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What Are Your Golden Calves?

Sermon - 7/30/06
Michael Kennedy
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 15: 1 -10 (and Exodus 32: 7-14)

The second scripture this morning is from Luke 15, the first 10 verses:

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

3 So he told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

8 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

[May the Lord bless our understanding of these readings this morning of His word]

We can look at all of the things that take place around the world, read the morning newspaper, and if you're like me you're often more discouraged than enlightened by some of the things you read about.  And become overwhelmed, sometimes, by the stuff that is going on.  We look at the economic news -- inflation seems to be coming back, the Fed is going to meet again and maybe raise the discount [interest] rate again, maybe interest rates will continue to go up and it will be hard to buy houses, and on and on and on.  It's a veritable domino theory of economic policy.  

But, as a professor of Finance, I want you to know one little thing that I think is just so neat, that helps explain part of the problem that we see ourselves in as a nation.  Speaking specifically of a humongous and continually growing national debt.

Now, if I have a $1,000 dollar bill, and I put a little stack of them together -- 1,000 of them, I would have a million dollars.  Be about 4 inches high.  A lot of money crammed into a very small space.  Now, if I wanted a billion dollars, I would have a stack that is 333 feet high -- could lay it down on a football field.  A trillion dollars is a 65-mile high pile of $1,000 dollar bills.  That's a trillion dollars.  That's still hard to get your mind around.  And our national debt is about 8 trillion at this point, which pushes the total more than 500 miles of $1,000 dollar bills, stretching from here to Seattle and beyond.  And each of us has a share of that huge debt.

It continues to grow -- the yearly deficit is what we look at, and what is proclaimed as having "come down", but that's just a small part, because that negative number adds to the 8 trillion.  And it grows, and it grows.  That's the kind of thing that discourages Finance professors.

It should discourage each one of us.  That's only part of news we get that seems discouraging.  If we look beyond the shores of our own land and we see Lebanon and Israel, and we see Iraq and Iran, and we see North and South Korea, and we see Somalia, and Chechnya, South Africa, the Ivory Coast, Mozambique.  We see problems in South America, Mexico, etc.  There are many ways that we can become discouraged.

And in the local section [of the newspaper] talks about the local killings, the spousal abuse, the drug addiction, and drug doping by athletes.  And on and on and on.  A litany to depress the most optimistic among us.

Exodus 32: 7-14

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; 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.’ 2Aaron 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.’ 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ 9The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.


The people of Israel looked up to the mountain, and all they saw were clouds, smoke, distance, and no Moses.  No Moses for 40 days.  And they stared at the world around them.  We were at Mt. Sinai a couple of months ago, and I can tell you it is indeed a desolate area at the base of Mt. Sinai where the people of Israel were awaiting Moses to come to back down to lead them once again.  To share in the lack of water, and the burning sun, and the distance that stretches as far as the eye can see.  And as they looked up the mountain, all they saw were clouds.  And they became discouraged.

And they turned to Aaron and they said 'build for us a calf'.  Actually, they said build for us a golden idol of some sort, so that we will have something concrete that we can look at.  That we can see.  That will be right here.  That's what will save us, not some Moses stuck up on a mountaintop in the clouds, not seen, not heard.  Maybe he's dead, who knows.  We need something before us right now in this very place.

Not unlike us.  How often do we also look out and find that which will protect us from something?  We create IRAs so that when we retire we will not be a burden and we will not have to worry about being poverty stricken.  We build gated communities in which we can live, so that 'those people' will not get any closer to us.  We pass laws about who can come into this country and who can't.  We pass laws attempting to create around us a barrier to protect us from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and we find that we cannot do so.  Because they find us anyway.  And so getting and spending, we lay waste our talents.  We lay them waste.

Not unlike Israel in the wilderness.  Not unlike Israel waiting for Moses.

God and Moses are up on the mountain.  They're looking down at what's going on.  It's a neat little story.  But God turns to Moses and he starts talking to him.  He speaks to Moses about the events in the valley.  He changes one little word -- one little word -- defines what he's done to be talking about.  We sometimes miss the little words.  In this case, the word is a pronoun -- those are even more often missed.  God turns to Moses and He sees what's going on, the calf is being built, and he says "What are your people doing down there, Moses?"  Your people, that you brought from Egypt.  Not unlike two parents who are talking about one of their children who have just had a problem, and one turns to the other and says "Do you know what your child did today?!"  How many of you have heard that?

But Moses internalizes that.  A few years earlier, a few chapters earlier, sometime earlier, God had said to Moses: "I am your God, who has brought you out of the house and the land of Egypt".  Now they're Moses' people all of a sudden.  And God also told Moses, 'you shall have no other Gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself a graven image'.  And there are the people, down in the valley, making a graven image.

The special relationship with God was debatable at this point.  It was questionable.  The security was missing.  And we're reminded of that by that one little pronoun "your".  What are your people doing, Moses?  That response of God reflects the brokenness that often enters into our relationship with God.  God's people, in their folly, have made themselves Moses' people.  And we in our folly make ourselves . . . . fill in the blank.  We build our golden calves too.  To protect us.  To give us security.  To create something solid and meaningful that we can grab onto in times of need.

That little pronoun "your" defines the brokenness of the relationship, and the golden calf attitude with which some people come to have.  We set the barrier.  We create space around us that we fill with ourselves.

There's a second meaning also, that God will raise up a new people.  He looks down, not the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but children of Moses, he says in this middle section.  Forget about those people down there, Moses I will make a great nation of you.  Interesting thought.

The promise of God given to Moses is just the opening that Moses I think had been waiting for, because he responds to God.  He wants to think on these two points that God has just raised.  Who's people are these who have made this golden calf?  To whom did the promise made by God belong?  

So Moses turns to God.  He doesn't argue, he doesn't say "no, they're not my people", he doesn't get involved in that kind of discussion.  But he says "why does they wrath burn hot against thy people [small pronoun again]?"  Moses reminds God what God had done for the people.  Moses doesn't make excuses.  He doesn't try to pass that off as "well, you know, they've been waiting a long time down there while we've been in this conversation".  No, he doesn't go that way.  He reminds God that God called him out of Egypt not certainly because they were good people, they were not.  Not because they were fair people, because they were not.  Not because they were a beautiful people, because they were not.  He called them out of Egypt because he loved them, as a people.

Love is not something you can turn off and on.  Moses reminds God of that in the midst of their discussion atop the wind-swept hill of Mt. Sinai.  He reminds God that these people, no matter what they have done, are indeed God's people.  The same people that He had called out of Egypt.  And he reminds God that they are the descendents of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.  God had promised Abraham 'I will make your descendents as numerous as the stars of the sky'.  No matter what the people may do, Moses is saying, how often they may run away from God, how often they may build those golden calves, God's promise still stands.

And so for us too, when we make our own golden calves, we begin to feel that we maybe have been cut off or have cut ourselves off from God for some reason, or we begin to put up barriers, it is at that point that I think the relevancy of this New Testament scripture [Luke 15:1-10, above] speaks to us.  Because we put up the barriers, and it is God that reaches down and swipes them away.

The story is about a shepherd that lost a sheep.  He goes looking for it, and the context within that small scripture is that if there is one who is lost it is better to bring that one back to the kingdom and the angels will rejoice.  I want to shift the emphasis of that little sermon, if I may, because I think the shepherd is gone seeking his people who have gone astray.  Sheep don't mean to be dumb, they just are J.  We don't mean to be doing dumb things, we just do.  And God steps out of the way and searches for us like a shepherd looking for that lost sheep that is wandering in the thicket, that is wandering in the forest, that is finding someplace to find some kind of food, and not thinking about what that barrier that they've just created is causing a problem with.  

God the shepherd, reaches in, finds that lost sheep.  Reaches to us across those bonds of time and place.  Jesus Christ, as the imprint of God in this world, came to reach out and to grab us in the midst of our barrenness, if you will.  In the midst of those Sinai times, when we are locked into seeing God on a mountain somewhere, and can't see him in front of us, and we want something solid to place our hands on.  

At those times, the opening is there that allows us to be a part of the creation that God gave us.  It calls to us to be open to the presence.  It calls us to look at the lives we are living and to not see them in response to the negatives around us but see them as a response to God's love and compassion and God's never-ending presence.  Did Moses remind God of what God's promises were?  It makes a good story.  I kind of hope God didn't need to hear that from Moses.  It makes Moses look real good -- perhaps that's the section that Moses wrote J.

But what we see is God the shepherd finding us in the barriers we have created and saying to us "I love you.  Come with me.  Let's gather back together once again."  In the midst of those problems that are surrounding us, that are ever-present.  Like the Shepherd.  Like the woman who lost the coin.  He finds us and brings us back.

And when that delay seems long, like it seemed for Israel, when they were in the desert at Sinai, and we become restless and fearful, it is then that Jesus reminds us of the promises that God has made.  That God is faithful, time and time again.  No matter how many times that shepherd lost a sheep, and I'll be with 100 sheep he lost more than one, the shepherd goes out looking.  He's looking for us today.  Because we build golden calves.  We build those things to separate us from God's love, because we're confused, for many reasons.  

But in the midst of our building, the shepherd is there, reaching to us, asking us to come, to tear down those golden idols.  Because God is present. 


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