Paula Northwood June 2, 2019
Scripture Exodus 31:1–10
We do not know what goes on once a person crosses the threshold of life. We have ideas about heaven or the other dimension, but we simply cannot know for certain. But there are stories about possibilities, and this is one.
Moses and Jesus were playing golf one day. The course they were on had a particularly difficult hole, and Moses expressed his doubts that Jesus could make the shot over the water. “Ah no, Moses, I think I can do it,” explained Jesus. “I’ve seen Tiger Woods make this shot, and if Tiger Woods can do it, then so can I.” Moses shrugged his shoulders and let Jesus try. Sure enough, the ball splashed into the water. Moses parted the water for Jesus, who went in to retrieve his ball. Jesus, however, was not ready to give up. “I know I can do this, Moses—I’ve seen Tiger Woods do it, and if he can do it, then so can I.” True to form, however, Jesus’ ball ended up back in the water. Moses parted the water, and Jesus went in to retrieve the ball. “Look, Jesus,” said Moses. “Try again if you like, but I’m not parting the water for you again.” “Fair enough, Moses,” said Jesus. “But you know, I’ve seen Tiger Woods make this shot, and if Tiger Woods can do it, then so can I.” Once again, Jesus’ ball landed in the water. This time Jesus proceeded to walk upon the water to get it. Another group of golfers came up behind Moses and saw Jesus walking on the water. “Holy Cow!” one of them said to Moses. “Who does that guy think he is, Jesus Christ?” “No,” said Moses, rolling his eyes. “He thinks he’s Tiger Woods.”
Moses had experience with people trying to be something they were not. In our text, Moses, leader of the God-fearing Israelites, went up the mountain to spend some time with the Divine and returned to find the people had abandoned God and were worshiping an idol. We don’t know exactly how long Moses was gone but long enough for the people to get into some trouble.
A few years ago, I was traveling in northwestern Minnesota and decided to take a different way to get back to Grand Marais on the eastern side of the state. I was using Google Maps when a strange thing happened: Suddenly on the screen, there was no highway, no road, not even a path indicated. It was just a sea of grey, and my car registered as a little blue dot moving along. Now, I had not taken a wrong turn and I had not gone off road. I was on a perfectly newly asphalted road but an unfamiliar one to me. What to do? I no longer carry paper maps in my car. Was I lost? Not exactly, but it felt disconcerting. I knew that if I just continued to head east, eventually I would run into Lake Superior. I didn’t exactly know where along Lake Superior, but it’s Superior—I couldn’t miss it, could I? I drove for what seemed like forever. Finally, I drove up a ridge and there before me was the magnificent Lake Superior, sparkling in the sunlight. What a wonderful sight! Sometimes you have to keep going, even if you are not sure how it’s going to turn out.
In our text, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for a very long time. And of course, you have heard the joke, “Why were the Israelites lost in the wilderness for 40 years? Because Moses wouldn’t ask for directions.” It’s not just men who don’t like to ask for directions. Most of us have trouble admitting we are lost. We like to know where we are going and how to get there.
We have this incredible story of the Israelites who had escaped from the Egyptians but who spend 40 years in the wilderness trying to find themselves. There is a wonderful story from the Hebrew Midrash that provides some details missing from our Hebrew scripture. The Midrash, as you likely know, contains stories and reflections that rabbinic scholars have created to explain and expound on the biblical story. In this story, the Israelites got to the shores of the Red Sea and there was much anxiety. To lead the people into the water would be to drown them, but to wait would be to have them be captured and punished by the Egyptians. They were trapped. Someone needed to be the first one to go into the waters and test the promise of God for deliverance.
The Midrash story continues with the leaders of the tribes of Israel all gathered at the waters edge arguing about who would go first. Apparently, no decision was forthcoming, and anxiety and fear grew and grew. Waiting for a decision no longer, a man named Nahshon simply remembered why they were there, and the promise that brought them there, so he stood up and walked into the water.
As the story is told, he waded up to ankles and nothing happened. He walked up to his waist and the waters did not part. Up to his shoulders, his chin and the waters did not part. He continued. As he took the step that would put his nose under water, the waters parted. Simply by remembering the purpose of fleeing the Egyptians, by remembering the promise given to Moses, Nahshon quietly got up and did what was required.
I am reading Quietly Courageous by Gil Rendle, consultant and church expert. Rendle’s premise is that, like Nahshon, quiet courage is needed now, more than ever, because the depth of change that the church now faces makes it exceedingly difficult for long-established institutions to thrive. Churches no longer fit with the current cultural value system that focuses heavily on individuals. He claims that the established institutional church cannot thrive with the leadership it currently has or has had in the recent past. A new kind of leadership is required. In the past we were concerned about doing things right (right beliefs, right order of worship, right liturgy); today, leaders must be concerned about doing right things (right actions, right mission, right service for others).
When the Israelites were in the wilderness and Moses went up the mountain to have some time with God, they got anxious. What did they do? They gathered all their gold and made what was likely a beautiful golden statue of a calf . . . to worship. This is curious to me. Why a cow? Why not a statue of Moses, the one they were missing? Or of God or what they thought God looked like? But a cow? Presumably they left Egypt without any cattle; maybe they were missing a nice filet mignon? We do not know the reason for that image except that they wanted something tangible. Not an invisible God or a missing-in-action leader.
Or one might wonder if this was a unique stewardship campaign, a convenient way to pool their resources for the future? Don’t worry, we will not be passing the offering plates and asking you to offer up your jewelry and watches.
I remember hearing this story of the golden calf as a child and thinking rather smugly, “How silly.” But is it? When we get anxious, don’t we seek ways to soothe our anxieties? We latch onto things and people hoping to find the security we are missing. We can make a god of anything Some seek solace in a different kind of calf, a black leather–bound one called the Bible. It’s easier to worship the words than have a living relationship with God. The question for us is: What do we worship, as individuals or as a church?
Often when people get afraid and anxious, they look back to the good old days: Even the Israelites started to think it had been better when they were slaves. At least they had food security, they thought. We too look back to the halcyon days when the pews were filled, and we all got along and life seemed easy. And it was a bit easier then because the culture encouraged church attendance. That’s just what we did; we rarely missed a church service.
According to Rendle, as a culture we have moved from the convergence of shared cultural identities (we are Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, etc.) to the divergence of individual preferences. We want what we want when we want it, to the detriment of the community.
In our text, God tells Moses to go back down the mountain and straighten things out. Moses must do a little bargaining with God but eventually invites the people back into mystery and the unknown wilderness. During the age of exploration of the 1400 and 1500s, mapmakers began to draw maps with intentional empty spaces. They realized the world was bigger than they thought. There were vast parts of the world that explorers simply did not know about. Prior to this, mapmakers had filled them with imaginary monsters. As they gained new information, they would expand their maps.
From a biblical perspective, we have many examples of uncharted territory. The Israelites were exiled to the desert, Jesus retreated to the wilderness and early Christian pilgrims wandered to foreign lands, into the unknown and to potential places of danger, where they found new strength and renewed purpose. You see, the wilderness changes people for God’s purpose.
During a tumultuous time, William Sloan Coffin wrote a prayer for the Riverside Church: “We need a hope that is made wise by experience and is undaunted by disappointment. We need an anxiety about the future that shows us new ways to look at new things but does not unnerve us. As a people, we need to remember that our influence was the greatest when our power was the weakest, . . . and grant us to count our more complicated blessings: our failures, which teach us more than our success; our lack of money, which points to the only renewable resources, the resources of our spirit.”
As Jim Gertmenian preached a few Sundays ago, there is no making the church what it used to be. We are in the wilderness, but we are making progress. As the Antonio Machado poem “Traveler, your footprints” says, we make the path by walking. Stepping into questions without answers produces chaos, and chaos is the right condition in which deep change can happened. Any system held in chaos long enough will renew itself and transcend beyond itself to relate more effectively to its new environment. These are exciting times. Let us not put our trust in idols. Let us take those first steps trusting in God to guide us through the wilderness. May it be so. Amen.