Taking Risks

Sunday 11th September 2016
Year C, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Exodus 32.7-14

One of the aspects of my professional life that I most dislike is an obsession in many of the organisations I encounter with constitutions, rules and resolutions which are treated as ends in themselves rather than as means. And I often find myself saying - which doesn't make me very popular - that it makes no difference what the document says if the organisation doesn't have any budget to do something. Sometimes, on the other hand, agreements between former enemies, painstakingly hammered out, are important, so the way we write down words needs to be given a context. As we all know from our life experience, things that work well in one context don't work so well in another.

So here we are, on the top of the mountain where Moses has just been given the most important document that he could be given; the Law of God inscribed on two tablets of stone but, this being our world, no sooner does he have this at once precious and frightening gift than The all-seeing Lord notices the idolatry of the calf which the Chosen People have made from their jewellery and are now worshipping. They have grown tired of this fierce, abstract God who might have liberated them from egypt and might be sending down manna six days of the week but he's just too intimidating and unremitting; and, anyway, they've grown tired of being reminded about their liberation; and they've grown tired of manna; and when they complained they were sent quails which made them sick; and they've grown tired of waiting for Moses; and they want to get a move on to this promised land they keep being told about.

And then, something very strange happens: in the first instance, God says he'll wipe out the Chosen People and start afresh with Moses and his offspring; and then Moses pleads with God; and then, this God who is thought by the calf worshippers to be so unrelenting, relents.

The first major point to notice, then, is that this piece of text is struggling with the idea of what God is like; and one way of dealing with the problem is to make God like us. So God is first, quite justifiably, very angry and threatens to take revenge; then he listens to argument from Moses, a man he clearly esteems, and changes his mind. This, of course, flies in the face of all that theology about the unchanging God who knew everything before time began; but the Jews weren't all that interested in theology in the way that Greek influenced Christians have been; they had a creator God whom they were supposed to worship and whose Law they were supposed minutely to obey. There was some inkling after their 6th Century BCE exile that there might be life after death, reflected in the controversy between the Pharisees and Sadducees during the lifetime of Jesus but, having noted that; End of theology.

For all our two thousand years of post Greek theological wrestling, we haven't done much better because the only way to keep clear of describing God in human terms is to define God by what God isn't. It's easier for us in the sense that we have a clear idea of what Jesus is like but the other two aspects of the Trinity are very difficult.

But if we stop concentrating on definitions, the theological equivalent of those written constitutions and rules I mentioned earlier, and think instead about what God does rather than about what God is, we might make some progress, in the way we might if we think about what organisations do or, at any rate, should do.

Interestingly - and this is my second main point - Judaism and the Church of England have a negative aspect in common; we don't have written, theological constitutions; Judaism is governed by The Law and we, in spite of the proceedings of the General Synod, are a Church defined by our Prayer book rather than the somewhat incoherent and frequently disingenuous Thirty-Nine Articles which is why, incidentally, we are having such a protracted dispute about what prayers we can and cannot say in connection with gay relationships. We are not, fundamentally, having a theological argument but, rather, an argument about forms of worship.

Which leads to my third and final major point. It might appear to us that the Jewish approach to God was a little primitive and literal with limitations which Jesus pointed out; but it was a good start because it combined the fundamental creaturely obligation to worship the Creator God - common to so many religions - with a practical approach to acknowledge Godhead through living. To that extent, our insistence on the centrality of worship is on a par with that of Judaism but our approach to living is necessarily somewhat distanced, for while we have learned, since the Council of Jerusalem in Chapter 15 of Acts, that the Jewish Law is of limited application to Christians, we have rather struggled over where the line should be drawn: it took us a long time to reject Jewish endorsed slavery, the Jewish notion of physical blemish and disability and, of course Jewish attitudes to women, to name three examples; but we seem not to have learned from these struggles that chopping the Bible into tiny pieces and arguing that each piece must, in isolation, be taken literally, is not altogether the most helpful approach to understanding how we should live creaturely lives.

For myself, I believe that to stick to the rules as defined either by history, or tradition, or cultural norms, or the majority, is the low risk strategy of the minimalist conformist; but when I think of human love and human pain, of joy and loss, of the melancholy always in the DNA of our gladness, of the minor key latent in all music, I believe that conformity and safety are a poor response; and if they are a poor response to our human condition then they are even less worthy of our creator. The God of love is worth a risk.