Second Chance Saints

I invite you to pray with me on the theme: “Second Chance Saints.” Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

This evening’s first lesson, Exodus 35:21-29, comes from the weekly readings of our Jewish sisters and brothers designated for the week that began on Friday evening. The Israelites are in the wilderness – a useful space for a Lenten sermon – and the text itself is put into its final form at a time when Exodus evoked not only Egypt but also Babylon and Persia, not only immigration to Canaan but the longed for return to the Holy Land: A second chance. Since a text without a context is a pretext, let me tell you what has happened and what is really going on here.

The Israelites are traveling through the wilderness; they are on their way to their promised destination via a circuitous route – but they don’t know it yet. I used to think of the deserts of Sinai and Sin as being like the southwest United States, with cacti and colorful plateaus and snakes and lizards everywhere. But this January when I returned to Israel, by way of Egypt and Sinai through the desert for the first time, I was struck by how lifeless and inhospitable is that desert. With the exception of a lone acacia tree every few hundred yards or so – seemingly planted, tended and sustained by God alone – there is neither shade nor shelter, no life nor signs of life, nothing but sand and sun. Even the mountain heights seem to be devoid of life; there is no visible vegetation for miles. The birds of prey seem to circle for the foolish travelers who wander into that desert to become their midday or evening meal. I can’t imagine traveling through there on foot or with children.

Yet the Israelites miraculously survived there. God provided water and fed them, every day without fail. And then God made a demand. God charged Moses, the Israelites and some specific artisans among them with building God a home that God might dwell among them. God began these instructions in what is now chapter 25 of Exodus. After dictating architectural, construction and home décor plans, God turned fashionista and tricks out Aaron and his family with special garments for worship. And God took a turn as worship coordinator and Moses, God’s personal assistant, was charged with making it all happen. Then God and her project manager, Moses, were rudely interrupted by the sounds of a party to which either of them was invited.

Moses and God had spent so much time ensconced in their planning that the people decided to go ahead without them. They constructed a replacement god and when Moses finally returned, Aaron – I’m sure looking as innocent as a lamb – blamed everyone else and said, “the people made me and I put the gold in and the calf came out of the fire all by itself.” And Moses, in a fit of rage broke the tablets with the commandments of God on how to live with God and each other.
Then Moses – without consulting God – decided that the penalty for reinventing church with out him, and arguably straying from the path God is revealing, is death. Moses called on all of the religious leaders to go and butcher the their own people – siblings, friends and neighbors. Each Levite – male and possibly female – killed at least one person, three thousand in all. Moses seeks God’s forgiveness on behalf of the people and God agrees at a price, a plague strikes and the text blames Aaron. One report records that 23,000 people died in that plague. No further details are given in the text.

God concludes that the people are too sinful – literally stiff-necked – to for God to live among them. So Moses makes God a little tent outside of the camp – a good, hopefully safe, distance away; they call it the Tent of Meeting and God comes in the form of pillars of fire and cloud to meet with Moses. The people watch these meetings from a good, hopefully safe, distance and God stops plaguing and killing them. Then Moses has a little talk with God: You promised to live with us, all of us – not just me. You promised to show the world that we are yours by leading us from slavery to freedom. Now you say that you’ll just send an angel in your place. If you’re not going to go with us and lead us yourself, just leave us here in the wilderness. And God promised to keep the earlier promise.

Moses went back up the mountain likely climbing hand over hand for the path I took to Sinai was not there – if that was even the same mountain. A month of Sundays later – that is what “forty days and forty nights” means – Moses comes back transfigured, and brings a duplicate set of commandments with him. And without skipping a beat, and with no mention of the past failures, the people return to constructing a space for their God to dwell in their midst,

God has given them a second chance. They had all failed to place God first. They had all turned from God. They had all suffered. They had all witnessed the community turn on itself. They had all watched their religious leaders target and destroy some of their members. Some of them even participated in that violence. They had all lost loved ones in the plague. They had all survived the plague. They had all been given a second chance. They were still alive and they were still there.

And in this second chance congregation of new and restored life, each person whose heart moved them – more than moved them lifted, elevated them – each person who decided to bring their gifts to God found that God accepted them and their gifts, every single one of them. They and their gifts were all good enough, no one was insufficient, no one was unworthy.

No gift was unacceptable. Now, some of the gifts brought to God were acquired unethically – some were plundered from the Egyptians when the Israelites were on their way out of Dodge – yet neither those folk nor their gifts were turned away. The diversity of gifts in some ways reflects the diversity of givers and their own vocational gifts. It is easy for us to focus on the bling; so many churches focus on wealth, valuing it above all else. In that context the bling was not hoarded or garishly displayed; it was freely given away.

Modern readers might focus on the animals who were sacrificed for their skins, hides and pelts and judge their sacrifices as unwilling. The ancients didn’t share that perspective and they are telling their own story. The diversity of gifts in the text represents the diversity of their givers. Each person and each gift was a treasure.

And, contemporary readers might be put off by the gender roles disclosed in the text. Yet in the context of the text, the inclusion and centering of the women’s gifts marks a celebration of women’s culture, community and gifts as they were configured and understood at the time and, is an intentional shift from the margins to the center. Perhaps, if the text represents a second chance – or one thousandth chance – the renewed community was to be one where there was no center and no margin, where each person, regardless of gender or gender configuration was welcomed and celebrated as a central and essential part of the people of God.

The word proclaimed by this text today is that God is the God of the second chance, and the third chance, perhaps as many as seventy times seven chances. We are like the Israelites, each of us individually and our collective communities. We have all failed God. We have all supplanted God. We have all worshipped that which is not God. And when confronted with our idolatry, we have lied and blamed everyone and everything else, including the idols we have fashioned. Some of us led others to worship our idols. Some have robbed others, ripped away that which was precious to them, to get them to worship the idols we constructed. And some of us, especially we professional religious folk, some of us have turned on the community, destroying and dividing – and there are souls that have never recovered from the injuries inflicted on them by religious folk, clergy and lay. And we have been plagued. Untold numbers have died in plagues that some blame on God yet in our text the blame is placed on Aaron, suggesting perhaps that the plague was preventable through ordinary, human means – Aaron could have prevented it; sometimes all it takes is one courageous person to stop a plague in its tracks.

The hermenutic transfer of this text from its context to our own is not perfect – there are no persons described as living with remnants of the plague in their bodies. But perhaps that is unnecessary. Perhaps the truth is that we are all survivors, no matter what our plague status. We have all been given a second chance. We are all alive and we are still here. We and our gifts are welcome. The gifts that we bring include our selves, our stuff and our skills.
All that we are and all that we have and all that we are capable of is God’s. And even those things that are ugly about us, our story, our history, can be transformed, rewoven, repotted, replanted for God’s service. Our recreation is not ex nihilo – that is created out of nothing. We are recreated, renewed, recycled out of our old selves and our old stories. But some of that recycling is painful.
Like jewels we are cut free from our previous and habitual settings; if we are stuck in our place, there may be poking and prodding, bending and twisting to set us free. Then we might not be recognizable without the encumbrance (or embrace) of our previous setting. Yet loose gems can be more valuable than set gems because the possibilities of further transformation are endless. Like gold we are held in the fire until we melt and our impurities are burned away. Like thread we are woven together with other threads that we didn’t choose. Those threads won’t look like us, live like us, love like us, be like us. Like fine leather, we may have been hacked away from the only life we knew, found ourselves removed and disconnected from a death-dealing context or dying organism and had we not been removed we would have decayed into death ourselves. And God in mercy gave us all, all the world, a second chance and more than one.

The God of second chances is the God of Christ Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth who became the risen Christ through his Incarnation, birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection gave a second chance to a self-righteous religious leader who called for the deaths of those in his own community as Moses had so long ago. Perhaps the Torah-teacher in Paul had this in mind when he wrote in our second lesson to the Corinthian church, “Everyone in Christ is a new creation; everything old has passed away. Look! Everything has become new!”

The Tent of Meeting in the Wilderness was soon replaced by the second chance sanctuary, the Tabernacle in the desert. The desert sanctuary would be replaced by the temple in Jerusalem. And even the Temple has been transformed, out of the rubble of its destruction rose the Dome of the Rock in Islam, the liturgy of prayer instead of sacrifice in Judaism and diaspora of the Church into all the world in an incarnational discipleship in Christianity. The crowded neighborhoods surrounding the transformed (dare I say recycled?) Temple Mount bear witness to all of these realities and their possibilities for even more transformation.
The story of the crafting of the tabernacle takes up the rest of the book of Exodus. The story and the book end with these words: “For the cloud of the Holy One of Sinai was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.”

As you continue your Lenten and life journeys with the God of second chances resident in the temples of your bodies, may you always bring God the best of who you are and what you have knowing that the God who hand-crafted you lovingly accepts you and your gifts. Amen.

Comments

Awesome summary of Exodus. I just finished my bible study.

I must admit I never considered the second chance but was totally taken by Gods continuous Mercy at the cry of Moses for his people. Moses even offered to take the punishment.  His devotion to the quest to reach the promised land was undanting.  Thank you so much for allowing us to ready it on FB and commenting.  I enjoy your commentaries very much!