Sermon November 29, 2020 First Sunday in Advent
Scriptures: Isaiah 64: 1-19; Mark 13: 24-37
I guess you might say that guy is the opposite of staying awake! He is indifferent. Maybe that is why the Bible depictions of the Day of the Lord or the Second coming of Christ are so dramatic. The heavens falling and the Son of Man coming on a Cloud. The Heaven ripped apart and God thundering through in all his glory so that the mountains tremble! Something amazing will happen folks, the Bible is shouting- pay attention.
As I studied these two passages this week, I looked at some of the depictions of the Day of the Lord in the prophets. For especially the 8th century prophets of Israel and Judah, the day of the Lord was a terrible day! Amos says, why would any desire this day, it is darkness, not light.( Amos 5: 18) Zephaniah tells of a day of wrath that will destroy all the earth. ( Zeph 1: 14-18) For Jeremiah it is a day of retribution with a bloody sword.( Jer. 46: 10)
Yet, when we look at the passage in Isaiah and the story in Mark, we see a different vision. For Isaiah, the coming of the Lord will show God’s glory and power to the nations and remind Israel they belong to God. For Mark, the Day of the Lord is the Son of Man or Jesus coming back to gather up all the disciples to him. There is sense in both depictions that this Day of the Lord is less about destruction and violence and more about reconnection.
One of the responses to these images and stories down through the ages has been for people to try to pinpoint when this great event was to occur. When the year changed from 1999 to 2000, I was serving Myrtle Creek, Oregon. Several of my 7th Day Adventist and Assembly of God colleagues were very excited about the change to the new milineum. Many thought that they saw the fig tree and that this was the moment. They preached sermon series on the books of Daniel and Revelation. Of course, the Second coming didn’t come as they had anticipated. Yet, they were responding to a sense of longing and maybe fear in their people. Some of them longed for Jesus to come back to rescue them and our world from all its sinfulness and strife.
As I noted in the Advent wreath meditation both of these passages express the longings of people. They are longings we recognize: for God to rescue the world from its strife and suffering, for Christ to gather together all his disciples in peaceful community, for salvation from sin and reconnection to God as God’s people. Jesus knew that people would want to try to predict when these longings could be realized. So He told his disciples that no one knows expect God. And that our response needed to be to stay awake!
What does Jesus mean by “ stay awake?” I think that Jesus does not mean is to literally not sleep. That would only lead to illness, insanity and death. I think Jesus is talking about a kind of hopeful awareness that stays alert to God.
So first of all I think to stay awake means to stay in tune with your longings for God, for spiritual formation, even for rescue. To have self awarenesss. Pay attention to your life and priorities. As Luke says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” ( 21 34) This can mean being awake to our struggle with sin and woundedness like Isaiah put so well, “ We have all become like one who is unclean an all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth, we all fade like a leaf and our iniquities like the wind take us away.” ( 64: 6) and it can also be awareness of our giftedness as God’s children. As Isaiah also says, “ Yet, O Lord you are our Father, we are the clay and you are our potter we are all the work of your hand.” ( 64:8) In other words Jesus invites us to stay awake to the reality of who we are!
There is a story about a judge who attended a worship service at which also attended a man who the judge had once sent to prison. The two of them knelt side by side to take communion one Sunday. On the way out of the church that day someone mentioned that fact to the judge. Yes, the judge said, it was only by the Grace of Christ. OH you mean for the man who had changed from convict to church goer? Oh no, said the judge, for me, to realize that I am no different from the man I sent to prison, also in need of God’s grace.
Secondly to Stay awake means to keep your actions and decisions in alignment with Christ’s path of love and forgiveness. To have others awareness. Paul in Romans 13:11 puts it this way, “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Matthew reminds us of the ways of Christ through the parable of the sheep and the goats we read last week. Stay alert to the needs of others especially those who hunger and thirst, who are naked or ill or stranger or in prison. In 1 Thessalonians 5 Paul reminds people as they anticipate the coming of Christ to encourage one another.
Clearly one way to stay awake and ready for the coming of the Lord is to be about doing the works of love and compassion, acceptance and justice that God calls us to do. Jesus invites us to wake up to the needs of others around us.
Finally, to Stay awake means to keep oil in your lamps, to practice a lifestyle that helps you stay healthy and alert to where God is at work. I call this spirit awareness Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:6 says clearly about how to be ready for the second coming of Christ, “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” Matthew through his story of the brides maids waiting for the bridegroom would say, “ keep your lamp lit and have plenty of oil” Maybe one way of thinking about this is to find ways to practice the mindfulness that our speakers last week at the webinar suggested. Taking the time to slow down, to pay attention to our breathing, and the reality of what it before us.
I can remember a time when I was extremely busy at Myrtle Creek with parenting, pastoring, starting an afterschool program and other things. One day as I walked toward my house, I noticed the tulips were suddenly all in bloom. I still remember what a special moment it was to stop in awe at those beautiful flowers and to just simply bow and greet them. To be mindful.
This awareness of spirit can also becoming awakened to new insights and realities around us. For example, for many learning about the history of discrimination is our country can be an eye opener. To live for a time in a culture different from ones own can be an eye opener. To really listen to someone who has different political beliefs than ourselves can be an eye opener. In these and many other ways, we can continue in our lives to awaken to new things about our world, our neighbors, ourselves and our faith.
This awareness of Spirit can sometimes be missed by the world. Before the Berlin wall fell, Lutheran churches in East Berlin started having prayer services for peace and candlelight vigils at the wall. Later after the wall fell an East Berlin Communist leader commented. “ We were prepared for everything but prayers and candles.” ( NPR All Things Considered, November 9, 2009)
These passages from Mark and Isaiah express the longings of people. Longings for rescue, for connection, for salvation. The cry of Isaiah, “Now consider, we are all your people” is answered in Jesus. Jesus’s coming the first time, the last time, any time is a proclamation that God cares about God’s people. At the end of time- that relationship still holds.
So during this season of Advent, Jesus tells us to stay awake. Wake up to our longings to be rooted in love and open to hope. By rooted in love, I mean connected to Christ, the source of our lives and love. By open to hope, I mean seeking a presence of love and possibility in the midst of troubles and suffering and sorrow. This hope may trust that there will come a day when God will make all things new- symbolized by Jesus coming on a cloud or the new Jerusalem but it also recognizes that none of us will ever know the time of that great ending. Meanwhile Jesus calls us to a day to day hope- stay awake Jesus says. Stay awake.
Stay awake to your own self awareness
Stay awake to the needs of others
Stay awake to the Spirit of God
Sermon, Nov. 1 2020 by Rev. June Fothergill
All Saints Day Communion Joshua 3: 1-17, 4:1-7
It’s interesting to me to be hiking along in the wilderness or along a beach and encounter a pile of stones, obviously placed there deliberately. Sometimes there are just little towers, like someone has been goofing around. Other times they look like directions for someone coming up the trail. Other times they seem more like mysterious works of art like what we saw on a beach one time in Mexico.
And sometimes they look like a memorial to something- although I am not always sure what.
So the idea of placing stones together to mark an important place or event is not new to us or to the Bible. IN Genesis we saw Jacob raise up a stone to mark where he saw vision of God and learned of God’s promises to his family and himself. We even often have grave stones to mark the death pf someone important to us. So God telling Joshua to gather up some stones and make a memorial to the crossing of the River Jordan is not so unusual or strange.
Yet, as we gather today to think about All Saints Day and celebrate communion, this story invites a deeper look. . It is a story about faith and its challenge and continuity. It is a story about transitions and how communities adapt to change
God does not give Joshua a reason for his commandment that he get twelve men representing the 12 tribes to go to the place where the priests stood and take up stones and bring them across to the place where they will camp. As I was thinking about this order from God, I realized that it would take great faith to make that journey. They would have to trust that the waters would stay back, that they could do this extra crossing with out drowning in the river. They had been safe on the other side!
Their willingness to take the risk. Reminds us of the courage of faith. Faith is not just about believing certain things, it is acting upon trust and taking risks for the things that truly matter to us. Crossing the Red sea with Moses a generation earlier had been such a step of faith, with the armies of Pharoah at their heels. For the people of Joshua’s day, crossing the Jordan was also an act of faith. They now had the ark of the covenant with them, they had symbols of their God and their wilderness forged faith. Yet, they still had to trust that the waters would not harm them. And for the 12 chosen from the tribes they had to trust it twice!
I think about some of the saints of my life and how they stepped out in faith. My father was a young man from rural Idaho who sent off to seminary in the big city of Chicago by himself. He was an introvert who stepped out in faith to be a pastor of churches. He was a “ most likely to succeed high school valedictorian” who surrendered his life to Christ in humble service. He’s for me one of the ones who brought the stone back across the Jordan to remind me of faith and service.
Stepping out in faith can be risky. It means acting not on our selfish impulses but on a love of God and the world. We are never sure where that will lead us. As my dad used to teach and preach- it will be an adventure. May be one way of looking at what we are doing right now as a church- zoom meetings and worship, carry out meals, shower trailers in the parking lot- can be seen an adventure in faith. I am looking forward to our webinar about Dealing with family stress during covid 19. It will be the recording to launch an Ebbert you tube channel. This is certainly an adventure into the unknown for us all! We don’t even know the possible risks and benefits. We just know that there are people in need out there and we have resources and faith to share. One sign for me was when all four of the people we asked to speak at the webinar agreed without hesitation.
What is it about your faith that is nudging you to step out in new ways? Are you being called like those 12 representatives of the tribes, to go an extra mile for your faith? Maybe this will mean trying a new thing like making a video for the new youtube channel or giving more toward the ministry of our church in this strange time. Crossing the Jordan for the people of Israel was a step of risk taking faith and for those 12 men, even more so. Yet, it was also an act that showed the continuity of faith. The ark, the parting of the waters, all remind them that God had been with them in the past and was there then.
This is probably why Joshua supplied for the 12 stone getters a reason for their toil. When he tells them what to do, he adds that these stones will make a memorial for future children. Joshua has the insight that his community as they launch into this new adventure, as they enter this promised land with all its possibilities and dangers, they need a threshold point to remember. The idea that children will ask about the stones shows Joshua’s trust that they have a future. There will be future generations who will want to hear the stories of their ancestors. And Joshua realizes that creating something together on this threshold moment will unite them together right now. It will give them an anchor for their faith.
I have to admit that I am glad that we were able to create together a mural for our 150th Anniversary. This beautiful piece of art reflects our past but also speaks to our future. The people around the table reflect a range of colors and ages, a diversity of backgrounds. The circuit rider on his horse reminds us of our past and those who were courageous in preaching and starting new church communities. Holding these two images together is the growing lilies and the communion table filled with bounty. Our hopes that we can continue to care for those in need, for our hurting planet and offer the love of Christ to a wide variety of persons are reflected in the mural. It is a memorial- when the kids of the future ask us about it we can tell them about the 150th anniversary and the roots of our church. It also a sign toward our future as we seek to be open to the variety of people in our world and where Christ will lead us. It is a touchstone for our church like Joshua’s memorial stones.
What are the touchstones of your life that help you deal with change? What anchors you to faith but also releases you to step into the future with God? Maybe some of the people you thought of who have touched your life are touchstones for you. Maybe you remember the wisdom of a grandparent or the witness of a friend, that still helps you in times of transition and change.
I often think of my mentor and professor Dr. Albertson. We all called him DA. He was the leader of the Pacific Rim study travel experience I had when I was a senior in college. He led a motley crew of US college students through 9 months of classes and adventures in Asia back in 1977-78, When there were no cell phone or individual computers or even fax machines. He taught us to gather and to scatter. He inspired in us an openness to see and hear and learn from different cultures. He taught me to be less arrogant and judgmental. I watched how he loved people even when he disagreed with them. Much of what he taught me by his example and honesty still stays with me. He’s one of my touchstones.
I invite you to think a moment about some of your touchstone persons on this All Saints Day. Maybe make a small monument of stones somewhere in your home to remember them.
Finally, the people of Israel did not stay around their stone monument. They left it there by the river for future generations to find but they set out into their new land. They set out to have many adventures of faith, face many dangers and learn more about what it meant to follow God’s ways. It was an adventure of faith that we continue today. We may not be related directly to those Israelites but we have inherited their stories and their faith. As Paul says through Christ we have been adopted into the family of God. Because of them and all the saints we have named in our hearts today, we can also cross over the Jordan rivers of our lives. When we share in communion today, we do so remembering our Christ, our cornerstone but also all those faithful stone carriers who have helped us remember faith, grow in faith and step out in faith. We come to the table together in spirit for Christ touches each of our lives no matter where we are. We come eager to receive the courage and forgiveness we need to step our on our own adventures of faith.
Sermon October 25, 2020 “What We Pass Down” by Rev. June Fothergill
Deuteronomy 34: 1-12; Matthew 22: 34-46
In the Matthew passage today, Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” It is a test from his opponents, but I can imagine everyone there in the Temple waiting with anticipation. Jesus simply quotes the Torah or Moses, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment and the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” At this the questioners stopped. Who could argue with this?
Yet, for us, the question is open. Maybe because we are not like those scribes and pharisees seeped in the Torah. Maybe because we need to interpret Jesus for own times and culture. We today want to continue the discussion with Jesus. What do you mean Jesus by love God? What does it mean to love neighbor as self?
I walked around the church on Wednesday and asked a few of our meals ministry volunteers and guests this question- What does it mean to love God? Then I added a couple clips from other folks in our congregation who seem to be reflecting something about this question. (show video) ( if you would like a copy of the video please let Pastor June know at email@example.com or 541 603 8706)
As I listen to these folks and their faith, I notice the legacy of Moses: The story of Moses on the mountain looking out at the promised land that he knows he will not enter. Moses has been an incredible leader to the people of Israel. He led them through the sea to free them from the slavery of Egypt. He went up on the mountain and received from God the law to show them how to live and organize their society based upon God. He worked to help them with their disputes and troubles. He led them in the wilderness and helped them find the food and water God provided. As the passage says he did great signs and wonders. Yet, he did not receive the promise, just like his ancestors Abraham and Isaac and Jacob before him- we would not go into the promised land.
Yet, what a legacy he left for the generation who would go to the promised land. That legacy showed them how to love God and neighbor. That legacy Jesus says is upon which hangs all the law and prophets.
- Moses showed them the power and wonder of relationship with God. He starts out as a reluctant prophet yet over the years he developed an intimate relationship with God. He went to God when he had troubles with the people. He turned to God for the source of how to organize their society. He received the law from God. Like the people in the wilderness he learned to trust God’s provision and presence. Sometimes the way to love God is simple faith in God. We love God because God cares for us and answers our prayers. We love God because we have a relationship with God.
- Moses was willing to let go of his own ego, power, end game and share leadership with others. He learned from his father in law Jethro to share the burden of leadership with others. He also trained up a younger leader. God and Moses had chosen Joshua of Nun to lead the people. He was one of the original spies of the land who actually gave an encouraging report. He had been with Moses in the tent of meeting and even on the mountain top. He had been consecrated for leadership before the whole congregation of Israel. Moses can pass the torch of leadership to someone he trusts. Sometimes our love of God is about letting go of our own ego and need to control things. It means being willing to share this earth with a new generation. Susi talked about loving God as the same as sharing love with family. Ultimately, we see Jesus taking this love of God and neighbor to heart in his willingness to die for us all. As Paul recognized, “love does not insist on its own way.” To love God is to be willing to look beyond our own selfish interests to the needs of others and even our earth.
- Finally, Moses’s legacy was a willingness to grow in love of God and neighbor. He grew to care so deeply about his people and was even willing to argue with God on their behalf. He left them with the Torah or the laws which could guide them. Especially Deuteronomy reads like a letter to the people. Moses speaking directly to them. When asked what it means to love God, most of us would say that it is something we learn to do over our lives. Loving God and neighbor are a daily work and choice. Learning to show positive regard for self, God and neighbor is a lifelong adventure.
When you go out to collect people’s ideas about something, you never know what they will say. When Phil in the video said that to love God was to love oneself. Some other folks agreed, others like Randy wondered about it. It led to a short discussion about how many people do not love themselves and therefore have troubles loving God or anyone. This individualistic/ psychological approach is part of our culture. We pay attention to what people think of themselves in ways that Jesus and Moses probably did not. Yet, the insights of psychology help us to understand one another better. They can help us to grow in our love of God and others.
I remember a friend who worked as a prison chaplain telling me that many of the men, she worked with had no sense of self, they felt empty and alone. Surely God loves these men and knowing God loves them just might help them love themselves and therefore others and God.
Where does love start? It seems to me that it is always flowing from God. That God is love. One sees the tenderness of God taking Moses to the mountain top and showing him the land that will sustain his people. The goal of their long journey together. God tells Moses,” You will not cross over, but look this is the promise I continue to give, the love I will continue to offer.” For Moses it was not about reaching a certain goal, but about the journey with God. It was not about his own accomplishments but about the needs of his people. For Moses, it was not about triumph over others but through listening to God and receiving his teachings, learning to love God and neighbor. His legacy was also Jesus legacy and it can be our legacy. What is the most important thing? The core of our ministry and lives? Love God and love neighbor. On this hangs everything.
Sermon October 4, 2020 “Centered in Christ” by Rev June Fothergill
Scripture: Philippians 3: 6-14
There is an ancient story about a group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear. How will these men find the truth about an elephant? Will they argue and fight over their different perspectives?
Several years ago, I stayed in Cuenavaca Mexico for a month by myself and attending a Spanish language school. One day I went to a children’s mass at a local church. To my surprise and delight they sang a song I knew as they came up for communion. Then later I visited a Mexican Methodist church on a Sunday morning. As I walked in the door, I looked around and realized that they were having the very same Vacation Bible school program, in Spanish that my church at home was having that very same week! I felt like a bridge between two worlds. Christ was alive and well in both places.
As we share together in World Wide Communion Sunday, I invite us to realize the richness of our world of human cultures and languages. And to begin to realize that there is no need to rank them as superior or inferior. This is something our culture has done for hundreds of years and it is time to stop. What better way to start than to come humbly to the communion table asking God to free us from the attitudes and actions that keep us from living in peace and equity with one another in our communities, our homes, our world?
Paul had an experience like this. In the passage from Philippians he gives us a snippet of information about his personal story. It was unusual for him to engage in such autobiographical stories. He tells of his early connections with his Jewish faith: he had been circumcised at the proper time, he had been a Pharisee- one who knew well and upheld the laws and full of zeal even to the point of persecuting the church. “As to righteousness under the law, blameless” he proclaims. ( Phil 3:6) He had thought that his way of thinking was the best and only one. He was willing to hurt others to promote it. But something changed for Paul. He encountered Christ. Later the writer of Acts fleshes out the story more by telling of Paul’s conversion complete with getting knocked down off a horse, visions, blindness and becoming helplessness in need of help from a disciple of Jesus.
To the Philippians he tells the story a little differently. All that past stuff, I gave up like rubbish! He declares. He did this because he wants to center his life on Christ. He realizes that salvation is not about his own righteousness by living by a set of laws, even when he was good at it! In Christ he has found a new source of righteousness, not based upon being better or worse than others, not based upon getting all the cultural rules right, not based upon his own superiority or inferiority- only based upon his relationship with Christ, his acceptance of Christ’s love and grace in his life. Everything else is rubbish!
In Christ Paul had discovered that his way of life was not the center of the universe. He was then given a mission to spread the good news about Christ beyond the Jewish family where it grew up out into the gentile world. This was a bold move! It was also controversial. Even those in the early church who accepted a gentile mission wanted the gentiles to first become Jews- become like us! But Paul’s experience of Christ had taught him that this was not necessary or even a good idea. He knew that it was Christ who would make the difference in people’s lives, not all the cultural baggage from his heritage. He learned to trust that in Christ there was no Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man. The distinctions and hierarchies of his Jewish culture and even the gentile cultures did not apply to Christ! And therefore, to his community the church.
I think that we in the church today are still challenged by Paul’s insight. When we keep Christ central in our lives, we are invited to let go of some of our cultural notions of good and bad, inferior and superior, acceptable and unacceptable. For example, I think that most of us have rejected the idea that skin color means anything more than skin color. But that is not to say that we don’t have attitudes that somehow the European American way of doing things and culture and civilization is better than others, the best. I think Paul would advise us that this is rubbish! Paul left the confines of being a Pharisee and began to mix Christian ideas using the philosophies of the Jewish and the Greco Roman world.
Today Christ has touched hearts in Africa and Asia and Latin America. Now these communities of faith are creating their own Christian ways and theologies not based upon Greco Roman culture but Chinese or African or indigenous cultures. The exciting truth is that today, as we begin to become a truly global church, we are challenged like Paul to let go of some of our cultural bound ideas and welcome and learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ from around the globe.
One person who helped me understand this was a native American United Methodist story teller named Dayton Edmunds. At a seminar many years ago he described a way of thinking about the richness of human cultures and perspective that has helped me over the years. He suggested that we picture each other on a great circle or what he called a medicine wheel around Christ or any other truth we want to explore. He said that each of us have our place on the wheel with our particular view of the center. Other persons on the wheel also have a view of the center but because they are at a different place on the wheel their view will differ. The more people on the wheel and the more perspectives shared the closer we become to the truth about the center. Then he added. If you change your mind about something, that means that you move to a different place on the wheel but it does not mean that your old place is bad or negated. Just like I can listen to and value the view of the person opposite me on the circle, I can still value my old self. He thought that this allowed us to change our minds more easily.
Paul might not agree, for he thought he had to give up and see as rubbish his old self, but in reality that pharisee that new well the law and who cared deeply about God, we still part of him. It was this man who Christ had chosen. In Christ what he considered rubbish became rich soil for a ministry to the gentile world. His relationship with Christ gave him a new perspective on the wheel.
In our world today, we tend to think in terms of sides of issues. What difference could it make to instead see our selves on a wheel looking at the issues our world faces. If we are willing to listen to all the voices on the wheel, could we discover new truths? Could we learn to care more deeply for each other in our differences? I imagine Christ at the center, shining with love, grace and acceptance for each of us.
As we celebrate World wide communion today, we will remember in our liturgy the persons who struggle with oppression and poverty. We will use a liturgy from the church in India, a place and culture very different from our own. Yet, the glow of Christ is for all of us. Like Paul, it is in Christ that we find our value, our freedom and our purpose to love this world.
Sermon October 11, 2020 Indigenous People’s Day
Ex 32; 1-14; Phil 4: 1-9; Matthew 22: 1-14
I know this story speaks of a by gone era but I still like it. Did you hear about the young pastor who fouled up the established routine? He didn’t stand at the door and shake hands with the worshippers after the service. He went out to the curb and shook hands with the red faced parents waiting for their children to come out of Sunday school. P. 137 ( Bob Phillips, Laughter from the Pearly Gates)
Awhile back some of us where talking about our church becoming a community caring hub. Although our building can’t be used as much during the pandemic, I think the idea of being such a hub is still interesting. The other Wednesday, a woman stopped by and handed out bag suppers to folks from the Trinity Baptist Church. The next day I say an older woman giving away bag lunches to people on 6th street. Sometimes I find baggies of little carrots left behind when I clean up around the church. We now have the new little pantry for neighbors to put food into. The Burrito brigade brought by their burritos the other day in the parking lot. I found out on Friday that a neighbor of the church comes down and helps with the Saturday meal. In other words, people are coming by the church and offering help to unhoused folks. And all this is just what I know about! It seems that God is creating a Community Caring Hub in ways we don’t control or even know.
I admit that I have some discomfort about this. I would like to coordinate everyone and make sure we are not “ duplicating services” or wasting food. I imagine harnessing all this good will and desire to help others so more people get into housing. Or even having some of these folks become part of our congregation. Maybe I want to join that young pastor on the curbside.
But to be truly effective at this, I realize that I need to let go of some of my idolatry and competitiveness. Like Aaron, I am tempted to find my own solutions and put my ideas central rather than listen to God.
You see, I believe that Aaron was trying to be a good leader. He wanted to help the people when they were lost without Moses. He had always been the second one, the add on, the brother who was always there but outside any of the glory. Now he had people clamoring for direction and something to hang onto. He had some good instincts. He realized that they needed to be involved, so he asked them to give from their treasure, to give the gold that at least some of them had received from their Egyptian neighbors.
The problem was that Aaron thought he could control things, that he needed to control things. So instead of asking for God’s help, instead of thinking of the commandments they had just received, he decided to make something he could control- a Golden Calf, a symbol for people to rally around. Then, he heard the people refer to the calf saying,” These are your gods who brought you up from Egypt” Instead of teaching them about symbols and their meaning, he goes along and builds an altar before the Calf and tells that people that tomorrow they will make a festival to the Lord. This they do but then the people start to revel, they go a little wild. Aaron has lost control. He is lost. The people are lost.
That is what idolatry does to us. It keeps us from seeing reality, from seeing God. It keeps our focus on ourselves alone. What are some of our Golden Calves today?
In the book, Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi tells the story of racist ideas in the US. Over and over he shows how these ideas disregard what is reality. For example, the way we here about drug crimes it makes it look like blacks use drugs more than whites. It is true that they are more likely to be in prison for drug offenses but the national Household Survey in 2000 found that 6.4% of whites use illegal drugs and 6.4% of blacks used illegal drugs. ( p. 435 Stamped) Black youth in urban areas were being accused of being dangerous and predatory yet in 2012 national Survey on Drug Use and Health white youths were more likely to sell drugs than black youth but black youth were more likely to be arrested. (p. 436 Stamped) Like the Golden Calf, it is idolatry to think that somehow white culture and persons are better than black culture and persons. The truth is God made us all and we are all human.
Another example of idolatry might be the way I enshrine a certain body images as better and healthier. I keep wanting my body to be different. And think if I just lose 20-30 pounds everything will be better. This is not real. My health, your health is not just about our weight or body type but so many other factors. These are just a couple of the golden calves I recognize today.
Do you have a golden calf? Something you use to obscure reality and turn away from God our creator?
One of the biggest golden calves of our culture and society is the idea that we can and ought to control nature. That we can make a golden calf meet all our needs instead of trusting in our creator and the systems of the natural world God made. This is one of the gifts the indigenous cultures of North America and other places offer the world- a belief that we as human beings are part of the natural world instead of controllers or dominators of it. In our history, western missionaries denigrated these beliefs and called them idolatrous. Yet, today we need this understanding more than ever.
A remember a man who was from the Shoshone Bannock tribe and part of a UMC in Pocatello Idaho. He was a science teacher for the High school on the nearby reservation. Every summer he took his students on a journey to follow the salmon from the west coast to the waters of the rivers in Idaho and the reservation. He wanted them to understand the wonder and the struggles of the salmon’s journey. I notice that now that human interference has crippled the salmon runs, we need this knowledge more than ever. I asked him one time what should we do for Native American Awareness Sunday in the church? He thought we ought to spend time honoring the creator and paying attention to environmental concerns. He name is Ed Galindo and I am grateful for his brief ministry to me.
Another way to think about idolatry is to notice whatever leads us away from the ways of love and respect of others our earth and God. The Israelites ended up not just worshipping the golden calf but as the text says reveling, going wild- they descended into a kind of anarchy. What distracts us? What do we get too attached to? It can be an idea. It can be a thing. It can be even a person. It can be an addiction. It can be an image of who we think we are. Whatever it is, it keeps us from seeing reality and it keeps us from loving relationships with God and others. It often brings harm to others or the earth.
What can we do about this problem of idolatry?
Jesus came to his people to try to show them ways to welcome God’s kingdom in their midst. He wanted to help them get back on track in relationship with God and away from the idolatry, hypocracy and judgements that got in the way of life with God. I think that Christ still has this mission.
And it starts with being humble. For surely he was humble, even to go to a cross like a common criminal. This means trying to be more like Moses- who when the people complained came to God- What do I do, than Aaron who when the people complained instituted his own plan.
I like to think that if those missionaries who tried to make young Native youth stop speaking their languages had instead had some humility and learned about their culture, history could have been different. I hope that today, when we try to help others, we also listen to them and their needs and treat them with dignity. That when we evaluate policies of our church or our nation, we humbly look for how they will affect the most vulnerable and poorest of our citizens. I know that I need to stop when I think I am so right about something and be sure I have truly listened to God and my neighbors.
And it means being willing to accept the invitation to the banquet of the kingdom. As the parable points out, this will mean sitting down to eat with all the variety and diversity of folks from off the streets- rich and poor, clean and unclean, outcast and insiders. How does this free us from idolatry? Well, it keeps us focused upon the gifts of God rather than our own merit or efforts. It surrounds us with other humans who can keep us honest and humble. It invites us to realize our own need for God’s grace and forgiveness and welcome like everyone else. At this banquet we have no need to be better or worse than anyone else. The only requirement was to wear the wedding robes, to honor the host with all that we are. We are freed to be human.
When I think about Indigenous people’s day , I think of my friend Carol Youngbird- Holt. She and I had a yearly date to have dinner together each year at annual conference. I also was invited by her to work with her on the Native American Council of our conference for a few years. WE had known each other for many years when one night at dinner I used the phrase “ low man on the totem pole.” She stared at me for a moment, then said to me, “ June do you realize that that is a racist phrase, for totem poles are not about such hierarchies and it’s a misuse of the native culture?” I listened carefully to my wise friend and never used that phrase again. At this little mini banquet of the kingdom she had kept me humble, taught me about God’s gifts of native American culture and respected our humanity.