A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on October 11 2020 by the Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings for this address: Exodus 32. 1-14
‘It didn’t work out.’ Those words must be one of the great euphemisms of our time. Translated, they mean, ‘It came to a pretty sudden end. But I don’t want to talk about why.’ They take me back 35 years, to my first summer as a student. Friends were heading to radical projects abroad or promising internships in the City. But I was full of righteousness, so I went to the east end of London to work with homeless women. The women were fine; the problem was the nun in charge of the project. She was the original Sister of No Mercy. Everything I did was wrong. The washing up always had a stain, the carpet always had some dust I’d missed, the bill stubs I’d paid always had the paper clip attached the wrong way. It was an experience of being totally undermined and humiliated. I finally realised what she wanted me to be was a compliant young Catholic woman, interested in becoming a nun – and I was none of those things. So I was permanently in the doghouse. When people asked me how my summer working with homeless people had gone, I said, ‘It didn’t work out.’
The tragedy is, a great many of us grow up with an image of God like that Sister of No Mercy. We’re perpetually in the wrong. We can only conclude our face just doesn’t fit. So when we hear the word ‘sin’ we associate it with feeling we can’t possibly get it right. When we imagine God we see a censorious tyrant like that micromanaging sister. What I want to do today is to explore how today’s passage from Exodus leads us to think differently about God, and consequently come to a different understanding of what sin means.
I want to take us back to the very beginning. Before there was anything – a universe, a Big Bang, let alone life – there was God. God is the name of what there was when there was nothing – in other words, when there was no existence, only essence. There was already plurality within God: that’s what Trinity means. But God wanted there to be plurality outside God, not just within. This was because God is fundamentally relationship, and God wanted there to be relationship with other, not just with same. Relating to someone different from you has a quality unlike relating to someone the same. The word we use to describe God’s relationship with other is Jesus. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s original desire to be in relationship across difference. It’s that desire that triggered the existence of the universe.
But relationship across difference is fraught with risk. I may misunderstand you, and construe our relationship not as gift but as burden, so turning grace into resentment. I may try to make relationship exclusive, and envy anyone else you want to include. I may seek to use our relationship to gain some benefit beyond the relationship itself.
We could call all these dangers the Divine Risk. The divine risk is the possibility that humanity will forget that relationship with God is the reason for its existence, and turn to other gods; and that it will fail to realise that all its other relationships – with self, one another and the creation – are opportunities to practise the joy of discovery, appreciation and growth as an echo of its relationship with God. That risk makes God’s goodness and mercy vulnerable to the contagion of sin. Sin is the name of the poison that inserts itself into the distance between us and God, and inhibits, dismantles or destroys all other relationship.
If we look at the story from Exodus 32, we recall that God has led the people by the hand of Moses out of slavery and given them manna in the wilderness, water from a rock and commandments to follow. But despite all of that, the people still feel a distance between them and both God and Moses. And into that distance they allow to grow doubt, resentment, mistrust and manipulation. How do we understand this phenomenon? What makes us fail to relate to God, one another and the creation, and allow poison to fill the distance between us?
Here’s the beginning of an answer. One early theologian talks about enjoyment. When I enjoy you, I wholeheartedly embrace your wonder, difference, mystery and depth. I don’t trigger a cautious reflex and scrutinise you at arm’s length; nor do I try to make you like me: instead, I celebrate, glory and rejoice in you, different as you are. The difference and distance are a blessing. The alternative to enjoying someone is to use them. When I use someone or something, I make them an object in my larger project. Rather than enjoy you for your own sake, in all your particularity and uniqueness, I relate just to the parts of you I can use to advance my own schemes. If you’re a spanner or an iPhone, using is exactly the right thing to do. But if you’re a cousin or a co-worker, using is precisely the wrong thing to do. Difference and distance present a problem for me to overcome.
This distinction between using and enjoying is helpful because it helps us identify how we can aspire for all our relationships to grow from instrumental use to mutual enjoyment. But this distinction also enables us to understand what sin is. It shows us that there are broadly two kinds of sin. Either we use what we ought to enjoy, or we enjoy what we ought to use. I want to walk slowly through these alternatives.
Let’s start with using what we ought to enjoy. Remember the third commandment, ‘You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.’ Think about what this commandment is referring to. You’re having an argument – let’s say you’re haggling with a customer about the price of a shirt. The customer tries to get it down to ten pounds, and you invoke the name of God and insist ‘I’m robbing myself if I let it go for less than fifteen.’ A name is precious. When you’re besotted with someone, their name appears everywhere – you can’t stop mentioning it and pondering it. You wouldn’t dream of using it as part of an unseemly haggle over the odd five quid. That would be to use what you should enjoy. When we appreciate that God took human form in Jesus, we realise that every time we use another person for our own purposes, most extremely in slavery, but most commonly by treating them as an object rather than a human being, we’re likewise using what should be enjoyed. There’s a collective name for all these kinds of failings. It’s called blasphemy. Fraud, sexual assault and boasting are all forms of blasphemy, in this sense. Blasphemy is when we use what we should enjoy – when we forget that something is precious, honoured and loved, and turn it into a means to our own ends. That’s half of sin.
The other half of sin is enjoying what we should use. It’s mistaken and sentimental to think we should enjoy everything and use nothing. It’s wrong to use other people, and today we increasingly think it’s wrong to use animals and much of the created world. But it’s absolutely right to use a car, a door handle, or a cricket bat. The trouble is, once we stop enjoying God, we quickly start enjoying things we should use, and turning them into a kind of god. We make a god of our career, of how much we get paid, of how tidy our home is, of how many hits our recording has on YouTube. The collective name for these failings is idolatry. All forms of addiction are idolatry. Remember the second commandment. ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol.’ Idolatry is when we lose sight of the one who made us to respond in companionship, and instead to invest in other gods, often of our own making. It’s the other half of sin.
Today’s story from Exodus 32, about the people making and worshiping a golden calf, is an account of the two kinds of sin in narrative form. The people blaspheme by turning God’s liberation into part of their own project of survival. Meanwhile they commit idolatry by making their jewellery into an object of worship. It’s a repeat of the Adam and Eve story, where the first couple blaspheme by eating the fruit that should be left on the tree and idolatrise by making the serpent, rather than God, their authority.
But the second half of today’s story takes us back to the Sister of No Mercy. See how Moses has a full-on dingdong with God. Here’s what matters about this argument. God is not a distant, arbitrary, censorious judge, laying down irrational rules and making absurd demands. The God that’s portrayed in this tussle with Moses is a God who is with us, alongside us, making and restoring relationship every hour of every day. Our relationship with God is in most respects like our other relationships: we’re always in danger of using another person in our own project, and we’re always liable to make some material thing more important than the relationship. We do just the same to God. They’re called blasphemy and idolatry.
Making and restoring relationships is what life is all about. Relationships happen when two parties resolve to take a risk and say, ‘The distance between us is an invitation not just to find surprising commonalities, but to explore our differences with wonder and delight.’ Good relationships are ones where the parties enjoy their differences and the distance between them, even to the point of seeing setbacks and disagreements as part of the fun of a developing association. But the risk in every relationship is that the distance and difference between the parties will not by enjoyment lead to delight and discovery, but by attempts at use, will be regarded as threats to be controlled, avoided, or destroyed.
Read this story of the golden calf carefully. Remember, this could have been the moment when God said of Israel, ‘It didn’t work out.’ But instead it became the event that taught Israel what relationship with God meant. God is not a judgemental Sister of No Mercy, looking to catch you out and humiliate you. God is our companion, who made us for the wonder and discovery of relationship. God comes into our relationships when difference turns to hostility, when distance triggers suspicion. The Holy Spirit constantly repairs and restores relationships that our mistrust and lack of imagination have allowed to fester and fail.
Every time you’re tempted to say, ‘It didn’t work out,’ remember that the name for what occupies the distance between us is Jesus. Jesus’ are the arms that stretch to fill the gap between us and God and between us and one another – the gap that would otherwise be filled by the poison of suspicion, mistrust or hostility. Jesus embodies God’s utter enjoyment of us, and our utter enjoyment of God. In him there is no use at all. He fills the distance between God and us with grace and truth, until we are utterly with God, and we enjoy one another forever.