Another Perspective – Exodus 32:7-14 (16th Sunday after Trinity)

Last week we were reminded that some of the passages in the Bible are very hard to listen to and challenging to say the least. They can seem harsh or cruel or unforgiving, lacking in compassion or understanding for mere human beings who from time to time get things wrong. It can be tempting to gloss over such passages or leave them out altogether but as was said we shouldn’t neglect them because they make us uncomfortable. I used to find it very difficult to listen to many of the Old Testament stories for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned. I couldn’t equate the loving God I believed in with the angry, judgemental one I was hearing about who always seemed to be punishing people for doing what humans do, i.e. getting things wrong. I mentioned this to our then vicar and he said that he found the Old Testament stories very honest because they didn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life as it was for many of the people at the time it records. Over the years I too have gained a greater appreciation of this and find that there is a great deal to learn from its pages.

Having slowly worked my way through the Bible and I’ve now started on the Apocrypha, I’ve noticed patterns of human behaviour which repeat throughout history again and again and again. Particularly when it comes to the bad stuff, it seems we never learn so no wonder God sometimes loses patience with us and there is punishment or the threat of it. Even when we are trying our best we often get things wrong, we misunderstand or don’t listen, we go flying off in some misguided direction because we think we know best or we want our own way. I don’t mean to make us sound like petulant children because we are adults capable of thought and reason and self discipline but I can’t help but see a comparison between how God responds to us and how we respond to our own children, especially when they are being difficult. Sometimes we get frustrated by their behaviour and lose our patience; perhaps we even lose our temper and occasionally we might punish more harshly than we intended. If only we weren’t so angry we might be a bit more understanding and forgiving. When the anger abates we probably hope that eventually our children will understand our actions and see that we had their best interests at heart because we love them. We want them to see things from our point of view and to know that we are not just being mean when we deny them what they want.

I love and adore my children, I always have and thankfully I’ve had very little trouble from either of them but I have to confess that when they were younger there were times when I lost my temper with them. The other day my beautiful little granddaughter, who looks so angelic it’s untrue, had screaming abdabs because she wanted her own way and my daughter was equally determined that she wasn’t going to get it. I kept out of the ensuing battle of wills as I didn’t want to make matters worse but I was impressed by my daughter’s calm efforts to explain why she was saying no; not that it made much difference! As we all know, you can’t reason with someone when they won’t hear you which is quite often the case with small children but I can’t help wondering, how often are we like that with God when we don’t like what we get in life?

I suppose part of the problem is that God’s perspective and ours are very different and we can’t always see or comprehend his plans for us. We are told that vast periods of time are like the blink of an eye to him whereas we can’t really grasp such a timescale in relation to ourselves. We are human beings and most of us only last between 60 to 100 years and we have needs to be taken care of regularly within that span. Just as waiting 5 minutes is like an eternity to a child, so waiting years or decades can seem to us.

The passage we heard from Exodus is from a part of the story of the Golden Calf and I think it demonstrates the difference between how God and people see time and how this leads to trouble. The people have been travelling through the wilderness for a very long time and the promises they were given about a wonderful land of their own seem very far off. Moses, who is supposed to be leading them, has disappeared onto Mount Sinai and has been gone a long time and they don’t know when or even if he is coming back. They are getting impatient and want some direction, some plans, some certainty, some results for all their struggles and sacrifices. I have to say I have some sympathy for them on that score although not for how they chose to behave by demanding that Aaron make a Golden Calf for them to worship instead of God. I can even see why Aaron chose to placate them by going along with this even though it was a huge mistake. Because we are human beings we see things from a human perspective but when we try to view this situation from God’s perspective perhaps we can see why he finally loses patience and gets so angry that he wants to destroy his chosen people. Time and again they have turned away from him and then said they were sorry and he has forgiven them but they go on to do the same thing again and again and again. He describes them as “stiff necked”. It is easy, especially in the Old Testament, to see God as an angry, judgemental punisher but how often is he blamed for what we bring on ourselves. In this instance, Moses intercedes with him not to destroy his people and disaster is averted. We get to see another side of God, that he does listen and is open to persuasion that we are not a hopeless case. He is persuaded not to give up on us.

Going back to our perspective, we need to understand that living our faith is a lifetime’s work and commitment and that the timescale is long, longer than our earthly span. We need to learn from our mistakes and those of others if we are to avoid just repeating history with its patterns of disaster. Above all we need to understand that we are loved and nurtured by God and to trust him, especially when the going is tough and, like the children of Israel, we are not getting the results for our efforts that we’d expected. Hopefully, next time we are feeling frustrated or disappointed or even angry about this, we will look beyond our own perspective and try to see things from God’s. Perhaps then we will realise just how much we are loved.
This was where my sermon was going to end, and it having passed muster with my sermon vetting committee (aka my sister Jan & my mum), I thought my job was done, apart for the preaching bit of course. But then as I was watching television last night I saw a documentary called “The Falling Man”. Everything has been so busy lately that I hadn’t connected with the significance of the date, September 11th, the anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. The documentary wasn’t easy to watch as it was about the people who had jumped from these colossal buildings before they collapsed and about how their part in the story had been “airbrushed out of history” because it was too uncomfortable and painful to look at. Understandably people were horrified. Sadly since then we as a world have continued to produce stories and images that are equally hard to look at. But pretending to ourselves that they will go away if we don’t acknowledge them is not only denying recognition of the suffering of the people involved but also enabling us to go on failing to learn from the mistakes which pattern our history.
Again let us try to look beyond our flawed human perspective and attempt to see things from God’s and to rise to the challenge this sets by building a peaceful and compassionate world for all his people.

May those who have died rest in his peace.

Kath Boyd – Reader

All is Vanity & what is of real value – Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14 & 2:18-23 (10th Sunday after Trinity)

Today I’m going to focus on the reading from Ecclesiastes; with an opening line like “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” how could I not? In the chosen verses which follow we are presented with some very forthright questions and observations which are as pertinent to us today as they were to the people who were around at the time they were written. What do we work for when we strive to acquire things be they material, intellectual or status? We can’t take them with us when we die! Others will inherit all that we have worked for! Will they use it wisely or unwisely? These last two questions are ones we cannot answer because we cannot know or control what happens after we die, even with the best ”Will” in the world. What they should do is make us really consider the first question, what are we working for? Is it to become wealthy and have a lot of possessions? Is it to become very knowledgeable in some sphere which may give us authority, influence and power? Does all this make us feel safer or more worthy of respect and admiration?
The intention of asking these questions is not to knock the understandable desire to benefit from our work and to provide for ourselves and our families or to suggest that we shouldn’t seek knowledge; without it how could we act wisely or organise the societies in which we live? I think what we being asked to do is consider what is really of value and work for that rather than wasting our efforts and our time on things that are not really of value. If we spend all our lives working to the point of exhaustion or worrying so much that we are constantly distracted or unable to sleep at night shouldn’t we ask ourselves what is it really for and just as importantly what is the price we and perhaps others are paying for it? What are we missing out on in order to gain this prize that we can’t take with us? What would God think of our actions and motivations?
I don’t know if any of you have seen the film “Hook” which was made in 1991. It is a re-telling of the Peter Pan story. I saw it lots of times because it was one of my son’s favourites. In it the brilliant actor, Robin Williams, plays a high flying lawyer who is so immersed in his corporate world that he can’t see how his wife and children need him and want his attention. He always means to pay attention to them but somehow work always comes first and it is only when he starts to lose them and has to revert to his childhood character of Peter Pan that he is able to realise what he has done and what he has almost thrown away. Fortunately the story has a happy ending and he not only gets his family back but he learns how to enjoy his own life again. Just in time he learns that what he already had was the real prize, not the things he was chasing after.
Losing what is of real value because we stop noticing it or fail to pay attention to it when we should is a trap any of us can easily fall into if we are not mindful and I would include our relationship with God here. Don’t keep putting off what is really important for stuff that isn’t! This is especially true of our relationships with children. We might not think so at the time but they aren’t little for very long. An added bonus of being around them is a chance to enjoy being silly all over again and we can learn a lot from them.
Sadly I have been to too many funerals recently. One was for a friend’s husband who died far too young and with very little warning and it definitely wasn’t fair. He was a nice man, a good man and what came across loud and clear at the service was that he had known what was of true value and he had paid attention and cherished it. His sons spoke of what a loving husband and dad he had been and how they hoped to follow his example in their own relationships. I think all of us were moved to tears by what they said. The sentiment that sticks in my mind from them was this “We didn’t have much money. We don’t remember what was bought for us but we remember was what was done for us. We couldn’t wait for six o’clock when we’d hear dad’s car pull in and he’d take us on an adventure such as walking in Rivelin Valley or finding frog spawn or making a Tarzan swing”. In later years he was both professionally and financially successful and this was rightly acknowledged but what he is remembered for by a huge number of people is the kind of man he was. Perhaps we should ask ourselves what we would hope to be remembered for and if necessary adjust our lives accordingly. I have definitely wasted too much of mine worrying, often about things that I couldn’t do anything about or that weren’t worth it in the first place. This has got in the way of appreciating what was around me and even spoiled times I should have enjoyed being with the people I love. As the saying goes, can anyone by worrying add an inch to their height or an hour to their span! I think I am finally learning my lesson with this, and enjoying the simple pleasures of what I have is now far more important than worrying about what I haven’t done or got or achieved.
If you have never read the book of Ecclesiastes I would recommend that you do; probably the Good News version which is easier to understand, at least it was for me, although it doesn’t have the great “All is Vanity” opening line! It’s not a jolly or cheerful book, in fact the writer, who at first sounds like King Solomon but wasn’t apparently, often seems like a bit of a misery guts. He is however, a very good observer and commentator on the human condition and there is a great deal of wisdom in what he says which is worth at least considering.
God gives us life and an incredibly beautiful world in which to live it. Yes bad things happen to us, we all go through testing times, truly terrible things happen in the world and we lose people we love and none of this has anything to do with fairness. But at the same time there is much that is good and wonderful and incredible and worthwhile. I think the message from the writer of Ecclesiastes, whoever he was, is that we should work sensibly to provide for our needs and those of others when we can, try to think and act wisely for everyone’s sake but also enjoy the simple pleasures of our lives as much as we can for as long as we can and that this is alright with God. If I can add a thought of my own, I think it would be ungrateful and ungracious not to.

Kath Boyd – Reader