The Golden Calf and The Strange White Wafer

Here’s the sermon I preached to Pilgrimage United Church of Christ this weekend.  The lectionary for the week was Exodus 32:1-14.  (Quick refresher:  When Moses failed to come down Mount Sinai, the people built a golden calf …)

When I was four years old, my mom was serving a church in Washington, CT, a small and quaint town. As a young person or family, this town wasn’t the easiest to live or pastor in. Most of the members of the community had been around for at least 50 years and had very high expectations not only of the pastors, but also of his/her families. One Sunday morning, in the spirit of ecumenism, our congregation gathered at the local Episcopal Church to share in worship and communion. My mom was excited about this service for two reasons. First, she was eager to show the community what wonderful children my sister and I were. (The two children of the Senior Pastor at her church were known around town for a being a little “rowdy” and she wanted to clear the good name of the PK) Secondly, this was going to be a new communion experience for me. At our church, UCC and historically Congregational, the deacon’s prepared communion before worship, cutting up loaves of white bread into small pieces and pouring grape juice into little cups. The deacons would bring the elements to the congregation one at a time during the service of communion; once everyone had been served, we would eat and drink together. This morning, I would experience for the first time walking to and kneeling before the altar and receiving the elements by intinction.

So there we were, my sister to left of my mom and me to the right, we walked up to the altar and kneeled before it. Now, I was skeptical; keep in mind I was four years old, this hadn’t been explained to me and I had no idea what was going on. But I was with my mom, so I just followed her example. She kneeled, I kneeled; she stuck out her hands, I stuck out my hands; she received a wafer, I – well, here’s where things started to get a little “iffy.” I had no clue what I was supposed to do with this little round, white paper thing that the rector had just given me. I looked over at my mom and watched her dip it in the cup as the cup came around to her and then stick the whole thing in her mouth. Okay, I thought to myself, I can do this. When the cup came to me, I dipped the strange wafer in it and brought it to my mouth. Cautious, I only bit off a piece. Imagine a four-year-olds surprise when not only did this strange looking wafer taste as appetizing as it looked but also when she realized that she had just dipped it in wine. Absolutely horrified, I took the wafer out of my mouth and shrieked “Eww, this is gross!!” To add insult to injury, we were in a stone church and my voice just seemed to echo all over. Horrified herself, my mom grabbed the wafer out of my hand, put it in her mouth and rushed my sister and me back to our pew. So much for redeeming the good name of the PK.

When I look back on that day, I imagine that the thoughts going through my mom’s head were probably very similar to the thoughts that were going through Moses’ head on Mount Sinai. Moses was getting ready to go down the mountain with Torah in his hand; he was going to hand to the Israelites – the people that he had taken out of Egypt, the people who he had saved from oppression, the people he was called to minister to – he was going to hand to them God’s law. God who had parted the Red Sea when Pharaoh was drawing near to Moses and the Israelites, God who had provide them water when they were thirsty and food when they were hungry, God who had called Moses to lead these oppressed people out of Egypt and then up to Mount Sinai. I have this image in my head of Moses proudly holding the tablets with Torah etched into them – the way my mom proudly held my hand as we walked down the isle towards the altar – when suddenly Moses turns around and sees: The Golden Calf. It must have been something of a let down.

Why did the people ask Aaron to make a visible and tangible God for them? God was up on the mountain with Moses. Maybe the more pertinent questions is: Why did Aaron concede? I’m not entirely sure that I know the answers to those questions but I can speculate by telling you why I reacted with such distaste to the Eucharist that morning at the Episcopal Church and it can be summed up in four words: fear of the unknown. I didn’t know what was going on at the altar that morning and it scare me. I’m guessing that the people that Moses had brought out of Egypt were experiencing those same fears. When they arrived at Mount Sinai and Moses went up to God, the people – who had left their homes and traveled across the dessert; who were tired and weary; who were starting to become wary of Moses’ promises and intentions – were left at the bottom of the mountain. They were left with the fear of the unknown. They couldn’t see what was going on at the top of the mountain; they couldn’t hear God as he proclaimed the Ten Commandments to Moses; they were stranded. There was no reassurance that they had made the right decision in following Moses. There was no visible proof that waiting patiently at the bottom of the mountain would result in good news and blessings. Who among us wouldn’t have even considered taking off all of their gold jewelry and saying to Aaron: “Aaron, make me a God!!”?

I think all of us can relate to this story. Did anyone look to see what happened to the Dow this week? Was anyone afraid to look to see what happened to the Dow this week? Does anyone else feel hopeless when they see inserts in the top of “For Sale” signs that say “Price Reduced” rather than “Sold”? How many of us are nervous about what the future holds for our investments? Has anyone been forced to make hard, but necessary cuts from their budgets in an effort to save and protect themselves in the event of another depression? A friend of mine, a single mom who’s trying to take care of her son by herself while she’s in seminary, turned to me this week and said: “Am I still going to be able to take out student loans next semester?” I don’t know. Who here has a fear of the unknown?

Is anyone eagerly awaiting November 5th? How about January 20, 2009? You know, it’s a shame we can’t make Moses come down the mountain any faster. So what can we do until then? Anyone want to build a calf?

One of my absolute favorite authors, Anne Lamott, remembers a poem as she waits for Moses to come down the mountain. She says in her book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith: “I was still lying in bed when I remembered an anonymous poem I’ve seen several times over the years. It says that after we jump into the darkness of the unknown, faith lets us believe that we will either land on solid ground, or we will be taught how to fly.”

Faith. Now be honest – and you don’t have to raise your hand and own up to this, but be honest with yourself as I ask you my final question – how many of you have had your faith tested by this financial crisis? Have the “what ifs” take over and suddenly you find yourself saying: “what happens if I don’t learn how to fly?”

I don’t want to make excuses for the Golden Calf, but I do want to mention the one thing that the Israelites had going for them as they impatiently waited for Moses to come down the mountain: they had each other. I don’t know about you all, but Bruce and I have tried to be informed citizens and watch the first three presidential and vice presidential debates. I’ve heard the candidates speak a lot about how raising taxes, lowering taxes and reforming this or that or borrowing this or that is going to fix this financial crisis and bring hope to the American people. But I haven’t heard them say anything about the strength that lies in the communities that exist all over the country; the strength that lies in the community that exists right here at Pilgrimage United Church of Christ.

Bruce and I were up in Connecticut visiting my family at the beginning of September and we decided we had to take a swim in my parents’ new pool. For those of you have ever spent any time in Connecticut, you know that September is not really the end of summer; it’s the beginning of fall and probably not the best time to go swimming. The pool was cold and I was having a hard time being persuaded to jump in. Bruce finally looked at me, took my hand and we jumped in together. We jumped in together.

Strength in numbers gives us the ability to make positive and progressive changes in our lives. If you happen to live near or drive by someone’s house on your way to church, ask if they want to carpool and save a couple gallons of gas. If you have to run to the store, knock on your neighbor’s door and see if they need anything while you’re out – save them a trip, maybe they’ll do the same for you. Before throwing something in your house away that you don’t use but is still in good condition, ask around and see if someone needs it.

More importantly, continue to pray for those around you. If you don’t know what to pray for, pray for strength as everyone continually treads water during this economic crisis. Pray for peace of mind and peace of body. Tell people that you’re praying for them; send them an e-mail just to say hi and that you’re thinking of them. Pray alone and pray together. Waiting for Moses to come down the mountain won’t seem as agonizing if we wait together.

Pilgrimage United Church of Christ, it’s time that we looked around and embraced that strength that exists when we come together to worship; the strength that exists when we embrace each other during the passing of the peace; and the strength that exists when we take the hands of the people to the left and to the right of us and join our hearts and voices and sing together Let There Be Piece on Earth. Let’s take back our gold, take each other’s hands, strengthen our faith by joining it with the faith of others and jump into the darkness of the unknown.

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