Homily for Proper 28 (National Thanksgiving)
Sunday, October 9th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Exodus 32:1-14
“Turn from you fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.”
God had every right to be angry with his people. He had delivered them from the hand of pharaoh and slavery in Egypt. He had led them dry-shod through the Red Sea. He had given them manna to eat in the wilderness. And still, the moment their Moses leader had gone up the mountain to converse with God, the Hebrew people decided to make a false god and bow down and worship it. The anger of God was kindled against his people and God was ready to raise his hand against them.
This story tells us that even the patience of God can be tested once in a while. In one way this gives me great comfort, for I am often disappointed in myself when I find my wrath kindled and my patience tested. While each of us has different levels of tolerance, I am sure that all of us have a breaking point. All of us, from time-to-time, find our patience tested by those around us, not only our adversaries, but family members, friends, and yes (dare I say it?), even fellow parishioners. We are only human, and perhaps it will come as a comfort to all of us that as we find our patience tested in difficult situations, by difficult people, even God finds his patience tested.
When our patience is tested it is easy to raise our voices in violent response. Throughout history, the taking up of arms often happens when we find our patience for talk and conversation exhausted. Violent words, violent actions, regrettable words and regrettable actions often follow the loss of patience. When a certain fury rises up within us, rages within, we are quick to act, and perhaps not so quick to think about the consequences. But oh, there is much time to think about consequences after the act is done, and much of the thinking we do is about our regret for the hastiness of our actions.
In his book Writing in the Dust, written immediately after the events of September 11th, 2001, Archbishop Rowan Williams, who was a short distance from the World Trade Centre that morning reflects on the natural desire to act decisively, vindictively, when we are hurt:
"The Response of at least some people in the face of deep injury, once feeling has returned, is a passionate striking out; there is something recognizable about the language of Psalm 137 – ‘ let their children die horribly, let them know what humiliation and exile are like.’ It is an honest moment; but for those of us who are not totally helpless in terms of internal or external resources it is only a moment" (p. 18).
His point is that when our patience is driven to the point of exhaustion, in that moment, we are ready to let loose. We are ready to exact vengeance. We are ready to make the decisive strike against what has driven us to this frenzied moment of exasperation. But perhaps, we need to step back for a moment and consider what acting in such circumstances will do. To recognize that the shattering of patience is but a moment that must be put in the larger framework of our ultimate response. Williams goes on to reflect that as people who have the freedom that we do in the West, we must use that freedom wisely. We have the freedom to think and express ourselves in so many ways. Williams notes:
"We have something of the freedom to consider whether or not we turn to violence, and so, in virtue of that very fact, are rather different from those who experience their world as leaving them no other option. But if we have that freedom, it ought to be less likely that we reach for violence as a first resort … it means putting on hold our most immediate feelings – or at least making them objects of reflection; and means trying to pull apart the longing to re-establish the sense of being in control and the longing to find a security that is shared …. It means acknowledging and using the breathing space; and also longing and using the rage and revengefulness as a way of sensing a little where the violence comes from." (p 23-4)
If only we had taken the Archbishop’s sage words to heart ten years ago. Now we are left reflecting on ten years of our response in Afghanistan and wondering, was it all worth it? The point, though, is this: As Christian people, we have a freedom in Christ that requires of us a higher response to anger, to hate, to infidelity and faithlessness. In Christ Jesus we have the freedom not to strike back with immediate force (either on the global scale or in our communities and in our relationships). We have the higher calling, when our patience is sorely tested, to breathe deeply, to create some space, to attempt to understand from where the pain that is thrust at us has come, and consider what words we will speak into that situation and what healing and reconciling actions we might live by. It seems to me, this is the calling of a Christian community.
On the mountain, where even God’s wrath was kindled and God himself was prepared to strike down his own people, Moses implored God to take a breath, to reflect on what he was about to do. Moses reminded God that 400 years of slavery is not so easily healed by a walk through the Red Sea and some manna in the Wilderness. Moses reminded God that healing is a process, that deliverance is a journey, and that God himself had made a promise. Moses reminded God of God’s own gracious and loving nature. Moses reminded God of God’s own merciful nature; and God relented.
If it gives me comfort that even God’s patience can be sorely tempted, then it also gives me comfort to know that God can reconsider wrath in the moment of temptation. This story gives me hope, should give all of us hope, that even though we may from time-to-time find ourselves driven to the breaking point where our patience is tested, that we are capable of a much higher calling, a much more compassionate response, and a much more reconciling love. When human beings, God’s children, were at their most rebellious, God chose not to raise his arm in anger, but sent his Son and came to be amongst us himself in Jesus Christ, to understand the pain and brokenness we feel and experience as human beings; to transform us that we might be made whole. When God’s patience could have been most sorely tested, rather than raising his hand, God reached out his hand in the person of Jesus Christ and saved us from ourselves. I can think of nothing greater for which to give thanks; and I can think of no more thankful way to live than to live into that higher calling of compassion, understanding, and peacemaking.
c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves