Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




Stiff Necks and Divine Impatience

Sunday, February 5, 2006



Exodus 32: 25-35
Matthew 23: 29-39

Rev. Dean Snyder


What does God expect?  God’s complaint about the Israelites in the wilderness is that they are a stiff-necked people.  The story is that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  God is leading them into the Promised Land, but between Egypt and the Promised Land is the wilderness.  God takes them into the wilderness under Moses’ leadership.  Then Moses disappears for forty days.  The people become anxious.  When God critiques them, when God becomes fed up with them, what he says about them in Exodus 32:9 is: “I have seen this people how stiff-necked they are.”  And then again in the 33rd chapter: “For the Lord has said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people.’”


“Stiff-necked” is a reference to trying to steer a horse or oxen.  If you are riding a horse and you pull the reign to the right and the horse insists in going straight forward in the direction it’s already going, the term that the ancients applied to it was that it was a stiff-necked horse.  You couldn’t guide it or steer it in the direction you wanted it to go.  If you are plowing a field with oxen, and you pull the left reign to try to guide the oxen into a left turn and the oxen plow straight ahead, those are stiff-necked oxen. 


God’s frustration with the Israelites was that God was trying to guide them to a new place, not only a new place physically but a new place spiritually and a new place ethically, and the Israelites just kept plowing straight ahead in the direction they wanted to go.


But what does God expect?  They were in the middle of the wilderness.  Moses and, for all they knew, God had abandoned them.  They were anxious and anxiety makes us uptight.  Anxiety makes us rigid and inflexible.  Our natural instinct in times of high anxiety is to become stiff, less malleable, less open to the new and unknown, less adventuresome, more concerned about our security and our safety.  You’d think God would know this.  You’d think God would know this about us: that anxiety makes us uptight. But, from God’s perspective in this Exodus story, God expects the Israelites in the anxiety of the wilderness to become more open, less confident in what they think they know, and more open to the way that God would guide and lead them in their journey.


So how about us?  How do we handle our anxieties?  What happens to us when we become anxious?  What happens to America when we as a nation become anxious? 


I’ve been brooding about post-9/11 America.  I think that 9/11 still defines us and that we are still anxious. The three things we seem to talk about most are the war in Iraq, homeland security, and tax cuts.  I wonder if there is not an element of tightness in this that we have become an inflexible and defensive people and have become less open to addressing deeper matters of justice and equality in our world, which it seems to me where God is usually trying to lead us. 


The G8 summit came and went.  The Make Poverty History movement seems to have floundered.  Over one billion people continue to live on less than a dollar a day.  I spent $1.87 buying a cup of tea at Starbuck’s this morning.  Almost three million people live on less than $1.87 a day.  However, world hunger is hardly on the agenda of our discussions in America as far as I can see because we are fixated on issues of security and defense. 


I wonder if our anxious reaction doesn’t make us stiff-necked as a nation when God is longing for us in our time of anxiety to become more questioning and open and flexible to new possibilities.  I am hoping as September 2006 approaches that we, as a nation, might be able to turn a corner and begin to ask the question of what are the new possibilities that we’ve not been able to see because of our own anxiety.


I want to say that I was very impressed when our President announced in his State of the Union address that America is addicted to oil.  My hope is that that affirmation, that announcement might be the sign that we are turning a corner and being able to think more creatively rather than defensively and inflexibly.  It is perhaps the beginning of new possibilities.  It’s like someone standing up in a meeting and saying, “Hello, I’m America and I’m a gasoline-aholic.” 


How do we handle, as a people, our anxiety?  What I want to talk most about this morning is our personal experiences of high anxiety.  In anxious times of our life when our instinct is to become personally more rigid and inflexible, how can we instead allow anxiety to help us to become open to new possibilities, to change in our personal lives as God seems to expect of us.


There’s an incident from the part of the Exodus story that helps me hear, the part that Charlie read this morning.  I almost decided to leave this part of the story out because it’s a very tough and hard part of the story.  Moses is trying to get God to forgive the Israelites for being stiff-necked and stubborn and defensive and inflexible.  Remember, this is just a story.  This is a story with theological insights.  It’s not meant to be interpreted as making a profound statement about God.  In the story, God is not in a mood to forgive.  It’s not meant to be making a literal statement about God.  It is meant to be profound, but not literal.  In the story, God isn’t in the mood to forgive.  Even though God isn’t in the mood to forgive the people, God does say to Moses: “But now go lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you.  See my angel will go before and stop asking me about whether or not I will forgive the people.  Just lead them to where I am trying to get them to go.”


When we become anxious in our personal lives and want to withdraw and become more self-protective and feel less open and flexible, it helps to remember that it’s not really about us.  It’s about where God is trying to lead a people, where God is trying to lead a world.  Life is about more than what we eat or drink and our own health and welfare and whether we have money in the bank and a retirement plan that is adequate for the way we want to live.  God is about taking a world from slavery to a land of freedom and justice.  We are the people who have been called to walk through the anxious wilderness to the Promised Land.


All of this was working on me this week.  My last physical was pretty good.  My doctor said that I was in pretty good health and that I would be excellent health if I just lost fifteen pounds.  This happens to me about once a year that the doctor says this and then, for a couple of months, I become obsessive.  I become rigid in my eating and in my exercise and I obsess on it and I overdo it and in a few months I run out of steam.  Then I gain the weight back, and a year later the doctor says, “Well, you’d be in excellent condition if you just lost fifteen or twenty pounds.”  I’m in a personal sort of rigid space in some aspects of my life, obsessed and a little too narcissistic.


Jane would tell me that you all don’t need to know this, but I tell you to tell you this.  I had missed a walk one day this week because I felt like I needed to drive my car into church for a meeting that I needed to go to.  It was late in the afternoon and I decided I needed to get a walk in.  One of my common walks is to walk from here up to 16th and Harvard Street.  AT 16th and Harvard, there is a statue of Frances Asbury, pioneer Methodist who spread Methodism and scriptural holiness throughout America on his horse.  The statue of him shows him sitting on his horse, holding a book, which I presume is a Bible but, knowing Frances Asbury, may have been the Book of Discipline.  I’m not sure. 


It’s exactly one mile to walk from the church to the statue of Frances Asbury and one mile back, and I can do it in 35 minutes.  I can at least get a walk in if I do that.  So I went out to do my walk before the evening meetings were about to begin. 


As I was walking toward the statue, it suddenly occurred to me that I was very bored of 16th Street, which is a very bland sort of street.  I decided to cut over and walk up 17th and 18th Street which is a much more interesting street with a lot of restaurants and a lot of stores and a lot of interesting things.  As I was walking up through Adams Morgan, I passed some children.  When you’re walking, you sort of pick up some sentences that people are saying when you pass them.  These sentences rooted themselves in my head, and I was trying to figure out what the conversation may have been.  It was two boys.  I can’t tell the age of children anymore, but they looked like they were pre-teenagers, two boys sitting on a step and three girls standing next to them.  They were chatting and talking, and these were the words I picked up that stuck in my brain as I continued walking.  One of the boys said pointing to one of the girls, “Rochelle’s mother is the worst.  She’s a drunk for no reason.”  Then he pointed to one of the boys and said, “Kenny’s mother is a drunk, too, but she’s a drunk for a reason.”  As I continued my walk up 18th Street toward Harvard obsessing on my fifteen pounds, those children reminded me that we live in a world where children grow up in all sorts of circumstances that we cannot imagine.


God is trying to use us as a people.  This is why we are in church, folks.  This is why God has put us in these pews.  We are called together as a people to mold this world from a place where children grow up in slavery (this is slavery children are growing up in our world) to a land of freedom and justice. 


If we can remember that we are a part of people who are on a journey from a land of slavery to a Promised Land, then many of the things that we become anxious about get put in an appropriate place, a place where we understand that it’s not about how well we do or don’t do.  It’s about how well we serve God who is longing to lead us to a world where all children grow up in a safe and loving place.  May God, through this holy table, nourish us for the journey.