Sunday, November 11, 2001

"The Danger of the Golden Calf"
Remembrance Day: In times of war, we must be clear about our duty as Christians both in the war within and the war without. Israel's experience with the Philistines and the golden calf point the way

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 11, 2001
Text: Exodus 32:15-24

He was a very old man and the lines on his face, like the rings on a tree, showed that he had seen many years. He was a man that I used to go and visit from time to time and when I did so, he would vacillate between moments of immense clarity of thought to poignant, pregnant pauses with a blank stare. He was a man who would remember things that occurred 80 years ago, but could not remember what had happened an hour before. The old man that I was visiting was in Soldiers' Memorial Hospital in Middleton, Nova Scotia.

On days when I would go and see my father in another ward, I would pass by this old man's room and he would gesture for me to spend just five minutes to reminisce. It was evident from all that he said that his role in World War I, when he was a member of the famous Van Doos, was the defining moment in his life. Even though he couldn't remember other things, he remembered both the power and also the pain of having fought in World War I.

His nurses told me, and I heard it with my own ears, that in the middle of the night he would just sit upright with memories of the war and he would sometimes cry out one phrase in despair: "The Philistines," he would say, "the Philistines."

I must admit I had never heard a phrase like that since my childhood days in Sunday School and the rendition of the passage that I read of the story of David and Goliath. But, for this poor old soldier at the end of his days, the Philistines had clearly lived in his lifetime.

I have thought of that old boy much over the last few days and weeks. I doubt very much whether he is still alive, but I have thought: What would he think of the events following September 11th? What would he have to contribute and say from his deep and painful experience to those of us who, in our generation now, are looking not at war from a distance but war in our midst, in our own era? When our people are asking themselves questions about life and death, when we are asking ourselves about the justness of war and the meaning of human conflict, what would that old boy have to say to us today? When I saw the ruddy-faced young men and women from all over this land climbing aboard ship in Halifax last month to sail off to the Gulf, I must admit my heart fell. This old boy in his lifetime had thought that he had in fact fought in a war that would end all wars, that he had finally beaten the Philistines. But now, another generation of young people is having to come face to face with that reality.

So I want to turn today, to aid us to understand what is going on in our time and to appreciate what happened in former times, to two salient moments in the life of Israel. Ages have separated us from these events and yet, in a sense, they are as real and pertinent today as they were 2,500 - 3,000 years ago, for they speak about conflict and war. They speak about a war from without and a war from within, both of which every nation faces at times such as these.

First of all, there was the war that was fought without. This is the story that I read a few moments ago of David and Goliath, the story of a ruddy-faced, young boy who was an Israelite facing the 10-foot-tall Goliath, who represented the tyranny of the Philistines. Many of you know the story from Sunday School days: Goliath was an arrogant and a proud man, a man who represented a great, military empire that had tremendous forces to take on little Israel. When he saw David appear to him in the arrogance of the moment, he said: "Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?" Such was his derision.

But David, a man who, as we know later on in his life, was himself far from perfect, a man who had an affair with Bathsheba, a man who eventually would have her husband killed in battle in order that he might have her, at this moment, though, was a young, innocent lad facing him. On the Valley of Elah, blood was spent and the mighty Philistines were defeated by one shot from a lonely and a sole Israelite.

Now, many people have asked why this story is in the Bible. Why the bloodshed? Why the gore? Why the beheading? We don't need that. Yet there is a profound message throughout this conflict.

It is a message that God sometimes stands beside the weak and the humble and the just. When Goliath laughed at David and sneered at him, this was David's reaction: He said to Goliath; "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord."

You see, for David there was only one strength, only one source of security. That was his belief in God. The people of Israel, whenever they faced the tyrant, whether it was the Philistines or Assyria, whether it was Babylon or whether it was Egypt, or whether it was the Romans later on, always had two things about which they had to remind themselves when they went to war:

The first of these was that they were doing it in the name of God who was their strength; and the second thing was that they must do it out of a sense of justice, out of a sense of righteousness in keeping with the God whom they worshipped. That was the war from without.

But there was also a war from within, which brings us to the story that we read from the Book of Exodus: Here was a moment when Israel was really at its most vulnerable and its most weak, but when it had to ask itself, when it had to be vigilant to make sure in fact that it was still remaining faithful to God and that it was maintaining justice. This is a story that some scholars have suggested might have been written during the time of Josiah many years later, and placed into the Book of Exodus at another time, to show the problems of worshiping cults. Whether that is a fact or not, the message is clear:

We read that Moses went up into Mount Sinai to receive the Law. As he went up there he left Aaron in charge of the people. While he was up there, the people decided that they were going to create their own god, a golden calf, and that they would worship this golden calf, and not God.

We read that they entered into orgiastic worship and they were consumed with their passion; so much so that Joshua said to Moses: "There must be a war going on in the camp." Such was the noise. Moses looked and said: "It is not a war that they are having. It is a party. It is a party where they have created a false God."

So, he came down and he dropped the tablets and he ground up the idol and he made the people drink the powder in a drink. Then there's this bloody sound, this bloody conflict when Moses and others go into the camp and slaughter people.

You think when you read this, "My gosh, this is excessive in the name of the God of Peace," but like so many passages within the Old Testament, and the Bible as a whole, there was hyperbole at work here. There was an exaggeration because the point being made was this: Israel would never survive; Israel itself would be destroyed if it allowed an image of God to be created, or if it worshiped cultic gods other than the True and the Living and the One God.

So the war from within was to preserve its very justice, its very sense of fidelity to God and thereby its very strength in the face of tyranny and of the foe. That was the war from within.

This leads me to bring these two moments together and ask the question: Well, what do the war from without and the war from within mean to us today? What are the dangers when we talk about war in such terms?

Well, one of the dangers that we face is that it is sometimes easy to personify the enemy, to personify tyranny and evil.

They did that with the character of Goliath. It was easy to take on Goliath. He was so notoriously horrible. Who would not want to stone Goliath?

It is the same when we revisit history and we revisit Hitler. It is easy in a sense to personify evil in the form of a man and to know that that man must be evil by what he is doing. It is easy.

It is easy, for example, to personify what has happened over the last few months in the form of one man. We call him Bin Laden. It is easy to see the tyranny, the arrogance, the Philistine-like arrogance, of that man and it is easy to see him as a common enemy.

The problem always is that the enemies that Israel fought and the enemies that we fight are not just enemies that we can personify, but are also tyranny and injustice and inhumanity itself. Therein lies the struggle that so many people have. It is harder to take on tyranny. It is harder to take on an enemy that is sometimes so difficult to define.

There are some who want to make it simple and say: "Well, all we have to do is eliminate a person or a group and we will have eliminated tyranny."

Others take the other option and just say: "Well, we lie down in the face of tyranny and we do nothing."

The biblical message is neither. The biblical message is: In the name of God there are times, in the name of justice there are times to take on tyranny itself, in whatever form and guise it comes. To use the creed of the United Church of Canada, "there is a time to resist evil."

When people were carting Jewish people off to gas chambers and then burning their bodies in rubble, there was a need to stand between the victim and the tyrant and to say "No." To have done anything other than that would have been a complete denial of God. When the young, vulnerable men and women in Kosovo or Bosnia - Muslims - were having graves made for them before they were executed, there was a need to stand between the innocent and the tyrant and to say "No." There is a need to stand between those who were doing their normal daily work in a building in New York City on a Tuesday morning and those who think that they can wantonly just take their lives. There is a need to stand between the tyrant and the innocent.

There was a need, I felt, in my life to stand between the tyrant and innocent when young Xhosa boys, just because they were Xhosa boys, had their backs beaten and had their feet beaten when they would steal a loaf of bread because they were hungry. There is a need to stand between the tyrant and the innocent victim. There is a need to do that and it's hard and it's messy and it's painful.
And as Jesus stood between our own sin and God's justice, as Jesus laid down his own life as a mediator between God and ourselves in order that we might find salvation, so there is a need for those of us who believe in him, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in World War II, at times to put a "spoke in the wheel," to say no, injustice can't simply roll on. There is a need sometimes to stop it and it is painful and it hurts.

One of the dangers when we need to do that, however, is that we can dehumanize the enemy.

I was reading this week Pierre Berton's book, Vimy. There is a glorious moment in it about Billy Bishop. I don't know if all of you know this, but Billy Bishop was married right here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church and, I found out this morning, was buried here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. What a fitting beginning and end to a life.

Billy Bishop was flying over Vimy and he made the comment that he saw the armies moving like little dots below him. Then, all of a sudden, all these little dots just stopped and all these others moved forward. Then, all of a sudden, all these other dots just stopped. He said he could never get out of his mind the fact that it seemed, from his plane, that he was seeing a game and not a conflict. He worried about that because it was so easy to be in a plane above it all and not realize that those dots were young lives that were falling on the battleground.

In Berton's book, he tells the story of those who had to climb through the trenches of Vimy and No Man's Land. As they dug the trenches, the voices of the enemy could be heard through the mud, because there was often less than a metre between them as they dug through the trenches in No Man's Land. Berton said for those who were there, who were fighting on the ground, the enemy was not a nameless, faceless person, but a voice that could be heard through the mud and the dirt and the gunfire.

You see, my friends, war is not something you can dehumanize. On this very day in Afghanistan when bombs are dropped, lives are taken. When people go into positions of conflict they can potentially lose their lives. We are talking about something that is fundamentally sinful and awful.

I had dinner last week with a close friend of mine in the Brockville area. He is a young man who is a reservist in the Canadian forces and who years ago went to fight in Bosnia. The day that he was about to leave he received word that his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He said when he got on the plane and he flew over to Bosnia he couldn't get out of his mind the fact that this whole fact of war is a very, very human thing.

"When I stared into the faces of those who were the enemy, when I looked around in the dangerous moments in Croatia and Bosnia, when I looked at wives and children," he said, "I thought of what I had given up and my wife and my family at home. I realized that this is a very human thing, this war, and that it is not something that is a game. It is real life and it is really painful and it is awful, even to stand in the face of tyranny."

That is why, my friends, on this November 11th, as a nation we must remind ourselves that this is a human event that is taking place; that human lives are being lost; that we do not stand over it and see it as a game, but that every day we should be on our knees because human life is being taken and human life is being sacrificed and some of our young men and women too, I'm sure, will be putting themselves in the place between the weak and the tyrant. It is hard to fight a war outside.

But there is also sometimes, my friends, a war within. The golden calf, the idol that was there to tease Israel, was a very dangerous thing. There is a need for Israel always to renew itself, to question itself. Are we truly being faithful to God in this conflict? Are we really doing the just thing? Are we acting simply out of revenge to balance the equation of power after our own pain and make ourselves feel better, or are we genuinely standing in the face of the tyrant on behalf of the weak? In other words, are we in this conflict just to make ourselves feel better, or are we doing it because we genuinely feel that the world will be a safer and a more peaceful place because of it?

Every nation needs to ask itself that question. In some ways, September 11th has shaken the foundations of our land. There were more than one million poppies sold in the last month this year than there were last year. I think people are genuinely asking themselves serious questions.

One of the questions I want us to ask ourselves is the question that Israel had to face whenever it was in conflict, or whenever it was challenged: Are we in fact the worshippers of a golden calf or are we in true fidelity with God ourselves?

Let's be honest. In this land, before September 11th, the malls on Sunday morning were becoming full and the churches were becoming empty. There was a sort of euphoria about our own wealth and an ignorance, a deliberate ignorance of the needs of other people around us. There was a passion for our own selves and none for our neighbours. We wanted a life that was fulfilling but not necessarily, as Rabbi Kushner has put in a wonderful book I was given, a life that was of meaning.

And so as a nation, as we face these conflicts, we face these difficult moments. We need to look into our own hearts and we need to ask ourselves strong questions. Are we doing what we're doing to stop the tyrant and protect the weak? If so, we must do it. Are we doing it because we have fidelity to God or out of a spirit of revenge? If it is in God's name, then we must do it, but if it is not, we must question ourselves and we must pray.

There was a wonderful moment many years ago in the conflicts between Chile and Argentina. On the borders of those two great countries that had been in conflict, Christians got together and took a cannon and melted it down and turned it into a cross. On the border between Chile and Argentina, they set up this cross as a reminder of the pain and the sacrifice of conflict, to remind themselves that they must never do it again. People on each side reminded themselves, when they looked at the cross in the Andes, that they in fact must always strive for that which is true and just and holy and noble and righteous.

Henry van Dyke wrote this wonderful poem about that cross. This is what he said:
Christ of the Andes, Christ of everywhere,
Great lover of the hills and the open air,
And patient lover of impatient men
Who blindly strive and sin and strive again,
Thou living word, larger than any creed,
Thou love divine, uttered in human need,
Oh teach the world, warring and wandering still
The way of peace, the footpath of goodwill.

As I read that and I thought of that old boy in the hospital, I thought to myself there is a need at times to stand against tyranny and it will cost us, but at all times we should pray for peace and maintain our faith in the only one who can truly protect us and guide us in these perilous times: Our Living God and the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.