Sunday 11th October 2020
Year A, The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Exodus 32.1-15

It simply had to happen. The Chosen people have been schlepping round the wilderness getting ever more upset; in spite of the quails and the manna and the water, this has been a traumatic experience. The Lord might have spectacularly extracted His People from slavery in Egypt but gratitude is always short-lived and nostalgia is a necessary part of humanity's survival strategy and high drama too easily generates depression after its climax. Added to this - and I made a special study of the topic just after lockdown - the Lord is totally irrational in dishing out punishments to his ravaged people. Now Moses has gone up the mountain and will return, so the rumour in the camp goes, with a set of comprehensive but vexatious laws; but the people have a love-hate relationship with Moses: he gets on their nerves but they want him to come back, whatever he brings; he has been away too long.

And then the dam of righteousness is broken by the force of climactic frustration; and note, and note, this is not just the expression of the theologically unwashed, even Aaron, Moses’ Deputy, gives way. And the People, with his connivance, erect a gaudy, golden god and descend into an orgy of self-indulgence.

Now the usual contemporary response to this crisis, stemming from 16th Century sensibilities, particularly because of its sexual content,  is that this is a crisis of morality; but a crisis of morality is the result of a crisis of obedience, and a crisis of obedience is the result of a crisis of worship because any group of people might suffer from a moral Crisis but the defining characteristic of Judaism and Christianity, for all their moral orientations, is that they are  fundamentally communities of worship.

The question, then, that this crisis in the wilderness poses is whether we, in our wilderness, are suffering from a crisis of worship from which all these other ills stem.

Too often our worship is concerned with our comfort, calling for quails and manna and water, expecting gratification as a contractual condition of our worship; we are too bound up with a false God who is expected to behave as a god of our own imagining would behave. We are too apt to connect our worship with human flourishing such that faith wavers when things go wrong.

But how we function and how God functions are totally separate and certainly not a matter of contract. Worship of our Creator is our unconditional duty as creatures. This is an uncomfortable truth unless we see that God's love for us and our returned love of God are both unconditional. After all the wrangling is over, we are left with bare, painful, sacrificial love.

Under lockdown it may be that we have found worship even more exacting than in former times and, at the very  least, this surely underlines the critical point that Church is communal; worshipping alone at home, only in virtual communion, makes mutual support more difficult. Which is why we must all make the extra effort to realise the worshipping community in these times of trouble. We who are here try to generate togetherness in spite of obstacles, we give each other The Peace without touch; our smiles are more than half hidden by face coverings; and for me it is even worse because my artificial eyes do not smile. But watching from home faces the even greater challenge of trying to stay faithful to each other with virtual contact.

But there is boundless hope in the Book of Exodus which we have been reading on these Sundays. This book is our book; it is the book of faith in a crisis; it is the book of shared suffering and frustration; and, above all, it is the book of our liberation. We will all reach the Promised Land in the end as long as we are brave and faithful.

How, then, should we respond to the crisis in the wilderness?

I should say first that we must value worship and love more highly than comfort and contract. There is a widespread political theory that liberalism, with a small l, the political system which is founded on a belief in tolerant plurality, depends upon respectful mutuality; but history shows that this is not enough; we are here, where we are, not solely because of mutual respect but more critically because of sacrifice. We may readily think of the sacrifice of the men in the First World War trenches and the pilots above the Channel during the Battle of Britain but, in our own time, we have applauded the sacrifice of NHS staff and key workers. And, yes, we have made our personal sacrifices too for the Common Goo; but sacrifice is not episodic, it is chronic, it is the way of our Christian life.

Next, I would say that we might build ourselves snug retreats to escape from life's harshness but we are, nonetheless, still in the wilderness and we know that there is no escape, that personal worldly comfort is a futile response to the harsh conditions of earthly life. If we are to flourish, and if others less fortunate than us are to flourish, then escape can only provide a temporary respite from the storm.

The Chosen People in the wilderness bemoaned the loss of their cooking pots in Egypt but the journey across the Red Sea towards freedom was worth the loss of an Amazon warehouse full of cooking pots.

Finally, returning to our major theme, I would say that, whatever the obstacles, in our situation, in society, and in ourselves, we must enshrine humble, unconditional worship at the centre of our lives. Obedient worship is at the heart of Exodus; without it there is no liberation; that is why, and how, Exodus is our story.