Rev. Danielle K Bartz July 11, 2021
Exodus 32:1-6 “Relational Dislocation”
Several years ago, before I lived in Winona, I read an article about the future of seminary education. Seminaries, no matter the denomination, have been struggling mightily for years. They have less money and fewer students. Church (capital ‘C’) is changing and therefore ministry is changing. Seminaries need to catch up. This has been the case for a long time, but recently it has become critical. So, that article I read years ago about the future of seminary education, outlined a suggestion: make seminary education more accessible by offering online courses. Allow students, many of whom now work full time jobs, to access their education on their own time and in their own way. Allow students to complete their seminary education online.
I was scandalized. Appalled, even. So convinced that it was a huge mistake I signed myself up for a national UCC event about the future of seminary education simply to protest that option. I believed seminary education could only be done in-person, sitting in a room with other students and a skilled professor, learning to listen to differing opinions, debate the validity of alternatives, and articulating a position that was grounded in history, theology, and personal experience. And then to leave the classroom and continue the discussion in the hallway or over a drink at the nearby pub. I didn’t believe any of that was possible in an online format. In other words, I believed the only way to complete a seminary education was the way I did it.
But then a pandemic hit and I found myself sitting alone in my basement, preaching into my cellphone, praying that I was connecting with you over the internet. I was forced to concede that if church could be done online, then so can education. But, each and every day my baser instincts had to be shouted down by my better angels. Even though I turned up my nose at clergy who, very irresponsibly, continued to have their congregations gather in person before vaccines were readily available, I must admit, I could understand them. I understood the desire to gather with people I love, lean into what I knew how to do rather than the on-going mystery of wandering in the wilderness of what I did not know. In the height of the pandemic, a wilderness experience, I wanted to fall back to what I had always done. And while I never gave into that temptation, I admit it took a lot of effort to resist. I felt dislocated and I was searching for my footing on familiar path.
We are in the midst of a series considering the four dislocations we experienced communally and individually during the height of the pandemic. Outlined by theologian and writer Diana Butler Bass, the dislocations are: historical, temporal, relational, and physical. Today we are talking about relational dislocation. Diana Butler Bass wrote about how, after over a year of staring at each other on computer screens, or as faceless voices on telephones, our relationships have changed. In other words, we have been dislocated from each other and are still finding our way towards a relocation of what it means to be in relationship. Diana Butler Bass was correct, we felt that dislocation acutely during this last year and a half. But, as I thought more about it, and as I studied the scripture for today, I began to think about how we as a human society, particularly in the United States, have been struggling to locate our relationships for a long time. Let me try to piece this together for you, starting with our scripture.
We continue to follow the Israelites through the wilderness as told in the Book of Exodus. A quick recap: Moses, an unlikely leader called by God, has led the Israelites out of Egypt and their life of slavery there. They have crossed the Red Sea, found fresh manna each morning and even drank water sprung from a rock. God has provided one miracle after another for them. And now, deep into their 40-year wilderness journey, Moses is up on the mountaintop with God, receiving instructions and commandments about how to live and serve. He’s been up there for a while, so long in fact that the people begin to think Moses has abandoned them. Feeling alone and fearful, they turn their backs on Moses and God. They convince Aaron, Moses’ 2nd in command, to create a new god for them. And Aaron, an anxious leader who gives into the people’s fears quickly despite knowing better, does just that. He creates a golden calf, and the people worship that instead of the one true God. They even give the golden calf, an object of their own creation, credit for the miracles they have experienced. They create an idol, an object of false worship, because it was what they understood.
Fearful, separated from their leader, alone in the wilderness, the people gave up on the relationship they had with God and with Moses. They created an idol instead, and tried to create a similar relationship with that object. This feels so familiar to me, and I wonder if it does for you as well. We have, as a society, become increasingly separated from one another, our lives have become less communal and more individualized. Technology, while an extraordinary tool that has created so much good in our world – a tool that we at 1st Congo have used to stay connected, has also been used to insulate us. Social media create algorithms that show us only what it thinks we want to see, and then feeds us endless amounts of it. Cable television tells us stories that we already agree with and shun intelligent debate. People are increasingly more comfortable looking at their phones than at the person sitting across from them. Not only that, we have created idols out of politics and culture wars and class divisions and the ‘way things used to be.’
While we have felt it acutely during the pandemic, I believe we have been relationally dislocated from one another for a long time. And as we can see in scripture, we far too often give up on God and one another, and instead create for ourselves a golden calf, whatever that may be.
But, here is the Good News: the golden calf is not where the story ends. Moses comes down from the mountain, and yes while initially furious at the people, he leans on God’s grace, which is given, and a new covenant, a new relationship, between God and the people is created. The people’s relationships grow, their relationship with God grows, their journey together as a people continues, all the way to where we are now. And that means our story isn’t over either. I do not believe we are destined to be isolated from one another forever. Instead I believe we are in a time of transition and transformation. We have begun to see just how dangerous our isolation has become. The way our divisions have intensified, leading to distrust, anger, hatred, and violence. We have begun to understand how this isolation has eaten away at our families, communities, congregations, and even begun to destroy our planet. We are in the midst of transformation, which is a difficult and frightening place to be, but I believe, I trust in the promise of God – that what is will not always be. That the Kingdom of God is real, and can be made manifest when we come together.
This all sounds impossible. Feels impossible. But it is not. It was what we were created to do. We were created to be in relationship with one another. Our diversity of appearance, belief, identity, and understanding is not an accident – it is the point. We are created in the image of God and therefore God can only be truly seen and understood when the entirety of humanity is together. Not of one mind, agreeing on everything. No. That limits God, puts God in a box. Creates another idol. But, coming together in our differences, opening our minds and Spirits to new experiences and ideas, having our opinions changed, learning what is truly nonnegotiable, being challenged and learning and celebrating all of it – that will begin to ease our dislocation. And relocate us.
Finally, this brings me back to my fears and prejudices about the future of seminary education. I have come to understand that the way I was educated is not the only way, and that technology has proven to be a tool that has made theological education more accessible and therefore more diverse. And, what I learned how to do – to sit in a space with someone who believes in vastly different ways than me, to listen to them openly, to debate with love and authenticity, and to articulate my own beliefs in a way that invites relationship as opposed to defines relationship – that can be done in every forum of interaction we have. And I believe church, our church in particular, can be one of those forums. This is what we strive to do in Bible study and 1st Congo Convo. And I am not simply trying to plug a program here, I am issuing you a pastoral invitation to deepen relationships, to be enlightened, to view God and Christianity in entirely new ways. To have your mind changed and your beliefs strengthened at the same time. If you haven’t joined those conversations, I invite you to. And perhaps there are other things we should try, and I am eager for your suggestions. We can be a community that makes the Kingdom of God real by relocating ourselves in relationship. That is what church should be. And by doing that work here, we can do it everywhere. And we will do so leaning on God’s grace, which will always and forever be given. Amen.
We are glad and rejoice forever in you, O God.
With joy we draw deeply from your well of salvation
and pray that even as we have sung, you may fulfill our story—
the story of your love.
Though the world has been gripped by trouble since early days,
and life has often been short and tormented,
you have given us a vision of a day beyond the terrors:
a day when the heavens and earth will be new again,
a day when the sound of weeping will give way to delight,
a time when all creation will live in peace
and people will long enjoy the fruits of their labours.
Help us to hold to that vision when the temples about us are falling,
and our world is shaken.
Strengthen us for the telling of your truth
and for keeping to your path,
that we might not weary in doing what is right,
but through endurance may gain our souls,
even as you desire for us to do.
As we pray for a new heaven and a new earth this day,
we especially are aware of those among us
and those beyond these doors who are in deep need of your peace,
of your healing touch, of your just and bounteous kingdom.
we pray to you in the name of the one who came to show us the way,
he who is our Lord and our Redeemer, our brother and our friend.
We pray to you as one family, even as he taught us, saying…