How Quickly We Forget

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Sunday, October 9, 2011 - Proper 23 (Exodus 32:1-14) 

How quickly we forget. How quickly we grow impatient, or are distracted by what’s right in front of us. “So Moses went down to the people and told them.  Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”[i]  This is the beginning of a set of injunctions which Moses brings down to the people from God; we have come to know these injunctions as the Ten Commandments.  The people’s response to these commands, delivered amidst “thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking,” was, quite understandably, fear and trembling.  They ask Moses to be God’s spokesperson, to not let God speak to them directly.[ii]  They appoint him as their representative or intermediary.  When Moses finishes delivering God’s words to the people, “all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.”[iii

A short time later, God summons Moses to the mountain so that God might give to Moses all the laws and commandments written on tablets of stone.  Moses tells the people, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”  While Moses is on the mountain, Scripture tells us that “the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. . . . [and] Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.”[iv] 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . “the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain.”  And in no time at all, the law is forgotten, the promises ignored, and the people ask Aaron to “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.”[v]  Aaron replies to the people, “Don’t be ridiculous, he’ll be back in no time and, in the meantime, we are here, together, safe – no longer slaves in Egypt, no longer under Pharaoh’s rule.  You say that you do not know what has become of Moses.  Really? But just look over at the mountain? See how it glows with fire in our sight?  Moses is there talking with our God, the God who has delivered us from slavery.”  And with those few words, how the story might have been different.  Because, while the people are losing patience at the foot of the mountain, God is sharing with Moses the ways in which the people might worship rightly, providing detailed instructions for the building of the tabernacle and its furnishings, the altar and the court, even outlining the way in which the priests should dress and behave, declaring that Moses should “bring Aaron, and his sons . . . to serve [God] as priests.”[vi]  All of this attention to the details, instructions for keeping the Sabbath, lovingly provided by God, “given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.”[vii]  O, how the story could have been different if Aaron had simply said, “no” to the impatient Israelites.

But Aaron doesn’t say “no”; instead, he immediately tells the people, to give him all of their gold that he might melt it down and cast it into an image of a calf.  Looking upon the golden calf, the people say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” and Aaron responds by building an altar before it and announces that the next day “shall be a festival to the LORD.”[viii]  In the background, I imagine the fiery glow of the mountain burning brighter – now hot with God’s rage.  How quickly we forget. How quickly we grow impatient, or are distracted by what’s right in front of us.  

This week, America lost two giants.   Most of us have heard more about one than the other in the past several days.  NBC affiliates around the globe began their reports of the death of 56 year old Steve Jobs with this epitaph: “visionary, rule-breaker, creative genius.”[ix]  Steve Jobs changed the way we think, the way we work, and yes, even the way many of us play.  May he rest in peace.

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
Receiving far less press – likely due to the unfortunate coincidence of dying on the same day as Jobs – was the death of The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.  Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to Shuttlesworth as “one of the nation's most courageous freedom fighters ... a wiry, energetic and indomitable man.”[x]  In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered last Wednesday, Georgia Representative John Lewis said, “Fred Shuttlesworth had the vision, the determination never to give up, never to give in.  He led an unbelievable children's crusade. It was the children who faced dogs, fire hoses, police billy clubs that moved and shook the nation."  After the NAACP was outlawed by an Alabama judge, Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and later, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  “A 1961 CBS documentary called Shuttlesworth the ‘man most feared by Southern racists.’” He was repeatedly jailed – 30 or 40 times by his own account. His home and church were bombed. But he did not back down.  Shuttlesworth once said, “The Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.” [xi]  Visionary, rule-breaker, creative genius.  The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. May he rest in peace.

Recently, a Stephen Colbert quote about the state of America has been making the rounds on Facebook.  Turns out Colbert made the comment last December. He said:
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”[xii]
You and I might argue whether or not our nation is called to be a Christian nation, but sitting here inside St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on a Sunday morning – our Sabbath day, it is difficult to argue whether or not we are called to be Christians.   And, as a Christian, I take his words to heart; and I hope you do as well.

God was pretty clear in his message to Moses and Moses was quite clear in conveying that message to the people before he went back up the mountain.  “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”[xiii]  Either the Israelites have to pretend that God was just kidding or they’ve got to acknowledge that God did, indeed, want to be in relation with them, but that, at the end of the day, they just didn’t want to be in relation with God.

How quickly we forget. How quickly we grow impatient, or are distracted by what’s right in front of us.  How quickly we become just like those Israelites waiting at the foot of the mountain.  They have experienced miracle after miracle. They have been given deliverance and freedom. They have received so much.  And now they want something more and they want it now. Most of us are not much different. We have an odd idiom in our culture for someone who is extremely successful in the marketplace – we say they have “made a killing.”  One commentary suggests that “those who devote themselves single-mindedly to ‘making a living’ so that they might ‘make a killing’ may someday have to face an ugly truth. Instead of making a living they have been ‘making a dying.’” [xiv]  We are quick to forget that all that we have comes from God – even the gold rings the Israelites handed over to Aaron were part of the booty gathered from Egypt as they fled; were it not for God’s saving act, they would not even have the gold in the first place! 
“What should have remained pretty gold rings giving some adornment and enjoyment to life has instead become a philosophy of existence governing our relationship with others. Like the Hebrews we want to be entertained by idols that we create, instead of being engaged by a God who demands that we be in a committed, covenanted relationship with the divine and the human.”[xv]

Earlier this week, I was speaking to a parishioner about plans for our celebration of All Saints’ Day next month.  In the course of the conversation she reminded me of the wonderfully, fun song in the 1982 Hymnal “I sing a song of the saints of God.” You can find it at number 293:
I sing a song of the saints of God, 
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died 

for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, 

and one was a shepherdess on the green:
they were all of them saints of God 

and I mean, God helping, to be one too.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, 
and his love made them strong.;
and they followed the right, for Jesus’ sake, 

the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, 

and one was slain by a fierce wild beast:
and there’s not any reason no, not the least, 

why I shouldn’t be one too.

They lived not only in ages past, 

there are hundreds of thousands still,
the world is bright with the joyous saints 

who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, 

in church, or in trains, or in ships, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folks like me, 

and I mean to be one too.
It is, as I mentioned, a wonderfully fun song, but it is also a deadly serious song.  “There’s not any reason no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.”

How quickly we forget.  How quickly we grow impatient.  How quickly we are distracted by what’s right in front of us.  I pray that the life and ministry of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth – visionary, rule-breaker, and creative genius – might cause us to pause and reflect upon our own life and ministry, to take stock of what is right in front of us and decide whether we will make our living worshipping idols of our own making or whether we will instead make our living in covenanted relationship with our God and with one another.  For there’s not any reason; no, not the least, why we shouldn’t toil and fight and live and die for the Lord we love and know.

[i] Exodus 19:25-20:1-5a.
[ii] Exodus 20:18-19.
[iii] Exodus 24:3b.
[iv] Exodus 24:12, 14, 17, 18b.
[v] Exodus 32:1.
[vi] Exodus 28:1.
[vii] Exodus 31:13.
[viii] Exodus 32:2-5.
[ix] See SBS NBC article accessed online October 6, 2011 and video clip of CNBC’ John Fort on “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” aired on MSNBC on October 5, 2011 accessed oneline on October 6, 2011.
[x] Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 52.
[xi] The information on The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is taken from Debbie Elliott, "Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies," All Things Considered (National Public Radio, October 5, 2011) accessed online on October 6, 2011.
[xii] Quoted by David Niewert, “Colbert Follows O’Reilly’s Logic: ‘We’ve got to pretend Jesus was just as selfish as we are,’” David Niewert’s Blog on Crooks and Liars, December 20, 2010 accessed online on October 6, 2011.
[xiii] Exodus 19:25-20:1-5a.
[xiv]Are You Making a Living or Making a Dying?HomileticsOnLine (October 10, 1993), accessed online on October 4, 2011.
[xv] “Are You Making a Living or Making a Dying?”