What Golden Calf are you worshipping today?
Last week, Joe Karnes shared with us the story of Joseph, his father Israel, and his brothers. As the book of Genesis ends Joseph, with God’s leading, has saved his family and their people from famine and death, aligned them under the protection of Pharaoh, and died in peace.
As we turn the page and enter the book of Exodus, a haunting phrase greets us: “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This new Pharaoh governed through fear and violence, and the people of God were no longer protected and cared for in his administration. This new Pharaoh insisted on “Egypt for Egyptians.” Under Joseph, God’s children were welcomed as immigrants. Now, they had become slaves under the thumb of the king who did not know Joseph, and did not know God.
But God knew them, and heard their cries. God sent a deliverer, Moses, who was born an Israelite, raised an Egyptian, and stood in the gap for God’s people. Exodus tells the story of Moses’ call, his sojourn, his prophetic stand against Pharaoh and the powers that be, and the release of the people from their slavery. They celebrated Passover together, escaped Pharaoh and his army through the Red Sea, were led into the wilderness by God’s pillar of fire and cloud, were fed manna and quail by God, and landed at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses slowly trekked up the side of the slope to meet God in all of God’s power and glory and majesty.
Remember when you were a kid, and the teacher stepped out of the room for half a second? He or she had to ask a question of the teacher across the hall, or maybe even had to step out to run to the bathroom. What happened, every time? Five minutes later…pure pandemonium? Everyone is talking. Students have left their seats and run over to talk to their friends. Kids are throwing balls of paper at each other. Johnny has taken the opportunity to open the window and is starting to climb out. It’s like Little House on the Prairie to Lord of the Flies in the blink of an eye.
In Exodus 32, Moses leaves the room for five minutes, and pure pandemonium breaks out. He leaves Aaron in charge of the classroom, thinking he is responsible and will do what he is supposed to. Before Moses can get back from the bathroom, Aaron has listened to the grumblers and complainers, bowed to their wishes, collected their pieces of gold, melted them down, and formed them into a Golden Calf. What happened? The story goes south here in three ways.
First, at the heart of the problem is the Back to Egypt Committee. We heard from them a few weeks ago, when we were talking about the manna. These are the folks who have a very selective memory about the “good old days.” They remember the way that things used to be under the Egyptians, and thought for sure that it was better than the camping trip they currently found themselves on. God love them, they were trying to do the right thing. But they were ready to turn on Moses, and lead the charge backwards…to the “good old days” that never were. We in the Church know that there are still plenty of Back to Egypt Committees. “I remember when we used to do it this way, pastor. I remember back when the church looked like this. I remember…I remember…I remember…” And while that looking back can be helpful, and that history can be meaningful, it never helps to try and go back. The situation is always different. God is always a God of new creation, transformative action, and anticipatory hope. The Back to Egypt Committee is almost always more destructive than they are helpful.
Second, in the middle of all of this is Aaron. Have you ever met someone who used to be in charge, but isn’t anymore? Someone who used to be powerful, but no longer holds much power? And they carry that like a chip on their shoulder. They complain about the people in power now, they resent them, and very often, they know that they would do a better job if they were in charge. It doesn’t take much for the Back to Egypt Committee to get into Aaron’s head. They knew that they had to wait until Moses left the room, and they went straight to Aaron and told him, “a few of us have been talking…and we don’t know why we are following this guy. Moses doesn’t know what he’s doing, and we can’t even see this God that he keeps talking to. We think YOU would do a much better job at leading us. Why don’t we make us a proper god, ditch Moses on the mountain, and reclaim the glory that we are owed.” And Aaron eats it up. He remembers the power he had in Pharaoh’s court. The staff that he still holds in his hand. They are right…he would do a better job leading them. “OK, he says, give me your earrings and someone start a fire.”
But there is a third dynamic here, as well. The calf itself. It is not accidental that this is the symbol that was chosen. The bull-calf represented overwhelming and overbearing power. It was a figure of strength and virility. Scholar Rolf Jacobson reminds us what the people were doing here. They were not actually worshipping this golden statue, but instead thought that they were worshipping Yahweh. But they worshipped only one element of Yahweh, namely God’s power and strength. So, in fact, says Jacobson, they were worshipping a “false image of the true God.” He suggests that “a good heresy has to be 80% true to work.” So, in other words, they saw the strength of God and suggested that it fit their cultural definitions of strength. The way the world around them defined strength. God became the bully, the tyrant, the overpowering unyielding sovereign that they wanted God to be. They worshipped God the bull-calf as a false image, instead of the living, loving God.
What Golden Calf are you worshipping today?
I have had a long history of worshipping Golden Calves. False representations of who God is. Much like the Back to Egypt Committee, and sometimes a bit like Aaron himself, I have assumed that I knew more than anyone else. I didn’t need to listen. I didn’t need community. I had all the answers. Today, I want to share my testimony…less prescription for how you should behave, than description of how God has worked in my life, amongst and around my Golden Calves….
The first Golden Calf that I have worshipped early and often is the “nose-counter god.” The god of big numbers. Like the Back to Egypt Committee, I have been guilty of looking on past experience and making it a block to what God has in store for my future. When I worship the nose-counter god, I believe that “if there aren’t as many people, then it won’t be as good of an experience.” Crowd is low at worship today? That means that the people who are here don’t deserve my best energy. Numbers aren’t what they used to be? Clearly someone is doing something wrong. I remember when I started youth ministry here in Kansas. I had grown up with youth groups in the Bible Belt, where the cultural expectation is that people go to church. So, groups were bigger, and you could play big group games, and rent buses to go to youth events. When I came to Topeka, and only two kids signed up for a camp, I bowed to the nose-counter god and told the organizers that we didn’t have enough kids to go. I robbed those two kids of an experience with God, because I worshipped the god of big numbers.
The second Golden Calf that I am guilty of worshipping is the “white racist god.” I have preached before, and reposted recently, a sermon titled “I am a Racist.” In it, I acknowledged my own history with whiteness, and assumptions that my whiteness and the whiteness of others was somehow innately superior to people who have black or brown bodies. I am reading a book by Robert P. Jones titled White Too Long, a historic and statistical analysis of white Christians. And it is hard. Hard to read, and hard to see myself in it. He surveys the history of our country, and the ways that white Christians have used the Church to sustain their power. Jones, like I, grew up in a denomination which was created in order to sustain and ensure that slavery continued. Furthermore, he writes that in instances today where that power is threatened, as white Christians become a minority—or really just a little less of a majority—they have used the power of the Church and the name of God, to attempt to return to the “good old days” of the past…which were in fact good for them, and disastrous for many. That’s his story, a white Baptist pastor who graduated from a Baptist seminary. That’s my story. I have participated in the structures and received the benefits that he writes about. I have helped to create a false image of the true God, and have painted God in my image.
The third story is one that I have not shared from the pulpit, and was asked not to a few years ago when the church was discussing gay marriage. I have a personal story of worship of the “god of gay depravity.” This god demands that I follow the tradition of the culture of my childhood. When I was a child and youth, if we wanted to make fun of someone’s behavior, we called it “gay.” If someone wasn’t manly enough, they were “queer.” If they actually admitted that they were attracted to someone of the same sex, we were not really disappointed when they were ridiculed, beaten, or even drug to their death behind a pickup truck. Oh, we shook our heads, but there is no place for that kind of depravity in our world. “Not Adam and Steve,” we rhymed with glee as we ignored people’s pain. As late as the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision, I still worshipped that false god of gay depravity. I could quote Scripture. I had statistics, carefully worded to make my points. This false god, much like the Calf of the Egyptians, demanded an equally false image of what it meant to be a man, or a woman. Especially what it meant to be a Christian.
The story does not end well for the Back to Egypt Committee. And yet, the people of God survive this painful chapter. God reaches out in grace and restoration and covenant, even to those who would reject that covenant. Today, the question in front of us is this, “what Golden Calf are you worshipping today?” In each of these cases, I was worshipping my image of God. An image defined much more by my culture, and much less by what the Bible actually says. There are traces of truth in these false gods…as Jacobson says, it takes 80% for a good heresy. But they are false images of the true God, defined by the world around me, and propped up by cherry-picked Bible verses, instead of the Living God.
And so a second question comes with the first: “are we ready for God and God’s prophets to smash our Golden Calf to bits?” Are you ready to see the Living and Loving God in fullness and complexity and mystery and personal relationship, and not just stereotypes fed by the enslavement of the past? Are you ready to trust in that God, looking into the future with hope? Are you ready to climb that mountain and listen for the voice of God? Now, again, this is my experience, and yours might be very different. Some of you will climb the same mountain and hear a different voice. But the bottom line is the same: God still speaks from the mountain.
For the mountain still rumbles.
God and God’s prophets are ready to smash the nose-counter god. In my life and in my ministry, I have learned what it means to count children and not count noses. That every child, every youth, every worshipper, every church member, is valuable and worthy of my attention, because they are worthy of God’s attention. I have learned—and am still learning—how to smash the nose-counter god by focusing on quality over quantity. On experience and encounter, over numbers and noses. And when the Back to Egypt Committee suggests we turn toward the good old days that weren’t really that good, I proclaim with hope and anticipation that God leads us into the future church, so buckle up and get ready for a new thing.
God and God’s prophets are ready to smash the white racist god. I have learned from Robert Jones, and from voices of color what it means to be anti-racist. Being anti-racist means that I not only see my participation in a white Christianity that assumes superiority; I must acknowledge that I have contributed my own earrings to the fire. But as a follower of Christ, I must engage in anti-racist work, as we work to dislodge and dismantle those dehumanizing systems, just like Jesus did. Along with Moses, we have to topple those false images.
God and God’s prophets are ready to smash the god of gay depravity. I have met gay and lesbian and queer sisters and brothers in Christ, and have come to understand their faith. I have seen them with their families and their children. I have learned to listen to their experience of pain in the Church. And like Moses, I have gone to the mountain to seek wisdom from God. Several years ago, unclear and unsure of what I believed, I took a week in the mountains. I prayed, I studied Scripture, I consulted those across the theological spectrum and read a stack of books as I worked to figure out what I believed about the depravity of LGBTQ persons. I can probably walk back to the exact mountain that I climbed, and find the exact rock that I sat on, where I struggled to let go of my personal history and my own assumptions given to me by the world around me. In tears, I cried out, “but the Bible has to mean this.” And in that moment, I heard something not far from an audible voice of God that whispered, “that’s not what I meant.” And I found in Scripture and in the Spirit and in the community of the Church that the false god that I had worshipped my whole life lay smashed and broken at my feet. And it its place was a new understanding of the God of the mountain, the God of liberation, the God of restoration, the God of freedom. The Living God of the Living Christ wanted to show me the way of freedom, even while I yearned to go back to enslavement.
The God who would be worshipped above all other false gods still speaks. The showdown between the false Golden Calves of our lives and Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth, incarnate in the Logos Christ, and breathing life into the world and into the Church through the Spirit. The mountain still rumbles. They who have ears to hear, let them hear.