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Pentecost 22, 10/12/2008

Sermon on Exodus 32:1-14, by David Hoster


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.   [New Revised Standard Version]

We hear a lot in scripture about people going out into the desert to fast and meet God.  Moses and Elijah both met God at Mount Sinai.  Jesus turned withdrawal into the desert into the hallmark of his ministry.  The early desert fathers took it for their name and made it their way of life. 

Once, even, the whole nation of Israel took that journey and today we find out what they brought back from their encounter with God.  Two generations of fasting in the desert gave them the Decalogue, and what a miracle of life in God that is!  The Ten Commandments are directions for living our lives on earth the way life is lived in heaven itself.   

It's as though Israel has come into possession of an enormous diamond set in the cheapest sort of dime-store plastic.  They travel across the face of the earth in the most marginal state of deprivation imaginable, receive the second-greatest gift ever given to humanity (the greatest is Jesus, of course), and then stumble through forty more years of utter desolation before returning to civilization again. 

Deprivation, fasting, want is the road leading to God and the way back from God.  That's the journey we're going to talk about today.

Today, the threat of economic deprivation hangs over the world, making the harsh desert journey to God and back again the message we must hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest.  For the last few weeks, no news has brought good news, and any news at all seems to drive the stock market down, and with it, our optimism.  After waiting with baited breath for Congress to get it right and pass the $800 billion rescue package, the New York Times described it the very next Monday-four days after its passage-as "a pebble tossed into a churning sea." 

What I must tell you is that very soon now it will no longer be up to Congress to get it right.  It will be up to each of us as individuals.  And we'd better get it right, because the consequence of failure is unimaginable.

There were many Israelites who made that journey into the desert who did not meet God out there.  They could not get past anger over their discomfort, fear starvation or death by thirst, and aggrieved resentment that they didn't deserve the loss of their comfortable, safe place in the world.  They ran out of patience waiting for God and melted down all their remaining precious possessions to make a new god for themselves.  They worshipped the treasures of their previous lives, treasures that could not nourish, inspire or protect them, but could only distract them from the fearsome daily reality they faced.  So the earth opened up beneath them, and they perished.

Recently, I heard a description of the course of recovery from Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and Alabama where the wind and surge damage was most extreme.  Bear in mind that we are talking about people who have lost their homes and all their possessions, who have had insurance claims denied and are forced to make mortgage payments on slabs of concrete, who have faced painful decisions whether to stay and rebuild without insurance or leave and start over, who have seen their friends, doctors, jobs, grocery stores and sometimes even churches go away. 

Three years into the process with no end in sight, many people face dire spiritual choices.  These are not choices they make with conscious judgment.  These are choices made deep down inside where primal passions like bitterness over loss do battle with yearning for redemption.  Those who cannot get past their anger, fear and aggrieved resentment, who cannot deal with the unachievable need to make things like they were before the hurricane-these are folks who find the earth opening up beneath their feet.  They cling to their former treasures, the memory of their treasures, their need that those treasures return in the future, and they are destroyed.  They fall into drug abuse, domestic violence, crime and suicide. 

Exodus tells us that the earth itself will no longer bear up our feet beneath us when we demand that reality not be the reality that it is, and when we distract ourselves with illusory dreams of our former treasure.

What, then, do people do when existence itself has stolen their most precious possessions from them?  What do they do when the world itself has murdered their friends, some physically in the storm, some made dead spiritually, some just driven away never to return?  What do they do when reality bears false witness, telling them that life in beachfront property is beautiful and serene, then snatching away all of it in a single night of violence?  What do they do when they are driven to believe they cannot survive without the things that they covet but cannot retrieve?   What do they do when their families come under such terrible strain that they verge on falling apart, no longer able to honor father and mother, son and daughter?  What do they do when existence crushes their faith in God?

Are you beginning to see why it was these particular Ten Commandments that the Israelites found when they went into the desert?  They found them because these ten commandments were the way forward, through deprivation, with God.  They are detailed.  They are complete.  They describe the precise ways in which life is redeemed from the devastation of the world.

The world has stolen away your prized possessions?  Then perceive that what you have is sacred, because it came through the storm.  Humble as it might be, it is glittering and alive when you are spiritually alive to cherish it.  It is beyond theft.

The world has made precious people dead to you?  Then open your heart to those precious souls who are living life along with you one day at a time because nobody ever, ever makes it alone.  Community is the sacred way of life.

The world has gotten so bad that you are short-tempered, mean-spirited, feeling let down and betrayed even within your own household?  Then recognize that in your loved ones you already have everything you need to be happy.  You don't have to take a single step outside your front door, even if your front door is floating in the Gulf of Mexico.

And then there is the matter of faith in God itself, the very center of your capacity to put one foot in front of the other.  The world is incredibly generous with what it gives and incredibly fickle in what it takes away, but when all is said and done, the world owes us nothing.  The world does not love us.  The world has no need for any of us. 

God, on the other hand, loves us incredibly and God will give us everything we need. 

Yet we do so love the world.  We think we can't live without it.  We feel betrayed as though by a lover when the world does us wrong. 

The people who are coming back to life along the Gulf Coast are the people who have learned from the storm just exactly who and what to give their hearts to.  They have learned who betrays them and who is faithful.  They aim their lives at what they call the "new normal" and they go live in it.  They are free to live in the world as it is without comparing it to the world as it was or as they wish it would be again.  Such freedom as this, simple and pedestrian though it might seem, is great enough that God can be met there.

I don't know where we're headed in our economy.  The odds are that the responsible people in government and business will find solutions and, in time, reverse the slide that has churned our stomachs over the last few weeks.  I fervently pray that it will be so.  What I do know, however, is that right now, today, from where we sit, we can see the end of the world as we know it.  That doesn't mean it will happen-just that we can see it from here. 

The journey of deprivation that took the Israelites through the desert to Sinai is, therefore, real to us in a way that it was not a month ago.  Yet if the harsh trek into marginal existence has come into sight for us, then the great diamond at the center of that cheap plastic ring must be near as well.  That diamond, the Decalogue, is the redemption your heart craves as the world threatens to deteriorate.  The Commandments make all that remain to us so sacred that our lives are redeemed from anything our harsh and unfaithful mistress earth can do to us.

You will not find that redemption spoken of anywhere else.  You won't hear about it on the Fox channel, or described by any political candidate, or advertised by any corporation.  You will only find it right here, in the church.  Come what may, this is the place you need to be, and these are the people you need to be with, and God is the one you need to trust.

If I'd said that to you a month ago, you would have called me a drama queen.  If I had preached on the Ten Commandments a month ago I would have had to fish up a sermon illustration for you.  Today, you are the sermon illustration.

Let us pray.

Holy One, we find ourselves at a time when the end of the world as we know it has come into sight at the distant horizon.  Yet we know that a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.  Lift us up, we pray, that we may see beyond the end of the world, and believe that there is more to our lives than the things we cling to.  Extend our vision, and teach us once again the lesson we must learn again and again and again, each time as though for the first time, every time the world closes in on us.  Teach us that you have already given us everything we need.  Teach us that there is always a future for us if we rest our lives on you in the present.  We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who showed us that not even death can take away life.  Amen.

The Rev David Hoster
Rector, St. George?s Episcopal Church
Austin, Texas, USA

E-Mail: david.w.hoster@gmail.com