He’d been gone for a very long time–40 days at least, up there on the mountain, with smoke billowing and thunder rumbling, the occasional lightning flash. They had actually sent him up there by himself, after they’d gotten a taste of the power and terror of God’s presence in their midst. “You go talk to talk to God and tell us what he says,” they’d told him. “We’ll wait here.”
But then, here they were. How long was this going to go on? Moses was the one who seemed to be able to get God Almighty to bring forth water from a stone, rain down manna and quail, but how long was that going to last with Moses out of the picture? And, frankly, a steady diet of manna and quail gets a little old. They went to sleep to the sound of thunder rumbling and woke up to it, always that undertone of fear and trembling. We have a sense of what that’s like, don’t we? with the news these days. And how long were they just going to stay camped out here? This was no way to get to the Promised Land. Sure, God had acted in very impressive ways to get them out of Egypt…
…But now, just smoke and thunder. Nothing you could get your hands on, focus your eyes on. So, they asked Moses’ brother Aaron to make them an image of God they could at least look upon and touch. A calf seemed like a good image–think of the milk, the meat, the hide that a calf can provide–drink, food, and clothing. Walter Brueggemann says the making of the golden calf might just have been “an alternative representation of God, not necessarily idolatrous, but simply a competitor to the ark of the covenant as a proper sign of divine presence.”[cited by Kate Huey, in Sermon Seeds, ucc.org, 10/12/14]
Many of us have a movie running through our brains throughout much of the Exodus story. It’s Cecille B. DeMIlle’s “The Ten Commandments,” starring Charlton Heston; and we may remember the scene of the golden calf as a great orgy, a whole lotta writhing and dancing and commingling going on. So primitive! More than a little bit crazy. So obviously wrong! We would never do something like that….except that you don’t have to go further than that wallet in your purse or the phone in your pocket to run into one of the craven gods our culture is littered with.
And in times of uncertainty and chaos, which ours appear to be, we would do well to look at just whom we trust and what we turn to for stability and meaning. Theologian Paul Tillich said that our god is our “ultimate concern,” and idolatry is simply “substituting penultimate [that’s your word for the day–it means “second to last”] and false deities, the projections of our desires and needs, for the God of the Universe.” [cited by Bruce Epperly in processandfaith.org, 9/28/17] Those less-than-ultimate and false gods will ultimately fail us, especially when the going gets rough.
Our culture is filled with those gods–the flag or National Anthem, money, celebrity, power, religion, appearance, nationality, family. And if any of those made you wince, that gives you a sense of the power even penultimate gods can have. We prefer gods we can manage and manipulate, and in our so-called “spiritual but not religious” age, we have developed quite the taste for spiritual junk food–sayings, or practices, wall plaques and items that make us feel “spiritual.”
UCC pastor Kate Huey remembers her mother-in-law–
Many years ago, as a young newlywed, I used to have the most wonderful–and memorable– conversations with my new mother-in-law, a devout Methodist raised in Lower Alabama (or L.A., as her son called it) by a Primitive Baptist-preacher father. Virginia Huey was a college professor with a memorable way of speaking: from time to time, she would pause for emphasis just before quoting one of her favorite Bible verses, Galatians 6:7, in a low voice: “God is not mocked.” A chill would run through me, because I knew she was speaking of matters of ultimate seriousness: God Matters.” [Huey, op cit.]
God is not mocked. God was clearly not pleased to hear the din from the valley, and, as my ministry advisor in seminary, Cameron Bird, used to say, “Sometimes I just have to sit in my anger.” God sat in holy anger and as the humans would tell it, sounded very human in that holy anger and vengeance. Moses was able to talk God down from that pinnacle of fury, but it was less out of vanity or jealousy, and more out of love and the wisdom of knowing that the golden calf and every other god we create to substitute for the Real Thing–none of those false gods will see us through, none of that spiritual junk food will be able to sustain and nourish us for the long journey ahead.
It was that real soul food that the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians about. Bruce Epperly writes, “Paul reminds the Philippians that what we focus on, what we think about, is soul food that will add or subtract from our experience of peace, wholeness, and community.” [Epperly, op cit.] “Whatever is true, beloved,” Paul wrote, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
It’s exactly what research in positive psychology affirms. “Appreciate the good, and the good appreciates,” in the sense of compounding or growing. That is easier said than done in our day, when moment by moment, day to day, the tawdry, the distressing, the “bloviating,” as someone put it, the blaming and name-calling are what is thrown at us, demanding our attention. Justice, purity, honor, Paul says, rather than divisiveness, scarcity, and polarization– think on these things. Let these things fill your mind, grow in your heart, multiply in your actions, not so that you can be a Pollyanna, but because those other things, the things that are crowding your head and heart right now, will never be able to save you–or serve your highest good.
Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians from prison, and, ironically, it’s his most joyful letter. We can’t be sure if this was his final imprisonment before being executed by Rome, but what does seem clear is that, like many who know the end of their life is near, Paul knows what matters most. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Have this mind–the mind of Christ–in you…God matters.
Bronnie Ware is a palliative care nurse who has been with hundreds of patients at the end of their lives. Over the years, listening, caring, she has absorbed their wisdom, shared their pain, and come up with a list of the 5 top regrets of the dying. Listen and see if they are not only regrets of the dying, but of many of us in the midst of life –
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
What really matters? Have you been wasting your time at the altar of the false gods of work, busyness, self-sufficiency, fear? Have you been sucked in by the fake news that evil and selfishness are the big winners? Have you been judging your life by a worthless set of criteria, none of which have anything to do with real Love?
These are tough times to “hold on to that which is good,” as we say in our commission. The gods of glitter and gold seem to have the upper hand. Those of us who try to be sensitive and compassionate toward the suffering of others can feel pretty beat up. “Compassion fatigue,” it’s sometimes called, as people start to withdraw their support to yet another worthy cause. But Roshi Joan Halifax, whom some of you may have heard on OnBeing this morning, calls it “empathic distress”–we feel the pain and resonate with it but can’t do anything about it. She says that if we are “stabilized,” –”rooted and grounded in the love of God,” Paul would say–if we have a stable center, then we can respond to the needs of our neighbors and our world with more buoyancy, more resilience. In fact, neuroscientists who have studied the brains of Buddhist monks while they’re meditating, have found that while they feel more deeply and closely the suffering of other beings, they are able to release more quickly from that empathy because they are so grounded, so that they have more energy available to respond and act on behalf of the suffering.
“Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” “Don’t believe the thoughts that create separation,” teacher Tara Brach says. They may be real, but they’re not true. “Feel your feelings and learn to stay,” she says. Bring gentle awareness to your feelings of anguish, overwhelmedness, sorrow, frustration, but then, “Turn towards love,” she says. Remember who and what you love–your loved ones, the earth, goodness, kindness–all those people and things that are true, honorable just, pure, pleasing, commendable. And finally, “act from love.” The Dalai Lama says, “This is not an age where mere self-growth and development or faith or meditation is sufficient. Those must inevitably be balanced by active social engagement, compassionate actions. No one can do it alone. We need each other to become enlightened. We need each other for spiritual realization.” [Tara Brach, FB]
“God is not mocked” by our culture’s blatant disregard for truth, for honor, for justice, its destruction of the earth and her creatures, our disdain for the poor and marginalized. We are reaping the consequences of that disregard every day. But that does not mean all is lost. There is still so much that is good and true, just and beautiful, so many people acting with courage and kindness and compassion every day, unnoted by the media or even anyone else. “What if these times are not the darkness of the tomb,” activist Valarie Kaur asks, “but the darkness of the womb?” gestating a new birth, new possibilities, a whole new world?
Philip Gulley, a Quaker leader and writer, encountered a man this week who seemed thrilled by the possibility that we are living in the end times, that God is finally fed up with us and coming to wipe out all the evil and evil-doers, whom this man seemed quite certain meant all “those people.” In response to this encounter, Gulley wrote about why he is a Progressive Christian, which is what we at Second Church have called ourselves–
I am a progressive Christian because I cannot, and will not, embrace the pessimistic worldview so prevalent among the fanatical. I remain an optimist. I have hope. I believe in humanity’s future. I will let no man, deformed by self-absorption and greed, rob me of my optimism. I believe that to be a progressive Christian is to be hopeful. It is to believe the best about God, the best about humanity, the best about our future. To be a progressive Christian is to affirm that for every spiritually distorted person there are a thousand righteous people, laboring for the good of this world. The righteous are seldom written about, seldom celebrated, seldom honored, but when progress is made, it is made because of them. They teach, they create, they build, they heal, they clean, they adopt, they cook, they serve, they parent, they love. To be a progressive Christian is to believe in them, in their goodness, in their dignity, in their worth.
To be a progressive Christian is to believe that the actions of a demented few cannot thwart the purposes of a loving God. They may, for a day, seize the headlines, but they can never seize and hold hostage the high dreams of God. They can snuff out our lives, but never our hopes, which transcend us.
In the words of our founder George Fox, [Gulley wrote] I too “saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” I do not believe in the end times, in the depravity of humanity, or the meanness of God. [www.philipgulley.com]
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…Keep on doing these things…and the God of peace will be with you.” Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark