Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 11, 2020
“Is It Karma?”
Exodus 32: 1-13, 14 – Common English Bible
The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us a god who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”
2 Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He collected them and formed them into a mold. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” 6 They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate.
7 The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! 8 They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are. 10 Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”
11 But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. 14 Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.”
Who do we want to be? To what do we aspire, especially when Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you?
It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Added to all the ups and downs, twists and turns and freefalls of this election season’s emotional rollercoaster, hearing the news of the president’s Covid diagnosis may have been the most challenging turn of all to navigate. Coming just two days after a debate performance of intentionally abusive behavior and only a few days before that of dancing on the grave of a supreme court justice before her body was cold… and in between more daily assaults on decency and democracy than we can remember because something even more egregious happened an hour later… with all this chaos and flurry, who had the energy left to process one more thing. Yet, the shocking but not entirely surprising news came anyway.
I opened Facebook to scroll through a news feed filled with raw emotions ranging from sympathy to jubilation. We’re all swimming in a toxic soup, so I understood the toxic reactions. And in the end, that’s their business and not mine to judge. The question is really: Who do we want to be? To what do we aspire? And what did Jesus mean when he instructed his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you?
Some of you know how I responded. First, acknowledging the emotional complexity, I offered a prayer for the healing of the president and Mrs. Trump. But I also added, and “all others exposed by the careless treatment of this real disease as a hoax.” Yes, a prayer for healing doesn’t mean absolving someone from the consequences of their actions.
Many of those who responded to the president’s diagnosis called it karma. Or poetic justice. Chickens coming home to roost. But just to be clear, poetic justice and karma are not quite the same thing – at least, that’s what I learned when I spent some time trying to understand. As Barbara O’Brien explains, “karma is an action, not a result.” Karma is not the universe extracting revenge, which is what many seem to suggest with their posts. Yes, karma includes such consequences as “you reap what you sow.” If you put good into the world, then you will cultivate good. Put in bad, and you will reap bad. But karma isn’t fate, or fatalistic. It is ever evolving – an “energy created by willful action, through thoughts, words, and deeds.” It’s something we can change. Although, we can get stuck. For example, as Lachlan Brown explained, If you always react with anger, you condition your mind for anger. And if you train yourself to react to things with peace and calm, you’re conditioning your mind for peace and calm. Or, as we have talked about this fall, training yourself with cues and habits for gratitude.
My understanding of karma is extremely limited, but there was one thing I learned that I found really helpful. From Wayne Dyer: “How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours.” Covid 19 may well be the president’s karma – reap what you sow. But how we respond is ours. And if we exude good karma, we shall reap good. And if we offer bad karma, well… Therefore, our concern shouldn’t be how or whether “the other side” responds back with compassion to such news in reverse. That’s their karma.
I don’t want to turn this into an exercise of “us vs. them,” so perhaps instead of asking who do we want to be, who do you want to be? Just don’t expect to be perfect. As I’ve said before, sometimes Christianity strikes me as more aspirational than realistic.
When Harriet Tubman learned the slaveholder who had tortured her and many others had grown sick, she prayed: “O Lord, if you’re not going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.” Who can fault her for such a prayer? This righteous and faithful woman knew that if the slaveholder recovered with no change of heart, he would continue to perpetrate evil and cause great harm. Just to be clear, this is not my prayer for the president. But saying such things out loud doesn’t make us bad people. As Rev. Shannon Craigo-Snell said, “Saying prayers out loud is not like telling Alexa to turn on NPR but an opportunity to bring one’s thoughts and feelings to God, while letting divinity have the final say.”
But Howard Thurman, writing during the height of lynchings in 1949, feared the scars to one’s soul in the person who harbors hate. Thurman therefore cautioned his fellow African Americans to love their enemies, not because he wanted to protect white citizens, but because he wanted to “protect the souls of those who have their backs against the wall.”
Even the Bible doesn’t always do this perfectly. The author of Psalm 109 had some less than heavenly things to say about his or her enemy. We don’t know the specifics of who this is spoken of, but it’s brutal: “May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.” And on and on it goes. It’s rough. It’s honest. And to be very clear, this is not my prayer for the president or anyone else. But this text does give us permission to be complex human beings.
And then, after unloading, the Psalmist says, “Help me, O Lord my God!” Help me. Yes, save me from myself. Save my soul from the scars of hatred and anger. After all, upon considering the alternatives, who do we want to be? To what do we aspire?
And so, I encourage us to aspire to empathy. But again, empathy does not absolve the guilt of an abuser, a lynch mob, slaveholders, or someone who knowingly puts people at risk. What they do, however, is their karma. How we respond is ours. It’s about what we want to put out into the world. And, if we’re not perfect at it, don’t forget grace. It was a lesson even God had to learn.
What does this have to do with the story of the golden calf? We could easily use today’s text to judge the Israelites. Moses went up on the mountain for 40 days but was delayed until the 41st. He came back one day late! Walter Brueggemann joked that there wasn’t even the space of a breath between covenant-making and covenant-breaking. But in that one day, the people panicked. They feared they had been abandoned by God, because in their minds, where Moses went, God went. But some scholars like Brueggemann implore us to give them a break. In moments of extreme stress, people reach for things that make us feel good. We even pursue gods we can manage and manipulate into our own image – like spiritual junk food to soothe anxiety. That is the sin of the prosperity gospel – God wants us to be rich. Oh really? God does? God hates who we hate. Oh really? God does?
So, how does God respond in this story of the golden calf? “Let my fury burn and devour them.” But Moses pleads, “but these are your own people. You brought them out of Egypt.” And then Moses did one of the most daring things I can imagine anyone could do. Moses dared tell God to “calm down.” Yes, Moses told God, “calm down your fierce anger.” And after a little arguing of their case, God did. Moses changed God’s mind. God had compassion, whether they deserved it or not. But that doesn’t mean God wasn’t royally ticked off at first and said some unkind things.
I really do want to call upon our better angels because, in the end, judgment is for God – but a warning. It may be a judgment we don’t like. God’s grace and mercy extend farther than people “deserve.” Ourselves included. More on that another time.
But empathy is all that is asked of you and me. Empathy for the American people and our leaders, no matter who they are. Because, who do we want to be? To what do you and I aspire? What did Jesus mean when he instructed us, his followers, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you?
But, hang on. It might get worse. The ups and downs, twists and turns and freefalls of this election season’s emotional rollercoaster are not over. And the most challenging turns to navigate may still be on the horizon. However, in the midst of all that, what does the Lord require? Always, always, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. As best as we can, asking for, praying for, pleading with God to help us put into the world what we want the world to be. What do you say?
 Great article - https://sojo.net/articles/how-pray-when-your-enemy-gets-sick
 In Kathryn Matthew’s Sermon Seeds for 10/7/2017
I love being the