June 27, 2021

Series: June 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: Exodus 32:15-24 

Today's Sermon




James 5:13-18 

       15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, "There is a noise of war in the camp." 18 But he said, "It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear." 19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

            21 Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?"

            22 And Aaron said, "Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil.

            23 They said to me, "Make us gods, 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.'

            24 So I said to them, "Whoever has gold, take it off'; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!"  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.  Amen


            (Begin by pretending as if recording a video for virtual worship, make a couple of comical mistakes, then explain what you were doing and how you recorded at various points throughout the pandemic).

            That is just a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes here.  It feels good to laugh about it now.  Not everything has felt funny over the past year, but here we are.  It’s kind of fun to dress up in what I wore for zoom services.  When else could I wear red shoes to church?  I feel a little like the pope, or pope’s past.

            Do you know why popes sometimes wear red shoes?  It’s not to be ostentatious; it’s to recognize the blood spilled of those in the faith, to remember that one walks in the blood-stained footsteps of Christ. Sometimes, things lose their meaning, and we not only have to remember, we have to relearn them. 

            Today’s story is a good one to relearn.  God has given Moses the 10 Commandments, the basis for organizing communal life.  Did you remember the first set of the tablets was destroyed?  Moses throws them down when he sees the people reveling, having fashioned a golden calf.  Together, God and Moses pick up the pieces and try again.

            The gold for the calf came from what people were wearing.  Of all the things you could say about this episode, there is something powerful about the notion the gold for the idol came from their own jewelry. Their treasures have become their God, and to confuse someone or something for God is the definition of idolatry.  As I heard someone put it recently, idol worship always ends poorly.  In response, Aaron takes the golden calf, grinds it into fine powder and makes the people drink it.  They have to consume their own bitter choice, and taste what it’s like to go astray.    

            It’s easy to come down on the people.  How quickly they abandon their God for a god fashioned by their own hands?  If we took Paul Tillich’s definition of God as our ultimate concern, we might realize how many times we too have made other things our God.  There’s worship of golden statues in our time too.  We could conclude these are just bad people, or we might recognize that what they are is afraid.  In the passage before this, we learn that Moses is on the mountain for forty days and nights.  As one commentary puts it, the people are essentially without access to God.[1]  They’re scared Moses might not come back and they’ll lose their connection to God forever. They feel abandoned.  When people feel lost, they turn to strange places or people to guide them. 

            If we recognize we’re not so different from these people, we’re better positioned to avoid their missteps. Maybe it feels to us as though we’ve been left too.  Maybe one of the things we need to do is learn again how to listen for and trust God’s voice for us. 

            Steve Hayner was a former seminary president and professor where I studied.  As Hayner was dying of cancer, people were sharing memories of him, including this one from his friend and colleague, Steve Harrington:

My favorite unique memory with you was years ago at Wellspring Retreat Center. You remember we were given various iterations of the "trust walk". In one of those exercises we were supposed to guide our blindfolded partner from behind using only our voice. You walked in front of me and I directed you with only words into a small thicket of woods. I had you stepping over logs and ducking down below strong branches. You went slowly and could feel dead wood snapping beneath your feet and all of the twigs on your face as you brushed past them. You knew that you were walking through a very thick and tangled terrain – a precarious path for someone blindfolded and having to trust only the words spoken to them.

Then I brought you almost out of the woods to the very edge of a large flat grassy field and stopped you 6 inches from the grass – you were still standing in the woods blindfolded (you remember, right?). You had no idea that all the tangles and tripping hazards and undergrowth and slapping branches and hard trees were behind you and that before you was only a broad, flat, lush field of green grass. You were still in the woods imagining yourself stuck in the midst of all the tangles and hazards. Only I knew that before you it was all level and open and free of any encumbrance or danger or fear.

Then I said, at the count of three I want you to run straightforward as fast as you can.

I counted to three and, with great trust, you took off running, charging ahead, screaming your lungs out, flailing your arms – worried that you were still careening through the woods but also suddenly laughing to find out that you were out of the tangled danger and running easily into a flat field full of soft and forgiving grass.

This is the journey ahead for you my friend, whenever it is that you take it. The Word is behind you but also goes before you; the Word made flesh walks with you and is within you. And therefore all shall be well, and all shall be well – and all manner of things shall be well. The nausea and the discomfort, the fear and weakness, the tears and the treatments (the tripping hazards and the threatening thicket) will be over and you will run full speed screaming and laughing into the forgiving arms of grace and the healing heart of God.

            Those were words for death, but as Harrington pointed out, they are also words for life.  Perhaps some of you need to hear that the Word made flesh is behind you, before you, with you and within you.  You might be flailing, screaming and scared, but know that the place you are being led is made of soft and forgiving grass. 

            Maybe it’s not that you feel left behind, but rather, you feel as though you’re always running to catch up.  We are not our best selves, at least our best Christian selves when we’re hurrying.  In 1970 Princeton University ran an experiment with Princeton seminary students. They set up two appointments for the seminarians, and played with the amount of time between the appointments, dictating how much they were in a hurry.  Then, they placed actors pretending to be in distress that the seminarians would encounter along the route.  Wouldn’t you know what determined whether or not the students would help the person in distress wasn’t the general faithfulness of the students, or their affiliation with one or another side of the theological spectrum, nor was it their past experiences in service.  No, the only factor that meaningfully impacted whether or not they stopped to help was whether or not they were in a hurry![2]

            Think about that.  The best thing we can do to encourage more compassionate behavior is slow down, or more accurately, make choices in our lives, and help create a society in which people can make choices to avoid being in such a hurry.  We literally lose our compassionate center when we’re in a hurry. We lose our connection with God when we’re in a hurry.  Sometimes we need to slow down in order to let God catch up.

            Finally, like the people in the story, maybe we have merely forgotten what is sacred.  If the golden calf story is a mundane or profane thing treated as holy, then we should also think about the many holy things treated as profane.  It seems these days we make everything and everyone profane.  Incidents of unruly, even violent, behavior on plane flights seems to be going up, in part by the way passengers are treated and in part because of what passengers are carrying within them.  Similarly, there’s been a rash of poor and degrading behavior at sporting events.  Some years ago, I saw a “South Park” episode, that rather crude cartoon, the premise of which was essentially to say the “s” word as many times as possible.  There was even a little ticker on the screen.  With a wink, the episode pretended to mock foul language guidelines, but actually what it illustrated was how embracing the profane makes the community sick.  When you cease to treat the world as sacred, you rot from the inside out. 

            In the end, if we want to remain connected to God, we need to listen again for God’s voice, distinguishing it from others that tempt us.  It may be about learning to trust again.  It may be about slowing down.  It may be about honoring the sacred all around us.  You can put on red shoes, or like Moses, you can take them off altogether to remember, whenever we acknowledge the presence of God, we are truly standing on holy ground.  If we do these things, no matter how many missteps we may take, we won’t be making a true mistake. 



[1]The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 930.