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Questions from the Pews – Idolatry

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
7th Sunday after Pentecost (July 3, 2016)
Exodus 20:3, Jeremiah 29:13, Matthew 22:37 – “Questions from the Pews”

Today we begin our series “Questions from the Pews” wherein people have submitted a question, a topic, or Bible passage they’d like to hear about from the pulpit. Well… the person who prompted today’s sermon gave me not only a topic, “Here, preach on this,” but three applicable Bible verses to go with it! The topic today is “idolatry,” and as the person pointed out, it is a “big one today.” Let’s listen for a living word from Exodus, Jeremiah, and Matthew:

1. [When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments tablets] then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me.”

2. “The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem… The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon… ‘When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me.’”

3. “When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless… one of them tested him. ‘Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.’”

When someone mentions the word “idol,” what comes to mind?

There was a movie from the 80s starring Charlie Sheen called “Major League.” It’s about the Cleveland Indians baseball club, whose new owner tries to tank the team by finding the worst players out there so she can move the franchise to sunnier Miami. The roster is filled with a motley crew of characters. One scene begins in the locker room with the right fielder, Pedro, who’s from the Caribbean, praying in Spanish to a voodoo statue. Some of the other players gather around as he lights a cigar in the wiry-haired, wild-looking statue’s mouth.

“What’s going on, Pedro?” one of them asks, confused. Pedro replies: “The bats, they are sick. I cannot hit curveball. Straight ball, I hit it very much. Curveball, bats are afraid. I ask Jobu (the statue’s name) to come, take fear away from bats. I offer him cigar, rum. He will come.

One of the pitchers, an older man with a country accent, Eddie, scoffs at the ritual and says smugly, “You might want to consider taking Jesus Christ as your Savior instead of fooling around with all that stuff.” Pedro replies, “Ah, Jesús, I like him very much. But he no help with curveball.” “Are you trying to say Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball?!”

I’m willing to bet that most Presbyterians and other American Christians don’t offer sacrifices to statues. We’re traditionally not the ritualistic type in that regard. So when Moses goes on to add the commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” that doesn’t seem to apply to us.

But make no mistake; we have our idols. Our disordered loves. Our inordinate attachments. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said there are “more idols than there are realities.” John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed wing of Christianity, our branch of the family, wrote that, “The human heart is an idol factory.” Calvin actually devoted two chapters to the topic in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He was generally opposed to worshipping with crucifixes, candles, statues, and so forth in medieval Catholicism because he believed to do so was superstitious. But more importantly, for Calvin, God was so sovereign, so far beyond being containable. There was no need for images because the image of God was stamped on human beings.

I think what he meant when he called the human heart an “idol factory” was that we are always looking for something to worship, whether we know it or not. We’re human, so we latch onto things, people, or ideas for satisfaction or security. Frederick Buechner defined idolatry as:

“the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth. Under certain circumstances money, patriotism, sexual freedom, moral principles, family loyalty, physical health, social or intellectual preeminence, and so on are fun things to have around, but to make them the standard by which all other values are measured, to make them your masters, to look to them to justify your life and save your soul is sheerest folly. They just aren’t up to it.”

In other words, we substitute cheap alternatives for “the real thing.”

There are some primate candidates for modern idolatry. Career? Self-sufficiency. Convenience. Power. Political ideology. What of our personal wholeness and well-being is sacrificed to those idols? There’s money, of course. How much is enough, especially for those of us in this culture? How does that “worship” via overconsumption affect us or our neighbors? How much confidence do we place in wealth for our future? As someone who checks his Roth IRA balance probably too often, that question makes me squirm!

Has profit reached the status of deity yet? As our political leaders, particularly in Arizona, privatize more prisons, or healthcare, or education, it makes you wonder: where do people believe the image of God resides, in people or on the dollar?

There’s a book by Scott Gustafson entitled The Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy. I haven’t read it yet, but the premise is that “economics functions in our current global culture as religions have functioned in other cultures.” Money is a kind of sacrament, which makes sense if you start to think about it.

The Economy has its “liturgies,” or forms of worship, that shape our habits and character, as other facets of life do. As you see in the South, football is a religion, for sure. And on this holiday weekend, it bears pointing out that nationalism is a form of idolatry that is old, yet alive and well. “One nation under God” sometimes morphs into “one God under nation.” This idolatry spawns senseless wars, oppressive immigration policies, the abuses of globalization, and so forth.

One overarching message of Scripture is that our loves are out of alignment, and we cause ourselves and others a lot of grief because of that. God’s invitation in faith is to give God ultimate allegiance, which then realigns our loves. As that verse from Jeremiah read, “When you… search for me with all your heart, you will find me.” Or as Jesus put it: “love… God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind… and love your neighbor as yourself.” Faith, or trust, takes us out of ourselves. It recalibrates the ego to balance God, neighbor, and self. But when we’re putting faith in something smaller, something lesser-than, we suffer. Others suffer.

Maybe another way to understand idolatry is to ponder and maybe rank our loves. What do we care about the most or what is most important to us? In what or whom do we place our ultimate trust and confidence? What do we worship? How are these truths evident in our lives in how we spend our time, energy, and resources?

The priest and author Henri Nouwen relays an ancient tale from India in The Wounded Healer:

“Four Royal sons were questioning what specialty they should master. They said to one another, ‘Let us search the earth and learn a special science.’ So they decided, and after they had agreed on a place where they would [reconvene], the four brothers started off, each in a different direction. Time went by, and the brothers met again at the appointed meeting place, and they asked one another what they had learned.

‘I have mastered a science, said the first, ‘which makes it possible for me, if I have nothing but a piece of bone of some creature, to create… the flesh that goes with it.’

‘I,’ said the second, know how to grow that creature’s skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones.’

The third said, ‘I am able to create its limbs if I have the flesh, the skin, and the hair.

‘And I,’ concluded the fourth, ‘know how to give life to that creature if it’s form is complete with limbs.’

The four brothers went into the jungle to find a piece of bone so that they could demonstrate their specialties. As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion’s… One [brother] added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair, the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life. Shaking it’s heavy mane, the ferocious beast arose with its menacing mouth, sharp teeth, and merciless claws and…”

You can guess what happened.

The idols of our own making can consume us and others, if we let them.

May it NOT be so…