Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Sermon from Sunday: Golden Cows and Burnt Offerings

Exodus 32:1-14
32When 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.’ 2Aaron 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.’ 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He 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!’ 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.’ 6They 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.
7 The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they 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 worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ 9The LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now 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? 12Why 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. 13Remember 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 for ever.” ’ 14And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Golden Cows and Burnt Offerings
Rev. Julie A. Jensen
FPC Cartersville, October 12, 2014

The wife of a colleague of mine who pastors a church in Kalamazoo, MI shared the following thought with me as she and her husband Barrett worked through their study of the book of Exodus. “Moses’ greatest pastoral achievement was not killing his people.” After the reading for this week, I have to say that I can agree. For you see, Moses did not lead a docile people. No, he lead a bunch of whining, complaining, grumpy, disobedient people. In the book of Exodus, we read the story of Moses and the account of his life. God speaks to Moses when God appears to him in the burning bush, telling him to go back to Egypt and get the Israelites released from slavery so that they may enter the promised land that God has prepared for them Moses and God argue about this for a little bit – Moses is sure he is not eloquent enough to speak to the king or to lead the people. In a bit of a comedy routine, God tells Moses to go and Moses says “but what if they ask who sent me?” God says “Tell them I am who I am sent you.” “But what if they don’t believe me?” Moses asks. I can see God sighing. God instructs Moses to throw down his staff – when he does, it turns into a snake. The God instructs Moses to pick it back up and it turns back into a staff. God gives Moses a second sign — he places his hand in his cloak and it emerges covered with leprosy. When he replaces it, the condition disappears. If that’s not enough, God gives Moses the ability to pour water from the river on the ground, where it turns into blood. Moses still is not convinced, and offers another excuse “I’m not very eloquent. I hate speaking in front of people. Really, God, I’m not your guy.” And like when a child that has pushed his parents too far, this was the last straw, and God got mad. “Well, too bad Moses. Take your brother Aaron, and give him the words to speak. He can do it – he will speak for you to the people. Now, take your staff and go.”

I wonder when we reach today’s reading if God wishes God had made a different choice in selecting the people who would lead the Israelites out of slavery. After the plagues sent by God convinced the Pharaoh to let the people go, God led them out of Egypt by the long way – even then God knew everyone was not happy about this decision. The Lord led them through the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they draw near to the Red Sea, they prepare to battle the Egyptians to cross the border. As they get ready to cross the waters of the sea, not yet parted by God, the grumbling begins. “Seriously, Moses? You brought us all the way out here to die? We could have stayed enslaved in Egypt and been better off than this. A least there were graves there for us to be buried in. They crossed the sea unscathed and dry and continued on. When they reached Marah, the only water was bitter, and the people complained again. Moses relied on the Lord, and made the water palatable. And the pattern continues as the people cross the desert. Time and time again they complain – like kids on a road trip in the car “I’m hungry….I’m thirsty.” “I don’t like manna, where’s the meat? I’m thirsty and all you can do is make water come out of this rock.” And on and on and on. Each of their complaints in met with Moses looking to the Lord for answers, and the Lord meeting the needs of the people. Finally, they reached Mt. Saini. Moses climbed the mountain and God spoke to him the words he was to speak to the people – the Covenant.

We read in Exodus 19:5-6 “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.’” If the people keep the rules God sets for them, then they shall be God’s people. The entirety of the people agree in one voice that they will do everything the lord has spoken.

Moses ascends the mountain and received the 10 commandments, and shares them with the people. Moses gets a lot of exercise on this mountain – he ascends and descends 4 times bringing the laws and statutes and ordinances to the people to follow. The first 10 begin with God declaring that “I am the Lord your God, 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…”

And then, well, what happens next is what makes me think that Barrett’s words about Moses’ greatest pastoral achievement might be true. Moses gives them the first set of rules immediately following the promise of the people to do whatever God commanded them to do. He was gone 40 days and they broke the first two rules. The people get restless. Fredrick Buechner uses the wonderful turn of phrase, “With Moses lingering so long on Mt. Sinai, that some thought he’d settled down and gone into real estate, the people turned to Aaron for leadership.” It’s been 40 days. Not too terribly long – the same amount of time as between the Wednesday of Labor day and today. When you have been wandering as long as the Israelites, 40 days is not much time at all. They are still settling into camp, for all intents and purposes. Yet, they get bored. They get impatient. They get anxious. Can you hear them talking to Aaron? “Where’s Moses? He’s left us. That God we all agreed to follow isn’t doing anything for us. Make us new gods to keep us happy.” And for whatever reason, Aaron said “Ok.”

We heard the rest of the story this morning – everyone takes off their gold jewelry and Aaron melts it down and pours it into a mold shaped like a calf. When it is cooled, he presents it to the people “Here are your gods that brought you out of Egypt.” Many preachers preach this passage and focus on the sin of idolatry – worshipping other things besides God, and we will touch on that today. What I wonder though, is if the sin of impatience was perhaps at the root of the events of the day?

The worship Committee and I have been preparing some prayer stations to connect owht our fall Stewardship Season that begins next week. You will see one outside the Upper Room and one outside the sanctuary when you come to worship next week. As I’ve been preparing, I’ve noticed that many of the books I read about stewardship season remind me that “where your treasure is, there your heart also lies.” This is usually in the chapter that encourages us to take out our checkbooks and see where most of our money goes, especially the portion that we set aside as giving to God. I agree that our checkbooks, or online banking apps can be spiritual documents. I also have learned the same about our calendars. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, in her book Sabbath in the Suburbs describes our calendars as spiritual documents as well -how we spend the gift of time that we have been given. Where does our time go? One of the commandments given by God is to remember the Sabbath as a day of rest, and remembrance of the 24-7 work done in slavery. To remember that some of our time is holy time, meant to be spent in simply honoring God and resting from our labors. And then I look at my calendar, I hear about other’s calendars, and I wonder if we perhaps have made an idol of being busy. I wonder if we have placed such a high value on work, production, and results that we are unable to leave any time unscheduled. Do we make idols of our schedules? Do we see it as a badge of honor to not rest, but to be committed with activities that we “have to” do for the sake of ourselves and our families?

As the women in our Sunday School class can tell you, we have been wrestling with these questions for a few weeks. But posing that question next to the story of the golden calf raises some interesting points. For, I think many of us have made time an idol. We make it a commodity that is doled out to others not with joy, but with a sense of giving away something precious. It breaks my heart when I hear people say “you’re too busy to need to come visit” or “that’s time you need to spend with someone else.” There is enough time. Just as there was enough manna in the wilderness. But when we make idols of our calendars and schedules, do we lose sight of the fact that our days, weeks, months, and years are all a gift from God to be thankful for, not the god we worship and give our lives over to?

For you see, when time feels in short supply, that’s when we get impatient. Which is possibly the root of all the issues in today’s reading. I will agree that the Israelites were stubborn. They were whiners. They complained when anything new happened, or when anything changed. They didn’t like the meal options or the beverage choices and made a big deal out of not getting their way. But I really, really don’t think they were evil. They just messed up. They got impatient because they did not see immediate results from their covenant with God. They got impatient when Moses went back up the mountain to get more rules and laws. This is a great example of a people who don’t like to wait, and who want things to happen immediately, on time and in our terms.

Have you had to wait this week? In line. At the grocery store. For children in the car-rider line. For your phone to ring? For the internet to load? When you sent an e-mail and did not get an immediate answer, or left a message and three hours later the call had not been returned. Are you waiting right now – for the preacher to stop preaching so we can get on with the service and get on with our days? If so, that’s another sermon for another day… I know I get impatient at times, as do we all. One of the blog posts I read this week, by Rick Morley, cast a different light on waiting:

“There is great spiritual treasure to be found in waiting—the practice of cultivating patience. It’s a practice that raises faith to a profound trust that God is working, and moving even when things seem to be going nowhere. And that God’s good time, is the right time. That glaciers move, even against all appearances to the contrary.
It’s a practice which forces us to put our own needs to the side for a bit, and focus on seeing the world and the unfolding of God’s plan and revelation as God sees fit to unfold it.
It can be frustrating. But, it can also be beautiful.”

Remember, while the Israelites were all getting impatient, God and Moses were hard at work. God was revealing the details of covenantal life to Moses. How the newly promised people of God were going to live that out. And these things take time. The practice of waiting is a practice that requires us to allow for the time and space for god to do God’s work. The practice of waiting means we do not get to dictate the terms, but instead must trust that somewhere progress is being made that will allow us to move forward. In waiting, we allow ourselves time to look for God in the midst of our days, weeks, months, and years. In waiting we relinquish our grip on the idols of business and calendars, and instead cling to the truth that God is indeed in the details of our days.

I wonder what would happen if we truly embraced the waiting. If we recognized that this was indeed the space where God is at work. I wonder what it might look like if rather than wishing the light would turn green so I would not be late – again – I recognized that I cannot make it go any faster, and simply was still for a moment. If instead of cursing the train and racing around to Church Street to beat it, if I waited for it to pass. What idols of time do you worship? What would it look like for you if you waited and looked for where God was at work rather than moved on to the next thing? How can we fill our lives not with more entries on the calendar, but with more spaces for God to be at work? I wonder.

For generations, the people of God have been impatient. For generations, we have wanted answers now, and wanted to know what will happen next. Since Moses ascended Saini the first time, we have wanted to know what God is saying and doing without delay. Friends, I invite us to spend this week waiting. Waiting patiently and seeking to find God at work in the time we spend paused before the next thing. I invite you to practice patience as a spiritual discipline this week and encounter God at work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.


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Guerrilla Prayers

There is an intersection here in town that I pass through at least twice a day, if not more.  It is the corner of Bartow and Main Streets (where Etowah drive splits off).  On one corner is the police station, opposite that is First Presbyterian Church (my church).  Working our way around are the Shaw-Hankins offices, and then Regions Bank. It is a slice of our city that is almost always humming with activity.  In a study done several years ago, 940 18 wheelers passed through that stoplight on any given day.  And it has become a new place for me to pray.

I blame our Sunday School class for this practice.  We are studying a book called “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Everyday Lives” by Wayne Muller.  We are reading about, talking about, and trying new practices of Sabbath-making each week.  And about 3 or 4 weeks ago, we read the practice of offering “guerrilla blessings.”  The idea is to bless people around you, unaware.  Maybe you do it at the grocery store while you wait in line, maybe you do it at a soccer game.  One class member is doing it in the car-rider pick up line at the primary school.  I decided to do it in a place where I often find myself antsy or frustrated (because I am usually late when I get stopped by the red lights here.).  “May you be blessed, may you feel peace” runs through my head as I look at each car, each driver.  “May you be safe, may you be calm” is my silent whisper to the police cars.  “May you learn and may you grow” is sent from my heart to the school busses as they zoom by.  And, as I look to my right and see the church office with the staff cars out front, I send a prayer to their drivers, and to our church family, as well.

I now enter this intersection grateful for the red lights (well, more often than not.).  I picture the intersection as a “God Zone” where all who pass through are covered in prayer.  May you know peace, safety, learning, comfort, joy.  In all of this, I have found a space for God to enter into my day – it is a gateway to the day – a prayer for what will come.  On the way home it is the place I leave the worries of my heart that keep me up at night.  “May you be happy, may you know peace.”  It is almost impossible to be frustrated with the driver in front of you who is going straight (and you want to turn right) while you are praying for them.  It is almost impossible to roll your eyes at the driver who makes an illegal turn when you are praying that they will be safe.  And when you se a police officer and pray for them to have a day that is free from harm, it is hard to speed.

I thought this practice was crazy.  I thought I was crazy for trying it.  I was wrong.  In the middle of a busy day, when I would not otherwise stop, God enters in and turns my attention our community, to the people in my neighborhood, and to God.  Somehow, that does not seem so crazy after all.   May you know happiness, may you know peace.