A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
You shall not bow down to them or worship them…
Today’s lesson from the Old Testament is the beginning of the law as God gave it to Moses—it is the Ten Commandments. They are worth memorizing, and certainly that was one of the virtues of the old-fashioned way of doing things—such texts would be absorbed into people’s minds, their way of doing things, into their hearts. They can be found at Exodus Chapter 20 in your Bible, or at pages 317 and 318 or page 350 in the Book of Common Prayer. It wouldn’t hurt to refresh your memory.
I noticed something in looking over the text, however. The text of the first four commandments is more than three-quarters of the text of the ten commandments. Why is that? The law is not a set of rules that we can use to protect ourselves by obeying them. The living God is far too free and dangerous for that little fantasy of ours to be true. The law is the statement of the relationship between God and God’s people.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” God’s mercy brings his people out of the house of slavery. God is the God of compassion, justice and life—no other God is acceptable. A God who does not bring life and freedom is no true God.
The next three commandments—about idols, making wrongful use of the name of God, and about the Sabbath continue to define who God is in relation to God’s people. The other six commandments define our relationship to God as well—being accountable to living a responsible life in God’s community. But let’s consider the longest of the Ten Commandments:
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. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…
And it continues for thirty-six more words. God has defined our relationship according to mercy, compassion, justice, life. Bowing down in worship to things of the world change that focus to things like power, wealth, personal success. To win any of those things is not intrinsically merciful, compassionate, just or life giving. In ancient Israel, idolatry referred to what anthropologists might call “magic,” which is to say using things of this world to manipulate powers in the world. This was done, largely, for individual advantage, or the advantage of one’s close associates. In the Old Testament, it wasn’t really that this magic or those powers didn’t exist but rather that bowing to them violated the relationship with God—it could mean worshiping death, or the means of death for others rather than devotion to the God of Life, of Compassion, of Truth. The true God, the ultimate God is the God of life and mercy. The powers of death are not an alternate God, they are powers and things within this world which take advantage of the fears, selfishness and dishonesty of human beings. We moderns tend to think that we have outgrown such things, but they are very much real and very much with us. That is why the first question in presenting a person for baptism is: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Think about this world, all the systems, organizations and ideologies that pressure and manipulate people’s decisions and feelings. The almost magical way that Google or Facebook presents you with ads that are tailored to your own very needs, the ways in which we ourselves conclude derogatory things about members of groups that we aren’t part of—based on—repeated rumors that we might hear on our favorite radio station, or things on our twitter feed, or the feelings and attitudes of parents, friends and relatives. These things have precious little to do with the God of mercy, justice and compassion. The God who freed the slaves and brings his children to safety. Worshiping forces in this world—be they the internet, or political party, some idea of the power of science (other than the real truth of science which is that it is supposed to be about trying things out and being honest about mistakes and when hypotheses need to be changed) or social pressure—worshiping any of these things and bowing down to them breaches the relationship of faith in the Living God. Often people do not see how they are drifting into the worship of death until it is too late.
A priest that I know became very concerned when a girls’ softball team in a neighboring town advertised a raffle of an assault rifle to raise money to go to a tournament. He offered to pay their expenses instead, but that couldn’t happen since the raffle had been announced already. So he bought most of the tickets and won the rifle. He announced that he would have it destroyed and turned into a work of art. This had some notoriety for a while and he received all sorts of messages. He shared one of them with me. The person took him to task for destroying the gun. Like me, Fr. Jeremy has had plenty of experience with the rough language that filled the message, but what was striking was what he said, “how dare you destroy that beautiful weapon? How would you feel if someone smashed an image of Jesus Christ?”
I’m sure he would deny it, but in his message this man put a gun on a level with the Word made Flesh, God come amongst us. Note that the man had no claim to the gun, it belonged to Jeremy, a machine made of metal, wood and plastic. But its symbolic function was powerful enough to trigger his outrage—to call the destruction of this machine made from the earth, an act of blasphemy. Holiness, reverence and worship was invested in this machine, whose design was solely to cause death.
There are many such symbols, systems and ideas in this world, which serve a God-given purpose but which become idols, controlling the allegiance of people and turning them to the worship of death.
A week ago, a man broke out some windows from his high-rise hotel room and sprayed a crowd with automatic gunfire for ten minutes, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500. From what we have learned so far, Stephen Paddock wasn’t known very well, not even by the two wives and a girlfriend he had lived with. It’s a fair bet that we will come to know much about him and his grievance. Such a grievance couldn’t be proportional to the death and injury he caused—that could only be proportional to emptiness and fury that gives reverence to death over life.
Idolatry is commitment to powers that are contrary to life, contrary to God—gaming this world by using the power of death to get an advantage.
. It is the God of Life who brought the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It is the God of life that brought Jesus into this world to proclaim his mercy and compassion. If is the God of life that raised Jesus from the dead and who makes life, compassion, justice and peace possible for all his people. Do not join with those who make idols in our time, and do not bow down to them.