Simon Mainwaring: Leaving Egypt


Earlier this year, I had the privilege of leading a pilgrimage to the holy lands of Israel and Jordan. In honesty, I have never been someone who hankered to step where Jesus and Moses and Abraham stood. I was curious, but not burning with desire. As the time approached for our pilgrim bad to leave, I noticed that my curiosity was quickly turning to anxiety. I wondered how on earth I would be able to capture the incredible significance of these places and peoples. I wasn't sure if I was worried about myself not appearing quite as knowledgeable as others might have thought me to be, or worried about the people I was leading, that they would not have the kind of deep spiritual experiences that they'd been hoping for. 

Not usually being an anxious person, I was anxious about being anxious and so decided to make a call to a fellow Episcopal priest in Tennessee, whom I knew had led several pilgrimages to Israel before. His counsel was simple and effective, "Don't sweat it too much," he said. "The land will speak for itself. Just help them stand upon it." And so, I did.

It was a beautiful two weeks of inward and outward journeying. We made our pilgrimage from one ancient place of significance to another, weaving our way in and out of history and theology as we went. Some of us found Jesus. Others found a land, layered thick with communities and civilizations, old and new. All of us found each other as our feet were planted in a broad land as the Psalmist says, and we were changed.

It matters, doesn't it, where we plant our feet. I'm an immigrant in this country, so I know how it feels to plant your feet in two places at once. It doesn't work. In the end, you have to choose. I have found that it's not a question of whose national anthem to sing, and certainly not a question of where to pay taxes - that one is decided for you. Instead, I have found that choosing means saying to yourself: I'm making home here. Here is the place where I will make meaning, and forge friendships. Here I will endeavor to plant my feet and belong.

That's all good, but it's harder than it sounds, especially when the journey has taken you far from home. Recently, I was given a sneak peak of a new documentary film which follows the lives of refugees who have attempted to plant their own feet in Clarkston, Georgia, known in our part of the world as America's most diverse square mile due to the vast range of countries of origin that the refugees who live there represent. The film's origin stories pass through Somalia, Iraq, and Myanmar, taking on the tragically awful turns of genocide, war, displacement.

Yet, the human spirit is remarkably resilient, especially when people find the freedom to express who they truly are. To plant our feet in a new land and not lose our sense of self requires both a vision for the future and a desire to retain the identities of the past. In a way, much like my advice from the Episcopal priest in Tennessee, the vocation of loving refugees and others who seek to make home in our midst is to help them stand on the land, and let the land do the talking.

One of the more dramatic settings of our holy lands pilgrimage was atop Mt. Nebo, a ridge on the Abarim mountain range in Jordan, where tradition holds that Moses was granted a view of the promised land his wayfaring Hebrews would eventually end up in. As I stood there, looking over the stretch of land opened out before me, I imagined how it might have been to have made that long journey from slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert, finally to gaze upon the land the freed slaves had longed to see. What is it that they saw? Their land or another's? A place of welcome, the land of milk and honey, or the promise of future hostility. After all, the biblical story from this point is bloody and brutal, as the people already in the land, the Canaanites, along with a whole host of others, are decimated by God's divine command. The land, seen here as a promise, becomes a conquest, as the freed slaves become conquering armies.

If it was a complicated scene that the Hebrews saw as they peered over the Abarim range into the land of the Canaanites, what was it that they saw inside of themselves? Specifically, what of the episode our scripture reading today recalls about the gold calf was remembered?

As a child, I had a Bible with lively color pictures spread in some cases over double pages. It was the kind of Bible that soon taught you where to find the best stories, because they had the most spectacular scenes. There is a degree to which my appreciation of the story of the golden calf is colored by that Bible. The picture of it I had felt exotic. Exciting even. People were dancing, adorning the giant bovine with all sorts of jewelry and garlands. It was a stark contrast to the often sparse depictions of the wilderness wanderings and earnest faces of Israel's patriarchs and matriarchs. Yet, even the tolerant milieu of the Church of England that I grew up in had taught me something else about that image: it was wrong.

However, a question I never really had encouragement to answer was why the Hebrew slaves built that calf. As a child, who spent every Sunday morning and evening in church throughout my childhood, I was familiar enough with the Bible to know that perhaps one reason the Hebrews built the calf was because they just couldn't bear waiting any more. Moses had been up the mountain with God for a good twelve chapters, which as any child who has attended Sunday school knows is a large portion of life to see pass you by. What's more, these were not a dozen action-packed chapters; these were chapters of details, and instructions for religious life and practice. Let's just say, I was sympathetic. Yet, as sympathetic or enticed as I was by the story and the images of the golden calf, it remained clear in my mind that it was something to be frowned upon.

In my child's imagination then, if I were to picture the Hebrews peering over into the promised land as I would later do myself in my adult years, I pictured them recalling that episode of the golden calf with regret. "If only we had waited a little while longer," I could imagine them saying, "if only we had remained faithful to the God who brought us out of Egypt.

Now, I see the story of the golden calf a little differently, no longer through a child's but through an immigrant's eyes. I see now that the golden calf may be more than simply the errant choice of slaves who knew no better, just as I seek to see more than the popular motif of the immigrant other who fails to assimilate into American culture. I see people who live both here and there. I see people planting their feet in one land, yet remembering another. In those freed men and women, I see those who have wandered from their own places of enslavement and oppression into the broad land of their emancipation, brining stories and songs and images of the divine life with them, not as sin or threat but as signs and symbols of life.

As we dig a little deeper into the significance of the calf, we discover that images of bulls and calves were common in the ancient near east. In Egypt, a bull, Apis, represented the god Ptah, and in Canaan the god El was sometimes called a bull. What's more, we learn in First Kings that Jeroboam's calves were originally intended as pedestals for YHWH, not as idols. In other words, the calf was and remained a part of the theological imagination. The calf was not removed from the religious life of the Hebrews, it was integrated.

Perhaps we might say then, that God changes God's mind in the scripture we share today, because God is more spacious than we had first thought God to be. God elects not to exercise "hot anger" over the Hebrews, but instead continues to lead them through the wilderness knowing that it takes time for a new theological imagination to form, just as it takes time for new cultural imaginations to form for those who come to this country from other lands.

Emerging into the life of the divine is a long, slow birth in the human heart. Perhaps there was regret in the memory, as the Hebrews remembered the episode of the golden calf on their way into a more spacious land than the wilderness afforded them, but perhaps the regret was less a matter of sin and more a matter of misunderstanding. How often that can be true of us, and how rich our lives can be when we give space and time for the fullness of the lives around us to take shape and speak of God's love in their own tongues. "Let them stand upon the land" was the encouragement I received in leading my own group of pilgrims into the places of God's promise. For that pilgrimage and for life's ongoing journeys, it feels to me to be a wisdom worth living by.

Let us pray.

Loving God, creator of an abundance of life, we give thanks for the breadth and depth of our human family. May we know something of the delight you take in us, to treasure in our hearts, and to show forth in our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.