Text: Exodus 32:7-14
I have a question for you this morning. When was the last time you changed your mind? Not about what you were going to eat for dinner or what you were going to wear to a special occasion or even about a significant financial decision. I’m asking you to think about when you have changed your mind about something of significance – a belief, a conviction, something that you felt passionate about. Maybe it was something that you had believed in all your life but because of your life experience and growing knowledge you began seeing things differently and now your mind is changed.
I have an example from my life that I will share. Growing up in a traditional Southern Baptist church I was taught that the Bible was the inerrant, infallible word of God. Furthermore, I was taught that the Bible was the final authority on all questions of life and faith. The Bible, the Word of God, contained all knowledge and all truth and there was nothing in life—no life situation—to which the Bible didn’t give a clear and direct answer. The Bible contained the Truth with a capital “T.” When I entered seminary this understanding of the Bible came into question. It was there that I was exposed to the idea that maybe the Bible was not the inerrant, infallible word of God, but rather, the Bible was the inspired word of God written by fallible human beings; and that instead of containing THE Truth, it contained truth. And so, after much thought and reflection I changed my mind about one of the central tenants of my faith. Now that may not sound very significant to us sitting here today at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in 2013, what has been called the bastion of liberalism, but for this country girl who grew up in a fairly theologically conservative church in the Bible Belt, it was a gigantic step in what I believed. Changing one’s mind on such matters is not to be taken lightly.
But the journey hasn’t ended there. While the Bible continues to be central in my faith, my understanding of the Bible and its role and authority in my life continues to change. Most recently, I have been thinking again, deeply, about what I believe about the Bible. And my mind continues to change on this topic. The closer I get to the Bible, the more I interact with the Bible the further it seems to get from me. It feels less and less like a book that is supposed to be infallible or contain some ultimate truth or even inspired containing some truth. And instead, it feels more and more like a profound story of people like you and me trying to understand God and the world they live in. And its role and authority in my life is more about connection and belonging than some static truth that may or may not speak to these times in which I am living.
And so, my mind has changed, again, significantly about a book—a sacred book—that I treasure and value and hold central in my life.
I tell you that story as an example of how, over time, I have changed my mind about something significant. But the truth is, that I could tell you many more stories about the times when, in my life, I have held onto a destructive belief or conviction or idea of myself and others out of pure habit or stubbornness. More times than not, I am like those stiff-necked people described in Exodus 32 always going back in my mind to what feels safe and comfortable and what I know. And so, I confess to you that I struggle with what I am calling The Last Great American Idolatry: An Unchangeable Mind.
When we think of idolatry, we usually think of things, like the golden calf in our story this morning. We make idols out of our “stuff,” our belongings, material things. We can also make idols out of our success or work or wealth or our reputations. But idol worship extends beyond even these things. I remember the first time I heard Deborah Steely in the early 90s talk about the idolatry of the family and the idolatry of the Bible. It is true that we can make idols out of anything. And it seems to me that maybe the last great American idol is an unchangeable mind.
We see this idol worshiped all the time in the political arena. Politicians making up their minds based on ideology or the need to win or simply out of stubbornness. We observe it and sometimes participate in it in religious life. We make up our minds about who God is and who God isn’t. Or we make up our minds about what Jesus would do and act as though we know what is right and best. One might say that in matters of politics and religion we can all become stiff-necked people—people unwilling to change our minds. And we almost worship the idea of an unchangeable mind – of a leader who sticks to his guns, or won’t back down. Somehow we see it as strength and determination and being right.
But in Exodus 32, it is God who teaches us something important about the need and willingness to be a people who are able to change our minds on matters of great significance. You heard the story. The people are without their leader Moses. He has for 40 days and nights been on the mountaintop with God. The people become anxious waiting on Moses and in a fit of anxiety they call upon Aaron, Moses’ brother, to “Come make gods for us.” Aaron, a classic people pleaser, does exactly what the people ask of him. He asks these recent refugees for all their gold jewelry. (Someone in the lectionary group wondered out loud about where these refugees got all that gold.) Aaron took what they gave him and he fashioned an idol—a golden calf—for them to worship.
Upon seeing this, God becomes angry calling the people names like “stiff-necked” and vowing to destroy them. No matter how you look at it, it’s an ugly picture: a people gone off track and an angry God. But Moses intervenes on behalf of his people and asks God to turn from anger and for God to change God’s mind about bringing disaster upon the people. And in verse 14 we read those beautiful and profound words: “And God changed God’s mind about the disaster that God planned on the people.” And once again in scripture we have this picture of a God who cultivates a relationship that invites human dialogue and input—one that runs counter to many Christians’ assumptions about God being thoroughly distant like Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.” 1
The God of the Bible is a God who responds, who grows and changes in relationship. The God of the Hebrew scriptures as well as the God of the gospels is a God who is not afraid to change God’s mind. And surely if God can change God’s mind we can find it within ourselves to be open to changing our minds on matters of significance.
All great wisdom teachers know the value of being able to change one’s mind. There is a story of the Buddha that illustrates this point. When the Buddha was asked by his stepmother, Mahaprajapati, to start an order of nuns, he was very hesitant to do so, and in fact said, “No.” She requested this of him three times, and three times he replied, “No, don’t even ask it.” She was very upset by his refusal. When Ananda, who was the Buddha’s attendant and also his cousin, asked her why she was weeping, she explained she was sad because the Buddha would not allow her and this large crowd of women to go forth into the homeless life.
Ananda took pity on the women. He went to see the Buddha and asked him to reconsider giving them ordination. Again the Buddha refused. Then Ananda asked, “Are women capable of leading the holy life and attaining liberation?” The Buddha replied, “Yes, yes, of course they are.” Then Ananda asked, “So why are you creating an obstacle for them?” Then the Buddha said, “Okay, so be it,” and he created the order of nuns. While this is the only recorded occasion when the Buddha actually changed his mind one must assume that there were other times.
This past week we have seen the liberation that can come with a changeable mind. Our president has shown great wisdom and leadership in his ability to change his mind. While some would and do call it weakness, I call it courage and hope. He let go of what might be the last great American idolatry: an unchangeable mind.
Why is this important? Why is it important to ask ourselves if we are worshiping the idol of a unchangeable mind? When it comes to the spiritual life, when it comes to living a faithful life, our ability and willingness to engage with each other and be changed by those encounters is at the heart of what it means to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. I will say again, the God of history is a God who cultivates relationships that invites human dialogue and that dialogue changes not only us, it changes God.
Being able to change our minds on matters of great importance can make the difference in whether we live as stiff-necked people or people who are liberated. If God and Buddha can change their minds when it comes to things that really matter, surely for the sake of liberation and freedom and for the sake of our own salvation, we can too. The willingness to do so is to follow the path of the great wisdom teachers. So I leave you with another question. If the great goal in life and in spirituality is NOT being right, but rather deep connection and loving relationship, what long-held certainties might you be willing to reconsider for the sake of being liberated?
1. The unmoved mover is a philosophical concept described by Aristotle as a primary cause or “mover” of all the motion in the universe. As is implicit in the name, the “unmoved mover” moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. In Book 12 of his Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the unmoved mover as being perfectly beautiful, indivisible and contemplating only the perfect contemplation. He says, “that there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.”