Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 12, 2014
Last week I shared with you a difficult piece of news from Andover Newton Theological School, the seminary from which I graduated. Their newly-elected president, Rev. Martin Copenhaver, confessed to having had an extramarital relationship before he was a candidate for the office of seminary president. The Board of Trustees has determined that there was no professional misconduct, that is, the relationship was not with a church member, employee, student, or anyone that Martin was mentoring. The Board refused Martin’s offer to resign. Instead they went ahead with the inauguration service last Sunday, choosing to model how an institution and its leader can continue in covenant while working on the difficult issues of broken trust, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In my sermon I spoke about this situation as an example of how to live the Ten Commandments in those times when we break them.
After I had preached last week’s sermon, a classmate of mine sent me a link to a blogger, also a graduate of Andover Newton and an ordained minister, who had written a post registering her shock at the news and dismay at the decision of the Trustees. She feels the call to forgiveness has been forced upon us, yet also understanding that it comes from a board exhausted with the task of a presidential search. She questions Martin Copenhaver’s integrity and ability to lead, wondering how many lies he had to tell to keep this relationship a secret and his “impressive powers of compartmentalization”. She divulged details that were not in the communications from Andover Newton. She raised many crucial questions. She had done her homework.
When I first read this post, I felt sheepish and naïve for the sermon I had delivered. While I do not defend Martin Copenhaver in any way, I do still believe that for the most part, human beings are basically good, even though we are capable of great evil at the worst, and at the least, hurting someone we love on any given day. Reading this pastor’s arguments on her blog made me wonder if my apparent naïveté had gotten the better of my judgment. I felt foolish about posting my sermon on my blog, there for anyone to tear apart and declare childish.
But after some prayer and reflection, I say to you that I still stand by that sermon. My belief about human beings still stands, and it extends not only to Martin but also to the Board of Trustees. I trust that they know what they are doing. And if this does turn out to be a sham of grace, I trust that God knows what God is doing. It is not my place to judge Martin and his fitness for the office of president. It is not my place to judge the decision of the Board. To be sure, I can have an opinion and ask questions, and voice them strongly, as did my sister colleague and as many others are doing, I’m sure. But ultimately I am called, we are all called, to stand in the breach between the wrath, the anger that can consume us and the wrong that has been done and make the hard witness for peace.
Moses knew this place in the breach quite well. These past few weeks we’ve been traveling in the wilderness with Moses and the Israelites as they make their way as a people of God. God heard their cries in Egypt, witnessed the suffering of God’s people, and made a way out of no way for them into freedom. Food and water have come to them just when they needed it, even when they grumbled and complained, and it came to them in ways that spelled out for them that God was with them and would be with them the whole journey. They’ve received a covenant; promises have been made by both the Israelites and by God. They have a great leader in Moses, who stands in the breach between God and God’s people. Yet when Moses spends a protracted amount of time with God on the mountain, Moses’ brother Aaron satisfies the people’s separation anxiety with the making of a golden calf. It is the story of what it means to be human and to walk with God.
The psalm for today gives a briefer account of not only the golden calf, but also uses that event as a means of confession. “Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.” It is a communal or corporate prayer, recounting the story at Horeb, God’s holy mountain, and in it we can hear the unspoken words “and so have we”. “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (and so have we). “They forgot God, their Savior” (and so have we).
As Ecclesiastes is famous for saying, there is nothing new under the sun. It didn’t take long for the Israelites in the desert to break the first commandment but they certainly wouldn’t be the last. We can understand why God was so hot under the collar. God and God’s people had just said “I do”. It was looking a little like that land of milk and honey. But what’s a honeymoon in the desert? Moses, in a role that almost looks like marriage broker, spends a little too much time with God on the mountain, and the people start to get jittery and impatient. They want a God they can hold onto in the absence of Moses, God’s servant and prophet. They want a party, a celebration, a festival; enough with all this solemn promise making and slogging in the sand. They know all too well that the desert is a tough place to be.
But that doesn’t mean they get to break the rules just so they can ease their anxiety. And yet that also doesn’t mean that God is justified cancelling out God’s promises by wiping out the Israelites and starting over with Moses. This is where we see great wisdom in Moses. He talks God down, which is a pretty tall order.
“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.” (Exodus 32: 11-14)
There are times when we have been wronged or someone else has, and we put ourselves in the place of God, in the judgment seat. We too get hot under the collar, and sometimes we are justified in doing so for the evil that has been done. But as Moses so eloquently observed, wrath does not serve God’s purposes. And yes, it’s a bit of anthropomorphizing the Holy One, but it’s good news that even God can change God’s mind. Being made in God’s image, we too can cool our anger and not allow it to consume us. We can change our minds and remember our hearts. We can start over.
But there are also times when we have wronged another, when we have broken a promise, gone against the sacred grain and hurt someone. And we fear the wrath to come. But God has already changed the holy mind. Yet who will stand in the breach between us and the judgment of others? As Christians we look to Christ to stand in that breach, to offer us that cross of our own making, but also a chance at reconciliation. Where we would be tempted to burn a bridge, Christ offers us a way through the heat and come out on the other side a new creation, a more humble, less anxious, and yes, obedient version of ourselves. We begin to see that God’s law is one of love and justice, not only for us but for everyone.
The hardest calling of all is to be that one in the breach, to be in the gap between the one hurt or oppressed and the one who caused it. How do we hold accountability, fight for change, offer the grace of the gospel, and speak words of calm? This is often where the church, our church—the United Church of Christ—has had to stand: in the struggle for civil rights, for women’s rights, for marriage equality. The United Church of Christ has witnessed in places like Ferguson, MO; filing a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for its laws concerning clergy and the free exercise of religion; being first to ordain an openly gay man, an African American, and a woman; standing with farm workers and the Wilmington 10 in the early 1970’s; offering a formal apology to the state of Hawai’i for the church’s role in overthrowing the Hawai’ian government and deposing their leader, Queen Lili’uokalani; and now recently a new initiative for literacy and standing against the new Jim Crow.
But there are ever more gaps and breaches to which the church is called to stand in. Gaps between liberals and conservatives; between atheists, agnostics, and a whole host of God-followers; gaps between the ultra-rich, the ever-disappearing middle-class and the ever-growing working poor; between Democrat and Republican, Libertarian, Green, and Independent. We are more ready to hurl insults than work together; more ready to hold others accountable rather than examine our own hearts; more ready to raise our voices in anger rather than in calm and prayer; more ready to blame than to find what is praiseworthy.
In our own anxiety, for indeed these are anxious times, we often perceive God as occupied and absent, and we want to fill that gap with something, anything that might ease our restlessness. And yet it is that restlessness, that discontent which stirs us—the church—to our best work, enabling us to hear and heed the call of the Holy Spirit.
O God, keep us on the edge of our seats, restless and discontent, until there is no gap, no breach between human beings, between what is sacred and what is ordinary, between heaven and earth, between us and you. Let us not rest until we rest in you. Amen.