“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Do you remember? Where were you fifteen years ago, when you heard the news, saw the images, felt the fear and pain grip the nation and the world?
I was a sophomore at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. I had overslept, so I was still in bed when a friend from the room next door came pounding into my room declaring that we were, “at war.” I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, rolled myself in front of the television, and remained planted there for much of the day.
I remember how it was nearly impossible to make any phone calls that day, as the networks were overloaded beyond capacity.
I remember how it was the first time social media was used to make sure friends and loved ones in New York and Washington were safe (this was three years before Facebook, so it was mostly through Instant Messaging services).
I remember the hollow feeling of helplessness at being nearly 800 miles from the location of the horror: a helplessness of knowing I was safe, yet feeling unsafe; wishing I could do something, yet feeling completely paralyzed.
I remember trying to pray, but not knowing what words to use.
What do you remember? Where were you? Who were you with? What did you feel?
Memory and remembrance hold an important place in our faith.
There are many threads that weave throughout the history of scripture, but remembrance might be one of the most powerful. In Exodus 20, when God gives the law in the form of the Ten Commandments, God begins by invoking the memory of how the people were led out of slavery. Later on, we are commanded to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, reminding us of God’s good work in creation. Deuteronomy 6 talks about the importance of passing the Word of God on to their children so that God’s Word and actions will be remembered through the generations. Throughout the major and minor prophets, the memory of God’s power and love is invoked time and again to attempt to save the people from themselves. In the Eucharist, the meal we will celebrate here together this morning, Jesus’ instructions are to “do this as often as you eat and drink of it, in remembrance of me.”
Why do we hold so close to memory? Consider how our memories can impact us so profoundly years, even decades after an event:
The memory of a first love can recreate the butterflies of nervous excitement in our stomach.
The memory of laughter with friends and family can cause us to smile in spite of ourselves.
The memory of hearing your child’s cry for the first time after birth can bring a tear of joy to the eye.
The memory of the death of a loved one or a traumatic event can resurrect the pain and heartache we thought we had buried.
Memory is powerful.
So when we turn to our passage from Exodus 32 this morning, we find ourselves in the midst of some pretty serious forgetting.
Now before we go heaping blame on the Israelites (albeit, appropriate blame), we should take a minute to remember some context. Yes, they have been led out of Egypt, out of slavery, but they are now wandering the desert. They have been promised a land flowing with milk and honey, and they are anxious to get there. At this point, there are probably at least a couple of good Jewish men and women asking whether or not Moses should stop and ask for directions!
And to make matters even more tense, they have been camped out at the base of this mountain for a while, so that Moses can go up, chit chat with God, then come back down to relay the Divine message, and while this is a relatively safe place, it is not the most comfortable location. Where we pick up, Moses has been up on the mountain for longer than usual, sparking rumors that something awful has happened to their leader.
Memory is important, but fear is oftentimes more powerful.
We find the Israelites full of fear and impatience, and this leads them to their idolatry. This is a difficult text to read, particularly so close to the creation of a covenant between God and the people.
“The Ten Commandments established a powerful ethical bond between the people and their God and between the members of the community. And the basis for their bond was God’s redemption of them from slavery: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…’
“Between the dramatic creation of the covenant in chapters 19-24 and the breaking of the covenant here in chapter 32, God gives Moses guidelines for the production of the tabernacle, the tent in which God ‘may dwell among them’ (25:8b), a powerful promise of presence and protection. There is so much that is exciting and hopeful in these chapters, which makes the events of Ex 32:1-15 surprising as well as terribly sad” (Plunket-Brewton).
While idolatry is strictly forbidden in the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me,” I wonder if God’s righteous anger is stoked more by the people’s failure to remember God’s care and protection for them, and their inability to hold fast to that memory. When they ask Aaron to make gods for them, “Missing from this speech is any mention of God or of the covenant. God’s absence grows even more striking in their response to the golden calf: ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ (v. 4b) Thus, Moses is dismissed as ‘this Moses,’ and the people’s history and covenant with God is cast aside to make room for a statue” (Plunket-Brewton).
Of course, this is not a shocking story, or at least it should not be. It is a story humanity has repeated time and again: we forget, we sin again, and we suffer. In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, as we moved closer to war in Afghanistan, a place in which we are still enmeshed fifteen years later, I remember thinking, “Have we learned nothing from the 20th Century?” The 20th Century was the bloodiest, most violent century in human history. When we turned the page on history entering the 21st Century, there was a sense of optimism that perhaps we could grow beyond our own disastrous tendencies. Yet we continue policies that favor an elite, wealthy few and oppress millions, and then we feign shock when the oppressed organize into violence, for which there is no excuse, yet things continue to stay the same. There is a saying that, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” Scripture supports this: time and again, the people commit the sin of failing to remember, and time and again, they suffer.
What is perhaps even more shocking than the people’s failure to remember, is God’s anger. “Given God’s own admission of jealousy (Exodus 20:5), perhaps we should not be too surprised at God’s anger. But this divine tirade (32:7-11) is not for the meek… God refers to the Israelites as those whom Moses brought out from the land of Egypt. This is interesting since earlier God had said God brought them out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 20:2). God calls them names: stiff-necked people. And worse, God wants to be left alone to wallow in anger and to ‘consume’ the idolaters. If that is not enough, God seems to bribe Moses to leave him alone (32:10). If Moses does so, God will make of him a great nation. Anger, tirade, blame, name-calling, destruction, bribery; this is not God at God’s best. Shocking. The bottom line is that idolatry is a serious offense, which will not be ignored by God” (Hannan).
However (and this is a big however), Moses intercedes on the people’s behalf, refusing to simply allow the people to be consumed by God’s righteous anger. To be honest, this is one of Moses’ most admirable moments. The people have not only rejected God but also Moses himself as their leader. I have to confess that were I in his position, I might be tempted to leave them to their own devices and walk off into the sunset with a new promise from God.
But “Moses is able to change God’s mind. He does so by reminding God that it was God who brought the people out of the land of Egypt,” not him. “He reminds God of God’s power and might. He reminds God of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel to multiply their descendants. Killing the Israelites now would not foster offspring and certainly would give the Egyptians the edge. Moses’ threefold imperative- ‘Turn from your fierce wrath,’ ‘Change your mind,’ ‘Do not bring disaster on your people’- is bold but effective. God does change God’s mind” (Hannan).
Perhaps this is the most critical piece for us to take away this morning. Even when we forget, when we turn away, God is there, calling us back to God’s arms. Shauna Hannan, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley notes that “On this 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I wonder who we need to intervene on our behalf. I wonder if in our impatience we have bowed to more tangible, accessible, and shinier gods rather than relying on the one who brought us out of the power of sin, death, and the devil. Yes, I wonder how (I do hope it’s how and not if) God quells God’s anger at such atrocities” (Hannan).
But do we really have to even look back as far as fifteen years? “Nearly every day in the news we are reminded that, as a whole, humanity (we!) fall short of God’s will for us. That is not shocking news anymore. While I do not desire to minimize the depth of our idolatrous tendencies… I do think the more shocking and profoundly hopeful news here is that God sticks with us; God continues to claim us as God’s own despite it all. Instead of God’s wrath burning hot against us and consuming us (vs. 11), God’s beloved son reminds us there is joy when even one sinner repents (Luke 15:10)” (Hannan).
Consider Paul, who in his letter to Timothy from which we heard this morning, he recounts his own conversion. He “was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Paul reminds us that he was once Saul, who sought out early Christ-followers to torture and kill. In fact, he even seems to implore us to remember his past sins, not only to highlight the immeasurable grace of God but also to witness to how powerful “the grace of our Lord” is.
On this day of profound remembrance, I am also mindful of how important it is to share these stories of our faith. For the past four years, I taught tenth and twelfth grade English at a private Christian school in Philadelphia. Each year, as a new freshman class entered, I did the math and realized how young they are (and every year, I would feel despair at how young they all look and how much older I was feeling…).
This year’s ninth graders were, on average, born into a post-9/11 world. My wife and I look at our son, born just a month and a half ago, and realize how many wonderful things he will consider as just a part of the way things are: an African-American can be president; a woman can run for, and possibly be president; equality is within reach for so many more people than when I was his size; we could see a manned flight to Mars in the next fifteen years!
Yet there is also so much pain that he will know of in this world: the seemingly constant threat of terrorism; an increasingly unstable global climate; the continued blight of racism and xenophobia on our nation.
We are committed to teaching him all of these stories, the good and the not so good, the hopeful and the despairing. I will tell him the story of where I was on this day fifteen years ago, including the despair I felt, because it is all a part of the larger narrative.
And while I teach him, and we all teach our children to hope for the Lord, and to rejoice in the Lord, we ought also to teach them, and ourselves, to pray the Psalmist’s prayer as our own:
“Create in us clean hearts, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us.” Amen.
Hannan, Shauna. “Commentary on Exodus 32:7-1.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 11 Sept. 2016. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
Plunket-Brewton, Callie. “Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 12 Oct. 2014. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.