Home‎ > ‎Sermons‎ > ‎

"Where Your Heart Is" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 15, 2017

posted Oct 16, 2017, 8:42 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

The other week a Slate Magazine headline surprised me, “NFL Dishonors the Nation.”  Slate trumpeted it as a national disaster, adding foreboding international implications.  You know I can’t look away from politics.  Even if it was just another opinion piece about flags and anthems.


But then I read, “The New Orleans Saints beat the Miami Dolphins 20-0 in London today, effectively killing the idea of American exceptionalism for good. The drab, penalty-marred affair at Wembley Stadium caused irreversible damage to the Special Relationship, and America’s strongest ally has no choice now but to abandon her floundering former colony and avoid embarrassment by association.”


I had missed watching this game - I know that surprises you - but the article made clear how the Saints trounced the Dolphins.  The worst moment came when the Dolphins attempted a wildcat formation; that’s where another player switches places with the quarterback on the snap.  Derived from some plays by Pop Warner in the 1920’s, the wildcat formation depends on a bit of subterfuge.  And yet when the Dolphin’s tried it, their quarterback Jay Cutler stood off to the side with his hand on his hip.


Cutler stood that way, statuesque, throughout the play, which of course ended badly for the Dolphins.  As the commentator explained, Cutler's hands-on-hip pose perfectly captured his insolent attitude in the game.  His heart simply wasn’t in it.


His heart simply wasn’t in it.  We use our hearts as a metaphor for all sorts of emotions: love, certainly, but also the feelings of commitment, passion, generosity, devotion, hopes and dreams.  Our hearts break.  Hearts soar.  Hearts ache.  Hearts open.  And, just ask the Grinch, hearts grow.


This year for our Stewardship Campaign - the annual campaign to support the work of Plymouth Church in our congregation and community - we want to look into our hearts.  Because the practice of extravagant generosity is a matter of the heart.  And so this fall we’ll think about “where your heart is.”


This connection between the heart and money comes from Jesus’ sermon on the mount, a bit of which we heard today.  Jesus taught, “For where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”


As we begin to think about our hearts and our money, I want to focus on the story of the Golden Calf because it engages many of the issues we face with our own treasure.


In brief: the slaves of Egypt escaped into the desert, led by God and Moses.  But then Moses went up onto a mountain to pray; after forty nights and days they get worried.  So they decided to make a golden calf, an idol, to worship.  Aaron, the older brother of Moses, helped devise a plan and soon people were bowing down to their new idol.  God heard the commotion.  It didn’t go well.


Now you may wonder: Where did escaped slaves come up with enough gold to make a statue of a cow?  Earlier in the Book of Exodus we learned that the Pharaoh, after God struck down the firstborn of all the Egyptians, decided finally to let the Israelites flee.  The Egyptians were so glad that they gave their former slaves gold and silver and precious stones.  Once the Israelites fled with this loot, the Egyptians changed their mind and pursued them.  Which probably means that what the Israelites called liberation, the Egyptians called looting.  But either way the runaway slaves ended up in the desert with a lot of treasure.


The Bible, though, doesn’t worry much about how the Israelites got their money; instead, it focuses on what they did with it.  And this is a faith question: what are we doing with our treasure?


What the Israelites did unfolds in just a few verses - the making of the Golden Calf - but became the paradigmatic story about idolatry.  I want to look at three things: their fears, their folly, and their falsehood.


The Israelites made the Golden Calf because of their fears.  You can hear that fear in what the people said to Aaron, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’”  Moses and God led them out of slavery; liberated them.  But with Moses gone, the people got worried about who would lead them now.


Worries multiplied in their hearts.  What would happen now?  What would happen next?  Would there be enough?


And so they sought to turn their treasure into comfort, to use their wealth to make them feel secure.  It makes me wonder today: is our relationship with our own treasure measured by fear?  Fear of enough?  Fear of loss?


I don’t mean to suggest that fear is always wrong.  Fear, certainly apprehension, can save us.  But I also know fear can also control us.  And particularly so when it comes to money.


A number of years ago, I read a study about people and money.  Researchers wanted to know what people needed to earn in order to feel secure.  And so they interviewed lots of people about their income and what they felt they needed to earn.  Across the income spectrum, people reported that they needed to earn 20% more to feel secure.  If they earned $20,000 a year, they just needed $4,000 more to make it.  If they earned $80,000 more, they just needed another $16,000 to make it; across the board.


That study made me think more seriously about tithing.  Tithing is the practice of giving 10% of your income to charity.  Jay and I aren’t at 10% yet, but we’re getting closer.  And what I’ve learned is that as a spiritual practice it gets me out of the 20% more habit; instead I try to figure out how to live on 5% less, or 6% less.  I still wonder about paying for college and saving for retirement and all the other big financial questions.  But instead of worrying how to get more, I try to figure out how to give more.


Fear lead the Israelites to folly.  Aaron led the way.  The story of the Golden Calf brings to the foreground the simmering tension between Aaron and Moses, the competition that marked so much of their life together.  Aaron saw the fear of the people as his chance to take charge.  “Take off your rings of gold,” he told the people, “and bring them to me.”  He used the gold to cast the Golden Calf.


We ought not miss the fact that the people, in the midst of their fear, were generous: they gave their gold rings.  But Aaron called forth generosity for the wrong reason: to make an idol, a faux God.


The Bible, in telling this story about Aaron, passed along a critique of religious leaders.  Aaron became the father of the great line of priests in Judaism; the line of Aaron would lead the Temple in much the way the line of David took the throne.  And so Aaron represents the “priestly” class.  He never quite got what Moses did; and so now in our story he gladly made an idol for the people.


Aaron took the gold from the people to make the Golden Calf; presenting it as an act of faith, he said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”  We can hear the almost right language. Instead of calling this the story of the Golden Calf, we might call it the tale of Aaron Leading People Astray.


For I think the Bible retold this story about Aaron as a warning and a caution that priests and pastors don’t always get it right, that the priestly vision represented by Aaron and Biblical faith by Moses are not always the same.


Now I realize this may be an odd thing to say when I’m asking you to give your gold rings to Plymouth, but this warning about folly matters.  Aaron built the Golden Calf out of people’s fears.  Real generosity comes from your own heart, your own passion, your own commitments.  Stewardship isn’t about funding the priestly vision, but getting in touch with the deepest passions of your hearts.


The fears of the people and the folly of Aaron led everyone into a great falsehood.  Aaron built a large altar and declared to the people, “tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”  The narrator filled in the details, “they rose up early on the morrow and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”


The Bible in many places condemned idolatry: the worship of objects as if they were divine.  But the larger point is not about statutes (or beautiful stained glass) but about our relationship to the divine.  Are we worshiping God?  Or some shiny distraction?  Some mimicry?


This is how Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, took this story.  In his Large Catechism, or book of instruction, he noted, “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.”


And so having just said that generosity arises from the depths of our hearts, I want to add: to what does your heart cling?


The ancient authors of the Bible worried about people clinging to idols but in modern times we might think in new ways about the kind of things we cling to: Is it the flag, which we cling to with an unflinching patriotism?  Is it the Bible, which we hold onto with an unthinking naivete?  Perhaps both; but I think our most likely idol in America today is our own individualism, our “self,” and our own self-righteousness.  Today in America the Israelites would undoubtedly say, “I brought myself out of the land of Egypt, by my own bootstraps!”  Idols are famously fragile; and perhaps nothing exhibits more fragility than American individualism.


Radical individualism promises to make us happy; but the promise is as false as the word of a Golden Calf.  Researchers can actually study this, as they did at the University of Zurich.  Researchers tested to see how “happy” people were before a study and did MRI scans of their brains.  Over the course of the study, participants received $25 a week.  Half were told to give the money to someone else; the other half were asked to spend it on themselves.  At the end of the study, the researchers found the group giving away money were much happier than those who got to treat themselves to something every week.  And I think that’s because the act of giving money away meant their hearts reached out to other people instead of clinging to their own desires; they held fast to others instead of grasping themselves.


This Stewardship season, I would hope you can ask several questions of yourself.  First about fear: does fear govern my relationship with money?  Next about folly: am I following someone else’s vision or my own passion?  And lastly about falsehood: what does my heart cling to?


Generosity means setting aside our fear, claiming our passions, and drawing close to others.  I hope that is where your heart is.


Alleluia and Amen.



Sources:

  • Greene, Nick, “NFL Dishonors Our Beautiful Nation With Saints-Dolphins Game,” Slate, Oct. 1, 2017.

  • Jacobson, Rolf A., “Moses, the Golden Calf, and the False Images of the True God,” Word and World, Spring 2013.

  • Reynolds, Gretchen, “Giving Proof,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 17, 2017.

Comments