What is your image of God? Who or what is God for you?How do you describe God?Let’s take a few quiet minutes to reflect on that.What is your image of God? Who or what is God for you? How do you describe God?Are there two or three people who could share your thoughts with the rest of us?
In the story of the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings, God is a force that rearranges nature. God appears in a bush that burns but is not consumed, acts through plagues of locust and frogs and boils, and blows away the waters of the Red Sea to create a path of dry land. God is the pillar of fire and cloud that guides the people and the source of the manna that feeds them. God is smoke and fire and thunder on the mountain. God is also quite human-like: speaking directly to Moses; becoming murderously angry in the face of the people’s unfaithfulness; and even changing the divine mind in today’s story. Naturally, our contemporary ways of experiencing and imagining God may be very different from those of the ancient Israelites.
By the same token, perhaps acknowledging our distance of time and culture from this text frees us to take fresh meaning from it. A few years ago, at the height of the Occupy movement, religious folks staged a protest on Wall Street that made powerful use of the symbol of the Golden Calf. I went back to articles from that time and found one written by Donna Schaper, a UCC pastor who serves as the Senior Minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. She explains:
“James Salt of Catholics United, who was on a spiritual retreat the weekend before, made the calf…. He was inspired by the actions of Occupy Wall Street and wanted to lend spiritual and biblical support…. On Sunday, four strong men carried the calf on their shoulders, looking more like pallbearers in a street funeral than anything else… They suited up so reporters would not dare call them hippies. (There is nothing wrong with hippies except that people use them to stay distant from Occupy Wall Street’s general and universal message.) The pallbearers wanted to look like the Wall Street they protested…. We all know how much we have internalized capitalism. We all know our distance from the truth. The 99% don’t have an enemy in the 1% so much as a need to bring money in line with human values…We all know how much we have let Wall Street control the conversation, alerting us that the market is ‘up’ today or the market is ‘down.’ We brought the calf to Wall Street to confess our allegiance to false Gods and to announce that something was dying for us. That death is our own belief in the sacred calf of the Wall Street picture of the universe. The ‘mic check’ was just the beginning of a new conversation, between and among people, about what is really important. What is important is people owning our own times, our own tongues, our own labor, our own worth. What is dead is Wall Street’s control of the conversation and us.”- (huffingtonpost.com/donna-schaper/occupy-wall-street-the-go_b_ 1004946.html)
In the biblical story, the people’s idolatry is not about the mere act of bowing down to a golden statue. Nor is it a matter of them choosing to take up a different religion. Listen again to the first verse of our passage: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’” In the minds of the Israelites, it was not God, but Moses, who delivered them from slavery. Therefore, the golden calf does not replace God; it stands in for their missing human leader. They have made the decision, whether deliberate, or unconscious, to factor God out of their journey entirely. God is not real, and not relevant to them, in either their past or their future. God is still with them, but they are not with God. They have placed their ultimate trust in a fallible person and this choice leaves them deeply anxious. They are created in God’s own image to be free people, but they have become cut off from the source of their liberation, enslaved again, not by Pharaoh, but by their own fears.
The Occupy movement unmasks the dangers of misplaced trust. When we worship money and possessions as if they are gods we fail to understand that these resources exist to serve God’s world and God’s people. It is this idolatry that creates and justifies the terrible inequalities of the 99 percent and the 1 percent. We all play a part in granting this lie its authority no matter our economic standing. During the month of October, as we consider what it means to lead lives of generosity—generosity of time, talent, and treasure, let us recognize that our faith has the power to liberate us from the fear that makes an idol out of the resources we have. The way we spend our material and spiritual wealth can be an expression of our trust in God and our desire to share in the life-affirming values of God. Giving and sharing are powerful, transformative acts of worship. They express our faithfulness to the one true God we know and name in so many ways.
What is your image of God? Who or what is God for you? How do you describe God? And…what does it look like and feel like to place your full, and ultimate trust in that God rather than anything or anyone else?
Marcus Borg offers the physical sensation of floating in water as an analogy for such trust. There is that twinge of fear that comes with laying back into the water. There is the temptation to thrash around trying support ourselves, rather than surrendering to its buoyancy. And then there is the peace and joy that comes with being still, and being held. And finally there is the challenge of maintaining such a calm posture over the long haul, as the water covers your ears and laps over your chin.
The new life we find as followers of Christ is all about trust. Not gullibility, not blind faith, butthe simple and life-changing assurance that God is with us. Paul offers a beautiful description of such a life of trust: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”