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Fashionable Gods

Exodus 32:1-14
Rev. Elizabeth Michael
Preached at University Presbyterian Church
October 15, 2017

            I’ve never made a golden calf, but once in my ministry I had the chance to unmake one.  I was working for a church in a small town where the annual summer entertainment was the competition to see which downtown church could put on the best Vacation Bible School.  “Best,” as far as I could tell, was determined by having the most extravagant decorations.  And so beginning, it seemed, in February each year, aluminum foil began to climb up the walls of hallways that would one day become spaceships, or blue crepe paper would unfurl itself in doorways like waterfalls, or the sanctuary steps might become populated with stuffed animals as even the worship space gave itself over to the jungle.

Eager to make my own particular contribution to the effort, I thought I’d achieved the great coup one year when the theme of our VBS was camping.  Crepe-paper campfire, sleeping bags, and large potted plants had gone some way toward transforming our spacious sanctuary into a campsite, but the space was missing one signature centerpiece.  What was missing was a prop with height and breadth and power to seize the eye upward and compel the spirit to appropriate heights of VBS exultation.  What was missing, clearly, was a 12-foot grizzly bear.

So it was a happy day when I found myself at the Baptist church down the street, in the wake of their youth musical season, and I stumbled across the crowning glory of that production: a twelve-foot tall, broad-chested, terribly intimidating monster of a calf, crafted from paper maché and spray-painted a glitter-infused gold.  It was a sight to behold, and anyone with a bit of imagination could easy see how that Baptist golden calf might find its way to new life as a Presbyterian grizzly bear.

That is how I found myself in the sultry summer of 2003 on a tall ladder in an unairconditioned sanctuary, wielding a small handsaw to soften the calf’s pointy horns into the rounded ears of a grizzly bear. It was surprisingly easy to manipulate that paper maché idol to suit our purposes.  A snip of scissors here, a sanding down of the snout there, a limb slightly but significantly repositioned, and a coat of brown paint to cast a veneer of authenticity over this work of our hands.  We did not bow down to worship it afterwards, but by the end I knew the gratification of feeling raw material bending to my will, of having shaped this inanimate object to be pleasing and useful to me.

The golden calf has become modern parlance for the objects or powers we mistakenly worship as gods.  Many a faithful sermon has been preached about the ways we humans take money or power or prestige, gild them with a glaze of the divine, and lift them up as objects of our pursuit and devotion.  But there is another side of idolatry as well.  In the Bible, the prohibition against idolatry is also concerned with protecting God’s transcendence, with denouncing the people’s persistent tendency to fashion God according to their own liking.

Perhaps we know something of this temptation.  We may know what it is like to soften the pointedness of a word of God we find disagreeable.  How to sand down the difficult commands of the God of the scriptures, to snip away at inconvenient incongruities, to slightly but significantly reposition a story of God that runs counter to our personal convictions.  We may know how to paint our images of God with a smooth coat of uniformity, to fashion God in a way we find pleasing and useful to us.

Humans have done this for all of history, of course—shaped God in our own image.  Sometimes the stoic figure that emerges from the kiln is a God stripped of all power and authority, whose reason for existence is to bless our own efforts or ideas and to comfort us when those go awry.  Sometimes it is a God of our own causes, a warrior God of our own nation or party or personal social justice crusade.  Sometimes it is a God small enough to fit within our own understanding, one who abides within our theological constructs and rests comfortably within the scope of our imagination.

In the case of Israel, it all started innocuously enough.  The problem of the golden calf arises when the Israelites find themselves anxious for access to God.  Always for the people Israel, God’s presence has been mediated.  Cloaked in a pillar of thick cloud.  Wrapped in the red-hot flames of fire.  Assured by the reliable arrival of manna and quail, but the whole time mysterious, elusive, just beyond their reach.  Moses has been the great translator, the intercessor, the one who has acted as something of a Cyrano de Bergerac, passing messages back and forth between God and people.  But forty days before, Moses walked up the mountain and became enveloped in its clouds.  No one has seen or heard from him since, and gone with him is the people’s access to God.

And so the people set out to construct a god they can see and touch anytime they want.  They take the gold rings from their ears and offer them up to the fire.  They pull from the fire a statue of a golden calf; they look on it and find it pleasing and useful, and so Aaron declares, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

That phrase, “brought you up from the land of Egypt” is significant.  So significant that it is repeated no fewer than five times in these short fourteen verses.  This passage is dense with the language of departure, reminding us that its context is Exodus, the book of departure.  Departure from the land of Egypt, where society is constructed as a pyramid of slaves and slave-masters.  Departure from the economy of extraction, where the price of daily bread is a pound of flesh.  Departure from the realm of Pharaoh, who places production as the highest value, ratcheting up the anxiety every day and laughing at the notion of Sabbath rest.

The manna, the water that springs forth from a rock, the ten commandments, the word of the Lord that thunders from the cloud-covered mountain top, all of it has been offered to shape the people in a new way of living.  A life in which a circle of neighbors replaces a pyramid of overseers.  A life in which all have enough bread—no one goes hungry, and no one has too much.  A life governed not by Pharaoh’s strong arm, but by Yahweh’s gracious covenant.

But all that is now under threat as the smell of burnt offerings fills the nostrils of God’s people and the image of a more malleable God fills their imaginations.  The conflict heightens as they dance before their gleaming god of gold: Are they indeed the people God has delivered from Egypt, or are they colonizers of Pharaoh’s rules and ways?

The impassive expression of the golden calf gazing over this scene offers quite the contrast with the fury unfurling on top of the mountain.  We name this the story of the golden calf, but actually that is only half the story.  The other half is the story of Moses talking God out of smiting the people.  Moses braves the burning wrath of God, who is determined to put an end to Project Israel; he reminds God of the covenant.  “Remember your people,” he pleads with God.  “Remember the promises you made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Remember these you brought out of Egypt with your great and powerful hand.”  In the end, Exodus says, “God changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring upon the people.”

This is one of those images of God I’d like to refashion, just a bit.  I want to smooth the rough edges of God’s wrath, soften the sharpness of God’s speech, reposition slightly but significantly this notion of God changing God’s mind.  I’d like to make God less mercurial, more reliable; less reactive, more “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Especially in these crazy, chaotic days when the earth quakes beneath our feet and forests burst into flame and seas swell up in fury and all creation seems bent on eruption and destruction, I am interested in a rock-steady God.  I want to sing hymns about Christ the solid rock; I want to lean heavy on God the refuge and strength; I want to feel the firm foundation under my feet and know that, though the mountains quake and fall into the heart of the sea, the people of God will not be moved.

There are in the scriptures such pictures of God, of course.  But alongside those images are stories like this one, where God and humanity are engaged in the heat of real relationship, where there is push and pull and strain and struggle, vulnerability and volatility, movement, risk, and change.

But then, there is this: under the test of an embarrassingly disobedient people, under the anger of a God who desires and demands their full allegiance, the covenant holds.  The promise binding God to God’s people wins out.  The relationship proves reliable.  Once again, the people are saved.  Not, in this case, through a god made of granite, but through a living Lord.

The theologian James Alison puts flesh on what it looks like to be in relationship with a living God.  Alison says faith is not an assent to a set of propositions, but “a belief in an Other coming toward us and transforming us.  [Faith] is not so much about what we do,” he says, “but what the Other is doing to us, and how that affects who we are and what we do.  It’s [that very] belief that we are undergoing something at the hands of an Other that enables us to live differently.”[1]

Which is why the golden calves and all our carefully crafted, woefully distorted fashionings of God are ultimately impotent—as long as they are products of our own hands and ideas, they can not enable us to live differently.              I like where Preacher Debbie Blue ends up on this matter.  She says the reverse of idolatry is love.  Life with an idol is simple and consistent and uncomplicated, but love is tangling one’s self up with an uncontrollable Other.  “Love,” Blue says, “isn’t much like rock-hard certainty…A loving relationship may be constant and enduring, never-ending, but even so, stable and coherent and simple are not words that describe it very well.” [2]  In love, there is push and pull and strain and struggle, vulnerability and volatility, movement, risk, and change.  And yet, when the earth shakes and the seas swell and we find ourselves knee-deep in our own frailty and failing, “What holds us is love.”

This story happens many centuries before divine love will take on its most embodied form, becoming a God that people can see and touch and have access to.  But even here, there are hints of that God-in-relationship, the One who is thoroughly Other and yet comes within our reach, the One who is not content to leave us as we are, but burns with unrelenting ardor to make us fully, and finally, God’s.  To that God be all honor and glory, praise and thanksgiving, now and forever.  Amen.

 

[1] As cited by Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word, p. 22.  The second half of this sermon owes much of its shape to Rev. Blue.

[2] Ibid, p. 24.

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: elizabeth@upcch.org

Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.