Today’s story from the Book of Exodus raises a particular question: exactly which God do you believe in? You might be surprised how many Episcopalians confess privately to their priests and say, “I’m sort of, maybe, kind of an atheist. I love the tradition, the music, the message of Jesus, but I don’t believe in a big white bearded old man in the sky.” Some of you might be shocked. Others of you might be thinking, “me neither.” Well, for the record, I also don’t believe in that god.
Now, before you go reporting to the bishop that the rector of Holy Communion came out as an atheist this morning, hold your horses. Slow down. I do believe in God. If you identified with those words, with the possibility of atheism, I want to invite you to consider, maybe you aren’t an atheist. I want to offer you this morning that the trouble with believing in God these days is all of the false gods, all of the idols, the false images of gods that are on sale, cheap, in the marketplace of ideas.
That’s really the tension in this story from Exodus of the Golden Calf. While Moses was busy, for forty days, receiving the law from God, Moses’ people grew restless. They said to Aaron, “Moses’ God is taking too long. You, Aaron, you give us a god.” So Aaron produces a golden calf. A little bit later in the text, once Moses comes down and throws the tablets in fury over the idolatry, Aaron will lie. He’ll tell the prophet, “I did take their gold, and I threw it on the fire, and poof, the golden calf appeared.”
Aaron tries to cover his tracks. Why? Why is this such a big deal? Why do we talk about God as a “jealous God?” Why is the first commandment “you shall have no other gods before me?” If we believe God to be omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, why does God care about the golden calf, about the false images, the false gods? God is more powerful than any false god anyway, right? I want to argue this morning, the stakes are high.
To name the stakes, I want to talk about two particular false gods. These false gods are ancient, old enough that they’re named in the Bible. And, I want to argue that these false gods are alive and well today. Fitting with our story today, both of these gods have been depicted as cattle. The names of these two twin horned idols: Mammon and Moloch.
When I first came to Holy Communion for an interview and I saw the wall behind the altar I joked with the vestry. Those funny medallions back there, caught my attention. The one on the right is obviously a Christian Symbol. But the one on the left, let’s be honest, looks a lot like a dollar sign. I said to the vestry, “is this so you can choose each Sunday morning, whether this week you are serving God or Wealth?” (Jesus says in Matthew chapter 6, after telling the disciples to store their treasure in heaven: “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” That old name for wealth.)
Since I was trusted with the job after that interview, I should tell you: the Left Medallion is supposed to be an IHS, a centuries old sign for the first three letters of the name “Jesus” Greek: Iota, Eta, Sigma. The Right Medallion is a Chi Rho, the first two letters in “Christ.” Thus the Medallions are meant to represent Jesus Christ, but the one does look a lot like US Dollar.
And, if we’re honest, The Episcopalian take on God has often resembled Mammon. We are, per capita, the wealthiest and most educated Christian denomination. Episcopalians sometimes have a reputation for being snooty. Holy Communion bucks those trends a bit. We have a number of working class folk in our congregation. We’re an economically diverse parish. But you don’t have to be wealthy to worship the almighty dollar.
I’m not going to belabor the description of Mammon too much because I spent the last few weeks preaching on God’s economics. Mammon is the god of status, of access, and of cold hard cash. Our dollar bills may still say the words “In God we trust” on them, but often in this country we behave as if our only hope is in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
If you get caught up in the worship of Mammon, if you give your soul to wealth, you will always feel like you don’t have enough. Happiness will always come with a price tag. You’ll find yourself working late, missing family events. You’ll find yourself waiting to really live for after the purchase of the next item, after the money is saved, after the loan is paid off.
Aaron might have been lying to Moses when he said, “the golden calf just formed itself in the flame,” but can you understand why he said those words. Has worshipping wealth ever felt like a default in our society? The worship of Mammon can be easy to fall into, but the drive to accumulate, the quest to buy enough, save enough, own enough, that worship never satisfies. Worshipping Mammon can drive you mad.
Mammon has a twin, another horned god, Moloch, the false god of security. Some of you might recognize the name from Alan Ginsburg’s poem “Howl.” Ginsburg repeats the name again and again like a terrible chant. Moloch. Moloch. Moloch is a name of terror in literature and for good reason. Moloch is one of the most ancient names for a false god.
Moloch rises up again and again in the scriptures, often as background noise. Scholars tell us that Moloch was Hebrew name for the god who demanded child sacrifice. In early Mesopotamian cultures families would sacrifice a child in order to get the god’s protection. For the safety, for the security of the many, a few children were offered up, killed.
We are well beyond that barbarity, aren’t we? Are we sure? One might argue there seems to be a rising tide of worship in this country at the altar of security, and some people’s children are being sacrificed.
Some time ago I spent the better part of the afternoon with a friend who happens to be African American. As we talked, I noticed she kept checking her phone. Her son had just started his freshmen year of college at a school in Appalachia, a few hours drive from their home in Washington, DC. He was driving home for the weekend with another student. My friend was visibly nervous. She finally explained to me: “I’m worried what will happen if they get pulled over by the police.” My friend’s son arrived at his parents house safely that day. But these days I know her fear wasn’t uncommon for a mother of a black son. Security and safety aren’t uniformly ensured in our society.
I wonder how much the current president’s rhetoric about refugees and immigrants also stokes Moloch’s flames. Through our parish’s connection with Cristosal and El Salvador we have heard the story of Episcopalians in Central America whose lives are at risk. Children, minor children, keep making treacherous journeys across the deserts of Mexico to escape threats of murder at the hands of gangs, only to be told they are not eligible for asylum in our United States. These days our security is apparently more important than our invitation to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. How often does protecting our “security” require allowing suffering or violence?
In a few minutes we’ll confess our sins. We’re using a modern prayer right now at Holy Communion. Your worship committee chose this confession because it seems important to confess “the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.” Moloch is a dangerous false god, dangerous because it is easy to allow the evil to be done on our behalf without asking questions, without knowing that someone is making this sacrifice in our name, to preserve our “security.”
Atheism or Iconoclasm?
I don’t mention Mammon and Moloch to terrify you, or to guilt you into proper behavior. Without describing the stakes, this story from Exodus can seem a little silly. Even Sunday School lessons will often make fun of Moses’ people for worshipping a little golden calf. I mention the ancient false gods, Mammon and Moloch, because history has shown us that worshipping at their altars brings real suffering.
As I began this sermon, I told you that many Episcopalians confess a sort of casual atheism. Now I want to surprise you further. I think what so many of you call “atheism” can actually be a good thing.
Hear me out. You see, I don’t actually believe most folks when they tell me their atheists. I say most because I do have a few thoroughly committed philosophical atheist friends. I believe them. But I don’t believe people who call themselves atheists and then come to church week in and week out. I don’t believe they are actually “atheists.” I think there is a better word: “iconoclasts.”
The historians among you will know that there have been several iconoclastic movements across the centuries. Iconoclast means “image smasher.” In Christianity, about every 500 years, there has been a season of smashing. A group of faithful believers have decided their culture has depicted a god that is too small, and they have started smashing. We might be less violent this time around, we might simply choose which images are allowed in worship, in public spaces, and which are kept in museums for study.
I was back at my seminary this week for an alumni meeting, and we heard about the progress on the new seminary chapel. When I was a student the old chapel burned. At the meeting the dean of was updating the alumni on three pieces of stained glass that will be incorporated. The announcement came out a few weeks ago that three new windows will represent the Trinity. The dean said many Episcopalians had written in worriedly to ask about what would be displayed, particularly would the windows feature an old white guy, a blonde Jesus, and a bird? (The old chapel windows featured a lot of very Victorian blonde Jesuses and at least one old white guy in robes). I think it was telling that the room full of seminary alumni, Episcopal priests, breathed an audible sigh of relief when the dean said there would be “no people” in the windows.
To those of you who have found a home in the Episcopal church and still flirt with atheism, I want to say this: I admire your faith. I think in this church at this time in history it makes sense to question what our society describes as “god.” There are so many false images out there. Some of them have ancient names like Mammon and Moloch, wealth and security. Others are new, or new incarnations: allure, power, ego. Even religious institutions, especially so-called “Christian” institutions can get caught up in false worship. Power corrupts.
This is why I think it is important that week come here week in and week out, looking for the true God. As St. Paul says in the letter to the Phillipians:
Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen…and the God of peace will be with you.
We come here week in and week out to be reminded, because there are so many gods on offer, so many gods out there in the marketplace. It is important to reorient ourselves, to come back to this altar.
If you are struggling with God, I want to invite you to keep wrestling. Keep denying the false images. Moloch and Mammon are easy names, cheap names. Moses’ God’s name is more difficult. The true God takes time. And consider, is your doubt really an act of devotion? Do you have a hunch, a hope, that the true God is out there? The God that invites us all to the wedding banquet, the God who loves us more deeply than we can love ourselves, the God in whose worship true riches and true security can be found, not just for the few but for all God’s children? Is your so called atheism a denial of the true God, or do you simply reject the false gods on sale today?