A sermon for Proper 23
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
It’s been devastating. Nothing, has gone as expected. Nothing, is as it should have been. Everything is gone; what was, is no more. What’s to be is worse than imagined, its unknowable. Shackled, he kneels in the ashes of annihilation; his bound shaman, marching out with other captives, falls to the ground; as he is crudely pulled up the Shaman whispers “Remember.”
For us, the last week has been about remembering. Last Sunday at 10:41 am Lilly Grace was born. I rejoiced in her birth; as I remembered her mother’s birth. Late Thursday afternoon we learned Michelle, Russell and Lilly Grace were at LeBohneur. Lilly Grace was not eating well, nor showing the results of feeding. By the time we arrive, she was getting fluids for dehydration, and IV antibiotics for as suspected urinary tract infection, and had a spinal tap, protocol to eliminate meningitis. Now it was time to intentionally remember. Even with some specifics, much was unknown, and generating all sorts of fearful imaginations. It was time to remember what was known; time to remember that in the midst of the unknown that in the midst of deep-deep fear you are never alone. It was time to remember that I, that we, that Michelle and Russell that Lilly Grace are beloved of God. As of Friday evening Lilly Grace was eating, and peeing and pooping. As of Saturday noon, her culture was still clear and a plan for discharge was formulating. As of this morning, they are home. It is still time to remember and give thanks for all the support and prayers; time to remember the once and future dreams of Sunday past, as fragile as they may seem. It is time remember.
This morning’s reading from Exodus, falls neatly into two parts: the making of an idol, and divine repentance. Both are stories of remembering, or not.
Last week, we heard the delivery of the Ten Commandments, and we left Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai as Moses goes to God’s presence for them, because they were so afraid of the thunder and lightning of the divine presence. In the intervening chapters, we read about all sort of laws and the divine instructions for: the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, the table for the bread of the Presence, lamp-stands, curtains, hangings, the bronze basin, additional lamps and oil. We read about priestly vestments: the Ephod, Breastplate, etc. We read about liturgy: ordination, daily offerings, incense, and so on. We read about a half shekel offering for ransom. Finally, we read about the calling of Bezalel and Ohiliab who are to use their skills to craft all God has given to Moses. There is a lot here. And all of it is given to Moses so Israel will remember that God is in their presence. Which sounds kind of odd, because one would think the pillar of cloud and fire, the crossing at the sea, sweet water, manna and dove and more water from the rock at Horeb would be easy to remember. You’d think they’d remember that Moses is on the mountain alone because Israel is terrified of being too close to God. Apparently not, after 40 days, that would be all the way back to September 2, the day after Labor Day, (Hoezee) Israel decides to take their future into their own hands.
So, they go to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and second in command, and ask him to “make gods for us, to go before us, because we don’t know what’s happened to Moses.” Aaron tells them to give him the gold they got from the Egyptians, as they were being freed from slavery. (Fretheim 2972) He carves an image of a bull-calf, a symbol of Canaanite fertility, and an effort to control one’s existence, (Brueggemann 5765) and casts the molten gold around it. Then he proclaims “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Yahweh.” (Strong’s Hebrew, 3068) So, yes, recognizing other gods is a violation of the recently received commandments, and so is making an idol, but Aaron still recognizes that Yahweh is God; why else proclaim a festival to Yahweh. What is he doing? The phrase “to go before” is used only to refer to divine messengers, so maybe Israel isn’t looking for another god, but a divine messenger. (Fretheim 2973)
Perhaps Aaron is trying to split the difference, trying to please the people, and at the same time keep the covenant. (Hoezee) It’s sadly ironic because what Israel and Aaron are trying to do is exactly what God is showing Moses how to faithfully do. (Brueggemann 5767) Still, Israel is disloyal by confusing a divine messenger with God and giving primary importance to the messenger. (Fretheim 2977) And to push their action over the top they rise up in revelry, a self-centered celebration, abrogating an earlier God centered celebration at the forming of the covenant. (Ex 24:10) (Brueggemann 5768) Thus ends the first of this morning’s stories of remembrance; this one all about not remembering, or self-centered warped memories, either way God is forgotten.
Suddenly we are on the top of the mountain with Moses and God. God tells Moses “Look at what your people are doing! They are a stiffed necked people. Leave me alone, I’ll consume them and make a great nation of you.” I know this this conversation; more than once I have said to Angie “Look at what Your daughter did!” She would have none of it, ~ neither would Moses. The next thing to notice is that this is a court room drama. God has file a lawsuit accusing Israel of violating the covenant, and the consequence is to nullify the covenant; (Brueggemann 5769) which is far worse than annihilation it is removal from God’s presence, exclusion from God’s care and concern. (Fretheim 2982)
Moses rebuts God’s command. He will not leave God alone. First he asks “What sense does this make, you only just saved them from slavery?” Then he asks “What will Egypt think of you?” (Fretheim 2987) Then he reverses God’s opening complaint “Remember your people, Abraham, Isaac and Israel whom you promised …” Reminding God of God’s unconditional promise, made to Abraham way back in Genesis 15, (Brueggemann 5772) raises the importance of God being true to God’s self. (Fretheim 2988) Although nothing has gone as it should have; nothing is like it’s supposed to be; God hears Moses “Remember.” and repents (Young’s) of the divine intent. Consequently, the very people who forgot are saved, when by Moses’ prompt, God remembers. (Hoezee)
From here on remembrance is central to the continuing story of God and God’s people. Till the end of Deuteronomy we continually hear “O Israel remember and do not forget.” In the coming of the Divine son we hear “Remember.” In the celebration of the Eucharist we hear “Remember.” At every baptism we hear “Remember.” (Hoezee) At the edge of every grave we hear “Remember.”
Everyone at one time or another forgets that God is God and we are not. It causes us and others all sorts of difficulties. Sometimes some of us remember and balance is restored. But always God remembers so the way to God’s eternal care and concern is forever available.
Brueggemann, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abingdon Press, 2003.
Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.
Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 32:1-14. 12 10 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php>.
Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.
Young’s Literal Translation. Olive Tree, n.d.