Yahweh then relented over the disaster which he had intended to inflict on his people. Exodus 32:14 [NJB]
Believe me, I am not looking for any sympathy, but today it has been exactly fourteen months since I had my left shoulder replaced, and I still have not quite regained full strength in it — which I know, because I resumed exercising as soon as the doctor would let me, and I am pain limited. I had no idea it would take this long.
But I also had no idea that I would not have played but one round of golf in that time, Ana d. Would not yet have hit a ball with my driver, which I admit surprises me, especially since a benefit I expected from that surgery was to permit freer rotation of my left arm to allow me to follow through and hit the ball straighter with my driver and not slice it off to the right. But the not playing golf or hitting my driver is not because anything physical has prevented me from doing so; it simply has not been a high enough priority in terms of how I spend my time.
Which I guess is one of the reasons I failed at politics, which also, I guess — success in politics, that is, — was not a high enough priority. At any rate, for three of our last four Presidents, playing golf has been a high priority when they have been able to do so, especially for the current President and most recent former President.
Whether President Clinton placed quite so high a priority on golf as Presidents Obama and Trump, I do not know, but he was legendary for taking considerable liberties with the rules, especially taking advantage of what golfers call “Mulligans.” I was introduced to Mulligans very early in my golf history; a “Mulligan” is when one takes a “do-over” in terms of trying again to hit a shot that had not gone well, usually, but not always, on the drive from the first tee, the very first shot on the first hole, though some friendly groups might have a practice of one Mulligan a round, wherever the golfer chooses to use it, and some golfers, I guess including President Clinton, take a Mulligan whenever they wish.
And since most of us non-professional golfers frequently will “slice” a tee shot and lose the ball out-of-bounds, essentially a two stroke penalty otherwise, Mulligans are much valued and appreciated.
As a bit of a purist — I always play the ball where it lies, though there are liberties that I take in terms of “gimme’s,” giving myself putts, — I do not usually use a Mulligan when I play golf. But looking at the history of the Israelites and at Christianity, golf is not the only place where one might use a Mulligan.
Today’s reading from Exodus relates how, after forty days on Mount Horeb, where Moses received from God the Ten Commandments, which our Hebrew Bible lesson last Sunday [when Mark “laid down the law” for us], Moses, descending from the mountain, comes upon a wild party among the impatient Israelites within which they have made a “Golden Calf.” Mind you, they have not yet received the first two commandments so they really do not know about “graven images,” but, nonetheless, both God and Moses are angry and Moses will break the “stone tablets.”
And I am thinking that were God merely human, God would have said, “That does it. You guys are on your own.”
But that will not be the end of the story! Moses will go back up the mountain, and God will write a second copy of the Ten Commandments, and eventually, in about forty years, the Israelites will enter the Promised Land.
God granted a Mulligan to the Israelites.
But our belief — heck, my true life experience offers more than one instance — our belief as Christians suggests that God has not limited us, has not limited humanity, to a single Mulligan, as though we had only one bad shot in our lives. When I offer what we call “The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving” during the ritual of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, I frequently make a comment along the lines that, having failed to follow those Commandments and, more generally, God’s Law, God sent the people prophets — note prophets, the plural, God sent more than one prophet, and more than once sent a prophet, because the people had not heeded the most recent prophet, had not made good use of their Mulligan, and still failed to follow God’s way and not stay within God’s bounds. Our predecessors were given more than one Mulligan, because they did not make good use of their previous Mulligans.
And then, as the prayer goes on, finally God sent Jesus, who basically hit the ball off of the tee for us — cleansed and cleanses us from our failure to follow the Law, — because we just cannot do it ourselves.
Our Christian belief tells us in simple terms that God does not want us to end up “out-of- bounds”; God gives us repeated Mulligans so that we can try to set things — and not just drives — straight, so that we can try to get things right, to go straight down the middle.
But we make God too small and minimize God’s love for us if we think that the Mulligans God provides are just to give us another chance to follow the Ten Commandments. God wants more for us than not doing certain things; God wants more than obedience from us. Rather, I believe, God wants something positive for us, a point made — even though it also leaves one puzzled — by the parable the writer of the Gospel According to Matthew has Jesus telling in our Gospel lesson. The invitation, the Mulligan, is to a wedding feast, to something joyous, not just a matter of avoiding a negative, not just of staying in bounds, and while in its original context I believe this parable is to explain why Gentiles were becoming Jesus’ followers and receiving the promise God made originally to the Jews, I think the parable has a broader meaning to us: following Jesus does provide forgiveness from our sins, but the parable speaks of something that is a positive joy, a wedding feast, a positive, joy just like a shot down the middle of the fairway.
Faith in Jesus can provide positive joy, for in Jesus we find that it is God’s desire to show the love for us humans that is the reason that lies behind God’s giving the Law to us in the first place. God wants us to live together in peace and harmony, peace and harmony that lead to joy. That is the reason God gave those commandments we highlighted last week as “the second tablet,” the one that gives some guidelines as to what is meant by “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I do not, as I say, believe that God gave the commandments for the purpose of limiting our fun, but rather for the purpose of increasing our chances for joy. Joy, which is not quite the same as happiness, and if I am correct on that, does it not seem sensible that God would grant a Mulligan after our errors, after our sins, if doing so would help us?
But just as we do not make good use of a Mulligan in golf if the swing on the next shot is identical to the swing that hit the first drive out-of-bounds, when God grants a Mulligan, we need to use it; we need to turn to God again and ask for help to correct what we failed to do right the first time round.
I’m not sure how golf will go when I do really take it up again. I started taking refresher lessons this summer, but gave them up when Patricia and I went to China, and with the Illinois football season taking such a chunk of my non-church time, well, it is not a high enough priority, but I do intend to take it up again.
. . . And who knows; maybe God is giving me a Mulligan on golf! That would not be a surprise; in Jesus, God has given me a Mulligan whenever I have needed it. If only I could say that I always used it well.
And God has given and will give to each of you all the Mulligans you need; use them well. Joy awaits.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.