Exodus 32:1-14. Philippians 4:1-9
Never in my wildest dreams did I think my country would be in the shape that it is right now.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would witness the current levels of incivility, lying and rudeness in politics and public conversation.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would live during a pandemic with no timeline for relief.
In a recent Faith Formation presentation, chaplain Mary Johnson talked about “intra-psychic loss,” that is, the loss of something that you always assumed would be there, a loss that is primal, foundational, a “given”.
There is a lot of intra-psychic loss in the world right now. What is happening seems unprecedented. After many months, we are tired, isolated, impatient. We want relief.
In today’s lesson from Exodus, the Israelites also have grown impatient. They have been waiting for forty days for Moses to come down from the mountain where he is chatting with God. They have come to associate Moses with God and when Moses is not around, they feel God has abandoned them.
Aaron has an idea and tells the people to take off their gold jewelry and he will have it molded into an image of a calf. Or as today’s psalm tells us, “They exchanged their Glory for the image of an ox that feeds on grass.” They forgot God who had brought them out of slavery in Babylon. They were restless; they were impatient; they were bored.
After the golden calf episode, God wants to destroy the disobedient tribe, but Moses convinces him to change his mind. Moses questions; he quotes the Babylonians; he reminds God of what God has said – and done—and promised — and God changes his mind.
We, too can question God, remind God of his promises, and beg for help. In fact, on Facebook yesterday, Bishop Michael Curry told us to “Pester God. Tell him I sent you.” We can beg, we can pester, we can question, but what we can’t do is replace God with something of our own creation. Or turn God into something that we can manage and manipulate and even, completely understand.
From the violence of today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures we move to the gentle, beautiful words of Paul to the Philippians (called Paul’s happiest letter) in which he tells the new Christians to concentrate on what is good and true and honorable” and to “let your gentleness be known to all people.”
Together, these two lessons represent the extremes in which we live: between lament and gratitude, between anger and thanksgiving. In the Scriptures, it’s is not only positivity to which we are called. Instead we are called to a perspective that is more nuanced, complex, and realistic. We are called to the reality of the Cross, the reality that suffering usually precedes new life.
How does this work?
First, our culture is saturated with messages to be positive, to let “good energy” prevail, to look on the bright side! “After all, you still have your health, your home, your family, enough money to get by”… until you don’t. Until someone gets sick and dies or a hurricane or a raging wildfire takes your home away. Or a virus takes your job and your livelihood. l know I come from a long line of Norwegians who probably spent too much time brooding by the fjords in the winters where there are like two hours of daylight, but still I know that “lament” is a major part of our religious tradition.
A lament is an expression of loss; it is mourning; it is grief. The Biblical book of Lamentations is what British bishop N.T. Wright calls “one of the most moving long poems ever written. It looks out upon a city from which people have vanished.” He says, “That image haunts me now, every time I cycle around the empty streets of Oxford, normally filled with students and tourists.”
Seventy percent of the Psalms are laments – 42 of them. They are complaints, requests to God for relief, and confidence that God will respond.
We are not called to stuff our feelings of sadness while reciting optimistic cliches. Grief must be witnessed. Sorrow must be expressed. On his way to Jerusalem for the final time, Jesus stops in Bethany and learns that Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus has died. Jesus doesn’t say that it was probably for the best or maybe it was his time to go. He just weeps. And then, Wright says, “with the authority born of that mixture of tears and trust—he commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb.” New life comes after the tears, after the grief.
(On a lighter note, wouldn’t you have liked to be at the dinner table at Mary and Martha’s that night? “So what’s going on, everybody? Lazarus, let’s start with you.”)
This permission to lament extends to our political life. Again and again, Jesus called out the temple priests and the Roman government, for their unjust policies, their repression of the poor, their cruelty and corruption. This is what got him killed.
Today we lament the ravings of leaders who lack all compassion and empathy, who endanger others’ lives with reckless narcissistic behavior, who break laws and have no respect for science. Among other things….
Sometimes we forget that God holds people accountable, that God has delegated some parts of running the world to human beings, to us. There are dozens of statements in Scripture about this, such as in Luke: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” In the book of Galatians, Paul reminds us: God is not mocked.
For what are we accountable — collectively and individually? For what are we doing to the world’s forests and waters, its creatures, its air? To the human beings throughout the world who are suffering — “the least of these,“ as Jesus calls them, those that with us inhabit this relatively small blue-green ball spinning in space? Are we accountable to engage with the long overdue day of racial reckoning that is finally upon us and not look the other way? God is not mocked. Forgiveness is given but repeatedly turning the other way when we know better? There may be some explaining to do.
At the very least we can vote our conscience – and our minds — in two short weeks and pray that the election results will not throw our country into unprecedented chaos.
In addition to lament, we are also called to acknowledge our gratitude and thanksgiving for the blessings of life. In today’s beautiful epistle, Paul reminds us to care for each other, to be thankful “for the peace of God which passes all understanding.” He reminds us to focus on excellence, on what is pleasing and just, on what is honorable. Ironically these words were written when Paul was in prison, about to be executed for threatening the Roman government. Gratitude and suffering are certainly apparent here.
The tension between lament and gratitude is the foundation of Christianity; it is what the Cross is about. It tells us that often love and justice cost something. But after that sacrifice – of life, of pride, of suffering, new life awaits on the other side. George Floyd’s death, in that sense, reflected the Cross.
N.T. Wright again: “The Church’s mission began with tears, with locked doors; and with doubt.” Mary was weeping with loss when Jesus came to her with news that he was alive. That same evening the disciples were hiding behind locked doors, scared that the Romans would be after them, too. And Jesus appears. The next week, the disciples were still there, only with Thomas, who doubted the whole story. And Jesus appeared, alive, scarred. Wright says, “Tears, locked doors and doubt seem to go together. Together they sum up a lot of where we are right now. Tears at so many lives cut short. Locked doors. The fear isn’t just of certain people who may have us in for us. It’s a larger, more nebulous fear that every stranger in the street might, without knowing, could give me a sickness that could kill me within a week. And I might be able to give it to them as well.” The pressure of having to gauge the risk of every encounter and the accompanying level fear is exhausting. The anger when we keep the rules and others do not is understandable.
Is here any room left for faith, for hope? If we are locked away from all but a few, is here any room for love? What about those of us who live alone?
We need to find new formats, new configurations for love. Love is more than a feeling, and the commitment to love must be paired with creativity. There is a lot available to each of us: Words, actions, gifts, technology, the telephone, compliments, surprises, food, hospitality-reconfigured.
Right now, giving or loving can seem like a lot of effort when we’re exhausted just by “normal.” I’ll be on Facebook and see a post and sometimes I can’t even press “like” (it’s too much effort”). Moving beyond the predictable ways of expressing love to those we are close to and those to whom we are not requires some invention to make it interesting and satisfying and right.
At the end of the Sam Mendes’ film, “American Beauty,” Lester Burnham has been shot by a neighbor whose secret he discovered and is reviewing his life as he lays dying on the floor of his garage.
What we see is the real-life rhythm between lament and gratitude, between death and life. And finally, to acceptance and celebration of the unique, individual life we’ve each been given. Each memory is followed by the sound of the gunshot (that has ended Lester’s life) and a visual reaction from one of the characters when hearing it. We are playing only the end of the segment out of respect for those of you who may find it upsetting. I’ll read the beginning:
“I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. That one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches ahead of you, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching the falling stars, and yellow leaves from the maple trees that lined our street, or my grandmother’s hands and the way her skin seemed like paper, and the first time I saw cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird and (my daughter) Janey– and Janey, and Carolyn.” …… fade into film excerpt here…
After “Don’t worry. You will.”
Back to Barbara for:
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my own life would be ….. what it is. I am at once stunned and grateful beyond words. Amen.
N.T.Wright, God and the Pandemic, 2020, Zondervan Publishing.
“American Beauty,” directed by Sam Mendes, Dreamworks Studios, 1999.