Walking with Moses
Understanding the Abyss
October 8, 2017
First Presbyterian, Columbiana – Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Exodus 19 – 33
I always find meditating on the commandments to be a little painful. The deeper I go, the harder I examine my life against the commandments, the more sinful I become. Then there are those times I’ve just blatantly disregarded the commandments – even though I knew it would be wrong, even though I knew it would harm others. Why do I do what I do? Why do others, such as Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, so ignore the commandments that they commit acts of evil? Perhaps if we get beyond the list of rules and explore the broader story we can find some answers.
Most of us remember the story of the Ten Commandments in this way: Moses goes up a mountain, meets with God who has crafted a stone tablet containing ten rules – five on each side. Much like the one made by my friend Jim Taylor that I showed the kids. As Moses is coming down the mountain with the tablet, he learns that the rebellious Israelites have made a golden calf. In his anger, Moses throws the tablet at them.
Yet according to Exodus, after the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai God comes down the mountain to greet them. As a part of this royal audience, God speaks the Ten Commandments to the assembled community. Following this pronouncement, Moses, the priests and the elders of the people have a series of progressively more intimate meetings with God, including a banquet in a royal throne room God has built on the side of the mountain. They emerge from this banquet shocked. God – the great, terrifying God who defeated Pharaoh and split the Red Sea – does not lay a hand on them, even though they are directly in the divine presence.
But then, after the banquet, something truly terrifying happens. Moses and Joshua leave the priests and elders at the base of the mountain and go up into a cloud with the appearance of devouring fire. They go up and they don’t come back. Days pass and they don’t come back. A month passes and they don’t come back. The priests and elders panic. They may have survived God’s great banquet but now God’s eaten their leader. Moses, the one who connected them to God, is gone. No Moses to lead them. No God to feed them and keep them safe in the desert. A void opens up in their community. Into the void flows fear. Desperation follows the fear.
With Moses gone, the priests and the elders remember the false security of Egypt. They remember the false power of the nature gods like the bull who was worshiped throughout the ancient Middle East. They strip their women and children of the gold given to them by their families for personal financial security and form it into an idol. The priests proclaim a festival and they worship and sacrifice to their new god.
The stone tablets have barely cooled from the divine engraving and already the Israelites have broken commandments one and eight. Why? Because with Moses gone they loose their connection to God. Into that void flows fear. Desperation follows the fear. And they grasp at anything to fill the void – even if they know it is wrong.
Most mass shooters don’t seem to suffer from extreme mental illness in the traditional sense. And most of the millions of Americans who have ready access to weapons capable of mass shooting don’t turn those weapons on their neighbors. What research there is shows that most mass shooters seem to be deeply disconnected. Disconnected from God, disconnected from family, disconnected from their communities. Into this void they insert a fantasy version of themselves – an idol if you will – of the conquering hero, the savior of the world. It becomes their job to enact vengeance, to create a blood sacrifice, that will set things right and proclaim their importance to the community.
At some level these shooters know what they are doing is wrong. Its why most take their own lives well before police can get to them. But the void has created fear. Desperation follows fear. They will grasp at anything, even the wrong thing, to fill the void.
God peers down the mountain at the calf worshipping Israelites and a deep void enters his heart. Fear, anger and desperation rush into the void. God threatens to annihilate the Israelites, to cut them off, to begin his holy humanity experiment anew. And then Moses reminds God of his special relationship with his children, of his promises, of his commitment. Moses brings God back into community, he saves God from the abyss.
Each time we gather in healthy Christian community, whether its in our homes or in our church, we keep each other in community and pull each other back from the abyss. Together we tell the stories of God’s connection with us and caretaking of us. Together we remember to love our neighbors and our enemies, to have humility in all things, and to seek to serve instead of being served. We acknowledge that we sin, and seek to return to community through repentance. The rituals help fill the void, they temper our sinfulness and help protect us from becoming the evil one.
Fifty people might be alive right now had Stephen Paddocks been part of such a healthy Christian community. I know from conversations with Chief Gladdis that mass shootings rank just about as high up on his fear level as major train accidents. I pray we can build a healthy enough community that will not only continue to temper our own sin, but will be deep enough and broad enough to bring healing to any of our neighbors who might be heading toward the abyss.
 From Anderson, Kurt: America’s Gun Fantasy, Slate, 10/5/2017; Excerpted from Anderson, Kurt: Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire. Statistics and analysis from Mass Murder with Firearms: Incidents and Victims, 1999 – 2013 by Congressional Research Services, 7/30/2015.