“Standing in the Breach,” Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Exodus 32:1-14

How can you tell if you are really alive?  I couldn’t find the quote this week which I think is from Frederick Beuchner, but I remember the third and final question in the test is this:  “Is there anyone that if one of you had to suffer great pain, you would volunteer to be the one to suffer?”    I think that’s what my son meant when he told me once that he loved me so much he would “run through a wall for me.”  I’m not sure what that would accomplish, but it touches my heart every time I think about it.

The lectionary lessons for October 9 from the Hebrew Scriptures are about that kind of risk-taking love.  Both deal with a time when Moses put his life on the line for the people of Israel.

Psalm 106 is the Cliffs Notes version of the famous Golden Calf story in Exodus 32.  The Psalmist says, “They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image.  They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous things in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.  Therefore God said he would destroy them—had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before God, to turn away God’s wrath from destroying them.” (vs. 19-23)

We can all think of times when we have needed someone to stand in the breach for us, to be our advocate—to stand up to a bully or a predatory lender, to help us find our way through the morass of a complex tax code or indecipherable medical bills from a half dozen different health care providers, all for the same medical procedure.  Perhaps it’s getting help for an addiction or support in escaping from an abusive relationship, or an elderly patient needing a health care advocate.  When do you need someone to stand in the breach for you?  Who are the others around us that need us to be their voice when they cannot find their own?  Where do breach standers find the courage to put themselves on the line?

It takes great courage to speak the truth to one who has the power to do us great harm.  A whistle blower who exposes unjust practices by his employer is often very soon among the unemployed.  A witness who testifies against a criminal may risk retribution.  Christians who are called to witness to their faith need to know that the Greek word for “witness” is also the word for “martyr.”  Breach standing is not for sissies, and yet the courage of those who stand up to human forces of injustice pales in comparison to what Moses does in the Exodus 32 account.

It may help to sketch in a few more details that aren’t included in the Psalm 106 summary to   remind ourselves of the context of the Golden Calf story.  In the last few blog posts I’ve talked about the complaining the Israelites do about Moses’ leadership and his failure to provide for their comfort in the way to which they would like to become accustomed.  The Psalmist reminds us that in every case God has responded by meeting the needs of the people.  God has liberated them from slavery, fed them when they were hungry, given them a GPS in the sky to direct their travels, and provided water when they were thirsty.  Now their leader Moses has gone up on the mountain (called both Sinai and Horeb in the scriptures) to receive the 10 Commandments.

Moses is gone a lot longer than the people think he should be.  Granted 40 days does seem like a long time to get 10 Commandments.  That’s four days per commandment, but remember there were no Kinko’s where the printing could be done quickly, and God has a good union contract that provides for a day off every seven days!  The bottom line is that the people get restless and worried.  You know how hard it is to wait and worry about a loved one who is driving home late at night; or how hard it is to wait for test results from the doctor that could be a matter of life or death.  The Israelites are missing their leader, the one who has led them to freedom and they are lost without him.  They say, “Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (32:1).  Translation: Who is going to take care of us out here in the wilderness if Moses doesn’t come back?

That part of the story is understandable.   Fame is fleeting and fans are fickle.  Look how quickly a football coach is hung in effigy when his winning team starts losing or a political leader’s popularity goes south when unemployment numbers go north?  What is amazing about the story in Exodus is how quickly Moses’ brother Aaron caves in to the demands of the people.  The other part of Exodus 32:1 says, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us.”  And without hesitation, Aaron says, OK, give me your rings and any gold you have, “and he formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf” which the people proceed to bow down and worship.

I don’t know about you, but the image in my mind of this golden calf is a lot like the full-sized butter cow the dairy farmers display at the Ohio State Fair.  Influenced by the Hollywood version of this story, the picture in my mind is of a large impressive gold statue of a full-grown Holstein.  But let’s do a reality check.  These Israelites were homeless runaway slaves who fled Egypt with only what they could take in a carry on.  How much gold do you think they had?  Probably not enough to create a very big idol.  And that adds to the irony of the story.  On one hand we have Yahweh who turned the Nile into blood, sent plagues of locusts, killed off all the first-born sons of Egypt, parted the waters of the sea, fed the refugees manna from heaven, and made water come out of rocks to quench their thirst.  In the other corner we have a tiny, lifeless inanimate piece of metal.  That’s like somebody in a shiny new Lexus pulling up next to a rusty old VW bug and asking the driver if she wants to trade.  Or maybe it’s like the choice we’ll wrestle with in next week’s Gospel lesson where Jesus tells us to “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Back to Mt. Horeb where God is watching this little Golden Calf drama unfold.  God immediately pronounces destruction on these idolatrous, “stiff-necked” people (32:10).  I like to think God is as long-suffering and patient as a Cleveland sports fan, but it looks like there is a limit to God’s mercy and this seems to be it.  That is until Moses steps into the breach and argues with God.  I have trouble standing up to my wife or my grandkids, and here is Moses arguing with God.  You have to have a pretty trusting relationship to have an honest argument.  People who know how to argue fairly and speak the truth in love to each other have relationships that last.  Moses has that kind of relationship with God, sort of like Tevye in “Fiddle on the Roof.”

But as amazing as it is that Moses has the courage to argue with God, the most incredible thing is that he wins the argument!  You can read the details in verses 11-13, but my paraphrase of Moses’ case is, “Yahweh, this is going to be a PR nightmare if you go back on your promise to Abraham to make this little rag tag bunch of nomads a great nation.  How will that look back in Egypt on CNN?  You can’t afford to mess this up.”    And verse 16 says “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

Three reflections on God’s dramatic reversal:

1.  One person can make a difference.  If God can be persuaded to change, don’t let anyone tell us we can’t fight city hall.  Read John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage to see how often one person of integrity has changed the course of American history.  Or the story about a young boy saving starfish that were washed up on the beach to die by throwing them back into the ocean.  When a passerby told him he was wasting his time because there were thousands of starfish on the beach and he couldn’t make a difference, the boy picked up another starfish, threw it into the water and said, “It made a difference to that one.”

2.  What does Moses advocacy for the Israelites tell us about the power of intercessory prayer?  No, it doesn’t mean we can expect God to do whatever we ask.  A god like that would be weaker than a Golden Calf.    It does mean we all have an obligation and duty to stand in the breach for those who need an advocate; to pray without ceasing, to work for peace and justice, or as the Epistle lesson for this week (Philippians 4:1-9) tells us, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

3.  Before Psalm 106 retells the Golden Calf story it assures us that our God is a God of mercy whose “steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 106:1), even when “both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.” (Ps. 106:6)  God gets justifiably angry at the Israelites and us for our unfaithfulness, yes, but one can be angry and still love the sinner.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of that, and that’s exactly what Moses does in his argument with God.  He reminds God of his promises and of his love for his people.  And that reminder helps God “turn from his fierce wrath and change his mind.”

We need reminders too.  Regular acts of worship and study of the Scriptures help us remember our own sin and God’s deliverance,  the promises we have made to live in the ways of peace and love with those dearest to us and with all of our sisters and brothers in the family of God.   Partaking of Holy Communion, a sacrament of remembrance, reminds us of Christ’s sacrificial love as he stood in the breach for humankind’s redemption.  And we are reminded that God has not left us alone but has given us the Holy Spirit, our eternal advocate to strengthen us so our fears do not tempt us to bow down to any false gods.

“Is God With Us or Not?” Exodus 17:1-7

The first time I ever felt totally and absolutely alone was the night I was initiated into the Order of the Arrow in the Boy Scouts.  The initiation included a 24 hour period of silence, which was bad enough, but the hardest part of that time was the night we each had to spend alone under the stars, not knowing where we were or how close we were to any other scouts.  We were led in silence, single-file out into the remote areas of Camp Lakota near Defiance, Ohio with nothing but a sleeping bag.  Our instructions were that when tapped on the shoulder by the guide who was behind us we were to stop in that spot, bunk down for the night and not leave that spot until a guide came for us in the morning.

The Exodus passage for September 25 reminds me of that frightened young boy I was some 50 years ago.  Exodus 17 is a continuation of last week’s complaining saga in chapter 16.  This time the complaints are more specific, namely for water.  The Israelites have camped at Rephidim where, we are told, “there was no water for the people to drink.”  (Note that this story must be from one of the other sources incorporated into the Exodus account.  If God has provided food in chapter 16 it makes no sense that something as essential for human life as water would not have also been provided.  However, following the manna from Heaven story in chapter 16 with this plea for water may also be a way to show us how quickly we return to complaining after one set of needs has been met, and how we are continually dependent on God to provide for us anew each and every day.)

But the Israelites still don’t understand the source of their liberation or their dependence on God. In verse 2 we are told they “quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’”  It’s not Moses who provided food in chapter 16 and as we see it is not within Moses’ power to provide water for the thirsty pilgrims either.

I would argue that water is not the real issue here.  As important as water is for survival there’s a deeper thirst, the same one Jesus addresses with the woman at the well in John 4 when he offers her “living water.”  What’s going on in the Exodus story is that the real question behind all the murmuring and complaining comes to a head.  The Israelites seem to have finally realized they are really on their own.  There’s no 7-11 on the corner to buy Perrier when they’re thirsty.  They are in the wilderness, without identity or place, free from slavery but homeless, and like those scared Order of the Arrow scouts, feeling a strange mixture of independence and abandonment.   The bottom line question is not about water.  It comes in verse 7, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Theologically one does not have to be in a desert to experience the wilderness or to thirst for living water.

  • A widow after 50 years of happy marriage wakes up on a tear-soaked pillow in an empty bed in the wilderness.
  • A young vibrant father in the prime of life is struck down by a freak accident and will spend the rest of his life in the wilderness as a quadriplegic.
  • An innocent 10-year old girl is told she is HIV positive from a blood transfusion and is then driven deeper into the wilderness by an unknowing Sunday School teacher who tells her class that God has sent Aids to punish promiscuity and homosexuality.  And she not only wonders if God is among us in the wilderness but who would want that kind of God there anyway?
  • So does a family whose home is washed away by a flood that is labeled by their insurance company “an act of God.”

We’ve all been in the wilderness—without even leaving home:  broken-hearted by a loving relationship gone sour; frightened by the fear of unemployment in a shaky economy; helplessly watching a whole year’s crop baked to a crisp in draught-plagued summer heat; weeping over the destruction of more acres of woodlands by the bulldozers of progress or the pollution of yet more rivers and streams.

Haven’t we all murmured and asked, “Is God among us in this wilderness or not?”

It’s a legitimate question raised by the Israelites.  They are no longer able to depend on their Egyptian overlords to provide for them and are being asked to put their lives on the line and trust Yahweh and his agent, Moses.  They (and we) are like a trapeze artist who wants to know if her partner can be trusted to catch her 50 feet above the ground; or a traveler who deserves to know if the pilot is sober and qualified to fly the 737 he’s about to board; or a marriage or business partner who has a right to know if their spouse or colleague is reliable and trustworthy.

If we risk our lives on someone we want to know if they are with us or not, don’t we?  It’s OK to ask about God’s presence.  There has to be room for doubt in our lives or there is no room for genuine faith.  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [Heb. 11:1]  So, it’s OK to question God’s presence, but the problem is we often look for the wrong kind of answer to that question.  Because what we really want is for God to do for us what we want.  And sometimes the answer to our prayers is “no.”  And we feel abandoned and forsaken, like Jesus on the cross or like the Hebrews in the wilderness.  “Have you brought us out here to die?”

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer to “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” I sometimes want to say, “What good are you doing in Heaven, God.  We need you here with us in the wilderness.”  Robert Browning’s poem is comforting (“God is in his heaven and all is right with the world”) but anyone who has been out of their house or watched the 11 o’clock news knows that all is not right with the world.  Is God with us in the wilderness?

Fred Craddock says that the problem is that we want our theology to be “When the Messiah comes there will be no more suffering.”  We’ve got it backwards, says Craddock.  What the Bible really tells us over and over again is that “Where there is suffering, there the Messiah will come.”

We know that is true, but like the Israelites, we ask why does God lets us wander in the wilderness and wonder if we are abandoned?  Such times test us too and help teach us that we are not independent or self-sufficient.  We are dependent on God, but only when we feel the void in our lives, the emptiness that no human can fill, are we able to admit our dependence on God and invite God into our lives to fill the wilderness-sized hole.  I believe it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “People are like tea bags.  You can’t tell how strong they are till they are in hot water.”  Those hot water  times are when we learn that we need God.

That faith and strength is like the metaphor in the title song to the great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” (lyrics by Sheldon Harnick):

Away above my head I see the strangest sight, a fiddler on the roof, who’s up there day and night.  He fiddles when it rains, he fiddles when it snows; I’ve never seen him rest, yet on and on he goes.

What does it mean this fiddler on the roof, who fiddles every night and fiddles every noon?  Why should he pick so curious a place to play his little fiddler’s tune?  An unexpected breeze could blow him to the ground, yet after ev’ry storm I see he’s still around.  Whatever each day brings, this odd outlandish man, he plays his simple tune, as sweetly as he can.

A fiddler on the roof, a most unlikely sight; it may not mean a thing, but then again it might!”

Is God with us in the stormy, lonely, wilderness times of our lives?  The answer is a resounding “Yes!”  Emmanuel, one of the names for Jesus, means literally “God with Us,” incarnate in human form.  In the Exodus 17 passage God answers this basic theological and existential question in a different but also life-giving form.   In verses 4-6 God responds to the murmuring Israelites.

Moses asks God for help in dealing with his rebellious people.  The mob is so angry Moses is afraid they are going to stone him.  Desperate people do such things.  But God tells Moses to take his staff and strike the rock at Horeb and “water will come out of it so that the people may drink.”  The text tells us Moses did so “in the sight of the elders of Israel.”  But notice what the text doesn’t say; it doesn’t say the water flowed out of the rock.  The story ends right there and another example of how dependent the people are on God begins in verse 9 when they are attacked by Amalek.  We are never told the water flows.  People of faith however don’t need that blank filled in with details.  We can hear the water gurgling up from the rock and taste the cool refreshing life it gives.

And in the bubbling water, we also hear the answer whispered to those who have ears to hear, “Yes, God is with us, everywhere; especially in the wilderness.”

“Complaining,” Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16

I’m wearing one of those rubber bracelets that are popular these days to show support for all kinds of good causes.  This one is from a group called “A Complaint Free World.org” started by Rev. Will Bowen to promote a healthier, more positive attitude toward life.  The unique deal for this bracelet is that it’s interactive.  You are supposed to switch it from one wrist to the other each time you catch yourself complaining, the goal being to go 21 days without whining or bellyaching.  I wore out 3 bracelets before I made it to the three-week goal.

Coincidentally (or is it a God incident?) two of the scripture lessons for September 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary deal with complaining.  Exodus (16:2-15) begins with “The whole congregation of Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.”  This is a classic “no good deed will go unpunished” or “what have you done for me lately” story.  Moses and Aaron have risked their lives to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and the thanks they get from their ungrateful people is constant griping.  The whining former slaves go so far as to say, “We would have been better off just dying in Egypt than to have you bring us out here in the wilderness to starve to death.”  Like they were expecting the Sinai Sheraton?

The Gospel lesson (Matthew 20:1-6) is the parable that must have inspired first century collective bargaining.  Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a vineyard owner who hires some laborers early in the morning, another group at 9 am, another at noon, more at 3 pm, and a final cadre at 5 pm.  So far, so good.  One of the few things we all agree on these days is creating jobs, right?  But when the whistle blows at 6 pm and the workers line up for their pay, starting with those who only worked an hour, everyone gets paid the same wage, whether they worked an hour or 12 hours!  Not surprisingly, the folks who worked all day long in the hot sun are mildly irritated and complain that they should be paid more since they worked more.  They shout a child’s favorite complaint, “That’s not fair!”  But the landowner says, “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”  And then Jesus concludes the parable with that curious line, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 

I love the way my mentor Van Bogard “Bogie” Dunn interpreted that last line when I was a seminary student.  Rather than seeing this as a reversal of order from one up to one down, Bogie said that if the first are last and the last are first, that means everyone is the same—there is no first or last.  The kingdom of God is not about getting ahead, it’s about realizing that we are all equal in the eyes of God.  And if we are all equal and trust God to provide what we need and not what we want, 90% of our reasons for complaining melt away faster than an ice cream cone in the noon day sun.

One thing that intrigues me about these two passages of scripture is the seemingly illogical way God and the God-figure/landowner respond to the complainers.  The complaint of the laborers who slaved all day seems legit to our capitalistic sensibilities, does it not?  And look at how God responds to the former slaves in the Exodus passage.  Three times in 14 verses the Exodus account tells us that “God has heard your complaining.” (vs. 7, 8, and 12). That part makes sense.  We know God listens to our prayers, apparently even when we are whining.  But God’s response to the Israelites is totally unexpected.  Rather than telling them to shut up and be glad they are free from their captivity in Egypt or asking if they want some cheese with their whine, God seems to reward their grumpiness and provides manna from heaven, bread in the morning and meat in the evening.  And they don’t have to do anything to earn it.  They work even less than the 5 o’clock grape pickers in the parable.  All they have to do is go out and gather what God provides for them every day; and the only caveat is that they can’t get greedy and take more than they really need or it will spoil.  (Which of course they do, and it does.)

So the workers who seem to have a justifiable gripe come up empty handed, and the Israelite ingrates get fed.  The Exodus account reminds me of another parable Jesus told (Luke 18:1-8) about a judge who is constantly harassed by a woman with a grievance.  She finally wears the judge down and gets what she wants, not because she pleads her case so well; but because the judge is tired of listening to her complain.

Is the message here that if we complain enough God will solve our problems just to shut us up?  That’s the squeaky-wheel theology of prayer, and it has some merit.  We have had one of those Murphy’s law summers at our house when it seems that everything that can has quit working: hot water heater, car alternator, ice maker in the frig, telephone, cable TV.  Multiple times we have been promised repairs or installation services, and days or even weeks go by without satisfactory response.  I’ve learned that making phone calls with increasing levels of irritation and impatience does seem to get results in the service sector.  But is that the way it is with God? 

One possible answer is found in Luke 18:1 where Luke very clearly spells out the purpose of the parable of the persistent widow.  “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  At least when we are complaining to God we are in communication and showing some level of trust that God cares and will respond.

On the flip side of complaining, consider the famous serenity prayer that says, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”  I don’t think St. Paul was in AA, but his statement in Philippians 4:11 that he has “learned to be content in whatever state” he is in has a similar ring to it.  And so does Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, telling us not to worry about tomorrow or what we will eat or drink or wear.   He says God knows we need these things and will provide, just as God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness.

Maybe it’s a lack of faith, but I have problems with that advice.  It sounds too much like the Gospel according to Pollyanna to me and can be too easily turned into an excuse to rest on our laurels (or other parts of our anatomy).  I suppose the fear of apathy or laziness inspired the popular saying that “God helps those who help themselves,” one of those familiar phrases that Fred Craddock calls ‘almost Bible” because so many people think it’s biblical or should be.  Here’s what Wikipedia says about that saying:  “The phrase originated in ancient Greece, occurring as the moral to one of Aesop’s Fables, and later in the great tragedy authors of ancient Greek drama. It has been commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin; however the modern English wording appears earlier in Algernon Sidney’s work.  It is mistaken by many to be a Bible quote; however the phrase does not occur in the Bible. Some Christians have criticized it as actually against the Bible’s basic message of God’s grace.”

That last phrase zeros in on a key dynamic for the balancing act required in faithful living  We are called to walk a fine line between trusting God to provide but also taking initiative to meet our own needs and those of others – to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. 

Too often we use the “God helps those who help themselves” philosophy or hum a few bars of  “God will take care of you” to avoid our own responsibility for going the extra mile to meet the needs of others.  Praying for those in need is good.  It raises our awareness and can motivate us to compassionate just action.  But if our prayer stops with just delegating the problems of others to God’s to do list, sorry that won’t fly.  (And yes, I just switched my bracelet for complaining about those who behave this way.  And yes, I need to check for logs in my own eye before pointing out the speck in yours.)

Remember the full text of the Serenity Prayer asks for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” but also for “the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”   The Israelites in the wilderness couldn’t change the harsh living conditions in the desert, but when God provided food for them, they were required to change what they could — to go out for themselves and gather what God had given them. 

The bottom line is that constructive criticism is an essential Christina discipline.  Injustices will not be righted or human needs met until some whistle blowing prophet first identifies the problem.  When criticism degenerates into complaining is when we fail to respond to a problem by taking positive action to improve our own situation or that of others.

My suggestion is this:

The next time we hear someone, including ourselves, moaning and groaning about an unfair or painful situation, consider our options:

  1.  We can just tune out the complainer and ignore him or her.
  2. We can listen for what’s behind the complaint. Is it
  • (a) One of those things up with which we have to put, i.e. something that can’t be changed and therefore must be accepted?
  • (b) If it can be changed, what resources can we and the other person(s) muster or create together to help the situation?
  • (c)  A quick prayer for discerning the difference between a and b is always helpful.

In that light, Exodus 16 makes a lot more sense.  When God heard the complaints of the Israelites, God didn’t reward them for being cantankerous and unreasonable.  God really listened and heard the fear and pain in their pleas and responded in love and grace to meet their needs.

May we go and do likewise.