The Church Where It Happened
Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9
Sermon The Church Where It Happened
Good morning! My sermon title is a play on the song, “The Room Where It Happens,” from the musical Hamilton. As you know, I’m a big history nerd. Three years ago, I visited Germany, because, well, I’m a big history nerd. I wanted to engage with our religious history, because 2017 was an important anniversary.
On October 31st, 1517, the German monk, Martin Luther, published his 95 Theses, a list of charges against the Roman Catholic Church. By publishing these charges, Luther set off a chain of events that would lead to the Reformation. This is one of the most important events in Western history in the last 500 years. The Presbyterian Church comes out of the Reformation.
Being a history nerd, I wanted to be in Germany because it was the 500th anniversary of this event. I wanted to be in Wittenberg, the place where Luther was when he wrote and published the 95 Theses. I wanted to see the cathedral door where he is said to have nailed the document. I wanted to see his house. And I wanted to see the pulpit where Martin Luther preached. I wanted to see and touch the history and the person who changed our world. I wanted to be in the church where it happened.
I offer this up, in part, because I think we need to have a little sympathy for the Israelites. It’s so easy to sneer at them and think, “How could you be so foolish? Why can’t you see all the wonderful things that God has done for you?” But that’s not fair—and it ignores our part in the story.
First, we have to acknowledge our perspective; most of us have heard these stories in church for years and some of us have read them over and over. We know this story. We know the Israelites will eventually cross into the Promised Land; they don’t know this. And if we forget parts of the story, we can read it again. The Israelites couldn’t read their own history. It wasn’t in writing and most of them couldn’t read. They had stories that had been handed down from one generation to the next. They had Moses, who had led them out of Egypt. They had manna and quail every day, but they didn’t have a god that they could see or touch. They didn’t have a temple or an altar; a place for proper worship.
So, the Israelites made a statue, a golden calf. “This statue, at last, they can see and touch. They can bring offerings before it, feast and dine with their chosen god, and truly celebrate with this god the miracle of their deliverance.” They had Moses, but they don’t know where he is, so they want some other god to which they can give thanks and praise. They want a god like the Egyptians had.
But God has commanded them not to make any idols or graven images. God’s chosen people are not to worship any other gods; they are to worship God alone; they are called to place their full and complete trust in God. These are the First and Second Commandments:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:2-6)
Sometimes we miss the governing language of the Ten Commandments, the very reason for the Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Israelites are free because God brought them out of slavery. God did this to fulfill the covenant with Abraham. The Ten Commandments provide order for relationships; the Commandments tell God’s chosen people how they are to be in a right relationship with God and with one another.
This is a new covenant between God and Israel, but the Israelites can’t even remember the First and Second Commandments. Almost as soon as they entered into this promise with God, they broke the agreement. And God is angry. Very. Very. Angry.
The gold that the Israelites used to make the statue of the calf—they took that from the Egyptians. Actually, extorted might be a better word. They kinda stole it from the Egyptians as they were leaving, along with silver, and some extra clothing. That’s a problem. The gold and silver don’t serve any purpose on the journey through the wilderness.
On a deeper level, then, the sin of the Israelites is that they haven’t let go of Egypt. The gold and silver were valuable to the Egyptians. The Egyptians used these precious metals to make jewelry and religious symbols, and the Israelites end up doing the same thing! They use the gold and silver just as their captors did! When they made the golden calf, the Israelites were showing God that they could not or would not let go of their identity in Egypt. Yes, they were happy to have their freedom, but they still wanted a little bit of Egypt. They weren’t ready to let go and live into the freedom that God had granted them.
Honestly, I think we have a big problem with idolatry in our society, too. I think we have made so many idols that we aren’t even aware of all the gods we’ve made. Nor are we aware that we’re worshiping them. I’m going to come back to this theme over the next few weeks, but first, I want to offer some context.
In the old section of Wittenberg there’s a town square that’s dominated by two statues; one is of Martin Luther, the other, Philip Melanchthon. I wonder if Luther himself would be comfortable with having a statue in his likeness, or if that would seem to be a little too close to idolatry for him.
Now I’ll admit, I went to Wittenberg as a little bit of a fanboy. I wanted to see the pulpit where Luther preached—and I did. It’s in Marienkirche, Mary’s Church. And yes, I got goosebumps when I stood under that pulpit. But I also know the dark side of Martin Luther. Like so many other Europeans of his day, Martin Luther was an anti-Semite. He didn’t like Jews; his writings were filled with contempt for Jews; he saw them as hypocrites. He didn’t rise above the prejudice of his age.
In that same square in Wittenberg, the very next day, I saw a protest—against a monument of sorts. The protestors weren’t calling for the removal of the statues of Luther and Melanchthon. They were calling for the removal of the Judensau. The Judensau, or Jews’ sow, is a bit of German folk art. These are depictions of a large sow, a female pig, nursing human beings. These items usually take the form of stone carvings on the walls of churches and cathedrals. The people that are depicted in these carvings are Jews.
The Judensau is, at its core, a piece of anti-Semitic propaganda; it’s a public slander to all Jews. Remember, pigs are considered unclean in Judaism; Orthodox Jews are forbidden to eat or handle pigs. So, the Judensau is a visible reminder to the German people that Jews were to be treated with contempt. This is an ugly part of German history.
Some Germans want to remove these depictions from German churches and cathedrals. I guess they want to say that Germany has moved beyond these parts of its history. Or maybe they want to purify the church. I didn’t know enough German to understand all of the banners that the protestors displayed. Regardless, the hatred and contempt that underlies the Judensau is utterly at odds with a building dedicated to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism has no place in Christian practice. The Judensau is an idol dedicated to a hateful prejudice that is still with us.
That’s the thing about idols—we don’t always realize that we’re worshiping an idol. We celebrate things without realizing that they’ve become idols. One of my pastor friends has a simple test for idolatry: if you can’t discuss it, you have an idol. If someone challenges you or calls you out, and you change the subject or attack the messenger, you have an idol.
I suppose the argument for keeping the Judensau is this: it represents a shameful piece of German history, and it shouldn’t be removed because it serves as a tangible reminder of the shame of anti-Semitism. That’s an interesting argument. It’s not an argument that I hear in defense of monuments for Confederate generals.
What I do hear is a lot of people arguing that we can’t erase our own history, so monuments to Confederate generals shouldn’t be taken down. That’s it. End of discussion. If the citizens of Richmond, Virginia or Charlottesville, Virginia decide to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, somehow the entire history of the Civil War will be erased.
The other day, I decided to check the catalog of the Monmouth County Library. It lists 1,716 titles under the subject heading, “United States History Civil War, 1861-1865.” That’s just in the county library system. I’m sure there are thousands more books on the Civil War at Monmouth University.
Just as we can’t have a little bit of idolatry, we can’t have a little bit of history, either. We can’t claim that these Confederate statues celebrate our history if we don’t examine that history. ALL of that history.
On December 24, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. That day, the South Carolina legislature published a document called the “Declaration of Immediate Causes Which May Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” The first grievance that South Carolina raised was that some northern states failed to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act and did not adequately work to return runaway slaves to their southern masters. The document goes on to assert that the northern states have conspired against the southern states in an effort to take away their human property; that is, to end the institution of slavery. Thus, South Carolina was forced to secede, because to remain in the Union would mean the eventual end of slavery.
The articles of secession from Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas say much the same thing: that the northern states refuse to return fugitive slaves to southern states. The declaration from Mississippi also states:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
These documents speak of property rights; they speak about protecting the institution of slavery.
On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America gave a speech about the reasons for the Confederacy. This is called the “Cornerstone Speech.” The Confederacy, according to Stephens:
Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
That was the Confederate Vice President saying that the Confederacy was founded on the idea of white supremacy. Stephens would go on to assert that the Confederate states were fighting to preserve the institution of slavery. This is why the Confederate states seceded and went to war. That is the cause that those Confederate generals fought for.
In our Old Testament lesson, God wants to destroy the Israelites for their idolatry, but Moses implores God to turn from his wrath, to stay his hand. Moses reminds God of the promises that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was renamed Israel. To destroy the Israelites, God would have to go back on the promises he had made, and that’s enough for God to change his mind.
As Christians, we are called to do the difficult work of reconciliation. As Presbyterians, we affirm that separation is sin. To do the work of reconciliation, we have to repent from the sin of white supremacy, which separates us from a lot of people. We also have to repent from the sin of anti-Semitism.
Over the last 70 years, the Germans have worked very hard to acknowledge the crimes of the Holocaust. They do not pretend that it didn’t happen or that it wasn’t so bad. They are honest about their role in history, though there are still some Germans who advocate hatred and violence.
We can’t have just a little bit of history, and the past is still with us. Until we repent from our idolatry, we can’t complete the work of reconciliation to which Christ calls us. Like the Israelites, we must turn away from the idols we have made, the idols that prevent us from seeing the image of God in every other human, the idols that blind us to the unpleasant parts of our own history. God will always be faithful to us; we must respond by turning away from our idols and toward God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that God is always faithful, always just. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3442  Catalog search on 10/8/20: https://mcls.ent.sirsi.net/client/en_US/mclweb/search/results/?ln=en_US&te=&q=United+States+history+civil+war&lm=ALLBRANCHES&rw=0  “Declaration of Immediate Causes Which May Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Retrieved from: http://www.teachingushistory.org/pdfs/ImmCausesTranscription.pdf  “Declaration of Immediate Causes Which May Induce and Justify the Secession of Mississippi from the Federal Union.” Retrieved from: https://web.archive.org/web/19980128034930/http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html  Thomas E. Schott. Alexander Stephens of Georgia: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (1988), p. 334.