A Time To Seek

“A Time to Seek”

Preached at Wolcott Congregational Church on September 23, 2018, by Rev. Shane Montoya. Note that this is the third in a four part sermon series on “Transitions.”  Previous entries are available here and here.

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1-7; Exodus 32: 1-14

Is God a Cow?

That might seems like a funny question to ask, but there we have it in our second Bible reading, in the book of Exodus. God has helped Moses, Aaron, and the Israelite people escape the cruelty of Pharaoh.  The plagues have been unleashed upon the Egyptian people, Charlton Heston has lifted his staff and God parted the waters of the Red sea for the people. They have seen the Glory of the Lord but now they wait and they wander.

To give you all a little refresher about the primary characters in our story, Moses and Aaron are brothers, and the two main leaders of the Israelites. Moses is the moral force and primary organizer. Although he has a stutter and doesn’t talk so good, he was the one who spoke to God in the burning bush, and who organized the people as they resisted the pharaoh.  His older brother is Aaron, who is the charismatic religious leader.  He leads worship, dispenses justice, and is the ancestor of the Levite priesthood that would dominate religious life in Israel for centuries.

This particular story happens pretty early in the grand scheme of the exodus, occurring about four to five months after the escape from Egypt.  The people are camped out around Mt. Sinai.  47 days earlier, the combined leadership of the Israelites, including Moses, Miriam, Aaron, and the heads of the other tribes go up to Mount Sinai, and have dinner in the direct presence of God. After dinner, The Lord calls Moses up to the top of the mountain.  Smoke and fire surround the mountaintop, and to the people of Israel, Moses seems to vanish.

He’s up at Mount Sinai for so long that, in the quippy language of UCC pastor and author Frederick Buechner, “some thought he’d settled down and gone into real estate.”

So Aaron does what any good Congregationalist minister would, and listens to the people. “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,” they say to him. Make Gods for us, they tell their priest, their religious leader, their pastor.

Let’s stop there for a minute before we go any further.

The theological arrogance is almost breathtaking. It upends the order of creation: God creates us in his image, we should not create God in our own image. Aaron, who dined in the presence of God just weeks before, knew better than to go along, but for whatever reason, he did.

Maybe he tried to dissuade the people from it: Give me your Gold, in your jewelry and trinkets, he tells them, so we can make it into a calf.

In my experience, asking people for money can put a big damper on devotion, so maybe that’s what Aaron was hoping to do.

But give they did.

And so Aaron assists them in dutifully casting their gold into the shape of a calf.

The calf isn’t a terrible sort of thing to worship if you’re an agricultural people, which everyone was at the time.  Cows are signs of wealth, prosperity and fertility. They, almost magically, turn grass into milk and meat. To this day, there are places where the number of cattle someone owns is their primary signifier of social and economic status.

When the new statue of the calf is done, the people like their new God.  This God isn’t hidden at the mountaintop behind clouds, who has taken away their leader for the past month and a half. This God can be touched, and seen.

This God represents the prosperity of their community, and their hopes for the future. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” the people dance and shout for joy.

In response, Aaron, tries to salvage the situation as best as he can, making an altar to God before the calf and declaring the next day a feast day.

But the damage has been done.

For when the people of Israel, as anxious as they are, declare that the calf that they made is the God who brought them out of Egypt, they attempted to domesticate God, and God can never be domesticated.

This domesticated God, who is not merely represented by something, but is defined and limited by the image, is what I call an idol.

Idols are contained by their very existence, beholden to the forms and limitations of their makers.  For the Israelites, the calf represents prosperity and fertility. Logically, it follows that if we worship the calf, we will have lots of cows and lots of children. What else could anyone need in an agricultural society?

But what relationship is there to form with a God who is little more than a (quite literally) glorified vending machine?

Is a business relationship with God, one that has debt that could be settled and abandoned at any time, really a relationship with God that we want?  One where God could cast us off, as soon as a better, more devout, or wealthier people came along?  Would we want to be a people who would break our covenant with God as soon as a better, more practical God came along? Do we really want to worship a God who provides services in exchange for adoration?

Honestly, it is tempting.  It’s tempting to have a God who provides only Good things to Good people. People, which, by the way, look like me, believe the same things as me, heck, who even cheer for the same sports team as me (Go RedSox).

But that’s not who God is.

God sees what is happening with the calf, and God gets angry.  God gets angry because the Israelites would forsake the covenants and promises of their ancestors, for a God that they could control and domesticate.

God gets angry because however much the people believe they are worshipping God in the form of the idol of the calf, the values that the calf represents are not the values of God.

The calf does not represent righteousness, justice, and fair and equal treatment of poor.  It does not represent a God whose greatest commandment is that people should forgive their debtors and love their neighbors. It does not represent the Living God our Creator and Father, God made flesh in Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit who challenges, provokes, and inspires us.

The calf is not God.  God is God.

Further proof of this is in the very next scene, where Moses argues with God.  God is set on fully alighting his anger on the Israelites, but Moses *argues* with him.  This is a God who listens to us, who wants nothing more for us to be in conversation and dialogue with him.

Our God is not the shopkeeper who provides us with services in exchange for money, and more like a family member who loves us and sometimes infuriates us, especially if either of us is doing something dumb.

God doesn’t want us to be standoffish, to be meekly submissive in a way that ultimately discourages engagement, but to be intense and fully authentic.  God wants us to follow in the example of Jacob and wrestle with him.  Yes, we do want to follow God’s will, but Moses shows us that we have can have say in what God’s will is.  This is particularly true if we’re praying not for ourselves, but for those that we love.

In this argument on the mountaintop, God offers Moses a place of high honor, the sole parentage of a new nation, something quite like Jesus’s temptation the desert, yet Moses does not accept it. Instead, Moses argues, hopes, and prays for his people, against his own self-interest, even though they infuriate him at times.

That’s not something we would do with God who we created. The Golden Calf could never challenge us, never call us to be our best selves, never makes us argue against your own self-interest in compassion for others.

But our God does.  Our God “pushes and pulls” us into a relationship of transformation. It’s not an easy transformation, nor is it a quick one. Indeed, for my part, I only ever see the changes in my life when I stop and take a look at the difference between where I was and where I am. I suspect many of us are like that. After all, if we aren’t ready to be changed by God, by the Good News of Jesus Christ, I’m not sure what we’re doing here at church.

Looking back in hindsight, it’s easy to see the Israelites as villains in this particular story, prone to wander and leave their God, who had done so much for them so recently.

Yet how different are we, really?

For as much as we’ve been changed by God, we still live in a culture of the quick fix, where we are given incentive to worship the new, the innovative, and the tangible.  We’re a people who like to get results, and get results now.

Business is driven not by the needs of communities, workers, and customers, but by the quarterly profit report.

All of this has provided us a large degree of material wealth and prosperity, but it does make us a bit more anxious than we perhaps ought to be.

This is especially the case during leadership shifts and changes, or when leaders either are absent, or even just feel absent.

I understand that it was about three months in between when Rev. Sue left and when I started, and I’ve heard that people were starting to get a little bit antsy, especially as there was a feeling that there wasn’t as much communication about the search process as some folks would have liked.

Now luckily, nobody decided to take everybody’s jewelry and make a cow statue of it, but I get it.

Some of that is simply because there’s a level of confidentiality that happens with the search process. Some of that is because communication can be difficult.  The Deacons and church council have noted that we could have done a better job with communication, and during the upcoming search process, are committed to being as clear and transparent as possible while also honoring the process.

And if you start to feel sad or antsy because things seem to be taking too long, that’s ok.  Others are too. I’m here to help you work through that.

But God is here too.  That is because even as great or as weak as our faith in God is, God is ever more faithful and steadfast to us. Even when it seems like God is doing some work behind the smoke at the top of the mountain, God is here for you too.  Here for you to confess your doubts to, to listen to your anger, your pride, your joys, and your laughter.

God delights in your shower songs and wants you to argue with him about the big questions and the small ones.

So no, God is not a cow. But neither is God a vending machine, A Republican, a Democrat, or even a Red Sox fan.  God is God.

And that’s enough.