Golden Idols and Portable Gods

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.

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At the point in the Exodus story we just heard, Moses has successfully brought the people Israel out of slavery in Egypt and is leading them through the wilderness, sights set on the Promised Land. When they first escaped from Egypt, things were going pretty well- there was a lot of singing and dancing, praising God, and thanking Moses. But then, well then, things began to turn. Slowly at first- with some background grumbling and kvetching about the lack of a nice variety of foods and the lack of on demand access to water. Then the complaints ramped up with demands of a shorter route and better leadership- the people whined, complained, and dragged their feet. And then they got all nostalgic about the good old days in Egypt when they were well fed slaves. And Moses quickly started to wonder just what the heck he had signed up for, being the trip leader for this cantankerous, ungrateful, ornery group of travelers.

The story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt rambles over 2 books of the Bible; the aptly named Exodus, and the book of Deuteronomy. Towards the end of the trek in Deuteronomy, Moses delivers his last address-which we read last week in church. He knows they are almost at the Promised Land, and he knows he will die soon and so will not be going in there with them. He stands and looks out at the now raggedy, blister-sporting crowd and he tells them it is time for them to choose. He will no longer be leading them- he took them as far as he could and it is now up to them to decide who and what to follow. They can, Moses reminds them, walk in God’s ways and follow God’s commandments. Or they can turn away from God, bow down before other gods and serve them.

Now you might think that having been saved from slavery and led to the Promised Land would be enough to win unfailing loyalty-enough to make the choice easy, but you would be wrong. While the people knew that God and God alone had the power to sustain life, they were still looking for some wiggle room- looking around for other options. Acknowledging that God has that kind of power, power over life, leads people to feel dependent on the God whose idea of what leads to life doesn’t always mesh with ours. Whose idea of a good time just doesn’t cut it with us. They had seen that quite clearly in the wilderness. A steady diet of manna which, you know, sustained life and all, but really was not half as good as the great salads in Egypt. And having to wait for Moses to bash a rock with his staff to get God to give water up was not nearly as good as having an ever present well. And then there was Moses himself, whose expectations seemed altogether unrealistic. He expected them to walk from slavery to freedom, and walk, and walk. And on top of that, to believe God was guiding them all the time- even when things looked bleak. I mean, really, God seemed to just not be interested in important things like comfort. And where was the down time, time to unwind a bit and have fun?

So, as we heard today, when Moses went up the mountain to chat with God and ended up staying up there for weeks and weeks, the people got restless. And creative. They collected all of the gold jewelry from every member of the community and put it into a big old pot. Then they melted it and turned it into a nice small manageable golden calf they could worship. A portable god that they could carry with them instead of following along after. The God who had made them turned out to be not as much fun as they had hoped, turned out to be a little too hard to deal with, so they just made their own god instead.

According to the story, this should have killed them, but Moses, their often humorless and irritating leader, intervened for them- pleaded with God and persuaded God to back down. Then Moses, in the sight of all the people, ground the calf down to dust, scattered it in the wind and shook the dust off his hands, and they were off again- on their way to the Promised Land. Problem solved.

Except that, looking back over the grand sweep of human relationship with God, it really wasn’t solved. Over the millennia we, God’s people, have displayed a fairly constant fascination with gold, flashy things-idols. We still mess around with creating the perfect, portable, domesticated God because God still doesn’t seem to have made our comfort the highest divine priority.

Our idols might be different shapes- credit card shaped, calendar shaped, cellphone shaped. Shaped like a job that will finally give us true security. Or a house that will give us real comfort. A relationship that finally makes us safe. A car that confers prestige. A position in the community that gives us real power. A veritable row of little golden calves neatly lined up on the shelf. These things are not bad in and of themselves- just bad when we place them high on our spiritual shelves and bow down to them regularly.  The problem is when we take a good thing and make it into an ultimate thing. Because these things have not, and never will be, God. They may make us feel better for a while, may keep us safe for a while, may produce results for a while. But talk to anyone who was laid off, whose portfolio disappeared, whose health failed, or whose marriage crumbled and that person will tell you how much of a golden calf these things are and exactly what a golden calf is worth. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

God, on the other hand, does not seem at all interested in results, at least, not the sort that interest us. God seems to be most interested in producing life. Extravagant abundant life- the sort that has very little to do with power, prestige, and security.

We can serve these other gods. That is our choice and we can choose to bow down to them. Or we can stand up, turn away, brush the gold dust off our hands, and serve the Living God. The choice always has been, always will be ours. As the leader of an ornery, yet intimately familiar group said, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days.” Interestingly, the Bible does not record the people’s answer-we never know what they chose- for us, the question still hangs in the air. We have been fully informed- we know the choice is ours: blessings or curses, life or death. So, dear people of God, what will it be? Let us choose this day whom we will serve.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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