Rev. Diane K. Hooge
The invitation to Moses by God to go on sabbatical to Mt. Sinai had to have been a welcome reprieve. It was an opportunity for him to refuel is own soul. With the laws that had been established the people were not to go near the sacred mountain, or to even touch the mountain; therefore, he was assured of a place of rest and renewal.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, there was a nervous suffocating tension in the air. Weeks had gone by and there had been no word from Moses. I imagine the elders scrambling to position themselves in order to have a voice in laying out the future plans. It was clear to this body of power brokers that the only way to relieve the growing anxiety within the camp was to select a new leader. The Search Committee made their way to Moses’ brother Aaron’s tent and began negotiations. They weren’t asking him to be their interim leader. They wanted a new leader…now! It was clear to them, Moses was gone. In the unique way in which grief works within communities, the leaders did not want to deal with their loss, so they chose a plan that denied the reality of the situation and shoved the pain of the community aside. This band of problem solvers wanted a front man for their own plan of action…a plan that relied on their timing—not God’s timing.
The leadership team’s first demand of Aaron was that he supply them with gods. They gave their pitch: Moses was God’s representative and they recognized that the whole community was in turmoil because of the loss of leadership. All of this activity covered up their own fears of abandonment.
Aaron fell into their trap. He took the bait and became the “fixer.” He abandoned his call from God as a spokesperson for his brother, and he took on the cheap task of appeasing an impatient crowd. As the new CEO, he put out his first demand, “Bring in all your gold jewelry from every member of each family.” A god was what the people wanted, and a god is what he gave them. Aaron finalized the selling of his soul when he announced the party to honor the lord made of gold.
Many of us know where we were when President John F. Kennedy was shot. The majority of us know where we were and what we were doing on 9/11/01. I suspect these folks from today’s lesson would recall for the rest of their lives just where they were within the celebration when they noticed Moses returning to camp with tablets of stone in his hands. Picture it—the musicians silencing their instruments as they stood with their mouths hanging open. The stunned crowd staring in eerie silence as they heard the sounds of the smashing of the stone tablets. I can picture the children scrambling to take refuge behind their mother’s skirts.
And then the terror began as Moses channeled his rage into destroying the calf by fire….the calf that was built from the gold taken from those who had enslaved them in Egypt. It was a blatant belittling if not denial of God’s deliverance. Those who are bearers of the truth carry the burden of shattering illusions.
Every generation must wrestle with those seasons in life when God is silent. Just as the fears of the people were evoked by the absence of Moses, so it is in times of crises that the temptation comes to go back to old patterns of behavior and old institutional systems. The void that was created by the absence of Moses, which represented either consciously or unconsciously the absence of God, created a choice for the people. They could succumb to the pain behind their fears or they could learn to rely on one another. However, they chose to give in to their fears and further alienate themselves from God and each other.
As with every generation, idols are those things that keep us shackled. Whether the idol is a golden calf or an addictive behavior, the end result is the same. The false ritual keeps us stuck. The calf of consumerism keeps us from having our priorities in order—an order that produces wholeness. For a people who had been 400 years in slavery, they were still holding on to the fears that were held at a visceral level. Those feelings—those old unhealed wounds—were evoked every time it appeared that they were being abandoned.
As I was wrestling with this text, I found myself focused on Moses rather than where I have usually focused, which has been on the people. I began thinking about the people in my life whose mission has been to destroy the golden calves of false theology, and who have spent their careers pounding away on various chunks of gold representing disordered systems of the Church.
When I received God’s call to attend seminary, I had never heard a woman preach. It made it rather difficult to get excited about going. It was definitely hard to trust God’s leading…but when I sat in the seminary chapel and heard a third year African American woman preach on the story of Hannah, tears flowed freely and it’s hard to describe how liberating that chapel time was for me. Finding our way out of slavery begins with a wake-up but it is never a quick journey—it’s often long and arduous.
At a certain point in my career I became super choosey about where I would serve outside the local church where I was pastor. However, the best “yes” I experienced was when I was asked by the Welcoming Congregations Program to serve on their Board. This group was made up of all the leadership of Open and Affirming communities within denominations even if the denomination was against being inclusive of LGBTQ folks. I began by filling in for my denomination’s Welcoming and Affirming Executive…and then I was asked to remain on as a straight ally. The leadership of the various Open and Affirming mainline churches were amazing. I was so deeply moved by all of their stories, courage and amazing commitment to continue to break down the golden calves that keep people enslaved by dis-ordered theology.
I was particularly moved by getting to know Martha Julleret. She is a gifted preacher, bright, politically astute, with a great sense of humor. And, then one day, I heard her story and was profoundly moved to action.
In the early 90’s, Martha was a Presbyterian pastor in Kansas City, MO. She and her secret partner, Tammy Lindahl, were serving five rural churches. As lesbians, they had concealed their sexual identity. . She and Tammy had met in a Women in Ministry support group. They had dated in secret. They invited only four friends to their Holy Union ceremony. For security reasons they had covered the windows of the church
It was after Tammy had had a serious bike accident which had nearly killed her, that Martha felt the weight of not being able to talk about their relationship as she conducted morning worship without anyone knowing what was going on in her life. In reflecting on that accident, Martha indicated that it was a turning point. She realized that she could “not stay hidden anymore.” As she put it, “We decided this was a sick way to live.” They then took the risk of coming out to a few trusted friends, then to the church, and later to the whole presbytery during a church-wide “dialogue”—it was that public action that ended both of their careers as local church pastors.
During that era of their lives, they felt like they had a target on their backs, and they received death threats.
As Martha put it, “The church meant the world to me. I made a decision to follow the party line and be single and celibate. I guess what I never anticipated was the terrible oppression of living a double life and of never having anyone to share it.”
Knowing that she would be resigning her position, rather than waiting to be defrocked, Martha made a request of other gay and lesbian ministers who had been denied ordination. She asked them to send her their stole. She hoped for around a dozen that she could have hanging in the room where she was to offer her resignation. She initially received 80 stoles. She hung them where she gave her farewell speech. It accomplished what she wanted which was to get rid of the denial that the golden calf of institutional rejection represents. She wanted to open people’s eyes to the fact that their decision wasn’t just about Martha and Tammy but about “hundreds of folks who have been denied the opportunity to openly serve their church.” As Martha said, “Leaving ministry was the hardest decision I ever made in my life.”
The stoles kept coming. By 1997 she had 800 stoles from 13 different denominations. Her next thrust of ministry was transportation. She would load up the boxes of stoles along with PCV pipe on which they were hung and put countless miles on her old van travelling across country to wherever she could find an opening for what she now called “The Shower of Stoles.” Every stole has a note attached to it telling the story of the one denied their call. Some with real names, most with initials or nothing but the story.
Martha kept an account of each site and numbers: 340 stoles for a national convention, 300 to a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, 200 to the Baptist Biennial. When I joined the Welcoming Congregations Program, the massive collection of stoles had just been given to the Institute of Welcoming Resources in Minneapolis, where they are now sent to churches around the nation who ask for a certain number to be sent to them to put on display. There are now over 1,000 stoles in the collection from 24 denominations.
As Martha expressed it, “Seeing the stoles is like seeing the Vietnam Memorial or the AIDS quilt, it helps take this issue out of people’s heads and into their hearts. It makes it very real and very human and, to a certain extent, de-politicizes the issue.”
I agree, one cannot walk around reading the stories that are attached to the stoles without feeling enormous pain for those who had their identities stolen.
I grew up with parents that believed that women should not be a teachers over men. My parents never came to hear me preach. They clung to their theology that denied that God entrusted women with gifts or calls for certain ministry. Every denomination has man made calf stories of beliefs that have not come from God—beliefs that have been institutionalized and have often held people back from being their authentic selves. I grew up with an Aunt who stayed with a physically abusive husband, because her pastor indicated that if her husband had cancer she would stay with him, so, certainly she should stay even with the abuse.” In my book that kind of golden calf theology needs to be demolished.
And, God has provided the visionary leaders who have often paid huge prices for smashing old rules and promoting new ways of being the Church. Yes, I deplore the fact that Martha had to leave her pastoral position, and– I’m deeply grateful for the impact her work has had on many different denominations.
Within this ancient text we are also given another dimension of the story—God’s view. God’s grief comes forth as anger as God laments the actions of such a “stiff-necked people.” The anger is unleashed as God laments the separation of the people as they have chosen to forget God’s faithfulness. In a twist in the story, Moses lives most fully into his call as leader as he becomes an advocate for a people who have openly defied God—people who have made a mockery out of the covenant that was established with God before Moses went up on the mountain.
Moses stood as an agent of reconciliation as he sought God’s favor for a people who broke their commitment. Moses reminded God of the promise that God had made to Abraham, Isaac and to Jacob. Carrying the anguish of his own broken heart, Moses sought to be the bridge to enable forgiveness to be available to the Israelites.
As we face the ism’s of the world and of the Church, we are called to discern what is truly of God, and what is disordered theology. As we share our stories and histories, others are able to share their stories. We need support to learn patience. We often are called to wait in the darkness long enough to begin to see the light of hope emerge. It is in this process that we have the opportunity, like Moses, to become agents of reconciliation for one another. In our stories are held the wisdom of what separation from God can bring. It is in the sharing that we remember the visceral moments when we have encountered the mystery of grace—grace that has had the capacity to fill our souls—grace that has often humbled us and produced renewal with God. On this Gay Pride Sunday, I am proud to be a part of a faith community that has a 23 year commitment to being a place of refuge for those who were not, or are not welcome in other churches. May the constant work for inclusion continue to be a strong value held and lived out in this community of faith.
May we never forget God’s promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” God is still speaking! Amen.