A Sermon Preached at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, MA
on the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Year A), Sept 19, 2014
Exodus 33:12-23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22
By Reed Carlson
Not too long ago my very first girlfriend ever sent me a friend request on Facebook.
I’ll call her Sarah though that is not her real name.
I hadn’t seen or heard from Sarah since high school, so of course I was curious.
It turns out she went to college in Iowa. She got married.
Nothing terribly interesting or scandalous to report.
Nevertheless, I cringed a little when I realized who she was.
You see after all these years, I’m still a little embarrassed of how our whole relationship went down.
I haven’t told this story to too many people, so naturally when I thought of appropriate places to work through mortifying moments from adolescence, Sunday morning at St. James’s seemed like the obvious place.
We were in 7th grade and we were in a play together at Dakota Hills Middle School.
I don’t remember what the show was or what part I had but what I do remember is that everyone in the show was pairing off.
It seemed like every week there was some new couple.
It was like a disease spreading through the junior high cast.
And I remember being fascinated by this.
By today’s standards, I think I was a pretty naïve seventh grader.
But I had no idea what one was supposed to do with a girlfriend.
I’m the oldest child in my family, so my notion of dating was largely a hybrid of stuff I’d seen on the Disney channel and Old Testament Bible stories.
To be honest if you asked my wife, I don’t think she would say I’ve progressed much further beyond that.
But what I did know was that having a boyfriend or girlfriend somehow changed people. Fundamentally. It was like a superpower.
So after a few months of this, my last chance came at the cast party after our last show.
I finally worked up the courage to ask a girl out.
I picked Sarah mostly because another girl who I actually had a crush on, said that we would be cute together.
I remember it quite vividly. She was eating popcorn. I was holding a can of Mountain Dew.
I said, “So do you want to be my girlfriend or something?” And she said, “Sure.”
We hung out a bit at the party. I think we even held hands.
And that night I went home knowing that I had a girlfriend.
I had been ontologically changed.
I then proceeded to completely ignore her for an entire summer.
She would call my house. I wouldn’t answer the phone.
One time she left a message with my mom asking if I wanted to ride bikes.
When my mom asked me who Sarah was, I claimed to have no idea.
When I saw her at school the following year, I explained to her that, you know, things probably weren’t going to work out.
We had different life goals and we had to think about the long term.
This is perhaps one of the cruelest things I think I’ve ever done.
And when I look back on it, I just cringe.
I have no idea why I did anything of these things.
But I think that is often the case with adolescents—they are difficult to understand (I see some parents nodding).
But one thing that I think was true about me then was that I assumed that having a girlfriend would somehow fundamentally change who I was.
And I wanted to experience that.
I wanted that reputation, I wanted that identity.
I wanted to know what it felt like.
But I didn’t really want to be too invested in it.
Specifically, I didn’t want the relationship part. I just wanted the status.
And because of these kind of mixed desires, I ended up hurting someone.
Our story this morning from Exodus is another story about a relationship—far more intimate than the one I had with my first girlfriend
—but like it, this relationship in Exodus was also damaged by a reluctance to invest.
It’s the relationship between God and God’s people—the Israelites.
This is also one of those stories from the Old Testament where you really need the whole context in order to make sense of it.
If you’ve been coming to church the last few weeks you know that we’ve been tracing the story of the Israelites through the wilderness.
Two weeks ago they received the law at Mount Sinai.
This is a section of the Bible that begins with the ten commandments.
Then last week, we heard the story of the golden calf.
It seems that as Moses was up on the mountain receiving the law from God, the people became impatient and made two calves out of gold.
They proclaimed that these were the gods who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and then they declared a festival.
This was all the more scandalous because the ten commandments begin with God saying you shall have no other gods before me and you shall not make any graven images.
So now, this week, we encounter the aftermath of this, really, betrayal by the Israelites.
And in the first part of this chapter that we didn’t read, God says to Moses:
“I cannot go with you the rest of the way to the promised land.
This people is too stubborn, I am too angry, I cannot go any further.
However, I know that I promised your ancestors that I would keep you safe, that I would deliver you, that you would inherit this land.
So, I’m going to send an angel with you instead to do everything I promised that I would do.
But I. I cannot go with you.”
It is a fascinatingly sparse conversation in the Bible.
We don’t know a lot about what God is thinking, but I think scripture invites us to wonder.
Other parts of the Old Testament, particularly the prophets, uses the metaphor of a parent and a child to describe the relationship between God and Israel.
When Israel is unfaithful, we read in the prophet Hosea that God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. / It was I who taught Ephraim to walk [this is another word for Israel in Hosea]
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. / I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. / I was like those who lift infants to their cheeks, I bent down to them and I fed them.
Interestingly, in these verses it sounds like God’s feelings have been hurt.
The Old Testament God often has this reputation for being angry, and admittedly we have numerous stories about God’s anger in both the Old and the New Testaments.
But Hosea describes that anger is that off a mother bear protecting her cubs.
So when we come back to this question of why God cannot go any further with Israel in the wilderness,
I believe it is because God is heartbroken.
The idea of a heartbroken God is not always an easy concept for us to accept.
I remember when I was a teenager, I got into an argument with my mother.
And we were both very angry. We were shouting.
And I said something very hurtful.
And she started crying and she abruptly left the room.
And in that moment I was so surprised, and I felt very confused and very powerful in a way that I did not want to feel powerful.
I realized that my mom could be hurt. That, in fact, I could hurt her.
She was not immune anymore.
And that was terrifying.
After God makes this proposition to Moses.
The way that the author has kind of arranged these stories, we have something that could be interpreted as a kind of flashback to a time before the golden calf.
Perhaps even before Sinai, when the Israelites had just started in the wilderness.
It’s a story about the way things used to be.
It seems that Moses used to actually meet God in a tent outside of the camp.
These stories tell us that the Mount Sinai was surrounded by this billowing cloud that was cloaking God’s presence.
Well this cloud used to descend on this tent.
And Moses would go into this thing and the Bible says that he would see God “face to face.”
This is remarkable because just a handful of verses later on, in our reading this morning, God says to Moses “you cannot see my face.”
No one can see my face and live.
That intimacy of the tent and the cloud it’s been broken.
This is a pattern that we see throughout the Bible.
One of the consequences of human sin is broken intimacy with God.
In the Adam and Eve story, the first sin results in the loss of the intimacy of the garden, where God used to walk—physically walk—with the first humans in the cool breeze of the evening.
Right before the flood story, we read that God is sorry—God experiences regret—for having ever created humanity, because sin has become so destructive.
And so what is amazing for me when I read this story is that God gives Moses and Israel the option of carrying on without that intimacy.
They still get the land. They still get the security in the wilderness. They still get what they bargained for.
It’s like my relationship with my first girlfriend. They still get the status and the special feelings
But they don’t have to deal with any of the messy, complicated, energy-sucking relationship stuff.
Many of you know that in our lives, it’s often possible to be in relationships like this, where you get the status and the identify but you don’t really have to be invested.
In fact this is something very easy to do in our relationship with God.
We can go church, we can consider ourselves to be Christian. And what’s great is we get that status, that identity, just automatically through God’s grace.
But some of us never invest in that relationship afterwards.
This can be a relationship with God, but it can also be a relationship with your community.
You can go years, an entire lifetime, knowing and trusting that you’ll get to the promised land some day, but never experiencing true intimacy with God.
In our reading this morning, Moses kind of draws a line in the sand and says to God, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”
You see for him, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to get to the promised land, if the relationship isn’t there to make the journey worth it.
“If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”
I wonder how many of us are willing to make that kind of demand of God or of our faith community.
For Moses it is especially bold, because Israel has just finished destroying that intimacy, betraying God, and yet he asks for it again.
For some of us here, we used to have that intimacy with God. But it’s been lost.
Maybe we grew up and we think we’ve grown out of it.
Maybe we made a decision that we regret, and we don’t believe that a relationship with God could be repaired.
Maybe we did nothing wrong, but something happened to us, some tragedy.
Maybe someone in the church failed you—maybe someone in this church failed you.
And you don’t know if its worth it to invest all that time and energy again.
If that’s you this morning, let me challenge you just to think about whether or not it’s worth it for you to go through this life with God’s intimate presence.
Now what that actually means might be something different to each one of us here.
For some, it might mean praying more. Not just when we need something from God, but actually inviting the Holy Spirit to be a part of our daily decision making—to actually change the way we live.
For others, it might mean reprioritizing our energy around the relationships that are most important—our families and our friends—and less around relationships with people who we think might be useful to us.
And actually, I think for others of us here, inviting God’s intimate presence in part means making a commitment to investing—giving of your time and energy and money to a community that is going to bring you and God closer together.
You see, God gives each one of us the option of going through the motions of church, of faith, of our entire lives without ever truly knowing God’s presence.
But let me challenge you—this morning and every morning—pray with Moses: “Holy God, if your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”
Because it is when we pray with that boldness, when we risk investing in something much bigger than ourselves, that is when we hear God say:
“I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Amen.