Jeffrey Sartain, October 15, 2017
Scripture Exodus 32:1–14
The scripture today brings us into the story of the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel. God has invited Moses into a sort of executive session on the top of Mount Sinai, where he will receive further divine instruction on how to lead the people. Moses leaves his brother Aaron in charge and goes up the mountain. A thick cloud descends and God meets privately with Moses for 40 days.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
Meanwhile, on the mountaintop:
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should [their slaveholders] the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that Yahweh brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on the people.
Let us pray:
Loving God, your promises can seem far off and you can feel very absent to us as we journey in the wilderness of our lives. Help us trust that you care, and help us believe in your goodness even when we feel alone. Amen.
* * *
The people of Israel had grown impatient. Moses had gone up the mountain to speak to God more than a month before. Theologian and writer Frederick Buechner says Moses had been gone long enough for his people to start wondering if he had given up on leading them and instead had gone into real estate. His brother Aaron was left to manage their abandonment issues.
We don’t really know what Aaron had in mind when he collected their jewelry and made the golden calf. Maybe he was trying to be ironic—trying to point out how ridiculous it would be to worship something so impersonal and so clearly of their own making. Some students of the Bible wonder if perhaps he was just trying to keep them busy, like you might try to distract a toddler with finger painting. Others wonder if Aaron was surprised how quickly they turned their allegiance to this new gold-plated god.
It is surprising, but how can you blame them? At least this homemade god was one they could see. At least they could touch the golden calf—even if it was cold and powerless. Sometimes we say, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” Maybe the same was true for God in their minds. Better a heartless God you can lay your hands on than a compassionate one who seems to go missing for weeks at a time.
It also shouldn’t be so surprising that they quickly bowed to the golden calf. After all, one demonstrated characteristic of the people of Israel was their very poor memory. They seemed to forget how they had been led from slavery in Egypt. The manna that miraculously came from the sky to feed them and the water from the rock when they were thirsty also vanished from their memory. All they knew was that they felt alone. God may have been faithful at one time, but that was then and this is now.
No one behaves well in this story—no one, divine or mortal. The people are idolatrous and impertinent, and God is hot-headed and rash. Israel turns its back on God, and God has a temper tantrum and threatens to annihilate them. Moses has a big job arbitrating between these two, between God and Israel. Moses urges God to calm down and count to 10. God says, “You know, you’re right. I’m sorry. I overreacted.” And God and the people get back to the business of being in relationship once again.
It all seems ridiculous, and it is ridiculous—ridiculous and totally real. It’s how relationships are. We make promises to one another, and then we break them. We pledge our undying faithfulness, and we get impatient and turn away. We say we love one another, and we get furious and say, I never want to see you again. Fortunately it works the other way, too. We storm out, and then we come back in time for dinner. We say, I’ll never forgive you, and then we open our arms and say, Give me a hug. We say, I’m not sorry one bit, and then with time we say, I feel terrible; can you forgive me?
What’s remarkable about this story in Exodus is how God is so human—so relatable. It is very hard to take this story literally, of course, but there is some serious theological truth to unpack here. God is so in love with the people of Israel that they are exasperating, and God rages at them—but then God comes back to the table. The scripture reads, “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster he was going to bring on the people.” I’m using that male and limiting pronoun on purpose because this story is all about God’s human side. This story is a radical departure from the idea of an unchanging or immutable God. Here we see a God who has chosen to be in relationship, with all the limitations that implies. God chooses to love, even despite all the heartbreak love can bring. God relates, even though that means compromising some power, some control and some authority.
Being in relationship is wonderful and messy and complicated—and it is a core Christian value. In the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” We draw life from one another. St. Paul wrote in First Corinthians, “For just as the body is one and has many members . . . so it is with Christ. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” We are that intimately connected. God said to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah, “I have called you by name; you are mine.”
So our spiritual tradition underscores again and again the deep and universal truth that we do not live isolated lives. The concept that anyone is independent is a fallacy. No one is independent. It is just like the fallacy of the self-made man [sic]. It just isn’t true. Author John Swansburg calls the self-made man “America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.” In our culture we are so infatuated with the false idea of being independent that it actually takes more courage to ask for help than to try to go it alone.
I read this quote by Arnold Schwarzenegger; I’ve never quoted Arnie in a sermon before, but there is a first time for everything. He wrote, “Every time I give a speech at a business conference, or speak to college students, . . . someone asks, ‘As a self-made man, what’s your blueprint for success?’”
He goes on:
They’re always shocked when I thank them for the compliment but say, . . . It is true that I grew up in Austria without plumbing. It is true that I moved to America alone with just a gym bag. And it is true that I worked as a bricklayer. . . .
But it is not true that I am self-made. Like everyone, to get to where I am, I stood on the shoulders of giants. My life was built on a foundation of parents, coaches and teachers; of kind souls who lent couches or back rooms where I could sleep; of mentors who shared wisdom and advice.
We get trapped into a false narrative of independence. It is a loop reinforced by American culture, and we find it in spiritual life as well. I think our particular way of being church is especially vulnerable to the myth of independence.
Some people erroneously say that Congregationalism is built upon a premise of independence. Each church, they say, is independent from all outside authority. Each member is independent, not obliged to believe or to do anything in particular. This narrative goes on to assert that this independence is exactly what distinguishes us.
But, in fact, Congregationalism is not built upon a value of independence. It is built upon covenant, which is not independence at all. In 1629, our spiritual ancestors established their life in this country not upon a pledge to be separate from one another. The pledge they made was not a pledge to be disconnected. Rather , they built their life together with these words: “We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his waies.”
That is not an expression of independence. It is an expression of relationship, using the very biblical concept of covenant. God has promised love to us, therefore we pledge our love to God, and we bind ourselves one to another. That is strong language—to bind ourselves. Congregationalism is not about the unbridled freedom of each member to act and do and believe however each one pleases. Instead it is about the deliberate, faithful decision to be bound in relationship to one another and to God. It is a decision we have to make again and again, every day.
Of course, Congregationalism does hold that no higher authority decides for us what we will or will not do, but it also asks us to be in relationship. As in a marriage, you may very well be free to decide to do whatever you want to do regardless of the other, but it would not be smart. That will not be a good marriage. When you enter that marriage relationship you limit your freedom by your own choice. It is true of any meaningful relationship. Likewise, in our tradition, you are not forced to come to worship. No one prescribes that you must make your pledge, or sing a certain hymn or treat one another with respect, but you do it out of love.
Someone shared this thought about what it means to her to be in covenant. She said, “Sometimes we sing a hymn that I find appalling. Sometimes I hear a scripture that I think should be thrown out with yesterday’s garbage. Sometimes a sermon infuriates me. But then I look around and I realize that hymn might be just what someone else needs. That scripture might be comforting someone who is going through something I cannot imagine. That sermon might be moving someone else’s heart.” She said, “So instead of staying mad, I pray for whoever needs what isn’t working for me.” Because, she added, “It isn’t only about me; it is about us.”
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
May God bless us with that kind of heart—like the heart of God. A heart that freely chooses not to be so free, but to be bound to one another in love. Amen.
John Swansburg, “The Self-Made Man,” Slate, September 29, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/ news_and_politics/history/2014/09/the_self_made_man_history_of_a_myth_from_ben_franklin_to_andrew_ carnegie.html (accessed October 19, 2017).
Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I am not a self-made man,” Facebook, December 8, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/ notes/arnold-schwarzenegger/i-am-not-a-self-made-man/10154889065464658/ (accessed October 19, 2017).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community