Fourth Presbyterian Church, South Boston, MA
October 15, 2017
When we first moved to North Carolina, I volunteered for a couple of years as a chaplain at a local hospital. I was on call about one night a month, and was called to the hospital anytime an emergency situation arose. One night I was called to be with the family of a woman, Rose. Rose, who was in her sixties, was receiving treatment for a drug overdose from earlier that evening. Rose was stable, but had passed out, and as I arrived, she was beginning to come to. In the meantime, Rose’s immediate family members, her husband Robert and her sister Jennie, had also arrived. As I talked with Robert and Jennie in Rose’s room, it was clear to me that neither was sober. At first, I had a hard time understanding exactly who Robert and Jennie were, what had happened to Rose, and what they wanted me to do. They asked me to pray for Rose, which I did. As I was praying, Rose began to wake up. She wasn’t lucid. I finished my prayer, and as I did, Robert and Jennie wanted me to know that Rose struggled with addiction, that she wasn’t a bad person, that all of them had a tough life. Rose tried hard to get clean, they said, and sometimes, for a time, she was clean. But it didn’t last. There were addiction problems with Robert and Rose’s children as well. Jennie and Robert had a story to tell about themselves and about Rose, one that invited the listener to affirm them in their struggle to live a good life, even when they couldn’t always manage to do so. That was an easy invitation for me to accept.
As I listened, it struck me that this wasn’t the first time that Jennie and Robert had uttered these very sentences. They’d had occasion to tell that same story to other strangers, in other moments of crisis and vulnerability. My sadness and empathy connected with the reality that this probably would not be the last time that Rose, Jennie, and Robert would tell this story, because this would not likely be the last time that this family would find themselves in this situation. At the time, I felt at a loss as to what I could do to help them – there wasn’t much from my own experience that could orient me to the kind of struggles that Rose, Jennie, and Robert wrestle with every day. But in hindsight, I realize that maybe the best thing I could do for this family in that particular moment was simply to hold space for them to tell their well-worn stories about themselves and their lives, to hear those stories as best I could, and to let Rose, Jennie, and Robert know that they had been heard.
In the Exodus passage for today, the Israelites are presented as “stiff-necked,” as the text says, unwilling to be faithful to the God who was their champion, the God who led them out of slavery in Egypt, who watched over them during their long sojourn in the wilderness, and who was leading them to a promised land, flowing with milk and honey. The story would have us condemn the Israelites, as God condemns them, for their faithlessness. But that’s hard for me to do, in part because of my experience with people like Rose, Jennie, and Robert. I can’t help but have sympathy for the Israelites. They’ve endured trauma after trauma, first in slavery to the Egyptians, then the harrowing escape out of Egypt, and the long sojourn in the wilderness. All the while, their God is hard to access, hidden in a roving cloud, parked on top of a mountain that the people aren’t allowed to go on, or absent altogether for long periods of time. And now Moses, their leader, has been gone for quite awhile. You can imagine that the people’s anxiety is through the roof. Has God brought them out of an already vulnerable position in Egypt only to lead them to destruction in the wilderness?
We human beings are meaning-making creatures. In moments of anxiety and distress, we look for explanations and narratives, some of them well-worn and many of them often repeated, many truthful and some not. Narratives help us to make sense of our world and our experience in it. Rose, Jennie, and Robert had a way of talking about themselves in their most vulnerable moments that helped them to make sense of their struggles. I think that’s what the golden calf did for the Israelites: it helped them to make meaning of their struggles in the midst of pretty profound vulnerability. In the golden calf, the Israelites affirm that they are worthy – worthy of being noticed, worthy of being remembered, worthy of being saved from the Egyptians and from the wilderness, not by an inaccessible or absent Yahweh, but by gods who can be seen and touched. The golden calf made sense to the Israelites because the golden calf made sense of their experience.
So, what’s wrong with the golden calf? What’s wrong, in other words, with idolatry? On the one hand, the Israelites were doing what human beings do – they were trying to understand how they had gotten to where they are and where they are going. On the other hand, the golden calf also signaled the Israelites’ failure to live into the new way of being that God was offering. The story of Exodus is really about this question: what does it mean to live into a new identity, a new kind of story about who we are and what makes life meaningful? In Exodus 19, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that if they “obey my voice and keep my covenant, [they] shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” In Egypt, the Israelites had been slaves. Pharaoh abused them at will, pressed them into labor, killed Jewish children, and denied the Israelites their full humanity. But God offers the Israelites a new identity and purpose. Moses leaves the Israelite camp to ascend Mt. Sinai, and he hears from God in great detail just what a priestly kingdom and a holy nation will look like. This priestly kingdom is not without its problems (there are still slaves, for example), but it is one that protects and cares for the poor, resident aliens, widows and orphans, laborers, and those to whom harm has been done and to whom compensation is due. The holy nation that God envisions was not like life in Egypt under Pharaoh; it is a place of justice.
But for that priestly kingdom to be a possibility, it must begin with the affirmation that God is the one and only God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt and out of the house of slavery. So, maybe the golden calf wasn’t just about worshipping a false god as much as it was about the Israelites’ resistance to becoming something new, a fear of learning to live differently in the world, a fear of becoming a new kind of people. It’s scary to let go of old identities and old ways of being in the world because it means that at a certain point, we might not be able to recognize ourselves anymore – and then what will happen?
This past summer, I went with a group of Wake Forest students on a nine-day pilgrimage to Iona. Iona is an island off the west coast of Scotland and is the home of an ancient monastery that is a center of Celtic Christianity. We understood what we were doing as a pilgrimage, in the sense that we were cultivating an intentional openness to new experiences of God that, we hoped, would change the way we see ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. There were a couple of students for whom the Iona trip was a first experience of traveling abroad. One of them, Carly, showed up with two huge suitcases and a smaller bag full of stuff. (Keep in mind that this was a nine-day trip!). I asked Carly if she was moving to Scotland, and I teased her that she was planning to run off with some Scotsman like Jamie Fraser from the TV show Outlander. As we traveled on trains and ferries and buses, and schlepped up and down staircases in hotels and hostels, we had to devise a buddy system for Carly so that she wouldn’t get left behind or collapse under the weight of her considerable luggage. At the beginning of the week, Carly really struggled with being away from home, with the near constant cold and wet weather, with the absence of many of the amenities that made her home life safe and comfortable. Home, or at least some idea of home, was Carly’s golden calf. Her anxiousness about the trip manifest as constant complaining. Carly casted everything in a negative light – the food, the weather, the hiking, the schedule; there was nothing good about the experience. About two days into the trip, my colleague Chris Copeland called Carly on her complaining. He said, “You know, Carly, I know you’re not in your comfort zone on this trip, but if you complain about everything, chances are you’re not going to learn anything while you’re here. You need to let some of this go.”
To her credit, Carly took Chris’s suggestion to heart. She committed to the group that she would practice gratitude whenever she felt inclined to complain. Towards the end of the week, we went for a three or four-hour hike around the island. Not ten minutes in, it started to rain, hard, as it often did. Iona is full of muddy bogs that are always a challenge to navigate, especially when it is pouring down rain. Carly was wearing bright white tennis shoes that, by the end of a day of trekking through muddy bogs, looked to be ruined. We were all waiting for her to complain about the hike, but she didn’t. Someone finally said: “Carly, if you want to complain, it’s OK.” It was pretty rough, after all! Carly said that she had been so engrossed in the conversations she had with her colleagues along the way that she had forgotten about the rain. She was surprised at how much she had learned from sharing and listening to the stories of her walking partners. Carly later reported that her attention to gratitude had shifted the whole experience for her, and she also developed more of an awareness about why she was so fearful of the experience of pilgrimage in the first place. Carly had feared the pilgrimage because she wasn’t sure she could find her way in world in which God wanted more for her than she wanted for herself.
Idolatry isn’t just about the worship of false gods. It’s more fundamentally about closing down the possibility that in being in relationship with the true God, we will become more fully who God intends for us to be. Idols are tough. Because we make them, they help us both to recognize and understand ourselves and our world. Idols shore up our vulnerability to disappointment and distress. But they also blind us to possibilities for new life. The Israelites failed to be open to the possibility that whatever was going on between Moses and God on Mt. Sinai promised more for the Israelites than the Israelites could imagine for themselves. The same was true for Carly, and maybe also for Rose, Robert, and Jennie. In closing down our vulnerability, idols prevent us from hearing what theologian Howard Thurman called the “sound of the genuine” in ourselves – those ways in which God is calling us to be who we really are.
God’s anger about the golden calf and God’s willingness to change God’s mind about the Israelites also tells us something. Yahweh is incensed at the Israelites for their idolatry and faithlessness. Yahweh is ready to wipe them off the face of the earth and rebuild the chosen community through Moses’s offspring. But Moses persuades God that if God were to destroy the Israelites, that would only show the Egyptians that God meant to exploit the vulnerability of the Israelites all along. But in calling the Israelites to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, God is calling them to be open to vulnerability. Moses, then, exposes an inconsistency in God’s rage. Moses reminds God of God’s promises to Israel. God relents; and not only that – God changes God’s mind.
What I hear in all of this is that the journey into new identities and new purposes to which God calls Israel and us is not linear; it’s not just good and getting better all the time. Instead, this journey is more often two steps forward and one step back. It is a redemptive journey, one in which our vulnerability is always affirmed in God’s forgiveness. God invites; we make ourselves vulnerable to God’s invitation; we try; we fail, God forgives us, and we try again. The life to which God calls us is not a good life, if “good” means progress towards perfection and the achievement of some goal. We are not called to live “good lives” in that sense; we are called to live redeemed lives – lives that don’t always get it right, but are made good despite inevitable failure in our yearning and striving and stretching towards God. Our role is to try and try again; God’s role is to forgive. And that is a hard lesson to learn, even for God.
What is the sound of the genuine in your life? And where are the opportunities to let go of narratives and stories that stand in the way of living more fully into the person God has called you to be? Wherever those opportunities are for you and for us, may God bless you on the journey.