Part of me appreciates the peoples’ honesty.
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, “the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses…we do not know what has become of him.’” Moses had been gone a while, so they turned to his number two man: Aaron, make gods for us, we’ll worship something else.
At least the Israelites name it. Too often, we don’t.
We don’t say, “I’m going to quit the church and start worshipping my porch and the New York Times, the entire glorious paper, ALL morning. I want to do something on Sundays that is a little more relaxing and doesn’t ask me to do anything.”
We certainly don’t say, “I go to church, but my life demonstrates I worship other things, the things we have, our great educations, stellar resumes.”
We are caught. We want to – I do, I am sure you do – we are here because we find something compelling about Jesus and we want to follow him. But we get stuck. We get overwhelmed. We lose our nerve, and the world comes creeping in…
We’ve been in Exodus for a couple of weeks. After the dramatic escape from Egypt, the people complain of hunger, and God provides manna. Of thirst, and God tells Moses to go out ahead and trust, and water sprang from a rock. By chapter 19 we’re at the foot of Mount Sinai, and in chapter 20, last week, God offers the Ten Commandments, to teach the people how to live together. We have a couple of chapters of legal material. God invites Moses up the mountain in 24:15, and for six days he waits. On the seventh day, God begins to speak, for 40 days and 40 nights (24:18). In 31:18, right before today’s text, God gives Moses those two stone tablets with the Commandments written on them. It is a HUGE moment. But in the waiting below, the people got anxious, and when you’re anxious you tell different stories. Not of manna and water and provision. That there’s not enough. That it’s up to you. That anything someone else gets – someone who may not deserve it, we think – means we get less.
Aaron, stuck in charge – but without the relationship with God that Moses has – has to make a call. I both blame him and don’t at the same time. Aaron is a functionary, a conveyance for their fear. He has them bring their gold, melts it down, cast it in an image of a calf, and the people say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Aaron builds an altar and proclaims, “tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”
Which gets us back to us. Most of the time with our idols, our golden calves, we are more subtle. A good bit of the time I don’t think we do it on purpose – there’s this kind of mission creep that occurs. We don’t say, “I worship the new addition I’m building on our house.” It just consumes our time and money and what we talk about and what we pay attention to. We don’t say, “I measure my value and worth by my resume and how much money I make.” But much of our society sends us that message, and we have a hard time arguing back. We don’t say, “my time, my money, my stuff, the way I look, my health.” We don’t take all those things – our resumes and our workout clothes and our diplomas and pile of academic journals and awards our kids have won or should have won – we don’t take them all and melt them all down and make a calf that we set out like a concrete lawn ornament on our front yard.
But we do worship these things. Maybe slightly differently said, we spend much more of our time worrying about those things than the things God might be calling us to do. We work hard to have pretty nice stuff. You’d better believe we notice what folks around us have, how we measure up in all sorts of ways. We’re so quick to size up those around us. That stuff consumes us, whether we admit it or not. We agonize about whether our kids are keeping up. We worry like heck what others think. About who we want to be, or who we wish we would have been, could have been. What we’re sure is right. We take all these things, all these worries, all these anxieties about our lives and about the world, and we slide those right into the place God ought to be, in the very center of our lives. AND, I know this from experience, IT IS EXHAUSTING.
Which makes me want to say two things to you, and they go together, so wait for me to say both before you get upset about the first.
- We spend a massive amount of time worrying about things that DO NOT MATTER. As we say in our house when I find myself complaining about the lawn, or a light fixture: “First world problems.” There are hard things in this world, hunger and disease, violence and cruelty, people in our nation and around the world who are desperately poor, wildfires, sexual assault scandals, and heinous abuses of power. We glimpse it when people we love are diagnosed with cancer or depression, when the marriage falls apart. THOSE are the things worth worrying about. Worth praying over. Worth working on with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. But most of the stuff we worry about. Take a minute and think about it. How much of that matters in the context of the kingdom of God? Traffic. Being late. Something annoying a neighbor or coworker did. What others think. A misunderstanding months ago. A good chunk of the financial stuff we worry about. Those things do not matter. They do not. We have to leave them behind. Communities as privileged as ours, with as much as we can do if we work together, MUST leave those things behind.
- Right as you hear – and we really need to hear – that we are worshipping the wrong things, I also need you to hear that FOR GOD, YOU ARE ENOUGH. Just as you are. With your gifts and the things you mess up. When you do well and when you do poorly. Don’t go down a hole beating yourself up because that doesn’t help anyone either. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. For ALL. And for you. I need you to believe that.
There is a magnificent antidote for all this: generosity. Really. Giving, being generous, opening your hands and opening your spirit and opening your hearts to the world makes all the difference. I promise you. You look at the world differently when you are moving toward it and other people, looking to greet it, to help be a part of what’s happening around than when you are backing away from it and other people. Backing up, unsure. Being generous connects you to others here and far away doing important, faithful work. A posture of generosity from all of us is essential for making this church be what it is. Nothing happened here in the past without the gifts of those faithful who have gone before us. Nothing happens now and for the future without you. And when we throw it all in a pile – not pulling strings, not saying, I give for this, you give for that, my gift is more important than yours – but when we share and work together, I promise you it changes your heart. You get more fully invested in all sorts of ways. You learn you don’t need as much as you thought you did. That God gives you enough. You heard Luke and Amy say it but I will again – the biblical model is that of the tithe, ten percent. I’ll tell you that all three of your pastors commit to tithe. Not because we are more faithful, but because we believe that is at the heart of what discipleship means. And that we believe, deeply, in the mission and ministry of this place. Thinking about what percentage of your income you give to the church, and to other places doing great work, is at the heart of discipleship. Our consultant has said in a couple of settings that most Presbyterians give 2% of their income away, 1% to the church. And pre-tax or post-tax wrangling is missing the point – however you choose to calculate is fine. Imagine what we could do if we all took the next step? Imagine what we could do here. Imagine even more what God might do within you.
We’re going to keep messing it up. At the end of the text God was so angry that God sent Moses down with a promise – I’m going to take ‘em all out. I’ll start over with you. Yet Moses, and this is beautiful, reminded God of another promise. We’ve been through some things together. You brought those people out, with great power, a mighty hand. TURN, Moses says. DO NOT BRING disaster on YOUR people. Moses points to the story of Abraham, of Isaac, of Israel – of the stories God told those women and men of who they would be, together. It is that remembering of the story that ultimately leads to God changing God’s own mind, about the disaster, the texts says, he planned to bring on his people. GOD’S people.
And they were freed to begin again, in love. And so are we. Might we be generous. Together. All praise be to God. Amen.
 Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster, 1974). Childs calls this section the Legal Corpus.
 I went back and read all the way from Exodus 14, when they cross the Red Sea. The sense of the timing of all this is interesting – the 430 years, then third month/50 days, 40 days.