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Sermon for October 9, 2016

Anna V Copeland, Preaching

Based on Exodus 32:1-14:New Revised Standard Version

32 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, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold,[a] and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

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. 10 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.”

11 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? 12 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. 13 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.’” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Fake Gods

         Sometimes sermons can get complicated. We preachers rightly get accused of taking simple messages and making them obscure. I asked a colleague about this one time after listening to a sermon that seemed like a no-brainer. He said, “I always put the cookies on the lowest shelf so everyone can reach them.”

         Perhaps I have greater confidence in you than he did in his congregation. Nevertheless, we can all find the cookies this week on the lowest shelf, thanks our on-going political drama.

         The role of the church is to bring good news to God’s people, and to invite people into a relationship with God as followers of the Way of Christ. We come to church to explore how to live faithfully to God and to love one another as God has loved us. We come to church to invite the lonely, the lost, the alienated, the depressed, the wounded and the hungry to feast at the table of justice and mercy that serves all people and brings us joy.

What political news did for us this week was far more important than anything that may have been said or done by anyone in particular. We were reminded of what can happen when we reach for things that cannot satisfy us. This temptation isn’t just about those who are running for political office. It’s about all of us.

Politics may seem to be about things of the world. But the human heart belongs to God. The story we heard from Exodus today brings up the hidden dirt on human temptation to settle for temporary, fleeting momentary pleasure when God promises us abundant life. God gives us the opportunity to learn from what happened and to stop what we’re doing. God wants more for us than this.

In case you’ve been away or are visiting with us today for the first time, this week’s chapter tells what happened when Moses left town for study leave. The people grew impatient. They wondered aloud when and if he was coming back. The Ten Commandments that had been given to them were still pretty new and the people weren’t entirely sure what they were supposed to do with this new way of being. It hadn’t been tested yet.

They grew anxious, or bored, or both. Whenever there’s a gap in leadership we have a tendency to try to fill it. We’re uncomfortable waiting. Just give any group of eight-year-old kids an afternoon in the backyard with a box of matches and they’ll find something interesting to do with them. On just such a day as this, our music director Wendell set fire to the woods behind his house.

You may not recall what you did as a kid, but if I had had five minutes alone in a room with your mother as I did with Wendell’s, she’d tell me.

         The people whose story we read in scripture today, did what lots of people do when they feel helpless and hopeless about their future. They did what lots of people do when they get scared that they won’t have enough of what they need or that someone will take away what they do have. They did what lots people do who have too little vision of how life can be better.

        They forgot about God and took matters into their own hands. While Moses was away on the mountain seeking God’s guidance for their future, they settled for false Gods. They had a party. In the absence of direction, they melted down all their jewelry and made a golden calf, the ancient sign of fertility. They ate too much and got really drunk and had a sex orgy. Yes, that’s right there in the Bible. They partied day and night until Moses got word of it and came back early from sabbatical. God was ticked. God told Moses to get out of the way. God intended a radical do-over. But Moses pleaded for the people. Moses persuaded God to give them a second chance, and God did.

         So what could have happened here? This is a community of people who have utterly forgotten who they are and to whom they belong. Their behavior doesn’t remotely match their faith. No one would look at them and mistake them for God’s beloved people, nor would anyone see a path out of hopelessness through trust in their God.

We can’t help but wonder how that can that be? They’ve been led from slavery to freedom, led from the suffering of their previous life. They’ve escaped death by the skin of their teeth. The things that kept them literally bound up earlier in their experiences are now behind them. The God they loved and worshipped back in Egypt raised up a leader who was one of them. Born to Hebrew parents but raised as an adoptive son in the privilege of Pharaoh’s home, Moses alone was in a unique position to lead them.

God through Moses brought them to new life and guided them on how to live with their newly gifted freedom. God gave them water in the desert and manna in the wilderness and the Ten Commandments. At every turn, when they were lost or wounded or hungry God saw them through. Watching a whole community chosen by God now forget who they are and to whom they belong is stunning. Their centuries old faith unravels from devotion to the God who gave them life to worship of false gods in a matter of years.

We get how fast the world can change. The world we live in today bears little resemblance to the world of our grandparents or even our parents. It’s tempting to reach for the cookies on the bottom shelf today and talk about the false gods we’ve created for ourselves in just one generation. It would be easy to issue a warning this morning about the risk of becoming too attached to the toys of our time:  our cell phones, our lap tops, social media, binge watching Longmire or House of Cards, none of which was available to any other generation at any other time in human history. That may be low hanging fruit and we could all reach for it and all nod our heads in agreement that being addicted to such things of the world can’t ultimately satisfy us any more than worshipping a golden calf could make the Hebrew people happy. Fortunately God wants more for us than this. God lifts us up this morning so that we can reach the more life giving nourishment available to us on the top shelf. That’s good news.

         This story of Exodus sends a warning shot over the bow of our ship. Pay attention, it says. It raises the warning flag of high wind and a swift rip tide that will steal your life away. Much like the warning issued by the governor of Florida this weekend to evacuate. There’s a great storm brewing that will kill you. Get out of the way. The writer who chronicled the exodus of God’s people from slavery to freedom issues a warning of the clear and present danger of misusing God’s good gifts.

The big three temptations of our time are not cell phone, television and laptop but money, sex and power. The theologian and Christian writer who has most impacted my personal faith and our thinking about this is Richard Foster who wrote extensively about this in “The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money Sex and Power.” A Christian and a Quaker, he wrote decades ago that when properly placed and effectively functioning within the life of the faithful, money, sex and power have enormous ability to bring goodness into human life. However, the misuse of these gifts can lead to our greatest sorrow and suffering.

He wrote, “The demon in money is greed. Nothing can destroy human beings like the passion to possess.

The demon in sex is lust.” Healthy sexuality leads to greater humanness and deeper intimacy with those we love, but lust leads to de-personalization. Lust sees the other as object to be possessed or conquested for personal gain. It captivates rather than emancipates, devours rather than nourishes.

“The demon in power is pride. True power has as its aim to set people free, whereas pride is determined to dominate. True power enhances relationships; pride destroys them.”

Missing the mark isn’t hard to do. “We may take money and use it to help people, but if it has within it the demon seed of greed, we will put people in our debt in ruinous ways...That’s why the apostle Paul said in the famous love chapter of Corinthians 13 that we can give away everything we have but if we lack love, we gain nothing.

We can miss the mark with our sexuality. What looks like an angel of light can imprison us. Love and lust get all mixed up. Most of what we see in public print and film has little to do with love and everything to do with lust. When the important thing is possession of the thing itself or of a person rather that the well being of the other, then we’re talking about lust. Lust dehumanizes and uses for personal gain. People become things to acquire, prizes to win, objects to control. “My wife”, “my husband”, my mistress, that man becomes my toy.

Power can be used for our Common Cause, to bring goods and services to those who need it, and to make our world a better place. But when the demonic force of pride sits in the driver’s seat, the end result will be manipulation, domination, and tyranny. Abuse of power leads to narcissism and what we call egomania. The hunger for more becomes insatiable. No matter who is hurt or what gets in the way.

Men, you’ve been in the locker room or out on the boat. You know what some men say about women. Women, you know somebody who has used social media to place him or her in a more positive light or to slander somebody else because it makes them look better. We’re all in an uproar about our current political situation not because we think a particular person is evil, although you may, but because what they say isn’t news.

Let me tell you a personal story. Thirty-five years ago I nearly completed my Ph.D. but I quit the program after taking my oral exams before I finished writing my dissertation. Some of the professors in my department thought it a shame that I dropped out so close to finishing, but they attributed it to the fact that I was a new mom with a baby and a preschooler at home. I was indeed a new mother for the second time, but their story of why I quit wasn’t true.

What I didn’t know how to say then was that the well respected, and well tenured academic dean of the graduate program tried to grope me every time I came into his office to consult on my work. He was on my doctoral committee, and I couldn’t complete my research without his signing off on it. He was my boss and I couldn’t pay my rent unless he signed my paycheck as a graduate assistant. He was my boss but I couldn’t complete my work without relenting to his advances, which I was unwilling to do. Back in the day I did what women did. I quietly quit. It took me another twenty years and another $20,000 at another graduate school in another state to start over and finally complete the degree. His abuse of money, sex and power changed my life and my career. It took a really long time for me to able to say out lout, “That wasn’t ok.” It shouldn’t have happened to me. It shouldn’t happen to you. God wants more for all of us than this.

Our tendency as people to misuse God’s good gifts of money, sex and power have been more consistently front-page news than at any other time in recent memory. How we misuse our power to hurt and divide one another around issues of race, gender, ethnic origin and religion, from Aleppo to Alabama has perhaps never been more pressing.

Every morning in our home we wake up to “Your World in 90 Seconds” on television, and we listen to clips of comedians from the previous night when most of us with day jobs have already gone to bed. One particularly telling clip from an African American comedian said this. “It's the ultimate sign of white privilege when a Samsung Galaxy phone explodes and catches fire on a plane in the pocket of a white male passenger and instead of throwing him to the ground and assuming he’s a terrorist, we shout, “O my God, are you alright?”

What I’m going to say next may shock you. I’m grateful for this week’s news. In light of our tendency as human creatures to misuse God’s good gifts, I’m grateful that what a political candidate said on a bus more than a decade ago has come to light. Not because of how it may or may not impact an election, but because of what it says about the temptations we all face and the choices we all make in the light of them.

I’m grateful this week that smart, respectable men and women have stood up and said publicly: “No, it’s not alright to objectify people, or to treat people as objects for personal gain just because we can. It will kill our spirit, it will damage our relationships, and it will thwart our capacity to do good work for God’s sake for all people. There’s great hope in bringing such things to light.

All God’s people deserve better than this. God wants more for us than this, abundant life freely given for everyone.

The Hebrew people misused God’s gifts. They misused their freedom, they misused their money (melting their gold to worship a false God, they misused the power of freedom, taking it as license to whatever pleased them in the moment, they misused their sexuality taking God’s good gift as license to use one another for personal pleasure without regard for their highest good. It’s tempting for all of us to misuse God’s good gifts: The greater the power, the greater the temptation.

This is how we will forever remember the legacy of these freed Hebrew people. There is no erasing their mark of infidelity on human history. We cannot help but ask. How will OUR generation be remembered a thousand years from now? Will we be remembered as the generation that abused money allowing bankers and brokers to steal from their employees and investors and walk away richer for their crimes? Will we be remembered as the generation who abused one another sexually and killed one another racially and discriminated against one another religiously to death? Will we be remembered as the generation that ignored the suffering cries of God’s people while the world flooded or burned?

God is giving us yet another chance to get this right. God once more invites us to a life of faithfulness in God’s way, God’s truth and God’s light. As God gave the Hebrew people a do-over, God will give us a second chance. How will we respond?