I had already pondered doing a deep dive into idolatry at some point, because I had mentioned it in passing last week. I don’t like leaving the idea in people’s minds that some issue or another is a problem just for the ancient Israelites–the whole point of the Hebrew Bible is that all their issues are really ours, too. (except perhaps for the constant worry about leprosy.) So, idolatry it would be!
Then, America did what America does best–let violent young white men kill a whole bunch of people all at once with military weapons in a civilian setting. Not once, but twice in a 13 hour period. Because America can do almost anything, but one thing we can never seem to manage is how to limit access to guns.
I walked into church on Sunday morning, feeling somewhere between “Burn it all down” and “I will turn this car around RIGHT NOW”. Had I been at all convinced the parish would have gone for it, I would have just yelled in inarticulate rage and frustration for 10 minutes, rather than actually preach. But, my people are demanding, and ask for things like subject-verb agreement, and actual words.
And looking out at them, right before I preach, I found my sense of hope, yet again. All these different faces, from all over the world, wrestling with so many different things, sitting together doing something rather subversive. Listening and longing for a better way, a better world. Pledging loyalty to a God who came to be the least of these, in order to subvert the power of death forever.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
August 4, 2019
Ordinary Time, Proper 13
[Joke about the kid in Sunday School—the answer is always Jesus. Actually—it’s always idolatry. ]
Of course, the REASON prophets were always complaining about idolatry is that it’s commonplace. The Israelites were constantly falling back into idolatry. It was basically a national pastime.
Part of what was happening was context. The Israelites were always a religious minority. Monotheism (or, various variations on it) was never dominant, so the Israelites were always living among Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, all of whom who worshipped many gods. So, for many many people, it periodically seems like a great way to get along with your Assyrian boss to make a nice sacrifice to the high place while you’re en route to the Temple, or to cover your bases while you’re waiting for the harvest, to pour out some nice oil at the sacred trees. It just was a thing and everyone was doing it.
The OTHER reason idolatry was so common is because it’s a human impulse. Idolatry isn’t just worshipping a statue instead of God—it’s placing any created thing in place of God. Whether that be a government, a system of belief, a particular thing, or ourselves. Human beings really enjoy idolatry. We do it all the time. It is basically our favorite hobby.
In the gospel story, Jesus is telling this story about a rich man, who dies, and has to leave all his worldly goods to someone else. That, in and of itself, probably doesn’t seem odd to us. But to Jesus’ first audience, there are a few things that would have sounded odd.
For starters, no trustworthy person in the gospels talks to themselves. That’s not a thing people did. Interiority, having an interior monologue, wasn’t really a concept that takes off until the Enlightenment. If you wanted to talk, you did it with other people, because there were always other people. When all you had to talk to was yourself, the understanding was that you were doing something wrong, because to be a good person, you maintained right relationships with other people, and God. To be cut off from both, such that you didn’t consult them, was problematic.
So, when the rich man consults only himself about what to do with his excess, that’s a big signal that something is really wrong. Why doesn’t he ask his neighbors, his family? Why does he only ask himself what to do?
It shouldn’t perhaps be surprising then that his self then recommends he stockpile his goods rather than any other option. We don’t hear about what else he could do—raise the wages of his workers, leave more to be gleaned by the poor, be more generous to the town’s impoverished. Because he hasn’t thought about the community around him, he doesn’t think of them now. He consults himself, and decides to keep his new wealth for himself. But, of course, this situation can’t last forever, and indeed, God intervenes, and reminds him that whether or not he wishes it, he cannot stand alone as the center of the universe.
The rich man seems to be trying hard to idolize himself. To live in such a way as to keep himself, and his needs at the absolute center of the universe. He doesn’t speak as if he is thankful to anyone for his windfall, he doesn’t act as if he wants to repay anyone or if he might want to bless anyone with his resources. To hear him tell it, no one else really exists.
The continual challenge of the life of faith is to keep God at the center of our lives, and not give into the temptation to put other things there. Other things that offer us what we want, and promise that it will be quicker, easier, cheaper, this way. Because it is so easy, and it is so tempting—and it also becomes difficult to find the line sometimes. it’s all a matter of degrees.
See, it is perfectly fine for that rich man to say “You know, I am so thankful I have enough to get through winter this year. And I have had my eye on a new front door—so let me get one of those. But I am also aware that my workers contributed to this bounty for me, so let me reward them accordingly.”
What idolatry does not allow for is competing interests. What makes something cross over into idolatry is when we can no longer allow that other things might also be good; other claims, even when they compete, might also be valuable and true—because THIS ONE THING must not be questioned or taken away from. And that is dangerous. It is that sort of blinded vision that gets us as humans into trouble.
So much of what is plaguing us right now can be traced back to creating idols of one type or another. The human rights crisis on the southern border, can be called instead idolatry of a common notion of America. Rampant inequality can be called idolatry of money.
But where we see it most clearly, I think, with yet another mass shooting, we have to face again our country’s idolatry of guns. Here is this thing—made of metal, of human hands, from a factory, that symbolizes so much in our culture. For many it promises safety, and freedom from fear, and freedom from tyranny, and independence. For so long, so much meaning has been poured into this object, that even though we are watching a staggering death toll every year, even though children go to school and practice hiding from gunmen, even though I receive emails about once a month asking what I will do in case a shooter ever enters my sanctuary during service, which I know is a real threat—even as we watch the death toll rise—we do nothing that would compromise the power of this one object. We are in its thrall, for all that it promises.
But all idols lie. All idols lie. Guns cannot provide what they promise. They cannot provide us perfect security. They cannot provide us freedom from the fear of death. They cannot provide us a life without worry. Only God can do that. And God asks us to put God first—and not to kill.
Because when the living God is at the center of our lives—then everything changes, because we are forced to contend with the One who is continually out of reach of all of our images and idols. God will always force us to confront our ideas about God, and reckon with how they fall short. When we keep God at the center, it allows us to extend generosity and love to all the other competing claims in our lives, because God reminds us that with God, we prioritize not a thing. not an idea, and not an image, but a being that surpasses all our human minds can fathom. Prioritizing God causes us to always expand our vision, and our sense of what is possible, good, true and holy—not to narrow it. Prioritizing God causes us to embrace the rest of creation, as we flourish too.
God asks us to open up our vision, to let go our grasp on the idols that we’ve been clutching closely. The ideas and the images and the things that do not allow us to let in all God has in store for us. Open up your grasp, and let God shake things up a bit.