A READING FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES (Exodus 20: 1-20)
Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You 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. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
READING FROM THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES (John 2: 13-22)
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
SERMON “False Idols” by Robin Bartlett
In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen retells a tale from ancient India:
Four royal brothers decided each to master a special ability. Time went by, and the brothers met to reveal what they had learned.
"I have mastered a science," said the first, "by which I can take but a bone of some creature and create the flesh that goes with it."
"I," said the second, "know how to grow that creature's skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones."
The third said, "I am able to create its limbs if I have flesh, the skin, and the hair."
"And I," concluded the fourth, "know how to give life to that creature if its form is complete."
Thereupon the brothers went into the jungle to find a bone so they could demonstrate their specialties. As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion's. One added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair, the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life. Shaking its mane, the ferocious beast arose and jumped on his creators. He killed them all and vanished contentedly into the jungle.
I read a quote from David Foster Wallace last week in worship. The quote said, in essence, that all people worship something, and that it matters what you worship. Because anything that you worship that isn’t God or some sort of set of high human principles will eat you alive, he says. We too have the capacity to create what can devour us. Goals and dreams can consume us. Possessions and property can turn and destroy us.
It matters what we worship.
So today, as we are still in the Lenten season, attempting to turn our backs on sin and our faces toward God, we are going to talk about idolatry.
I never understood the concept of idolatry before. I thought it was some weird thing that only happened in the Ancient Near East…some habit that the ancients had of making golden calves, putting them on altars, and mistakenly thinking they were some sort of God. I just thought it was a product of primitive thinking, or some sort of strange custom. And I also didn’t understand why it made the God of the Hebrew Bible so unbelievably mad. Who cares? You’re God, I thought. Why does it matter if people make calves out of gold? This “thou shalt not make for yourself an idol” business must have gotten into the Ten Commandments by mistake, I thought, because it isn’t relevant anymore.
Until I realized that avoiding idolatry was actually what the whole law and the prophets hinged on—that avoiding idolatry meant worshipping God with all of my heart, with all of my soul, and with all of my mind. And how I was to do that was by loving my neighbor as myself.
This is hard work for us, avoiding idolatry—it works against every evolutionary “survival of the fittest” trait of being human; and the “every man for himself”, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethic of being American. Worshipping God and God alone requires turning away from the worship of self, the worship of things, the worship of culture. Avoiding idolatry is what makes the way of Jesus hard, and counter-cultural, because as David Foster Wallace reminds us, idolatry—or worshipping the wrong things--is our “default setting.”
Our scripture from the Hebrew Bible this morning might sound familiar to you, of course, because it is the Ten Commandments. But it is important to know a little bit about the context in which the Ten Commandments were delivered if we are going to understand what the first and second commandment mean….
When we get to this part of the story about God and God’s people, the Israelites are stuck in the wilderness, and Moses had been gone for awhile. In other words, Moses kind of left them to fend for themselves. Yes, God had led them out of slavery with the help of Moses some time before, but they were stuck endlessly in the desert getting really discouraged. Basically, it was pretty easy to forget that God freed them and it was pretty hard to have faith that God would lead them to the promise land--because they were hungry, tired, afraid and without a leader. So not knowing what else to do, they make a statue by boiling down some gold into a golden calf and start worshipping it. Moses comes back and he is so angry, like a dad coming home to a house full of teenagers having an unsupervised party. He’s all, the Lord says “YOU SHALL HAVE NO GODs BEFORE ME and not to create idols.” And they are all like, “dude, you left us here in the wilderness…what were we supposed to do?”
They were scared.
And I contend that we still create false idols because of fear, just like the ancient Israelites did. We may not be primitive enough to melt down gold and create a calf to worship, but we worship the God of money and things and we hoard and hoard and hoard. I think we do this in a panic and because we feel lost in the wilderness, unsure if God will lead us out of the deserts we find ourselves in.
So this Lent, I started thinking about all of the things that I fear out here in the desert I find myself in, and the list is real long, and directly proportionate to the idols I have created.
I fear powerlessness, and I fear aging and I fear death, and I fear being unwanted, and I fear being known, and I fear shame, and I fear losing all that I have, and I fear for my safety and my husband’s safety, and especially my kids safety. The list goes on. And most of all, I fear being unloved.
The advertising industry and the secular marketplace know our fears well. They know that if they make us scared enough that we will buy things. They know that we fear being ugly and fat because we fear being ugly and fat makes us unlovable, and they know we will buy more beauty products and more fad diets as a result of this fear. And they know that we fear being smelly because we fear being smelly might make us unlovable, and they know that we will buy more deodorant and perfumes and colognes and breath mints and mouth wash. And they know that we fear powerlessness and poverty, and they know that we think a nice car will help us look richer, and maybe will help us attract a mate or get a good job or appear powerful to others. They know that we fear we are boring, and so they tell us that we will be more interesting with alcohol, or at least that the world is more interesting with alcohol, or at least that we can forget our fears for a few hours if we drink enough. They know that we will buy enough alcohol to kill a moose and drink it until we feel less bored and more numb, and go out and buy more when its gone. And the gun industry knows that we fear other people, and that we will think we need guns to protect ourselves from them. They know that we will buy more and more until we have a small arsenal of weapons in our homes. The advertising industry and the marketplace knows that we fear losing our children, and so newscasters do everything they can to exploit that fear. The advertising industry and the marketplace know that we fear death, and so they peddle us fountains of youth in the form of face-lifts and pharmaceuticals to collude with us to pretend that we can cheat death.
And our fear sells all kinds of products—from home security systems to exercise machines.
We create idols when we feel most afraid, and we feel afraid all the time.
All this fear has cost us connection with ourselves and with each other, and therefore with God. We have forgotten that we are beloved children of God, and that everyone else is too. We fear each other so much that we have forgotten that our purpose is loving each other, even when it feels dangerous to do so.
People of faith create false idols, too, often in the name of our religions.
Glennon Doyle Melton lamented after watching the nightly news the following:
“It seems like a good time for people of all religions to ask themselves: What is more holy to you? Your ancient text or the living, breathing beings around you?
I love the Bible. I teach it on Wednesdays, I teach it on Sundays. I wake up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night. And still. I have yet to meet another human being who is not a more clear, present, and direct translation of God than the text I love.
We have got to stop clinging so tightly to our wonderful books that we’re left without strength to hold each other. We cannot kill people and shame people and exclude people and legislate against people in the name of the very God who lives and breathes within them. We hurt God in God’s name. All of us....
And Christians- as we enter Lent- let us not forget that our Jesus died because some chose the letter of the law over the law of love. Let us learn from it. When in doubt- let us choose God in a person above God in a book.
Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me. “
Anne Lamott says that “you can safely assume that you have created God in your image if God hates all the same people that you do.” And Christians are often guilty of this form of idolatry in this country, no?
Our New Testament reading is one incidence of Jesus in the Bible getting MAD. And I think this text upsets people, because they like to think of the Prince of Peace as someone who just sort of walks around with a beatific smile on his face, being kind and gentle. I love it, actually, because it means that “gathering in the spirit of Jesus” means that getting pissed and turning over tables is sometimes an option, right? Jesus is so mad about idolatry that he gets out a whip, and chases people out of the temple.
In this context, it’s hard to know exactly why Jesus believes that idolatry is the offense in this scenario. The “money changers in the Temple” refers to folks selling animals to worshippers to sacrifice on the altar, which was simply part of how Jews worshipped God in Temple worship. And there were people selling these animals in the Temple because people were often coming to Jerusalem from somewhere far away as a pilgrimage, and they needed to buy an animal right there and then to sacrifice, rather than bring one from home on a long journey. It was just a normal practice of the Temple to sell animals there. It’s kind of shocking, in other words, that Jesus gets so mad about a common occurrence, one he would have been quite familiar with—which was totally part of what you were “supposed to do” according to sacred scriptures Jesus was familiar with; according to the Law of God as Jesus understood it. But Jesus was always telling people that it wasn’t what was written in the book that mattered, and instead what was written on your hearts. And he thought that people were just going through the motions, and not actually living their faith in God in their every day lives. So he’s mad about hypocrisy—that these church leaders and worshippers are going about their business, crossing all of these t’s and dotting all of these I’s like it says they are supposed to, and meanwhile not living their lives by the law of Love. They are worshipping in the “right ways” according to the law of Moses, but they are refusing to help their neighbors of different religions as they lay in a ditch, or refusing to let sinful women dine at their tables.
Following the Letter of the Law, rather than the Law of Love.
Please make no mistake about the fact that Christians still have this problem. Do not shrug this off as a product of Judaism. Thousands of years after Jesus chased money changers out of the Temple with whips, we are still prone to idol-worship in church; we are still prone to worshipping the Law instead of worshipping the God of Love. We talk about our loving God, and yet are not yet fully welcoming to our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters. We gather in the spirit of Jesus, but we so often choose judgment and scorn in the name of “good Christian ethics” rather than embrace and forgiveness. We unite, but we continue to put each other in categories like “Buddhist”, “Muslim”, “Atheist”, “Jew”, “Unitarian” “Interdenominational”, and “Congregationalist”, instead of the simple category “beloved.” We are still apt to worship our traditions, our music, our Christianity, our Bible in place of our God.
We gather in the Love of Truth, not the letter of the Law. There is a Zen Buddhist teaching that says: "Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon's location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?"
We so often forget that our religious traditions, our denominations, our practices, our texts are all fingers that point to God, but they are not God.
It matters what we worship. Let us choose not to be devoured and destroyed by what we create. Let us choose Love, not fear. People, not material goods. Deeds, not creeds. God, not law.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.