Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lessons in Human Frailty: A Sermon on Genesis 32:1-14

The scripture can be found here...

Couldn't find out where this image originated. Looks old though.

I did a little crowd-sourcing this week, by which I mean, I asked other people for help. “Let’s make a list,” I said. “Golden calves we have known and loved. Go!” And these are the things offered by the good people of Facebook.

“Our own preferred political candidates.” “Keeping up with the Joneses.” “Our children.” “The Protestant work ethic.” “Our obsession with the Kardashians, the idolatry of the superficial.” “Celebrities.”

“Vanity.” “Wanting to look or be perfect.” “Thinking we have to be like Martha Stewart.” “Being considered really good at my job.”

“My phone.” “Text messaging.” “My sewing machine.”

“A certain number on the scale.” “Acceptance.” “Money.” “My 401K or 403 B, retirement accounts.”  “Shoes.” “The latest glossy promise of a magazine! Lose 20 lbs by Memorial Day! Unclutter your home! 15 pages of Chocolate Decadence!” “Books!” “Fabric.”

“The church building, complete with the Advent wreath someone's Great Aunt Millie gave!” “The Church building as you say goodbye.”

“A particular church program; a set of hymns, music or liturgy; other people's opinions.”

If you hadn’t heard my introduction, I’m guessing it might not be the easiest thing to tie all these disparate things together. But what my friends were saying was this: These are the things that get in the way. They get in the way of our being the people we want to be in our lives.

In our passage from Exodus this morning, we hear a story that, in many ways, is about almost getting it right. The people, whom God rescued from slavery in last week’s passage, have been wandering in the wilderness for some time now, about four months, and they have endured… well, life in the wilderness without a dependable supply of food and water, for one thing. Division in the ranks. Grumbling.

But they have also been the recipients of a covenant, which is to say, an agreement, every bit as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the one given to Abraham and Sarah way back near the beginning of the story.

In chapter 19, after the crisis of food has been managed by the sending of bread from heaven, and the crisis of water has been dealt with by bringing forth of water from a rock, God says the following to Moses:

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:3b-6).

And the people, gathered together and offered this arrangement, say, Yes! “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And then Moses brings the people to Mount Sinai, in the midst of a pretty spectacular display of thunder and lightning and thick smoke, and Moses receives the covenant from God.

Now, the covenant consists of the Ten Commandments, followed by God’s commentary, and interpretation, and instructions on worship and creating an appropriate worship space. And then an invitation from God to Moses for what comes as close to a face-to-face meeting as you could get with God at that point. In Exodus 24, Moses disappears into the cloud on Mount Sinai, to receive more instructions in a more intimate setting. He disappears for forty days and forty nights.

It’s this last part that ends up being the cause of a lot of anxiety. Now, in addition to the other hardships of wilderness wandering, the people have to cope with life without their designated leader. Our passage finds them as they have decided how to cope with this situation. They gather around Moses’ brother, Aaron, and make their demand:

Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1b).

A translation issue comes up in this sentence. There are several different words used for “God” and “Lord” in the Old Testament. One of them is elohim. Interestingly, elohim is a plural word, and sometimes it is translated “gods,” and sometimes “God,” based on contextual clues. So, the people might very well have been saying, “Make God for us,” in other words, “Make this invisible God visible to us!” And here is what I mean by coming so close, and yet missing the mark. They almost have it right. God has been giving instructions for creating a worship space, and that will include taking an offering. A far-flung colleague in ministry put it this way: “They took their offerings to the Lord and instead of building a house for God, they worshipped the offerings themselves.”

So close.

And if you look at our 2012 list of Golden Calves, in a lot of ways, I think you will see that the things that get in the way of our being the people we want to be are a lot like that. Things that seem designed to serve the purpose of connecting—to God, to one another, even to ourselves—they become barriers to that exact longed-for connection. On our list you will see things like cell phones and texting that are supposed to keep us connected to those we love—only they end up becoming distractions that actually alienate us from one another. You will see things that are about taking care of one another—like retirement funds and college funds, even sewing machines—but which end up stealing energy and focus from our real relationships instead of enhancing them. You will see things that are about taking care of our precious, God-given bodies—miracles of creation!—but which, instead, end up making us so full of self-criticism and contempt that we become alienated from ourselves. You will even see things (many of them, shared by other pastors, in other churches) that seem to be all about our worship of God—our beautiful church buildings and the hymns we love and the programs we treasure—which, in the cruelest twist of all, become, not pathways to God, but ends in themselves, to be preserved at all costs, even the cost of division and despair.

We come so close. And we miss the mark. We forget. But, thanks be to God, we have opportunities to remember again.

The Lord’s Supper is one of those opportunities. Each time we gather around this communion table, we remember, together. We remind one another. We remind ourselves. That the Lord our God hates slavery, whether in ancient Egypt or modern day USA. That God, our great, ever-creating God, continues to create us to be free—yes, even free from our cell phones and online addictions—and to live within the blessedness of covenant community, with real (not virtual) people.  That God, in Jesus, came to be with us—that celebrations and festivities around a table are good, provided we don’t forget who is the Founder of the feast.

So today, I ask us to look at our own particular Golden Calves, those attachments, that get in the way of real relationship, real worship, real communion with God and with one another. I ask us to wonder together how we can let go of the things that distract and divide, and embrace, instead, one another. I ask us to pray together for the honesty of heart to know how best to serve together the one who seeks to serve us at this table. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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