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Patterns of Faith

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Should you want to know what the Bible is in 25 words or less, it’s like a tabby cat. And if you were to begin to think of the Bible as a tabby cat you would do very well indeed. It’s like a tabby cat insofar as sometimes it sits on your lap and purrs, and makes you think you are the great delight of its life. Then five minutes later, for no good reason that you can tell, out with its claws and scratches, or it bites your fingers to show there’s no ill feeling. Like a cat the Bible hears things we can’t hear, and sniffs suspiciously round our lives which is decidedly unsettling. And as a cat is independent and walks by itself, so the Bible refuses to become the particular possession of any group or person; despite loud claims from some religious groups none of us own the Bible or have exclusive rights to it. But the special thing the Bible has in common with our tabby is that it is beautifully patterned. The patterns of the Bible - which are as striking as the markings of a tabby when you see them - are perhaps the most overlooked feature of the book. We’re not much good at picking up the patterns of the Bible, unfortunately, because we have been so conditioned that truth flows in a chronological pattern, from beginning to end, and that it must be logical, consistent, not contradictory. And so we read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and then wonder why it doesn’t make sense. Truth didn’t come this way for the ancient Israelites, didn’t come from start to finish. Truth for them came in insight, encounters, truth came in the oscillations of their faith, near to God and apart from God. Sometimes Israel is near to God, and sometimes very far apart, and the story of these oscillations is the story the Bible tells.

You will see it as clearly as you will ever see it in the lectionary readings for today. God draws near as his messengers are sent out with an invitation to the feast, but the people spurn the invitation, for the fact is they are far distant from God and have no interest in coming closer. You can find it in the golden calf, for Moses is with God on the mountain face to face, and he is holding in his hands the evidence that God has drawn near, the commandments which are the witness to the covenant God has made. Then, while his back is turned, the people get into mischief and make their golden calf, for they are far distant from God. You will find this pattern time and again. Micah the prophet has three prophecies of doom - a word to Israel’s distance; and each is followed by a prophecy of hope and comfort - a word that God is near. Doom, hope, doom, hope, doom, hope. You will find it in Ezekiel. The first part of his book is doom; the second is hope and promise. This is not so much a pattern of time as it is a pattern of relationship, sometimes near to God, sometimes far apart. Sometimes the invitation from the king to his feast, sometimes the retribution upon those who spurn the invitation. Near and far, near and far. Actual history isn’t written like this; the present crisis of Wall St may well provide stimulus for judgment upon those who have cheated and lied and sold the poor for a silver coin or two. Actual history will tell it differently and maybe miss the point. Meanwhile you go home from church and after lunch pick up your Mills and Boon at the place where you left off and there it is again - the classic love story: the coming together, the falling apart, and then the coming together again. Or if I did you an injustice, and you are presently reading Shakespeare’s King Lear you will find the same plot: togetherness, separation, reconciliation. Like the Bible, writers, great and small, see truth in the patterns of relationship.

Suppose we put the story of the golden calf under the microscope and look for its actual historical origin - well, you would identify Jeroboam the first king of Israel who, as part of separating the northern kingdom of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah, set up a rival sanctuary to Jerusalem, in which he placed two golden calves as a focus for the worship of Yahweh. Clearly the Bible writers saw this as a terrible thing to do, though had we been there at the time it may well have been eminently reasonable. Religiously, the Bible writers feel the people of God are always on a knife edge, and the very moment they thought of God drawing near, they also thought in that selfsame moment of the people of God drawing away, and doing their own thing. The golden calf is not only a dramatic counterpoint to the Ten Commandments, it is an essential religious perspective. We turn away from God’s grace and love. In the parable that Jesus told of the wedding feast we may be better prepared to accept the rough edges: there is no way the king could have sent out his troops to punish the reluctant guests between the meal being ready and the new guests sitting down to eat it hot and steaming. But the point is unmistakable for the intention is to challenge: think about it, says Jesus - if you don’t want to enter the kingdom, then someone else will be given your place; if you turn away from God’s grace and love, then you are one who will lose out. You choose.

Of course, we’ve got questions. I note that in recent scholarship there has been much more interest in the dialogue between Moses and God than in the episode of the calf. These Israelites are in no way different from us: all they want is a good time, they want carnival, and fiesta, fun and laughter and hi-jinks, and when they went forth to play, it wasn’t football. What they did that Saturday afternoon in the desert long ago, we do all the time in the 21st century. You condemn them and you condemn 90% of our lifestyle. There is nothing profound or special in the golden calf. But the relationship between Moses and God is interesting. First one, then the other, wants to wipe out these rebellious Israelites, and they take it in turns to play the good cop/bad cop game. You see, the first question is: what shall we do about God’s people that are continually moving into rebellion and disobedience? Shall we, like God in this passage, consider wiping them out, or shall we, like Moses, seek mercy and a new beginning? How are you going to resolve the problem of a people that won’t stay close? If I prepare a banquet, will that do it, for we like food. If I invite to a wedding, will that do it? If I send my son, for surely they will respect my son - will that do it? And for that matter, it’s our own problem, what do we do when we’ve become apart from God?

And the other question, for which the answer may equally well be silence, is: Why? Why can’t God’s people come to God and stay there? Why do we have to pull away? Come unto me all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. If only it were as simple as that. Why does our love story with God have to be as complex as a Mills and Boon? And King Lear is a tragedy for all that he is in the end reconciled with his daughter Cordelia. There are some things the Bible doesn’t tell us. But one thing it’s adamant about: God’s people pull away: how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! 38 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate, says Jesus. Why is it so?

The 2008 General Assembly of PCUSA passed the following overture calling the church to seek the Lord in special times of prayer and worship known as solemn or sacred assemblies: Realizing that worship is our response to God’s love for us and that we pray for God to “put a new and right spirit within [us]” (Ps. 51:10), we invite each congregation and presbytery of the PC(USA) to gather for spiritual renewal which may include personal and community worship, meditation, confession, forgiveness, fasting, and prayer. This is amazing; even at the best of times Americans are unlikely to eat humble pie or lament their sinfulness. But they are not alone in finding it difficult. This will be very hard work, hard work for every fundamentalist, hard work for every liberal. Yet think of this: if we did some serious hard work in and with our faith maybe we wouldn’t have time to even plan the mischief we would otherwise get up to. In this new era when the going is tough, maybe it’s time to reconsider the priority of drawing near to God.

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