Sunday, May 4, 2014

Systems

Systems
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 4, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Exodus 32: 1-6

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen.

32 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold,a and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. [1]

So last week we took a look at the Israelites having been set free from Egypt, and they were out in the desert, trying to cross it to get to the promised land.  They were led by a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud. They crossed through the Red Sea. They were provided for with Manna from heaven to eat, and quail, and fresh water from a rock. All of that, and yet they grumbled, and yet they doubted, and most importantly, and most devastatingly they became afraid, and they cried out to return to Egypt. Let us go back. . . why should we die in the desert when we were always fed in Egypt? The old life wasn't so bad really was it? Of course not, let's go back to that old way. How quickly it all turns. How quickly we demand results. How often we do not have the stomach for the duration of the struggle. We can handle things and keep it together in the short term, but life in the desert is long, nights are long, and when times get hard, or when they get slow, and they slow down to the tick, tick, tick. . . our minds wander and in our fear we create all kinds of reasons to take a step back in fear and go back to the old way. But the Israelites don't go back to Egypt. They talk about going. They plan to go. They choose a new leader to take them back, but they don't go back. And often that seems to be the case historically. We don't usually go back to the same chains. Instead we create new ones. We bring a piece of the old way with us, and the next thing you know we're not back in Egypt, but we've turned into Egypt ourselves. History repeats itself, again and again and again.
For then the Israelites build an idol. A golden calf of pure gold. A physical god made in the image of the gods of Egypt, crafted by man for men, a man made god. Moses goes up on the mountain. He's gone for a while, and the questions start again. The grumbling starts again. The fear starts again, and the next thing  you know they have forsaken God, the God I am, the God who is, the God who made them, the God who was at the same time making a new covenant with them based on law, the same God who raised up Moses for them, led them out of Egypt, doing countless miracles along the way. That God they decide to discard for a god of their own crafting, a god they made, a god they shape, a god they form, a god they are in control of, a god they can see and a god that gives the image of comfort, someone is doing something, and that makes us feel good. We can say we tried, we acted, to quote Mel Brooks in one of my favorite movies, we have to do something, people demand it our jobs demand it, "we have to protect our phoney baloney jobs." We have to do something, we just can't sit here and wait? Hey let's get Aaron to make us a golden calf, we can be like those Egyptians, it worked for them didn't it, why can't it work here?
You could say, that's those Israelites, they had it different, Christians don't do the same thing. Actually, sadly Christian history is very similar. After going through the desert of the Roman persecutions. Years and years of martyrdom and sacrifice. . . it all finally comes to an  end when Constantine, the Roman emperor becomes a Christian, but what does that mean, to become a Christian. . . certainly in name, certainly the symbols of the faith, certainly the vocabulary of the faith, but what about the authenticity of the faith, what about the person of Jesus, what about the character of God? One could certainly argue that during this period, Christianity becomes a system, trading in the old persecution for a new preferred status. Being a Christian becomes acceptable, and then the systems of faith get formed, the how to do it, the how do you get to heaven? It may start with a debate about faith and works, but it quickly devolves into money, political favors, military service, forced thinking, huge structures of power, Kings, dubbed and crowned by the church. . . connected systems of authority, using the trappings of Christianity to rule, creating a system that conforms to the will of the Kings, Nobles, Lords (you might say) Popes, Bishops, Cardinals, and where is God in all of that? Where is God? God often becomes replaced by golden calves of idolatry and power. Kings don't often wait to discern the will of God, they just act, thinking who else will, who else can, even the with the best of intentions it is all built on them on their shoulders. . . and God is left on the mountain with Moses writing a different way of doing things.
But yeah, we don't have kings any more, we have separation of church and state now. We are growing closer to the authentic. We are getting to a place where we can finally get it right. . . maybe, perhaps we live in a time when we are heading out into the desert again. The question is what will become our idol? What will become our golden calf? What will become our system for which we forsake it all, hoping that it will bring us out of the desert all that much faster, at least within our own hands, our own control, our own visible tangible pattern. Because we have to do something right, we have to build something, we can't let it die, this desert isn't going to get crossed by itself, who can wait to find out the roadmap to building? We need to build now? We need to create now? We need to see our salvation? Let's build something to save us. . .  let's build a new system.
Last week I introduced, T.S. Eliot's poem, "Choruses from the Rock" and gave special attention to the line where he writes, 
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Dreaming of creating systems where they become our solution, or salvation, our answer, and therefore our God. This I think is what we do again and again in our world today. And it may be connected, I think it is to our Old Testament story because what happens is so similar. We get into the desert, we get into a hard spot, we get into a period of doubt where we do not hear God's voice, either because he is not speaking to us or we are not listening, or we don't like what is being said, and then rather than waiting for it like Elijah, God's voice not being in the Earthquake, or the fire, or the wind, rather than waiting for that still small voice at the end, we assume that it isn't going to come, that God isn't going to come and let us know our next move. Like the Israelites waiting for Moses and God's instructions, we want to hear something now and we can't wait, we want to do something now, we have to act, now. . . call it a crisis, and one of the famous lines of the last bunch of years is, we must never let a crisis go to waste, why, because in a crisis power is up for grabs, power is at the ready because people want answers in a crisis, people want something done, so they will allow people to do anything. . .  even build a golden calf, hey it worked in Egypt, why not here for us. . . we're desperate we'll try anything. And rather than follow the truth, our minds start to wander. . . and someone stands up and says, hey let's try this, promising to produce results, and we think about the promised results rather than how it's being built, what the foundation is, whether it is the will of God, at least its something, even if it is just a Gold Plated copy of a creature, a mere shadow of the God who is.
Think about some of our systems in this world that we have created to solve problems and make the world better. We have to ask ourselves constantly. . . have they been built out of fear or out of love? That is a tough question, but I think an important one, maybe the most important one. Have they been built with Jesus as the cornerstone, or have they been built to stave off some disaster, according to God's will or according to our own? Do these systems set people free or do they work to enslave? Do they build people up to be able to fulfill who they are, the greatness that God created, seeking to do good, or do they seek to make people conform, allow people to be mediocre, allow people to not have to be good any more, that the system will take care of their need for virtue, and virtue, individuality, that divine image, isn't really a thing to worry ourselves with. . . many of our political systems come to mind first off, sometimes they are the easy ones. . . maybe a little too easy they can become the scapegoats, easy targets for criticism because they are big. It's easy to look at a system like welfare and find flaws, its easy to look at something like Social Security, or Obamacare and find flaws, systems that no longer require people to be good.  . . Think about Social Security, in theory, always theory in a system,  people don't save money for retirement, so let's create a system where everyone has to, now no one has to be responsible and save for the future (again I know we still do, but that is the theory, funny though to think we still do, how effective is the system?), people aren't buying health insurance, or can't buy health insurance, so we'll make everyone do it, no one will have to be good anymore. See these are easy, we could add education, put kids in the process, socialism, let's systematize charity, outsourcing our charitableness, so we no longer have to worry about helping people in need. . . we can walk on the other side of the street while the man lies in a ditch knowing that our tax money pays for services that are supposed to take care of him. . . on and on,. . . and people pick on politics every day,  it's an easy target, but in a democracy politics reflect us, if not the way we would do things, perhaps shaped by our apathy, but since it is a reflection of us, let's take a look closer to home.
Look at our church. . . what do some of our systems do? Here we elect officers to be a part of the Session, to run the committees, to help lead the work. This is an interesting place, and pretty typical of a small church, because most of the members here, most of you are elders. You've been through it before. You've been to the meetings that last all day on Sunday afternoons. You've been responsible for the lights being turned off, the doors to be locked, the candles to be lit, the bills to be paid, the decisions to be made, you know how hard it is to recruit help, to ask for help, it's so much easier just to do it yourself, and so you do, and then after 3 or 6 years are up, you're done, you need a break, and you stop. You may come back in a few years and do it all over again, but the pattern repeats itself, the system works for us. . . but we ask the question, does the system as it functions, allow us to not be good. . . it's easier to do it all yourself, you fear that no one will help you, that if you don't do it, it won't get done. . . or I've done my time, I'm not an elder anymore, it's not my job. . . neither of those are representative of the best of ourselves. . . but yet the system allows us, it makes it comfortable, and the church is sustained. . . but what is it built on? What is the foundation? is it faith? I wonder. . .
We are going to have a Session Meeting this afternoon, we are going to talk about budget items. We are going to talk about how we can create systems that will sustain this church into the future. We are going to figure out ways to conserve resources, allocate funds, always with an eye to the future, an eye to rainy days, always to the question, how long can we leave these doors open, keep this building going, keep this church going into the future with things are as they are? We spend more than we take in. . . sure we have money saved, but where is it going? How long can it last? How big should our nest egg be, how big should our insurance policy be? How much should we save? How much should we spend? Do we spend it on kids? On music? On technology? On social programs? On the building? On the grounds? Where, Where so many questions? And when will it all dry up? What if no one comes? What if we can't grow this church? What if we can't replace ourselves? Is the clock ticking. . . tick. . . tick. . . tick. . . . we can't wait any longer, we better do something now.
How easy would it be to allow fear to be the thing that drives us? How easy would it be to allow worry to drive us? Doubt? but we are called as Presbyterians as elders, as officers of the church, as members of the church to rise above that fear and build not of our own will but based on God's, our discernment of God's will for us, for this place. And we have to be ready for the fact that God's will may be very different from our own. It may involve the desert, forty years, or it may involve sacrifice, exile, or even the cross and death, the doors to close to be reborn some other way. . . it may be that. . . and how hard that would be to let it go. Or it may be that this church is on the brink of doing amazing things, a renaissance, a revival, a rebirth, a huge powerful alive vibrant representation of the Gospel, of Easter, of new life, love and a world made, redeemed, and sustained by God. . . not any one of us, but God through all of us. Building and working according to his will. The rest is just a show. . . anything else is just a golden calf.
Love is a funny thing, especially when you look at it from God's perspective, especially if you look at love on the basis that God is love. . . not that love is god, not that our definition of love shapes God, that love become the idol of god, but that God is what gives definition to love. Then love is the cross, pure and complete sacrifice for others. Soul, Heart, Mind, Strength. . . all of you. .. and the funny thing is it's never done. It's never enough and it is never too much. It may challenge you, but it is never more than you can give, it's just all that you can give, and it is forever. Easter shows us that too. . . there is no rest for the loving. It gives and gives and gives, and it grows on the fact that it keeps giving, and it is nourished in the love that it gives, self sustaining in relationship. Not a system, but a relationship, flexible, changing, always on time, because it is rooted in a God who is. . . not just a God who was, not just a God who will be some time in the future, but rooted in God who is and will always be. There is no better place to build than according to God's will, on Jesus Christ, and no other place will ever suffice, it won't sustain. . . all else hopeless, all other ground is simply sinking sand. . . you may be able to build a bridge in the sand and it may slow the sink, you may be able to keep struggling and struggling to keep your head above the surface, you may be strong enough even to hold every one else up for a time, you may be able to create some system to make it work, but it won't last, it will never last, it can't last, unless its built,  without it being firmly placed on the Rock, and that solid rock is Jesus Christ, and no other.
Now I want to say that I am glad that God put these words in my mouth today of all days because I don’t believe there is a person in this world who needs to hear them now more than I do, and for that I am exceptionally grateful. Amen.






[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ex 32:1-6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.