Moses saw that the people had broken loose. (Ex 32:25)
Translations of the 25th verse of the 32nd chapter of Exodus (which comes a few paragraphs after our reading this morning) are wonderful. Moses has come down from the mountain where God has given him the tablets of the law. The first item on those tablets – the very first item – says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.”
So Moses is carrying this weighty message with him and comes down from what would have been a pretty intense experience: receiving the law of God. He has left his little brother in charge. He is tired, but excited. He has been standing quite close to the presence of the living God. And what does he find but a party: dancing and singing, and God-knows what else, all around another god – a graven image, no less – the second item mentioned on the tablets! If Aaron had been trying, he could not have gotten it more wrong. Maybe he was trying. Sibling rivalry gone bad.
And the Scriptures say something like this: “Moses saw that the people had broken loose.” But here is where the translations are interesting. The King James Version says that the people “were naked,” as though nothing worse could be said of them. Modern translations often say that they were “running wild,” or that the people got “out of control and made fools of themselves.” All of these translations might be right, for all I know. But I like the Revised Standard Version that we started with: the people had broken loose.
The had broken loose from their moorings, I guess, and anything could happen. This was especially bad, considering the context, since Moses was bringing them the law, which was supposed to provide them with a certain moral and religious compass. “I am the Lord your God… no other gods before me,” and we will certainly not be having any graven images!
Oh, how the people had broken loose!
Throughout much of the Hebrew Scriptures we find a preoccupation with establishing the primacy of God, of YAHWEH. It could be said that of all sins the failure to remember that YAHWEH is their God is the greatest one. When the Israelites are called a “stiff-necked” people it is often because they have turned from God and dallied with idols. The judges and kings and prophets of Israel are called upon to keep the people in line: to remember that their God is an awesome God (as a popular praise song puts it). The Psalmist often recounts how the people test God as again and again they go on sinning.
Throughout the Scriptures we encounter this concern that God should assert his rights over his people, because, after all, they need to be safe-guarded from their own foolishness. They are “prone to wander” as one of our hymns puts it. Which means they are prone to prefer a God they can make with their own gold (which is where the calf came from), one they can put away in a drawer or a cupboard when they are done with it. God’s children – who he freed from slavery - are in danger of breaking loose from their own freedom: running wild, even naked in the streets. They are likely to get out of control and make fools of themselves. And they are likely to do so at the worst possible moment: graven images left right out in the open where big brother will see it.
It strikes me that what we see throughout the early Scriptures is the depiction of a co-dependent relationship between God and his children. According to one definition, co-dependent people “form or maintain relationships that are one-sided.” They have “low self-esteem and look for anything outside themselves to make them feel better.” They have a tendency to enter into relationship s with people [or gods?] who are emotionally unavailable.” The condition is often called “relationship addiction” since both parties tend to go back to one another over and over, despite a strong tendency to make one another miserable.
And one wonders, has God become the enabler of our co-dependency? Or is he a co-dependent God himself? The history recounted in the Scriptures suggests as much. Over and over our dysfunction plays itself out along the same patterns. Are we simply addicted to this God who controls us with his insistence of our shamefulness? Who looks at us in our nakedness and tells us we look ridiculous (or just fat)? Who pushes as away from him with his remoteness and his rules (you can eat from any tree but one – as though we were going to leave the forbidden fruit on the branch under those circumstances!)?
This is how the relationship strikes a lot of people I know. Like the children of Israel, you and I are foolish, co-dependents who keep running back to a controlling, over-bearing God who shames us with his insistence on our sinfulness. Many of our friends see this and wonder why we have not been able to give up this addiction – especially since we finally live in an era when so much help is available! We can sleep in on Sundays, there is brunch to be had! Most likely, there is medication available for us if we need it. And haven’t we learned that we can be good people, with a reasonable moral compass without some god making us feel bad all the time?!
And then we hear Jesus tell this parable: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.'”
This is his explanation for hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. In Biblical terms, these are the very people who have obviously broken loose, run wild, gotten out of control and made fools of themselves. These are those who are standing naked before God; and so we might expect to hear God’s Son take the old familiar, co-dependent line: you look ridiculous, stupid, hopeless… and you certainly look fat.
But Jesus does not seem to want to enable this co-dependency. Jesus feels no need to shame those who he knows are sinners. Jesus probably doesn’t even think they look fat. He thinks they look lost, and they need someone to go after them and find them.
“What woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
There is joy before the angels of God when on sinner repents, when one of us who is lost gets found!
My brothers and sisters, we have a strong tendency to get lost. Maybe it’s because we don’t pay attention, or maybe we have a bad sense of direction, or maybe it’s because we live in a very confusing world where it unusually easy to get lost. Maybe our sense of direction is not as good as we think it is. And maybe we have gotten used to adapting; deciding that this is where we really wanted to end up anyway – no matter where this happens to be. We have a strong, strong tendency to get lost, it goes hand in hand with our tendency to break loose, which is why Jesus sometimes sees in us a likeness with sheep.
And Jesus reminds us that God his Father (and ours) has an un-erring tendency to seek us out, to find us, to want to lay us on his shoulders and bring us home.
Like Father, like Son: Jesus comes to us to remind us that when we are lost, he is looking for us, searching, sweeping, calling us by name.
Do you remember how easy it was for Aaron to get the people to give him their jewelry and melt the gold? All he had to do was ask. And it seemed to him that the graven image of the calf just leapt out of the fire on its own. So easy to do! So easy to break loose and get lost!
And now we have gold and silver, we have steel and iron that we can shape into our idols, we have titanium, and other precious materials. We have weapons-grade plutonium. We have poppy-fields of heroin. We have clear-cut rain forests of old-growth trees. We have hedge funds of unimaginable wealth. And we have rivers of oil. How easily all these fascinating, wonderful, pleasurable thing seem to leap out when we toss these things into the furnace of our industry! How easily new idols are fashioned. How easily we break loose. How easily we become lost.
And, of course, it is not just a male thing to be reluctant to admit that we are lost. It is a human thing. And is it so deeply ingrained that we would prefer to be co-dependent? Would we prefer to be told that we are ridiculous, stupid, inadequate, or just fat? Is this preferable to us to admitting we are lost?
Long, long ago we humans broke loose. We did it, I guess, because we discovered that God would let us do it; that the tethers that attach us to him are flimsy by design.
We are as ready to break loose from the tethers of God’s care for us as we ever were. And we have learned to make much more sophisticated idols than the golden calf, much more dangerous ones, too.
And considering all we have done, and all the harm we could still do, it is understandable that we don’t wish to be found. It makes sense that we suppose God will react with the same fierce anger that would possess us. We assume that he will judge us the way we would judge ourselves: ridiculous, out-of-control, foolish, and fat.
But instead, he sweeps us from our feet and lifts us onto his shoulders, and clucks or sighs as the sound of angels rejoicing is heard, and he carries us home, knowing full well that tomorrow we may well get lost again. But still he puts us on his shoulders and carries us home rejoicing, and carries us home, and carries us home, and carries us home.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
16 September 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
A Co-dependent God
Moses saw that the people had broken loose. (Ex 32:25)