A Golden Calf. Really?

I preached this sermon this morning in South Amherst, MA.  It’s based upon the Exodus 32:1-14

Whenever I read about the golden calf, I have to set aside Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments.  Let’s just say that he took some liberties with this story.

In Exodus 20 all of Israel, including Moses, stood at the base of Mount Sinai and heard God say, “I am the Lord your God…”  They also heard God say, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

Later, God asked Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu along with seventy others to approach, but only Moses and Joshua made the final ascent to the mountaintop.  As they departed, the people promised, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Ex. 24:3b)  Moses was on Sinai for forty days and nights.

He entrusted Israel to Aaron.  The people, however, were anxious.  They couldn’t wait.  They had heard God.  But hearing God was not the same as seeing God.  They demanded something tangible.  You’d think that Aaron would have been more resolute, but he folded like a house of cards.  He asked for everyone’s earrings.  He melted and molded them into a golden calf.  “And they exclaimed, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” (Ex. 32:4b)

Not even two months since they heard God speak from the top of Sinai.  Not even two months and they forgot their promise.  And when you think about this calf, and here’s where you really have to dispel the scene from the movie, it couldn’t have been very big.  A gold earring may look pretty big hanging from an ear, but melted down it’s, what maybe, a drop of gold?  Even if Aaron melted the earrings from a thousand people, we could probably cradle that calf in the palms of our hands.

God was furious.  We know he was about to destroy Israel, except Moses intervened on its behalf.  He appealed to God in the name of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – reminding God that smiting Israel for this gross transgression would have ended it all.

But I wonder, too, if God was offended because it was a calf?  I can imagine God thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding.  A calf?  A golden calf.  Really?  Not a bull.  Not even a ram. Of all the animals in my creation you chose a calf?”  You think that Aaron was a little short on imagination?  It hardly honors God with such a diminutive image.

Although making the calf was totally wrong, I can’t entirely blame them either because they had some cultural baggage.  They had to believe in a god whom they had only heard.  Coming from Egypt, though, where god was pharaoh, god was a real person.  If they couldn’t see pharaoh, they could see images of him.  Even though Israel’s God was not pharaoh, after generations upon generations upon generations, they were culturally attuned to a tangible and physical representation of God.  It was probably normal and comfortable culturally for Israel to create a physical rendering of God, however strange it may seem for us today.

Having heard God speak, Israel knew God existed.  By creating the golden calf, they could bridge the gap that existed between them and God.  Filling the gap is actually a normal desire.  A young baseball fan hangs posters of his favorite ball players on his bedroom wall.  A little girl plays with dolls as her way to bridge the gap between herself and her aspirations for motherhood.  Lest we think bridging the gap is limited to childhood, we do it, too.  One example is the huge market for knock-off luxury items like Coach handbags.  Or consider a couple of weeks ago when Target’s website crashed because it couldn’t process the overwhelming demand for affordable clothes designed by Missoni, a high-end Italian clothing designer.  It’s not always fashion.  Maybe it’s the latest gadget.  Think of the outpouring of tributes for the late Steve Jobs which universally praised his vision. His vision enabled Apple to sell products which people clamored to buy because they shouted coolness. Consumers responded enthusiastically because those products filled the gap between the who I am and the who I want to be.

I know it all sounds pretty trivial in this context, but we do it in the church, too.  The icons used in the Eastern Church close the gap between the people and the saints.  Ponder this … the Church, your church here or at my home church in Lenox or in any of the churches where I’ve served or preached, the Church, regardless of geography, theology, or size, fills the gap between the faith community and God.

The Church gives us the space to mediate our individual and our collective relationship with God.  We do it with the sacraments.  Don’t think of baptism as just washing away original sin.  Baptism is our becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.  It is as the fourth century bishop, Basil the Great, wrote, “Faith and baptism are two kindred and inseparable ways of salvation: faith is perfected through baptism, baptism is established through faith, and both are completed by the same names.”  Basil believed that baptism is the ritual marking of our rebirth into a life dedicated to Christ.  Communion is a celebration of the celestial feast.  Sharing the bread and the cup is a glimpse of heaven where everyone: rich or poor, man or woman, gay or straight, disabled or temporarily-abled, young or old, liberal or conservative, fat or skinny, light-skinned or dark-skinned, you name it – has a place at God’s table.  Communion reminds us that in God’s creation there is enough for everyone.  God generously gave us an abundance to share so that no one should ever know scarcity or deprivation.

The Church is bigger than we can imagine because the Church exists for the glory of God and God’s glory is beyond our comprehension. The Church even for people in our communities who never come to church fills their gap between them and God.  The Church bears powerful witness to God’s presence in this community, in our Commonwealth, and across this nation.

So, with all this build up, why do we struggle?  We can’t seem to fill our pews as we did twenty or thirty years ago.  We keep worrying about the budget; we don’t have enough for this or we might have to cut back on that.  We’re the Church.  We fill the gap between the people and God.  We give meaning to people’s lives.  We provoke justice and stand for people who can’t quite stand on their own against those who seek to crush them.  And yet, we struggle.

I wonder if we’re not a little bit like Israel.  Are we thinking about the Church in large enough terms or can we only see the Church diminutively?  Maybe we’ve become so familiar with the Church that we can’t see it for what it really is.  Maybe we take the Church for granted.

It’s not that we created the Church as a symbol for God, but maybe we need to rethink and re-imagine how the Church fills the gap between us and God, especially today when those of us who worship regularly are in the minority.

I’ve often asked people, why do you like church?  I usually get a response something along these lines, “I really like the people.”  That’s fine, except there are good people in bowling leagues, PTOs, and Rotary clubs, too.  When you think about it, it’s a kind of golden calf response.  “I like the people.” How compelling is that?

How do we make that larger?  What if we said, “I love the Church because it’s cutting edge?”   That’s an oxymoron.  An intriguing proposition.

Here’s the deal.  Today, many people define their community through electronic communication.  Think about Facebook.  Those of us who use it probably have already seen the changes.  Whether we like them or not, they point to its future direction, quoting Mark Zuckerberg, “We think it’s an important next step to help tell the story of your life.”[1]  And it’s not just Facebook.  It’s Twitter.  It’s even that ancient communication form, e-mail.  Today, when people easily define their community electronically, the Church is radically different because we gather every week to be intentionally present with each other.  We are one of the last organizations in any community which is completely public.  You don’t need to be a member.  You don’t need to qualify with some requirement.  You can just come.  Here you will be able to talk to someone face to face.  Here you can get a hug, which we might think is pretty simple, except if you spend your week alone in front of your computer working or chatting with friends, no one gives you one.  Here you can share your gifts and talents with others and for the glory of God.  Here you can share the most joyful and the most sorrowful moments of your life with people who really care.  Here you can find forgiveness even if you can’t forgive yourself.  Here you can learn ways to find common ground with someone who doesn’t think at all like you.  Here you can tell the story of your life and someone actually will listen and respond with more than clicking the “Like” button.  Here you will find God’s presence, comforting grace and loving compassion. This is where we find blessings. This is the Church.  This is where we connect with God.  Really.

[1] Somini Sengupta and  Ben Sisario.  Facebook as TastemakerThe New York Times.  September 22,2011.  Page B1


About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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