Election Sermon 4 – Leadership
Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
October 11, 2020
Text: Exodus 32:1-14
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we return our election sermon series to see what the Bible teaches us about leadership. We are close to an election, and I don’t need to tell you that right now the very act of voting for our leaders is fraught with both import – because the direction and perhaps even the existence of our country are in question – and danger, because of COVID-19 and the threats of voter suppression, both violent and more insidious make it so.
How are leaders chosen? Some are God’s chosen, like Moses, but we still have the choice to follow even a God-chosen leader or not. Every leader we choose to follow reflects our values, identities and preferences. We are all multi-faceted, complex individuals with hopes, fears, needs, and dreams born of our unique backgrounds and beliefs. How do we choose who to follow? How do we decide to vote for someone? What are “deal breakers” in a candidate? Do we look for 100% agreement on our agenda before voting at all? And what makes any leader credible and qualified, or not?
Surprisingly, today’s story of the Golden Calf is deeply instructive on all of those questions: how we pick leaders, what we look for in them, and why we may ultimately reject them. This is a story that is often misunderstood; we think that the Golden Calf is a replacement for God. But listen again to the opening verses of our reading:
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.”
There it is, right there. The Golden Calf was meant to replace Moses, not God. The people are spooked because Moses is delayed in coming down from Sinai. This terrifies them, in the way that a toddler freaks out if their mommy is late returning home from an appointment. But in addition to this, they also quickly jump to the conclusion that the delay discredits and disqualifies Moses as a leader – why should they trust him if he can’t return to serve them in what they view as a reasonable amount of time? The point is that despite Moses’ magnificent leadership up to this point, they were ready to replace him toute suite, for a truly minor cause. Why?
Believe it or not, there were long-standing questions about Moses’ credibility. From the very first, Moses’ qualifications for leadership had been called into question even back when Israel were still slaves in Egypt. Remember that he had grown up as an Egyptian prince in the Pharaoh’s palace as the Pharaoh’s adopted nephew. Although he was Hebrew by birth, he was to them – and to himself – an Egyptian until he was an adult, eating Egyptian food, worshipping Egyptian gods, wearing Egyptian clothing, bearing an Egyptian name and he was a senior member of a tyrannical government that kept the Hebrews in slavery. The key moment occurs after he matures into manhood. Shortly after he kills an Egyptian for threatening a Hebrew, Moses intervenes in a fight between two other Hebrews. One of them says to him, “Who do you think you are, telling us what to do? Who made you chief and judge over us?” Moses was forced to flee because his crime had become known to Hebrews. Those words, “Who do you think you are, telling us what to do?” would be thrown in Moses’ face repeatedly for the rest of his life. In many people’s eyes, he was always more Egyptian than Hebrew. No matter what he did for them, they never completely trusted him.
Moreover, Moses himself was confused about his own identity. A terrific article a few years ago by Amanda Mbuvi called “Multicultural Moses” explores Moses’ inner confusion, which God tries to help him sort out at the Burning Bush, first by introducing himself with a genealogy: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” It’s as if God is functioning as Ancestry.com for Moses – see, here’s your family tree, this is where you came from, this is who you are.
Still at the Burning Bush, there are the questions that Moses asks of God, like, “Who am I Lord, that you should send me?” – which is possibly not only a sign of humility, it can also be taken literally as an earnest question: Who am I? Am I an Egyptian? A Hebrew? Perhaps a Midianite? – remember that by that point Moses had been adopted by the Midianite family of Jethro, and had married Zipporah, a Midianite woman who was certainly not Jewish and likely Black, according to scholars.
Finally, there is the objection that Moses raises to God, “But I am slow of speech and tongue.” We think of this as a reference to a possible speech impediment. But the words “slow of tongue” in the original Hebrew are slang for, “I don’t speak the language.” In other words, my Hebrew isn’t very good, nobody’s going to listen to me, they might even laugh at me.
All this provides possible motivations for Israel to rush to replace Moses – they never really trusted him from the outset. But why replace him with a Golden Calf? Where on earth did that come from? Egypt, that’s where it came from. By making and worshipping the Golden Calf, Israel was returning to the pagan worship and immorality they had been liberated from, they were trying to go backwards, chasing a chimera of the past, a ghost of times that they despised back then but now remember fondly. The Egyptians worshipped a cattle god called “Apis;” a likeness of that cattle god is what Aaron made for them out of their gold.
So, if this was a pagan god that Aaron made, how could it not be meant to replace the true God –Yahweh – of Israel? Now this may come as a shock, but Israel at that time did not believe that God is the only god, but rather that their God is the chief among a pantheon of gods. Ancient Israel never denied the existence of these other gods, only that they had power to rival theirs. Yahweh was the “Great King above all Gods,” as the psalm says, so Israel never explicitly turned away from God here, they simply chose to follow a lesser god believing that it could lead them to the Promised Land instead of Moses. The final proof: the orgy around the Golden Calf is the response when Aaron proclaims, “a festival to the Lord” – a festival to Yahweh. Israel was rejecting not God but Moses’ leadership, which demanded too much faith, too much effort. What they were after were a less demanding, more coddled existence.
We are in a Golden Calf moment in our national life. It’s easy to look back on Israel and laugh at the way they rejected Moses, backslid into delusional longings for a past that never existed, and fell into what seems like obvious idolatry, but we should take a hard look at ourselves. Much of our country is attracted, like ancient Israel, to a past that never existed, chasing after false memories of a ghost America, a homogenized milk white country that never truly was. The horrific racism, homophobia, sexism, and McCarthyism of those bygone days is never part of those cheery memories of our formerly “great” America.
And like Israel, we never quite trust someone who isn’t 100% like us; we too are tribal just like them. This is highly dangerous, because looking at leaders this way has at least two big problems: first, all of us have identities that are complex; to try to flatten our leaders down to one dimension denies them their essential humanity. This sets us up for disappointment and the leader for backlash when they behave even a little outside of the tribal boxes we have placed them in. Second, tribalism denies leader and follower alike the opportunity to exercise empathy for those of a different tribe, the capability of sharing an experience without necessarily having lived it. No one can fully feel what it is like to have lived someone else’s life, but we must let our leaders cross boundaries and make an effort ourselves to permit others to enter into our experiences, or we will remain perilously isolated, perennial victims of some other tribe, sealed off from the healing love of others with whom we could share our deepest selves. Then we choose cruel tribal chieftains instead of true leaders who can bring people together.
Finally, also like Israel, we too gravitate to leaders who promise quick fixes that don’t demand much from us in the way of faith, patience, self-denial, or struggle. Whether we admit it or not, many of us are still looking for a leader to make all of our problems vanish in a trice with a sprinkling of fairy dust, cocooning us in lives free of uncertainty, fear, challenge, disease, violence or any kind of discomfort. Of course, this is completely unrealistic, yet we lust after what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” we demand that God bless and prosper us through our leaders when we give God little or nothing in return. We Christians need to be especially careful here. We of course believe that God loves us despite of our sins and will always love us and treat us better than even our own parents could, but we also must remember that we are Jesus’ hands and feet on earth, and those hands and feet are not meant only to sit on couches and fiddle with the remote while blessings pour down on us as we binge watch Netflix and scream at each other on social media.
In 2016, as a country, we all built our own Golden Calf and asked God to bless it. Some of us refused to vote at all because we disliked one candidate because of her personality, her husband, the fact that she was a woman, or not progressive enough. Many others chose to vote to chase memories of what never was. We each fashioned our idols, which glittered on the surface but which were rotten at the core beneath the gilt.
The damage done by the episode of the Golden Calf to Israel was brutal and long-lasting. Just a few of its aftereffects were: the nation being forced to drink the ashes of the destroyed Calf, a period of bloody executions that amounted to a tribal civil war, and down the road, plagues. Similarly, we will be dealing with the fallout of our Golden Calf for a long time to come. We are being forced even now to ingest the ashes of our folly in the form of the wretched state of society, there is a real possible civil war looming, and we are of course in the midst of a plague, the pandemic.
Here’s what we need to remember: God never abandoned Israel even in the midst of their folly, and God is not abandoning us, either, but it will take more than “cheap grace” for us to atone and recover. Remember that God is still the “Great King above all gods,” and that Christ remains Lord and judge. Remember that people are gloriously diverse, but all of us are sinners, and every one of us is forgiven. Remember that we are given faith to exercise it in rebuilding our society, and that we have an opportunity at the election in a few weeks to begin the process of melting down our Golden Calf and beginning our healing. Will we rise to the challenge? My prayer is that we will learn from both Golden Calves – Israel’s and ours – and open ourselves up to repentance, purging, healing, and restoration, with the help of God.