Rev. John Z. Flack, preacher
When I was growing up, back in the old days, there were none of these fancy bulletins that we use today. Instead, when we came to church, we opened the LBW, the green book, and turned to page 56 to begin with Confession and Forgiveness. For the young version of me, this was the beginning of a very great trial, especially this time of year when the Packers were playing the early game and I knew that every second we wasted a church was a second that I would not be able to watch Reggie White get a sack or Brett Favre lead the offense. Back in those days we went to a church that did not have Communion every Sunday, which meant that church, though still too long, was shorter every other week. The Sundays we did have Communion were worse, especially when we came to the Eucharistic Prayer, the part where the Pastor prays over the bread and wine. In the LBW there were three options: the pink option, which was long; the shorter option, which was too long but almost bearable, and the short option, which was still too long but short enough I could stand it. So it became my most fervent and heartfelt prayer that on Communion Sundays God would, by the power of the Holy Spirit, change my father’s heart and lead him to the short Eucharistic prayer, the really short one, just the Words of Institution, those three or four sentences. I would plead and beg, thinking, “Please God, just let him do the short one, the one that begins, “In the night in which he was betrayed… Just make it stop!”
God inevitably let me down. “Please God, the short one, the one with In the night in which he was betrayed…” I’d pray, and then good old Dad would say, “Holy God, mighty Lord, gracious Father, endless is your mercy and eternal your reign.” Yeah—endless is the prayer and eternal this service is more like it, I thought. It was hard for me to be pious when the Packers were going to kick off at 12:30, and we still had to eat lunch.
I guess God has a sense of humor after all. Now that I’m older I like the long prayer, the pink one, the endless and eternal one. I like it because it better because it isn’t just a repetition of words but a prayer, that gives something to God—thanks and praise. As I tell the Confirmation Class, God has no need of our prayers. God allows us to pray so that we can hear him, so that we can open ourselves to him. And these Eucharistic Prayers, addressed to God, asking things of God, but also praising God, delighting in him and rejoicing in his work, are principally for us, so that we open ourselves to the mystery and the grace of God’s presence throughout time and space and in one another. The pink prayer remembers the creation of all things, that God made us and all that exists. It recalls how God first made himself known by a promise to a wandering, landless herdsman. It remembers that God saved his people when they were slaves in a foreign land, that God gave them the law, that God sent the promises, that even more than that, God sent his only Son, not just for that people, but for all peoples, so that all may call upon his name in faith in love. And not only that, but that God sends the Spirit to us now, that God breathes through every part of our existence, that through the Spirit we rest in God’s eternal presence with the whole human race, the whole of redeemed history, that the coming of Christ is somehow affected even in this moment, in this place. To fully enter into the Eucharist is to enter into the eternal reign of God, to receive life, eternal life, salvation, forgiveness. To be in God’s presence, in other words, is to be over-matched and overwhelmed by love that is both closer than anyone, and vaster than anything. All we can do is receive and rejoice and tell somebody who doesn’t know that God loves us. All we can do is share the love and the praise.
That’s why the Israelites are guilty of such a great and grave sin. It isn’t just that they built a statue. It isn’t just that Aaron caved into making a new God. It’s that they knew all that God had done for them, they knew God’s power, they knew that God was their king, their true Pharaoh, their God, and they decided instead to worship the work of their own hands, an image they themselves created. It’s true that Moses was gone for a bit, and it’s true they were in the middle of the wilderness without a good picture of where they were going. It’s true they had to rely on faith and trust in the mysterious presence that drove the sea apart so they could walk on dry land, that this God was new to them. But rather the risking their faith on their savior, they turned doubt into ingratitude. The building of a calf was a denial of the God that rescued them and a denial of the love he bore for them. And instead of the living God they worshipped dead gold. Instead of worshipping the everlasting God, they decided to worship whatever they could give—it was a lot of gold, of course, but what is gold compared to its Creator. The sin is the Israelites’ trust in a God they created, and thus, could control. They trusted in a God that would always allow them the short prayers, that would work based on exchange—the people give, the God delivers, an amazon.com religion.
This is the same as the Gospel of Matthew, by the way. The king’s invitation is God’s invitation to join him in his party, his lavish party of grace that supplies all our need. But instead of coming to the party, the people turned to the work of their own hands, to the making and the changing of money. One turned to his farm, another to his business—and some even killed the messengers that bore the invitation. Never mind that their businesses were protected by the king’s laws and depended on the king’s roads. Never mind that they security of their farms depended on the king’s protection. This is ingratitude enough. But the killer is that they made light of their king’s invitation—their wealth was more important to them than the invitation of their king. And in this context we see exactly their trust in an economy of exchange—just like in the golden calf, the god the Israelites could create and control, the people in the parable were too eager to trust in the means of exchange than in the grace of their king.
Thanks be to God we do not worship a God like that. We do not gather here to with a God who barters with us. We do not receive Christ because we have given the appropriate offering or gifts. Everything you see here, everything you hear comes from an unequal exchange: God gives everything, every person you see, the music you hear, the words we speak together, are gifts given to us from the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things. In many ways, we know more than our Israelite forbears do—we are three thousand years removed from them. But every week we still have to learn what they had to learn, that when we enter into God’s presence, we still enter into a mysterious presence that will not bend to our will, but instead molds us into a new people.
And, like those people of old, we are still faced with the temptation to make light of God, to turn our gaze to the works of our own hands. Our offering, our stewardship, is one way we put our faith in the mystery of God, and remove our trust from the wealth and gold we have gathered, but is not our own. Stewardship is vital for us, because by it we grow in faith, when we take what could be a temptation and watch what God does with it. Our offering of our money, our time, and our abilities, is a way for us to put away our worship of them, and see that when we place them in God’s service, amazing things happen. We give because God has given, grace upon grace, and did not withhold his only Son. We give because God forgives. We give not because God needs it, but because we need to do it, we need to worship our Saviour and Lord. Amen.