Monday, January 25, 2016

Climate Disruption as the "Unforgivable Sin": Climate Stew Podcast

In this podcast of Climate Stew, host Peterson Toscano and I talk about what passages in the Bible have particular relevance for climate issues.   

Peterson Toscano, host of Climate Stew podcast
Referencing my book, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015), I talk about climate disruption as the "unforgivable sin" (Matthew 12:30-32), and creative ways to engage science and faith in preaching. 

I also describe preaching as nonhuman characters in the biblical stories - as Earth, then as Water, then as Ruah (Air/Spirit) - helping listeners to think of their relationship to God's Creation in a personal way that also connects to public issues of clean water, clean air and public health.

In addition to the podcast, the web page has links to the "Ruah" sermon, the Creation-Crisis Preaching website, and other great resources for helping folks think and talk about the need to address climate change as a faith issue.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Parliament of World Religions: Report from a Lutheran EcoPreacher

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, Ph.D.

Imagine being in a giant hall with 10,000 people from 80 different countries representing 50 different religions.  

Everywhere you turn, there are women, children and men wearing the distinct garb of their culture or faith.  They are intermingling, shaking hands, laughing, and embracing.  

No weapons or walls – just open doors and peace.  Women are no longer relegated the role of second-class citizens but are fully recognized for their power, leadership, intelligence, and unique individual gifts.  Earth is also given equal status – worthy of not only moral consideration, but lifted up as primary for our concern and protection.

Invited to join in a vocalization of the “ohm,” you feel the vibrations of a thousand vocal chords resonating in your own mouth, in the air around you, and right in the center of your chest.  

Later, Native peoples, so long pushed to the margins, lead a procession in full tribal regalia, their booming drums setting a beat that pulses through the air and into your heart.  Hundreds of rooms offer glimpses into other cultures, images of sacredness and holy rituals, and deep conversations about healing our relationships with Earth and within the broken human community. 

This was what I experienced for five days at the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City Utah, in October of 2015.  For that transcendent – as well as very localized – moment in time and space, I got a glimpse of what I and many others agreed is what we would hope to see in heaven (being careful to note that many of the attendees would not use this Christian term).  It filled me with great hope in the possibilities for humanity on this planet at a time when hope seems in very short supply. 

Not only was I honored to be one of the presenters at the Parliament, speaking about my book Creation-Crisis Preaching, and preaching a sermon as the character of water in the story of the Woman at the Well, but I also learned a great deal about other religions and gained appreciation and insights as well.  

One of the most important experiences centered around a meal called Langar, hosted by the Sikh community and served to the participants at the Parliament. 

Every day for five days, the Sikhs served us a healthy, delicious, vegetarian meal – all we could eat – for free.  

They served 6000 people each afternoon.  With our shoes removed and heads covered to show respect, we sat together on the carpeted floor, all on the same level indicating that everyone – no matter your skin color, economic level, gender, sexual orientation, body size, or religions – everyone is welcome at this meal. 

So I arrived home from the Parliament with renewed hope for humanity based on what I had witnessed for five days.  Peace, healing, reconciliation, cooperation and justice are not only possible, they are happening. 

Yet when started skimming through different websites and posts about the Parliament, I came across a blogpost by a fellow Christian who had attended the event and was alarmed by what she saw.  She accused the gathering of being a New Age effort to create one world religion and one world government:

“The Parliament of the World's Religions has an agenda and they are now very open about it. It is now an outright attack on the Christian church and the Word of God. They have decided they cannot have unity at all cost so they are trying something else: changing the doctrine of the simple Gospel of Jesus and Who He is. I was handed a booklet titled Global Ethic: A Call to our Guiding Institutions that stated: ‘The Parliament of the world’s religion seeks to promote interreligious harmony, rather than unity.’ (p.1)

Not only does the blogger contradict herself (how can the Parliament be seeking one world religion when it clearly states that they are promoting not unity, but interreligious harmony?), but as a Christian, I have to say that I did not feel attacked at all.  And I daresay, neither did the other Lutherans who also attended the Parliament.  
Lutherans gathered at the Parliament of World Religions 2015, including former Bishop Mark Hanson, top row, third from left.

Also, I did not observe any proposed doctrinal changes of the Gospel.  Rather, I came upon countless examples of people practicing one of the primary teachings of the Gospel:  Love the Lord your God (however each person understands and expresses that love), and love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Mark 12:30-31).  Yet even this practice of love was looked on with suspicion by the blogger:

“The propaganda pushed at these sessions was love, love, love, but not for the Word of God. Peace, peace, peace, but only after divisive ‘Christians are put in their place,’ wherever that may be. Dialog, dialog, dialog; however, dialog is seen as divisive if you are a dogmatic Bible believing old patriarchal Christian. . . . ‘Love’ is pushed in all directions and is the end-all statement at all cost . . . In so many articles and leaflets I have read ‘love’ even if it means leaving your faith! Love becomes your highest priority. For all intents and purposes I will call them the ‘Love Bombers.’ It draws the desperate into their web of deceit.”

So what, exactly, does she think the point of the Word of God is, if not love?  If Jesus clearly taught us even to love our enemies (Matthew 5:33-34), then what was happening at the Parliament was clearly in accordance with God’s will.  

How heartening it was to see Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians – traditions that each have a history of being in conflict with each other at one time or another – sharing the stage in panel presentations, enjoying music and dance, learning about each other’s cultures at booths and displays, and sharing meals together.  But this, too, was a source of consternation:

“The common theme throughout the conference was Muslims uniting with Jews, Catholics and Christians at all cost. Drop doctrine, drop all differences to join together for the common core of one world religion, and government - and everyone must be engaged in some sort of service to be accountable in healing the earth.”

Just to be clear – there is absolutely no possibility of there being one world religion, nor one world government.  Anyone who has worked in any substantive way in interfaith work, or at the United Nations, or in any joint international efforts will tell you – getting people of such varying cultures and religions to agree on anything is a commendable feat.  To get them to agree on one religion and government – it’s simply not a feasible task, nor one with any chance of achievement.  Nor should it be.  The point is not to make the world one monoculture of religion, like a forest with all one kind of tree.  The diversity of God’s Creation should be our first clue that the greatest strength of a community and humanity is its diversity.  And rather than seeing it as a reason for attack, finally there are folks who are seeing diversity as a reason for celebration, for learning, for healing.

So how is it that two people, both Christians, can go to the same place, see the same people, be exposed to the same events, hear the same encouragements toward love, compassion and cooperation and arrive at such radically different conclusions?

This difference in perception reminds me of the ending of C.S. Lewis’ book, The Last Battle. The book is the seventh and last book in the Narnia Chronicles, which is an allegory-as-fantasy series of children’s books that contain the Christian narrative set within an imagined world.  In the last chapter, the main characters find themselves in a beautiful field with trees after the last battle with the anti-Christ figure, Tash.   They marvel at what they see – a scene of peace, hope, and beauty. But they are confused by the behavior of the dwarves who do not appear to see the splendor all around them.  

They sit in a tight circle refusing to look around, or they bump blindly into the trees, cursing the beauty that is right in front of them.  No matter how many times the group tries to help the dwarves to see, their vision remains dark.  When the lion Aslan (the Christ-figure of the series) appears, he notes that that their prison is in their own minds and that their fear of being "taken in" keeps them from being taken out.

Similarly, the very things I and thousands of others rejoiced in and uttered prayers of gratitude and relief for, were the cause of nothing but consternation, suspicion, and fear for this Christian and many like her.  The beauty of interfaith cooperation on the most pressing justice issues of our time is not a sign of apostasy or heresy or the coming of one world religion, contrary to the author’s fears. 

Repeatedly emphasized throughout the Parliament was the need to respect each person’s religious expressions and convictions and to find ways to meet on ethical bridges in order to right the wrongs of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, xenophobia, sexism, and eco-cidal tendencies.

And yet, this Christian ended her blogpost this way:

“I never felt so helpless, but I realized this is what the Lord meant the Way is narrow and few will find it. Christians are now seen as mean and unknowledgable (sic), even while warning those to get out of the fire. May the Lord Himself stifle their efforts and open the ears of those in our path for Jesus Christ. We need to witness now more than ever before, now before the door shuts and their time has run out.”

And there it is – fear for our (and her) soul, that an eternal fire of judgment awaits anyone who is not a Christian the way she believes Christianity must be practiced.  As social anthropologist Mary Douglas observed in her work, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, "Ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience,” (4).  For that Christian blogger, maintaining the binary system of Christian/non-Christian and being sure to be in the right camp is the primary goal. 

Yes, the existence of thousands of different religions throughout the world is untidy.  But we have choices as to how we will approach this messiness.  According to Douglas, the tendency is to deal with the anomalies and ambiguities by assigning arbitrary categories, avoiding the messiness, labeling it as dangerous, or exacting physical control over it – including violence, if necessary.  We see examples of these tendencies every day – and they are not working for our planet or our human population.  The distance is short between imploring the Lord to stifle the efforts of peacemakers and the decision to take matters into one’s own hands and do the stifling by any means possible.  This is the path to terrorism, and it happens in nearly every religion. 

But there is another way.  Douglas notes that it is possible to see the anomalies and ambiguities as sources to enrich meaning or to call attention to other levels of existence.  In other words, we can choose to see the "other" not as a pollutant and therefore a danger, but creatively, as a means by which our lives are enriched and our community expanded.

So, I, too offer my prayer to the Lord that he himself will encourage and multiply our efforts and open the ears of those in our path for the enemy-and-neighbor-love of Jesus Christ.  We need to witness now more than ever before, now before the door shuts and our time has run out.

Cheryl Gentle and Leah Schade at the Climate Action booth.
As my new friend, Cheryl Gentle, a woman who opened her home to me and my roommate (and also new friend), Diane Johnson, summarized:  

“The message of the Parliament was clear. We must work together ‘for a world of compassion, peace, justice, and sustainability.’ The solution cannot be one faith but must be interfaith. ‘The time is NOW and WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for!’”

Leah Schade and Dr. Diane Johnson, Organizational Consultant,

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sermon: The Thousandth Generation Starts with You

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Texts:  Exodus 33:12-23, 34:1-9; Matthew 5:17-20

#climatechange  #racism  #blacklivesmatter  #drugs #consequences #hope  

See if you can figure out what these three scenarios have in common:

1. I read recently in the news that Exxon Mobile Corporation – the global conglomerate of the fossil fuel business – knew about the dangers of climate disruption from fossil fuels almost 40 years ago.  According to Scientific American (, a new investigation shows the oil company understood the science of climate change before it became a public issue and spent millions to promote misinformation to protect their profits. Now here we are, two generations later, and we are dealing with the consequences of that cover-up as our world is inundated by warming temperatures, drought, disappearing island nations, mass extinctions, and ocean acidification. #climatechange

2. I talked with a man recently who shared with me the saga of a family that chose to adopt a child who was born with drugs in his system as a fetus.  The child’s mother had been warned about the dangers of doing drugs.  But she had turned to illegal drugs after suffering from an injury that left her with ongoing pain.  Now here we are, two generations later, and the child has grown into a man who has had run-ins with the law, been in prison, and has himself fathered a child who he never sees.  That child is dealing with the consequences of decisions made forty years ago by people she’s never even met. (And deaths from drug overdose are the leading health epidemic in Pennsylvania.)

3. On Thursday I watched a webcast hosted by the bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, talking with African American Lutherans who are dealing with the effects of racism in society, in the criminal justice system, and in the church.  Do you know when the first slaves were kidnapped from Africa and brought by the Dutch to America?  The year was 1619 – nearly four hundred years ago.  And here we are, twenty generations later dealing with the consequences of the decision to steal human life and trade it like animal chattel. #racism #blacklivesmatter

What do these three seemingly unrelated stories have in common?  Moses would know:  consequences!  He watched his people create an idol out of wealth, desecrate the name of God, and break just about every commandment God had inscribed on those two stone tablets he had brought down the mountain.  His own brother even betrayed the faith in a moment of weakness.  And as a consequence of their sin, the Israelites will spend the next forty years wandering in the desert when they could have been enjoying the milk and honey of the Promised Land.  And the real kicker is that the children born to that generation will have had no part in the sin committed by their parents.  But they will have to deal with the effects, as will their own children, and their grandchildren. 

Our natural reaction is to say:  it’s not fair!  Why do I have to pay the price of something that wasn’t my fault?  Why do I have to clean up the mess of my elders?  Why do I have to deal with the effects of my grandparents’ decisions?  Why am I being forced to confront the sins of generations who came before me?

Maybe you know that feeling of frustration – being trapped by the decisions your parents made when you were a child or even before you were born, your destiny seemingly predetermined by their lack of foresight, their selfishness, or their ignorance.  When that happens, we might have the same concerns as Moses – God are you really with me?  Have I really found favor in your sight?  If so, why am I having to deal with this mess that is not my fault?

I love God’s response:  “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” (Exodus 33:14).  God promises Moses that she will put Moses in a cleft in the rock, put her hand on him as she passes by, and let Moses hear the divine name:  I am who I am.  The same name that Moses heard at the burning bush so long ago which gave the assurance that God had heard the cries of the Israelite slaves in Egypt (incidentally, another example of 400 years of slavery as a result of decisions that were not their fault).  God promised then and God promises now that he will not abandon them, even though there are consequences that have to be dealt with.

So God puts Moses in that protected place between the high walls of the mountain peak, and just as God’s hand lifts, Moses catches a glimpse of the Divine presence passing – just the back side before passing out of sight.  And God declares his name: ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 

There it is – the warning from God.  The consequences of sin will have negative effects rippling out 20, 40 years and longer.  It reminds me of something a recovering drug addict once told me:  When you use drugs today, it takes a little bit of happiness out of tomorrow.  In other words, whatever pleasure you’re getting right now from your sin will rob your future of joy, and the future of consequent generations.  

That’s what we’re seeing with climate change.  That’s what the child of drug-addicted parents discovers.  That’s what our country is realizing even 20 generations after the prosperity brought about the brutal enslaved labor of Africans and the consequent decades of Jim Crow laws, and the current rising tide of racism and the racist structures of our society.

It can be tempting, then, to feel hopeless about your future.  Sometimes it seems as if our only option is to give up in frustration.  What’s the point in doing anything if everything has been predetermined, if the course has already been laid in and the ship’s already headed for the iceberg? Why even try to fix things when so many factors are working against us?  And why is God punishing us for something we had no part in creating?

It’s true that there are consequences to our decisions and our actions.  But it’s not necessarily that God is intending to punish the children for their parents’ sins.  It’s simply a logical follow-through for what happens when certain attitudes are in place, when certain words are spoken, certain actions are taken, and a pattern of habits and behaviors become embedded over time.

But here’s the thing that people often forget – there’s another part of this verse:  “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” (Exodus 34:6-7).

So yes, there will be ripple effects out to the children, and the grandchildren and even great grandchildren.  But what’s three or four in the face of a thousand generations of forgiveness and steadfast love?  In other words, there is reason to hope and not give up.  There is reason to look at your own life and your own generation and say:  God’s forgiveness starts here.  With me.  

Whatever mistakes my parents made, whatever they did to me, whatever previous generations did to land us in this situation, let’s keep the long view in mind.  The tablets with the commandments still stand.  The covenant God made with Moses is the same covenant God made with Joseph, and Israel before him, and Isaac before him, and Abraham before him. A thousand generations is a long time!

How long is a generation?  Depending on the source, it’s anywhere from 20 – 30 years.  That means God’s love is good for 20,000 – 30,000 years!  And that’s not just from Moses’ time.  That love is renewed whenever the commandments are upheld, whenever someone makes a new start, whenever a person makes a decision for peace, whenever someone takes action to be healthier, and preserve this planet for the next generation.  That’s why Jesus has no problem reminding people to hold the commandments sacred: “Whoever keeps the commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:19).   Whenever that happens, we can bank on God’s steadfast love for the next 20,000 years!

No matter what challenges you are facing, keep listening for that voice of God.  And tell others to do the same.  When you hear others bemoaning the mess they’re in or giving in to despair about the future, remind them:  God knows your name and is giving you a moment of clarity in a protected space so you can see a way forward. Like we’ll sing in that old familiar hymn, "Rock of Ages":

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure – the cure of the sins of the past, and my own sins –
Be of sin the double cure
Save from wrath and make me pure.

So if you are feeling frustrated by the state of our planet – take heart and nestle into the “rock of ages, cleft for you.”  Hear God promising that, yes, you have to live on a new planet that is not entirely your fault.  But do the work of following the commandments and honoring the planet I have created and teaching others to do the same.  And my presence will go with you and I will give you rest. 

If you are feeling trapped by sins of your parents, caught in a nasty web of dysfunctionalism, addiction, mental health issues, or long-simmering family conflicts that go back generations – take heart and take refuge in the rock of ages.  Hear God promising that, yes, you have to do the hard work of going to counseling or family therapy, and keeping your life on the straight and narrow in order to make up for the sins handed down to you from your elders.  But do the work of following the commandments and honoring your father and your mother – even if they don’t deserve it – and teaching others to do the same.  And my presence will go with you and I will give you rest.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly intractable challenges of systemic racism – peak out from that space in the rock of ages and see the hem of God’s cloak passing by.  White folks:  follow the commandment against bearing false witness against your neighbor.  This means that we need to refrain from perpetuating racial stereotypes, telling racist jokes, or posting xenophobic memes on your Facebook page.  Do the hard work of engaging in racism awareness training, educate yourself on the realities of white privilege, and be assured that God’s presence will be with you and you will receive rest.

The double cure is already working on the past and the future.  So live in this present moment, right now, doing the right thing, having the right attitude, saying the compassionate words, taking the route of justice and peace, letting God work on you and through you to cleanse your hearts, minds and actions. The thousandth generation starts with you.  


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Gas Pipeline Poses Major Problems

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

(This op-ed was printed Jan. 16, 2016, in the Daily Item newspaper, Sunbury, PA.)

It is with great alarm that I respond to the Dec. 31 article claiming that the proposed methane gas pipeline recently given the environmental greenlight by the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) will have “no major impact” and “won’t pose a problem.”  How can 54 stream crossings and 550 disturbed acres have no impact?  How can pumping 176 million cubic feet of methane gas at a pressure rate of 1480 psi pose no problem?  

It appears that FERC, members of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce, SEDA-COG, Rep. Tom Marino, and the other lawmakers who have touted the ephemeral benefits of this project are either unaware of or deliberately ignoring clear warnings that such a project would be a hazard for the Valley and the planet.

Not one of these individuals has acknowledged the climate crisis and the impact this pipeline and the Hummel Station would have in exacerbating the amount of greenhouse gas that would result.  According to the Environmental Defense Fund, about one-fourth of the human-caused climate change we’re experiencing today is due to methane emissions, which are 20-25 percent more potent than carbon dioxide over a 25-year period.  

Certainly our local leaders are aware that last month, 196 nations representing billions of earth citizens, gathered in Paris and agreed on a plan to slow global warming in the hope of averting the most disastrous effects of climate change. With such awareness, why are our elected and appointed officials ignoring the global message, and instead laying plans to invest billions of dollars and make an irreversible commitment to the use of methane? 

As Responsible Drilling Alliance activist Barb Jarmoska has said, “The woeful burden of this Pennsylvania paradox will rest on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.” (

Porter Ranch, CA, gas leak, as shown by infrared camera.
And maybe they have not been informed about the number and severity of methane gas pipeline explosions which have a blast zone of up to quarter of a mile.

According to the PHMSA, “This trend is disturbingly upward over the past 20 years.”

Is this really the kind of risk we want in the Susquehanna Valley?

If you are one of the many landowners who has not yet agreed to allowing this extremely risky pipeline through your property – do not allow yourself to be misled or bullied.  Do not back down from protecting the sanctity of your land.  It is time for residents of the Valley to realize that the threats of this pipeline are real and immanent, and that action needs to be taken to prevent this incursion into our community. 

Now is not the time to be sinking more money into dangerous methane infrastructure. 
This is the time when we need visionary business leaders and elected officials to see that the future for the Susquehanna Valley needs to be on clean technologies – not the dirty fuels of the past.  We have the workforce and we have the factory sites to be building solar panels, wind turbines, and many more types of clean technologies.  Where are the entrepreneurs and investment backers to help kick-start these projects and lead Pennsylvania into true energy independence?

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is a member of Susquehanna Valley Progressives and author of Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecological Theology and Homiletics (Chalice Press, 2015).

See also:

Friday, January 15, 2016

Sermon – The Golden Calf

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
Texts:  Exodus 32:1-20; Matthew 21:12-17

Your assignment last week was to think about which one of the Ten Commandments is most difficult for you to keep.  Let’s first see if we can remember them.  As you’ll recall, the first three have to do with our relationship with God:  1. No other gods. 2. Taking God’s name in vain.  3. Honoring the Sabbath.  And the rest have to do with our relationship with other people.  4.  Honoring parents.  5.  Honoring life.  6.  Honoring covenantal relationships.  7.  Honoring personal property.  8.  Honoring integrity.  9/10.  Not coveting, being satisfied with what you have.

I promised that I would reveal the commandment that is most difficult for me to keep.  For me, it’s #3 – honoring the Sabbath.  It is very difficult for me to take an entire day off to rest and focus on my relationship with God and the people I love.  Even if I say I’m taking a day off, I find ways to fill it with work – preparing for a class, grading papers, writing a sermon, working on a newsletter article.  Just checking my phone for texts and emails eats away at my time for walking, prayer, meditation, and spending time with my family. 

You could say that, in a sense, work is my “golden calf.”  Now what do I mean by that?  Remember that the golden calf was the image Aaron made out of the gold from the Israelites that they carried out of Egypt with them.  On the night of the Passover, they asked the Egyptians for their jewelry, and it was freely given to them for their journey – after all those plagues, they just wanted the Israelites out of their land.

After crossing over the Sea of Reeds and going through the desert, they came to Mt. Sinai where Moses went up to its peak to meet with God.  He told the people that he would be back after 40 days and nights.  But he was delayed on his return down the mountain, so the people panicked.  Their leader was gone.  No text from on high, no phone call, no email – just disappeared.  They figured he must be dead.  Which would mean that God had either forgotten about them, did not care about them, or was for whatever reason cut off from them.  So they implored Aaron, Moses’ brother, to provide for them an image of the gods they knew from Egypt. 

We as the readers of this text see the problem right away.  Here comes Moses down the mountain carrying the tablets, and the very first commandment is to have no other gods, to make no graven images.  And what are they down there doing?  Melting down all their gold and making it into a graven image of a calf.

My friend, Ben Hollenbach, made an interesting point to me about this story.  He said, “Most people think the calf is an idolatrous distraction from worshiping God.  But the Israelites asked for the calf because they were more comfortable with it.  It was a familiar image from their time in Egypt.”

So why was it a bull-calf that was made?  Why not one of the other Egyptian gods like the frog or the sun?  In Egypt, the bull was a well-known deity.  Ka in Egyptian is both a religious concept of life-force/power and the word for bull.  But it’s not an actual adult bull that is made – it’s a calf.  Why?
Raymond P. Scheindlin, professor of medieval Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, described the situation this way:

The calf is “a sweet little thing, a mascot, almost a pet — something that would seem in need of the people’s care as much as something that could care for the people. Aaron’s calf was a god the people could identify with, a god that reminded them of themselves, a vulnerable, comfortable, available god, rather than Moses’ difficult, remote, normally invisible God hidden behind the clouds on Sinai.

(This is a) miscalculation. The soft god that reminded them of themselves was such a relief from the demanding God of Sinai, with His thundering voice and His scowling prophet, that they fell in love with it at first sight, fell to their knees, and worshiped it. They knew it wasn’t God, but they worshiped it all the same, for it was helpless like them, and cute, a god on their own scale and to their own measure, who told them that they were all right as they were — a god whose vulnerability enhanced their self-esteem. It was a god who mirrored themselves, not the absolute God mirrored by Moses’ absolute faith.”  (

Because, let’s face it – when the chips are down, when you’re feeling stressed, when you’re feeling grief or sadness, you turn to those things that feel familiar, that give you comfort.  That’s why these images on the calf that our Confirmation students made feel so good – food, new clothes, alcohol, our car, a pet – any of these can become our god because they are what we turn to when we need to feel good.  

Our students learned that a god is anything to which you devote your time, money, or attention.  It’s what gives your life meaning.  It is that which you worship.  The problem, of course, is that these things or ideas are actually not God.  They are what’s known as “penultimate” – not quite the most important.  The penultimate leads to the ultimate.  But if you stop at the penultimate, you’re stuck in idolatry.

How do you know if something (or someone) is an idol for you or not?  Observe what happens when you are deprived of it, or it’s taken away.  If you believe you cannot live without it, would do anything to get it (including breaking one of the other commandments, like lying, cheating, stealing, or even murdering), then it’s become a penultimate god for you.  So for some people, gambling becomes their god – it makes them feel good and promises great riches.  For others, it’s using drugs – again, it makes you feel good and gives you a feeling of escape or power.  Even technology has become a penultimate god in our society.  We spend our time, money and attention on it.  It gives our lives meaning.  And if you take away a person’s device, or cut them off from a wi-fi signal, what happens?  They go through withdrawal symptoms!  The penultimate god can devolve into an addiction – whether it’s a person, an item, a practice, or an idea. 

So for me, doing work is my penultimate god.  I spend my time and my attention on my work, and it leads me to break other commandments – even, ironically, the first one.  It’s especially difficult for pastors to honor the Sabbath because leading worship is their work!  Their work becomes their identity, and they confuse leading the Sabbath with honoring the Sabbath.  The penultimate god is really the stop-gap measure to keep us from having to face our fears and live with the demands and ambiguities of being God’s people.  Because here’s the secret fear that my addiction to work covers up – I fear that I’m actually a lazy person, so I overcompensate by working all the time.  Work is my golden calf because it makes me feel better about myself. 

So Moses comes up with an interesting way of getting rid of this penultimate god.  He grinds up the calf into a fine gold powder and sprinkles it into the water and makes the Israelites drink it.  Gross, right?  Take it a step further – what happened after they consumed the gold?  What form did it take as it left their bodies?  Yes – it came out in their excrement.  Gives a whole new meaning to the word bullssssshine!

It’s actually a very appropriate punishment, because it teaches them a veritable truth about the futility of worshiping a penultimate god.  It ultimately leads to a stinky mess.  And it’s why the students put money right here on the calf’s butt!  

Worshiping that which we consume is a pointless exercise.  It may fascinate us for a while.  It may comfort us.  It may distract us from our fears, temporarily keep us from feeling lost or abandoned or forgotten.  But the God of Moses is not interested in our temporary feel-good measures.  This is a God of truth and justice.  Yes, this God is asking a lot of them – and of us. 

That’s why Jesus was so furious at the Temple when he saw the moneychangers.  Like Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai to the place where the people are supposed to be in prayerful expectation of a Word from God, Jesus finds a raucous revelry of rampant idolatry masquerading as preparations for worship.  The people at the Temple, just like those at the foot of Mt. Sinai, were turning to the penultimate gods of money and wealth.  Buying and selling sacrifices for the temple felt good. It was the comfortable fall-back in a time of terrible oppression and poverty when it seemed God was nothing more than an idea hidden within the Holy of Holies.

So what are we to do?  When you’ve realized what your golden calf is, then what? 

The answer is:  metanoia.  Repent.  Practice letting go and turning back to the ultimate – not the penultimate – God. That’s why we have these rituals built in to our religious calendars and weekly worship.  We have confession at the beginning of each service.  You know when we have that time of silence before saying the words of confession together?  That’s the time for you to bring to mind – and bring to God – your golden calf and give it to God.  When we come to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent in a couple weeks – that’s the time for you to practice giving up your golden calf.  Maybe you pick one day a week to go without technology.  Maybe you forego sweets during the 40 days of Lent.  Maybe you refrain from making any unnecessary purchases during those 5 weeks to put down your golden calf of consumerism.  Perhaps you make a commitment to come to Bible study on Sunday mornings during Lent, instead of carrying around your golden calf of excuses for why you won’t engage in God’s Word with your fellow Christians. 

For me, honoring the Sabbath and putting down the golden calf of work once a week will be my Lenten discipline.  For 12 hours (usually on a Friday), I will commit to a day of walking and exercise, playing games with my kids, going to lunch with my husband, and spending time in prayer and meditation. 

As we re-commit ourselves to God, we know it will not be the easy way.  It will mean sitting in the bullshine and realizing the messes we have made.  But through that process, the impurities of our sin are washed away by the waters of baptism – the water from the rock – renewing our spirits, our lives, our communities and our world.  Amen.