Recently I heard a story about Ruby Bridges. In 1960 she was a six year old African-American girl in New Orleans who had the unenvious task of desegregating a formerly all-white elementary school. You may have seen pictures of her. A little girl walking into school surrounded by tall US Marshals.
As she walked to school each day protestors yelled at her. One grown woman would say that she was going to poison her. Another held up a black doll in a coffin. And when she got to school all but one of the teachers walked off the job and refused to teach her.
The one teacher who did stay taught Ruby that whole year. And at the end of the year she asked Ruby a question. She had noticed that when Ruby walked through the crowds she talked to herself, repeating something over and over. And so this teacher finally asked her, “What were you saying?”
I’ll come back to that story, but first let’s look at today’s story from the book of Exodus. Over the last two months the lectionary has brought us a lot of readings from this book about Moses leading the people out of Egypt and towards the promised land. They are familiar stories. The Burning Bush. The Passover. The parting of the Red Sea. And today is no exception; you have probably heard about the Golden Calf.
The people have been journeying in the wilderness for a while now. And Moses is called up to the top of Mt. Sinai by God to receive Ten Commandments. But the people don’t know that. They just know he’s been gone a long time. So long that they start to worry is he never coming back.
So Aaron, Moses’ brother who is left in charge while he is gone, gets scared. He wants to calm down the people who are getting panicked. And so he has all of them bring him their gold, and he melts it down and makes a giant gold cow. And he shows it to the people and says, “this is your god, who brought you out of the land of Israel.” And the people respond by worshipping before it, bringing offerings, and having a feast. It’s only when Moses comes back down the mountain, alive and angry with them, that they stop.
It’s easy to identify with Moses here. It hadn’t been so long ago that God had brought the people out of Egypt. It wasn’t so long ago that the Red Sea was parted. They should have remembered that. And they should have recognized that this golden calf, this brand new statue that had been set in front of them, had nothing to do with it.
So we get why worshiping a gold cow is so ludicrous. It’s easy to think they were just plain foolish. But here’s where Scripture works its trick. Because sometimes we think the truth is so obvious that we would never fall into the same trap as the people in the stories. But sometimes we have more in common than we think.
This isn’t really a story about a gold statue of a cow. This isn’t really just a story about the Israelites. This is a story about all of us, and about what we choose to worship. And, most of all, it’s about what we put in God’s place when we are afraid, or uncertain, or lost, just like the Israelites were.
In theological terms, the Golden Calf was an “idol”. An idol can be an object, like a statue of a cow, but it doesn’t have to be. An idol is just anything that we put our trust in instead of God.
So, sure, a golden calf seems silly to us now. But is it really any more so than some of the other things we worship? Money? Power? Sex? A big house? A nice car? Maybe none of these things are bad by themselves, but when we start to attach our ultimate meaning, and our hopes for salvation, on them, that’s when they become a problem.
The Israelites were trying to get somewhere. They had left everything they knew behind, and now they were lost in the wilderness. And the guy who said he knew where they were going, the one with the direct line to God, was gone. And it didn’t look like he was coming back. And so, they took matters into their own hands.
We do the same things. We all have our own Golden Calves. We find ourselves lost. Or full of fear. Or searching for meaning. And when we feel the most scared, or alone, or uncertain, we build ourselves false idols, things that we think will make us feel better, but rarely do. And that’s because we turn to idols when our fear overtakes us, and we lose so much hope that we stop turning to God.
In the best case scenario our idols only destroy us. But taken to their extreme, our idols can destroy not just us, but those around us.
At the beginning I was talking about Ruby Bridges and the teacher who had watched her repeat something over and over to herself while protestors were tormenting her. At the end of the year she asked the little girl, “what were you saying”? And this six year old replied that she was praying. She was repeating over and over to herself the prayer her mother taught her to say while the protesters yelled at her: Forgive them, God, because they don’t know what they’re doing.
Now, that’s an amazing story of forgiveness and reconciliation. But you might wonder what that has to do with idolatry. For me, it’s this. The people who were yelling those horrible things at Ruby were, at their core, afraid. They had been given this false idol of racial superiority couched in “the way things have always been” for their whole lives, and now it was being taken away. And they were so scared of losing it that they lost their humanity entirely and terrorized a small child. I’m sure many of them were even Christians, and yet, their fear and hatred drove them to stop seeing a child as beloved of God and to instead love their idol even more.
Some would say that six year old Ruby Bridges had every reason to hate those people who hated her. And yet, with the help of the adults around her, she somehow didn’t. Every morning she walked through a hell that most of us never will, and somehow refused to build a false idol of hate or anger. She didn’t give the people who hated her that power. She refused to live in their fear. Instead, she put her trust in God, and ultimately that trust carried her through and gave her hope.
You and I, hopefully, will never face anything like she did. And yet, we will know what it is to be afraid. We will know what it is to forge ahead on a new path. We may even know what it is to live with the fears of others. And when we do we will be tempted to create our own golden calves, our own little idols, to protect ourselves.
But we have another option. In fact, we have the only option that will keep us from letting our fears destroy us. We have God. And we have the assurance that worshiping anything else will never save us. It will just destroy us from the inside out.
And so we have a choice. Do we worship our fears? Or do we instead bless the possibilities?
As you know, today after church we are having our annual blessing of the animals. I was a little worried about preaching about the Israelites worshipping the golden calf on the day we were blessing the animals. I thought it might look like we were trying to recreate the scene out front.
But, of course, we are not worshipping them. Instead we are blessing them. And when we bless something, we are not worshipping it…we are putting it in its place, and asking God’s blessing upon it.
Churches typically do this blessing of the animals on this first weekend in October because it is the closest to the Feast of St. Francis, who was known to be a lover of animals. He saw in them evidence of God’s work in creation, and he blessed them as good. We in the Protestant traditions don’t view saints the same way our Catholic brothers and sisters do, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t look to them as examples. And St. Francis is a fascinating example of someone who wanted to shed all the false idolatries of the world and look only for evidence of God’s presence, even if that evidence came covered in fur or feathers.
There’s a story about Francis that I love, that also reminds me how important it is for those of us who are Christians to keep our eyes on the prize, and off the idols. The story goes that Francis attended a lavish dinner with other members of the clergy. Inside the tables were heaped with food and drink, paid for by the church, and everyone was having a great time.
Except right outside the doors of the banquet hall, people were starving and begging for food. And so, quietly, while others feasted, Francis put only a few breadcrumbs on his plate. And he quietly began to eat them as everyone else ate from the feast. And when they finalized realized what was happening, they stopped too. And they realized that they had been distracted from what they really wanted to be. And they shared the feast with those outside.
To me that story is about putting aside our idols, our distractions, clearing our vision and choosing instead to focus on what really matters. It’s about letting go of our golden calves, and choosing God instead.
In the end, Francis and the bishops found they couldn’t serve Christ until they focused on the people outside their door. And the Israelites found that they couldn’t go to the promised land until they left the calf behind. They could have remained there, with the idol they made for themselves. But they would have been stuck there. They never would have become what God intended them to be.
And in the end, we can’t find the promised land until we leave our idols behind. No matter what they are, and no matter what fears or insecurities created them, we will never manage to move until we let go of the distractions that don’t matter, and cling for dear life to what does. Only then will we ever find what we are truly seeking. Only then will we have hope. And only then will we be given the wondrous privilege of being used by God to bless the world. Amen.