Gracious and Merciful, Slow to Anger, Abounding in Steadfast Love and Faithfulness

October 22, 2017 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 33.12-23

This story is part of the golden calf story that Mark preached about last Sunday. Moses is up on the mountain with God, he’s gone a while, the people get anxious, and Aaron makes a golden calf for them to worship.

It is just a few chapters back that Moses brings the ten commandments from God, the first of which are “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol.”

God is mad and ready to wipe them out. But Moses pleaded with God and convinced God not to destroy the Israelites. And God relented and did not destroy them.

But all is not well. God tells Moses to go with the people to the land God promised to their ancestors. But instead of saying, “I will be with you” God says an angel will accompany the people. God is still angry—probably also brokenhearted after being betrayed by the people with whom God had made a covenant. And that’s where Moses pleads with God again in the story from Exodus 33. “How can we go if you are not with us?”

What draws my attention in this story is how God responds to Moses’ request. They go back and forth and finally, God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The LORD.”

Now, unless you are actually looking at the biblical text, you don’t necessarily know that the expression the LORD (it shows up in all capital letters) is the substitute word for the sacred name of the Divine. In Jewish practice, the Divine name is so holy that it should never be pronounced. Wherever the name occurs in the text, the reader substitutes the Hebrew word “adonai” which the English language Bible translates “the Lord” (and at Central, we often say “the Holy God”).

You might remember at the beginning of Exodus, when Moses meets God at a burning bush and God tells Moses to free God’s people from slavery in Egypt, Moses doesn’t get an army or a cache of weapons or a political treaty, Moses gets the name of God who will go with him. “I AM WHO I AM” is the name. Or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”

Now in this precarious time, where the people have broken God’s heart, broken the covenant, and God is not sure that she can go with them, Moses intercedes and pleads with God to go with them. And Moses gets more of the divine name. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”

For most of us, our names are not significant in the way names are significant in the Bible. You know my name is Ann but that name doesn’t tell you anything about my character. In many of the stories of the Bible, to know someone’s name is to know something about their character. And the significance of a name is at work in this story.

Back in chapter 32, when Moses came down off the mountain and saw the disobedience of the people, he threw down the stone tablets with the commandments and they broke—symbolizing the brokenness of the covenant relationship between the people and God.

In chapter 34, God tells Moses to cut two new tablets of stone and come back up on the mountain. Moses went up the mountain and God descended in the cloud to the mountain. As we say in the Godly Play class, God came close to Moses and Moses came close to God. And in that closeness, God proclaimed God’s name.

Chapter 34 says, “The Holy God descended in the cloud and stood with Moses there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The LORD.’ The LORD passed before Moses, and proclaimed,

The LORD, the Holy God,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” [34.5-6]

In these two proclamations of the Divine name, in chapters 33 and 34, we learn more of the deepest character of God. The deepest character of God revealed in a time of disappointment, anger, and betrayal. Yes, God is mad. Yes, there are consequences for the Israelite’s betrayal. But “the balance in God’s deepest character leans toward grace and mercy. God freely extends grace upon whomever God chooses. In this time and place on Mount Sinai, God chooses to love, forgive, and have mercy on the rebellious Israelites.”[1]

God renews the covenant with Israel.

One commentator says in these revelations of God’s name and character, “Israel receives an articulation of God’s fierce, unwarranted graciousness, in the face of a profound act of disobedience.”[2]

We will hear this declaration of God’s character throughout the Hebrew scriptures: merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. And then we will see it embodied in the incarnation of Jesus in the Gospels.

The story of Exodus, a story of freedom and covenant, was most likely shaped during the 6th century exile. It was written for a community in crisis whose experience made them despair that their disobedience had caused God to abandon them. And into that despair they hear these words of grace. What kind of God is it who has covenanted with us? A God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Perhaps you come to this place today wondering where God is. Anxious that perhaps God has abandoned you. Or worried that something you have done will separate you from God’s love. May you, too, hear these words of grace.

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[1] Dennis Olson, Commentary on Exodus 33.12-23, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3445, accessed October 19, 2017.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 927.

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What It’s Like To Be Free

October 8, 2017 – 18th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20.1-21

In 1967, musical icon, Nina Simone, recorded the song “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.” Written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, it quickly became a civil rights anthem.[1]

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
Say ’em loud, say ’em clear
For the whole round world to hear[2]

            In 1967, Nina Simone sang into the context of racial segregation, discrimination, and the violence of white supremacy.

I’ve been thinking about this song this week as I’ve thought about the Israelites, led into freedom in the wilderness by the providence of God.

Freedom in the wilderness scared the pants off the people of God. “Where’s the food?” “Where’s the water?” “What are we doing out in this wilderness??” “You brought us her only to die!” “We wish we were slaves again in Egypt.”

And into this wilderness—and into this fear—God gives instruction. This is how you live as free people. This is how you live as my people who are free.

We often talk about the Ten Commandments as God’s law and this story as the giving of the law. But the word “law” is a misleading translation for the Hebrew word which really means instruction or teaching. Psalm 19 says the la—the precepts—the teaching—of the Holy God is perfect, reviving the soul…it is to be desired more than gold…and is sweeter than honey.

That’s not how we Americans generally think about the law. We tend to think about the law and laws as things you are required to do or prohibited from doing—more like a minimum expectation. But “in Jewish understanding the law is seen as a gift, because it provides the signposts that show how to live as the people of God.”[3] (And you’ll find that note about the law at the bottom of the hymn we sing following the sermon.)

And so the Ten Commandments, The Ten Best Ways to Live as Godly Play tells it, are a gift from God given in love to God’s people. They are teaching for how we live in relationship with God and with one another. How we love God and love our neighbor.

Freed from the law of slavery, God teaches this fledgling community how it would live—how they would be God’s people. And isn’t it telling, that to live in relationship with God, we get instructions on how to live in relationship with each other?

Now when you hear the Ten Commandments, they might seem like rather common sense instructions. Wouldn’t everybody know to act this way? Well, apparently not.

In any community—whether it’s a country, city, neighborhood or family—there is always tension between my needs, your needs and our needs. We learn as children that our needs are not the only needs to be considered and we begin a life-time of learning how our actions, or inactions, will affect other people.

All the commandments have both an obligation and a restraint. The majority of the commandments begin “You shall not.” But they also contain a “You shall.”

John Calvin gives us an example. In the commandment “You shall not kill” it is common sense, Calvin says, to “see only that we must abstain from wronging anyone or desiring to do so.” But, he goes on to illuminate that there is a positive requirement in this command “that we give our neighbor’s life all the help we can…God wills that” our neighbor’s life “be dear and precious to us.”[4] As dear and precious as our own life.

About a hundred years later, in the discussion of the ten commandments in the Westminster Larger Catechism—which was designed for preachers to use for instruction from the pulpit each Sunday—the question is asked “What is required in this commandment” and “What is forbidden?”

So in the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” part of what the Larger Catechism says is required by this commandment is truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between people, giving and lending freely, avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, living frugally, and endeavoring by all just and lawful means to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and well-being of others, as well as our own.[5]

What I’m trying to say is the Ten Commandments are what we aspire to, not simply what we are prohibited from doing. We aspire to live a life in community where the well-being of everyone is supported.

Another way to think of it is when I am prohibited from bearing false witness against you, you can live in freedom to know you will not be lied about. When we are instructed to honor our parents, our parents can live in freedom knowing they will be cared for even when they are frail and vulnerable.

Nina Simone sings another stanza:

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every [one] should be free[6]

            Nina Simone cries out for this kind of freedom. To bring herself as an equal and valued part of the community that is not whole without her.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times on Tuesday after the mass murder in Las Vegas, said, “There’s the right to bear arms, sure, but there’s also the right to walk into a nightclub or a concert—or to send a child off to school—without a sense of dread that’s increasingly and fully warranted. Aren’t we entitled to that too?”[7]

You know, I’m really sick and tired of preaching after yet another mass shooting or after the police shooting of another African American man or woman. I know it’s a preacher’s job to honestly address the brokenness and ugliness of the world in which we live but it feels like broken and ugly is the new normal that only gets more broken and even more ugly.

All this week there’s been wringing of hands in the news and by law enforcement to figure out what was the motive of this week’s mass murderer. We call him a lone wolf—making him isolated and not even human because we don’t want to admit that he is anything like us. The white skinned shooter didn’t get called a terrorist even though he terrorized a crowd of 20,000 people. But if the shooter had brown or black skin he’d likely be labeled an Islamic terrorist or a Black Identity Extremist.

The Presbyterian Planning calendar designates today as Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday. Most years that’s an invitation to draw attention to the scourge of violence that takes place between intimate partners. But this week, domestic violence takes on an additional meaning—violence that is cultivated here, in our own country, in our national home. It is carried out by an American against other Americans. It didn’t come from someplace else outside of our borders.

It’s a little hard to pin down what the statistics are about the number or percentage of white men in our country who perpetuate mass shootings. But I think we have a problem. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century mystic, prophet, rabbi and social change agent, said, “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”[8]

Some of our white brothers have drunk an extra lethal dose of the kool aid. And I think it’s the kool aid of white supremacy—that death-dealing ideology that took root in the founding of our country that says white people are superior to people of all other races, especially African Americans, and by right we who are white should control the wealth, land, analysis and decision making in American society.[9] And we don’t, we can resort to violence White supremacy is an ideology that we’ve all been steeped in and that continues today in both subtle and overt ways. It’s a way of life that has been institutionalized in our laws for generations and continues to have life-altering repercussions in our communities and in our country. It’s an “ideology that objectifies, dehumanizes and kills”[10]—not just people with brown or black skin but all of us.

Why do we focus on just this one white man in Las Vegas? If we do discover a motive, won’t we use it to say, “See, he wasn’t like us?” Shouldn’t we be looking at the cadre of white men murderers? Shouldn’t we be asking, “Why do so many white men take the lives of others? Why do white men stockpile weapons of war to use on other human beings?” If he were anything but a white man in America, we would attribute a group motive to him. But since he is a white man in America, we think he is an isolated individual and I just don’t buy it.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. That he and many like him feel isolated from individuals. Tragically, unconnected to the human community where our lives matter to one another. Unmoored from the life-giving freedom that is possible when we live in relationship with God and with our neighbors. This is part of the lie of white supremacy—that says some neighbors don’t matter, that their well-being doesn’t count, that their lives are disposable. And that is a lie that dehumanizes and kills us all. Some of us just more slowly than others.

Last year, Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee to give voice to the tragedy and violence of racial injustice in our country. His teammate, Eric Reid, joined him a few weeks later, taking a knee beside Kaepernick. Reid recently wrote about why he did this. He said, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”[11] So on Monday, and through this week, when flags were flown at half-mast because of this worst mass murder by a single shooter in US history (let’s be clear that it’s the worst mass murder committed by a single person—there are several more devastating mass murders of African Americans by groups of whites in our nation’s history[12]). When I saw all the flags at half-mast because of this tragedy this week, all I could think of was Colin Kaepnerick and his NFL brothers kneeling at half-mast because of the tragedy of racial injustice that goes on all across this nation every day of the year.

Nina Simone sings again:

I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish that I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way over due I’d be starting anew

            The Bible is a collection of stories of people trying and failing, succeeding and stumbling to live these hard commandments—to live as God’s people who are free—to live as free people in relationship with God and our neighbors.

We, too, are writing our story into this collection as we try and fail, succeed and stumble to be free—to love God and love our neighbors. How we are trying and failing, succeeding and stumbling to dismantle white supremacy so we can all live in freedom. The freedom that brings abundant life. The freedom that brings wholeness in body, mind and spirit. The freedom that God desires for every single one of us in the human family.

* * * * *

How to Build Community

Turn off your TV.
Leave your house.
Know your neighbors,
Look up when you are walking;
Greet people;
Sit on your stoop;
Plant flowers;
Use your library;
Play together;
Buy from local merchants;
Share what you have;
Help a lost dog;
Take children to the park;
Garden together;
Support neighborhood schools;
Fix it even if you didn’t break it;
Have potlucks;
Honor elders;
Pick up litter;
Read stories aloud;
Dance in the street;
Talk to the mail carrier;
Listen to the birds;
Put up a swing;
Help carry something heavy;
Barter for your goods;
Start a tradition;
Ask a question;
Hire young people for odd jobs;
Organize a block party;
Bake extra and share;
Ask for help when you need it;
Open your shades;
Sing together;
Share your skills;
Take back the night;
Turn up the music;
Turn down the music;
Listen before you react to anger;
Mediate a conflict;
Seek to understand;
Learn from new and uncomfortable angles;
Know that no one is silent although many are not heard.
Work to change this.

— Syracuse Cultural Workers

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[1] https://www.ft.com/content/2ae1f31c-b339-11e6-9c37-5787335499a0, accessed October 7, 2017.

[2] http://www.metrolyrics.com/i-wish-i-knew-how-it-would-feel-to-be-free-lyrics-nina-simone.html, accessed October 7, 2017.

[3] Hymn note on #61 “Your Law, O Lord, Is Perfect” in Glory to God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).

[4] Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 8.

[5] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q.141, Book of Confessions, (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 248.

[6] http://www.metrolyrics.com/i-wish-i-knew-how-it-would-feel-to-be-free-lyrics-nina-simone.html, accessed October 7, 2017.

[7] Frank Bruni, “God bless America,” New York Times, October 3, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/03/opinion/vegas-shooting-trump-god-bless.html?_r=0, accessed October 3, 2017.

[8] https://onbeing.org/programs/arnold-eisen-the-opposite-of-good-is-indifference-sep2017/, accessed September 25, 2017.

[9] Thanks to Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby for this analysis.

[10] Jessica Vasquez Torres, facebook post, October 3, 2017.

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/opinion/colin-kaepernick-football-protests.html, accessed September 28, 2017.

[12] Thanks to Dr. A.T. Simpson for this reminder. (E.g., East St. Louis Massacre in 1917, Tulsa Massacre in 1921, Rosewood, Florida in 1923.)