A Good Ol’ Fashioned Sermon about the Radical Nature of God’s Grace (on the 15th anniversary of 9/11)

Augustana Lutheran Church
11 September 2016 + Lectionary 24C
Exodus 32.7-14

Liturgical whiplash. It’s the result of a hearing a bizarre pairing of seemingly disparate jonathanedwards04lectionary texts. On the one hand, there’s the angry vengeful God ready to smite the Israelites in Exodus—and yet, it’s precisely that kind of rash judgment toward “sinners” that Jesus calls out in his twin parables in Luke.

At first glance, God’s angry tirade against the Israelites reads rather harshly. God even opens by distancing Godself from them: “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt…” God says to Moses. As if to say: Not my circus, not my monkeys. And God’s decision: consume them and bring their existence as a people to an end.

It seems rather excessive, and even out of character, for the God who heard the groaning of the Israelite slaves in Egypt and liberated them from their oppressors.

The medieval French rabbi Rashi offers some help here. His commentary on these few verses proposes that God’s insistence to be “let alone” is actually a subtle hint to Moses to do just the opposite—suggesting that if Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites, God will not destroy them. [1]

And Moses does just that. He starts by  boldly turning God’s words right back on God: “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” But that’s only the beginning of Moses’s reminder to God of God’s relationship with God’s people.

Remember Abraham… Remember your covenant promise. Remember how Abraham, too, once pleaded with you to save a whole city from destruction.

Remember Isaac… the long-awaited son you promised to Sarah.

Remember Israel… Remember how Jacob wrestled with you and became Israel, the one who strives with God.

Remember Israel… The children of Jacob, who multiplied and grew exceedingly strong in the land of Egypt, who were enslaved and oppressed, and whose cries God heard.

But wait — Surely God doesn’t need reminders of the history of God’s people and their long relationship, right? I suspect Moses’s plea is less a reminder for God—and more a reminder for Israel and for us.

In keeping with Rashi’s observation, another commentator claims that the whole conversation between God and Moses is a divine setup. Just as Abraham’s bargaining with God to save Sodom allowed him “to measure and remeasure the height, depth, and width of the divine bias toward mercy,” so too does Moses’s plea remind us of that same mercy. [2]

In other words, we might ask: Did God ever really plan to destroy Israel?

The incident of the golden calf could easily have been told in one sentence: Israel screwed up, but God forgave them anyway. But that doesn’t make for a very compelling or interesting story. Instead, we read a fiery exchange between God and Moses. It calls out the gravity of Israel’s sin, but in the process, it also makes God’s grace and readiness to forgive all the more profound.

It’s a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness for a people lost in the wilderness and, centuries later, for a people exiled from their homeland. It’s a reminder for anyone who finds themselves separated from God, or when it feels like the divine is nowhere to be found. Perhaps in the midst of national or global tragedies, or on the anniversary of one like today.

IMG_8688.PNGEven so, the end of a divine tirade is an unusual place to find grace. But grace is nothing if not “unexpected and mysterious,” as the hymn begins.

Southern Gothic writer and devout Catholic Flannery O’Connor acutely understood the nature of grace. The characters in her stories are often grotesque, deeply flawed, and unlikable human beings, and her stories typically leave me scratching my head and needing to re-read them to glean whatever could be O’Connor’s point in telling such deeply disturbing tales.

Her point, though, offers keen insights into the nature of grace. “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories,” she says of her work. But elsewhere she qualifies, “This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts.” [3]

That’s why in O’Connor’s stories, profound moments of grace are often embedded in deeply disturbing moments of suffering—the latter moments shock us so that grace moments are made all the more surprising.

So it is with the Israelites. These are a people who have been on the brink of hopelessness over and over again. Under oppression and slavery in Egypt. At the bank of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army rapidly closing in on them. At the base of Sinai after Moses, their leader, has by all accounts disappeared.

No wonder they demanded that Aaron make them the golden calf. It’s out of their fear that they erected something to remind them of a godlike presence. It wasn’t so much an idol as an image of the God they hoped against hope hadn’t abandoned them.

And so the story of a seemingly vengeful God that opens the door to a reminder of God’s long history of covenant faithfulness, of liberation from bondage, of grace upon grace.

A grace that overflows, even and especially in the messiness of life. A grace that welcomes tax collectors and sinners. A grace that intentionally seeks us out, time and time again. A grace that always precedes and stands at the ready to embrace us.

[1] http://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.32?lang=en&p2=Rashi_on_Exodus.32.12&lang2=en

[2] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Exodus 32:7-14: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year C Additional Essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 3.

[3] Quoted by Tod Worner, “The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Connor,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/acatholicthinker/2013/10/the-mean-grace-of-flannery-oconnor/.

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