The commentaries for Oct 15 were written by members of the Strategic Team for Authentic Diversity in the Northwest Washington Synod.
by Priscilla Paris-Austin
There are a number of things that are curious about this story from Exodus. Moses has gone up to the Mount to meet with God, but the people are afraid he will not return. This is curious. Also, Aaron, Moses’s brother helps the people build the calf. Why would he do this? Then there is God’s rage, Moses’ petition and God’s change of heart; all very curious.
Rabbinical teaching indicates that the Israelites or at least the elders, knew that Moses was going up to the mountain to be there for 40 days and 40 nights1. But the people miscounted how long it had been since Moses departed and such was the source of their distress. In other words, if they had only been patient, this whole mess might have been avoided. What does this tell us about our understanding of time and God’s? In the quest for justice and equity, it is easy to grow weary in waiting. Too often we grow impatient with God, with systems, with each other as we wait for God’s direction to come down from the mountain. The ironic thing is, the Israelites already had the Ten Commandments, they had Aaron, they had the evidence of deliverance from Egypt, a deliverance which had taken 400 years. God’s companionship was fully present with them, but they were stuck, looking for Moses and counting days. Their impatience caused them to forget their identity and to go against all that they were being taught.Their impatience initiated a crisis in leadership.
These same rabbinical scholars also agree that Aaron’s role in this whole event is more complex than it appears. Yes, Aaron, tells the discontented people to bring their gold and even constructs a golden calf. But in the end, Aaron is named a high priest, indicating that he is rewarded for his role, not punished. Scholars propose that Aaron saw the impatience of the people and trusted that Moses would return. Therefore, Aaron concocted this plan to stall the people, going so far as to embody their sinful desires in order to save them from themselves. What does this say to us about our role as disciples and leaders on behalf of the community? When the community is impatient, how are leaders called to respond? Like Aaron, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a reluctant leader in the civil rights movement.2 He had just returned to Birmingham after completing his PhD intent on pastoring his small church and living a simple but faithful life. However, after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he was elected as the first leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Aaron, was Moses’ mouthpiece. He had no intention of being the people’s leader, but there he was thrust into the role in Moses’ absence. His strategy was to to stall the rebellious people.
“That is why he told them to collect their wives’ jewelry. It is also explained that Aaron knew that the Jewish women
had too much faith in Moses to be roped into such mutiny, and that they would further delay their husbands.
Building the altar himself was also a delay tactic.”3
As leaders, sometimes we are called to be strategic in how we bring people to transformation. King’s work with the SDLC was always strategic, while being grounded in his faith. Aaron chose to take on the sin of the people upon himself. In doing so, he was able to turn them back to God. Another example today, is Robert E. Lee IV, who after speaking out in opposition to memorials of his ancestor, resigned his pastorate. Sometimes we are called to lead in ways that surprise us, but allow us to turn others back to God.
In contemplating God’s rage, Moses’ petition and God’s change of heart, there is a pattern for prayer and a model for repentance. God is angry that the Israelites have dismissed all that has been done for them. They are appropriating what God has done and giving credit to an inanimate object. Moses speaks on their behalf, facing God’s rage for them, mediating between them and God. Moses remembers the plan God had, the promises God made and is bold enough to name how God’s wrath, at this point will not accomplish God’s plan. It’s a courageous prayer, one that can only be made because of their close relationship. It is an honest prayer, I imagine, God expected nothing less from Moses. And God has a change of heart. Moses has spoken to God’s heart and God is moved. God turns back to God’s self, to God’s promise. In short, God repents. So if God can repent, why do we find it so difficult?
The preacher can take any of these themes to shape a message of justice & reformation for the people.
Consider, where your faith community may need to be patient with new ways of being beloved and inclusive community. Is there a movement that wants to cast aside the call to beloved community because it’s too hard or takes too long or costs too much? What marginalized people might you be casting aside in the process of seeking justice for another? Speak to the lesson of patience that Aaron and the women gave to the Israelites.
Consider who might be the reluctant leaders of your community. How are they being called to serve and guide the community, despite their own hesitation? What burden or mantle might your congregation need to carry on behalf of your neighborhood? Who might you need to serve and care for until the world catches up to your compassion?
Consider repentance. Even God needs to turn back to God’s promises.There is no shame in this for God or Moses. The end result is a recognition that building community will take time. Repentance is like this. It requires a willingness for bold confrontation. Someone must name the forgotten promise. It requires relationship. We need to be in relationship with those who have turned from the beauty of God’s promise, in order to call them back. And it requires a willingness to turn back. Both Moses and God teach us this lesson. And their mutual transformation is the catalyst for the reconciliation of the Israelites back to God.
If you choose to preach on this text, trust the relationship you have built with your people, be bold, and turn them back to God.
2 Garrow, David J., “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”; Harper Collins, New York, 1986.