Golden Calf Truth

Friends,

Reflection on Exodus 32:1-14

Truth is larger than fact. There are times when the facts simply can’t adequately hold the truth. For example, there is no fact that could sufficiently account for a parent’s love for their child. Or for the liberation of a long-oppressed people. When the facts fail the truth, we turn to metaphor and myth, satire and story, parable and poetry. To say that someone is the most beautiful person in all the world is not meant to be evaluated on a factual basis, but rather to be appreciated for the truth that the statement makes about their love or attraction toward the person.

Similarly, the validity of the Exodus narrative (and much of Scripture) does not rest on whether it factually took place once upon a time or not, but rather on the truth that it announces for all time. (It is most likely that the Exodus narrative was the accumulative wisdom gleaned from many cycles of oppression and liberation all sewn together into a single archetypal liberation narrative.) The narrative’s purpose is to speak timeless truth:

  • The truth about God (ultimate reality) who is always on the side of truth and justice (the universe’s bending moral arc) and therefore forever listening to the cries of the oppressed and liberating the oppressed from bondage.
  • The truth that little people (midwives) who remain faithful to the Life-Giver bring down genocidal fascists.
  • The truth about how power hardens human hearts (Pharaoh had heart problems.)
  • The truth about the anxious, stubborn, devious and paranoid ways of Empire (Time and time again the Pharaoh regime promised to let the people go but reneged each time. Power is very seldom given up willingly. Codesa 1 and Codesa 2.)
  • The truth that when those who have access to the perks and privileges of palace power (Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses) choose rather to join in solidarity with the enslaved and exploited, a united front begins rolling mass action that not even all of Pharaoh’s chariots will be able to stop.
  • The truth that exploitation of people goes hand in hand with the exploitation of the environment, with the environment ultimately rebelling via plagues. (Contaminated topsoil poisons the water.)
  • The truth that liberation always looks impossible (like walking through an ocean) until it isn’t (ocean split in two) and then it looks inevitable.
  • The truth that a liberated people move quickly from gratitude to complaint. From dancing praise of their courageous leaders to accusing them of selling out. (Moses have you brought us out here to die? HIV does not cause Aids.)
  • The truth that a liberated people often forget their pain-filled past (we ate meat in Egypt) and soon begin to imitate the ways of their past oppressors. (Another name for State Capture is Greed.)
  • The truth that populous ‘leaders’ (read: fascists) will always be ready to exploit the frustrations and fears of the people, promising everything they want but securing just the opposite (We see you Aaron. We see you CIC in red overalls. We see you with the MAGA cap.)
  • The truth that it takes a long time for a new constitution to be carved into our hearts of stone and therefore in the interim it remains very tempting to return to the golden calf of oppression that falsely promises us a quick fix. (During the writing of our New Constitution our new leaders were negotiating the arms deal. A deal that was corrupt in essence and in process. A deal more in tune with the ways of Egypt than of liberation.)

 

This brings us to this Sunday’s reading: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us … Aaron took the gold from them and formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf…”

It is important to note that the golden calf may be seen as a replacement of the liberating YHWH or a representation of YHWH. The latter is a far more subtle form of idolatry and therefore potentially more dangerous. An idolatrous representation of YHWH would include attributing non-liberative characteristics to YHWH (see last week’s reference to “make no wrongful use of the name of God”.) An example today is the prosperity teaching (read: heresy / cult) calling on Jesus’ name in order to prosper financially by TV evangelists who believe owning a private jet is crucial for them to spread the word about the humble sandalled Jesus. (The same Jesus who happened to warn that it was pretty impossible to fly a jet through the eye of a needle.)

An even subtler form of idolatry includes that which is not necessarily religious at all and as a result are seldom named as gods / idols, yet they solicit our unquestionable belief in their professed saving power. Like believing that the death penalty will save us from crime. Or the gun will keep me safe. Or low taxes on the rich will be good news for the poor. Or that the quality of health care or education must correlate to how much money one has. These come to us through laws and systems rather than doctrines and creeds. We learn proverbs like “time is money” off by heart until we believe that everything is a product to be traded and that the value of anything or worth of anyone is ultimately determined in monetary terms.

With the above-mentioned examples, it should be clear that there is no such thing as a “non-believer”. We all believe in something. We all worship something. And whatever we worship is our god – like it or not. If the word worship does not connect with you then ask yourself what is the object of your ultimate concern? (See: Paul Tillich.) The answer to this question is our god. Simply put, whatever we give our heart to is our god, religious or not. For this reason, we are called to do the urgent and crucial work of “know yourself” to discover who / what we believe in. Warning: We may be surprised to discover that we don’t always believe in what we would like to think we believe in or what we profess to believe in. (Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord will enter the reign of God – says Jesus.) This is why the scriptures care less about atheism than they do about idolatry, because we could be worshiping the very ways that crucified Jesus while singing his praises on our lips.

How do we know the difference between God and an idol? Or God and false gods? In short: Idols or false gods always demand sacrifice. Idols take life while promising new life. Think of the military or of the idol of nationalism or tribalism that worship little lines in the ground called borders. Drawn and defended with blood. The true God on the other hand does not demand sacrifices. Rather the true God demands justice, mercy, humility, truth, gentleness. In other words, the true God demands that which will promote and protect life – all of Life in all its fullness.

This is the only scale that really matters: does our living bring life or death?

So just because we may never have carved out an image of a calf doesn’t mean we do not worship any idols. Furthermore, just because we have Jesus’ name repeatedly on our lips does not necessarily mean Jesus is our God. And for those of you reading this who think you are exempt from idolatry because you don’t believe in any God or god or idol – well once you have found the words that work for you – I invite you to check what your ultimate concern is and whether honouring your ultimate concern brings life or death – for all of life.

Know thyself sister. Know thyself brother.

Grace upon grace,
Alan

 

Listen!

June, 14 2020 The Sermon this week comes to us through the words of Rev. Victoria Safford, a minister in the Unitarian Church. They are words from 2005 but I believe them to be very connecting with our times. You decide if that is true for you. You may also want to see how the scripture readings for this week connect with her words. [Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7); Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)]

See you tomorrow at 11h11 for CMM Chat … “the holy occasion of hearing one another, of beholding one another.”

 

Friends,

Psalm 116 begins:
1 I love the Lord, because the Lord has heard
 my voice and my supplications. 
2 Because the Lord inclined his ear to me,
 therefore I will call on the Lord as long as I live. 

Basically, the psalmist is saying: Wow I have been listened to!! Being heard is the basis for the psalmist’s love and lifelong commitment. What is so wondrous according to the psalmist, is that the All-Powerful One, who by rights does not have to listen to anyone, has indeed listened to this psalmist’s cry.

The Lord heard my cry, is no small claim. In fact, it is this very claim that sparked the liberation of the Hebrew slaves back in the day. Back then the dominant theology of Empire taught (as Empire theology always does) that God only spoke and listened to the king who then represented or incarnated God on earth. It was treason to suggest that God listened to anyone besides the king. In Exodus 3:7 we read the radical declaration from the lips of the Lord: “…I have heard their cry…”. Being heard by the Lord helped them to discover and trust their true identity. They were the Lord’s “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5) and not Pharaoh’s slave. On the basis of being heard by the Power above all other powers, the Hebrew slaves demand their freedom and are prepared to walk through oceans and deserts to get it.

The declaration that the All-Powerful One listens to the lowly and trodden upon, is one of the most radically subversive statements of the Scriptures. It is also the primary instruction for those in positions of power to imitate. Listen longest to the lowliest. In truth most of us practice just the opposite.

One of the reasons “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is that our desire to listen seems to decrease in direct proportion to the increase of our power. Perhaps this is because listening and humility go hand in hand and if anything tests our humility it is power. After all, “why do I need to listen to you, if I have the power to just tell you what to do?” This is especially tempting when we are pressured and rushed or feeling vulnerable and afraid ourselves.

If power is not bridled by accountability, we can be almost certain that there will be abuse. The refusal to listen is the beginning of this abuse. It is to treat another as if they do not count. And if they don’t count, it raises the question why do they exist at all? From here it is a slippery slope to doing them further harm.

When institutions constantly cover for those among their ranks, right or wrong, then a culture of impunity soon saturates the structures of that institution which make the abuse of power by members of the institution not just possible but probable. We have witnessed this among the police and army, both here and abroad in recent weeks. We have also witnessed it within religious institutions who have covered up sexual abuse over many years. And in recent days we have heard again of how multiple forms of discrimination are routinely ignored and go unaddressed within elite schools. This occurs when institutions exist to protect and preserve themselves above all else. The moment an institution closes ranks to save itself in this way, it begins to die. And while dying it causes death. This is the public law of self-destruction that Jesus spoke of in personal terms: “If you want to save your life you will lose it.”

Conversely, to listen to another is to affirm their existence and honour their being. To listen is to help another discover and trust their true identity as precious. To listen is the beginning of the liberation journey.

Many are asking, what can we do? We can start by checking who we give our ear to. We can start by listening. We can start by listening to the cries of people, especially the people from the margins of society. And in these June days we are called to listen especially to young people. To listen without argument or the need to answer. To listen to feel and to learn for the sake of liberation.

Please email welcome@cmm.org.za if you want the link to Sunday’s chat.

Grace,
Alan

PS: From June 2018 in the States