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The Reverend Krystal Leedy
October 15, 2017
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.
Moses is late. Night after night, the people of God wait for him, but Moses is still up on Mount Sinai. And Moses is late. After the striking of the rock where the refreshment of God revived the wanderers, they had arrived at Mount Sinai and were immediately told not to touch it. Moses went up the mountain and for about 11 chapters, God tells Moses all that Moses needs to know in order to lead the people of God. Later, Moses will recount this Law into tablets of stone and his leading of the people, but for now, it is only words from God, words about goat’s hair, priestly vestments, and oh yes, and our favorite ultimate to-do list: the Ten Commandments. But Moses is late delivering this news. And the people are restless. Still wandering, Moses’ associate Aaron invites the people of God to put all of their gold into his hands, and then he melts down the jewelry, casts it in a mold, and out pops a golden calf statue for all to see. And God’s nostrils flare and God tells Moses exactly what is happening, “Your people, Moses,” (Notice these are no longer the people of God, now they are Moses’ people.) Your people, Moses, whom you brought out to Egypt, are worshiping this calf, and they say that it’s the calf that brought them out of Egypt.” And now the people are really in trouble.
In many ways, it’s hard for us to relate. I mean after all, it’s not like we have a giant statue of a bull in the lot next to our building that represents something more than simply the image of a cow, right? Oh wait… No, I don’t think Bevo by himself is an idol, although I suppose he could be for some. Pastor Matt has been telling me for weeks about these longhorn-shaped grills that they sell at HEB. So I guess for some, they are willing to sacrifice the meat of the animal that they are cooking inside an image of said animal. I mean does anyone else think it’s almost cannibalistic to be cooking a hamburger inside of a cow-shaped grill? Only in Texas would I have this much sermon-fodder, am I right?
All this to say, it does seem ludicrous to call it sin when we are discussing calf-shaped things. Calves, bulls, and oxen are not inherently evil. In fact, bulls have stood for many important aspects of the continuation of the human race like virility, strength, and power. In the ancient world, it benefits you to have bulls on your side. These mighty creatures full of strength are not a terrible role model, especially as the people are wandering in the wilderness and appear to be weak from hunger and thirst and continual whining. And there are some that even believe that Aaron was building a footstool for God in the shape of a calf, indicating that God is even stronger and mightier than the bull. Or that he was creating a new conduit for the Word of God to be spoken to the people because Moses is late, and the people are restless and a little concerned that he might not be coming back. But things start to head in a strange direction, because all of sudden this idea of building a platform for God without God’s permission, this idea of building a conduit for God just because your conduit appears to be running late, and how quickly human eyes can make an idol out of something that is supposed to be nuanced, well, then the words that rattle off of Aaron’s tongue, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” start to make sense. Because out of these stories of the wandering Israelites, we see over and over how much they want to go back to Egypt, how much they are dying to get back to the place where higher powers were near to them, where images of gods could be seen all over, where the Egyptian gods cast in images of the sun and cattle were tangible enough to reach out and touch. Aaron was not the first to think of casting a bull in gold. The Israelites were not the first to revere this animal as their god. The Egyptians worshiped bulls as they related to fertility and agriculture, and later, they also thought that bulls were intermediaries between the gods and the people. Sound familiar? So not only did the golden calf’s meaning get misconstrued, it was also plagiarized from the very people from whom God saved the Israelites. It amazes me that we fight so hard to go backward to places where things seemed to be clearer, even if we were treated so badly in those situations. At least in Egypt we could spin in a circle, put our hand out and be touching the statue of a god. In the midst of the fog, we knew that we would always have strength and power because the bull-god would keep us safe.
But now, Moses has led us out into the desert and keeps promising us a land, and he keeps having private conversations with “God,” where miracles keep happening but we can’t really hear God. And only a select few people were able to see water come from a rock. And now we are not allowed atop this mountain, and Moses is really late coming back. Who is this God? We don’t even know anymore. Remember in Egypt how we could see our gods.
And then it seems so logical and so ludicrous to think that you could make an image of God. Because, as Protestants, we feel this affinity. We feel the affinity to not adorn our churches with depictions of God and Jesus. Because we know ourselves too well, we know the fear of those depictions becoming idols in and of themselves. Though the original artwork meant depicting aspects of God that the artist wanted to highlight, we might lose the nuance. We may end up like the wanderers in the wilderness. We may begin to worship that picture, thinking that somehow a bull let us from the land of Egypt into the wilderness.
And because we know that God cannot be placed inside of the borders of a canvas or the edges of a frame, we know God is bursting to be more than the muscles of a bull or the horns of a longhorn. We know that if we worship a god whose only attributes are power and brute strength, then we will become a certain kind of person. I’m going to be a fighter. I’m going to feel anger and not have any way of managing it. I’m going to be unable to think or to reason or get past my fear of being threatened. But, to know this type of god, to know a god whom I can reach out and touch, even if that god is scary, that’s got to be better than the mystery. Because it’s the unknown that’s killing us out here in this desert. It’s the unknown, it’s the ambiguity that’s making this impossible. It’s the unanswered questions. It’s the not knowing who is going to survive and for how long. It tears us apart. So, here, Aaron. Here’s my gold. Let’s make god in the image of the most powerful creature we can because I can’t bear to be in the unknown.
And God sees. And God knows. And God’s nostrils flare. Maybe the people of God had created a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s almost as if God says, “If a bull is what you want for a god, I’ll show you what that means,” and begins to kick up dust. And as God is about to gore God’s own people, Moses does not grab a red cape, but instead grabs a mirror and starts to recall God’s own story, “Remember the days when you walked with them. Remember when you changed their names. Remember when you poked holes in the sky to remind them of their future children. Remember when she laughed. Remember when you saved the banished mother and her baby boy. Remember when an unlikely son of promise was born. Remember when he was blind but you gave him the sight he needed. Remember when you gave him something to eat. Remember when you turned tradition on its head. Remember. You have to remember us. Because we keep forgetting.”
We keep forgetting about who God is and who we are, and the questions roll down from this passage as God is just forming us as a people, as a community:
Are we as God says, a stiff-necked people? A people like oxen who have been yoked in order to help bring about a new purpose in this world, but have our own ideas about what it should look like? Are we the people who worship the ideas of power and strength alone but quickly forget about all the other important qualities of God? Are we only the people who complain, who can only see what is in front of our faces? Are we the people who cannot be trusted with art because it will only lead to that graven image creating us instead of us being able to remember our own story? Are we mere animals, who cannot control our whims or emotions, who cannot be bothered with nuance and creativity, who can only remember in terms of black and white, good and bad?
Are we the people that can see the bigger picture, who can wear the yoke of God not as a burden but as a guide? Are we the praying people, who sacrifice power and strength when we take it too far? Are we the people who can be creative and remember the stories and the nuance that help inform our creative art? Are we the people of God, whom God is shaping and molding and creating us instead of the other way around?
It’s so easy to forget the invisible God, and in our forgetfulness, then how do we know what it means to be made in God’s image, to be cast in God’s mold?
In the tradition of Taizé, which we practice here, the brothers of Taizé borrowed the teachings of iconography from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, a tradition that upholds the mystery of God better than many other Christian denominations and a tradition that upholds the beauty of icons better than many other Christian traditions. Icons are merely images made of God, and they are placed in two dimensions, knowing that the people gazing upon them are not supposed to see them as gods in and of themselves. The third dimension is where humans and God meet.
But we were not the first to think of creating an image of God that was not an idol. 8th century St. John of Damascus writes,
“In the past, the incorporeal and invisible God was never represented. But now that God has been manifested in the flesh and has dwelt among men, I represent the visible in God. I do not adore matter; I adore the creator of matter, who has become matter for my sake, who chose to dwell within matter and who, through matter, has caused my salvation.”
When we see icons, we see what is behind them, the stories, the virtue, the neutral expression of a good listener. We see the God that waits for us in these icons, just as we try to decode their symbolism and mystery in order to see a glimpse of God. And if you’re still an iconoclast, then you can hear this in the words of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, painting a picture of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, the author and perfector of our faith, the words that are not enough, the picture that is not enough, the prayer that must be interrupted with “Great is the mystery of faith,” where we once again are reminded of our story and the image of God.
And the amazing part about the image of God is that we are images cast by God on this earth, to show different pieces of our Creator to others. And we only have to look as far as down the pew to see an imperfect but nonetheless beautiful image of God.
As we learn and grow in God, may we continually be cast and melted and recast to give glory to our Creator, the artist in residence of humanity, the one who brought us out of Egypt, the one who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the one who never stops providing us a yoke, even when we are forgetful and stubborn. In the name of that God, Amen.