Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 16 August 23, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
There’s something cinematic about idolatry. The first image that comes to mind, at least for me, are the ancient pagan rituals imagined by the choreographers and set designers of lavish epic movies from the golden age of Hollywood. But other forms of idolatry lend themselves well to the silver screen. “Wall Street” is a terrific movie and a scathing indictment of the consequences of the secular world’s worship of its chief deity, the almighty dollar. But there are forms of idolatry that don’t translate so readily to visual media. Evangelical traditions can go so far as to make idols of individuals’ conversion experiences, as well as their opinions and personal moral choices. That’s not to say that all Evangelicals do this, or that any of them do it all the time, but only that the tradition tends to take that particular direction when things get out of hand.
When we take it upon ourselves to put other things in the place of God, human ingenuity is boundless. I would speculate that the panoply of idolatry corresponds to the diversity of weaknesses in human nature. God can feel far away and mysterious, God’s way can be hard, the teachings difficult, and God is notoriously difficult to control. And then there’s the pesky unity and exclusivity of God, in stark contrast to the world’s long menu of choices. So the appeal of worshipping a simple, perhaps literally concrete, object, which promises specific gratification in return, one that you chose after careful deliberation or reading the online reviews, the appeal is obvious… even if some of the forms of worship are subtle.
The menu of choices is long not only because our susceptibilities are many, but also because God is generous and creative. God created so many wonderful, beautiful, appealing, seductive, dangerous things. Scripture teaches that God created all things in the universe to be good, and created us to be very good, and further hallowed the created order and humanity itself by becoming part of it in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. But despite God’s intentions, these things can just as easily be abused, they can be weaponized, and thrown at us like so many stones, and then we are surprised to learn, the hard way, that we are more vulnerable than we had been led to believe. Clearly, just because we can rightly say that a thing is good, and that God is good, does not make the thing equivalent to God. The same God who created all things remains supreme and sovereign, and even Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, the Human One, was in the beginning with God, and through him all things were made. One way of viewing the whole Judeo-Christian story is humanity’s struggle to come to grips with these facts and their implications.
Again and again in the Hebrew Bible, we see the people of God, or a portion of them, losing the struggle, and falling away, and following their hearts or their less noble impulses and putting something else in the place of God. This does not make God stop loving them, as we see in today’s reading from Joshua, but rather call them back in love, by reminding them of what God has done for them, the concrete representation of the mysterious but objective reality of who God is. Because God exists above and beyond our world, God can do things for us, and chooses to do so out of God’s infinite love for us. God saves us in many ways, but always for the same reason: love. That God is love, and that love is active, is good news, and like all news, it simply is, enduring and immutable truth independent from the eye of the beholder. This is why I love it when Evangelicals ask me, “when were you saved,” because the answer has nothing to do with my own feelings and understanding and everything to do with what happened on a cross just outside Jerusalem on a spring day two millennia ago. And it’s not just happenstance that Jesus saved us at a time when no one understood what he was doing, a time when most of the few people who had heard of him had abandoned him and most of the rest were part of the effort to kill him.
The world still tries to resist him. The latest, most insidious threat is its attempt to convince us that we can put ourselves in his place. Not on the cross, but on the throne. Now we are told that our own feelings don’t just need respect or validation, but that every feeling we have deserves absolute, unquestioned deference, and any challenge is an attack. As appealing as it may sound to live in a world shaped to cater to our every whim, such a world places an intolerable burden upon its sole inhabitant, tasking that one with their own salvation yet leaving them ill-equipped and undefended. This is not to say we or our feelings are unworthy of respect, but only that they are part of a greater reality; in fact, being a part of that reality makes them more worthy of respect.
Our own values, preferences, and experiences absolutely are valid; they make us who we are, and therefore who God loves, and no greater validation than God’s love can exist. We and these things within us, while they are good things, are the objects and products of God’s love. As a part of creation, and especially as a part of us, they are worthy of respect, but they are not the Gospel, they are not substitutes for God’s love, they are not equivalent to God’s love, and attempting to put them in the place of God’s love yields pain, bitterness, and division, not only in ourselves, but in those around us.
Our personal experiences are all the more real because they take place in, and are enlightened by, the reality of God’s love for us, and we may choose to respond to the reality we inhabit in many ways, but the most excellent is always by walking in love, as Christ loves us. We may even be so moved by our experience of the reality of God’s love that we greet others with compassion rooted in that love.
So yes, the necessity and sovereignty of Jesus is a hard teaching, but the heart of the teaching, and the true burden, lies not in the one eating the bread, nor in the choice to eat, but in the bread itself, Jesus. He can save us because he is God with us, and because God has granted all of us the gift of life through him. The strength of God’s power will protect us from all the things that try to dislodge us from the love of God, from the relationship which is our birthright as the people of God.