now seemed that the little bird’s growth could not be contained.
That was true for our bird too. Just a few days ago, she graduated. Can you believe she is graduating? Cap and gown. Pictures. Lining up. Music and march. “Brynn Noel Barton.”
And then there was yesterday morning. I peered through the window and the baby cardinal was standing boldly on the edge of the nest, gazing out on a big new world, contemplating flight. Mom and Dad were perched side-by-side on the higher branches of a neighboring tree, watching, flitting back and forth, disappearing and reappearing, perching side-by-side again. It felt familiar. Did baby bird roll her eyes and ask for more space?
And then the bird jumped. Not very far…just onto the adjacent branch. But for the next hour we watched as mom and dad continued to dart back and forth between trees, stayed on alert, watched, occasionally landed next to baby bird as if to encourage, affirm, nudge. Baby bird whipped wings, grabbed braches, head and eyes darting back and forth. What’s out there? But there was also a distinct feeling that the baby bird was already beyond the need for mom and dad’s final hoverings. Not yet in full flight, but ready. There is no way to predict or control all the dangers, challenges, and joys that await. But it is time for mom and dad to pull back to allow for full flight.
This morning, as I peer out, the birds are gone. The nest is empty. Time is filled with swift transition, but it is good. And we prepare for Brynn’s graduation party.
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
Oh LORD, we give her back into your hands. Take care of our little bird as she flies.
Reflection on Luke 10:17-23
17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
21 At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 22 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
23 Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
There’s a lot going on in this text: strange situations with snakes and scorpions and spirits and Satan in the sky (almost as hard to say as “Sally sells seashells by the seashore”). Even scholars don’t completely agree on the meaning of all those peculiar details.
When I’m not sure about all the details, I try to step back and look at the big picture. Whatever all those details mean, this is ultimately a text about what causes Jesus to rejoice. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem and the cross, pauses and rejoices. It’s a spectacular Trinity moment in the Gospel, as the Father, Son, and Spirit all rejoice. So, in this text, it’s helpful to zone in on that joy.
In Michigan, we experienced unexpected joy this last month. Our town has a wonderful tradition every January. For the coldest stretch of the year, just to be certain we don’t hibernate, we have a festival. We boldly proclaim that winter will not steal our joy – and it’s been hard this year – we’ve just experienced the largest snowfall of any January in history. Determined not to let winter get us down, we get out and celebrate something you cannot celebrate in July: Ice.
So, as you walk along our main street, you see ice sculptures. There’s a theme every year. One year it was Disney characters. Another year, it was safari animals. This year, the theme was transportation (quite appropriate for greater Detroit), so there was a long ice sculpture limo, and a dump truck, and just to get in winter’s face, there was a sailboat and a surfboard. When it was negative 2 degrees, I found myself walking along Main Street with a hot coffee, taking in the joy of a fire truck made of ice; I felt like a little kid again.
To top off the winter enthusiasm, at the opening of the ice festival, we turn all the Christmas lights back on and announce that winter will be celebrated around here with a big fireworks show. It’s a show as big as the 4th of July, but the climate changes everything. It’s appropriately a celebration of both fire and ice. When I first moved to Michigan, I found it strange to experience fireworks in January, but there’s just distinctive joy when you stand in the frozen tundra and watch fire burst through the cold sky.
Now, back to our text, if we could get in an airplane and fly over Luke’s Gospel, we would see something similar to the fire and ice festival. In the midst of a very real world that includes all kinds of real life situations – like men, the shepherds, doing their work in the fields and sick people in need of care and people talking politics and maddening conversations with lawyers and stormy weather and family dysfunction – in the midst of all the ordinary events of life, we get out-of-the-ordinary bursts of joy, like fireworks popping off the page. Luke is telling us, don’t hibernate and miss these moments of joy!
So, Luke gives us the joyful story, not of just any ordinary birth but a story of joy that transcends even the happiness of childbirth in general. Jesus’s birth marks the coming of salvation, and it calls for celebration. God sets off fireworks in the sky, placing a star in the east. Even the unborn, John, still a baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps with joy. The unborn are not forgotten in this story – they, represented by John – are capable of contributing great bursts of joy on the landscape of Luke’s gospel.*
And so, as our plane flies over Luke’s pages, we ooh and aah at the sight of joy.
Mary’s song – the Magnificat- bursts into the sky and explodes with praise.
A paralyzed man stands up and walks, and the crowd erupts with joy and amazement, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”
A widow’s only son is being carried to his grave, already in the coffin, and Jesus raises him from the dead. A widow whose only son was dead is now alive – now that’s a joy story.
When I was ten years old, I was hit in the right eye with a bottle rocket. I know, I know, I’ve heard it before, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” As a result of the injury, I lived over 30 years with severely limited sight, and then a few years ago, technology became available to restore most of my vision. When I woke from surgery, I was amazed to see what I’d been missing on the right side of my body for so long.
So, I especially love the fireworks display as I fly over Luke 18. A blind man begs Jesus, “Please let me see again.” And he regains his sight and follows Jesus. When the people see it, there’s this surge of joy as people praise God for the display of power.
In our text from Luke 10, we have one of the most memorable moments of joy in Luke’s Gospel. The 70 disciples Jesus sent out to proclaim the Kingdom of God have returned to him. When most people in Jesus’s day thought of God’s kingdom, they pictured fireworks for sure– they pictured violence and war against Rome; they wanted to see sulfur and fire rain from the sky like God released on Sodom and Gomorrah in the good old days. But, these 70 disciples did the opposite of what was expected.
Upon Jesus’s direction, they didn’t fight any wars.
They didn’t arm themselves.
They simply spoke peace.
They worked alongside people.
They accepted hospitality from strangers.
They did seemingly ordinary things among ordinary people.
And it brought Jesus great joy.
So, in Luke 10, we get this image of Jesus, on his way to the cross where it will certainly look like Satan has won.
For 3 long days, it will look like Satan has won.
But Jesus is given a vision of what’s really going on in the kingdom of God.
And when he sees it, he says, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.”
I believe Jesus still sees those victory moments today, in our ordinary lives. When we speak peaceful words, work hard alongside others, and gather around tables in his name, Jesus rejoices at these glimpses of God’s kingdom coming in and through us.
The Theology of the Gospel of Luke by Joel Green
In this post, I’m sharing a letter from a reader of my book. Permission was given from the author of the letter, but names and references were changed so the letter does not disrupt the process of discernment regarding gender roles in the life of a local congregation. My book, A Woman Called, was released in 2012, and I still hear from readers on a weekly basis, women and men in a wide variety of denominations. May the conversation continue.
I wanted to let you know that God, through you’re little gem of a book, is moving mountains in the church I attend. And we have a lot of tall mountains that have been around for a looonnnnggg time.
It started this summer when our preacher, elders and his wives, heard a woman or two speak at a conference. I don’t think they heard you though. Our elder’s wife was stirred by the concept of women speaking, and as a result, bought your book. Conversation immediately ensued between this group. “Is that okay?” “Well, it wasn’t in the assembly…” “We should study this more.”
Then that same group went to an egalitarian church of Christ worship service. They did not know what they were walking into, thankfully, as they probably wouldn’t have walked in otherwise. But they did. And they stayed. And they worshipped. And they talked some more.
Then our elder’s wife read your book. Actually, she read half of it and had to put it down. “It troubled me,” she said. “I was overwhelmed. And scared.”
And then more women in our congregation started coming to me asking, “So….why can’t I pass a communion tray?” or “Was Phoebe really a deacon? Then why do we call the men deacons in the bulletin, but I’m the women’s ministry chair?” Hmmmm….
Then I read your book. Now I have a Bible degree. I’ve read Gordon Fee forward and backward. I have been caught doing odd things, like researching the correct translation of gune and gynaikes at 2:00am, scouring the details of the ordination of deaconesses in the Apostolic Constitutions, praying for those poor female ministers burned at the stake who Pliny describes…very odd things for a church of Christ girl to do. But though the Lord convicted me that His daughters have a voice that He wants used for His Kingdom through those years of study, none of those scholarly searches convicted me like the words God spoke through you. Whereas our elder’s wife was at the beginning on her journey on this issue, I was at the end. So when she picked up your book, her reaction was fear, as if she’d just picked up a hot coal. Danger! Toss it aside! But as the months moved on, the light from the coal allured her, and she picked it up again, ready to hear it this time. She’s still fearful and unsure. But she’s listening now. I remembered that’s where I was 15 years ago though, studying women’s roles in college. I walked into a professor’s office one day and said, “I need help with this women’s issue. Am I really only saved through childbearing because I want to adopt my kids?” Haha! Well, it’s funny NOW, but when he pulled out that big Greek dictionary and we started studying every Tuesday, I was afraid. I was full of turmoil too. But God kept speaking, and I kept speaking, and now 15 years later when I read your book, there is no fear. In fact, page after page it was, “Yes!” *wipe tear* “ And to my husband, “You HAVE to hear this!” “Ugh-she worded that SO well! I’ve been trying to articulate that for YEARS!” “A.MEN.” Really, page after page. No fear. Just passionate unity.
“Are we moving toward the curse or toward the cross?” Yeah. I’ve wasted a lot of people’s time trying to articulate what you did in that one sentence.
So then, after much prayer and fasting, after sitting on this belief for so long, I went to the elders and said, “Can we have this conversation? Are we ready? Can we handle it as a Body? Because it’s grown in me from a difference of opinion to a grievous wrong, and Satan is twisting that into resentment and anger toward you all. So though I am fearful of the division and discord that could result, I have to say this out loud to you. I think we’re wrong.”
And they said, “Yes.” Not just, “Yes,” but, “We’ve wanted to talk about this for a long time, and between you and Mrs. Barton’s book we feel propelled to do it now. Change will be slow, but we’re not doing things according to God’s will.”
Hallelujah. They’re studying the issue with open hearts and eyes now. But, though you’ve done so much for us already, could you please pray for our little church? That their hearts remain open, that presuppositions be set aside, that they turn to Truthful resources in their study, that Truth reigns. I would really appreciate it. And pray that I “remain silent.” Ironic request, I know, in light of the topic, but I know that I said my peace with them. I gave them the resources I had, per their request. They heard my heart, my belief, from a scholarly and psycho-emotional point of view. What they need now is time to study for themselves. Though it feels like I’m the defendant waiting on the jury to come back with its verdict, I need to sit quietly, pray, and wait.
Again, I wanted to say, “Thank you” for answering the call to write. I’m sure your life isn’t always full of encouragement, but I wanted you to be encouraged today that your words, gifted to you by God, are slowly building stones in my part of the world.
My sermon from Colossians 2: 8-15, at the Lipscomb University Preaching Conference
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ. When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
See to it that no one takes you captive.
A man on death row, behind bars, in chains, facing death by lions, or the sword, or crucifixion, dares to write about captivity and death.
It’s audacious. It’s brash. It’ ironic. It’s gutsy.
I think what we have here is a clear-cut case of chutzpah.
Paul wants believers to remember, as he does, that it’s not the principalities or rulers or elemental spirits who rule in any form of fullness. It’s not chains or swords that have power. They have been dis-armed. death has been defused.
So, says Paul in this passage, remember what it really means to be dead and what it really means to be alive.
When I think about death and life, I think of what my Ugandan friends taught me.
When we lived in Uganda, I often watched my husband assist in digging graves. It’s what men do when there’s a funeral. Since we were there at the height of the AIDS crisis, we were at funerals almost every week. At burials, men take turns shoveling and dig a grave in the ground, about 8 feet long and 5 feet wide and 6 feet deep, for an adult grave. Ugandans personally prepare the bodies of their loved ones for burial, men cleaning and dressing the men’s dead bodies and women cleaning and dressing the women’s and children’s bodies. They would never dream of hiring strangers for such an intimate occasion. And, around these graves, they don’t hold back emotionally when they cry. Sometimes you can hear a woman wailing a half a mile away as she makes her way to the funeral.
All of this takes place on the family homestead. Ugandans place graves in their backyards instead of in public places. They know what it means, not just to visit a cemetery on Memorial Day but to dwell bodily in places of death.
I learned a lot about healthy grieving from my Ugandan friends. But that doesn’t mean everything or anything is beautiful around those graves. Cotton is placed in the nostrils to keep bodily fluids from coming out. Bodies have to be buried quickly because of the heat and lack of refrigeration. No one says at a Ugandan funeral, “Doesn’t she look good.” Death is not beautiful. The wailing & crying can be chaotic as the rulers and authorities create a culture of fear and suspicion. Fear of curses and spirits. Fear of one another. So, sometimes people cry louder so others won’t think they were involved in the cause of death, that they weren’t in cahoots with spirits or curse. So, while there’s a great amount to learn from my friends when it comes to death, there’s no doubt death has a hold in imaginative ways among them.
So, we learned about death in Uganda, even when we didn’t want to. But we also learned about life. And in the developing world, you can’t think about life without thinking about water.
The Soga region, where we lived was almost completely surrounded by water. There’s Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world, next to our Lake Superior. The Nile River flows out of the lake, heading north up the continent. And there’s Lake Kyoga and streams and tributaries. Winston Churchill didn’t call Uganda the “pearl of Africa” for nothing. It’s a fertile country with a great amount of fresh water.
It’s just the perfect topography for Church of Christ missionaries. Lots of water for full-immersion baptism.
In our years in Uganda, we saw baptisms in the Nile, in lakes, in streams and big mud puddles in rainy season. But there are a few village congregations located at least 20 miles from bodies of water. They have access to wells, but not to full-immersion size bodies of water, and that created a conundrum.
With the centrality of full-immersion baptism for Churches of Christ, we were obviously invested in what church leaders would discern about this central practice when there was no baptistry available.
Would they sprinkle? Would they wait for rainy season mud puddles or trips to the lake? Certainly, many Christian groups around the world have made those kinds of decisions about baptism. The first time we encountered the dilemma, in Bunaibamba village, it was interesting as we studied and discussed the situation and then waited to learn what local leaders would decide.
And after prayer and communal discernment, Ugandan church leaders came up with a solution we never could have imagined.
They decided that when the need for a baptism arose, they would dig a hole in the ground. It was a grave: 8 feet long, 5 feet wide, about 3 feet deep. They placed a plastic tarp in the hole, filled it with water brought to the baptism site by church members balancing pots of water carefully on their heads or in plastic jugs tied on the back of a bicycle. Everyone contributed water to the grave, and the confessing Christian was buried with CHRIST in baptism and raised with him through faith in God’s power. In graves, they brazenly proclaimed JESUS as Lord over every ruler and authority in this universe, especially death. Instead of mourning and crying, these graves were surrounded by dancing and singing and clapping.
Even though my own baptism was over 30 years ago, I’m still learning more about it. I love the book of Colossians because it celebrates our joy in the ongoing, never-ending, discovery of treasures in CHRIST. When troubled couples go to marriage counseling, they are encouraged to remember what it was like when they first fell in love, to recall that sense of wonder they had in each other. They remember those honeymoon days when they argued back and forth “I love you more.” “No, I love you more.”
There’s something of that experience in Colossians. It’s this glimpse into the sense of wonder inherent in new faith. Paul is eager for the journey of young CHRIST-followers, and he encourages them to treasure the gospel.
Colossians reminds us that that baptism is not over in one big splash. It’s ongoing, more like standing at the overlook of Niagara Falls, overwhelmed with the reality that the torrent of water never, never, never stops. The reality of LIFE in CHRIST is an ongoing experience of heaven breaking in, but not in a trickle, in a torrent that will never stop.
Sometimes it helps to go back to the beginning and recall what baptism means, and this is what Christians believe about baptism:
Baptism symbolizes dying with CHRIST.
In Colossians Remixed, Walsh and Kessmat point out that human beings have a problem – profound sinfulness marked especially by a desire to elevate oneself and exclude others.
I think that’s a legit definition of sin: elevating self.
At the heart of the human problem, according to Christian belief, is the need to die to sin, die to self.
So, while our every sinful instinct is to elevate ourselves through our own power and strength, Christians submit to being lowered, de-elevated, if you will, under water, vulnerable in thin, air-pocket-rendering, baptismal clothes, holding our noses, completely at the mercy of another person. And it is in that symbolic submission to God’s way, and in giving up our own way that we are mysteriously raised to LIFE, LIFE that embraces others- and all God’s creation – with self-less love.
Sometimes when I’m writing sermons, I have a silly habit that you cannot see when I’m talking. I personify words, so ALIVE and LIFE and CHRIST get all capital letters. They own the page.
But death, death is all lower case letters.
It’s a defeated word.
It can’t even start a sentence.
Because that’s what happened on the cross.
JESUS put death in its place. And Christians rightly want to identify with that moment in baptism, with God’s triumph over death.
But, even after baptism, death relentlessly seeks to control us, to reclaim that capital D. Even after baptism, death obstinately wants to start all our sentences.
Oh, death is imaginative. And death is not stuck back in ancient beliefs and philosophies about elemental spirits. And death is not stuck in cultures like Uganda with fear of spirits and sorcery. death finds sneaky ways into the rulers and powers and elemental spirits of our culture.
Think about it: Consumerism is death’s resource. A measly human tradition, consumerism is all about the elevation of self.* Advertising tells us that products are indispensable for constructing our image. It’s all crap. death is a liar, making us into homogenous communities with the same clothes and the same glasses and same phones and same cars.
death has other imaginative resources. It seeks to bind us again through social games that appear alluring at first but it’s empty deceit. Societal games end in factions and cliques and circles of exclusion.* Exclusion is about the self and ultimately it ends in violence and death.
And it’s death’s resource, death’s ploy to take healthy competition and the gifts God gave us for the good of others and twist it, contorting us so that we are competitive at the expense of others. So that we are more concerned about earthly rule and authority than we are about God’s power.
Oh, death has imagination. death is devious and resourceful and inventive. death can take hold of a good thing like relationships and sex and food and wine – and squeeze every last breath out of it.
But Christians, as nonconformists to this world, rebelliously take a counter-cultural stance. We stand in watery graves and submit to the claim of the Christian faith, that sin and death were nailed to the cross of Christ, and we’ve been set free.
And even though we live in the presence of death, knowing it’s in our very backyards, we have been taken captive by a different philosophy.
Our minds are set on the time when LIFE with all caps will utterly destroy death, every last lower case letter of its entire existence.
Grace be with you.
Martin, Ralph. Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon: Interpretation Commentary Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.
*Walsh, Brian and Keesmaat, Sylvia. Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Wright, N.T. Colossians and Philemon: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986.
My sermon at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), September 22nd, 2013.
Being a teacher, I must say, I know an assignment when I see one. And our text today contains an assignment. Jesus, the teacher, is asked a question – and then he gives an assignment. Listen to the text and see if you can hear it.
From Matthew chapter 9: 9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
We don’t really know what happened when the Pharisees walked away from Jesus. The rest of Matthew’s Gospel indicates that they didn’t really fulfill their assignment: go learn the meaning of mercy. Perhaps when they walked away, one of the Pharisees offered to google it on his iphone. Maybe another one grabbed a dictionary. Mercy – what does it mean?
Mercy – We used to play a game in elementary school that we called Mercy – where kids would see who could stand having their hands folded backwards the longest. So, after you couldn’t take it anymore, you would say, “mercy!” – and they had to let go.
Mercy – We talk about in sports too. If a team gets ten goals ahead in soccer, there’s a mercy rule, and the game is called early, to be merciful to the losing team.
When I was growing up in the south, we would say “mercy me” when we meant “wow” or “I’ll be darned.”
Mercy -I learned this on the internet–is the brand name of a hangover prevention beverage. Mercy me.
You’ve probably visited a hospital with the name Mercy. There are Mercy-inspired hospitals all around.
The urban dictionary defines mercy as the one thing Chuck Norris does not know the meaning of.
With all these nuances of mercy, it seems like we ought to know what it means. It seems like we ought to know it when we see it. But, like the Pharisees at Matthew’s party, sometimes we human beings want to settle for a dictionary definition. We want something we can measure. Something we can quantify. We want mercy to be reasonable and logical and sensible. We prefer measurable transactions – like sacrifices on the altar, like 10% tithes. We would prefer Jesus to give us a multiple-choice exam rather than an indeterminate essay assignment – like go learn what mercy means. Carol, my fellow professor, how will a teacher objectively grade an assignment like that?
In our text about mercy, the focus is on Matthew, the tax collector. In the New Testament, tax collectors are the worst of the worst kind of characters – tax collectors were guilty of taking bribes, they were contaminated by association with the monster Rome– hands dirty with dirty money bearing the Emperor’s likeness, so close to Gentiles that the Gentile could be smelled on them.
Just look who tax collectors get lumped with in Matthew’s Gospel. Tax collectors and sinners here in chapter 9 and again in 11. Tax collectors and pagans in chapter 18. Tax collectors and prostitutes in chapter 21. Everyone knows that bad company corrupts good morals. It makes no human sense that Jesus chose a tax collector to be one of the twelve. He may as well have chosen a pagan or a prostitute.
Just imagine what it’s like to be Matthew: One day he is sitting at his tax collector’s booth, wearing fancy clothes bought with poor people’s tax money, he is sitting in his booth with a big pile of coins – he looks all devious and calculating. He’s used to being invisible to “the good people,” like rabbis and their disciples. They usually pass him by on the other side of the road, keeping their distance.
But, then Jesus, the teacher, the respected rabbi, comes along and not only speaks to Matthew but calls him to become his disciple, and Matthew actually says yes. The text indicates he doesn’t second-guess himself. He just got up and followed him.
It’s one of those moments in the gospel where the writer is saying to us readers, “Stop. Look at this illogical moment. Write this down as your definition of mercy. An invitation for a most unlikely candidate to join the mission of God. Aha. This is mercy.”
But the short little story of Matthew’s calling doesn’t stop there. It just keeps on defining mercy. “What does it mean to receive mercy?” the text seems to say, “it means throwing a party.”
Let’s imagine this party at Matthew’s house: The way I picture it, Matthew had a nice house. He was a tax collector – they were rich. And in the scene we’re talking about here, it’s not like they went into a fenced-in backyard in the suburbs. They were probably in a courtyard. People all around could see the festivities, could see who was there. I imagine Matthew’s guest list was a topic of conversation among the neighbors like it was for the Pharisees.
In my neighborhood, people tend to notice who we’re having over for dinner parties- when visiting cars are in our driveway. When John and I first moved into our house, I remember one of my neighbors eventually getting the nerve to ask, “Why do you have all those cars at your house all the time? Are those your relatives?” John and I hang out with college students, and they tend to have old, as they would say, crappy cars. So every week or so, six or eight $1,000 cars pulled up into our driveway, and the neighbors wondered what kind of people we were hanging out with. They wondered about the guest list at our house. “Ohh, college students. Now I see, said the neighbor.” (with some amount of relief).
Sharing a meal was an especially sensitive issue in the culture of Jesus’ day, even more than it is for us today, because it declared a person’s class. You were only supposed to eat with people in your social and religious class. You were not supposed to eat with people who were below you. And, Matthew’s class was below the class of, well, just about everyone.
So, on this evening, I’m sure the neighbors were watching the coming and going at the party at Matthew’s house. And they were sizing up the caliber and the purity of Matthew’s guests.
But at this party, Matthew no longer fits the stereotype of a hated tax collector. We get a glimpse of mercy as we see Matthew sitting at the feet of Jesus, not only learning what mercy means for himself but giving mercy, sharing mercy, inviting others to the mercy party. Matthew, the disciple of Jesus, is now a conduit of mercy. If he accepted mercy for himself and clutched it to himself, it wouldn’t be a story that defines mercy. Matthew left his selfish way of living, and now, as a participant in God’s mission, mercy flows through him. “This,” the text says, “this is mercy. Freely you have received. Freely you give.”
Mercy: there’s no simple definition for it. How can we explain, how can we describe, a word that can have the connotation of a hangover beverage and at the same time describe the compassionate action of God in this world?
I tend to think of mercy, not as one particular event but as God’s long, tender strategy to reconcile with us, his loving kindness extended to human beings. By the mercy of God, we are reconciled – and we become ambassadors of reconciliation. Conduits of mercy.
Sometimes it’s helpful to define a concept with a metaphor. So, here’s one I came up with for mercy: I grew up on a farm in Arkansas, and I’ll never forget what it was like when my Dad taught me the miracle of gardening. I told him I wanted to be like him, I wanted to grow something, so he went to the kitchen cabinet in his straightforward, no-nonsense manner and broke open a plain old bag of pinto beans, and then he showed me how to get my dirt ready and make straight rows with haybail twine before dropping those beans into the dirt. I was hooked a week or two later when those beans had morphed into plants that broke through the ground and opened their little green arms to the sun. I gave them names. My little babies.
But, then, that particular year, the spring rain stopped. And the scorching Arkansas sun beat down on my little miracles, and every day they looked more and more pathetic. One night was cool, and we got a light drizzle, so in the morning, the plants perked up a little and my hopes were lifted. But, by noon the hot sun came back and burned away the moisture – it was like the plants were frying in the sun – worse than before the misty rain. My Daddy explained how that little bit of rain couldn’t soak down to the roots. It was a shallow remedy, a deceptive drink of water.
That’s how some people show mercy, says the OT prophet, Hosea. Like morning dew gone before noon, shallow mercy, false mercy, mercy that doesn’t cost anything, mercy that stays on the surface and doesn’t soak in deep. It’s not real mercy.
The kind of mercy God is looking for – it soaks to the roots. Write that down in your dictionary under mercy.
God’s mercy is not for shallow people who take shortcuts when they show mercy. It the old days of Hosea, the Israelites would get dressed up in religious clothes and walk to the temple with a religious walk and talk the religious talk and make a religious sacrifice in the temple. Sacrifices, you see, were measurable. Quantifiable.
Then they would leave the temple and exploit and manipulate and hate their neighbors. Their mercy was like dew on the grass gone by noon. They were not conduits of mercy. They were sponges of mercy. And when mercy is left inside a sponge, it begins to stink. “Write that down in your definition of mercy,” Hosea seems to say. “Don’t try to keep mercy for yourself. Mercy is not like dew on the grass gone by noon.”
I’m still learning what mercy is – I’m still making entries in my personal dictionary definition. Part of the very definition of mercy is that it’s a deep, ongoing, experience of God’s loving kindness – and we learn what it is when we do it more than when we talk about it or try to look it up in a dictionary.
Mercy is throwing parties for pagans and prostitutes. Mercy is seeing people who otherwise go unseen. Mercy is hanging out with the sick instead of the healthy. Mercy says a lot about who we eat with. Mercy comes to us with a calling, like Matthew – we are called to lives of mercy. Mercy is the greatest dinner party invitation of all times – Won’t you please join God’s tender strategy of reconciliation?
Learning mercy, you see, is all at once an ever so simple and ever so complex assignment. Because mercy, at its core, is loving like our God loves.
May we be people of mercy.
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Dr. John Mark Hicks (see previous post for full explanation). After DMin. students preached to one another in our journey through Exodus, our professor, John Mark, led us through a meaningful discussion about the last chapter of Exodus. For the purpose of this blog series, Dr. Hicks graciously prepared the following concluding sermon. -Sara
John Mark Hicks is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University and an adjunct professor at both Harding School of Theology and Rochester College. He has taught historical and systematic theology in schools associated with the Churches of Christ for over thirty years. He has published a number of articles in both academic and popular journals as well as authored or co-authored ten books. He blogs regularly at http://johnmarkhicks.com.
Click here for the text of Exodus 40
Mount Sinai must have been an impressive, even startling, sight. Enveloped in darkness with flashes of lightning, Israel heard the thunder and even, on one occasion, the voice of God. They felt the rumblings of God’s presence in tremors that rippled through the earth’s crust. This was Yahweh’s holy mountain. Yahweh descended upon it and the glory of the Lord appeared as a consuming fire (Exodus 24:17).
We might imagine that this would have been the end of Israel’s journey. They had arrived at the holy mountain, the place where God lives. But it would, in fact, become the beginning of Israel’s real journey, the journey through the wilderness to the promised land carrying the presence of God among them.
Israel’s journey seems stalled, however. Israel arrived at the mountain only to pause. They waited. They waited forty days while Moses was on the mountain. And the wait was unbearable. They turned their wait into celebration when they fashioned their own gods out of the spoils of Egypt. They returned to Egypt in their hearts.
Moses interrupted their celebration and God’s consuming fire purged Israel of their last Egyptian fantasies. There was no going back to Egypt. Now was the time to choose. Will Israel continue its journey with Yahweh or will they whiter in the wilderness? Israel chose Yahweh.
The story still seems stalled. Israel came from Egypt to Sinai, but for what? To meet Yahweh, to be sure. But now that they had met their God, what is next? When will they leave for the promised land, or will they? How long will they wait?
Their waiting, however, is no passive resignation. They wait but they also prepare. God gave Israel a task. They had a mission as they camped in the shadow of Sinai. They must build a tabernacle, a portable sanctuary. Its portability was a hopeful sign. For seven chapters in Exodus (25-31) they are given detailed instructions as to its structure and content. Then for six chapters (35-40) they implemented those plans. They constructed God’s tabernacle. They waited and they worked. They waited and they prepared for they could not even imagine.
This was Israel’s Advent season. They were waiting for something and perhaps they were not even sure what it was. They prepared a sanctuary, a worship center. They prepared themselves as they listened to Moses and obeyed his every instruction. They consecrated themselves to the service of Yahweh. They did everything they were commanded (Exodus 39:42-43). They set up the tabernacle and finished the work (Exodus 40:33).
Then it happened. The Lord drew near. The glory of God, the redemptive and personal presence of the Lord, filled the tabernacle. A cloud hovered over the tent while the consuming fire of God’s presence filled the sanctuary. God now dwelt within Israel’s camp. In a sense God moved from the mountain to the tent. God moved from a permanent fixture to a portable one. The holy presence of the Sinaitic burning bush was now within a portable tent. God, too, was going on a journey, a journey with Israel.
Their wait was over. Advent had arrived. A new journey was beginning, but God, the consuming fire present in the cloud, would lead them and guide them. God would bring them to the promised land, and God’s presence was their assurance and their strength.
Years later, as Israel still prayed for the return of the glory-cloud to the temple, John the Baptizer came heralding the nearness of the kingdom of God. John prepared Israel for the first Advent of the Messiah and promised that someday God’s people would not only be baptized in water but also in the Spirit. The Messiah, too, promised that one day the Spirit would descend upon the people of God to empower their holiness and mission. The risen Messiah renewed John’s promise of baptism in the Spirit even as he ascended to the right hand of God. The disciples then waited in the upper room in prayer and praise for the realization of the kingdom of God in the pouring out of the Spirit.
On the day of Pentecost, the day of first fruits, God poured out the Spirit upon all flesh. The church became a Spirit-drenched community in which everyone, male and female, slave and free, young and old, participated in the new life of the Spirit. The first Advent was complete with the advent of the Spirit who was now present within the church to commune, empower and lead the community of Jesus.
We now live in that moment. God has descended into the temple that is now our own bodies. We, both individually and communally, are the temple of the Holy Spirit. God dwells among us to empower, strengthen and guide. God leads us through our own journey in the wilderness as we patiently wait for the second Advent of the Messiah.
We wait for the fullness of the kingdom of God to come. We wait for the moment when the New Jerusalem will descend out of the heavens on to a new earth. We wait for the glory of God to fill the earth. We wait for the earth to become heaven, the dwelling place of God with humanity within the new creation.
Like Israel at Mt. Sinai, in one sense Advent has arrived. God has come to dwell in the flesh among us and having ascended to the right hand of God has poured out the Spirit upon us. In other sense we still live in a season of Advent. We wait for the fullness of the reign of God upon the earth. We wait, but we do not wait alone. Like Israel in the wilderness, we carry the presence of God with us in our journey.
We wait, but we do not wait with resignation. We prepare for the coming reign of God. We are neither passive nor discouraged. We wait but we also announce and embody the presence of the kingdom of God even now. We wait and prepare for the final coming of God.
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Mallory Wyckoff (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
A native of Clearwater, Florida, Mallory Wyckoff lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband Tim. She does counseling work at a non-profit residential facility serving women ages 13-28 who struggle with life-controlling issues, such as eating disorders, self-harm, chemical dependency, unplanned pregnancies, etc. Mallory is pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry degree in Missional and Spiritual Formation from Lipscomb University in Nashville. When she’s not working or writing papers (so, basically never) you can find her running on trails or reading a book in the sun.
Exodus 32:19-35 19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. 21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, 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.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” 25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on theLord’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves[a] for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.” 30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.”33 But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.” 35 Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made.
On a Sunday afternoon, I got the call. “We need you to come in,” they said. “Sarah’s not in a good place.” I knew Sarah well. I had worked with her for months, spent hours in counseling sessions, poured great time and energy into her life. As a young and immature 17-year-old, Sarah had found herself pregnant. She knew she needed help, and she sought out healing and counsel, a space carved out to consider her circumstances and what steps she needed to take next. And so I worked with her. We spent time tearing down walls she had built in an effort to protect herself and prevent further pain. Her dad’s leaving at age 10 had left a deep, deep wound, one that she carried silently and professionally so that no one would know. We worked to find healing for the pain, to expose lies to the truth, to listen for God’s voice and be aware of his leading. And after several months of struggle and tears, Sarah decided to place her baby for adoption. She had come to discern that this was the path God was leading her on, and she was terrified. We worked hard to prepare her for what she would face, planned for the emotional and tender moments in the hospital, supported her as she chose the family that would call her son their own. And then the day came that her young body was ready to deliver life. Sarah had a baby boy and named him William. I was there at the delivery, there to support her and celebrate with her, and I was thankful for the miracle that is life.
Two days later as the nurses in powder blue scrubs prepared for Sarah’s discharge, something shifted. The plan that we had worked for months to prayerfully and intentionally craft began to dismantle, bit by bit, until finally I received the call. “We need you to come in,” they said. “Sarah’s not in a good place.”
On the drive to the hospital I prayed for wisdom, for the God of all comfort to move and speak through me, and I trusted that he would. Ministry is hard, I thought, but God is good.
9 hours after my arrival at Vanderbilt, after many brutally honest and difficult conversations, I faced one final conversation with a young and anxious couple. I walked down the long hallway with lights too bright to hide the weight I carried, and found them sitting alone in a waiting room full of old magazines and stale coffee. I sat in front of them, looked into their worried faces, and told them that the baby boy they had held just moments before, the sweet son they had named and painted a nursery for, would not be theirs. I told them that Sarah had changed her mind, had chosen to return to the abusive birth father and parent baby William. I’ve never seen anguish like that before. They broke, and I broke.
In the middle of the desert, God issued a call to Moses. “I have heard the cries of my people,” he said, “and I am sending you to Pharaoh.” This rather unwelcomed summoning to ministry led Moses to places I don’t suspect he ever imagined going, to people I don’t suspect he ever imagined meeting, and to troubles I don’t suspect he ever imagined enduring. A call to ministry is many things, but an open door to an easy life it is not.
Certainly, there were moments that I imagine Moses celebrated with incredible depths of joy and gratitude to Yahweh, moments he ran home to tell his wife about, stories that he told and retold to his children and grandchildren.
“And the bush was on fire but it wasn’t burning up, and then, then God told me his name!”
“So there I was, and I walked right up to Pharaoh and said ‘Let my people go!’ Can you believe that? I just walked right up to him!”
“So we’re terrified and we can see the Red Sea with the Egyptians on our heels, thinking this is the end, and right then and there, God just parts the waters and we walk right through!”
“And we were hungry and people started to complain, and then it began to rain bread and meat, enough for everyone!”
“Ooooh, and then, God met me on the mountain, and he took his finger and wrote on stone tablets! Can you believe that?! The very finger of God!”
Certainly, there were moments where following the mission of God led Moses to great heights that fortified his faith and brought him boundless joy.
We know these moments, when the husband and wife choose to forgive each other for past hurts and reconcile their broken relationship; when the young man we’ve discipled and poured into starts a ministry of his own; when the young woman in our church who has been afraid of her calling as a minister of the word takes the pulpit for the very first time; when the congregation embodies the humility and sacrifice of Christ in order to meet the needs of our community; when the elderly woman suffering with cancer receives a clean bill of health and is healed; when the young child emerges from the waters of baptism and claims Jesus as Lord. We know these moments. Moses knew them too.
But this day, this story in Exodus 32, was not one of those moments. Moses had been with God up on the mountain, in the presence of the very creator of the universe, and received God’s account of how Israel was to live life, how their identity as a people was to embody God’s intention for creation and bless all nations. He had heard from God’s own lips what he was to do as the leader of the people of Israel, where God was going to take them and how he would lead them. Then suddenly, Moses got the call. “We need you to come in. Sarah’s not in a good place.”
Moses came down that mountain, leaving the very presence of a holy God and being met with gross idolatry and revelry and sin. The very people God had released from Pharaoh’s grip, had marched through the waters and fed in the wilderness, the very people he had commissioned Moses to lead—there they were, worshipping a god made of Egyptian earrings. The tablets broke, and Moses broke.
We know these moments, when we’ve prayed with a mother by her son’s hospital bed, pleading God for healing, and the boy dies in the night; when the alcoholic father we’ve counseled turns to the bottle one more time and his children bear the scars of his abuse; when it comes to light that the youth minister we hired has been sharing his bed with a young and impressionable girl from the youth group; when we summon the courage to speak the word and once again are silenced by those whose power is threatened by our unique voice as a woman; when we serve the Eucharist to a family refusing to reconcile with one another, feeding on their bitterness and pain instead of Jesus’ flesh and blood; when a young woman in the community longing to end the pain of trauma and abuse swallows a handful of colored pills and takes her own life; when our own family rejects our message and brands us with unfair labels and criticism; when we sit in our offices and sink for the weight of our own hypocrisy and brokenness; when we meet yet again to cry with the young family whose attempts at fertility have once again proved futile. We know these moments. Our churches break, and we break.
“God, why? Why did you let this happen? Did I do something wrong? Where did I fail? Did I not work hard enough or care enough or give enough? I am only in this thing because of you, because you met me in the wilderness and called me by name and invited me into your mission, and now, now the very people I’ve led are singing praises to a man-made idol? My own brother is the leader of their song and dance?” The idol broke. The tablets broke. Moses broke.
As the people are still sweeping up the dust from the burnt idol and their slaughtered kin, God sends Moses back into ministry, telling him once again about the land of milk and honey, of the promises still to come. And Moses pushes back. He’s experienced enough raw moments with God to know that this God invites pure honesty, that he delights in the dialogue. In desperation and grief Moses cries out, “You’ve called me to this mission and called me by name. I’ve seen amazing things and you’ve told me there’s more to come, but this is it. I need to know you’re here. I need to know you’re leading this thing, because if you’re not in this then I’m out.”
And God, in a strong but tender voice, calls back. “I am with you.” One more time Moses pushes back. “Show me your glory, God! I need to see it! I have to know you’re in this!” And one more time, God responds. “You will see me. You will find rest. I am with you.” We break. Our churches break. Tablets break. But God endures forever.
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Naomi Walters (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Naomi Walters lives in Princeton (NJ) with her husband, Jamey, and their seven-month-old son (Simon). She grew up in Syracuse (NY), graduated in 2007 from Rochester College (MI) with a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies, and received her M.Div. from Abilene Christian University (TX) in 2010. She is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry from Lipscomb University (TN). Naomi is the assistant minister at the Stamford Church of Christ (CT), and she works as an adjunct professor of Bible for Abilene Christian University.
Naomi’s Introduction: One of my goals in this sermon was to reimagine more positively a story that is often heard and interpreted in a negative light. The sermon does not, exactly, escape the pattern of “Israel had idols, and so do we” that is so common in sermons on Exodus 32. This interpretation seemed inescapable; the reader of Exodus 32 is compelled to identify with the Israelites.
An interpretation in which the reader identifies with Aaron leads to a sermon about “leadership-gone-wrong,” which (as you will see) does not align with my reading of what was happening in the making of the Golden Calf (in which Israel and Aaron were genuine – although misguided – in their attempts to worship God). And an interpretation in which the reader identifies with Moses leads to a sermon about the power of intercessory prayer, which does not seem to be the intent of the text itself, but rather a modern concept forced onto the text.
So, if the reader is (if we are) identifying with Israel in this story, then the sermon must be about idolatry. But it was my hope – within that common and familiar framework – to expand the concept of idol-making to include something more universal: the idea that all language for God is, in a hyperbolic sense, idolatry because all speaking of God limits God. If this is the “focus” of the sermon (that, like Israel, we try to limit God), then the intended “function” is to inspire humility in our speech about a God who is (and ought to be) more “mysterious” than “known.”
Read the text of Exodus 32:1-18 here.
Israel’s request for an image of God is understandable. Their intentions are good. You may remember that life has not been particularly kind to Israel. They were enslaved in Egypt building supply cities for a tyrannical Pharaoh. This Pharaoh took a murderous turn and many of their sons were killed. Pharaoh’s (step)grandson Moses – who they hear is also a murderer, by the way – shows up to help them and says God will set them free, but this naturally makes Pharaoh angry and thus increases the misery of their enslavement. They put up with a number of plagues that, if they were sent by God, probably ought to have been limited to Egypt, don’t you think? After they finally did escape, Pharaoh tracked them down and they were on the run.
More recently, they have just been wandering through the wilderness, hungry and tired, thirsty and tired, sore and tired. It took a long time for the Israelites to trust Moses, but just as they do, he disappears up the mountain. He disappears, and he doesn’t come back. It has been a long journey for them from Egypt, and though they are supposedly heading for the Promised Land, lately they’ve just been stalling at the bottom of this mountain.
I imagine that Israel was feeling insecure, confused, lost, and abandoned. And they have good reason to fear abandonment as a possibility; God did leave them alone in Egypt for a few generations. But God has also been faithful to them – protecting their firstborn from the final plague, making a path through the sea on dry ground, providing manna and quail and water for sustenance, and pillars of fire and of cloud for guidance. And God provided Moses, their leader.
Yes, God has been faithful, and Israel is not ready to give up yet. But Moses has delayed in coming down from the mountain, and the pillars of fire and of cloud are nowhere to be seen. So they ask Aaron to make them an image of the god who brought them up out of Egypt, something tangible to remind them that they are not alone, despite how they may feel. Wouldn’t God want them to be reassured of God’s presence?
They even sacrifice their earrings made of Egyptian gold – the spoils of their escape – to make this image. As all good sacraments are, this image is costly. And they bring burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being, just like God commanded. Perhaps their worship gets a little out of control at the end; but who hasn’t gotten a little rowdy in praise every now and then?
Israel has had a rough time of it, and they are doing their best. They know that God is everywhere, but right now, they just need a God who is somewhere. Israel’s request for an image of God is understandable. Their intentions are good.
At least, that’s how it looks to me. But as the camera zooms out – no, that’s not quite right – as the film cuts scenes, abruptly shifting to the top of the mountain, we see that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people 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 worshiped it and sacrificed to it. 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.” What Israel saw as a representation, God apparently sees as a replacement. God is angry, full of wrath, intent on destruction. This is the kind of language that makes me uncomfortable when it is used for God’s enemies, not to mention when it is used for God’s chosen children.
But we can see why God would be angry. God clearly commanded: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth (20:4)…You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. (20:23)” I suppose a calf is an image of something on the earth. And, unfortunately, it is made out of gold. The indictment is strong.
So strong that God does not want these people anymore. God says, “Moses, your people, whom you brought up out of the land Egypt, have acted perversely.” This is a sort of “parental hot potato” that some of us may be familiar with. “Jamey, your son needs a diaper change.” “Ben, your daughter has a 10-page paper due tomorrow and you need to take her to the library tonight.” God is done with Israel; God refuses ownership of them.
The irony, of course, is that the conversation we have walked in on up here on the mountain was God giving Moses instructions for building the tabernacle, a sanctuary in which God would dwell among the people. But there’s no point in giving further instructions about the tabernacle now, because Israel has broken the covenant.
Perhaps Israel did have good intentions, but God’s reaction reveals Israel’s attempts at representation for what they really are: an attempt to control God, to constrain God, to make concrete a God who is profoundly abstract. The sad irony is that Israel’s attempt to re-present God has ruined God’s plans to be actually present. As we look at the molten calf at the base of the mountain, we see a charred bush in the distance, and we are reminded that the glistening glow of a golden calf is no comparison to a bush on fire.
And in that glow of the golden calf, we also see ourselves. Don’t you feel a little stiff-necked? I know I do. Can’t you feel the strain in your neck from tilting your head to try to see God, way up there at the top of that mountain? I know I can. Like Israel, I feel like I have been on a long journey. Maybe you do too. Although there are times that we are led by a pillar of fire or of cloud, more often it seems like smoke and mirrors. Although there are times that we are sustained by manna and quail and water in the wilderness, wouldn’t it be nice to be out of the wilderness altogether? Although there are times that God makes a path through the sea on dry ground, more often it feels like we are barely treading water. Although there are times that we are certain we are on the move with the mission of God, more often we are sure that we are just stalling at the bottom of a mountain, wondering: Why is God so long in coming?
And what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Our necks are stiff, tired, and sore from straining to see God all the way up there. But we are not ready to give up yet so we proceed with something. We know that God is everywhere, but right now, we just need a God who is somewhere. So we heat up the oven and we look around, grasping for the nearest thing that we can melt down and reshape into some representation of God, something to sustain our congregations and perhaps to sustain us along the way. These images of God that we create with our words each Sunday might be a lot like the real thing. They might be close enough that we go to bed Saturday night thinking, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”
And sometimes, it is! But just like Israel’s festival, it is all too easy to start out well, with the burnt offerings and sacrifices of well being that God commanded, and somehow end up getting rowdy under a small golden statue. Because there is sense in which all our attempts to represent God are really attempts to control God, to constrain God, to make concrete a God who is profoundly abstract and radically free. There is a sense in which all language for God is idolatry – seeking a minimum of what God must be, or a maximum of what God can be.
But God defies all such attempts at minimum limits or maximum boundaries. In fact, God defies even the boundaries God puts on Godself. 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.”
This sounds familiar: And God saw that the earth was corrupt and said to Noah, “I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” Yes, this sounds familiar, so when God tells Moses he’s going to consume Israel, I’m thinking: Break out the gopherwood; it’s time to build a boat! But that’s not what happens.
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?…Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” And God changed God’s mind about the disaster that God planned to bring on God’s people.
The wrath of God in the face of our idolatry, our flawed attempts to represent God, our well-intentioned failures, are not the final word. This god is no unmoved mover, no statue, no molten image. This god is not a tyrannical Pharaoh, who would not even change his mind after all the plants, animals, and firstborn children were wiped out. This god can change his mind. This God defies even our need for God to be unchangeable. So every time we speak of this God, we run the risk of constructing an idol, of limiting the God who is profoundly abstract, radically free, and infinitely surprising.
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Sheila Vamplin (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Sheila Vamplin is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice who also teaches piano lessons for a change of pace. She has worked with churches in Italy and Croatia and returns there regularly with her Croatian husband. She leads “Saturday for the Soul”retreats for women at the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis and was thankful to be assigned the passage on Sabbath, believing it to be a spiritual practice as needed as it is neglected in churches today. Sheila blogs at www.folkflocksflowers.blogspot.com
Sheila’s intro: Speaking to a room filled with ministers, praying for wisdom to speak a word specifically to them, caused me to see this passage in a whole new light. . . . From Exodus 31:12 The Lord said to Moses: 13 You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”18 When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.
Hello. My name is Sheila, and I’m a workaholic. I hit bottom at age 18 and wound up in the hospital. Seriously. So I have been in recovery for almost thirty years now.
You know, this would be a hard thing to admit in front of you, except that I feel quite sure many or most of you are workaholics, too. We live in a time and place that encourages addiction to work. Work means power. Work means status. Work means worth. We get pats on the back and admiring comments for staying busy and appearing to be continually productive. We in ministry do work that makes us especially vulnerable to work addiction. Even if money and status are not our goals, souls are thought to be at risk if we don’t work ourselves to death. And beyond that….we really do care about souls!
The text today is addressed to Moses. Moses, a man who grew up in a palace as a son of the Pharoah, the mightiest man (in the eyes of men) in Egypt. Moses, who surely grew up with a sense of his own importance, probably being groomed for important work within the royal family. Moses, who felt such a strong desire to make a difference that he killed a man. Moses, who fled to Midian, letting go of the power and status he had been accustomed to those first forty years of life, and settling into life as a shepherd. Any unhealthy attachment he had to power and status probably lessened in those years. It was a time of recovery for him, a time of learning he wasn’t as important as he once thought. Not in the ways he once thought.
And now, at this point in the story, Moses has been called by God. He is once again in a position of power—only now he is much more aware of the power of God that makes his own role possible. On the mountain in the presence of God, he has just received extensive, detailed instructions on constructing the tabernacle, the place where God will meet with his chosen people, instructions about worship. Very, very important work, this. More important than construction of pyramids or whatever he might have once done in Egypt. He has very important work to do. He has very spiritual work to do.
And here, right here, God brings up Sabbath. He says pointedly, “You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: You shall keep my sabbaths.” You yourself. In Italian if you want to say something is really beautiful, you say “bella, bella.” In the Hebrew here, it is the same, “You, you are to speak to the Israelites.” Something about this message is crucial not just for the Israelites but also for Moses. Could it be that God already knows Moses will take on more than he can handle, needing a Jethro later on? That he will take things into his own hands and strike a rock when he needs to rely on God? “You yourself are to speak to the Israelites,” God says, and then he goes on to give the longest passage in scripture about keeping Sabbath.
Keeping Sabbath. For many of us, we grew up hearing, “We don’t do that. That’s in the Old Testament.” And for other reasons related to Jesus’ words about Sabbath and the lack of a command for it in the New Testament. Industrialism, capitalism, and workaholism surely have something to do with it as well.
Keeping Sabbath. What would it even look like for us today? In recent Church of Christ memory, we have no rules, no models, no tradition. It may mean we have to work out our own Sabbath-keeping with fear and trembling.
The various passages on Sabbath relate it to various themes. What stands out in this passage is the relational language. Sabbath is a sign between me and you. Sabbath is for the generations to come. Sabbath is given so you will know that I , the LORD, sanctify you. It is holy for you. It is holy to the LORD. It is perpetual covenant, throughout the generations. Sabbath is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel.
Sign. Covenant. Between you and me. Holy, that is, set aside, for you and the LORD. There is something very intimate about this thing called Sabaath. It’s not just a day of rest because we don’t need to overwork, though that’s true. It’s not only a reminder that God is the one in charge of the universe, though that is certainly true.
Could it be that God wants to be sure His people, these people He has called and chosen and delivered and lavished longsuffering love on….longing love on…these people he has never forgoteen….will remember Him? So they will stop what they’re doing at least once a week and spend some time with Him? Could it be that He knows if they don’t do this, they will fall prey to the lure of power and status and greed, and they will wither away in the weariness of workaholism? Trying to fill that God-shaped hole inside themselves…. with their own effort and the sense of accomplishment it provides?
If so, this will eventually lead them away from Him, away from the commands He has given them to recreate a holy way of living, and will then simply add to the polluting of Creation, dishonoring His name and the covenant He made with them. And so by not keeping Sabbath, they will cut themselves off from life-giving community. By profaning Sabbath, they will themselves bring death to themselves and the community by alienating themselves from God, their only hope.
The word “keep” is important here. It is not just to observe, but to “protect,” “watch,” “defend.” Any of us in a marriage covenant know that it’s not enough to just notice the fact that we are married. We have to protect the covenant, watch out for it, be very intentional in making time for it. The same is true in our relationship with God.
Back before my freshman year of college, I fell in love with Madeleine L’Engle’s books. You know, those “children’s books” that say much more than a lot of literature for older readers does. In her book Meet the Austins, one of the characters shares a poem that I memorized back then and never forgot. Since I haven’t quoted any Hebrew, I hope you will indulge a bit of slightly older English. Because I think it speaks very poignantly to God’s hopefulness in ordaining Sabbath as a practice-and His sadness when it is ignored:
If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — “This is not dead,” —
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says —
“This is enow Unto itself —
‘Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full inside, there is no room for Me.
Maybe Sabbath per se is not a command for us anymore. You’ll have to decide for yourself what to do with that. Or maybe you want to keep Sabbath, but struggle with that workaholic inside that says, “You’re wasting time!” Well, this may help—
A minister friend of mine hoped to pursue a doctorate. But out of nowhere, his 40-something year old wife became pregnant. At 57, he now has a two year old with significant disabilities and has no more hope of doctoral work. Recently he wrote a piece called “Church Is a Waste of Time” which concludes:
Sometimes as a father I have the chance to sit with my sleeping child, or even hold him. It is not terribly productive, and as I age it hurts my elbows and wrists. The sleeper does not bond with me; sleepers are notoriously oblivious to things. What does happen is we are together. Not talking. Not sharing. Just me loving you, little sleeper. The blessing is just being with God together, wasting time.
The thing is, it is “wasting time” moments that are sometimes the greatest moments. I think wasting time with God is a wonderful waste of time; wonderful and life-giving and tied up with the purpose of life. Maybe I am oblivious, too, as He holds me in His arms and just loves me beyond my knowing and experiencing. Maybe that makes God happy. If it does, then “wasting time” may not be a waste of time….
I used my earlier Exodus sermon as a starting point for speaking in chapel at Rochester College. I was able to re-imagine God’s Word in Exodus 3 and 4 on behalf of my audience of college students. I kept the introduction the same but changed the focus for my audience:
I want you to imagine, for a moment, what it was like in back in ancient times. Back in the days before kids punched one another digitally on a Wii. Back in ancient times before kids hunted down and killed soldiers on an Xbox 360. Back before kids gathered around Nintendo Gamecube to imagine themselves as Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat on NBALive. Back in the real ancient days even before PacMan or Atari. Back in the ancient days . . . . . say about 1975, how did a girl like me, growing up on a farm in LaCrosse, Arkansas, population 42, pass the time, without the benefit of screen time?
Life was quiet. And in times of quiet, you find so many things to be curious about. So curious about the terrapins on the pond bank, that you might sit still for a whole hour, waiting for them to come out of the water so you could see their strange reptile-heads. So curious about the cow graveyard in the backfield that you might defy your Daddy’s rules and sneak a peak at skulls and bones. So curious when the first black gum tree turns bright red in the fall, you might walk half a mile to check and make sure it’s not some strange bush on fire.
So curious that you might step back from that flaming red tree and wonder to herself – does God still call people today, people like me, like he called Moses at the burning bush?
Life on that farm was quiet. Quiet with a capital Q. From our perspectives today, we might say it was boring with a capital B. There was a rhythm of work and rest. It was hard work, but it was also real rest. There was time for listening to God because our ears weren’t so full of noise. Our lives weren’t so frantic.
I think that perhaps what we’ve forgotten in our noisy-busy world today is that when you are quiet, you find time to do what Moses did in our text –To hear the call to join God’s work in this world.
There’s a lot we don’t know about God’s call on our lives and how it works. It’s certainly mysterious. That call for our lives may not come through a burning bush, but I’ve seen evidence that God still calls people. It may not be a high profile calling like the one Moses received, but I know people who exude the call of God.
Chris chose a text from Isaiah to guide us this year. It begins like this – Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth.
Is it possible that our lives are so hectic today that we rush by the equivalents of a burning bush – God calling our names? Could we be so focused on screen time that we miss God time and people time? Are we such frantic consumers, working to buy things, working to get ahead, working to pay the bills that we have not heard, we have not understood the Lord, the everlasting God, the creator of heaven and earth?
As I think about it more, I think the mundane cycle of life Moses experienced in Midian must have been a welcome experience for him, something he appreciated. Because before living in Midian, he had lived in Egypt, a busy, industrial machine of a country where slaves frantically built cities for Pharaoh, a man who was deluded into thinking he was god.From the day Moses was born, he lived in a world dominated by oppression and slavery. As Pharaoh’s adopted grandson, he was free from slavery, safe from oppression, as long as he closed his eyes to violent brutality when his Hebrew brothers and sisters were beaten, as long as he closed his ears to the cries of Hebrew mothers whose baby boys were drowned in the Nile like an unwanted litter of kittens. The life Moses experienced in Egypt did not leave space to hear God, to understand the Lord, the creator of heaven and earth. But then he escaped Egypt and lived a more simple life in Midian, where he could solve most of the problems he faced with nothing more than a shepherd’s staff. It was a quiet life, where a strange burning bush in the distance could grab his attention.
So just imagine how Moses must have heard these jarring words coming out of that burning bush, breaking into his quiet life and reminding him of the tragic situation of his relatives in Egypt-
7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians . . . . the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
It’s really quite a job description God gave Moses. He told him: Go to Pharaoh (the most powerful man in the world who refers to himself as god) and bring my people out of Egypt. Free them from slavery. Even in more recent history, we all know that people who call out The Oppressors do not fare well. Just last week, when I visited the Henry Ford Museum and looked at the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, I was reminded that people who speak against slavery don’t fare too well. And when I was in Memphis, TN earlier this summer, looking at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was murdered, I was reminded that people who speak against oppression don’t fare too well. This was quite a job description God gave Moses- and I can understand why Moses would prefer to mind the sheep in the wilderness instead of take the job he was being offered.
That’s the thing about joining God, about heeding the call of the everlasting Lord, the creator of heaven and earth– it’s not an easy calling. It inherently includes risk, and it may not make a lot of sense. We don’t get quiet and still so we can hear God and enjoy a self-centered, zen lifestyle, complete with lots of “me” time. We are prayerful, and we cultivate quiet so we may hear the call to join God’s work in this world.
It’s a delicate balance – this balance between work and rest.
I’ve seen students here at Rochester College embrace God’s call, and it’s not always a call to church ministry – God calls people to all kinds of work. Ben Nelson graduated from RC a few years ago with a degree in Psychology, having discerned a calling to serve students as a high school social worker– he finished his masters degree in Social Work at Wayne State just weeks ago, and he got his first job at a high school in Hamtramck – It won’t be easy, but he’s been called. Jessica Brooks graduated from Rochester in May, and she posted on FB recently – “I just got a big-girl job as a social-worker. God is so incredibly good.” From the day I met Jessica in my freshman Bible class, I saw that she was determined to serve God with her life, and she did it while she was a student, and she will keep doing it, because she discerned not just a major or a job, but a calling. Stephan Henning graduated from RC a year ago, and he has an interesting job combination – he’s a 4th grade elementary school teacher and was just recently named the head men’s basketball coach at Oxford High School. In a press release, Stephan showed that he comprehends what it means to be a person of calling, a person who thinks outside himself:
I definitely want to extend things outside of basketball to show the kids that, no question, it’s great to compete and win games, but more importantly, it’s great to be young men in the community they live in. That’s the aspect I want to bring to the Oxford culture,” he said. “Especially with my basketball program – you should always carry yourselves the right way and know that people are watching you. Wherever you are – whether it is the mall or the movies, you represent the program and (you need to) represent it the right way.
It turns out that God can use us in ways we cannot imagine. There are some mysterious, strange miracle stories in the Bible, like Moses and the burning bush. But if you ask me, the greatest miracle of miracles, the greatest wonder of wonders – is that the creator of heaven and earth calls people like you and me to join this mission of God, to make a difference in our little corner of the world.
And when we receive our burning bush moments – when we hear, when we understand that the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth, we receive a promise, the same one God gave Moses: “I will be with you.” It’s the same promise Jesus gave his disciples: “I will be with you, even to the end of the age.”