We all have to make decisions all the time. Some of us do it with prayer, listening for the Spirit to guide us, however we know that to be. I feel it as a kind of calm assurance, and sometimes a warmth in my heart. A kind of weakness, a vulnerability, but a safe one, not the scary one that feels like, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do!” that I feel in my as a sinking feeling in my stomach. And the decisions can be great or small. What do I want for dinner to why can’t I cheat on my spouse? It is love, after all, isn’t it. Or am I saying no to a child or subordinate for their good or my control? Or why not a Golden Calf? Everybody else is doing it. We have a peculiar religion, and one that is undergoing radical change. All are welcome. But at the same time, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength (Deut 6:12, Mk 12:29-30).” To which Jesus added to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18, Mk 12:31). That doesn’t leave much room for straying to other gods. The church codified it. Follow Scripture, say the Creeds with some understanding and compliance, and receive the Sacraments. If not, how do we assess righteousness? Fidelity? Following Jesus? Love, well, even there, aren’t there boundaries? Our ethics and our faith are bound to a universal God whom we Christians see as Three Persons, One God. Kind of limiting, and this certainly has been used by Biblical literalists as a tool of oppression, but it needn’t be. In fact, it can be both liberating and compassionate.
Today’s Eucharistic OT reading is about the Golden Calf (Ex 32:15-24,30-34). The Jewish people, newly taken from the garlic and onions of Egypt, are trekking through an inhospitable land on the promise made by their leader Moses, who is currently up a mountain talking to God, or so he says. And they are tired and hungry, physically and spiritually. And they appeal to Moses’ brother, the priestly one, and gather the last of their gold and throw it in the fire, and they get an idol, a calf, the symbol of Baal or some such, and if they go to another high place, they can set up a tree or stone to Astarte, and she is pretty powerful. And why not, they argue? Our ancestors didn’t worship this mountain God of Moses. We, too, had our high places and altars and trees to a Lord and Lady. Uh-oh, here comes Moses and he looks mad.
When we talk about false gods we usually are talking about mundane things – money, power, status. But in our modern world more and more we are talking about gods. Gods who are being worshiped, and worship brings them power. And not all of them are nice, and few of them care much for us. Many of my friends are neo-pagans, Wicca, Norse Heathenism, magic lodges, reconstructions of ethnic pre-Christian religion. Although I found a certain romantic flair and some acknowledgement of the need to protect nature, I also found a lack of real relationship or love from those deities. We also have weekend Hindus or Buddhists, taking the superficial teachings that feel good and ignoring a faith system that takes long, hard effort. But if we are baptized, haven’t we made a promise to another God, the one who tells us that he is the one true God? And offers us a kind of love and protection not found elsewhere?
Being a Jew following Moses wasn’t easy, and the later prophets and psalmists will keep reminding us that offending God has a price. And then we got Jesus, the incarnate God, living with us, a stumbling block to most of the rest of the world. And he looks easy. His rules are simpler than those of Moses, because God is gracious and wants to make the whole world his resting place. He is not an evil conqueror but a loving Father. And then Jesus goes all hard on us. Know me and you know my Father. Keep my words. Love your enemy. Help the downtrodden. Keep the faith even unto death. Help, where is my Golden Calf! But there you have it. Be a part-time witch or part-time Buddhist if you must, but basically we have our Way, and it is rich and beautiful, and only asks for fidelity. It is a marriage. And I think we sometimes forget that because there are so many novel shiny things out there to grasp and amuse us. And the church is changing as society changes and those things once forbidden are being normalized. So why not a Golden Calf? Because we are under contract, a covenant with the One God through that absurd but totally real incident of God being incarnate for a while. And we are told to listen to him (Mt 7: 5, Mk 9: 7, Lk 9: 35).
We are a remnant. Christianity is endangered. We even ourselves blame ourselves for our past mistakes, even if they brought schools and hospitals and a modicum of relief for the marginalized. Maybe we need to get over ourselves and get down to work, God’s work. We can find all the answers in a critical reading of Scripture. We are taught to be both vulnerable, humble, obedient, and at the same time strong in proclaiming the faith, doing God’s work in the world. The yoke isn’t that easy. And Jesus isn’t just some other dead prophet. And possession, yes, possession, by the Holy Spirit isn’t a demonic trick by God, but the only protection we have in a chaotic metaphysical world filled with demons and temptations too delicious to ignore. Our God is as terrifying, as his Love is overwhelming. Here we are in the middle of summer, and the endless grind of weeks after Pentecost, and maybe it is time to shore up our practices by using some vacation for a retreat. And go to church on Sunday, every Sunday.
I think if we are to survive we need to give up our Golden Calves and our idols, carved or metaphorical. We may need to up the game. We need to start thinking in terms of the faith, of doctrine, of reconciliation, of putting up with truly obnoxious people, and some of the most obnoxious are in our own communities. What was it Jesus said? That the healthy don’t need a doctor (Mk 2:17). So the sick come in our doors, and we live with them. And heal them to the extent we can, and to the extent we can’t we tolerate and try to love them. We may be the best cure for the current hate/outrage/anger culture we live in. The world, God’s world, needs us. We are the Body of the Kingdom. And for that a Golden Calf or a statue of Isis or the gospel according to the Norse Eddas or generic spirituality won’t do. Only Christ’s healing mercy and Jesus’ teaching will do. A superhero movie or a night gaming with friends or a weekend rock festival won’t kill us, as long as we remember that Jesus resides in them, too. But our ground of being must be our love and obedience to our God. Even when it is hard.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.