Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Moses said to God, “Why does your wrath burn hot against your people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?” (Exodus 32)
On last week’s cover, The Economist carried the title “Democracy’s Enemy Within.” The enemy it then identified inside the magazine, was cynicism. Around the globe, it argued, there is a growing phenomenon of a pool of resentment against institutions and social norms that reacts by being willing to tear the whole thing down. Better to have chaos, than an illegitimate order.
And then toward the end of the essay, there was this remarkable sentence that read like this: “The riposte to cynicism starts with people who forsake outrage for hope.” (Repeat)
Hope, of course, is not something that you can just turn on, like a water hose. Hope has to come from somewhere, or come out of something. It occurs to me that the kind of hope the editors of The Economist were calling for, is a hope that comes from changing the point of view with which one looks at the world. It is a hope that comes from focusing not on society’s corruption and inequality, but on the potential within. It is a hope that looks on human beings—any human being, every human being—as someone of infinite possibility, and treating them with the requisite concern and respect. It’s the same instinct that motivates the shepherd in today’s parable: rather than seeing a lost sheep as something to be dismissed, he goes looking for it as something to be found. Or the woman who has lost the coin does not write it off, but searches diligently for it, assuming it can be located.
In today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, we find God too in a quite cynical mood. The people of Israel have only recently escaped their bondage as slaves in Egypt, and now they have already forgotten the God who liberated them by making for themselves an image of calf, which they now worship as a god. God is ready to tear them down—and angrily asks even Moses to leave him alone so that his “wrath may burn hot against them.”
But Moses won’t stand aside. Inside, Moses argues with God, in effect telling God that he has lost perspective. God has let the people’s spiritual corruption blind him to their potential to be God’s people—the very potential that God had seen in them and bestowed upon them in promising Abraham, Isaac and Israel that their descendants would be “like the stars of heaven.”
And Moses prevails. God has to admit that Moses has a point, and deliberately changes his mind “about the disaster he planned to bring on his people.” Of course, this is not the last time God will face the people’s infidelity, and the struggle between God and the people will go on … and on … and on. But what is striking is that God has a change of mind, making a choice to change perspective and see in the people their potential for holiness, rather than their current depravity.
Now, that’s the kind of choice that the editors had in mind when they wrote that “The riposte for cynicism starts with people who forsake outrage for hope.” The task of building and defending a society that honors and includes everyone starts with people who make a self-conscious, deliberate decision to see the world differently from the cynicism which is urged upon us, even by our own leaders.
And as Christians, we have a particular take on why such a decision for hope is reasonable to take. We can look on the world as Jesus looks on it, seeing everywhere people who are worthy of mercy and compassion. You might say, for example, that Jesus’ words from the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is the ultimate example of a choice to forsake outrage for hope. His executioners were not evil, they were ignorant. And ignorance can be overcome. That’s what Jesus does in the resurrection.
But there is an important corollary to the idea of gaining hope by looking on the world as Jesus does, and it is this. Because of what we believe about Jesus, there are certain things that we as Christian people refuse to believe about the world. We refuse to believe that any person is ever unworthy of our care and concern—even at the border. We refuse to believe that anyone is ever lacking in dignity—regardless of who they are. We refuse to believe material possession is an adequate measure of our worth—even in great abundance. We refuse to believe that raw political power is the endgame of our common life—but rather the cultivation of the common good.
These are the articles of Christian disbelief, and they are born out of the hope that we have based in seeing the world with the same mercy and compassion as Jesus. Faith, you see, is not just about what you do believe. It is also about what you refuse to believe. It is about setting your sights on a different course, forsaking outrage for hope.
Just out of curiosity, I typed into Google early this morning the words, “Is there any hope?”, maybe feeling the need for a little hope myself. You know what came up first, out of 2,370,000,000 results? A webpage entitled “19 reasons to have hope in 2019” from World Vision, a Christian-based humanitarian organization that works with children “in the hardest places to be a child.” And why do they go there? Because, they say, Jesus is there. Now that’s Christian disbelief: not matter how dire the circumstances, refusing to believe that Jesus is not present, asking for us to see things as he does and join him in caring.
When we gather each week here in church, therefore, it is not simply to be consoled or even supported. We come to be changed, to let Jesus argue with us in the same way that Moses argued with God—to convince us to change our perspective, or rather, to set it right again, seeing the potential that is in all of God’s creation, and so worthy of our care. Isn’t that what we prayed for in the psalm a few moments ago, when we asked that God would create in us a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within us? Amen.