1789: Idols and Identity
How do we communicate to ourselves and to the world who we are as a community?
As we think about this question, we notice an interesting intersection between our passage from Exodus and our use today of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer for our worship.
The 1789 BCP was the first prayerbook by Americans, for Americans.
Many of the founders of our republic were Anglicans, including George Washington, and they quickly realized that they needed ecclesiastical independence along with political independence. Church leaders began convening in 1785 to compile a new prayerbook.
The American Revolution had ended two years earlier, in 1783. The new nation was now at peace, but had to create its own economic and political stability.
The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia would not convene until 1787, and the constitution would not be ratified and go into effect until 1789.
So for those who were involved or affected by all three events, it went in the following order: war, prayerbook, constitution. Interesting.
So what we have is a people in violent crisis, trying to escape from what to them was a foreign oppressor in Great Britain.
That’s a situation not unlike the Israelites in our Exodus text today.
They have been delivered from enslavement, but have found that their troubles are only beginning.
They need something to unify them, something to express their identity, something to say who they are now that they are free.
For American Anglicans, that was the new Book of Common Prayer, the very one we’re using today.
For Americans broadly, that was the U.S. Constitution.
For the Israelites, as we read last week, that was the 10 Commandments.
These are documents that express identity.
They are documents that prescribe behavior, and by doing so set up a set of aspirations of how we are to live together.
They say who we are by saying how we would like to behave.
But it’s more complicated than that.
The prayerbook and the constitution are written from the perspective of the dominant white, male, property-holding class in power.
They proceed on the assumption that both slavery of African and African-American peoples and genocide of Native American peoples are acceptable and morally defensible.
The 10 Commandments obviously don’t have these deficits, but the people of Israel do not believe they are capable of living up to them, and are still in the process of being spiritually liberated from their enslavement in Egypt.
And so a predictable scenario arises.
We have these documents that we say express who we are and how we will be in community together.
But our lives do not reflect those lofty aspirations.
When we feel trapped by the reality that we know how we want to live, but we do not seem able to do it, we seek comfort and stability. And our behavior starts to deteriorate.
For the Israelites, it was the casting of the Golden Calf.
When they were feeling distant from God, heartsick and lonely, they created a false idol for themselves.
They knew, underneath their bravado, that what they were doing was wrong.
But they would pray to anything that was shiny, pretty, and promised some relief from the hard reality of building a new community.
Is it possible the same dynamics were at work for the early American Anglicans?
And is it possible that we still fall prey to them today?
We’ve all known people who live and die by the prayerbook, seeming to insist by their strict observance that the Holy Spirit will not be present if a single rubric is broken. I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself!
But worshipping the prayerbook is not the same thing as worshipping God, when we do that, we are actively depleting of holy power the very document that is supposed to bind us together through time and space.
The same is true for the U.S. Constitution.
There are people and factions in our country today who worship the Constitution like it is the Golden Calf.
They place the Founders on false pedestals and ignore the slavery and genocide of people of color they endorsed and even participated in.
And as worthy as the Constitution is, it becomes a stumbling block when bitter adherence to the letter of it as it was written in the 18th century is used as a cover for perpetuating injustice.
Flawed as the people and the document were, it aspired to uphold bedrock principles of justice, equality, and peace that form our national identity.
But when it is worshipped and used to obstruct progress, it is as false a god as the Golden Calf ever was.
So what are we to do?
We have been handed these documents of identity—the 10 Commandments, the Book of Common Prayer, and the U.S. Constitution.
What does it take for them to serve us rather than for us to serve them?
These documents are about behavior, but for our behavior to be truly life-giving for ourselves and others, we have to go deeper to examine our motivations.
So the Constitution tells us how to coexist, the prayerbook tells us how to pray, and the 10 Commandments tell us how to live.
We can observe all of them to the letter on the outside and still be rotten within.
In fact, observing them to the letter without purifying our hearts will doubtless lead to self-congratulation and right back to idol-worshipping, and this time the Golden Calf may be our own conspicuous rectitude.
We must escape the trap that the Israelites fell into, the trap of false self-reliance.
They couldn’t feel or see or hear God, and so they created a false god for themselves.
In the hard work of building community, God can sometimes feel distant.
But it is in those times that we must take Paul’s words in our Philippians text all the more to heart: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
We are not trying to build the Beloved Community on our own.
God is with us, at every moment, and ready to root out the idols in our hearts if we will but approach God in trust.
The Episcopalians of the 1780s had the 10 Commandments in their hands, and the new prayerbook and the new constitution came out of a sincere desire to live up to those commandments.
They failed in many ways, but they handed on to us these documents of identity that we seek to live up to in our own time.
And for that act alone, we know they heard and took to heart the words of Paul today: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
May it be so for us, and for our descendants.
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