The hard work of change

The hard work of change

This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles, St. Stephen’s, Hurst, preached at the diocesan worship service on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 11, 2020.


Allison Sandlin Liles
Proper 23A
Exodus 32:7-14

This week I zipped through the seventh book in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series, A Trick of the Light.

A central question runs through the entire book: “Are people capable of change?”

Every single character wants to believe it’s possible for people to change, but many of them think it’s actually impossible. Several of the characters belong to Alcoholics Anonymous and attest to the transformative power of working through the 12 steps. For them, they’ve experienced change in themselves when they’ve stuck to the program. They fully understand that such change takes immense strength and courage.

But all too often in our society, we think changing our mind about something or admitting our wrongdoings is a sign of weakness or spinelessness.

Do y’all remember the term “flip flopper” from the 2004 election? It was used as a criticism against John Kerry because he had changed his opinion on policies regarding the economy and war in Iraq. The attack emphasized that Kerry didn’t even know what he himself believed. He was a flip-flopper.

Why is it that we thinking changing patterns of thinking or behavior are signs of strength in some situations but weakness in others?

What do you think?

Are we capable of change?

What does it say about us when we do?

In our Exodus reading today, we have multiple changes taking place…some for the better, some for the worse. Aaron and the Israelites abandon their faith in God after Moses takes too long up on Mount Sinai. They revert back to a pagan faith, worshipping a golden calf they create from their own jewelry. Aaron who was once Moses’ trustworthy second in command, rises to the occasion, offering directions and casting their earrings into the form of a calf.  If exchanging destructive patterns of behavior for healthier ones is seen as a sign of strength and courage, Aaron and the Israelites display weakness.

And then we have God, whose mind is clearly changed in this story. However, God’s decision changes for the better. Upon seeing what’s happening down the mountain, God says to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

Moses urges God to think rationally about this decision. What will the Egyptians say? What would Abraham say?

In the verses leading up to our lesson today, Moses has an extraordinary religious experience, a quintessential mountain top experience, if you will.  If you have ever had a moment or time in your life when you felt incredibly close to God, you have an idea what Moses was feeling on top of that mountain when he received the 10 Commandments.  In moments like this one, God is very real and present. There is this unbelievable closeness with the divine that can easily lead us to feel special, chosen and perhaps better than others.

But Moses does not give into the temptation to judge.  God tells him to come down off of the mountain and address the Israelites. God sees what is happening down below and obviously become very angry.  “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely and turned aside from the way that I commanded them.”

But Moses refuses to judge them. He comes down to find the Israelites gathered around his brother Aaron worshipping a calf they created out of their gold earrings.  The people have gone back to their idols and God is livid. The Israelites got restless because Moses was taking so long on that mountain, so the people and Aaron – Moses’ own brother – make a god they can physically see and worship in person. Their god is a golden calf.  AND – then they have the gall to blame Moses for bringing them out of Egypt into the wilderness to die.

Needless to say, this is the time when one would think Moses’ spiritual high would start to deflate.  Fresh from his personal encounter with the Holy, he must be embarrassed, ashamed and very disappointed in his people.  It would have been so easy for him to turn his nose up at the crowd, to agree with God that these people needed to be destroyed…they had no place among the chosen.

But instead, Moses with pleads God to show mercy. He reminds God that these are the people God guided and fed and watched over for all this time. These are the people with whom God formed a covenant. These are the people who God brought out of Egypt. Moses reminds God that these are the chosen ones, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to whom God swore their descendants would be multiplied like the stars of heaven.

And then we have one of the most profound verses in scripture:

“And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

Moses isn’t responsible for changing God’s mind – God is just too powerful and vast of a being to be persuaded by a human. It seems impossible for the creator to be changed by the created. The Israelites are lost, but God continues to fulfill the promise of guiding them to the Promised Land with Moses’ leadership.

We live in troubled times in both church and state. Our religious, political, and social divisions make it easy for us to take sides and to judge those who don’t believe as we do. And even though I try to hard not to be one of these people…I know that I am. I know the reaction I have when I’m surprised by candidates’ signs popping up in neighbors’ yards or family members’ ranting posts on social media.

\When we believe so passionately about an issue it can be really difficult to see where the other side is coming from. Especially as we near the election, this is a time when so many of us unfriend or hide people in our Facebook feeds because they voice different political opinions than us. We sever the connection and judge them.

Friends, we must remember Moses’ behavior on Mount Sinai and coming down from it. We must remember how Moses refused to judge the Israelites and God’s mind being changed.  This same God who was ready to destroy the chosen people is the same God who searches for lost sinners in the gospels, inviting them back into the fold.

So rather than silently judging people who are different than us, or assuming they aren’t capable of changing, or if they do change it’s a sign of weakness, why don’t we invite them into conversation? Why don’t we ask why they believe or behave in the ways that they do?

This is hard work. Thankfully, we are under no illusion that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is supposed to be easy. I pray that we find the strength and the courage to live more like Moses – When we hear someone grumbling about someone’s behavior or personality that they deem inappropriate…instead of joining in, let us plead with him or her to open their eyes, to change their minds.

I pray we find the nerve to welcome change in our own lives rather than being so quick to judge those who different from us…For at some time or another, we will each be one of those Israelites at the bottom of the mountain – tired of waiting on God to show up in our lives. Tired of the hard work involved in living the gospel. We will be the person who others dismiss as stiff-necked or perverse.  And when we are in this position of feeling lost and distant from God, let us always remember that God’s mind is changed.  God searches for those persons who are lost. And this compassionate God will not stop searching until that lost person is found.