Exodus 32:1–14; Psalm 23; Matthew 22:1–14

“This was the week the sky fell.” That comment by a stock broker on
Friday pretty well sums up what Americans and people around the world
have been feeling. The market has been jittery for weeks and months,
falling nearly 40% from its peak a year ago and wiping out some two
trillion dollars of people’s savings. Last week’s declines in the stock
market were the worst in history.

People I talked to last week were checking the stock market
numbers every few minutes as if they were taking their temperature. We
saw pictures of stock traders staring at the numbers and looking as if
they’d seen a ghost. And we’ve probably all had conversations with
people who have watched their life savings nearly disappear and have a
hard time imagining that they will ever be able to retire. Everything
seems shaky, at least for the moment, and we’re left wondering, “How did
this happen?” “How could we be so vulnerable?” and, for us here today,
“What does this mean for us as people of faith?”

To explore this I want you to travel back with me 3000 years to
another crisis, the one we heard about in our Old Testament lesson. This
one takes place in the baking heat of a Middle Eastern desert. Moses is
leading the Hebrew people through the wilderness as they flee from
slavery under the Pharaoh in Egypt. But along the way a rebellion erupts
as the crowd decides it’s time for them to worship a different god.

Moses has gone up on the mountain to receive the Ten
Commandments, and his followers are exhausted, restless, tired of this
endless journey they’ve been on. They’ve had enough. It’s time for some
comfort, some assurance. So they decide to create an image of a more
manageable, less demanding god. They gather all the gold jewelry they
have brought along, cast them into the form of a golden calf, and throw
a festival of burnt offerings and sacrifices to worship this different
god.

That may sound like nonsense, because we’re sure we have
progressed to the point where such idolatry is unthinkable. But all of
us human beings are worshipers. We all bow down before something that we
believe is of infinite worth to us. And we tend to get confused about
the object of our worship. In fact, we humans are at heart polytheists.
We worship all sorts of gods. The Egyptians worshiped a whole pantheon
of them, as did the Romans. When St. Paul went to preach in Athens, he
found the Athenians hedging their bets by worshiping Apollo, Aphrodite,
and Athena.

And we Americans are polytheists too. We worship Venus, the
goddess of beauty. Just think of the money and time spent to make
ourselves look handsome and beautiful. We as a superpower worship Mars,
the god of war and battle, and our entertainment keeps us enthralled
with Eros, the god of passion and sex. And of course we worship the god
of wealth. My guess is that the greatest god in this city, the one to
whom more sacrifices are made and to whom more people dedicate their
lives, is the god of work. Many are willing to sacrifice just about
everything in their lives in order to bow down before this god.

“Idolatry”—consorting with “other gods”—has been from the
beginning one of the most serious concerns for people of faith. In fact,
of the Ten Commandments at the foundation of Jewish and Christian faith,
the first two concern the object of our worship. “You shall have no
other gods but me” and “You shall not make for yourself graven image,”
or “an idol.” Our first and deepest danger is that we will worship the
wrong God.

Most scholars believe that those Hebrews’ golden calf was an idol
for the Canaanite god Baal, who also went by the name Mammon. In other
words, they began to worship a god of wealth, but not just money itself,
but a god who oversees a whole economy that creates the wealth that
ensures that I get mine. Mammon seemed to them a more reliable god, one
who could help them live just they way they wanted to. And to this day,
of all the gods we tend to worship, chances are that somewhere in the
pantheon for most of us is Baal or Mammon.

My guess is that there has been a great deal of Mammon worship
going on in recent years among those who have driven our economy nearly
over the brink. Despite the good intentions of many in the world of
banking and finance, a climate of irresponsibility, and greed seized
large parts of that industry and led to widespread lending of money
without assessing the borrower’s ability to pay it back. And all this
was masked in complex financial arrangements few even understood.
America’s money has been mishandled for maximum profit.

But I want to suggest that the real golden calf of our time, the
real god we Americans worship, isn’t simply the god of wealth, but the
god of “More.” This is the god who declares that we can live without
limits, that more wealth, more growth, more spending must always be the
way of the future. Whether you look at what is happening in our economic
crisis, or to our climate, or to our energy resources, or at the general
driven-ness and anxiety of American society, it is clear that as a
society we have come to worship the golden calf of unlimited growth.
That wise poet and essayist Wendell Berry puts it this way:

The commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed
possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth,
limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The
idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general
human limitlessness; all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever
they conceive as desirable.

Our national faith has become, “There’s always more,” Berry says. The
average American stopped saving years ago and is living on debt and
juggling multiple credit cards. We are seeing the consequences of our
unlimited burning of fossil fuels. We are watching the gaps between rich
and poor expand dangerously. If we can’t afford something, we borrow or
charge it. But now, everywhere we look, we are having to face the fact
that we are entering a world of inescapable limits—in our
deteriorating climate, in energy resources, in the economy, in our
driven, consumer-driven pace of life.

And the surprise is, worshiping this golden calf hasn’t made us
Americans a happier people. By recent measures, American happiness
peaked in the 1950s and is in decline. In a New York Times article
recently Daniel Goleman reported that people born after 1955 are three
times as likely as their grandparents to have had a serious bout of
depression. And a report found that the average American child reported
higher levels of anxiety than the average child who was under
psychiatric care
in the 1950s.

This golden calf of More that we are worshiping, like all golden calves,
will eventually fail us. The fact is that we need limits, constraint,
even disappointment, if our lives are to grow deeper. Most of us know
parents or others of an older generation who endured immense limitations—in health or education or bad luck in jobs or simply hard times—and
yet who showed a quality of faith and wisdom that came from the
struggle. Real marriages grow out of living with limits. So does good
parenting. So does great art. So does generosity, and love, and faith.

I am beginning to hear some surprising things these days. People
are talking about simplifying their lives, staying close to home,
getting out of debt, living a smaller, slower, more grounded life.
Living with limits. That sounds more like what it means to be creatures
who worship a generous and loving God.

You and I are not called to worship Mammon’s golden calf. We are
not called to be rulers of the universe or godlike animals. We are
called to be that holiest of things, creatures, made in the image of the
God of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, of Jesus and Mary and Paul, who
holds us, gives a handful of years on this earth to learn how to love,
and calls to be caregivers for the most vulnerable, for the earth and
for each other.

I want to give you something on this anxiety-ridden day that you
can keep turning to in the days and weeks ahead. Something to keep you
focused on the one true god. That gift is the 23rd Psalm, which we sang
a few minutes ago. It is one of the priceless jewels of our faith. I
suspect that a good many of you probably still know by heart. Whatever
has happened to your portfolio, to your job, in your concern for your
children or for the earth or your own future, this is a gift that can
carry you, if you will carry it. I hope you will cut it out and put it
in your wallet or purse, read it at least once a day, and keep it with
you in the weeks ahead.

You remember how it goes:

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters…
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.
For you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me…

This Psalm doesn’t deny that we are affected by forces we
cannot control, and that the world can be terrifying. But it draws us to
the true God, who walks with us into our fears and calms our yearning
for More.

My news for you today is that we don’t need to fear. Because
whatever comes, this God will go with us. This moment, for all its worry
and threat, brings with it a real gift—an invitation to turn to
the one god who is God, the God we meet at the table of the Eucharist
today.

And so I want to close by inviting you to turn in your leaflet and
read with me that 23rd Psalm. Let us read it quietly, prayerfully.

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
And leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul.
And guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of darkness I shall fear no evil,
For you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You spread a table for me in the presence of those who trouble me.
You anoint my head with oil.
And my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Let that be our Declaration of Independence from the golden calves of
our time, our way forward, our promise, and our hope.