Bishop Benfield’s sermon for St. Margaret’s and Trinity Cathedral, 12 September, 2010

They call it “shift work.”  For those of you with office jobs, you may need a reminder of what it is. It is working in one’s job at different shifts of time of the day or night. Formerly it was a manufacturing job term, but now it includes such jobs as customer service representatives, so that all of us with insomnia can shop our way to health in the middle of the night. To work on changing shifts is hard, sort of like permanently having jet lag.

When I was small we called it day shift, evening shift, and graveyard shift. I first learned about them when an aunt for years worked a week of each shift in succession at a spinning mill. We lived within walking distance of her house, where my grandmother also lived, so my sister and I were there often. We were always being told to be quiet because our aunt needed to sleep. Shift work came even closer to me during the power plant construction era in East Tennessee, when my dad occasionally had to work rotating shifts as a boilermaker. Again, the message in my house was that I needed to keep quiet.

I learned that lesson very well, as did my sister. We were very quiet, very respectful of whatever authority figure that might be sleeping in the next room, regaining strength for the job to be done. Even today, when I visit friends they tell me that they forget that I am in the house because they never hear me. It is an almost primal training from my early years.

I think my attitude about God was formed in part from my response to shift work. God became the older, wiser person in the next room, often hidden in self-imposed darkness during the day, a God who had a lot of work to do to make certain I had all I needed, and whom I didn’t get to see or understand as much as I wanted. My job was to stay quiet around God and not interrupt the work. To call God’s attention to a problem would be unthinkable.

I know that most of you did not grow up in shift work families, but I have discovered that many of us, in one way or another, have learned that our job is to stay quiet while God takes care of things in what may be a very obscure way. It is God hidden behind a bedroom door, the curtains drawn, no one looking in. We are not to question anything God supposedly does.

I also remember from my youth that anytime something untoward happened to people, such as catastrophic car wrecks or debilitating disease, there was always this very serious comment from someone in words to this effect, “I know we can’t understand it, but it is the will of God.”  Those comments were always said in the same hushed tones that we had to use when my aunt or dad slept during the day, as if our calling was not to upset the cosmic plan.

In making such comments, people seemed simply not to know what to say in a moment of despair, perhaps even afraid to ask the hard questions about what God really might be doing behind the door, or if God even had any control over a broken world. Somehow, somewhere, that silence and sense of fear have to be broken. And I think they are broken in today’s lesson from Exodus.

Today is the story of the golden calf, an epic worthy of Cecile B. DeMille, with beating drums and wild dancing around an idol of the people’s own invention, and God’s anger at such foolishness. Archeologists and social historians would tell us that this incident was probably not an isolated event. People have frequently made idols for themselves, and we even think that later on in Hebrew history, the very Temple itself in Jerusalem had various idols set up around its walls. The prophets talked about idolatry too much for there not to have been a problem. Religion is never as pure as we imagine it.

What I have begun to stand in awe of in the story of the golden calf is not the stupid decision of the people. After all, God has patiently put up with our false gods for millennia, ranging from gold to the American greenback. Idolatry has infected the best of us. For example, in 1892 the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts wrote, “Godliness is in league with riches.” That sounds fairly idolatrous to me in this age when so many suffer from what is a recession at best, or even a depression.

Instead, what gives me hope in this story is that Moses is not afraid to argue with God, and basically tell God that a “one-chance-and-you-are-out” deity is soon going to be very lonely. Moses won’t remain quiet out of deference, and he wants God to know that he, Moses, has a mind as well. God is going to have to listen. The shock of the story is not that people will make fools of themselves around a golden calf, but that ultimately Moses changes the mind of God.

What we hear in this lesson is that God verbally spars with Moses as they try to find a way to move forward. Moses reminds God, and, more importantly, I think, reminds us, that God’s chief attribute is mercy. We are not playthings that God moves around in some sort of cosmic game for God’s own amusement. That’s the “will of God” idea that never quite made sense to me in those moments of great pain. But rather, we are God’s family, and you don’t turn your back on family. God will be made known through moments of mercy in the unlikeliest, even most irrational of situations when the family needs help but doesn’t really deserve it, as when for example, we have created idols out of the very abundance in life of which we have been given.

Without this biblical lesson from Exodus, I think that day-to-day we would be fearful of practicing anything other than quietness before God. But Moses proves to us that God is not upset when we question God’s propriety. Indeed, such questioning is the way that people are saved; such questioning is the way that people find wholeness. Listen carefully. According to Exodus, it is when Moses questions God that God relents and people’s lives are saved.

That truth is still valid. It is in the questioning that people find health. Blind allegiance often results in further blindness and lost lives and lost opportunities. I think that way too many people give up on the church because they see it as a place where God and authority cannot be questioned, a place where we must keep quiet. On the contrary, I have come realize that I need a place where I can question, and so must you if we are to find our health and work out our salvation.

And that is what this place can be: a place where we can spar with God in order to find our spiritual health, a place where we keep questioning until we come to understand that mercy is God’s chief attribute. It is our good news. It is why I have to admit that I don’t have the answers. I need to wrestle with God to see if mercy really is what perfect goodness is all about. And I want you to wrestle with God as well. We will value that wrestling in this church.

One thing I learned about shift work is that people who do it need the voices of family and friends around them as much as any person who works 9 to 5. That day-to-day interaction brings fulfillment because there is more to life than sleeping and waking and going to work. At the risk of standing on the verge of heresy, I would say that God wants, perhaps even needs, that interaction as well, because perfect goodness—God’s own self—will be made present in our struggle, not in the avoidance of struggle. It is a message that some prosperity gospel churches avoid.

Mercy needs to be made evident in the unlikeliest of people and circumstances. In this place I call you to that sort of life, not to seek God solely in deference, but to seek God in the struggles in your own life. Have no fear that your only job is to remain silent. After all, look at Moses. He argued with God, and as a result the people were saved. Amen.

Download a copy of Bishop Benfield’s sermon in PDF:  Bishop Benfield’s Sermon for St. Margaret’s and Trinity, 9:12:2010