When I was growing up we took some awfully long car trips in the summer from where we lived in California, to Duluth Minnesota, where my parents are from. There were four of us kids piled into the station wagon, so to make this whole operation work, my parents had strict rules. Before we got into the car at every stop, each of us were responsible to use the restroom, get a drink, and make sure we had our books and activities ready nearby. There was no dawdling and begging for snacks because mom had those packed in a bag in the front seat. Most importantly, we were NOT allowed to ask questions like, “when are we going to get there? What time is it? How much longer?” Such whiny questions were not permitted, because we were assured that periodically, we would get an update from the front seat about the time, and how much longer until the next stop.
We behaved for the most part, but we were kids, so once in a while we would get into it because we were getting hot and sweaty, someone touched us or swiped our pillow and we would start bickering. If we did not settle down fast enough, my dad, who always drove, would start to pull-over. I can still hear the sound of the gravel crunching under the tires as the car came to a stop on the shoulder. Dad looked at us from the front seat, and I am sure most of you know what he said, “Do you want to get out and walk?” We would be properly scolded about how he cannot focus on the road with us carrying on, we would all zip our lips, and then Mom, once we got back on the road, would soothe everyone’s frayed nerves by giving us all a lemon drop.
It is too bad Moses and Aaron did not take a page from the Anderson play book before they set out through wilderness. The Israelites have received the Ten Commandments, but they have not internalized that this means that they are responsible for their behavior. They have to take care of themselves at each stop along the way, with no complaining in between. Moses will give them periodic updates from the Lord when has them, and they just have to trust that when there’s new information to be had, they will get it—just like they have had a pillar of cloud and fire to lead them, just like they have had manna and quail to eat, just like they have received stone tablets to define their life together with God and each other. What seems to be the problem?
I suppose the problem is that even with all those physical blessings, it is difficult to serve an invisible God, especially during hardship. Sounds familiar does it not? The challenging of traveling into an unknown future without being able to read a definitive map, without being able to ask how long it will last, when will it end, and where the heck is God anyway feels awfully similar to life in 2020. The year itself mocks us with an image of clarity and perfect vision—2020—when in reality, we have more confusion, conflict, and chaos than many of us ever known in our lifetime.
We share the Israelites frustration—if there were ever a time for the invisible God to be made visible, this is it. If there were ever a time for decisive, consistent leadership, now is the time. Instead, Moses has disappeared up the mountain, communing with God; without their leader, the Israelites descend into chaos, bickering like children in the backseat. Aaron realizes that he has no lemon drops to soothe their nerves or calm their anxiety.
It is hard to serve an invisible God, especially in crisis. They are so human—first they turn to a human idol, Moses, and when he’s not available, they turn to gold, to religion, to their own control and ideas, they turn inward instead of outward, failing to remind each other of what God has already done.
When they cannot make their leader, Moses, their idol, they make their religion their idol instead—needing somewhere to focus their anxiety, their urge for control, their stubborn inability to sit in the back seat of this journey and trust that they will get what they need, and arrive at their destination, according to God’s plan.
Isn’t it interesting that when the Israelites choose an image or idol to create, they do not make a human representation of God; instead—they choose an animal. A golden calf. What a fascinating juxtaposition on the Sunday when we are blessing the animals that bring meaning and love into our own lives. Why an animal? Why a calf? When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, Exodus says they left with their flocks and herds, so as they traveled across the desert, the animals journeyed with them. Imagine the comfort those animals brought them in their travels and in their hardship. They kept them warm on cold desert nights, they provided constant companionship, they connected them with their past, they provided milk and wool, they never talked back, they were a steady presence that stood by them no matter their mood, their childish petulance, their anger, or their struggles. Morning and night, day in and day out, there they were, cows and sheep, walking alongside them, accompanying them in their journey no matter what.
Wouldn’t that be nice if God were like that?
Of course, God IS like that—which God has been showing them over and over. Moses reminds God of this truth, and then Moses reminds the people as well. And with those signs, with those daily reminders, they could remember, and they could take heart. The constant presence of sheep and cattle through this desert remind them, that God is always with them. With daily provision of manna and quail they received God’s blessings even when Moses is absent.
And for us who own dogs, we see their loyalty and remember how loyal God is to us and to God’s promises. When our cat purrs in our lap, regardless of how crappy we have been, that is God’s grace for us. When we behold God’s beautiful creation, this is the invisible God made visible—creation being our first Bible. St. Francis of Assisi taught us to see God in all things, in all creatures—to see all people, animals, including our pets—as sacramental, as visible signs of God’s presence. We see in them God’s presence, not so that we worship them, but so that they point us to the goodness and greatness of our One Creator God whom we worship and trust, even in hard times.
As we continue today on a journey without a map and with questions that do not have answers, we may be tempted to put our trust in many things above God—money or gold, political parties, our job, our family, our freedom, even the reliability of our pets.
Even while these things may be a necessary part of our life, they are not life itself; they are not God. They are all blessings that point us to God—to the Creator who is our constant companion no matter what, to the One who holds the map—and sometimes, even gives us a lemon drop—to the One in whom we trust to bring us, our pets, and all of creation, safely to our destination, to the kingdom of God.
- Do you have travel memories from childhood? What did you learn from these experiences that have served you well as an adult? What have you changed or adapted?
- What is difficult for you in serving an “invisible God?”
- What have been your most concrete experiences of God? Where and how have these taken place?
- What are the physical signs of God’s blessings and presence that you have seen in your life? Can you call these to mind as a source of strength that you can rely on during challenging times?
- Everyday we are tempted to put many idols before God (money, possessions, consumption, power, status, ego, political party, or leaders); what are the most challenging idols for you?
- When have you experienced God’s love and grace through a pet or other animal? Through creation?
- Are there spiritual and other practices that help you trust God and navigate this unknown journey we are now on? If there are events/practices/worship services that Pr. Linda can offer to help with this, please share your ideas.
Image: Herrad of Landsberg. The Dance of the Golden Calf from the Hortus Deliciarum, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55985 [retrieved October 12, 2020http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hortus_Deliciarum,_Der_Tanz_um_das_goldene_Kalb.JPG.