Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year C)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 16, 2007. 
Based on Exodus 32:1, 7-14 (Proper 19, Year C).

One of the stops on our whirlwind family vacation this summer was Hershey Park. My brother and his family came up from Virginia so we had five kids eight and under all hopped up on chocolate. It was great fun; it just wasn’t the restful, renewing part of our vacation experience. I’m still waiting for that. 

One of the things that happens whenever I travel somewhere with my brother is that we revert back into our old sibling rivalry. The competition takes different forms depending on what’s at hand – ping pong, shuffleboard, how far we can throw our kids in the pool. At Hershey Park this manifested itself by Matt daring me to go on a roller coaster. And of course he couldn’t have pulled me aside to quietly throw down the gauntlet; he had to issue the challenge in front of Bryna and the boys. Mixing sibling rivalry with my ego is not a good combination. Now, I don’t like heights. I’d only been on one roller coaster in my life: a relatively tame one at Six Flags Great Adventure when I was a senior in high school. I don’t remember much about it except that I couldn’t even scream because my intestines felt like they were coming out my mouth. Which my brother well knew. But nonetheless pride took over and I suddenly found myself waiting on line with my brother to get on the Super Dooper Looper.

That’s the other thing that happens at an amusement park – you wait on a lot of lines. It’s a bit aggravating when you’re with five overly excited kids waiting to get on the Tilt-a-Whirl, but it’s altogether different when you’re anticipating certain death on the Super Doooper Looper (I really enjoy saying that).

But waiting in whatever form is hard. If you’re waiting for something exciting, like the new laptop I ordered two and a half weeks ago that still hasn’t come, it’s difficult to wait patiently. If you’re waiting to go through something trying, like an upcoming surgery, it’s easy to be overtaken by anxiety. Waiting certainly got the Israelites in trouble in this morning’s reading from Exodus. Moses couldn’t have been gone that long. He went up to Mt. Sinai to get the 10 Commandments and by the time he got back down they’d asked Aaron to “make gods” for them. And Aaron had obliged by collecting a bunch of gold and creating that most infamous of idols, the golden calf, for them to worship. Not a good idea. But this highlights just how hard it is to wait. Because waiting breeds uncertainty.  And whenever uncertainty starts creeping in, there’s always the temptation to start worshiping idols. 

Much of the life of faith involves waiting – waiting for prayers to be answered; waiting for a sign from God, waiting for spiritual enlightenment. Being a person of faith can feel an awful lot like sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. Sure we have the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer rather than 2-year-old issues of People Magazine. But waiting, listening, and being patient are some of the hardest things to do in this life. The true test of faith is how we respond to the waiting. Do we allow Jesus to permeate the waiting process by helping us slow down and listen or do we reach for idols? It may not be a golden calf but it may well be something else to help us numb the pain of waiting.

There is risk involved in waiting just as there is risk involved in faith. For the Israelites the risk of faith was symbolized by Moses’ absence. What if he never did come back? Would the Israelites have forever forsaken God for that golden calf? Out of their fear, their response to Moses’ absence was to attempt to domesticate or tame God; to make God into something they could see and hold; to make God into a physical deity that would always be physically with them. And this was a familiar model – in the ancient world all communities had their own idols and even households had idols they believed would offer protection and guidance through the uncertainties of life. This whole concept of a God they could not see was a radical one and so Moses’ delay up on the mountain was a true test of their faith.

At this early stage of their faith development, they couldn’t imagine remaining faithful to this unseen God without Moses, their mediator and leader. He himself was the tangible evidence that made God real for them. Which of course made Moses himself an idol. Perhaps this is why God kept Moses up on the mountain, precisely to see how the Israelites would react to his absence. And to teach them something more about faith and being in relationship with God. Could they live within the tension and uncertainty of faith or would they turn to other gods? It’s a tension you and I continue to live with. And sometimes it’s hard. We may not sit around waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain but we do a lot of waiting in our lives. Waiting for the kids to finally go back to school; waiting for the results from a medical test; waiting for a child to be born or a relative to die. And waiting so often tests our faith.

It’s a natural human longing to want to cling to that which can’t be held. Even at the empty tomb Jesus has to tell Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold onto me.” It’s what we yearn to do in the face of uncertainty and waiting. The Christian faith assures us that we are never abandoned by Jesus Christ. He weeps with us, he rejoices with us, he waits with us. Even at those times when the swirl of uncertainty prevents us from feeling and knowing his presence, Jesus is in our midst.

It took me 38 years but I finally did go on a roller coaster that did a loop-de-loop. Thanks to my brother. And I survived – meaning that I didn’t throw up. But as is often the case, the waiting was the hardest part.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007 


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