A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19 – Year C – September 15, 2013
Kim Baker Glenn, Master of Divinity, Union Presbyterian Seminary
The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Shine upon us, O Lord, our one true light, that we might become aware of your beauty in creation, discern your mind and your will in the scripture before us, and sense your presence always in this place and all places. Amen.
My husband and I joined St. Mary’s church a long time ago, twenty-two years ago in fact. We have deep roots here. My husband Charles has been a member here since he was a child. All three of our children have grown up in this church. I’ve done a considerable amount of growing up here myself. This place is enormously special to all of us Glenns. I say all that so that you’ll know that I am not making up what I’m about to tell you.
About ten years ago, there was a small group of parishioners here who set up their own ad-hoc adult Christian Education class. (I think we call it Christian Formation now, but you know what I mean.) These were people whose work schedules kept them from attending John’s inspirational and informational Bible Study on Wednesday mornings. They were a group of laypeople with no special training in the Bible eager to get more meaning out of what they heard in church. They met each Sunday in the library between the two services. Each week they dissected and explored the lectionary readings that had been assigned for that day. They always met before they went to the 11 a.m. worship service. Since I was always preparing to teach Sunday School, I only know about the details because my husband was there. They learned a lot from doing this but their favorite part of the exercise was predicting two things: 1) which of the readings would be the focus of the sermon AND, 2) who would be preaching it.
Sometimes the lectionary readings they encountered centered on a theme, but many themes were hard to decipher. Regardless, the lectionary is a very useful tradition designed to read through the Bible in a cycle of three years. It is a linear system, really, starting generally with the Hebrew Bible or other non-canonical ancient text, followed by a selection from the Psalter, an epistle and ending with a reading from one of the four gospels. In all, each week the sources of the readings span thousands of years. We can think of it as moving across a timeline from left to right, from the beginning of time up to the second century A.D. But let us for the moment consider it another way. If we turn the device 90 degrees, instead of moving from left to right across time we can think of the readings as moving from the bottom to the to, like the way that we categorize foods in the food pyramid; we stack the basics all along the bottom then we build up to the top. Or we can think of it as moving from darkness to light, the way that darkness is full of detail and all the colors and light assumes them.
The Hebrews themselves often talked about going up or going down quite often in their literature. Going up meant ascending toward God, going down meant descending toward the earth, toward man. Looking at it this way, we can imagine two realms of reality. We see that metaphor played out in the story of Christ’s transfiguration. Jesus and his disciples go up the mountain and the divine transfiguration takes place then they go down the mountain to do the hard work of ministry among the people. Today, we might talk about a “mountaintop experience” when we mean that our experience has been particularly sublime, even divine. All the while we recognize that it is here, at the bottom of the mountain, that we live and work and try to make sense and meaning.
The Hebrews were just trying to make sense and meaning of their new circumstances after Moses led them out of Egypt. They had been led away from the wrath and persecution of the Pharoah. When they thought they would be better off if they had stayed in Egypt, God saved them from starvation in the wilderness sending quails and manna from heaven. God brought water from a rock when they faced death from dehydration. They received God’s holy commandments and ordinances when they got to Mount Sinai and they had promised to obey them. But then Moses had left them again and gone up the mountain a second time. All the Hebrew people remained camped at the foot of the mountain waiting for Moses’ return. They waited and they waited and they waited; and each day that they waited they felt further and further removed from their experience of God. Each day they went about their daily chores – feeding their families, raising their children, caring for their parents … all the time wondering where in the world Moses could be. What could have happened to him? It had been a few weeks, maybe months, since God had done such miraculous things on their behalf and their memory of it all was fading.
While the people were growing more and more anxious, Moses was spending some important time with God. He was making good use of his sabbatical, you might say. All through scripture, but particularly in the stories of Jesus in the gospels, we find that time alone with God is important. We know from experience that having time away from routine and responsibility yields the great benefits of rest and relaxation. And as scripture tells us, time apart can yield the added benefit of clearer communication with the divine. It’s practically impossible to discern God’s will for us through the noise and clatter of everyday life. While Moses was apart from his followers he was giving all his time to God. With God he was planning and preparing to lead God’s people according to God’s commandments. This would be no easy task because, as scripture says, these people were a stiff-necked and stubborn group of people. These were people who trusted themselves more than anyone or anything else.
But God knew these people. God knew them better than they knew themselves. God knew that while they had the capacity for doing great things they also had the capacity to be distracted and led astray, especially when they got anxious and agitated as a group. We know from experience how awful it is to be anxious, but we tend to be powerless in our anxiety. Together, though, a group of anxious people can do a lot of harm. Together they are prone to lose any sense of civility; they tend to think less about what God would expect them to do and more about what they think they need to survive.
The Hebrews gave Moses up for lost. They could not bring him back but they knew they needed a god. They were convinced that their God had led them out of captivity and sustained them through tough times in the wilderness, but now their God was lost. They couldn’t see him or hear him. So they asked Moses’ brother Aaron to make a god for them.
That’s when Aaron made his biggest mistake. Maybe it was the numbers of them that convinced him. Maybe even he was beginning to doubt that Moses would ever return. Maybe even his memory of God’s actions on their behalf had faded. Maybe it wasn’t God who did those things after all. How could a golden calf hurt anyone, especially one made in memory of the true God that they had lost?
When I wrote those last words on paper, it made me shudder. Have we made a god with a lower case g ourselves in memory of our “missing” God; in our currency; in our social networking? Or maybe we’ve made a lot of little gods with lower case g’s that we have created to “stand in” for our invisible and un-touchable God. What harm could a little bit of worshiping of the dollar or our heroes do?
When God sent Moses back down the mountain to do the hard work of ministry, to straighten out the thinking of the people he had helped lead to safety, God was furious; not furious at Moses but furious that his people had such thin loyalty that they would conjure up a golden calf in his place. Really?!? A golden calf in place of God Almighty? No wonder he wanted to wipe them out and start all over. But Moses was not going to let that stand. He spoke up to God. He spoke up for his followers believing that they truly wanted to be faithful to God. Standing firm, Moses persuaded God that to destroy the very people he had just saved would disprove to the whole world the kind of God that Moses knew God to be. So persuaded by Moses’ words God changed God’s mind – choosing not to stand in judgment over Israel’s sin.
The actions that we, as human beings, interpret as God’s judgment on us are just that. They are our interpretations. What we perceive as God’s judgment is never God’s final word. Instead, God continues all day every day acting in our lives and on our behalf. God’s love for us is a relentless love. God never gives up on us becoming the people that he desires for us to be.
There is nothing we can do to change that. Even though we may not be fully in the light of Christ, and may still be partially in the dark, we can be seen. God sees us and God knows us for who we really are. And God loves us voraciously in spite of it.
My message for you today is that God is not lost and we need not spend our energy trying to find him. The people at the foot of Mt. Sinai thought that they had “found” god by making a golden calf. They had imagined that since Moses was lost then their God was lost, too. But it was they who were truly lost and, in the end, they who became truly found. God finds us, friends and not the other way around. May God continue to find us when we get lost on our journeys. May God grant us the wisdom to know when we are found. Amen.