For Theological Education Sunday at Faith Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX—Molly McGinnis and I decided to co-preach. We collaborated on the lectionary texts to develop a common theme, and then I preached a short sermon on the Old Testament text and Molly preached on the New Testament text. Here are our sermons with scripture included.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Sermon – Layton Williams (Some material taken from a sermon I wrote in Fall of 2011)
“Don’t talk back to me!”
We’ve all heard this phrase before, right? As kids we’re taught that the paragon of morality is silent obedience. To question is to disrespect. To challenge is to incur greater punishment.
I remember watching Disney’s Cinderella as a kid, and in it the stepmother demands unquestioning obedience. Whenever anyone starts to protest one of her commands, she points a long, serious finger at them and says, “silence!” So fully did I buy into this idea as a child that any time I did something that might get me in trouble and an adult opened their mouth to reprimand me, I would point my finger at them and say “silence!” before they could utter a word. Somehow, it was never as effective as I wanted it to be. But sometimes, it’s just easier to demand silence.
Sometimes it’s also just easier to offer silence. When I found out I would be preaching here at Faith where my friend Molly is doing her internship, I got really excited about this idea of co-preaching. I told her I’d take the Old Testament text and she could take the Gospel and we’d preach on a common theme. And then I read my text, in which God threatens to annihilate the Israelites for their sinfulness and Moses has to talk God down. And I thought—Layton, what have you gotten yourself into? And suddenly, silence seemed like a really good idea.
But is silent, passive, obedience really what God asks from us? I think this passage—difficult though it may be—clearly tells us no. That’s not what God wants from us at all.
When God comes to Moses, the sin of the people that has so upset their God is idolatry. The history of God’s interaction with Israel is one of relationship, an ongoing sacred conversation that began with Abraham generations before. But in their impatience waiting for Moses to come back with words from God, the people have created and begun to worship a golden calf. The people create a static god that offers them only silence, and expects only silence in return. They choose a flat, lifeless image instead of the living God who both offers and demands relationship.
In anguish and anger over their idolatry, God refuses to acknowledge his relationship with Israel at all. “Your people… have acted perversely,” God tells Moses. “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them.”
Perhaps the easiest thing for Moses would have been silent obedience. To “let God alone.” But Moses knows that something important is at stake: this sacred relationship between God and God’s people. And so he does something crazy. Moses talks back to God. He reminds God that the Israelites are God’s people with whom God established a covenant relationship. Moses is willing to challenge God’s anger and doubt, to risk some sort of greater punishment—precisely because he is and has been in relationship with God. Moses knows God and so Moses can look God’s wrath square in the face and say, “I know you, and this isn’t you.” He’s right. And amazingly—God responds. Moses changes God’s mind.
Moses knew that silent obedience was the easier answer. But he also knew it wasn’t the right answer. The living God calls us into conversation and relationship and without these things God becomes for us a lifeless idol. The living God challenges us to talk back. In the uncertainty of our times—plagued with moral ambiguity and conflict and doubt, it can be tempting to look for a static image of God—an easy set of rules that demand only that we shut up and shut down and follow. But sometimes the most faithful thing we can do in such a world is stand up and say, “No!… Why?” God calls us to struggle against injustice, to challenge the status quo, to ask hard questions about faith and morality and God’s will, to talk back. God calls us to relationship because that is how we know and love one another. That is how we know and love God.
Several years ago, Mark Ferrari wrote a novel called The Book of Joby—a modern spin on the book of Job. In the story, God and Lucifer bet on the righteousness of young boy named Joby Peterson. The stakes of the bet are high: if Lucifer wins God must wipe out all of existence. God tells his angels and other agents of Heaven that they must not intervene on God’s behalf to help Joby, lest the wager’s terms be violated and Lucifer win by default.
As Joby’s life progresses, a number of the archangels and other heavenly beings come into contact with him, and one by one they defy God’s command and speak out in an effort to spare the boy from the cruelest effects of the bet. When the day of the wager’s reckoning arrives, those who went against the divine command guiltily await their anticipated damnation, but God surprises them.
When Lucifer insists that they be damned for disobeying God’s will, God says, “Did they?” and then continues, “It was only my command they violated. Not my will… I will concede that, had they disappointed me by doing otherwise, I doubt you could have lost the wager, Lucifer” (Ferrari 621). When Lucifer protests in fury, God reveals exactly what he was betting on. “I was betting that, at the core, My creation was so soundly imbued with the laws of love and faith, compassion and real justice, that even if I, Myself, should command it to ignore those laws, it would still not do so” (Ferrari 621).
In Ferrari’s book, God’s deepest hope is not that the angels obey his command to be silent, but that they know and love God deeply enough to defy a command which contradicts their experience of who God is. Moses dares to know God well enough to talk back. And God dares us to do the same.
We draw nearer to God through daring to be in relationship – with one another and with God. It is not always easy, but God is not interested in easy—in faith in idols or idle faith. God wants more from us and we’re offered so much more in return. We get to really know God. To know God so well that even if God’s own self forgot who God was, we could say, “We remember. We know who you are. We can show you.”
What a gift and what a calling – this sacred relationship.
We belong to God. We belong to each other. That is the call of our faith.
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
Sermon – Molly McGinnis
The Lost Sheep. We probably all know what it feels like to be alone, uncertain, stranded—lost. Whether it’s lost from home, in a new place, or at a loss about what to do. This “lostness” or feeling of being lost is something that we have all experienced, but the feeling usually goes away. We figure out where we’re going. We make new friends, and settle into a new place. But there are people who never get away from feeling lost. There are people in our world, our city, and even in our churches, who live in a perpetual state of “lostness.”
They are the hungry people who eat from the food pantry. They are the people experiencing homelessness who use this place as an address. They are the prisoners who wait for execution. They are the people suffering from Diabetes and HIV, who can’t afford their medication. They are the LGBTQ people whose churches have condemned them. They are the teenage parents whose families have abandoned them.
They are us. Because they are God’s and so are we.
In today’s lesson, we see Jesus in a familiar setting—preaching and teaching to the public. The scribes and Pharisees are at hand, monitoring his every move. It’s hard to tell what they are thinking. Maybe they feel threatened. Their authority is being challenged, and they don’t like that. But the text points us toward something else, too. They are grumbling. What an interesting choice of words. Grumbling. It doesn’t say that they were mad, or upset, or threatened. It says that they were grumbling, a word that is also used to describe the Israelites traveling in the wilderness with Moses. The Israelites were God’s chosen people. They were the people of God. The scribes and Pharisees, leaders of the synagogue and descendants of the Israelites, were also the people of God. Perhaps they, too, were in the wilderness.
Jesus comes in and turns their world upside down, challenging not only their authority but also the way that they viewed themselves in relationship to other people. Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming them into his household. Through his actions, he is telling the whole world that they, too, are the people of God. And that they are welcome. Jesus makes room at the table for the whole community, even the ones who don’t seem like they belong, because everyone fits together in the space that God has created.
When the woman loses the coin, she is utterly distraught. Now, this wasn’t like losing a quarter in the sofa cushion. That coin was probably worth a day’s wages. Obviously she is upset about losing that much money. But there is something else happening in this text. She didn’t just lose a coin; she lost one of 10. There is an emphasis on the incompleteness.
She searches frantically all over the house. When she finally finds the coin, she is so happy that she calls everyone together to celebrate with her. She doesn’t put it in a safe somewhere and lock her front door. She throws a party! She invites the whole community to share in her happiness.
Her house has been turned upside down, a fitting metaphor for what Jesus does in the Gospel and in our lives. He enters into the community, building a house that is big enough for everyone, calling them together in joy and celebration. Jesus doesn’t grumble about eating with sinners and tax collectors. He doesn’t worry about breaking social norms. He doesn’t focus on following the Law to the letter. He teaches us that the life of faith is incomplete even when one is missing. And the whole family of God suffers when anyone experiences “lostness.”
In the parable, all of the sheep are “in the wilderness.” Not just the one who is lost. The shepherd leaves the flock “in the wilderness” while searching for the lost sheep, who is also “in the wilderness.” Without the 99, the 1 is lost. Without the 1, the 99 is incomplete.
I think The Beatles said it best: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”* We belong to God. We belong to each other. That is the call of our faith.
* “I Am the Walrus” by The Beatles, 1967
Read more from Molly at mollyfide.wordpress.com