Growing up, my dad sent my siblings and me out the door with a similar reminder,
the same benediction his father gave him growing up:
Remember, you’re a Herrick.
In the midst of so many opportunities to confront teenage drama, peer pressure, and decision-making with a half-formed prefrontal cortex, he was reminding us that who we are and whose we are remains steadfast. It’s no accident that this phrase shaped my identity and my respect for our family. Sometimes it gave me the courage to be my authentic self even when the real me seemed risky, embarrassing, or inconvenient.
The Israelites are getting a crash course in identity, too. After five hundred years of slavery in Egypt, they need a lot of hand-holding. Their relationships and traditions had been crushed under the weight of oppression for generations. And so God begins teaching them freedom with the Word: drafting them into a love story about who they are and whose they are: beloved people saved by God.
I am the Lord your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I am the one who heard your cries. I brought you out of the land of Egypt and delivered you through the Red Sea. Remember when you were hungry in the wilderness? I sent manna from heaven to sustain you. You persist, not because you’ve figured it out, but because I am with you. And you are my people.
They hear this announcement of God’s interest and care over and over again while they wander in the wilderness. And while they’re listening, new relationships and traditions become part of the story, shaping their memory of who they’ve been and whispering promises about who they’re still becoming.
God tells the tale of salvation and freedom and love often so that it becomes essential to what they know about themselves. Everything they pray, eat, carry, sing, and celebrate is rooted in the story God is telling about them and through them: that a new identity as people of God is the one thing that matters and it’s come very near to save and be with them…until it suddenly feels too far away.
In Exodus 32, Moses has left the people with Aaron while he meets God on the mountain, an aloof and mysterious staff meeting that outlasts the faith and patience of Israel. The community grows restless and irritated, so disagreements and misunderstandings become heavy and sharp. The one thing that matters – their collective and unique identity as chosen people of God – gets lost in the shuffle. And without that one thing that matters at the center, they begin looking for identity elsewhere.
When is Moses come back?
Why does he get to go up there all by himself?
I want to see God right down here in the camp.
What if we’ve been left out here to die?
It’s time to take matters into our own hands.
Aaron is doing the best he can with a rowdy crowd, but Aaron is a fixer.
And the people don’t need fixing.
They just need to hear the truth about who they are and whose they are.
They need to be called back into the story.
Instead, he gives them something to do.
Grab your gold. Participate. Together we’ll make something beautiful.
So beautiful, in fact, it will impress us to worship it with a festival day.
This plan’s best intentions aren’t wrong, but it’s not rooted in the one thing that matters, either. Aaron succeeds in keeping them busy and giving them something tangible, but he doesn’t address the real issue: The people need the Word. And a statue can’t fix that identity crisis.
And so when God sees this and flies off the handle, it is not only because God is jealous of our distracted loyalties. It is also because God cannot bear to see us starving for the story. God cannot bear to hear us worshipping the idols of this world who do not love us back. God cannot bear to feel this far apart from creation, causing doubt about the one thing that matters.
God is such a mess about loving and grieving the Israelites that he blunders his own holy story, giving Moses responsibility for their foolishness: Go back down the mountain, Moses, because your people, the ones you brought out of Egypt have broken the number one rule. I’ve seen how stubborn and stiff-necked your people are and I’ve about had it!
Moses can’t fix it. And he won’t win by nitpicking God’s emotions. And so he does for God what God has so often done for us. He tells the story. He speaks the truth about God’s saving love and mighty hand. He reminds God about the covenants made with Israel’s ancestors and to generations still to come, now until the end of time.
These are your people. They always have been, they always will be. You love them and nothing can ever change that. And then the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
It’s a story that never gets old and yet it is so easily forgotten. Sundays are great for sleeping in, but we show up anyway because we’re hungry for this Word. We’re starving for this story. We come to be grafted into the narrative of our ancestors and descendants, the tale that transcends time and space: God can’t talk himself out of loving us and saving us. It’s compassion overload. It’s more than we ever imagined or deserve. It’s the one thing that matters, that holds us all together as one people.
Instructions about the post-it notes. (see audio clip above)
Your identity as beloved children of God matters:
to this community figuring out how to be church
to your daily relationships and work
to the world that aches for reconciliation and belonging.
So come to the table and remember your name.
Remember who you are and whose you are,
caught up in a love story so central and holy and powerful,
it has been known to change God’s own mind. Amen.