One of the duties that I had in John Knox Presbytery, my presbytery of membership before I moved here, was as vice-moderator of the presbytery. As we do here, when you accept the position of vice-moderator, you assume that you will take over as moderator the next year. At every presbytery meeting, the vice-moderator would moderate for part of the meeting. It was good practice for your upcoming term as moderator.
Before every presbytery meeting, the executive presbyter, the stated clerk and the two moderators would meet in a conference call. We would walk through the items for the agenda, talk about any challenges that might arise, and determine the parts of the meeting the moderator would facilitate, and the parts the vice-moderator would. I studied every item on the agenda, but I particularly studied the items that fell under the time I moderated. I wanted to be as prepared as I knew how to be. That means that if I was presiding over the time when we dealt with items 1 – 5, then I really knew items 1 – 5.
It was my first meeting to serve as vice-moderator. I was nervous, but I knew my agenda items. It was decided that I would run the first part of the meeting, and I went up to the podium ready to go. But at one point, the moderator, clerk and executive presbyter had to have a side discussion about a question over a fine point of polity or Roberts’ Rules of Order – I can’t remember exactly. What I do remember is that we had reached the end of the agenda items that were mine. We reached number 5. I had read all the other items on the docket, but I had only prepared to moderate 1 – 5. But here I was, the vice-moderator, standing in front of the assembled presbyters, not saying or doing anything. The other people in charge – the real people in charge as I thought then – were off talking about something else.
All eyes were on me. We were trying to stay on schedule and on time. It was winter in the upper
Midwest, and people had driven long ways to
get there and would have to drive long way back. I knew that the questions in
every one’ mind were,
“Can’t we continue? Can’t we move on to item number 6? Come on, Madame Vice-Moderator, let’s get a move on. That’s why you’re up there.”
My pulse was racing. My heart seemed to be attempting to thump its way out of my chest. Also, I’d broken my wrist about three weeks earlier, so I was in a cast. As they all stared at me, I swear my wrist started to hurt more than normal. I did not know what to do. I looked at back at them, cleared my throat, and said,
“I’ve only been trained up to item number 5, so please talk amongst yourselves for a few minutes.”
I suspect that anyone who has occupied a position of leadership has experienced that kind of moment: you are the one in front and you are supposed to know what you are doing. Everyone is looking at you with expectation, because they also think you are supposed to know what you are doing. After all, that is why you are in leadership. If you are a teacher, teach. If you are a preacher, preach. If you are a lecturer, lecture. You get the idea. If you are there to lead, then lead already!
The story of the golden calf in Exodus is one that I have heard since I was a little girl. We studied it in Sunday School, most likely with cut-outs of the lead characters on a felt board. It was referred to in sermons. It is even a story that has gone beyond the church and into the wider culture. Mention a golden calf, people think idolatry.
Yet as many times as I have heard, read and alluded to this story, I haven’t given much thought to Aaron’s particular perspective. Obviously, Aaron was wrong in what he did. The people asked him to create a god for them to worship. He should have refused. He should have talked them out of it. He should have said, ‘Heck, no! I’m not going to be the one to lead you down the supposed primrose path to the
But Aaron did not say any of that. He did what they asked.
“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.”
“Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons; and your daughters, and bring them to me.’”
The people did what Aaron asked of them. They brought him their gold, and he melted it and fashioned it into the image of a calf. As soon as it was before the people, they said,
“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the
The text tells us that when Aaron saw what was happening among the people, he built an altar before the calf. He proclaimed to them that on the next day they would have “a festival to the Lord.”
What Aaron did was wrong. I cannot dispute that. But I wonder how Aaron felt when the eyes of the Israelites turned to him. I wonder what thoughts went through his mind at that moment, and how even his body reacted. Did he think with dread, “Now they want me to fix this”? Did he feel the same palpitations of nerves and fear as I did when he realized that they expected him to do … something?
Perhaps Aaron realized the slippery slope he’d set them upon as soon as he offered that quick fix? Perhaps his proclamation that they celebrate a festival of the Lord the next day was damage control? Wait, folks! I wasn’t trying to turn you away from the true God. I just wanted to make you happy. This calf was just a quick fix to keep us going a little longer. So let’s remember the One we are supposed to worship by actually worshipping that One tomorrow.
Maybe Aaron needed a tangible representation of God as much as the people did? We cannot know exactly what was going on in Aaron’s mind at that moment, but we do know that the Israelites, including Aaron and Moses, were human. As fellow humans, we have some understanding into our own natures. At least this human craves reassurance that God has not abandoned me to my own devices. I know that there are times when I desperately want something of God that is visible and concrete. While I might proclaim that I would never fashion a golden calf, I wonder if I haven’t mistaken something shiny and gold for the true God.
One commentator offered the possibility that Aaron was not trying to create a whole new god. Instead, Aaron created a false image of the God. I suspect that we do that as well. We don’t want new gods to worship. We do not consciously seek out something other than God. But perhaps we get confused, believing that we are worshipping God when really we are paying homage to a golden calf.
We have learned the difficult lesson that we, our congregation, are not our building. A lack of stained windows does not make us any less a church. While I do not believe or think that anyone of us saw the building as God, did we sometimes get confused and put that ahead of God? Had that become a golden calf? There is a sign in front of a house in town that states that prayer is our country’s only hope. Whenever I see it, I cringe a little. It’s not that I disagree per se. I understand, I think, the intent of that sign. We need to pray for our nation. I do not disagree. But the way the sign reads makes it sound as though prayer is that in which we place our hope. But that isn’t right, is it? We put our hope in God. We pray as a way to be in God’s presence, and, hopefully, hear God’s voice. Prayer is powerful and vital, but it is not where our hope lies. Our hope lies in God. That sign reminds me that even prayer can be a golden calf.
I think the truth is that we can make anything into a golden calf. Our families, our work, our denomination, our nation, our particular set of beliefs – all can be golden calves. I wonder if the people already had a golden calf even before Aaron’s creation. Were they afraid that God had abandoned them in the wilderness, or were they terrified that Moses had left them alone and defenseless? Do we put more faith in our leaders, in the church, community or country, than we do in God? Does our trust lie in God or in our own abilities?
The Israelites wanted a god they could see, touch, and hold onto. When confronted with being alone, they turned to Aaron for a quick fix. But God, our God, does not offer us quick fixes. We cannot pin God down into one image or one idea or one rigid perspective or understanding. God does not give us quick fixes. God gives us more. God gives us abundance. God gives us life. God gives us a promise and God keeps that promise – even when we do not. God was furious with the people for that golden calf. An infinite number of sermons can be written on the exchange between God and Moses. But ultimately, God did not give up on the Israelites. God did not abandon them to themselves. God kept covenant, God remained faithful, God kept God’s promise. That is the good news, and it continues today. No matter how unfaithful we are, God never abandons us to the golden calves of our own making. God is God of promises kept. We are forgiven. We are called again and again to worship God. We are given no quick fixes, but we are given grace. Thanks be to God!
Let all of God’s people say, “Alleluia!” Amen.