Golden Calf

What do you do when no one is watching you? Are there secret things which you do and which you would prefer that no one else knew about?

If you’re anything like me your heart beat will be increasing slightly as you ponder these questions – so don’t panic, I haven’t found out anything about you which I am going to reveal to the whole congregation! These really are only questions. But its true isn’t it, that for some of us at least, there are things which we do in the secrecy of our own lives which we hope are not being seen by others, and indeed which we hope are not being seen by God.

I can tell you that having two boys (the third one isn’t really able to engage yet) inquisitive boys who like to mimic their father, has made me more careful than I was before, about the things which I do when I think I am alone. I saw Isaac the other day playing with a tissue in his ear, and when he removed the tissue he gave it a very close inspection – up and down – before he discarded it. I thought that this was particularly bizarre behaviour, until I realised to my horror and then my amusement, that Isaac has somehow seen one of the things which his father does when he thinks that no one is watching. I am going to preserve at least a bit of my personal life by not sharing some other stories with you! There are things which we do when no one is watching, which we certainly wouldn’t do if we knew that they were. I presume that I am not the only person here this morning who has had in the past fraught family discussions in the car on the way to Mass. In our last parish there was a particular bend on the journey at which we knew that any unfinished business had to be left until after the service, because we were nearly in sight of the church building!

For some of us, there are things which we do in our lives, which we would never do when special people are around – special people like parish priests for example. A priest friend of mine warned me some years ago never to make a pastoral visit to someone’s home having told them that I was coming first. Now that’s a rule which I have not kept here, in fact I almost always do the opposite and only visit people when they know that I am coming. But his advice was quite valid in its own way, because he maintained that it was never possible to really find out how someone was doing unless you arrived by surprise. The alternative is that you risk finding a tidy house and the best crockery ready for afternoon tea.

Those of you who have watched the comedy programme “Father Ted,” about the three Irish priests on Craggy Island, will know exactly what I mean. Mary and John, the couple who run the village store are always on the brink of killing each other, in some new and creative way, as Fr Ted walks through the door. As soon as they see him, everything becomes a picture of sweetness and love until he leaves and the fighting resumes.

Well we find something of all of this in the Old Testament reading which we heard a few moments ago from the Book of the Exodus. And on first hearing it is all a bit unbelievable. Moses has gone up the mountain to ask God for the measurements for the Tabernacle which he is planning to build as a symbol of God’s presence in the community. Meanwhile whilst he is away the people of Israel collectively (as a group) act as if they are working in a secret place. I love this story, it has been one of my favourites for as long as I can remember since it was told to me in Sunday School, because although it does seem unbelievable at one level, it is so true of our human condition on another. Moses goes up the mountain to represent the people to God, and no sooner has he gone than they realise that they can get away with something different because their leader is not around to tell them off.

They have so closely aligned Moses with their experience of God, that when Moses is no longer with them, they somehow believe that God is no longer with them, and so they make the preparations to create a new god who will fill the void of Moses’ absence. You see one of the central questions in this passage is “who brought the people out of Egypt?” The people say that it was Moses, but of course we know that it was God. They have become so caught up in experiencing God through Moses, that when Moses is no longer with them, they experience only God’s absence. When they see Moses they feel close to God, but when they don’t see Moses they think that God is no longer with them, and so they are free to act in the secrecy of their community.

They bring together all of the gold from jewellery and every other possible source, and they make a golden calf – “this,” they say, “is the God who brought us out of Egypt” – and they begin to worship it. When Moses comes down the mountain they will plead diminished responsibility – after all it is really Moses’ fault because he left them didn’t he?

I want to say to you again, as I have said a number of times over the last few months, that in the church, in a very real way, we share in the journey of each other’s redemption. That is why we have in place a model of ministry in which equal responsibility and authority is shared within the Ministry Team of this church. There is no one person in this church who represents God to us, there is no one person here who makes all of the decisions. Our Ministry Team models the relationships which we are all developing together, in which we mutually care for, and take responsibility for, each other and the programmes of the church.

The People of Israel had so closely aligned their experience of God to the presence of Moses as their leader, that when Moses wasn’t with them, they experienced not the presence of God, but the absence of God, and they were unable to do what was right. I say all of this with some sense of pain because a number of years ago, when I was at school, because of various failings in the life of the church that I was involved in, I became convinced of the absence and not of the presence of God in my life. It was a deeply disturbing time for me. In fact I prayed, sometimes hourly, to a God who I no longer believed in, but who I was desperate to believe in. At the end of that very dark period in my life, I found God again (because God had never been absent, I just hadn’t perceived that God was present). And I found God in the lighting of candles, and in praying with icons, and in the touch of water and oil, and in the smell of incense – things which were totally new to me. All of those things for me began to mediate God’s presence and to bring me home.

As I hear this story of the People of Israel, I see our church – you and me – as the central character. I don’t see us as the Hebrew people making the golden calf, I see us as Moses. He like us is in touch with God, he like us bears a message from God, and experiences God in his life, and yet to be truly effective in communicating that message with others, he has to come down from the mountain and help people to sort out the mess that they have got themselves in. In my mind Moses represents the Church in this story, he is you and me. It isn’t hard for us to see that all around us there are people who perceive the absence and not the presence of God in their lives. And so instead of living the Christian life, they build idols out of gold and wealth to suit their own needs. And the pivotal task for Moses is not to come down the mountain and tell everyone off, and once again mediate God to the people – no, the key task for Moses is to show the people that even when he isn’t around God is still with them; because they have connected Moses and God so closely together, that when Moses is absent they believe that God is absent as well, which gives them permission to be distracted from the things of God and to focus instead on false idols.

There is a wonderful story about one of my relatives who used to stand in the middle of the pavement and stare and point upwards making a big scene of himself, until eventually a whole group would gather around looking up as well. We are not pointing people upwards into the air, but we are called as a church, to be people who are constantly pointing to the presence of God in our midst. Not so that they are reliant on us to find God, but so that together we can share in the great banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven. Which is what our Gospel reading was all about this morning. Inviting in the least and the lost and the left out, and sharing with them the Feast of the Presence of God. Its very tempting to make idols out of gold, not perhaps calves, because there are plenty of other things which we can do with gold these days. But at the heart of our readings this morning, we find that if we don’t turn up to the banquet it will be us who misses out. You see, the banquet will go on whether we give God priority or not. If the first set of guests don’t turn up, God will just invite more. Which raises a double challenge for us this morning, I think.

Firstly, to be people who in the secrecy of our own lives, when we are away from the church and religious people, continue to genuinely seek the presence of God in all that we do; and that’s a personal thing which relates to our own integrity and way of life. Secondly, as a church to be people who are always pointing others to the presence of God, not so that they become dependent on us to experience God, as the People of Israel were to Moses; but in a way which points and liberates people to genuinely encounter God in their everyday lives. The model of ministry which we are developing here at St Johns, in which all of us, and not just a few leaders, are responsible for the well-being of each other, is the kind of model which we need to develop in our mission to those who live around us.

The temptation to worship gold is a great temptation here in Perth, and yet the banquet of the Kingdom of God, awaits all who will respond to the invitation to live in God’s presence. These are great challenges for us all. But the call of God is for us to rise to the challenge.