Clarence Jordan (1912–1969), a farmer and New Testament Greek scholar, was the founder of Koinonia Farm, a small but influential religious community in southwest Georgia and the author of the Cotton Patch paraphrase of the New Testament. He was also instrumental in the founding of Habitat for Humanity. The farm itself was a demonstration plot for the kingdom of God, persons of colour and Jordan’s Southern Baptist kin worked and lived together. In that period of time such arrangements were highly provocative and the KKK would regularly burn crosses on their farm and local business people in southern Georgia would organize boycotts of the peanuts and pecans Koinonia sold. Koinonia was organized with the Book of Acts in mind, they shared all profits and prayers and worshipped together as family.
The boycotts were very effective and thus Jordan sought to supplement the income for the farm by traveling across the United States raising funds and awareness of what the kingdom of God could do in our midst. Once Clarence was given a tour of an immaculately built church by the senior pastor. As they neared the end of the tour and stepped outside, the pastor looked up at the cross on top of the steeple and said, “Dr. Jordan, even that cross up there cost us $10,000.” Clarence responded, “Well buddy you got cheated. There was a time when Christians could get one of those for free.”
Let me share some of the passage Dana read this morning from the Book of Exodus. I am reading from the paraphrased version The Message, translated into our current vernacular by Eugene Peterson.
When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?” So Aaron told them, “Take off the gold rings and bring them to me.” Aaron took the gold from their hands and cast it in the form of a calf.
Ched Myers, a profound and provocative Biblical scholar, says that the Exodus story of Israel being freed from slavery to new life is one of the central motifs of the Jewish and Christian stories. At heart this story is our story, it is who God is for us, who God is calling us to be and who God promises to be forever. Given our relative prosperity and security in western civilization we tend to overlook the Exodus story and focus on our happiness, long life and the hope we will be rewarded for our pious behavior. But Jesus is called Savior for a reason, he saves us from sin, from idols we are not fitted to serve, and he saves us for the freedom to love and build the kingdom.
God’s people are offered freedom from slavery and not long after they find their footing they are restless for other matters. Our story today reveals that in the absence of Moses the people turn to Aaron and demand something else and he obliges, he melts down their gold and makes for them an idol. The shiny object becomes their new purpose. Forget freedom and new life, we want the shiny object.
Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that this impulse is not unique to Christians, that it has been a human predicament for generations. “Long before there were preachers, churches, or even organized religions, there were essential human experiences of community and alienation, of connection and disconnection to the divine. You can find paintings of those experiences on the walls of prehistoric caves, and hear richly symbolic stories about them that pre-date written language. Different wisdom traditions give different names to those experiences and offer different understandings of them, but the experiences themselves are the realities that give rise to all the theories and definitions.”
Definitions are important and Taylor tries to make clear what sin is by referencing when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek and the word chatah was understood as “missing the mark”. According to Taylor this definition of sin was carried forward into the New Testament. Sin then is this universal alienation, our separateness from whom we truly are, when we miss the mark and connect ourselves to a purpose that is neither life-giving nor sustaining of our human spirit. Taylor believes all of us find ourselves in this space of missing the mark. “Everyone is vulnerable to sickness and very few people avoid being sick at some time in their lives.”
And why would we “miss the park” of Exodus and new life and instead turn to dead idols that shine with a golden finish? Taylor says there is a deep fear in all of us that doing the right thing, being connected to our true selves, this may not be enough. “Do you remember that great line from the old movie Charade, when Audrey Hepburn turns to Cary Grant and asks him, why do people lie? People lie, he says, because they want something and fear that the truth will not get it for them. If he had been a preacher instead of a movie star, he might have said, People sin because they want something and fear that goodness will not get it for them.”
So what is this condition of sin like? Taylor says, “In theological language, the choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called sin. The choice into the process of repair is called repentance, an often bitter medicine with the undisputed power to save lives.” Taylor says our present day language for dealing with painful decisions and outcomes is either the medical or legal framework. Both of these are useful, human and beneficial. But they are not sufficient. Medical frameworks for bad decisions help explain the situation neglect the reality “we still have pockets of God-given freedom” and strictly legal understanding of bad decisions give us a false sense that sin can be simplified to good and bad behaviors to be legislated. Rather, Taylor believes sin is a lack of faith in the outcome of goodness, the lack of hope that when we live like freed slaves we can have confidence that God will provide and what we desire will come to pass.
Taylor concludes this section of her book on sin with this assertion, “the essence of sin is not the violation of laws but the violation of relationships. Punishment is not paramount. Restoration is paramount. Restoration of relationship is paramount, which means that the focus is not on paying debts but on recovering fullness of life.” In short it is not about tit for tat, punishment for sin, guilt for misdeeds but rather finding our way back to the covenant, the understanding that life is a gift and freedom is a gift and returning to our true state is the path to deeper joy.
Christian theology is neither no-fault nor full-fault. We do wrong, but we do not do wrong all alone. We live in a web of creation that binds us to all other living things. If we want to be saved, then we had better figure out how to do it together, since none of can resign from this web of relationships. Meanwhile, sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again.
In our current culture we often know what is good and choose not to follow through for fear being good will not be enough. Sin reminds us that choosing something other than goodness comes at a cost. And being aware of that cost can be like an alarm bell that sounds and calls us to safer ground. We believers can testify and witness to what goodness can do. Goodness is not easy and there are challenges. But deep down we know that we have come to the other side where freedom reigns. This place of goodness is the promised land, it is kingdom-living, it is our best selves. The golden calves are shiny and captivating but they offer no life, no relationship and no hope.
Whatever we do with this building, however shiny it is, it will never compare to how we help each other find new life in goodness. Join me. Together we will get to the promised land. Amen.