Sermons Upon Sermons…

sermonWritingI haven’t written on this blog in a while, but I do have a reason. Back in April of 2018, I began work as an Assistant Rector at St. Mark’s Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Predictably, my free time has dwindled, and so my time on here has as well.

In the past, I had at least posted written versions of any sermons I gave on this blog. I haven’t done that in a while, but that’s because my sermons are now posted on my church’s site. I figured the least I could do was link that page here, so that if any folks who came across my personal blog wanted to check any of those sermons out, you could get to them easily.

So here’s the link:

St. Mark’s – Scott’s Sermons

I will also post a permanent link to that sermons page both up top on the pages bar and in the blogroll on the sidebar.

I do hope to also post some non-sermon content on here from time to time–but with my current schedule, I won’t make any promises!

God Acts Through the Inconsequential; God Arrives Unexpected: A Sermon for June 17, 2018.

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what follows below is a version written from notes and memory. I have made some changes for the sake of clarity and precision.
The readings for this sermon were 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34. They can be found on the lectionary page.

childrenSeparatedWe human beings, I think, tend to focus on the mighty, the powerful, and the triumphant. Those are the histories we like to read, the biographies we like to read: about the powerful, the rich, the mighty. So we tend to assume that those are the people getting things done, that those are the people we should be paying attention to; that if things are going to get better, it will be the powerful who do it.

But it’s a funny thing: if we look at Scripture, God rarely seems to call such people to action. Instead, God often seems to call people we wouldn’t expect: the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the inconsequential.

For example, consider our Hebrew Bible reading for this morning: the prophet Samuel is called to identify the next king of Israel. All he is told is that it will be one of the sons of a man named Jesse. So he goes to Jesse’s house, and Jesse lines up his sons. Samuel knows that when he stands in front of the right son, God will let him know. Samuel immediately makes a bee-line for the eldest son, assuming that he—the tallest, the strongest, the obvious choice—will be the next king.

And Samuel does hear a message from God, but not the one he expects. God corrects Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

So Samuel keeps walking down the line—but never hears the right message. Then he asks Jesse if all his sons are actually present—and Jesse answers that they left the youngest in the pasture to tend the sheep, assuming he wasn’t important enough for this meeting. Samuel has this young boy called in, and as he approaches, Samuel hears God’s message: this David will be the next king.

The very people we assume are so unimportant, so inconsequential, are the very people God so often calls to do God’s work in this world. But we are so easily distracted by the rich, the powerful, the mighty, the magnificent, the triumphant. We have to turn our gaze, and pay attention to other people, because the truth is that if we are waiting for the rich and the powerful to make the world a better place, we will probably be waiting a very long time…

It’s often said that “God doesn’t call the qualified; rather, God qualifies those who are called.” No matter how small or insignificant or weak someone may seem, we should be ready for God to act through them. This also means that no matter how small or insignificant or weak we think we are, we must always be ready to hear God’s call to action.

I think Jesus is making a similar point in our Gospel reading for this morning. He says that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—now, if there are any botanists in the house today, yes, it’s true that it’s not absolutely the smallest seed in the world, but it is quite tiny. If I scattered some on the floor right now, I don’t think any of you would be able to see it. And yet, as the gardeners here will attest, once it’s planted and it starts to grow, it flourishes and spreads rapidly, and can quickly take over a garden. (And Jesus goes on to say that it provides a home for the wandering and lost—a point we’ll come back to shortly.)

So the Kingdom of God starts out small—imperceptible—and yet the potential for it to erupt into our lives and utterly transform us is there, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus seems to be telling us that God always comes from an unexpected place. We may think we have God locked down and understood, but God is always ready to surprise us.

And this is so important for us to remember in this world where, again, we are so often distracted by the grand and the flashy, the rich and the powerful.

Today we are baptizing three young people: still small and vulnerable, still learning, seemingly inconsequential. But if we are paying attention to what the Spirit is saying through Scripture this morning, we should know better. It is in these small people that God is getting ready to act. If we are waiting for God, don’t first look at the folks with collars on, or the vestry members, or even our musicians—look to these children, so small and yet in whom the potential of God’s infinite love is stirring.

Now, baptism is one of the most important celebrations we ever hold in a church. But it’s important to be clear about what we are and are not doing in baptism. Baptism is not a magic trick. Baptism does not confer God’s love. Rather, baptism recognizes that God already loves the one being baptized—and everyone else.

But baptism does confer something: responsibility. The responsibility to receive God’s love, and then go live that love in the world. And that’s not always an easy job! When the parents and godparents of the baptizands stand around the font, they will be asked a series of questions, to make some public vows. And not them only—we will all be asked to reaffirm our baptismal vows. I encourage you to really listen, really pay attention to these promises we are responsible for.

Consider this one, for example: “Do you renounce all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God and all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” This is not an idle question, because there are people who seem to have compromised with wickedness, who seem to have allowed their sinful desires to exploit and oppress to lead them astray.

Some very public figures—I won’t name names, but if you know how to use a search engine, you can figure it out rather quickly—have been defending the current administration’s practice of separating migrant and refugee children from their parents for weeks, months, maybe longer. And they have tried to use Christianity as an excuse. Specifically, they have cited Scripture—Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 1, which reads as follows: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Citing this, these public leaders have argued that Christians must obey the law all the time, without question: so if the law says to strip children from their parents, so be it!

It must be said clearly and unequivocally that this interpretation of Christian faith has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is theological and historical nonsense. It is ethically bankrupt.

There are a number of reasons why, so let’s review them all briefly. First and foremost, we must recognize that the question of whether to obey the law and authorities is not the first question we should ask, is not the most important question to ask. To begin with this question of obedience is to put the cart miles in front of the horse. No, first we must ask some questions about the law and authorities themselves. Are the laws just? Are they legitimate? I think we can all agree that we should obey just and legitimate laws and the authorities enforcing them—even if they are inconvenient for us, even if they harm us. But that’s just it—if they are just and legitimate. This question must be resolved before we can know whether to obey a law or not.

To see why this question must be asked before we can talk about obeying or disobeying, consider some history:

  • Imagine you are a German Christian in the 1940’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt God called you to disobey?…
  • Or, imagine you are an American Christian in the 1850’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt called to disobey?…

And let’s remember that for the first 280 years of the Church’s history—nearly three centuries!—it was effectively illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Paul, just in writing this letter to the church at Rome, was committing a crime!

Indeed, this very same Paul was imprisoned for spreading the Gospel! He wrote many of his letters from jail, and tradition tells us he was executed by the government for engaging in what that government considered treason and sedition.

But you don’t have to be a theologian or a historian to see the ridiculousness of arguing that Christians must support the separation of children from their families. You could just open your Bible to the passage so many have been citing to defend this policy, and just keep reading. After a few more sentences, you’d come to verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Clearly, Paul’s whole point is that the law’s only purpose is to serve love. Indeed, Jesus, like many other Jewish rabbis of the time, summarized the whole of Jewish law by saying, “love God and love your neighbor.” These children, these families, are our neighbors. Trying to use Scripture to justify abusing them is outrageous nonsense.

As we baptize these young people today, we will celebrate that each one of them is made in the image of God. And in celebrating God’s presence in these inconsequential people, we might be surprised to find God moving in us in unexpected ways: we will simultaneously be celebrating that all of us in this church are made in the image of God—and, in fact, that every human being, whether American or not, Christian or not, is made in the image of God, and all are our neighbors. So, the only law we have to obey is the law of love. And that’s all I have to say about it.

Mary Junior: An (Advent) Sermon for Dec. 24, 2017

The readings for this sermon can be found here at the Lectionary Page. I focus on the Gospel reading and mention the OT reading as well.

maryAnnunciationGabrielWe’re just a few hours away from Christmas. Yet our Gospel reading for today does not place us hours before Jesus’s birth, but instead hours before his conception. We are stepping nine months back in time. If Christmas is the New Beginning for the world, then today, we hear about the beginning of the Beginning.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary with a strange–and ridiculous–message. She will give birth to a special child, despite the fact that she is a virgin. Now, Mary is a sharp young woman, and so she explains to this over-excited angel that this just isn’t how the world works, this isn’t how babies normally come into the world. What the angel is suggesting is impossible.

Then Gabriel responds to Mary: it may well be impossible for humans, but it’s not necessarily impossible for God. This is no normal situation, and her child will be no normal human being. Something truly new is about to happen. So Mary is left with a choice: having heard that impossibility is no barrier to God’s action, what will she do? I think this is the crux of our story today. It all comes down to this: how will Mary respond now? Well, she simply says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She signs on to God’s crazy, impossible, ridiculous mission.

Now, some people have speculated that perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman Gabriel approached that night. Maybe God had spoken to a dozen, two dozen women before her, but each had said “No!” to God’s crazy plan. Perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman visited that night, perhaps she was just the first woman to say “Yes!” to God, to agree to this ridiculous mission. Of course, such stories are not a part of our canon of Scripture. But I think they make something very important clear: Mary had to choose to take on this mission. God was calling her to an important work, but wasn’t going to force it on her. She had a decision to make.

This reminds me of some other stories from the Gospels. Over the coming weeks and months, as you listen to the Gospel proclaimed here in Church, or as you read the Gospels at home, I invite you to pay particular attention to the stories of Jesus healing people. Almost every time, after he has healed someone, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Jesus doesn’t say that he, Jesus, made them well, or that the Holy Spirit made them well. Their faith made them well. Even with the physical presence of God Incarnate standing before them, they could only be healed if they turned and chose to receive God’s gift of healing.

This means that we humans have an incredible power in in our choices. But of course, that power also means we have great responsibility: we have to have the faith and courage to hear God’s call, turn, and accept God’s mission for us. And that’s what we hear in our story about Mary today. Here was a woman with the faith and courage to accept God’s crazy and ridiculous mission. If the faith of those individuals allowed them to be healed by Jesus’s presence, then we can truly say that the whole world, the whole universe, is healed because of Mary’s faith. Through her faith, the Incarnate Word was able to enter the world. By her faith, we are made well.

Now, in our Old Testament story today, we hear about a very different divine-human encounter. King David has just united the twelve tribes of Israel, and he makes a public announcement that he will build a temple for God. The king is ashamed that while he sits in his palace, and his people are building home for themselves, God has no house. But through the prophet Nathan, God speaks to David, and tells him that he’s got it all wrong, he doesn’t understand: God has no more need for a house than God has need for food or water. In truth, wherever there are faithful people, God truly lives. Moving forward many centuries, Mary’s story is the culmination of Nathan’s prophecy. In her, God truly dwelt as the Incarnate Word.

Through the decision of one humble–but faithful and courageous–woman, God was able to act; through her faith and action, God came to heal and save the world. We Christians today have a lot to learn from Mary’s example. Like her, we should choose to become vessels of God’s love in the world. Like her, we should sign on to God’s crazy, ridiculous, impossible mission: a mission where, somehow, love defeats hate, and life defeats death.

So my hope and prayer for us, in these last few hours of Advent, with Christmas on the horizon, is that each one of us will choose to be little Mary Juniors, that we will choose to take on this mission, and bear the image of Incarnate Word in this world.

virgin-of-extreme-humility-orthodox-christian-icon-13

Forever Stewards: A Sermon for Thanksgiving, 2017

giftThe readings for this sermon (Thanksgiving Year A) can be found here. I focus on the passage from Deuteronomy.

What are we thankful for? This is a question some of us have been asking ourselves this week, and especially today. In some homes, families will ask each person at the table to say at least one thing they are thankful for. What will we say? Family: we are thankful for our families–at least most of the time. Those of us with work will be thankful for that, and for the money to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Those of us in good health are thankful for this, to be able to get up in the morning and go about our day without pain or difficulty. Those of us living in the US are probably thankful for the relative peace and security we enjoy here.

The truth is, of course, that whatever we have that is good or valuable, we should be thankful for. As Christians, we know that God created the world as a free gift–God did not have to create anything, but out of an abundance of love, God chose to. This means that not only everything we have–all our possessions–but even all of our skills and abilities, and indeed our very lives: it’s all a pure and free gift. This is why we hear God warning us in Deuteronomy today:

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth

Everything we have is a gift. So how can we give thanks? How can we thank God if everything we have that we might give in thanks, God already gave? If everything is a gift from God, then, in truth, everything already belongs to God. How do you thank the God who already has everything?

Those of us gathered in church might begin by saying: through prayer, worship, and praise. And this is certainly important. But our thankfulness cannot and should not end here. If we are thankful to God for God’s generosity, let us be generous with God’s gifts. Let us pass on God’s loving gifts to those in need.

Churches around the country are now wrapping up their stewardship seasons, a time when members of churches discern how much they can financially support their parish. And this is certainly important. But stewardship does not begin or end with our pledgecards. Stewardship is a way of life, it is our response to God’s love and gifts. To be a steward simply means to be responsible for what belongs to someone else. If everything we have, and everything we are, is a gift from God, then our whole lives are a time of stewardship. We are looking after what God has freely given. So what does this mean?

Well, it means that if I give food to a hungry person, if I clothe a naked person, if I help a homeless person find a home, if I help a sick person get the medical care they need–I am not giving away anything that belongs to me. I am simply passing the gifts God has given to me on to the next person. I am being generous because God has been generous. This is Christian stewardship.

We come to the altar to receive communion. Another word for this communion is the Eucharist. Now, “eucharist” is a Greek word that means–you guessed it–“thanksgiving”. In the Eucharist, we give thanks. We give thanks to God for creation and all the gifts of life, but especially for God’s work of healing and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. God didn’t have to do this. Just like in creation, God chose to freely give because of God’s infinite love for a broken world. And we come to the altar and eat and drink Christ’s body and blood–we receive the gift all over again. And for this, we give thanks.

My hope for us today is that we will not let our Eucharist, our thanksgiving, end at the altar. When our deacon dismisses us, and we extinguish the candles, and walk through those doors, let our Eucharist continue! Let us give thanks, not only on Sundays or on one day in November, but every day of our lives. And if we are thankful, let us be generous as God has been generous with us.

To conclude, I can think of nothing better than to repeat the collect our priest prayed just a few minutes ago:

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

 

Spending Our Inheritance: A Sermon for Nov 19, 2017

The Readings for this Sermon (Year A Proper 28) can be found here at the Lectionary Page. My sermon focuses especially on the Epistle and Gospel readings:

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 — Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30 — Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what appears below is a version written from memory.

hands-moneyHow do we think about God? How do we talk about God? How do we picture God? We Christians draw on Scripture to talk about God, and Scripture provides a wealth of images and ideas: God as a parent, God as a king, God as a mighty warrior. These images are especially prevalent in the Hebrew Bible. From the New Testament, we hear about God as a shepherd, tending the flock, and about God as both priest and as as sacrifice, at the same time. We also hear about God even as an inanimate object: God as a rock, as a castle, as a stronghold.

Now it’s crucial that we don’t make the mistake of understanding any of these images literally. God is not actually our biological father, and God is not literally tending sheep on some hillside. And God is certainly not actually just a rock! But to say that these names for God are not literally true is not to say they are not true; indeed, these words are the Truth made accessible to us humans. Our minds cannot grasp the mystery of God, and so we need such language to try and reach beyond ourselves. These images of God are in fact true because they are not literal.

Today Jesus gives us another image of God in our parable: when you come across the words “lord” or “master” in Scripture, there’s a pretty good chance it’s referring to God. And in this case, it refers specifically to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. I think that’s pretty clear. As for the slaves or servants, who might they be? I think this is relatively clear, too: if the lord is Jesus, then his servants are the disciples–not just the original twelve, but we here in this room today as well. We are Jesus’s disciples–or, at least, we are trying to be.

So far, so good. But what about this journey that the lord takes? What’s going on with that? This isn’t so immediately clear. But if we meditate on this for a moment, I think the answer will appear: Jesus frequently tries to teach his students about the inconvenient fact that he will die and leave them, and about the mystery of his eventual return. I think this is what the trip signifies: Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension is the beginning of the trip, and the return his Jesus’s second coming.

So we have our characters and the basic story: Jesus, his disciples, and the time between his ascension and his return. But there’s a lot more here; Jesus is trying to tell us what we should be doing during this long absence. And so we come to the last piece of the parable: what are these talents? What is this inheritance? This is really the center of the parable; if we are going to understand it, we have to get this right.

The first thing we need to make clear is that the “talents” here are not referring to our skills or personality traits, as the English word might suggest. Here, a talent is a unit of measurement. It’s a weight. Gold and silver were measured in talents. When I was researching earlier this week, I came across one scholar who explained that a talent of silver might have been worth as much as 38,000 denarii–a denarius was basically the daily wage at the time. So think about how much you make in one day, and multiply that by thirty-eight thousand, and you will have some idea of what a talent was worth. Millions, maybe even billions, of dollars. A lot of money.

So, what does Jesus mean by this? Was he being literal? Was he giving investment advice? Was he saying that at the second coming, he’s going to bring his accounting book and demand some pretty serious donations? I don’t think so! First off, all evidence suggests that Jesus himself was rather poor. The idea that he left some huge sum of money to the early church doesn’t hold water. And indeed, all the evidence suggests that all of his disciples were pretty poor too. Furthermore, whenever Jesus did talk about money, he pretty much told us we should just it all away.

So Jesus wasn’t being literal–just like the images of God we discussed before are not literal. So what does he mean then? It’s a difficult passage, but I think that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians can help us here. Paul is talking about the same issues–he is discussing the “night time” that the church lives in, after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, yet before his return. It’s a dark and difficult time. Yet Paul reminds us that we are children of the light, and so we must not be discouraged. And we don’t have to struggle here alone. We are called to do the work Christ has left for us to do, and we have been given tools to do that work. Paul uses a military metaphor–just as we talked about before, Scripture sometimes describes God as a mighty warrior–and Paul draws on this tradition. He says that we have a breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet of hope. These three–faith, hope, and especially love–are a favorite theme of Paul’s writing. And they are doubtless essential to what it means to be a Christian. If we have faith and hope, it is because we know God loves us.

What if this is the inheritance that Jesus has left, the talents from our parable? We have no record of Jesus leaving any money or property, but we have ample evidence, not only of his love, but that he called on his disciples to love–each other, and neighbors, and even their enemies. If it is love that is the inheritance that Jesus left us, what does this parable then teach us?

Well, the first two servants, they took their inheritance of love, and they went out into the world and traded it, spent it, shared it. Yet when they got home, they found that they not only had all the love they started with, but actually twice as much! This isn’t how money works–if I have $10,000, and I give you 8,000, I only have 2,000 left. But God’s love doesn’t play by the rules of our world, of our economy. The more I give freely the gift of God’s love, the more love I know and feel and have.

The third servant tries a different strategy. He takes God’s love and buries it in the ground. He tries to save it for himself. And if this were money, that might make sense. He’s trying to keep it safe. But what he finds, at the end of time, is that when he goes back to dig up his treasure, he’s lost it all. This is how it is with God’s love. If I try to hold on to it for myself, I find that it withers away, it shrivels and dies, and I am left with nothing.

So what does this mean? Well, I think it means we are called to spend God’s love recklessly. We should take this gift and share it. If we do, we will find that the more we share God’s love, the more love we have. So to conclude, let us remember that prayer we pray every week, and which many of us recite daily. It begins:

Our Father, who art in heaven
hallowed by thy name

God’s will, God’s kingdom–not mine! And then we continue:

thy kingdom come
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven

We are calling for God’s kingdom, not just at the end of time, or in some metaphysical place somewhere else, but here and now, in this place. Sometimes, people think of prayer and action as polar opposites. They think that if we pray, we don’t need to act, or if we want to act, we shouldn’t bother praying. But this isn’t what prayer is about. Prayer is preparation for action. We should pray, and then act. So if, on Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth, let’s go out on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and act on that. Let’s make it happen.

So my hope for us is that when [our deacon] dismisses us today, and we walk through the doors of this church, each one of us will ask ourselves: “how can I spend God’s love recklessly today and in the days to follow?”

 

Idols & Windows: A Sermon for October 8, 2017

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.

bullGoldenWallStI 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.