October 15, 2023

"Faithful Living”

Rev. Scott Landis

Exodus 32:1-14 & Philippians 4:1-9

While neither of the biblical passages read today may strike you immediately as having any impact on our lives in the autumn of 2023 here on Maui, I invite you to take another and more careful look. Notice the settings and the people involved and then consider what about the human condition is being elucidated. Or another approach is to ask yourself, I were in either one of these stories, how might I respond? 

The first story from the Hebrew scriptures is probably the more familiar of the two. Moses had taken the Israelites out from under the heavy hand of the Egyptian Pharaoh. God had liberated them by bringing them through the parted Red Sea and over to dry land and then allowed the same waters to crush the Egyptian army. 

They began a perilous journey through the wilderness and yet God provided for them – a pillar of fire by night and one of smoke by day to lead the way, manna to eat, and water to drink, rules to regulate daily living, and the promise God would never leave them. But when Moses retreated for a few days to go up on the mountain and spend some much-needed alone time with God they got scared. They soon thought that Moses had abandoned them. That God had abandoned them, and they demanded something concrete to assure them that their God was near. 

Aaron – Moses’ older brother and surrogate leader – caved to peer pressure. He had them bring all their gold, fashioned an idol for them which they worshipped while engaging in a lively party. This was not your typical Sunday morning church scene. And God was furious. So much so that Moses had to use every diplomacy skill he had to convince God not to wipe them out and start all over. I figure Moses must have been a Libra. 

Now, it’s easy to look down our noses at the Israelites wondering how they could ever do such a thing. After ALL that God had done for them??? But before getting too uppity – think about their circumstance – their fear. They felt abandoned. They thought to themselves – it’s exactly what I would do if I were Moses and the going got tough. They were scared. And what do we do when we’re scared. Most of us grasp for any security we can find. Whether it’s resorting to our addictions or dependencies, or to infighting, or accusation – all of which erupted. When we are scared and life feels out of control, we typically try to grasp hold of that which feels concrete, secure, and permanent. 

Since the God of fire and smoke seemed to have evaporated, they wanted something they could hold onto, and Aaron came up with the perfect solution. “Bring me your gold” – and he made them a substitute God that they could touch, and admire, and offer sacrifice. 

May sound crazy, but is it? I wonder how we do the same thing today when God no longer seems near. What do we sub for God? Ponder that for a moment as we turn to the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. 

Paul had been with them not too long ago when he founded the church at Philippi. He had the capable assistance of those whom he named as well as many others including Euodia, Clement, and Syntyche. But now he was in prison and wrote them a letter that has the same ring as Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. He wrote to encourage them even though the Roman government had not ceased persecuting this new expression of Judaism NOR did he know what would happen to him. Surely, he thought his days were numbered. All his work could have been for naught, yet he encouraged the Philippians, just as he did the Corinthians, the Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians to remain steadfast. 

He offered them hope by challenging them to “Rejoice in the Lord … Always. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” 

Paul’s words to the Philippians that were read today are some of my very favorite in the entire bible. Listen to his final paragraph once again, 

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  As for the things that you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, do them, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Paul encouraged them despite the feeling that God had abandoned them in ways Aaron was unable to muster. He invited them to not give up. But rather, to double-down on the goodness that they had already experienced and noticed in him – and to keep on doing them. THEN they would sense the presence of the God of peace – who is with them and was in them. 

So, we can respond in one of two ways. Either to succumb to our fear and grasp for another god – one that may bring a temporary state of satiety OR return to the God who is near. In fact, has never left. Who wants nothing more than our faithful living. 

Keawala’i Congregational United Church of Christ, we are at an interesting, some might say precarious, yet, I believe, exciting time in our almost 200-year history. The last 5 have not been easy ones. You had to walk your beloved Kahu of almost 30 years out the door as he retired from full-time ministry. Then you welcomed this haole to lead you through transition to a new settled pastor. 18-months was the goal – 4 years, the reality. What we hadn’t anticipated was the worst pandemic in modern history. And if that wasn’t enough, the most deadly and destructive fire in modern history. Like I said, it has not been easy. 

We could resort to our addictions spending all our energy on preserving the concrete – our building and our bank account as the basis for our being. But instead, I have and will continue to encourage you with the words of St. Paul.

 “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The way forward is uncertain for each one of us. We cannot possibly know what will happen to us even in the remainder of this day. We can fret about that. Or get angry about that. Even lash out at one another about that. OR we can heed Paul’s encouragement. 

Like I said, this is an exciting time for us Keawala’i. Uncertain, unknown, yes, absolutely – but the Lord is near. Don’t be anxious – rather take it to God in prayer. 

You heard the tune earlier today, if you know the words sing them with me,

“Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” 

Let us practice what we preach. E pule kākou. Let us pray. 

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