Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

Knowing How to Lose

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
October 18, 2020

Exodus 33: 12-23

Torah Scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg sets the story of God revealing God’s glory to Moses in the larger context of the aftermath of Israel’s heretical worship of the Golden Calf. If you recall, while Moses was on Mount Sinai forty days and nights receiving the tablets of the law, the people despaired that he would ever return and thought themselves abandoned by God. So they constructed and worshipped a Golden Calf. When Moses returned he caught them doing it and in anger broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Both he and God are outraged.

What follows is a long, long process of God, Moses and the people dealing with the aftermath of this outrageous behavior. The people are humiliated; the worst offenders are executed. Repentance is ritually enacted. But neither God nor Moses is fully satisfied with these responses. Moses and God argue back and forth, both of them angry and hurt, God ready to be done with the Israelites forever and to start over again. Moses responds that God would be betraying God’s own nature to destroy the Israelites and God accedes to that argument, to a point.

These discussions, these negotiations if you will, all take place on the mountaintop, far from the people. The Israelites have seen the fury of Moses and have seen him dramatically turn his back on them, as if to renounce them, as if he was done with them, and ascend Mt. Sinai again, to be lost in the overwhelming storm and darkness of the mountaintop, where they know God’s fury resides. They wait at the foot of the mountain, filled with dread, to see what will result. Their fate, their destiny is out of their hands.

Unknown to them, at the top of the mountain, the Moses who was justly angry at the people begins a process of shedding himself, of letting go of himself and his self-interest, and identifying himself with the people, with their helplessness, their loneliness, their hopelessness, and their fear. Moses stops thinking of himself either as Moses the individual, or as Moses the leader of the Israelites, but as the Israelites themselves. God has said, “Those who have sinned against me, I will erase from my book. Moses responds (32: 32) “Then erase ME from your book.” He has not only identified himself with the people’s sin, Zornberg points out, but “he offers to sacrifice his own personal destiny, his narcissistic interest in his own narrative.” 

In our passage today, Moses no longer distinguishes any difference between himself and God’s people. He says to the Lord, “How shall it be known that your people have gained your favor unless you go with us, so that we may be distinguished, your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?” It is at this point that Moses pushes God an amazing extra mile: “Oh, let me behold your presence!” It sounds like Moses is asking for something for himself, but the truth is that at this point, Moses and the Israelites have become inseparably one. Moses is asking that God extend the favor God shows to Moses to ALL the people. He’s asking that God not simply show Moses God’s presence: He’s asking that God show the people God’s presence.

Zornberg sees the Israelites as a nation struggling with a deep depression. They are a people who imagined themselves able somehow to build their own God who was willing to do their bidding. They have imagined themselves omnipotent. But the fiery storms that emerged as a result of this imagined power have confronted them with both the arrogance of their assumption and the reality that they are indeed quite far from omnipotent.

Zornberg says their depression consists of

Not knowing how to lose… [They become] ‘painfully riveted to the object of their loss; fascinated by that object, they disavow its loss…. The connection between people becomes calcified, as does the connection between people and God…. [They become] radical, sullen atheist [s].’’

At this point it might be well for us to do as Moses did, and identify ourselves as individuals and as a nation with the distraught, depressed Israelites. I think that all Americans at some level have imagined ourselves as omnipotent, as all-powerful. I know for my generation, at least, that came with the unconscious baggage we carried in being the post-War democratic Superpower who dominated the late 20th Century. That self-image began to crumble with 9/11. Events of the last few years, and especially of the last year, have undone that self-identity still further.

As Zornberg says, we are painfully riveted to the object of our loss, and so we continue to disavow the loss of our omnipotence. But it’s real. And since at some level we have imagined our national omnipotence to be a sign of God’s favor, we have begun to wonder where exactly God is right now, and to fear that God has abandoned us: hence, Zornberg’s observation that the people have become ‘radical, sullen atheists.’”

With an election coming up, we look to our political leaders to offer us a return to the good old days, that sense of national omnipotence, when we could do no wrong and no wrong could happen to us. We are in danger of looking at our political parties and their leaders as Golden Calves who offer us false power, when in reality the events of the past year are a wake-up call: No one is all-powerful, no nation is all-powerful, no one has all the answers, and seeking somehow to control the world in which we live is only an exercise in frustration, disappointment, and fear.

Our only hope, Zornberg says, lies in knowing how to lose.

I was an avid runner for several years in my youth. I participated in my first race my sophomore year in college, when I was nineteen. It was the Hampden-Sydney/Longwood Minithon, a 6.2 mile race between my small college of Hampden-Sydney in Virginia and the campus of Longwood College in nearby Farmville.  A lot of my friends from the fellowship group we were in, the Canterbury Episcopal Campus ministry, participated as well. Not only that, but Canterbury’s avuncular, gentle, but not exactly in-shape priest, the Rev. John Emmert, decided to race as well.

Now, we all loved John, whose kindliness, humility and lop-sided grin gave the impression of a modern St. Francis. But he was not what you’d call an athlete. I admit we both appreciated it but also, you know, joked about it. But John was there, and we loved him for it.

At the gun, the runners were off. All of us Canterburiers were in a pack together, but we soon separated each according to our ability. As I ran the country miles, a great source of both frustration and inspiration was the college librarian’s dog, a small sweet mutt with only three legs whose nickname was Tripod, who took off with us and kept excitedly running to the head of the pack and then to the back all the way through the race. He must have run three races to our one and it drove me crazy that he was so often ahead of me!

I put on a last burst of speed as we crested the hill at Longwood and was satisfied with my run. Some of my friends had already finished and others were not far behind me. But as the race dragged on, the crowd of runners became smaller… and smaller… and smaller… and we started to worry about John. Had something happened? Had he quit? Become dehydrated? Had a heart attack? Keep in mind that to us twenty-year olds, John’s nearly forty years just seemed impossibly old.

Finally, John came trundling up the hill among the last stragglers. He was sweaty, grim and determined. But he made it. We ran out and embraced him and celebrated. We loved that man. We knew he would do anything for us.

In many ways John has always symbolized for me how to lose. He didn’t care about his pride or his priestly dignity or straggling in among the last (though to this day he bristles that we still joke he came in “last”!). He wanted to be with us, to be part of us, to do what we were doing. That was more important than anything.

In our biblical story, the Israelites learn how to lose. They let go of their false sense of omnipotence and, Zornberg says, “initiate the ‘work of mourning.” God’s people are willing at last to recognize that they aren’t omnipotent, that they don’t have all the answers, and this “avowal of loss” leads them to “shift from a specious impotence to ‘humility and prayer.’ In the move, the people find a nexus with God”… This creates the “’time of favor’, a mysterious modulation of human experience that attunes them with God. Since they have chosen relationship over omnipotence, God, too, is moved to mercy and for the first time in the catastrophic episode calls them, ‘the children of Israel.’’

There is a need for us, as a nation, to acknowledge our losses, to recognize that we can’t overcome every problem, that sometimes we must just accept the cards we are dealt and play them as well as we can, rather than imagining that we can overcome every problem by hard work or by magical thinking. But Zornberg points out that such humility creates a time of favor, a modulation of human experience that attunes us to God. We often don’t give that thought credit—we like to think that it’s in winning that we are closest to God. But often we are closest to God when we acknowledge that we are losers, that we can’t get everything right, that we don’t have the answer to every problem, that we aren’t strong enough to overcome every obstacle. What matters then is that instead of striving to win, we instead strive for relationship. That’s what made me think of John Emmert running that race. He wasn’t trying to win, he was demonstrating that a relationship with us matters to him more than his pride, priestly dignity, or being the best runner. And so really, it’s true, he didn’t win—we did. We won because that relationship was so important to us, and it was important to him, too.

As I said, when Moses finally asks to see God’s glory, he is no longer asking for himself. He asking it for the whole nation of Israel—a nation that has been beset by trouble and loss, that has lost its way, that has followed false gods of national omnipotence. And God grants it—God shows Moses, on behalf of the whole nation of Israel, God’s back, some aspect of God’s glory. It is not all of God’s glory. God doesn’t show us everything, the answer to every question, the solution to every problem, the way to right every wrong. To show us all that, we are warned, might consume us. The Bible says that we cannot see the face of God, or we will die; but what that really means is that for us to know God as fully as we are known, to have all answers and to know all things, would mean that we are fully one with God, fully and completely, and that can only happen in death, in the eternal life after death.

So for now we’re granted a relationship, the hope and the challenge of trusting in God in times of powerlessness—times of pandemic, national crisis, unemployment, racial and political division, confusion. God wants us to give up the omnipotent self-indulgent delusions we have of omnipotence and just huff and puff and drag ourselves up the hill as best we can, not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of true and right relationship with each other and with God.

We need to be like Moses in two vital ways. First we must want to see God, to be in relationship with God, more than we want to view ourselves as omnipotent or to have back what we’ve lost.

But secondly, we have to be like Moses in no longer identifying ourselves as individuals out for ourselves, but as one with the whole nation, with all the people who make up this diverse and complicated nation—no matter what their economic or social strata, no matter rich or poor, no matter race or nationality or ethnicity or religion or political view. To focus on the healing of all these relationships, to make these relationships with God and our fellow Americans be the impetus, the purpose, the desire that moves us up that hill and gets us to the finish line, to let that desire to be united to one another and to God be our driving force and motivation.

Let go of omnipotence. Seek relationship. That’s how Moses pleases God and heals a nation. And that’s how we can, as well.

Leave a Comment