In spite of a menacing virus we have enjoyed some parties in the past months. Many of them have certainly looked different from the pre-COVID parties but they have honored the high points in folks’ lives nonetheless. We did a drive-by parade to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduating high school seniors. On Mother’s Day my family gathered on our front porch, balancing plates of hot food on our knees in 42 degree weather! There have been scaled down weddings held in outdoor sanctuaries. We confirmed twelve young people into the church family in our parking lot in June, giving them individually packaged cupcakes instead of a cake reception with the praise of a whole congregation. We have found ways to mark the high points of each other’s lives even with limitations put in place.
But there have been other sorts of parties as well. In Alabama some young adults threw COVID parties, inviting someone who was infected with the virus. Everyone who attended knew that the first person to contract the coronavirus after the party won a cash prize. Over the summer there were pool parties at private homes where people crowded together, eating and drinking happily, only to later be part of an outbreak of the disease. College coeds, despite warnings, went south over Spring Break. They proclaimed to the TV camera that their mental health was as important as their physical well-being. That sounds good until some of them found themselves hospitalized and, in some cases, on a ventilator because of their careless partying. Some who were interviewed stated between gasps for breath that they hadn’t taken the virus as seriously as they should have.
So why do we throw parties? We enjoy being with others. We like to know we belong. We’re looking for joy. Sometimes we walk away from a party getting out of it what we desired. Other times, the only parting gift is a hangover.
In Exodus 32 we witness a party. A gold sculpture of a calf is centrally placed and people dance around it wildly. Their leader, Moses, ascended Mt. Sinai earlier and the people despair of him ever returning. He is their connection to God. Without him, they feel fearful and lost. They cry out to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and he decides to melt down their jewelry and form an idol that they could both see and touch. The Golden Calf Shindig was an effort at bringing God down into our world. Aaron tries to strip away the mystery of the faith and make God into what the people wanted. In Moses’ absence the Israelites become a self-worshiping community.
False worship is a feast we give ourselves. A couple of years ago our confirmation class went to Temple Emmanuel for their Friday evening Shabbat Worship service. Much of the service was led by a 12-year old young man as a crucial requirement for his bar mitzvah. After a year of study with the Rabbi that culminated his leadership of the worship, the family threw a huge coming-of-age party for their son. Some non-Jewish friends ask their parents to throw a bar mitzvah for them. They want the same kind of joy that was shared amongst the loved ones of their Jewish friend. In some cases, parents granted their wish, throwing lavish parties. But these were devoid of any spiritual significance. No prayerful study went into the celebration, as it did for their Jewish friend. With false worship a gathering closes in on itself. We give ourselves our own nice, alternative world where everything centers around us and God is not on the guest list.
In our worship services God is the host and we are the guests. The scriptures we hear, the prayers we say, the words to the hymns we love point us to God. Participants in our services use their gifts not to hear our applause. They hope that others will meet Jesus through their offering. I remember a little girl dancing around the Advent candles one Christmas Eve because she knew the moment was special. Her family was going to light the Christ candle and she offered her own liturgical dance! That was beautiful, unscripted worship of God! One child in our congregation gave me a picture she had colored in Sunday School. It showed Jesus on the cross, smiling. I asked her why this stick figure of our Savior had such a broad grin. “Because He’s dying to save us from our sin,” she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. She couldn’t believe that the pastor didn’t know that! Her image of smiling, crucified Jesus was an act of worship! We can tell when someone is “performing” for human accolades and that feels very different from someone who loses him or herself in sacrificial giving in Jesus’ name. God must be central to our worship in order for us to find joy.
We get some background information about who is at the Golden Calf Shindig in The Book of Numbers. In chapter 11 we read about the Israelites crying out to God for meat in the harsh setting of the wilderness. Verse 4 states: “The rabble among them had a strong craving: and the Israelites also wept again and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat.’” As the Jews fled from their masters in Egypt, making their way across the parted Red Sea, there were non-Jews who joined them. These were folks who were caught up in the power of God and whose own lives may have been very difficult. So they grabbed onto the Jewish nation, expecting freedom in a new country and an ease to their difficult lives. But they found themselves eking out a living in the desert. With the miraculous parting of the waters nearly forgotten and the trials of nomadic living a daily challenge, the emptiness of these spiritual interlopers became evident. Not unlike the outsiders who have hijacked peaceful protests this summer and turned cities into war zones, these “rabble rousers”, as they’re called in Numbers 11, aren’t anchored in the Jewish faith. Understandably the Jews’ boundaries are not well in place because of the hardship of their daily lives so they are easily led astray by this small but vocal minority.
“Make us gods who will go before us, Aaron”, cry out the folks who have never bowed down to a higher authority. Their idolatry of self leads the Jews to abandon their faith in the God who has just liberated them. Instead they throw a party and worship an inanimate object that has been crafted out of their family jewels.
How do we establish fail-safe boundaries as Christians when our self-absorbed culture has made gods of themselves? How can we find joy at drunken parties where the desire is to get wasted and not connected? Martin Luther describes this challenge in the words to his hymn, A Mighty Fortress: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.” When is our revelry holy because God is the object of our praise? When does the party go south because we’ve decided it’s all about us? We live off our own strength, worshiping our own versions of Golden Calves, until our lives fall apart. Then, maybe through a Moses figure who pleads on our behalf, we see God. We are reminded that God never left us. We reorder the broken pieces to our world and find joy!
Karl Barth is the theologian who suggested that our faith requires us to hold the newspaper (or our smart phone now?)in one hand and the Bible in the other. Daily life collides with our faith and our faith helps us sort out the pieces. Barth writes, “We are God’s debtors. We owe him not something, whether it be little or much, but quite simply…we owe him ourselves, since we are his creatures, sustained and nourished by his goodness. We, his children, called by his word, admitted to the service of his glorification—we, brothers and sisters of the man Jesus Christ—come short of what we owe to God.” Karl Barth, Prayer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), p.74.
In several conversations with clergy friends we’ve wondered what church will be like when the threat of COVID is over? It felt pretty comfortable to worship in pajamas on Sunday mornings, drinking coffee and watching the service on our TV. Never before have I “led” worship like that in my 35 years of ministry! The longer we stay apart, the more “normal” this new life of being distanced becomes. But what are we missing? Our congregation has responded with great innovation to the challenges of leading worship during a pandemic. But maybe we’ve discovered that the very nature of being Church is bodily presence: sharing from the same loaf for communion, holding hands for a closing prayer in a small group meeting, hugging someone after worship who’s had a bad week, setting out a table of homemade treats for coffee hour after worship. How are we still the Church now, in our fractured state? How do we hold onto our sense of community now and how do we pick up the pieces when, by God’s grace, we can meet safely again?
As usual our congregation is doing a stewardship campaign this fall. We invite our membership to make their financial commitments toward the next year’s budget. This is certainly a strange year to ask folks to fund our ministry given that many haven’t been and won’t be in the building for quite some time. Our Stewardship Committee has followed a four year theme of growth: planting, growing, harvesting and, this year, letting the fields lie fallow. A good farmer knows that the nutrients in soil need to be replenished by leaving the field fallow for a year. We could not have known, when we chose these four stages in growing crops, that our lives would lie fallow in some significant ways this year. As our personal lives narrowed to our homes, our church life became remote as well. We have had to dig deep to find the spiritual resources needed to survive feelings of fear, loss, and loneliness. We have had to learn new tricks—like zoom meetings ad nauseum—in order for our businesses and schools to survive. We have discovered how much personal contact with others matters to us. Though much of what we value has been set aside, we have found joy.
The Israelites set aside a Jubilee year every 50 years when land was restored to families, debts were cancelled and the community lived off of the crops from the previous year. I don’t know if the past eight months have offered you some element of rest? But I am sure you have drawn from a spiritual well to find joy in a time of hardship. When toilet paper cannot be found and hand sanitizer prices soar due to high demand, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. In the midst of these disorienting changes your faith keeps you anchored. Your relationship to your home congregation, though lived out differently for now, is still vital. Teaching your children to love Jesus could not be more important as ugly politics set poor examples for how we do business and classrooms are associated with risk more than learning. As our congregation makes plans for our ministry in 2021 we don’t know what it will look like. But we do know Who guides our way. I hang onto the words of the song we belted out from small chairs in Vacation Bible School years ago when our young voices gave rise to holy revelry: “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart. (Where?) Down in my heart. (Where?) Down in my heart! I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart to stay!”