The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday October 11, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Today’s gospel reading is… rough. I’m not going to preach on it but it doesn’t seem right to just read those words in our service and then ignore them. When the sermon text goes up on the website tomorrow it’ll include a link to a helpful commentary on the passage that points out that it is neither necessary, nor helpful, to assume that anytime a gospel story includes a king, that that king is God.[1]Sometimes an earthly king is just an earthly king.

For our second reading, the lectionary still has us working our way through Exodus.  If you’re ever tried to read the Bible like an ordinary book from start to finish, we’ve reached the section where it’s very common to give up because the text shifts from stories to a seemingly endless list of instructions.

In this section of Exodus, God not only establishes the 10 Commandments, they also establish a detailed covenant with the people of Israel.  Unlike the 10 Commandments, if this entire covenant were to be memorialized as a statue in Kildonan Park, it might take up the entire park. It’s very long, and very detailed.

One of the longest lists of instructions focusses on how to build the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, where God will meet with the people. The tent itself and each item that it will contain is described in exquisite detail. If you are a creator or an artist, this section speaks to how highly God values beauty and artistic expression.

This covenant was established between God, Moses, and a collection of leaders of the Israelite people on Mount Sinai and after that process is completed, Moses goes even higher up the mountain to be alone with God, and the other leaders descend the mountain to be with the people.

Moses stays on the mountain with God for 40 days and 40 nights. (Exodus 24:18). Sometimes numbers in the Bible are literal, and sometimes they are figurative and we don’t always know which is which. The number 40 can mean 40 literal days or it can be used to signify a very long time.

Moses is alone with God for a very long time, what are the people doing during that time?

Tonight’s reading begins, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain…”

In Everett Fox’s translation, he notes that the Hebrew verb translated here as “delayed” has the connotation of “causing shame or embarrassment.” He translates the open sentence this way:

“Now when the people saw that Moshe – that Moses – was shamefully-late in coming down from for the mountain, the people assembled against Aharon and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will god before us, for this Moshe, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (32:1)

I feel sorry for Aaron. Moses, the person who really should be in charge is shamefully late, the people are angry and now they have “assembled against” him and are making demands. This is not a position any leader wants to be in.

What is Aaron supposed to do?  He could tell the people they need to be patient and wait for Moses, or he could remind them that it’s a bad idea to make an idol instead of following the one true God. Those would actually be wise choices to make as a leader, but they’re not popular ones.   They are likely to make the people even more anxious and angry and you know that anger is going to be directed at you. So do you do the thing you believe is right, or the thing that will make you popular with the people?

Dr. Michael Osterholm is an American epidemiologist whose work I follow, he has a weekly podcast and has been advising the Lutheran Church in America on how to respond to the pandemic. He pointed out recently that we are beginning to see a shift from pandemic fatigue to pandemic anger.   First people were tired of the pandemic, and now they are increasingly angry at all the ways the pandemic is negatively affecting their lives.  It’s hard to get angry at something as abstract as a pandemic so instead people are directing their anger at their leaders,  at grocery store clerks, at family members.

This seems to be what is happening with the Israelites. They had a sense of how long they thought Moses should remain on the mountain and at first they were willing to wait, but now they are angry, and they are looking for a quick fix.

The quick fix, in this case, is to build their own god out of gold. And Aaron does what the people want him to do.  He tells them to take all of their gold rings and earrings – which both men and women were wearing at the time –  so that he can melt them down and create a golden calf. (32: 2-4)

I was wondering why they chose to use their jewelry in this process and I suspect it’s because all of the other gold that they had plundered when they left Egypt has already been used in the creation of the tent of meeting.

When the people saw the golden calf, they declared, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (32: 4) A feast day is declared and the people, “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (6)

The word “revel” has sexual connotations. This was a wild party, not a sedate worship service.

And God is not pleased:

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.” (7-10)

The first thing I want to point out about God’s reaction is that it’s funny.  It’s terrifying, but it’s also funny.

This is a classic trope in comedy.  When the kid or the dog or the coworker is doing a good job, they’re ours.  But when they misbehave, they belong to someone else. My dog has perfect manners. My dog never poops in the house or chews up my slippers, Mike’s does.[2]  “Mike! Come here and see what your dog has done!”

We’ve just gone through pages and pages of stories and covenant building where God claims the people of Israel as their own and now that the people have built a golden calf, suddenly these are Moses’ people.

When Moses responds to God, he will assert that these are not his people, they are God’s people.  Again, comedy gold.

The second thing I want to highlight in God’s response is based on the work of Everett Fox. Fox notes that the language of the original text implies that God is baiting Moses here. God wants Moses to argue with and defend the people. This is also implied by how quickly God seems to change their mind.  This is a test, and Moses passes. (439)

So once again, we see in scripture, that it’s OK to argue with God.  More than that, it’s something God wants us to do.

This test is not simply, will Moses choose to defend the Israelites and argue with God?  That would be tough enough, but God adds a further temptation into the mix.

But before we look at that, let me refresh your memory on the nature of Moses’ relationship with the people of Israel at this time.

It’s not great.

From the time Moses chose to leave his family and the life he had built for himself in Midian to free the people from enslavement and lead them to the promise land, we have seen story after story after story of Moses working hard, doing what he promised to do, only to receive harsh criticism and complaints from the people. There are so many of these stories that biblical scholars have created a category for them, they’re called the complaint narratives.

I’m sure that more than once by this point Moses has thought, “Well if you don’t like my leadership, fine, I quit.”

And here is God offering him an out.  God is going to destroy the people which means Moses won’t have to lead them anymore.  God will give Moses the very thing he has wished for.

But Moses digs deeper than those very real but ultimately surface type feelings that emerge when you feel unappreciated to a deeper place where his love for the people resides and he argues passionately on their behalf.

Which is amazing in and of itself, but I haven’t even mentioned the additional temptation that God has placed before Moses. God says, “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.” (10)

Moses will no longer be the leader of a stiff necked people. Moses will be the patriarch of a great nation blessed by God.

That had to be rather tempting.

But instead of taking the bait, Moses defends the people and argues with God, explicitly reminding them of the covenant with Abraham and God changes their mind.

I wonder if Moses, as he is walking down the mountain from this encounter thought, “Wow, I had no idea until God threatened them, how much I actually care for these people. I didn’t know how much I love them until I said it out loud.”

If you read ahead, you’ll see that the people will be punished for creating the golden calf.  It’s a dark and difficult story, but they will not be wiped from the face of the earth, and Moses will continue to lead them.

When I was a kid, I asked my grandmother why we, as Mennonites, didn’t wear gold crosses around our necks like some of my friends from other denominations did.

She explained that if it took a piece of jewelry to identify ourselves as Christians, then we were doing something wrong. Our faith should be obvious from the way we lived our lives.

She may even have pointed to this story to show that it’s wrong to create idols or reminded me that we also kept our worship spaces free of imagery so that we could not fall into sin and could keep our focus solely on God, but I don’t actually remember her saying any of that.

Her explanation made sense and I lived most of my life following that advice.

But now I think it is fascinating that the story of the golden calf comes right after pages and pages of detailed descriptions of God’s blueprints for how to create beautiful things to use in the worship of God at the tent of meeting.

It seems to point to a “middle way” for thinking about the objects we create and use in worship.

Idols? Bad. Don’t make them, don’t worship them.

The use of beauty and beautiful things to help point us to God?  Good.  Do make them, do use them, do delight in the ways they help us connect with the God who created us and all the earth.

This fall we have a group of people who are meeting regularly both to study a book together but also to explore the idea that God is everywhere and can be found everywhere if only we pay attention.  The book is called “An Altar in the World,” by Barbara Brown Taylor.

This week I’ve been thinking about the idea of creating an altar in our homes, and I want to encourage you to think about this too.  I’m going to give you some examples, but this isn’t a one size fits all project. It’s an invitation to think about your own unique space, and your own unique needs.

Although I never thought about it as an altar until this week, in my home I usually sit in the same chair when I pray the daily office. Next to that chair is a table that contains a candle, incense, prayer beads, and my hand held labyrinth.  My Bible and prayer book are also within easy reach.

I can pray anywhere at any time, but there is something about the way I have created this space that helps me enter into those times of focused prayer in a particular way.

Do you have a space like that? How does it impact your prayer?  If you don’t have a space like that, what might it take to create one?  It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive.   Although I usually pray in the same chair, I also use that chair for other things to. I can’t afford to have a chair that’s only for prayer.

Similarly, at the start of this service, we invite you to light a candle with us.  Do you already, or have you ever thought about preparing the space where you join us for worship on Sundays?   What might change in your experience if you thought about preparing yourself and your space for worship.

What might change if you thought about what you are wearing – and here cozy pjs might just be the perfect choice – or where you are sitting, or what you have nearby – a candle, or a good cup of tea. How might being intentional about these things impact this experience for you?

If these questions create any sense of guilt or obligation in you, please ignore them. Guilt is such a waste of time.  But if they create a sense of curiosity and play, then play! Experiment this week and see what you discover.

And I hope you’ll let me know about it when you do.

In the strong name of the Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.



[2] Our dog actually is actually perfect, I’m using artistic license to make a point. 8)

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