Sunday, April 21, 2024

Fourth Sunday in Easter
Creation Justice Sunday — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Exodus 32:1-14, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (John 10:7-10, NRSVUE)

You learn a lot of things as the parent of twins, and one of the things you learn sooner or later is this: While it’s obviously a good idea to be concerned when they’re in a different room and you hear them screaming or crying, it’s an equally good idea to be concerned when they get too quiet. We discovered this the hard way back in September 2004.

We were sitting around after dinner listening to the kids playing upstairs — that is, until we couldn’t hear them anymore. Valerie, who is generally way more perceptive than I am, sensed something might be amiss and shouted up to them to find out what was going on.

“Hey Girls, what are you doing?”


“Girls, what are you doing?” she asked again, a bit louder.

“Nothing,” Tess replied.

“GIRLS, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Valerie asked, louder still.

“I’m giving Hope a makeover.”

There must have been something about Tess’s last response that I didn’t pick up on because Valerie was already flying up the stairs before I’d even processed it. And apparently there was some cause for concern because, when she reached her destination, I heard her say this: “OH MY GOD!”

I arrived shortly thereafter to behold the following scene: Valerie clutching her head with both hands like this and looking apoplectic, Tess holding a pair of safety scissors in her left hand and looking guilty, Hope standing opposite her looking shocked, what used to be Hope’s blond bangs lying between them on the floor.

What happened next is disputed in our family folklore. As I remember it, when Valerie saw me in the doorway she pointed towards the kids and said, “Look what your daughters did!” She doesn’t remember it the same way — but our differing recollections make sense because it was a very stressful moment. 

Let’s just say that Hope’s school picture didn’t exactly turn out as planned that year — oh, I didn’t mention that the next morning was picture day.

In fairness, though, they were only five years old, and Tess probably thought she was doing her sister a favor (well, that’s what we’d like to believe, anyway). And it remains unclear to this day whose idea this actually was becuase they each blame the other. Besides, I don’t remember us ever specifically telling them not to cut one another’s hair; I think we both kind of figured that was just a given — though it obviously wasn’t. In retrospect, we probably should have spelled it out for them. Though spelling it out didn’t seem to make much of a difference in today’s reading from Exodus.

Moses was told by God to head up the mountain to receive instructions eight chapters ago (apparently, God had a whole lot of instructions for Moses). The people, who have been wandering around the wilderness looking for the Promised Land are getting impatient with a lot of things — inlcuding, but not limited to, Moses’s lengthy absence — so they summon his brother Aaron and ask him to make them some new gods (they never would have pulled such a stunt if Moses were around). In reponse, Aaron tells them to gather up all of their gold (which, for the record, they’d pillaged from the Egyptians on their way out of town) and gets to work building them a golden calf and an altar at which to worship it. 

God, suffice it to say, is not too happy because God had previously instructed Moses to tell the people not to do this (which, to his credit, he did); in fact, as you may recall, this commandment was number one on God’s top ten list. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath [you know, like a baby cow], or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord God, am a jealous God,” is exactly what God says, and that seems pretty straightforward.

But just in case it didn’t sink in the first time, shortly thereafter, God decrees, “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourself Gods of gold.” I mean, for crying out loud — how much more clear could God have been about this?

Well, God catches wind of what’s going on among the chosen and tells Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you’ve brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely,” before warning Moses of the punishment that God has apparently decided is soon to come the peoples’ way.

I have to tell you — this kind of sounds like the divine version of “Look what your daughters did,” and Moses seems think so too, which is why he begins his response to God by saying, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?”

Moses goes on to remind God of the covenant promises previously made to the people (you know, decendents as numerous as the stars in heaven as well as the aforementioned Promised Land). And then God changes God’s mind, sending that whole idea of God being “unchangable,” of God being the “unmoved mover,” right out the proverbial window.

Like a parent who can’t stay mad at two five year-olds for running an unlicensed home hair salon for very long, God seemingly gets past all that anger about the whole false idol incident pretty quickly. And perhaps that’s because forgiveness grounded in love is a pretty powerful force (and God’s capacity to forgive and to love is boundless, after all). But maybe, just maybe, it’s because God also understands that the punishments we create for ourselves are generally the worst. I mean that school photo and having to hear the story of how Tess balded her sister told at family gatherings (and in Dad’s sermons) in perpertuity are worse than anything we could have come up with.

So back the story from Exodus: Does God have anything against golden statues of calves in and of themselves? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. You see, the problem here is way bigger than that. God gets mad at the Israelites because they’re not keeping up their end of the covenant bargain — and it’s a problem that will persist for a long, long time.

What God envisions for God and for the people is a life of mutual obligation in relationship. God will provide for and protect them, and all they need to do is follow a few simple rules — well, actually a whole lot of rules; but they are distilled down to their essence by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy (which literally means “Second Law — Moses has to give them the law again because it clearly didn’t sink in the first time). There, Moses says:

 “If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today— loving the Lord your God and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul — then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil, and he will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them,  for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will not yield its produce; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.”

But, as we’ve seen in our story from Exodus, and will see over and over gain throughout history, people can’t seem to do this; when the going gets tough, they (we) start looking for new gods — be they golden calves, or status or wealth. They (we) want all of the benefits from God without any responsibility to God and one another (you may remember Jesus telling us that, for God, these are bascially the same thing) — oh, and let’s not forget our responsibility to all creation while we’re at it. And benefit without responsibility is really just a slightly longer way of describing what we call “privilege.” 

But when the rain stops falling, and the land stops yielding, and the creatures of the earth start disappearing our tendency, as humans, has always been to look for someone to blame — and that someone is often God: “Look what God has done to us for our transgressions.”

And yet, for all the bluster, for all the talk about divine wrath and retribution, we do a far better job of punishing ourselves than God ever does. I mean God does have a pretty good track record of giving us a whole lot of second chances (go check what the Bible says about this if you don’t believe me).

But it’s so much easier just to pin it all on somebody else rather than taking responsibility for it ourselves, isn’t it?

And yet, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, it’s pretty easy to see that we’re the reason for drought and for famine; for undrinkable water and for unbreathable air; for disappearing species and for global warming; for societies in which a few people have while most people have not.

Way back in the beginning — and by that I mean the very beginning — we’re told that God created humanity and gave us the resources we needed to survive and thrive; all we needed to do was take care of them. As the second chapter of Genesis describes it, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”. Till it and keep it. Not plunder and destroy it; not hoard it and exploit it.

Don’t you see? God’s grace received without responsibility is privilege; God’s grace received with responsibility is covenant. One harms much for the benefit of few, the other harms none for the benefit of all.

Privilege or covenant – which will we ultimately choose? And, make no mistake about it, the choice really is ours. I mean God can protect us from a whole lot of things, but can we really expect God to save us from ourselves?