Lent, Sermons

Idol Worship

(A sermon for Lent 3B        March 15, 2009        Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:12-23)

TaylorHicks1Are you watching American Idol?

I had a vague awareness of the show in the first seasons but never saw it. I heard people talk about it in passing, but first watched an episode in a hotel room in Atlanta three years ago, while attending a conference with a Southern friend who liked Taylor Hicks. My first impression: an odd young man with grey hair being accused of sounding like a wedding singer by a sharp-tongued Englishman. I saw nothing to attract my interest.

But the next winter, my sixth-grader told me all her friends watched, and could we watch it together? This third child of mine, with little interest in the television, had never asked to watch a show with me, and I of course said “yes.”

I felt a bit embarrassed at first. The audition round consists of public humiliations, and the competition rounds are not much better. But we began to root for various singers and to get to know the snarky judges, and now we DVR the broadcasts to watch them more quickly by zapping through the commercials.

One thing we haven’t done—we haven’t called in to vote for a singer. We tried once, the first year we watched, and realized that getting a vote through required a level of excitement and commitment we simply did not have. We were spectators, not American Idol worshipers, not among the 30 million votes cast or whatever number the amount grows to as the season progresses.

Then God spoke all these words: 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. 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… (Exodus 20:1-5a)

In Heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth—what do we worship? What do we idolize?

In this difficult economy, we may be tempted to idolize security. Not a day goes by that I don’t talk with someone about financial concerns. You? Will I keep my job, someone wonders, or will I need to look for another one? Can I make my mortgage payments? People who are afraid their job is on the line may be afraid to pay their bills, then fall behind, creating other kinds of trouble for themselves. People who have never needed help before go to the food pantry, and thank goodness it’s there to serve them. I heard a victim of the Bernie Madoff scam say on CNN that not only had he been defrauded for years, he paid taxes on investment income that never existed! I got *very* excited Wednesday about redeeming a gas discount with my Shaw’s card; I told many, many people about it, because I felt relieved to get that money back, whether I really needed it that morning or not. The news media creates an atmosphere of pervasive worry.

So it’s no wonder we’re nervous and want to be as careful as possible, is it? The trouble is that it may become our culture, just as the “Depression era mindset” stayed with one generation and assumptions of prosperity with another. To make it more confusing, I listened to an economist who said that while frugality and saving more would be good for individuals, that kind of societal shift will make the economy even worse!

What do we idolize? What do we put on a pedestal?

I have idolized romance. You may have idolized motherhood or patriotism or fill-in-the-blank. In Jerusalem, they made an idol of sacrifice.

Now, I don’t mean the kind of sacrifice where you give up something of yourself, your time or your money or even your life for someone or something you love. I mean the ritual killing of certain kinds of birds and animals at the Temple, as prescribed by the religious authorities.

The culture of sacrifice, the idolizing of ritual sacrifice, created several disconnections from God. First, you had to buy certain types of birds and animals right there at the Temple, sold only by people who paid to have their booths on the premises. And to buy the animals in the first place, you had to have a certain kind of coin, a special coin just for use in the Temple.

When we hear of the moneychangers, we may think of Jews coming from other countries and needing the local currency. But this is not a story of changing your dollars for Euros or Yen. This is a story of a monopoly on religious practice, and a method for excluding those who could not afford to participate according to the rules.

Thin-mints1Let’s imagine that to come to church here, you needed to bring a certain item with you just to be in good relationship with God. We certainly bring our gifts here, and we contribute of time and talent and treasure, all of which are welcomed. But let’s say the only acceptable gift were Thin Mint cookies. Last night the M. girls brought cookies to the Bean Supper to sell, and I am eager to pick mine up today! But suppose the only way you could be allowed to be part of the worshiping community involved buying some of those cookies. And suppose you couldn’t use your cash to buy them but had to buy special coins, say from Lady Elaine, before you could even buy the cookies in the first place. You would arrive, and pay for the special coins, and Lady Elaine would keep the difference. Then you would take your Cookie Coins to the cookie table and buy a box, or if you really wanted to impress me, a case of Thin Mints. And after you turned them over to me, I would assure you that God loved you. And then I would enjoy the cookies.


Mmmm. Thin Mints.

There are all kinds of schemes, and most of them are more subtle than requiring people to buy cookies to be in good standing at church. Our religious communities develop rules and even worse we develop habits and practices that we don’t write down, and as we live out these mysterious habits and practices, we exclude people who may very much need to hear the message of God’s love. We exclude people who cannot play by our rules, because they cannot afford to or cannot understand them or simply don’t see why they are so important to us. No wonder surveys say Americans are becoming “less religious.”

In the courtyard of the Temple, you could find everything you needed to worship God “properly,” for a price. It must have looked like every Middle Eastern marketplace. And it made Jesus very angry. It made Jesus *very* angry.

"Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"

Our President and his family are looking for a church to attend in Washington, D.C. People want to know where they will go. Lots of people have opinions. Should it be a historically black church, or would a multi-ethnic church be okay? Which churches can strike a balance between being secure enough in the eyes of the Secret Service and welcoming enough in the eyes of two little girls? Do they dare go to a UCC church again, or might that re-open the controversy about their last church? And perhaps most importantly, how will the pundits weigh in when they choose?

 I wish I could phone in a vote on this question, which kind of proves the point that it’s become ridiculous. On the one hand, I would like to think they can attend a church they like without regard to the preferences of others, but on the other hand, I want to read up on the church’s theology and decide I like it!

We get hung up on things that don’t matter as much as being in relationship with God. And anything that gets in the way of that relationship can be a false idol.

Jesus swept into the Temple precincts and knocked over tables and swept away merchandise and let birds out of cages. The way people treated each other, the way people kept other people from being close to God, made him angry!

And whether we think a righteous God in the person of a man taught them all a lesson that day, or whether we think a righteous person tinged with divinity had a little nutty, it seems pretty clear Jesus wanted us to know that God’s relationship with us transcends particular practices in ANY church or temple or mosque. God’s relationship with us is not dependent on well-built structures or pipe organs or projectors and screens or even singing the song on key and remembering the lyrics.

Yet these may be the things we idolize.

God’s relationship with us is about love.

We tend to forget this, and so this story comes around to remind us. Jesus gets the authorities riled, whether we read this at the beginning of John’s gospel, or during Holy Week in the others. He gets angry, and so do they. So do we, don’t we? We don’t like to be challenged. We don’t like people to question our faithfulness. But Jesus comes back to the Temple year after year in our readings to be sure we remember what matters most. People in all times and places have forgotten what God wants and needed reminding. People in all times and places, even in this time, even in this place—even in my shoes—have forgotten what God wants most: our love.

Jesus comes back to the Temple again to remind us to love and worship the God who created us. May we remember and not be distracted by idol worship. Amen.


(Not my actual pink phone pictured above.)

9 thoughts on “Idol Worship”

  1. Gosh! This is a good, good sermon. I broke my rule and read yours before I preached mine. I couldn’t seem to turn my eyes away from Taylor Hicks…
    Your examples about idolatry are clear. I think your hearers will “hear” this passage in a new way tomorrow.
    Thanks for sharing this with us. And the pictures of Taylor and Thin mints…

  2. Great sermon; it leaves me pondering what I idolize.
    I have to laugh at the Thin Mint example, because we will have Brownies selling cookies at tables outside the church tomorrow…better my church than yours, I think!

  3. As my church goes through transition, I am aware that many of us are in danger of idolizing our sanctuary and building — we are voting today at council whether or not to jointly worship with another UCC congregation on Easter in their sanctuary.

  4. The para that begins, “There are all kinds of schemes…”? Gives me goosebumps all over my whole self. Somehow it meets me just where I need to be found.
    thank you.

  5. sb, you are amazing. Though I’m a little concerned about the sermon-to-thin-mint ratio–I’m not sure this one is going to get you a bunch of people secretly putting boxes of cookies on your desk. But maybe. 🙂 (that is, in my opinion, the best part about mentioning favorite foods in sermons–people might bring me some!)

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