Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday October 12, 2008 Proper 23A
Text: Exodus 32: 1- 14
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Title: Finding Joy in the Kingdom of Anxiety
Several months ago Bishop Mark MacDonald, bishop for indigenous ministries in Canada and Bishop of Navajoland, spoke to the clergy of this diocese. In speaking to us he reminded us that in these early days of the church those who wanted to join the church were questioned and instructed and scrutinized in three main areas: idolatry, sexual adventurism, and use of power. These three areas made up the core of the teaching and conversation important to the development of a Christian life and character. In the charged atmosphere of the Diocese of the Rio Grande and all our strong disagreement over sexuality, Bishop MacDonald surprised us by focusing on the topic of idolatry. Somehow the strangeness of the topic and its ability to cut across all theological and political lines worked. What I remember most about what he said was that if we think that the concept of idolatry is no longer of use or is outdated we have lost touch not only with the biblical story but with human nature.
Our reading today from Exodus tells the story of Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. While Moses in doing some serious backpacking in the Sinai wilderness and having a rather heavy conversation with the Almighty, the people of Israel become restless and anxious fearing that their identified hero is MIA. Out of this fear, and perhaps just because we humans are just so good at it, the people of Israel, slumming around at base-camp, decide to initiate a communal art project from their Egyptian plunder and cast an image of a golden calf. The people tell Aaron, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Of course all this idolatry stuff doesn’t sit well with the Almighty and its blatant disregard to the first commandment: “you shall have no other gods before me as well as its corollary 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.” Incidentally you might want to ask yourself or your children if you know the Ten Commandments. I asked my children the other night as we lay in the dark waiting for sleep to come, “Do you know the Ten Commandments?” They struggled a bit until I asked them about the “The Ten Best Ways” which is the title of the Sacred Story in our Godly Play program and they began to come up with them. It is of great interest to me how contemporary they actually are, and how lively a conversation about them can get if one is not too sleepy or if you’re trying to avoid bedtime for as long as possible.
God tells Moses that his people are slow learners, stubborn and probably not worth the effort. Why not just destroy them all and start over with Moses? However, Moses reminds God that this is not a good strategy, starting over doesn’t always work, better to work with what or who you’ve got. Amazingly Moses is able to convince God that it would be better to live up to his covenant promises that he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. And thus we are given one of those wonderful, mind-boggling verses in the Bible “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” The story continues and has some rather rough twists and turns but what comes clear is that idolatry is a serious business, that God doesn’t care for it in the least and that all people: gentiles or Jews, church-goers,NY Times-Sunday-morning-Crossword-puzzler-types, tree huggers and gas guzzlers all seem to have a great propensity for being idol-making creatures.
So I wonder if there is a way for us to talk about this archaic notion of idolatry in contemporary terms? In essence idolatry is putting your faith in something that promises more that it delivers. It is the practice of ascribing absolute value to something of relative worth. Often it promises ultimate rewards, security, happiness, and in the end it is extremely vulnerable to failure and disappointment. I would wager that there is a great deal of insight into idolatry in this room if we could sit down and have a conversation about the idols we’ve created, embraced or worshipped in our lives that ultimately let us down, whether it was a relationship, a job, an investment strategy, physical health, social importance, intellectual status, our addiction, or a dream that we pursued only to be disappointed.
In the Exodus story Moses returns to find the people worshiping the golden calf like revelers at a party. They were attributing to their cast image the actions of God saying, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Evidently one important aspect of idolatry is short-term memory loss or a real propensity to give credit where little is actually due. Moses destroys the idol, burns it with fire, pulverizes it to dust and scatters it on the water, making everyone drink of its bitterness. Moses demonstrates that often idols are corporately made and supported but precisely because they are not ultimate they can be crushed rather quickly.
The distinguished biblical commentator from Princeton Seminary, Patrick Miller, says the most prominent idol among us is Baal. Baal is this idol's Canaanite name. Jesus gave this god an Aramaic name, "Mammon." Sometimes our Bible translations use this Aramaic word alone; some translations render "Mammon" as "wealth" (Mt 6:24; Luke 16:13 [cf. vv. 14-15]).
In American culture we have made wealth - otherwise known in scripture as "Mammon" - into nothing less than a god. It is not just wealth, it is our economy, our system of productivity and distribution that creates the wealth and the consumption that sees I get mine.
Interestingly we are not just talking here only about individualized acquisitive instincts or habits but about communal devotion to the gods of productivity and systemic efforts to elicit provision and wealth from them. That is why Mammon is not simply an abstraction - wealth - or a personal god. Mammon is what it takes to make the system more productive and provide more possibility for consumption. Most of the worship of other gods that goes on in the Scriptures is a communal enterprise. It is systemic because it has to do with the systems of making and spending, of getting and having. . . The god is the symbol, often highly visible, of the productivity and consumption that has erected it.
Tuning into public radio this past week I heard certain phrases repeated over and over again: corporate greed, living beyond our means, conspicuous consumption, the death of the American dream, etc. I wonder if these ways of describing ourselves and our culture are also ways of describing a complex idol that we have together placed at the center of our lives? While the financial crisis in our country is real and of great concern, there is something spiritually alive within it that we as a faith community need to wrestle with.
Now I’m not for a minute trying to make light of the current economic crisis. There are very real and practical dimensions that all of us are concerned about and that frankly scare the bigeebees out of us. The idea of losing one’s home, unexpected unemployment, or shrinking incomes in retirement are real fears. We all desire stability and security in our lives. We all want to provide well for our families. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. They are part of being human, of having needs, and of caring for those we love. What we need to ponder is the place of economic well-being in our life? Are we tempted to trust in it so much that we can’t conceive of being truly happy or joyful in our life with less? Is there a spiritual hunger for simplicity of life in order to have more of what is really important? How can our encounter with economic crisis inform our ongoing spiritual growth?
Over a cup of coffee with a parishioner this past week, we spoke about the spiritual dimension of our current situation. What I heard was not a denial of the seriousness of what is happening nor deep alarm but rather the recognition that this is a spiritual opportunity. The opportunity in front of us as a church is to demonstrate that there is so much more to life than Wall Street, there is so much more to the Christian way than pursuing wealth at all costs. We in the church have something deeply attractive to offer as the idols of American consumerism and wealth are pulled down and pulverized and spread around to the taxpayers.
As a community we are a people who have at our center a deep and unshakable hope, the hope that God is in control, that God is stronger than the powers of greed, and fear and death. As a people we know that God can bring new life out of what looks like certain death and defeat. We are people who have at our center the story of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, and therefore we are called to be a community of hope. Hope that the future belongs to God. Hope that we are in God’s hands. Hope that all will be well.
We are in this together as a people of faith, as the village of St. Michael’s. Our current economic and other troubles are a rich opportunity for us to discover the depth of Christian community in our midst. Sharing with one another in the struggles, aiding one another where we can, and encouraging each other. We do not face this alone. No, we encounter life with the power of God’s Holy Spirit within us, the same Spirit that raised Jesus to new life, the same Spirit that demonstrated that death and bad news is not the end of the story, the same Spirit who continues to shape the church into a people dedicated to sharing the Good news in word and deed.
Do not lose heart my brothers and sisters in Christ. We have each other, but more importantly we have God who loves and cares for us and will be with us through whatever darkness we encounter. This is an opportunity to strengthen our faith, to rediscover what is of lasting worth, to rejoice in being God’s beloved and in knowing that our life flows out of relationship with the living God not the markets.
There is a very strange and wonderful hymn in the 1982 hymnal that I often turn to in strange and difficult times. It is hymn 464. It is a part of a much longer poem by W.H. Auden and I love the way it moves through the strangeness of life, to embracing anxiety instead of running from it, to finding Joy.
Listen to the lyrics and let speak their words of hope into your soul
He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life. Love him in the world of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasion shall dance for joy.