The Hard Way Forward

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Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
The Hard Way Forward

A sermon preached in virtual worship for New Millennium Church
Little Rock, Arkansas
October 11, 2020
Scripture: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106 (selected verses)

Have you ever come to a point in your life when you had to take the hard way forward? You had no other choices! In fact, the phrase “the hard way forward” paints a an unvarnished picture of these tumultuous days, and the paints on the artist’s brush are dark and foreboding.

What a journey 2020 has been! I have often called it a journey of lament — a journey that has forced us to be in places we never wanted to be and to see things we never wanted to see. 

We look around and watch people in shock and dismay — disillusioned and despondent. So many have been personally touched, even ravaged, by the deadly coronavirus, while others are overcome with fear of it. We have witnessed evil, racist assaults; watched police brutality and murder on our television screens; we have grieved over wildfires that threaten to swallow up forests, animals, homes and lives; and over it all we have felt contempt for the reprehensible leadership of an incompetent, insensitive, egocentric, self-serving president. I think it’s safe to assume that many people in this broken nation feel hopeless and heartbroken.

I often ask: 
God, are you still leading us on this hard journey?  Or have you forsaken us?
Do you have some kind of plan we do not yet see?

These months for so many people have definitely been a hard way forward. As we try to put one foot in front of the other on this journey, perhaps we can imagine ourselves walking with the people of Israel.

So let us listen and hear the Word of God in Holy Scripture

From Exodus, Chapter 32, (selected verses):

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said, “Come, make us gods who shall go before us.”

“As for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 

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.” 

So the people took off the gold rings and gave them to Aaron. He took the gold, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and the people said, 

“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before the calf and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices; and they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose up to carouse. [my word choice]

(Now the scene changes locations.)

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people have acted perversely . . . they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it. I have seen how stiff-necked these people are. Now leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

But Moses implored the Lord, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

And from Psalm 106 (selected verses):

O give thanks to the LORD . . . for God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have acted wickedly. They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

Therefore he said he would destroy them — had not Moses stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath.

This is the word of God for the people of God.

The story of the Israelites reminds us that our kindred sojourners also traveled some rough paths. The text gives a glimpse of just one snippet of their journey. We see the Israelites on their wilderness pilgrimage, complaining, as they often did — and as we often do.

Apparently, Moses who had just received the ten commandments, stayed on Mount Horeb for a long time, patiently listening as God engaged him in a presentation of all manner of laws, rules and instructions. It took awhile — 40 days and forty nights, a very long time. And the Israelites started complaining about it to the one Moses left in charge — Aaron.

What has become of Moses?

What would he eat on that mountain, anyway?

This Moses, that brought us out here in this mess — where is he?

And then their fateful request to Aaron:

You are the one who is here with us now — make us something we can see. Make us something that will lead us forward, and we will follow it.

Now you probably remember that the Israelites had complained before:

Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us with thirst?
Why have you led us into this forsaken, dangerous wilderness? To kill us with hunger?

Their complaints may sound a bit like our own complaining during the terrible months of pandemic, racial unrest, political rancor, and all manner of upheaval. 

Hey God! Are you planning to obliterate this coronavirus, or not?

Are you still with us, God, or not? 

Have you brought us to this season for some purpose? 

Like the Israelites, we sometimes lose sight of our leader — the God that would give us the courage to move. We are left as a wandering, unsettled people that simply cannot see our way forward.

As Wendell asked in last Sunday’s sermon, “Shouldn’t God do something?”

Shouldn’t a God of enduring, everlasting love do something?

Now remember — we are in good company with several holy bible people. The prophet Isaiah, for one, who asked:

“How long, O Lord
And God actually replied to him:

Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant,
until the land is desolate and ravaged,
until the land is utterly forsaken.

Not so reassuring!

The Psalm singer asked, too, in Psalm 94.

How much longer will the wicked be glad?
How much longer, Lord?
How much longer will criminals boast about their crimes?

They crush your people, Lord; they oppress those who belong to you.
They kill widows and orphans, and murder the strangers who live in our land.

Who stood up for me against the wicked? Who took my side against evil?

If God hadn’t been there for me, I never would have made it.
The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling!
Your love, God, took hold and held me fast.”

Like those holy bible people, we ask — in our impatience and fear — “How long, O Lord? 

And even as we ask, we have a wee inkling that God’s love is still holding us in safe arms of grace. George Matheson was a Scottish clergyman and theologian who lived in the late 1800’s. He was blind by the age of 18. Matheson wrote something quite profound about God’s love — the text of the hymn, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The hymn text formed in his mind during a “dark night of the soul” he experienced, a deeply emotional and spiritual crisis. He tells us about it in his own words.

My hymn was composed in the manse on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882. Something happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life . . . the whole work was completed in five minutes, and it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this one came like a dayspring from on high.

In a time of emotional anguish, God’s creative grace rose up in George Matheson and he wrote about the kind of divine love that would never let him go. I think we owe Rev. George for reminding us about God’s unwavering love. The hymn text is most assuredly Gospel Good News that people throughout the centuries have desperately needed to remember

As you and I walk this journey, we need to know that God’s love will hold us fast, but sometimes we don’t know it. Like George Matheson, we could use a visit from the Dayspring from on high!

In truth, we need assurance — that no matter how hard the way forward, God’s love will not let us go. Threatened by a deadly virus, God’s love will not let us go. In our most disconsolate moments, God’s love will not let us go. When we courageously stand up to denounce racism, white supremacy, police violence and all manner of evil that surrounds us, God’s stubborn love will never let us go!

But that kind of love also places before us a holy mission undergirded with the foundational principle that evil cannot be reformed, it must be transformed — transformed within us before it can be transformed in the world, and transformed in the way described by Dr. King:

Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the Israelites and their golden calf, or the psalm singer who sang something about God’s steadfast love enduring forever, or the idea that someone might possibly stand in the breach for us.

My friends, each of us are traveling through these days with at least some fear and anxiety. It is a hard way forward, and as some clever people have said, “The light at the end of the tunnel is probably a freight train!” 

Still, we are inheritors of the hope and grit of so many others who have journeyed hard roads before us — walking, marching, sometimes crawling — at times standing tall, at other times falling face-down in the dust of a hard rocky ground. We have navigated perilous roads and turbulent waters in this season. Yet we walk on, just as those who walked before us and who walk beside us.

I recently saw a news report about a little girl walking with her family among crowds of protesters. She stops at a makeshift memorial to George Floyd. As she pauses there, we can read the sign she carries — a hand printed cardboard sign that says:

My daddy plays with me. My daddy reads to me.
My daddy tucks me in at night. Please don’t kill my daddy.

The little girl walks on with her family.

Tamika Palmer walks on too, tears flowing freely. Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother, vows she will never stop walking forward towards justice for the daughter she lost.

It strengthens us to remember those who walked before us in years past and those who walk with us today who are those sparkling examples of hope and grit: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Oscar Romero, Fannie Lou Hamer, Prathia Hall, Greta Thunberg, Rev Dr. William J. Barber, II, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., Dorothy Day, Bishop Michael Curry, Nelson Mandela, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Jr,. US Representative John Lewis, Rev. Pastor Judge Wendell Griffen and countless others whose names we revere, as well as so many whose names we do not even know.

Walking, marching, protesting, advocating, praying, writing, speaking, weeping — throughout centuries and to this very time. Compelled by prevailing, persisting injustice, they walk on — we walk on —taking the hard way forward.

So having eavesdropped on a people constructing a golden calf to worship, will we allow their story to call our attention to our own idols? Those idols we have made for ourselves out of our own Egyptian gold?  “Idols” might just be the next sermon point, if I used sermon points!

It’s tempting to mistake our own creations for our God. It’s tempting to shape our self-made idols into an image that soothes our anxiety, feeds our anger and our egos, and convinces us it will demolish whatever is evil around us. I don’t know about you, but I can get obsessed at times. My tasks, my work, my advocacy sometimes rise up out of my obsessions. I don’t like that, but have to admit the truth.

So I have to ask myself: Is my work to dismantle injustice part of God’s call and my holy mission, or have I made it my idol?

Whatever that thing is that we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god. That thing we idolize may symbolize strength and power. It may personify bravery. It may embody rebellion or protest. But as close as we draw to it and place it at the center of our lives, we must understand that it will not lead us to transformation, just as the Israelites’ golden calf could have never led them to the land of promise. 

Instead it will shackle us in our impatience, audacity and self-importance. It will shackle us because of our insistence on following our own way instead of God’s way. 

Here is another honest confession:  It is tempting for me to let hate become my idol, to allow my desire for retribution to goad me into facing off against injustice with hate. But God’s way is always love. 

Is it possible that our idol is our hate for people, people who may actually deserve it like white supremacists, neo-Nazis, violent police officers, men wielding projectiles and tear gas, corrupt politicians and leaders? Do we rise up against such people with hate as our weapon, while all the time, God calls us to love our enemies!

The hard way forward is the way of higher ground that invites us to turn away from the idols created by our lesser angels and walk forward in the persistent love that will never let us go. 

The hard way forward knows the pain of fear and doubt, but still chooses to follow cloud and fire through the desert-landscape and on to freedom. The hard way forward is to live into God’s abiding, never-ending love.

For you see, seekers of justice who marched the hard way before us faced firehoses and dogs because they longed for holy transformation and because they trusted that God’s love would not let them go. Seekers of justice protesting in the streets of Louisville and in other cities in these hard days face tear gas, police brutality, violent government intervention because they long for holy transformation and because their faith whispers to them, “God’s love will not let you go.”

You and I, in whatever ways we are dismantling injustice, MUST take the hard way forward — facing censure, criticism, indifference, ridicule, disrespect, even violence, because we long for holy transformation and because deep-down, we believe in our hearts that God’s love will never let us go.

That hard way forward is the path to transforming injustice! Doing the same things we’ve done the same way we’ve done them might bring some manner of reform. But we must not settle for reformation. We must set our eyes on transformation. 

One last caveat: the change we seek may never be realized even if we are brave enough to take the hard way forward, because the saved up baggage we carry weighs us down — the anger we hold on to, the hatred we feel, the impatience that makes us volatile, the fear that besets us, the hostility we refuse to let go of. Isn’t it time for you and me to kneel before God, confess our sins and accept the healing grace that wipes away our tears and transforms us into a new creation?

Kneeling at the altar of repentance, we will stand up straight and tall and brave — and most importantly, forgiven — and we will take the hard way forward, knowing in our souls that we cannot just act to reform evil, we must resolve to transform it. 

So let us bravely and confidently take the hard way forward, knowing that God is standing in the breach on our behalf and that the Dayspring from on high visits us, giving light when we walk through the darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.

Let us take the hard way forward, proclaiming from the depths of our being that no matter how dark and difficult and long the journey is, God’s love will never let us go. Amen.

I invite you now to spend a few moments of reflection and prayer as you listen to a benediction of choral music in the video below. May you listen in the music for the whisper of God, for Christ’s blessing of grace, for the brush of Spirit wings. 

And as you leave this time of holy worship, persevering on the hard way forward, may the God of love go with you and fill you with gentle peace through every tribulation, so that your soul may rise up in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Forgiveness

3904e2f4-b048-4bf3-83f1-bccdd2592165I have long pondered forgiveness, for years! It’s something that confuses me. Like forgiving my abuser. Like parents standing at their child’s graveside and considering how to forgive the shooter. Like a little girl forgiving the people that snatched her from her mother’s arms at the border.

Forgiveness can be confounding and elusive. It is not a merely a thing, or a conviction, or an emotion, or a firmly held belief. It is an act of the heart that can seem all but impossible. But the Bible seems very clear about forgiveness. When you have been wronged or betrayed by another person and you are in a tug of war with yourself about forgiveness, the words of Scripture face off with you as a challenge, perhaps even a rebuke.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Collosians 3:13)

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)

For so many years, these and other Biblical admonitions troubled me. I felt as though the words stood in judgement before me. I would pray to be able to forgive. I would pray for light that could shatter the darkness around me. I would pray again, and again. Waiting. Hoping.

Eventually, I shared my inability to forgive with my spiritual director, hoping for guidance and wise counsel. We talked about it at length. I bared my most vulnerable places and revealed the unresolved anger that lived inside of those places. I mined the depths of my spirit and unearthed long-standing wounds of the soul. Our conversations were gently pushing me to a better place and shedding light on the reality that my inability to forgive was not disobedience, but unresolved pain. And then my spiritual director shared this quote with me.

Forgiveness isn’t telling someone it was okay to hurt you. 
It’s telling yourself  it’s okay to stop hurting. 

It doesn’t mean you have to trust them again. 
It means you can learn to trust yourself again. 

It doesn’t mean you have to give them a free pass back into your life. 
It means you are free to take your life back again. 

Forgiveness is simply emptying your past of its power to empty your present of its peace. 

― L.R. Knost

That experience was many years ago, but to this day, I live in the peace I found then. There is no doubt that my past did indeed have the power to empty my “present of its peace.” Reclaiming my peace made forgiveness possible, though it did not happen instantly. It’s not so easy to forgive a person who was never sorry.

Still, it was a process — a journey really — that I had to travel with God, praying all along the way that I would have the strength I needed. The journey was long and sometimes arduous. God was ever-present — patient and persistent. At journey’s end, there really was light, shining brightly where darkness had been. 

Was I healed of my sin of being an unforgiving person? After this journey, do I now forgive every person who hurts me? Sometimes!

Thank you, God, for your patient persistence. Amen.