October 28, 2018: What to do when idols replace vision? by Rev. Beth Hayward (Exodus 32: 1-14)

That golden calf really got the people in trouble out there in the wilderness. They should have known better, but I feel for them. Who knows what all led to them stripping their coffers of every last trace of costume jewelry to have it molded into a golden calf? The fact is, Moses headed off into the mountains weeks before, not a text, not a call, utter silence. For all they knew, he’d bought a plot of land up there and was settling down for retirement. No wonder they took things into their own hands! Is there anything more powerful in sowing the seeds of anxiety and fear than that sinking feeling that you are all alone, forgotten, ignored? So when the people asked Aaron for some reassurance, he did his best to make it happen. I’ll give them something big and shiny, a god bigger and better than that one hiding out on the mountain!

There’s been a fair bit of controversy lately about some modern day golden cows. In August the city of Victoria removed a life sized statue of Sir John A. MacDonald from the quiet corner it had occupied outside city hall for over three decades. In a similar move last January the city of Halifax removed the statue of its founding father Lord Cornwallis from a downtown park. In 1749 Cornwallis signed a scalping bounty declaring a reward of ten Guineas for every Indian Micmac taken or killed.[1] His statue was removed, in part, as an act of reconciliation. These men were once seen as formative figures in the shaping of our nation, but now have new light shone on them. People are beginning to view them through lenses that simply weren’t valued or used at all, in times past.

Some who want these statues torn down and mothballed insist that there’s no place in the public square to glorify historic figures who we now know to have been, not just less than perfect but in fact racist and worse. On the other side are those who claim removal of these statues is commensurate with denying or whitewashing history. Between these extremes is a whole lot of gray.

The artist of the Victoria statue defends his piece. He says that he intentionally didn’t put John A. on a pedestal. He admits the man was complex, like many of us, and that his intent wasn’t to create an idol but more of a portrait. He hoped to reflect, in the statue, our shared humanity, strengths and weaknesses, confidence and insecurities. He calls the piece “both turbulent and calm,… strident and vulnerable.” He says he’s all for tearing it down if it’s the best way to move forward. But he’s not sure that “removing about 150 kilos of bronze from view is going to change our history, or help us understand it better.”[2] Others would say we can’t risk glorifying leaders who, by today’s standards, would not be worthy of leading.

Stay with me as I draw a thread between the golden calf, Sir John A. and this building. Turn for a moment to look at the windows and the particular articulation of Canadian history memorialized in the windows surrounding us. Look to the bottom portion of the windows near you. You’ll see glorious, rich shades of colour and a spectrum of images. You’ll see soldiers and settlers. You’ll notice that, if indigenous peoples are portrayed, they’re standing below those of European descent, background figures in someone else’s story. These are settler stories, male stories, oblivious to the indigenous and other voices that shaped this country, or at least oblivious to the fact that some voices of this land may tell the story in a different light.

We’re a people who create monuments to capture a moment in time, build museums to help unpack our history. We tend to surround ourselves with the most stunning beauty our resources will allow, in golden calves and stained glass windows. Beauty is important to us, it touches us, inspires us, even helps sustain us. But we can’t stand staring without also engaging. Stunning statues and windows serve us best if in searching them our hearts are open to the shadows as well as the light; if they provide a window into our souls.

The problem back in the wilderness was not that the people turned their gold into a statue. The problem was the fact that they thought the calf could save them. They thought an inanimate object could take the place of a living, dynamic, relational God. They were hoping beyond hope that the shiny brightness of it could subsume their fear and save them from all that threatened to trample their faith.

It’s a story as old as time, we begin thinking our things and our ideas are the whole picture. Our god become “we’ve always done it that way,” or “that can’t be done.” Our god becomes money or security or some other thing that we think will make all the difference in sustaining our very life. It tends to be in those times when we feel the most disconnected from the divine source of Love that we start reaching for shiny things to hold onto; the shinier the better.

The statues of politicians and the windows surrounding us, are not seen as God by those of us who witness them. No our gods tend to be much less tangible; security, money, food, drink, putting on imaginary armour to protect ourselves from vulnerability. But there is a thread woven through all of this, through the anxious gold sculptors in the wilderness, the church window makers, the statue defenders and those who would shove the statues into storage until all of their jagged edges can be appropriately smoothed. What connects us all is a longing, a deep aching for connection to one another and to our source. That connection is not tapped into or realized in any other way than relationship.

Look at how God is portrayed in this story. This is no statue God, no theoretical deity. This is the real deal; a down in the muck of life God willing to wrestle it out with us, no matter what – God. When God gets wind of what’s gone down with the golden calf – yikes. It’s like a parenting moment gone awry. God flies off the handle, says to Moses, “those are your people, you deal with them, I’m done.” God and Moses hash it out there on the mountain until Moses puts his foot down and says “hey, wait a minute, you made a promise, you told them you’d never give up on them.” It’s like an ancient family intervention and in the end God comes round and the threat of vengeance is replaced with mercy and all is well for the wandering Israelites, at least until next time. This isn’t some theoretical God, this is the real deal, one who is with us for the long haul, a keeper of promises.

Who wants a golden calf, a statue, static God, anyway? Wouldn’t you rather be up there on the mountain wrestling with the source of life and love than sitting around blinded by the shiny reflection of the latest thing you use to keep you at a safe distance from your source? All of us are groping in the dark to touch and see just a glimmer of God’s beauty. The warning of this text is to never see this stuff as a replacement for the real work of a relational God. God here in this story is ready to give up on the people and it is Moses who says no, another chance, who pleads and persuades. The hunger to know, touch, taste, live and breathe connection with the one God, can only be satisfied through relationship, not stuff, not ready made answers from a our former lives. This is why Jesus is such a powerful image in the Christian tradition, we know flesh and blood, we know the visceral reality of being human, God in human form is as tangible as it gets.

In our anxiety driven society we don’t need a statue God, we need something much more real than that. Like theologian and pastor Eugene Patterson, who died this week, once said: “we don’t become more spiritual by becoming less human.”[3] Maybe the call of God is to stop fighting our humanity, to fully hold one another in the terrible vulnerability of it all. Because after all golden calves don’t breathe and grieve, they don’t know sleepless nights or minds wrought with worry. Windows don’t know the sheer delight of a first kiss or the way if feels to have your heart yanked from your chest when you’ve been betrayed, of sunk to your gut when someone layers shame onto your already tender guilt.

Do we speak to the windows or do they speak to us? Does the light reflecting though them offer beauty?  Can one sit in this place and be touched in some small way, achieve a bit of inner peace though the light that comes through these very windows? Is there a layer of honesty about the complexity of our lives that is revealed in the complicated story of these windows? Maybe it’s good to be literally surrounded by stories that linger and challenge; yet stories that are ever illuminated by the tangible beauty of the physical light that shines through. Do we see only one dimension? Or do we engage this space as a living testimony?

Why do we even come here, if not to grasp for a little peace in a trying world? Whether you’re feeling off balance because you’ve forgotten to say your prayers for the past 20 years or because you see a river of migrants coming ever closer to the US border and you wonder at what will become of them and why 44,000 people a day are displaced from their homes? Maybe the thought of another mass shooting south of the border leaves you feeling deflated in the worst possible way or maybe you’re wondering how you’ll make your next move in a relationship that just isn’t life giving at this moment. We all want to do better than knee jerk reactions or relying on the same old, dusty truths we landed on once and never dared to go deeper. We all want to remember that we’re not alone in this beautiful, difficult, gut wrenching, awe-inspiring thing of life.

A friend told me this week about a toddler in her life, they were kicking and throwing and crunching in fall leaves. Picture it; picture the wide-eyed wonder on that child’s face to be fully immersed in fall leaves for the first time in her life. That’s the simple, profound, God given connection we are so longing to tap back into. We all need to remember what it feels like to feel the crunch of fall leaves under foot for the very first time. We need to remember that feeling like our lives depends on it, because life gets complicated after our first fall.

Light can reflect off that calf and light can shine through these windows but it points to the light it is not the light. The light is not in the beautiful statues we erect or the windows we look through. God is on the mountaintops when we’ve been waiting for forty days for some clarity, and in the shadows when we’re trying to grope our way forward, and in the fall leaves too as their sweet crunch reminds us of spring buds and summer shade.

No statue or window will come close to telling a complete story. Nothing we fashion to remind about the past, inform the present or inspire the future will ever come close to the whole story. But if we dare to engage the difficult conversations that our beautiful creations call forth they can help point us back to God. These windows alone hold the paradox of stunning beauty and devastating betrayal of trust. You’ve got to think that reveals a bit about the truth of life. Amen

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Cornwallis

[2] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-removing-my-statue-of-john-a-macdonald-from-view-is-not-going-to/

[3] Inspired, Rachel Held Evens, Nelson Books, Nashville, 2018. 69