Holy Meltdowns – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Exodus 32:1-14

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Alabama to attend the Celebration of Life for a mentor, colleague, and dear friend that recently died. To cut the cost of this last-minute trip, I chose not to pay for any amenities on my flight, including selecting my seat. As luck would have it, I was assigned a window seat, sitting next to a young mother with a toddler in her lap. To put it mildly, the first hour of the trip was utter chaos as the toddler spiraled into a complete meltdown. The kicking, screaming, and crying were epic and I couldn’t help but feeling trapped. I became aware of two emotions coursing through my heart and mind. First, gratitude for my noise-canceling headphones. Second, compassion for this mom, who tried numerous strategies to soothe her child’s distress, all of which proved to be futile.

When we reached cruising altitude, the seatbelt lights were turned off, and passengers were free to move about the cabin, this mom took her child to the mid-plane lavatory, where they disappeared for what seemed like another hour. Fellow passengers were irritated, not only because of the earlier screaming and crying, but also because they now had to use lavatories at the extremities of the plane. When the mother and child finally reemerged for the last half hour of the flight, the toddler was calm, pleasant, and delightful. While taxiing to the gate after landing, the mother looked at her precious child and announced, “When we get to grandma’s house, mommy is going to have a big glass of wine!” I leaned over and said sympathetically, “I think mommy deserves two big glasses of wine.”

Perhaps Moses felt similarly in our Old Testament lesson from Exodus. In this story, we see him caught between an epic tantrum by the toddler-stage nation of Israel and the ire of God, kindled because of their behavior. The primary issue for the Israelites was impatience. When God, through Moses, led them out of slavery under the Egyptians, they had no idea what the journey to the promised land would entail. If you have read the book of Exodus, you will know that their trek was epic: a harrowing escape from their pursuers through the Red Sea, food that did not suit their sensitive palates, scarcity of water, avoidance of warring tribes, and a journey that seemed never-ending—forty years to be exact. We know that there were several points where they complained and wondered whether the road to freedom and security was worth it.

At this point in our story, they were tired of waiting for Moses to return from his meeting with God, and were ready to journey on towards their new home.

 And so, they had a meltdown. The tantrum thrown by the Israelites resulted in the creation of idols, including a golden calf, with this proclamation: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Despite everything they had witnessed and endured up to this point in their journey, they ditched their covenanted God by attributing their salvation to lifeless pieces of metal they had fashioned themselves. In doing so, they violated that covenant they had freely entered into with God.

Meanwhile, atop Mt. Sinai, we bear witness to another tantrum – this one thrown by God. While bestowing the tablets containing the Ten Commandments upon Moses, God becomes aware of the Israelites’ rebellion and is overcome with anger. It is worth noting, and perhaps is somewhat comical, that in His anger, God attributes Israel’s rescue from Egypt to Moses, deflecting away from God’s-self any responsibility. “Go down at once!” God declares. “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely. I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now, let me be, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and from you, Moses, I will create a great nation.”

This is where I envision Moses feeling dejected, despondent, and frustrated. This was not what Moses had signed up for. Even so, he was able to see both points of view. Certainly, the Israelites’ patience was wearing thin. Who could blame them? And yes, God had every right to be disappointed and irritated with the Israelites, who like children, could not see beyond that present moment. God’s developing plan was lost on them; and, their impatience was lost on God. But what about Moses, himself? What had he done to deserve being caught between two angry parties like this?

Moses, who was known to have an anger problem himself, managed to keep his composure and act as a skilled mediator. First, he respectfully reminded God that the Israelites were God’s chosen people. While Moses was indeed the shepherd of God’s flock, it was God who had enabled their escape from Egypt and was leading the Israelites to the land He had promised them.

Secondly, Moses posed a crucial question: What impression would the Egyptians have of this God who would save His people from their clutches only to destroy them in the desert? Was that the reputation the ‘God of Israel’ wished to have?

Lastly, he reminded God that the covenant God had established was first offered to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (the namesake of God’s people), and they had all faithfully upheld the covenant. Starting anew with Moses would essentially mean posthumously reneging on God’s covenant with them. Moses made three compelling points that persuaded God to reconsider His judgment. Our Old Testament lection concludes by stating, “And the Lord changed His mind about the disaster He had planned to bring upon His people.” As ‘New Testament’ people and followers of Jesus Christ, what are we to make of this Old Testament story of petulant meltdowns, foreboding retribution, persuasive mediation, and a Divine ‘change of heart?’

When I prayed with this passage, I reflected on my youthful, anthropomorphic view of the vengeful Old Testament God, contrasting it with the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as the embodiment of love and compassion. Now, I question if the fearsome image of God is merely a projection, as throughout the entire Canon of Scripture, God’s judgments are usually accompanied by acts of mercy. For example, after Adam and Eve’s transgression, God provided them clothing and by sending them away from the Garden deflected them from the temptation of eating of the Tree of Life. This act spared them from eternal shame. Similarly, when Cain killed Abel, God marked Cain’s forehead to protect him from those who might try to enact the same action that he forced on Abel. While Cain’s actions had consequences, the punishment God enacted was one that preserved life, rather than taking a life for a life. Our perception of God as vengeful may be due to our projections and finitude, hindering us from recognizing God’s infinitely compassionate nature.

If we are able to see our Creator, whose image we bear, in a compassionate light, it should inspire us to do the same for fellow human beings. How often do we project the very things we don’t like about ourselves onto our neighbors—judging them, punishing them, and stripping them of the dignity bestowed on them by God? How often are the motives of our neighbors lost on us, and our impatience lost on them? When feeling triggered by another’s actions, it may serve us well to step back and look at the bigger picture to see if there is anything we’re missing. Like Moses, we may need to approach our neighbor with a sense of curiosity—asking clarifying questions so that we may speak to them compassionately from a place of love. This will preserve the dignity of not only our neighbor, but also of ourselves—building each other up rather than tearing the other down.

Another way to pray with this scripture would be to read it sacramentally—that is to see the presence of Jesus permeating the text. The sacramental reading of the Old Testament is a practice that thrived among the leaders of the Oxford Movement in Victorian England. In his essay about the Old Testament mosaics of Keble College Chapel in Oxford, George Westhaver (drawing on the teachings of Edward Bouverie Pusey) writes: “For the leaders of the Oxford Movement, the Old Testament is ‘one vast prophetic system, veiling, but full of the New Testament,’ and, more specifically, ‘of the One whose presence is stored up within it.’ Christ is to be mystically discerned in the histories, ceremonies, characters, sayings, and even in the apparently incidental details of the biblical narrative.” You may know that in the Prologue of John’s gospel, Jesus is referred to as the ‘Word of God made flesh’; the Word that was present before the beginning of time and will be long after the notation of time ceases.[i]

Moses’ role as mediator and advocate between God and Israel foreshadows the actions of the incarnate “Word of God” in the actions of Jesus Christ. I think this is best summarized in Eucharistic Prayer A from the Book of Common Prayer—“Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.”[ii]

In a few moments, when you come forward for Communion, bring your impatience, your frustrations, your judgements, and your anger and give them to God. Then, receive the sustenance of our mediator and advocate Jesus Christ mysteriously present in the bread and wine. Know that in this act of Communion with God and neighbor, you are restored fully to relationship with your compassionate and merciful Creator. Let us pray:

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

[i] Westhaver, G. (2020, June 15). Reading the Bible through Keble’s mosaics. Covenant. https://covenant.livingchurch.org/2017/12/05/reading-the-bible-through-kebles-mosaics/

[ii] 1979 Book of Common Prayer, page 362

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