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Austin, TX 78705

Don’t Have a Cow

John Leedy

October 12, 2014
Exodus 32:1-14


A reading from Exodus…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.

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 the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he 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 his people.

The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Old and young.  Men and women.  The healthy and the sick.  Leaders and followers.  A human mosaic.  A band of nomads trekking through the wilderness.  The people of Israel, once slaves in the land of Egypt, the ones whose oppression grew so heavy their cries were heard in the halls of heaven.  God responded to their cry with a burning bush, a bold leader, signs and wonders, terrible plagues, pillars of cloud and fire, and a dramatic rescue through waters of the sea. The people were liberated.  The people were free.

“God, we’re hot.”

“God, we’re hungry.”

“God, we’re thirsty.”

“God, are we there yet?”  Day one, the whining begins.  The impatience begins.  The anxiety begins.  Where are we going?  Is Moses really fit to lead us?  Were we better off as slaves in Egypt?

Do we really trust this God to keep us safe?

Then, out of nowhere, Moses goes up a mountain to be with God.   There is a stirring among the tents. A restlessness amongst the people.  You can sense the anxiety of the camp begin to rise like water boiling in a kettle.  The wondrous events of the rescue from Egypt are all but forgotten in the anxious immediacy of the wilderness.

All the ingredients are there for a recipe that spells trouble.  The people are without their leader.  The people haven’t heard from God for a while.  The people forget their story.  The people wander without a goal in sight.   The people are idle.  The people worry about the future but even more worried about the present.  They need a rallying point.  They need a leader.  They want their needs met. They want a community to which they can belong.  They want a God they can look to, to trust in, something real, something tangible, something… shiny.

A golden calf!  Let’s make a golden calf!

Yeah, that’s a great idea!

We can make a golden calf, create a back story for it, build it an altar, come up with some decent and orderly liturgy, and have a party!  Brilliant!

Brilliant indeed.  An idol by itself wasn’t enough.  In the blink of an eye, the people of Israel create an entirely new religious ecosystem, complete with buildings, worship services, and potluck dinners.  In the absence of their leader, in the absence of a God they could see and touch, the people took matters into their own hands. They created a community that reflected their needs.

And what is really so wrong with that?  Why would God get so angry with that?  We all have needs that we want met by our community.  We all want to experience a sense of belonging.  We all want to fit in.  We want people in our community that are similar to us, people who can relate with what we are going through.  We want a community that does things we are interested in.  We want a community that meets at times that are convenient to us.

We want a community where we don’t have to waste time with things we don’t care about.  We want a community that looks like we do.  We want a church that looks like we do.  We want leaders who look like we do.  We want a God who looks like we do.

So we create for ourselves custom built, tailor made communities that, in the end, reflect our image.  In larger church communities, we create sub-communities, splitting off the youth from the elderly, the adults from the college students, the children from the people who come to our doors looking for food.  We surround ourselves with people who are the same age, the same gender, share the same interests, and worship in the same ways.  We create little niches where we feel in control of our environments and are spared the inconvenience and awkwardness of sharing our space with people who might interrupt the way we like things done.  And this doesn’t just apply to larger church communities.

Last weekend, Krystal and I were in the small town of Whitney, Texas for their annual Pioneer Days harvest festival.  There were booths selling clover honey and jalapeño jam, tables with baked goods for sale, trailers selling every kind of deep fried heart attack you can image, all being trafficked by a charming assortment of small town folks in wrangler blue jeans and dusty leather boots.  The crowning moment of this iconic small town festival was the big homecoming parade.

Bright red fire engines with their screaming sirens.  The local football team tossing candy to scurrying children.  Polished up muscle cars with the tops down. Schreiners in their zippy go carts.  The thunder of the high school marching band drum line. Beauty queens waving from the back seats of corvettes. Painted horses ridden by riders in full western regalia.  Towards the end of the parade came three old timey covered chuck wagons driven by horses.  A twangy George Straight number blared from a radio hidden behind hay bales.

The men, women, and children who rode in the back of the wagon were all dressed in the functional and tough clothing of people who worked with livestock.  Emblazoned on the sides of the covered wagons were signs that read “Y’all come on out to Cowboy Church” featuring the image of a cowboy kneeling at the foot of the cross.

The Cowboy Church movement has been around for 40-50 years. It was started as a way for travelling ranch hands and livestock workers to find a welcoming place to worship.  But in the last 15 years, more than 750 independent Cowboy churches have sprung up across the southwestern United States.  Cowboy churches are not denominationally affiliated and have created a worshipping community uniquely designed to fit its members.  Church buildings often double as rodeo arenas.  Baptisms are done in a stock tank.  Offerings are collected in a boot. Sermons are simple and short with gospel music led by guitar and fiddle.  These folks wanted a community where they felt a sense of belonging, felt like they were welcomed.

They wanted a community that looked like them, talked like them, and approached the worship of God in ways that made sense.  I’m pretty sure that if I walked into a Cowboy Church, I wouldn’t fit in there.  But then again, I’m not entirely sure that if one of the cowboys in the Whitney homecoming parade walked into UPC that they would fit in either.

We as humans excel at creating worshipping communities that look like us.  We thrive in groups that approach God the way we approach God. Just like the Israelites of long ago, we want to build our buildings, order our worship, and structure our communities on our own terms.

The trouble with idolatry is that it directs our worship toward something that we create.  We are in control.  We approach God on our terms.  Mark Twain is quoted as saying “God created man in God’s likeness and man has been returning the favor ever sense.”  The idol that the Israelites created, the golden calf, was something they could control.  Perhaps the Israelites imported the idea for the calf from Egypt.  Egypt was full of Gods that did the will of the people.  Those were Gods you could pray to and get stuff done.  Or perhaps the people created the calf as a kind of conduit to force the presence of YHWH into their midst.  Perhaps it was similar to the function of the Ark of the Covenant.  Atop of the ark were two cherubim with spread wings.  Their wings formed the mercy seat upon which the presence of God dwelled.  Perhaps that is what the Israelites wanted.  They wanted to create something, an object, a community, where they could be certain of the presence of God.

The trouble is that God doesn’t work that way.  God’s presence cannot be controlled.  God’s image cannot be commanded.  The moment we expect God to show up looking how we want God to look, we fall into the same trap as the Israelites.  Our anxiety, our impatience, our very human nature fights us all the way on this.

And this plays out in churches as we create communities and cliques that reflect our image, that are homogenous, stripped of multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and multi-oriented diversities.  We would rather be comfortable than connected.  We would rather experience God on our terms than trust in a God of mystery and freedom.  We would rather have a cow than a Creator.

Just like the Israelites of long ago, we are still learning how to live in covenant relationship with God and each other.  God’s grace and love reach out to us time and time again in the midst of our shortcomings, in the midst of our idolatry, in the midst of our anxiety.  In turn, we are called to trust in a God that we don’t always understand, a God we can’t always see.

We are called to worship in a community that reflects the beautiful diversity of the image of God.

We are called to break down the barriers of comfort and convenience that separate us from one another.

We are challenged to welcome the stranger, share a pew with a squirmy child, talk with teenagers about their faith, ask the elderly to share their stories.

All of us are called to grow in fellowship with those who look differently, love differently, and believe differently than we do.

Here at UPC we have been given the incredible gift of a community that reflects all of the generations of human life – and we are called to be stewards of this gift for the generations to come.  Together we work through the anxieties that divide us.  We encourage each other to risk being uncomfortable for the sake of interacting with those who are different than us.  Together with God, we weave a new creation, a new community that reflects the beautiful colors and textures of all God’s people.

Last week we celebrated World Communion Sunday.  It was also the Sunday where the children who had completed the “Children at the Lord’s Table” Class would receive communion for the first time.  After the prayers at the table, the elders and deacons came and took the elements to their stations.  I, with my cup of wine, was situated next to Tyson Payne who held a cup of grape juice.  The children began to come forward, awkward and unsure.  They held out their little hands and received their piece of bread.  Then they passed by me and came to Tyson.  With a big smile on this face, Tyson bent down low, very very low, so that the children could dip their piece of bread in the juice.  “The cup of the Lord” he said sweetly as each child dipped and ate.  “The cup of the Lord.  The cup of the Lord.”  In that moment, I saw something that nothing else in all of our society can offer.  I saw something that makes this multi-generational community vibrant, alive, radiant.  In that moment, I saw a glimmer of a God-reflecting community.  Old and young.  Men and women.  The healthy and the sick.  Leaders and followers.  A human mosaic.  A band of nomads trekking through the wilderness of this life.  Amen.