“A Changed Mind” is the second sermon in our October sermon series, The Path of Freedom.
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.” 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.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, 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!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” They 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.
The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they 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 worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now 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.”
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? Why 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. Remember 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 forever.’” And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Let us pray: O Lord, free us from idols. All the quick fixes and easy answers that might actually be symptoms of a dead faith. Images with no imagination. And Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
It’s been a tough week for humanity. My heart has been so heavy with news of Israel and Gaza. So much suffering. And on the screens, all these images. Images. Images.
As I scrolled through the news, I was still bombarded by shiny ads. I learned that the internet thinks I need rock hard abs, pumpkin spiced cookies, expensive leather boots better than the ones I already have, and tickets to the Taylor Swift concert movie. More images. Images. Images.
And in addition to ads there were non-stop influencers, pundits, and political leaders vying for my attention. Bad ideas spit shined to look like great ideas. It should have been so obvious these influencers were not telling the whole truth, that what they were selling was neither as cheap nor fast as they promise, that it was fool’s gold, but they had all these images. Images. Images.
And throughout the week, I was in contact with faith leaders, particularly rabbis and imams with whom I had a relationship of some kind. We shared prayers. I listened as they processed. Most of them wrote back to emails or called within two minutes saying, “You have no idea how much your prayers mean to me.” I had a long conversation with Rabbi Holzman from Reston about how complicated this pain about Israel and Gaza is. And as were hanging up, I said, “Prayers welcomed as I write my sermon. My words feel … insufficient.” He asked, “What’s your text?” “The Golden Calf and the changed mind of God.” “Ah,” he said, and took a deep breath, “That’s the thing about images and idols. They are totally inflexible. All that shiny metal.”
So now we turn to this part of the Exodus story, and it had been many tough years for the humanity wandering in that wilderness, so tough that the Israelites began to long for the before-times, to murmur among themselves about how, besides all that oppression, Egypt hadn’t been so bad. At least there was food. Besides all that suffering, at least things in Egypt had been predictable. In the wilderness, the greatest struggle wasn’t really hunger because God provided food for them. The real struggle was impatience. The first line of today’s story says it all. Moses was taking too long up on that mountain. Eventually, I suspect their impatience melted into anxiety. And anxiety began to tell them that any leader – even one as embarrassing as this calf, even one so clearly thrown together last minute and shined up with money and pandering – any leader was better than no leader. Now, I don’t know if anyone really thought their great aunt’s gold hoops could really become a god, or if they just thought it couldn’t hurt. But I do know this. Impatience mixed with uncertainty is usually the recipe for idols. Someone or something always arises to promise an outcome, even if that outcome is wrong. And when you crank up the heat of fear and pain, idols grow and grow.
Scholars say that a calf was a classic god figure in Egyptian culture. So it stands to reason that after all those centuries of assimilation back in Egypt, the calf might have become a fixture in their subconscious mind. The Israelites might not have known why, but somehow that calf might have felt like satisfaction of a deep craving. One scholar, Avivah Zornberg, said, “For me the notion of idolatry has to do with the appetite for easy or immediate answers to intellectual or emotional dilemmas.”
Compare that to the God they were following. A God who refused to be bound to one image. Moses even asked God at the burning bush, “What is your name?” so that he could give the people something, someone tangible, to follow. Moses was no fool. But God answered, “Ehye asher ehye” – “I will become what I will become”. God’s name is the verb “to be” said twice, without a predicate. What God is, or will be, is precisely not an image, image, image. Not some inflexible, predictable part of what is already known. God made a way through the Red Sea when there was no way. God was a fire that burned toward freedom but did not burn it all down. And in today’s story, God considered disaster and instead, the mind of God was changed by love. How beautiful and important.
This story asks two urgent questions for us today. The first is very nosy: Do you have a little collection of idols in your life? You can spot them because they cost a lot but do not deliver on their promises. Anytime you become inflexible, rigidly convinced you know the future… The Bible calls this “stiff-necked” but when something is blocking your ability to see another person as made in the image of God, chances are good there is an idol in your way. Something that comforts you and influences you more than divine love. Could be your phone or bank account or sports team. Could be someone else’s opinion or the bathroom scale or a political party or stiff drink. Today’s story wants us to notice the Golden Calves in our lives.
The second question this story asks, and it is hard, is when has your mind been changed due to holy love? George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
I think about how many times Jesus has this effect on people. They expected a debate from him and instead he set out a meal. They expected a warrior king and instead he washed their feet. They even expected the cross to be an idol to the insurmountable power of Rome, and then the cross changed completely … to a sign of reconciliation and grace and eternal life… And the New Testament asks us over and over again to have the mind of Christ.
It is probably too soon to talk about changed minds in regards to a conflict like Israel and Gaza. But I know a Rabbi and an Imam in Northern Virginia who met on Friday for prayer. And I know there is a lot of energy for our Burke interfaith service this year, the 40th one. And I know that if impatience and anxiety, fear and pain, give rise to idols, then prayer and friendship, faith and humility are idol removers.
I’ll share a story bit closer to home for us, about one of my spiritual heroes, a man named John Dancy. He was a minor celebrity in my former church. John had been an NBC correspondent, covering all major foreign beats, traveling seven times to the Middle East with Secretary of State Jim Baker as the United States initiated the first Israeli-Arab-Palestinian peace talks, which he also covered. But I knew John as an older man who maintained the ability to change his mind. Admittedly, John could be a bit gruff if the wait staff at Panera gave him a soft drink when he wanted tea. But at that same Panera, John was very candid with me about how he been wrong about race earlier in his life and how he sought to learn everything he could to work for Civil Rights now. When it came to church, John not only hoped his church would take on the hard issues facing the world, he expected it. If he disagreed with you, he’d tell you, though his words were always kind. And if a preacher sidestepped some enormous event in the world for fear of saying something controversial, oh, that really disappointed him. “God gave us a brain and wants us to use it!” he’d say. But this is the story about John Dancy that inspired me most. John had been on Session at his former church in Durham. And there had been heated debate about a major mission project. The only thing was it was 2009 and the economy was shaky. John made his position very clear, he did not support the project, he didn’t want to pressure people during tough economic times, but nevertheless when the vote was taken, 11-1, John was in the minority. My friend, the pastor of said church, felt some unease that maybe John would become disgruntled. But, the next day, my friend pulled into the church parking lot around 9 am he spotted John already driving way from the church that early in the morning. On my friend’s desk there was an envelope, and in it, a card from John. It was very large gift, the very first one to the mission project.
If impatience and anxiety, pain and fear are what generate idols inside and around us, then prayer and friendship, faith and humility are idol removers and turn our necks to God, God who makes a way when there seems to be no way. God of unexpected freedom and unearned forgiveness. God who made every human being in God’s image, without exception. The most important thing we can do when we read the news, or answer emails, or interact with someone in the grocery store, or look at ourselves in the mirror, is say, “You are made in the image of God. Image of God. Image of God.”