Exodus 32:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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, 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. 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.” 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? 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. 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.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Let us pray: “Holy God, hold us close and bring us back when our wandering take us far from you. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
When I was a kid, my brother, sister and I would spend summers in Alaska with my father and stepmother. One of the highlights of the summer was a canoe trip through the Swan Lakes, a wildlife refuge which is located southeast of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. In the Swan Lakes, one can canoe for days from lake to lake through connecting streams in some of the most pristine wilderness imaginable.
On these summer canoe trips, there would come a time, when I would tire of the dip, dip dipping of paddling. I’d put down my paddle and crawl into the middle of the canoe, and I’d pass the time gazing down into the waters as they slid silently by.
The waters, particularly in the streams connecting the lakes, was never more than a few feet deep and crystal clean. Look down and you could see everything: frogs darting; clams breathing little air bubbles up to the surface; lily pads hosting a myriad of insect on their green platforms.
And of course there were trout. Rainbow trout. Big beautiful, iridescent trout. Lots of them resting in the deep with tails slowly swishing.
We were there for fishing and so after a while I’d slip a line into the water and the effect was almost immediate. The trout darted out from their resting places drawn by the dancing golden glint of the lure until one would inevitably bite! I remember thinking “Stupid fish, how can you be taken in by a bit of glitter? Can’t you see, it’s nothing more than death in disguise?”
“How can they be taken in by a bit of golden glitter? Can’t they see it is nothing more than death in disguise?” These could very well have been the same questions on Moses’ mind in this morning’s text as he looks down into the valley and sees the people darting off after the image of the golden calf. How can they be so easily taken in? After all, these are the same people who had just gone through the amazing experience of being delivered from slavery to Pharaoh into new life with God. These were Exodus people who had crossed through the Red Sea onto new solid ground and who were learning what it was to follow God through the wilderness, to be led by the promise of God, to trust and to dwell in the flow of God’s love and grace. And now this?
In reading this passage from Exodus this morning, I wanted to locate myself up there, alongside Moses, high up on that mountain top. I wanted to locate myself out of the fray, firm in my faith, looking down in judgment on the misguided people.
I wanted to be stand up there alongside Moses, but in truth, I wasn’t. Instead, if I were to be really honest, I knew I would have to locate myself down there with the people. Down there in the fray, getting all caught up with that golden calf, getting all caught up with the allure of it all.
We too are an Exodus people. We too live on the far side of deliverance having been set free by the love of God made manifest in Jesus. We have been commissioned to follow in that way of love, trusting in a God that goes before us, sustaining us in all things.
But how often have we found ourselves shaking our heads wondering “How in the world could I have been taken in by a bit of glitter? Why couldn’t I have seen it was nothing more than death in disguise?” How often have we found ourselves getting all caught up in something, giving it all our energy and time and worry only to realize in the end that it was not what we had made it out to be. Perhaps it was a job that demanded everything of us leaving us spent and angry. Or maybe it was a relationship that took way more than it gave. Or maybe it was something inside of us, a voice of shame telling us we are not enough and will never measure up and so we spend our lives working ourselves to the bone trying to prove that voice wrong.
How often have we distracted ourselves from our own interior wilderness, from our own loneliness and fears by turning a judging eye on our neighbor getting ourselves all caught up in what they are not doing right. Or by finding ways to simply numb ourselves with our drug of choice whether that be alcohol or internet or endless episodes on Netflix.
Haven’t we all gotten side tracked, caught up, ensnared in something that turned out to be not life giving at all?
My spiritual director said to me once, the Tempter never shows up with a pointy tail and a pitch fork, for then it would be easy to see evil for what it was. Instead, the tempter tends to show up in the guise of what on the surface seems rather reasonable and helpful even.
Yes, we may want to locate ourselves up on that mountain top, enjoying clarity of vision and firmness of faith with Moses, but if we are honest with ourselves we are often down in the valley getting all caught up and making a mess of things.
So how does it happen? How did the people in our text this morning, those mighty Exodus people, newly freed from Pharaoh, get into such a mess? What led them away from God and towards the glittering distractions of their own making? What leads us perhaps to do the same?
It think it was fear. The people were afraid. They felt vulnerable there in the wilderness. Moses, who had been in control of things goes up the mountain and does not seem to be coming back. And they do not know what to do.
We can want to judge them, or Aaron in particular for coming up with the calf idea seems to be his, but in, in truth, it was a really brilliant move. Because if not for the calf, there could have been a real riot on his hands. At least the image of the calf gave the people something to hold onto and to put their trust in. Manufacturing a glittery image for the people to buy into is a powerful form of social control and cohesion. Only problem is that it is based on a lie.
The people were afraid. All that mess of the golden calf business came from this place of fear. And are we not also living in a time when people are very much afraid? There is so much uncertainty in every dimension of the world right now. Whether that be our economic, political, social, environmental, educational you name it and there is instability. Things are shifting and breaking a part and the people are afraid.
Howard Thurman, the prophetic African-American theologian, civil rights leader and mentor to many including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited” that the roots of fear come from a sense of isolation and helplessness. (p. 37). Being afraid, feeling isolated and helpless is a terrible way to feel. We want relief and so we dash off after the next glittery thing that promises to sooth us.
But what if we were to do something different. What if we were wait? What if we were to take each other’s hands and stand side by side, not isolated but together and wait. Wait in our uncertainty, wait in the place of unknown, entering into to it together? In our Bible study this morning we are reading the book of Deuteronomy and we were remembering the commandment that God gave the people in the wilderness that they were to observe the Sabbath. Sabbath, a time of rest, waiting, of listening of realigning ourselves with the deep, generative, creative presence of God. And Amy brought to us the wisdom of our Jewish brothers and sisters that are waiting in these days of awe, resting, and preparing for the new beginning.
Over and over again in the Bible we find that transformation, new possibilities, new life begins not when we run from the unknowns, but when we have the courage wait upon them, and to trust God’s presence has gone before us and is leading the way.
I find it interesting that the ancient scribes of the Hebrew people included this rather unflattering account into their sacred texts. But maybe this story is in the sacred scripture because of 20/20 hindsight. Maybe it is there so that we can learn from them and learn from this isolation and this helplessness that may very well be the root of our own fear. Maybe this story is in sacred scripture so that we can learn to do something different.
And doing something different is what we see in the Gospel reading for today. If anyone knew isolation and helplessness, if anyone lived in fear it was these ten leapers. Cast out, on their own, with no hope of a cure, these people suffering leprosy knew profound isolation and helplessness. Isolation and helplessness are their constant companions. But what is interesting about our Gospel passage this morning is that these lepers are able to see Jesus for who he is and for what healing and wholeness he can bring. They cry out in the very midst of their need to Jesus believing that their help lies not in the next glimmering thing, but with their God who is at hand.
Can we do the same? Can we find the courage to not divert to the next best glittery fix but to stay in the place of our deepest need long enough to let the new life that God is always fashioning for us arise? What if we turn our sense of isolation into the power of solidarity and what if we turn a sense of helplessness into a deep dependence on each other and the power of the liberating God that has been at work from the beginning and is and ever more shall be? What would happen then?
I wish we were on the mountain top but I think we are in the valley and as such I think our work is to be about resistance. Our work is resist so that we give ourselves the space and time for inspiration, co-creation, the redemption and new birth that we so desperately need to lead us out of this wilderness and into the healing and wholeness, the life giving future that is God’s promise and our greatest hope.
So let us give thanks to those that have come before us that have given their lives as instruction for how we are to live today. Let us be inspired by those lepers to call out for healing and redemption. Let us take up the challenge to be resisters of the quick fix allures of our day. Let us be Sabbath keepers, holding fast to each other and to the promise of liberation and fullness of life that is written into the fabric of creation itself; trusting our very lives to the God who promises to see us through. For we too are Exodus people, delivered from slavery, destined for fullness of life. May we have the courage, the solidarity and the hope we need for this journey through the wilderness of our time. Thanks be to God. Amen.