Today is September 11, as I write this in preparation for Proper 23 (October 11th). Posted everywhere is the mantra “Never Forget.” Never forget those who lost their lives on that tragic day. Never forget the first responders who ran into falling buildings to risk their lives to save others. Never forget where you were when you were stunned as you abnormally flipped on the news to see what on Earth was happening in Manhattan, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania.
I was sitting in Chemistry class my junior year of high school. A classmate walked in and said, “I just heard on the radio that a plane hit one of the World Trade Center Towers.” We turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit the other tower. We watched as the first tower fell. Then the other. There were tears in the classroom. When recalling that day, most people remember right where they were.
People tend to remember where and when important things happen to them. Usually these sorts of memories are visceral. Perhaps the closest thing we have to a time machine are scents. It is amazing how the olfactory centers are so closely connected to the limbic system of the brain. The smell of an old girlfriend’s perfume or an old boyfriend’s cologne caught walking through the mall might unlock memories one wishes to keep suppressed, the must of a church basement that transports us to a time in our youth learning the stories of Jesus on flannel boards, the unique smell of grandma and grandpa’s house and all the memories tied up in visits with them.
One of the most interesting themes of the Exodus is how God continues to remain present with a people who forget so easily. Their memories are so short. Earlier in the narrative of the Exodus, they forget what it was like to be slaves as they could only listen to their empty bellies (Ex 16). They cannot see the freedom they have just been granted. They forgot what slavery was like. They forgot that when their numbers increased so greatly as a nation, the Pharaoh of Egypt enslaved them to maintain power. They forgot that to keep the population controlled, every boy two years and under was to be cast into the Nile. They forgot that the storehouses that held the bread they wanted were built upon their broken backs. They forgot the abuse and the heavy-handed oppression of Egypt. For they were in true bondage—slaves—subject to another with no freedom, with no liberty, and with no rights.
Whereas earlier they forgot their plight, they now just forget the One who saved them mightily.
It is almost baffling that at the beginning of this pericope, the Israelites speak as if Moses is a totally unfamiliar fellow—a distant relative they met once but lived far away. They don’t know what happened to him and they don’t seem to care. And there is no mention of Yahweh. There is this cry to Aaron: “Make us gods!” So he does. When the golden calf is finished, there is a proclamation: ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’ (Ex 32:4b).
We would think that they would remember from the night of the Passover the crackling fire, the prayers uttered by the head of the household, the way the blood of the lamb felt sticky on their hands when it dripped from the hyssop; the taste of the Paschal lamb, and how they just had to keep eating it until it was gone. We would think they would remember that the earrings they cast down in front of Aaron were handed over to them as they plundered Egypt on their way out of town. We would think that the Israelites would remember what the salt mist smelled like as they passed through the walls of the Red Sea. And surely, they would remember the cries and wails as the angel of death visited the great houses of Egypt. We would think they would remember the God who saved them.
But no, they do not remember the God who saved them. They choose to forget and spitefully worship a calf made with their own hands. By doing so, they spit in the face of the One who saved them by breaking his first two commands: have no other gods before me, and do not worship idols. Their demand “make us gods!” flies in the face of the ancient Hebrew conviction – that there is only one sovereign God in all the cosmos.
The great turn of this passage and the good news we find in it is that in the midst of God’s anger towards these people Moses is interceding on behalf of the people for God in God’s self to remember. Remember what you have promised, God. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What will the nations think if you brought these people out of Egypt just to destroy them in the desert? Remember the promises you have made. Most interestingly, Moses offers this prayer of petition to God right after God offers him the promise originally given to Abraham: “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (Ex. 32:10) Even so, Moses presses onward in prayer: remember the promises you have made. And God relents.
This passage begs us to do two things as pastors. First, we have to continuously call our congregations to remember. We remember the story of God and the way of salvation when we open the Scriptures and proclaim the gospel. People are called to remember, and proclaiming the gospel beckons us to repent. We call people to remember by sharing in Eucharist. It is interesting that the primary way by which our Lord Jesus asked us to remember him was by eating and drinking. There is taste and smell involved. Memory is reinforced whenever we do it. When we remember our baptism, we’re forced to remember what it is like to have been plunged into the waters, held down for a second, and brought up into new life. Part of the pastoral vocation is helping people remember.
The second thing we do is we pray for God to remember our people. We stand in the same posture as Moses, praying and interceding for our people. We ask God to remember the promises God has made to us. We cry out to God. And God hears our prayers.