Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Breaking The Mould"

I was a drama kid in high school.  I loved being in plays, really sinking my teeth into different roles. I really loved submerging myself in the actual performance, getting to that point where the lines and actions come naturally and I was fully embodying that character.  And the great thing was I could do it again, two nights later; the script didn’t change.

If I was in a play about the golden calf, I could play the part of the Israelites well; I can sympathize with them. They are eager to worship the God that brought them out of Egypt and who is leading them to the Promised Land.  Moses is taking his sweet time up on Mount Sinai, and we already know from a couple of weeks ago that the Israelites aren’t very good at waiting. They’re in the middle of a desert, completely at the mercy of some deity that they don’t know all that well.  They have no idea what’s going to happen next, where they will be tomorrow, or what YHWH desires of them. Here’s what they do know: gods don’t like to be disrespected or ignored. The Egyptian deities, who the Israelites would be most familiar with, are not compassionate towards humanity, they are pretty hostile. These gods needed to be appeased so that they didn’t visit wrath upon the people.  We can understand why the Israelites were so eager to create an idol that they could worship in the way that they thought would be pleasing to YHWH. “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf.  Then Aaron announced, ‘Tomorrow will be a festival to the LORD!’...they offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices.”  Aaron tries to follow the instructions he YHWH and Moses gave him, but can’t imagine how to perform these rituals in the absence of a physical representation of a deity. He’s not willing to stand up to the people’s cries for an idol, which he already knows is displeasing to YHWH.  Aaron’s and the Israelites’ behavior is understandable, but it is not excusable. 

The sin of the golden calf is not that the Israelites worshipped a different god—they didn’t—but that they attempted to mould and thereby limit YHWH.  When they cast YHWH as something tangible, they also cast YHWH in a certain role, defining the dynamics between the divine and humanity that do not live up to a covenantal relationship. YHWH desires respect and worship, but not the kind that is born out of fear or obligation.  The Israelites desire a relationship with YHWH, but lack the imagination to see that as something other than the fear-driven relationships that define other peoples’ gods.  We are also guilty of casting moulds for God.  We attempt to define God, thereby constraining our own relationship with the divine.  Have we created a God that demands fear and penitence?  Have we created a God who is so abstract and disembodied that we can no longer perceive God’s participation in the world?  I wonder, what do our golden calves look like?

The scene between Moses and YHWH, when YHWH learns of the Israelites’ behavior, is where the real action is; the golden calf incident just provides the background. The Israelites almost succeed in moulding YHWH into that jealous and vengeful god. “Hurry up and go down! Your people who you brought up from the land of Egypt are ruining everything!” YHWH has had it up to HERE with the Israelites.  They just don’t learn.  Well fine, if they want a wrathful deity, they’ll get one.  The Israelites have cast YHWH as an impatient, cold and wrathful god.  And the only way wrathful gods can respond to disobedience is by severe punishment, right? “Let my fury burn and devour them.  Then I’ll make a great nation out of you, Moses.” The Israelites aren’t the only ones lacking in imagination. YHWH is more than happy to play the part that the Israelites have defined and start playing out another script previously performed with the Patriarchs.  YHWH is prepared to reestablish the covenant with one faithful individual and let the rest burn. YHWH’s reaction is understandable, but it’s not excusable.

We, like the Israelites and YHWH, fall back into these dysfunctional patterns time and again.  It’s easy, to cast moulds not only of God but of each other. Like YHWH and the Israelites, we have scripts in our heads and we cast ourselves and others in clearly defined roles.  These roles limit our relationships and predetermine our thoughts and behaviors.  That kid with his pants hanging low—he’s a delinquent and up to no good; better walk on the other side of the street.  That hyper child in class, he must be a troublemaker; better be strict with him.  And this is powerful stuff because our reactions to others often play right into the roles that they have cast us in, solidifying their first impressions and determining the plot of a specific interaction. Casting moulds results in self-fulfilling prophecies.  The kid with his pants hanging low just saw a white lady cross the street to avoid him, is he going to smile and wave? The hyperactive kid sees that his teacher is singling him out, is he going to seek that teacher’s affection?

We don’t have to reach very far for an example of this, its prevalent in our most intimate relationships—our families. Here’s one. My grandmother, my Mammaw, is independent; it’s her defining trait.  Her daughter, my mother, is a caretaker.  When a fiercely independent woman and her fiercely compassionate daughter are thrust together, conflict happens.  My mother wants to do everything for my grandmother because she loves her and doesn’t want her eighty-three year old mother standing on a ladder to change lightbulbs. My grandmother wants my mother to leave her alone and respect the precious independence that she has maintained for so long.  My grandmother starts to treat my mother like an overprotective nag, and my mother starts to treat my grandmother like an obstinate old woman.  They play off each other, and as the visit goes on, my mother becomes more frustrated and overbearing and my grandmother becomes more confrontational and aggressively independent.  It’s the same script, every time. They can’t break out of the roles that they’ve moulded for each other, even though neither of them is happy with these dynamics.  Understandable, but not excusable. 

We see these cycles of conflict--of action and predictable reaction and reaction and reaction—at every level of relationship.  When police officers relate to neighborhood residents as criminals, those residents relate to officers as vigilante gangs, and two groups who should be working together for a better community become enemies.  When college and university administrations treat student observations as complaints from immature brats, students will see the administration’s response as cold and out of touch; and an institution of higher learning becomes a mire of mudslinging. When a church focuses solely on the politics of its body and its activities, relationship with God becomes an afterthought and the Church exorcises its spirituality.  Conversely, when a church defines itself as a refuge from the evils of streets, the congregation separates themselves from the world that God created.   

These roles and the scripts that come with them don’t benefit anybody; none of these parties are happy with the status quo. We replay the same scripts over and over again with the same results.  We complain, we organize, we fight, we suppress, following playbooks that predict, pretty accurately, the reactions to follow.  And I think on some level that’s comforting because it’s familiar.  We may not like these cycles, but at least we understand them and we can predict the outcome; it doesn’t require us to imagine something different.  Moving from beyond imagination into actual change is even more difficult.  Better to stay in sharply defined roles and keep playing out the same, dysfunctional script again and again; at least we know how the story ends.  Better to keep erecting golden calves and reestablishing covenants. Understandable, but not excusable.

So how do we break out of the roles we find ourselves locked in?  Well, let’s get back to Mt. Sinai.  Both the Israelites and YHWH are stuck.  Both parties desire to be closer, to have a mutually fulfilling relationship but aren’t able to break out of patterns that only drive them further away from each other.  And the story could very well start all over again. “Let my fury burn and devour them.  Then I’ll make a great nation out of you, Moses.”  All Moses has to do is follow the script.  Take YHWH up on the offer, abandon the people and enter the Promised Land alone to begin anew.  It would have been easy.  But Moses imagines a different future and refuses to play along; he breaks the mould that YHWH provides for him—that of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Instead, Moses calls YHWH out. “Why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt…calm down your fierce anger.  Change your mind …remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  In the SMT, or Sarah’s Modern Translation:  Hold Up.  Calm Down.  You are YHWH and you are better than this

No one has ever spoken to YHWH like this before. In the original Hebrew, Moses commands YHWH to “repent” of this hostile overreaction to the golden calf, to imagine another response.  And it works; YHWH “repents” and transforms.  YHWH breaks out of the vengeful god role and decides to live into covenantal relationship.  In the next few chapters Moses literally shatters the Israelites’ depiction of YHWH; he calls Aaron and the Israelites out for sticking with the familiar scripts.  He goes on to break the stone tablets, just to drive the point home that this is a different kind of God, and they are a different kind of people.  Moses breaks the cycle, he breaks the mould.  And the Israelites are shown that they don’t have to live into their roles as fearful slaves to a wrathful deity; they are transformed into the Chosen People.  By breaking the moulds, by throwing out the script, YHWH, Moses, and the Israelites write a different story, and enter into covenantal relationship.  That’s what happens when we break moulds, we are transformed. 

We need more Moseses.  We need to be called out, to see how we are living into unhealthy roles and playing out scripts against our better judgment, contrary to our true selves.  And we all need to be called out.  Now you might be thinking of that person you wish was here for this sermon, but I challenge you to consider your own relationships, the conflicts you’re facing.  We’re all guilty of casting moulds, of denying ourselves and others opportunities for transformation.  Even YHWH did it.  I need to be called out.  I need to be told when I perpetuate the system White supremacy in my everyday interactions.  Police officers need to be reminded that they are supposed to be partners with communities.  My mother and grandmother need to remember that they respect and admire the other’s natures. Institutions need to make space for everyone’s voice.  Churches need to embrace every facet of their identity.  We need to stop labeling and limiting God to our own narrow interpretations of the divine.  We all need to be called out—because we are made in the image of God and we are better than this

Breaking these patterns allows us to live into the people God is calling us to be, to experience transformation.  Rewriting the story and transforming our relationships with others isn’t easy.  There’s no script for it.  It took YHWH and the Israelites forty years to figure out how to be in covenantal relationship.  But the reward is great, it is the Beloved Community, the Kin-dom of God on Earth, a world where peace and justice reign.  It is the Promised Land, and we can get there, but we need to be willing to break out of our moulds and to imagine something different. If we don’t, if we stick with what is familiar, our actions may be understandable, but not excusable.  As we move into a time of prayer and reflection, I’ll ask again, what tired scripts are you following?  What moulds have you, have we, trapped others in?  How have you constrained God?  What would it look like to toss out the scripts and imagine a new story?