The Readings for this sermon (Year A Proper 22) can be found here at the Lectionary Page. I preach most specifically on these two selections from those readings:
Exodus 20:4 — “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.”
Philippians 3:4b-7 — “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”
I delivered this sermon without notes; what appears below is a version written from memory.
I need a little help with this sermon today. I want to take a quick survey. Please raise your hand if you have a garage, or a shed, or even a barn on your property. OK, keep your hands up. Now raise your hand if you don’t have any of these, but you do have a foyer, or some other space just inside of your front door, where you can put your shoes, or maybe have a small table. OK, you can put your hands down. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever felt the temptation to carve a statue of a bull or maybe an eagle, set it up in that shed or in that foyer, and, once a day…bow down and worship it?
I don’t see any hands up–and that’s good, because if someone had raised their hand, I’d have to quickly write a new sermon! But no, I don’t think any of us have been tempted to carve an idol and worship it. And so the second commandment we heard in Exodus today can sound today a bit old, a bit archaic, even irrelevant. We don’t worship idols of stone or wood in the 21st century. But I think if we take a moment to reflect, we may find that there are still idols in our lives. Not idols of stone or wood, but idols we place on the altars of our hearts, on the altars of our minds.
If we want to figure out what might tempt us to worship, just think about what we spend most of our time doing. Where our time is, that’s where our heart will probably be. And what do most of us spend most of our time doing? Many of us spend 30, or 40, or 50…or even 60 hours a week working, to make money. And if we are not at work, we are sitting at the kitchen table balancing our checkbooks and paying bills: rent, car insurance, setting aside money for groceries. And when we aren’t working or paying bills, many of us are worrying because we don’t have enough money. We’re not sure where the money for rent will come from this week.
And of course, to work and be paid a fair wage or salary for that work is a good thing. We need money to pay those bills, there’s nothing wrong with that. Work and even money aren’t inherently bad. But if this concern for money looms larger an larger in our vision, until it takes up our whole field of vision and we can’t see anything else, well that’s different. That’s dangerous. Just like wood and stone, and bulls and eagles aren’t bad in and of themselves–they are created good by God. But if we come to worship them, that’s a different matter.
Now, if you are going to make a lot of money, so you can get a lot of the things that money can buy–property–what will you need to do? You’ll probably seek out a high-powered education. You’ll try to make connections with influential people. You’ll work to develop the skills you need to get that next promotion. In short, you will need power. And again, there’s nothing wrong with power per se. People can use power to speak the truth and work for justice. But just like with property, if the pursuit of power takes up your whole field of vision so that you can’t see anything else, it becomes dangerous. It can become an idol.
And if you are the kind of person with a lot of property and a lot of power, how will people treat you? They will probably ask you for advice, flatter you, and treat you with greater respect. In short, you’ll have a lot of popularity or prestige. And again, we can use prestige to do good things. We all know about people who use their celebrity status to try and make the world a better place. But again, if that pursuit of prestige comes to dominate our whole field of vision, if we seek prestige for its own sake, it can easily become an idol.
So property, power, and prestige–I think these can easily become idols for us. Again, just like wood and stone, bulls and eagles, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these, as long as we keep our perspective. If we remember that everything we have, and everything we are, an everything we might be are all free gifts from God, then we can use all of these as tools to serve God. It’s when we lose this perspective that the temptation to idolatry comes to the fore. We have to have eyes to see and ears to hear.
I think Paul knew something about this temptation. Today in his letter to the Philippians we learn that Paul was not just any Jewish person, he was a Pharisee, very well educated–he knew the Law forwards and backwards. And we know from the Acts of the Apostles that he had a position of authority in his religious community–he had power and prestige. The problem was that his Jewish faith–which was and is a path to knowing and serving and loving God–had come to be a sort of idol for Paul. He became so focused on the rules and hierarchy and prestige of religious practice that they no longer pointed beyond themselves to the mysterious Creator. Again, just like wood and stone, bulls and eagles, property, power, and prestige, his faith wasn’t bad. But it became bad because it came to dominate Paul’s whole field of vision, until he couldn’t see beyond it.
In this way, I think Paul shows us that religious faith is a lot like a window. If you have a window in your home, the whole point is that it is transparent, and you can open it. You can see the whole world outside, and you can open the window to hear what’s going on outside too. You don’t install a window to look at the window (well, unless it’s stained glass!) you install it so that you can look through it, hear through it. Just like that, religion is meant to always point beyond itself, to God.
We Christians can learn something from Paul here. Our religious practice, too, can easily become something that dominates our whole field of vision, until we can no longer see what it’s supposed to be pointing us to. We didn’t come here today to stare at the pews, or to study the altar fabric. And the bread and wine we will eat and drink in a few minutes, it’s not especially delicious bread or fine wine. No, all of this is meant to show us the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Our faith should be a window onto this revelation. But if we focus on our religious practice without remembering this, it too can become an idol.
If you want an example of someone who fell into idolatry in the 21st century, look no further than Stephen Paddock, the man who attacked more than 200 people last Sunday in Las Vegas, and killed more than 50. Now I don’t know much about Stephen Paddock. I don’t know his political views, or his religious background. I don’t know his personal life. Nonetheless I feel confident saying this: Stephen Paddock fell to the temptation of idolatry. He worshiped the idol of power, specifically the idol of violence; violence is the most direct power we can have over another human. He became obsessed with violence until it occupied his whole field of vision, and he couldn’t see anything else.
Now, this is an extreme example, of course. Most of us–God be praised–will never be tempted to this degree. But I think this still shows us the power and the danger of idolatry, that if we lose perspective on who we really are and who made us, we can easily be deceived. And so my prayer for us this week is that we will always have eyes to see and ears to hear, to see everything in our life as tools to love and serve God, to be able to hear what God is calling us to do. Amen.