October 19, 2015
Not So Churchy
Malachi 3:1-4 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Beloved whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight — indeed, he is coming, says the Beloved of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For God is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; the Beloved will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Beloved in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Beloved as in the days of old and as in former years.
Tonight I am going to just let you know upfront the model of the Sacred we are dealing with. This is a pissed off model of God that loves us so much in the same breath. This is a God who truly wants us to live into our potential but is just so, so pissed with all the mess we are making of the world. This is a God, who looking around at the pain and suffering and systemic, structural injustice we face can barely keep it together.
Guests who are with us tonight, over the past many months we have been exploring the diversity of the models of God that we find in the Bible. Each month, through a new reading, we find new models. A few we have explored this year are: a God who defies all expectations and asks us to do the same, God as a woman who searches for a lost coin, just as God searches for us, God as a husband, a spouse, a partner, God as Word, or words or knowledge, God as wisdom, and God as a being that does not require for us to be good or perfect in anyway to deserve love and care.
Because the Sacred holds such power in our world and in our very own beings, how we think of, and perhaps more importantly experience God, influences how we treat ourselves and others. If the only model of the Sacred we have is one who is pissed off at us, then imagine how we might go through the world? If we only have a model of God as our Father, imagine how that influences how we go through the world? The Sacred cannot be contained in a few simple words, the Sacred can’t even be contained in many, many words, no matter how many we try and place on this powerful experience.
But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t meaningful to try. Words matter. They create our reality. In our prayer group we spent a lot of time this last session thinking about how we would address our experience with the Sacred this month that we would spend time in prayer. Here is what we came up with: Annoying God, Mama Goddess, Patient Lover, Knitter God, Unending Love.
And so we get tonight to our reading Malachi of one pissed off prophet and one pissed off God. Interpreting God’s voice and emotion, Malachi lives in a dichotomy between right and wrong, good and bad, behaving and misbehaving. The upshot of the point of this tiny little book is that Malachi is just mad at the people of God, and God is mad at the people of God, because they aren’t following any of the rules and because God loves them so much and they just can’t take it in.
Here is some historical context. According to one book I read, most likely Malachi witnessed the rebuilding of the Second Temple. I realize that doesn’t mean a whole lot to many of us—but suffice it to say, that is a big deal, just believe me on that one. He lived long enough to see corrupt practices coming back into play, to see discontent and questionable practices come back into everyday. Sounds to me like he lived long enough to see people transition from terrified and heartbroken to celebratory and liberated, to again stuck and misbehaving.
It is hard to truly walk with a person or a people and not judge how they are supposed to be in the world, deciding for them how much better off it would all be if they just followed better instructions.
Malachi, which means “my messenger,” reminds the people that God loved them. God says: I love you and the people say: but how exactly are you showing that? God says: I loved you and you despised my name. You offered polluted food on my altar. And the people says: “But how exactly did we pollute it? Was it the egg I left that wasn’t quite fresh? Or maybe the wrong brand of Christmas cookie? How exactly did we disrespect your name? Which word that I called you really got your goat?” And it goes on like this verse after verse. I kind of love it.
So Malachi tries another way. Metaphors break through at times that nothing else does sometimes, and so he tries again.
Listen people. A messenger is coming and the Sacred will come to you. Aren’t you scared when the Sacred comes? Are you scared of what will happen? Shouldn’t you get your act together? Are you afraid you might not endure this? Is it like looking directly at the sun with your eyes?
Is it scary when we experience the Sacred? The prophet Malachi clearly thinks that it is. Malachi is concerned with who can endure the day when this happens, who can stand?
The answer here, of course, like always, has to be no one, or everyone. Just like last month and the question about eternal life. Who can receive divine favor for eternal life? The answer there is of course both no one, or everyone. You decide.
The question then really becomes around what it feels like to experience the Sacred. What is that for you? Is it terrifying? Does it hurt? Does it feel like a rush of relief for you? Does your heart beat faster or can it respond by loosening up, expanding a bit. Or does terror come first and then comes the loosening? Do you think you can really handle it? Can you truly take in the passion that God has for you?
At the last prayer group meeting we spent time writing out our prayers that we would spend the next month praying. They were to be five words long so that we could memorize them and repeat them on a daily basis. I was struck by how hard this was and how seriously we took this task. One question we discussed was that of what would happen if we actually began to see changes in our prayers. Do we actually want that? Who are we if we aren’t struggling with this very intimate personal prayer that might make up more of our identity than we are willing to admit to? How do we live differently if we actually see a shift in our life around a particular thing that has been hard for us for a very long time?
It makes me think that yes, at least some of us are scared to experience the Sacred. We are scared for how we have to change our lives. We are scared that we can’t handle it.
Malachi, he is scared. Malachi equates experiencing God as a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap, which is equitable to lye soap. Lye itself is painful, it can cause blindness, can burn skin, can cause death if eaten. It is used with a fat in soap however, that removes the caustic qualities of the lye but leaves a powerful soap, especially, if I remember stories my grandmother told me, for clothing.
The point though, is that this soap is strong, and if it can burn skin, it hurts. And lye soap is not unlike a metalworker who purifies silver and gold, who burns through the blemishes until the result is a brilliant piece of metal. Burning is held in common and purification. Is this what it feels like? Shouldn’t we be a little afraid?
The prophet Malachi certainly thought that God’s people needed this kind of refining in order to release them from all the ways that they weren’t respecting God and each other. It is rough.
And yet, at times I wonder if it is what I need, or even what I want. When I continue to engage in activities and habits that I know are so destructive and yet I can’t stop, I wish for the roughness of this God who can blemish me out. I feel I deserve it sometimes. I wish for harshness so that I can remove parts of me that are hard for me to stomach once and for all. I wish for it, but at least personally this isn’t how God works for me, not in one washing or one session of purification. And not only that, I experience a God who has a bit more patience with me. I experience a God who is helping me accept those parts that I wish I could get rid of, so that maybe then I could let go of them a bit more gracefully.
I am preaching every Sunday now at a very churchy Lutheran parish on the lower east side while the pastor is on sabbatical. I have never had a regular Sunday-morning gig. I am noticing in our readings that I work with on a weekly basis that Jesus continues to ask that we leave behind all the things that are holding us back, that are keeping us from living into all the beauty that God has in store for us.
I wonder if this story is just a few centuries later the same version of purification through soap and metal working. The cool thing, though about the metal working God is that the blemishes on the metal, they are worked into the piece, they are not thrown out, left behind. They are incorporated and in their incorporation they are not so visible, but they don’t go away.
When gold and silver is refined, they separate out so that each can purely by themselves, set apart. I have been thinking a lot about Hannah as I have been getting ready for this evening. I think of Hannah as she prepares for baptism, as we all prepare for her baptism. I don’t believe that baptism is a moment when before we are a dirty piece of metal and after a beautiful piece of silver or gold. However, in baptism I believe that Hannah is marking her desire to try and incorporate the things that have been holding her back, or more importantly Hannah is acknowledging the ways that God has a mark on her life, that God claims her and names her with glimmers of brilliance and bumps alongside. It is Hannah’s desire, no doubt, to stand vulnerable before God and her community and express her desire to live into the fullness of who God continues to create her into being, so that her full reflection can be seen. It is her desire to stand before God and her community and admit that she believes, even in just one moment, that God loves her with such strength, and that God is proud of her, and that God wishes for her deepest happiness, so that she may serve others. Hannah, next month, will be very publicly witnessing to the love of God that is just as strong as God can be pissy for the broken world in which we live. Hannah, is one particular piece of silver or gold, separated out, brilliantly glimmering, so that she can purely be herself.
The other fun fact about refining silver is that when silver is refined, it is treated with carbon or charcoal, preventing the absorption of oxygen and resulting in its sheen and purity. A silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when she observes her own image reflected in he mirror like surface of the metal.
Is this not the goal of all of this? Is this not what we are all trying to do? To sift through everything that overstimulates us and crowds our psyche, to let go of what no longer serves us, giving thanks to that which we let go of for how it has served us in the past, to massage and manipulate that which we consider to be holding us back so that it is worked into our very being, but is not the very thing that we lead with, that becomes our complete identity? To be able to see ourselves as the beauty which God beholds? To be, however frightening it is, trembling before the Sacred knowing that we can all endure? To see ourselves as God sees us and dance with joy?