“Get With the Plan”
Homily Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
At the Church of the Intercession, NYC
Sunday, September 15, 2019
Texts: Exodus 32:7-14, Luke 15: 1-10
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As Christians, we are keenly aware of the fact that we are all sinners. Moreover, we know exactly when we became sinners: the moment that Eve and then Adam succumbed to Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, and ate the forbidden fruit. This catastrophic “fall” (as we call it) left us in such miserable condition that God needed to send his Son Jesus to restore us to our original state of wholeness. The “image of God” in which we were all created had been tarnished. In order for its true glory shine again, we required an unearned, unimaginable sacrifice given by none other than God himself.
Now it may surprise you to learn that Jews do not view our “fall” in exactly the same way as we do – surprising because both Jews and Christians read pretty much the same Hebrew Scriptures. So of course the story of Adam and Eve is important to both faiths, but Jews believe that a more recent event in the Bible actually has more to do with our current fallen condition than the story of the fall in the Garden of Eden. That episode is the story – Jews call it “the tragedy” – of the Golden Calf.
Here’s why. After the Hebrews were liberated from Egypt at the Exodus, God set about transforming them from a collection of slaves into the new nation of Israel. God did this through a variety of methods designed to strengthen their faith and increase their trust. Certainly miracles played a large role in this reclamation project: the parting of the Red Sea, opening the way to the Promised Land, miraculous bread – manna – falling from heaven, and water gushing from rocks in the desert were all meant, not just to solve a problem that the Hebrews were facing at the moment, but to show Israel God’s awesome love and power. God’s mobile home, the Tabernacle, which traveled with them in the wilderness, was designed to implant God’s presence in their very midst. And the pillars of cloud and fire that protected them and led them on their journey were meant to teach them about God’s constant care and sure guidance.
All of these were meant to train every member of the Israelite nation, to raise each individual up to such a spiritual height that they would need nothing beyond God to live faithful, joyful, exemplary lives. This is what is meant by the phrase “God’s chosen people” – not that Jews were better than everyone else – they surely were not – but rather that they had been chosen to be trained by God to show forth God’s light to the rest of the nations, and so bring the whole world to God. Through Israel, the world was to be saved.
This world-saving project ended with the Golden Calf. We invariably underestimate the damage that was done when Israel became frightened and impatient when Moses delayed returning from the summit of Mount Sinai. In their insecurity and confusion, they demanded a replacement for Moses who would lead them backwards to Egypt instead of forward into the Promised Land. (By the way, we need to correct a common misconception – the Golden Calf was meant to replace Moses, not God, and it represented not some new form of idolatry but the pagan worship and immorality of exactly the world they come from, Egypt).
This all happened while Moses was at the top of Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God’s own hand. These commandments were originally meant to provide guidance, not judgment: they were meant to be engraved on every Hebrew’s heart as loving guides to their behavior. However, they became something very different when the nation turned away from God and Moses and, as we used to say in the ‘60’s, began “doing their own thing.”
“Their own thing” was a combination of orgy and riot that broke every single one of the Ten Commandments, yes, including “though shalt not kill” (there are very early traditions that include the deaths of at least one person during the orgy). This is how the concept of atonement for sin came into Israel: if they had stuck with God’s plan, atonement would not have been necessary because each person would have had their own “tabernacle” so to speak, where God resided in their soul.
But after the Golden Calf, there was now a critical need for atonement. This is why the Temple had to be built – you might not know that the Temple was not a place for prayer; it existed only for atonement and purification, through ritual and sacrifice. And as Christians, we can go even further and say that if it weren’t for the Golden Calf – if God’s original plan for Israel had been fulfilled – there would have been no need for Jesus’s sacrifice, either.
We can also argue that both “falls” – in the Garden of Eden and at the base of Mount Sinai – are still with us today. Nobody knew this better than Jesus, who during his life and ministry preached exactly the same reclamation project for humanity as God did in the wilderness. Jesus came to build the kingdom of God, starting with Israel and spreading throughout the world – does that sound familiar?
So in Jesus, here is God’s presence in a new Tabernacle: Jesus in human flesh, God incarnate. Here is miraculous bread multiplied to feed thousands and miraculous water – this time turned into wine. And here is the parting of the Red Sea – this time the curtain of Temple rent in two, opening the way to heaven. And of course, here is the means of atonement for all of our sins on the Cross, atoning for every sin, all the way back to the Golden Calf and beyond, stretching back to the original sin in Garden of Eden.
Unlike us, God does not give up, ever. God will love and pursue every one of with absolutely unflagging zeal, no matter who we are or how horribly we have behaved, whether we are saint or sinner, male or female, Jew or Greek. That is what today’s gospel reading is about: the straying sheep and the misplaced silver coin represent those among us who have somehow become lost, but not to God. The passion with which God pursues us has not changed throughout the millennia – it is still God’s plan for us to become God’s nation, his kingdom on earth, and to save the world through us.
In order to do this, we have to first recognize that each of us plays a crucial part in God’s plan – and then here’s the hard part: we have to act like we believe it. The gospel says that the Pharisees and scribes were “grumbling” about Jesus consorting with sinners. The reason that they were grumbling is that they don’t realize that they, along with the sinners, are part of God’s plan! It is impossible to grumble and gossip and backbite and the like if you realize that you have a responsibility. This is a crucial lesson for all of us to remember today, in our time and place.
My sisters and brothers, it’s time to get with the plan. Stand tall, throw you shoulders back, and take up the responsibility that each of us has for building God’s kingdom on earth. God’s plan for humanity hasn’t changed, and we all play a part. In Christ’s strength we can make it happen.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.