Sunday, October 22, 2017

"The Idols We Make" - Sermon, October 22, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“The Idols We Make”
Pastor Andrew Davis
October 22, 2017
Exodus 32: 1-14

            Although the television set has come a long, long way since its inception in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s, it has been a fixture in many American living rooms ever since.  When HBO was doing one of their free preview weeks some twenty-ish years ago, I came across Barry Leavinson’s 1990 film Avalon, which is part of his “Baltimore Films” about a Russian/Jewish immigrant family and is set in the 1940’s and 50’s, although ends in the 1970’s or 80’s.  One particular scene that comes to mind is when the main characters, the Krichinsky Family gets their first television set and the way the entire family reacts to seeing it work for the first time, particularly the children.  Almost hypnotically.  In fact, one electronics company used the same scene, but imposed a modern television set into the picture.  Pretty much after that particular scene in Avalon, the world for the Krichinsky Family would never be the same since the television would now have its prominent role in the rapidly changing society of after WWII.  In applying some of my background in American Cultural Studies during undergrad, a closer look at the film will show a profound social commentary about the television and its role in family life.  In some ways, the television became an idol and took the family away from many of the traditions they had known, even leading to some broken relationships. 
In my own years here on earth, I don’t think that I can recall a time of not having television at home, except maybe right after I moved here to Quincy and waited a little over a month until I got DIRECTV installed.  However, there’s still our smartphones and other electronic gadgets that can consume a good deal of our time.  I don’t think I need to rattle off any statistics, but we sure do spend a good amount of time on our electronics or in front of the television.  I will own up to the fact that I’m one of them who spends a lot of time in front of my electronics, even though I am trying to disconnect,  but constantly fall short in doing so despite my best efforts.  I will often peek at my phone to read something and before I know it, an hour or two has gone by.  On the other hand, there are many things that take us away from what is really important as Christians, and yes, our electronics is one of those things that can be helpful or not so helpful.  The theologian Paul Tillich says that “your ultimate concern is your God,” which raises an important question as a person of faith; ‘who is our God’ and ‘what are the idols we make that take us away from fully focusing on God?’
            Like our message on forgiveness last month, we are dealing with another pretty heavy topic when we think about the idols we make.  The Meriam-Webster dictionary defines idol as “a representation or symbol of an object of worship” or “an object of extreme devotion.”[i] As Christians in our world today, we do our best to worship God and show God our full devotion.  Yet, we also know that it is so easy to become distracted away from God.  Even on this journey of faith just like Israel was on the journey in the wilderness, there will be times when we might feel like God is absent or not listening, or feel like our prayers are not always answered. Or, we may get discouraged because we cannot physically see the face of God, although we can see signs of God all around us and in the people around us.  Instead, there are moments when we want certainty; we want a solid representation of God; we want to see the face of God even though the face of God is not meant to be seen.  We also can get a little impatient with God now and then, especially when a need is not met.  The Israelite people also get into this little bind when Moses goes up to Mt. Sinai and spends forty days there.  And like the Israelite people when they finally become impatient, we to might be tempted to focus on something else without fully realizing it (I’m preaching to myself here too!).
In our lesson from Exodus this morning, the Israelite people finally grow so impatient that they decided that they had enough of following God, who earlier in the Exodus story brought them out of their oppression in Egypt and brought them through the desert under Moses’ leadership.  They are frustrated because they can’t physically see God.  Since we last read from Exodus, the Israelite people are almost like young children on a LONG car trip.  I’m sure all of us have been on both sides of that, where we as kids or even our kids or grandkids have uttered those four words that make all of us cringe: ‘are we there yet?’ I do empathize some with Isarel here because I’m sure I’d be saying the same thing, especially if I was having to travel across a desert by foot for forty years like Israel did.  Heck, there were moments I kind of felt that way on the road trip from California to Washington, DC when my dad and I drove there or last year when my seminary roommate Josh and I drove back to CA from DC.  Four days in the car felt long enough, so just imagine being in the shoes of Israel for forty years.  And a journey like that is sure to test even the most patient of people. Even amidst the normal human behavior and emotions the Israelites showed, God still heard them and provided for them by giving them manna and quail, or water from a rock, except the Israelite people still have a hard time trusting God for bringing them out of Egypt on this journey to the promised land.  They want certainty and something they can physically see.
At this point in the story where we are studying this morning, Israel has been at the base of Mr. Sinai for forty days, as Moses has been up there conversing and strategizing with God in making a covenant, also known as the ten commandments.  However, the Israelite people are getting restless, wondering just where the heck Moses is and if he’s ever going to return.  They’re not exactly the poster children for practicing patience, so they turn to their other leader, Aaron, Moses’ brother.  In a ‘when mom says no, ask dad’ type scenario, the Israelites ask Aaron to make an image of God and he complies, in which they give him their gold and form this golden calf which becomes their new god since they were able to see this god.  Talk about crossing a line right there, although Aaron was also a people-pleaser or may have succumbed to the constant complaining.
Now one of the ten commandments states that there are not to be any other gods than the God we know, which in the Hebrew Bible texts is referred to as Yahweh, Jehovah, or I AM, to name a few.  God is a jealous god here and when God sees this display that’s happening below, God gets pretty ticked off at the Israelites, telling Moses to ‘do something about YOUR people,’ even though God has referred to Israel as ‘my people’ throughout the narrative in Exodus to this point.  God shifts the perspective to Moses as the one who brought the people out of Egypt and is ready to obliterate the Israelite people for their gross display and creating this idol.    However, Moses steps in and manages to talk God out of obliterating the people by reminding God of the promises that were made to the ancestors that came before Moses, notably Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  After all, promises are promises, plus after God wiped out a good part of humanity during the Great flood story in Genesis 6, God made the promise and covenant to never destroy the earth again.  God ultimately showed mercy and grace towards the Israelites after Moses talked God out of obliterating the people.  Now if you want the rest of the story, I encourage you to read the rest of Exodus 32, as Moses is the one who becomes angry and gives the people a pretty unpleasant punishment.
All these millennia later since the long journey through the desert, humanity has created many other golden calves or idols that tempt us away from our devotion to God and this journey of faith; yet as happens in the remainder of the story, none of these idols have been thrown into the fire, ground up, and thrown into the water for us to drink like what happened to Israel.  Although I’m sure there are some out there who would love to do that with smart phones, or at least just throw them into the fire.  While our electronics and especially social media can be an idol, it can be quite useful in sermon planning since I do have a rule that anything posted on Facebook or Twitter can become sermon material or illustrations.  This last week when I was planning this morning’s sermon, I did a build-a-sermon post by asking my friends and colleagues what they thought are some of the idols we make.  I’m not surprised by many of the responses, though.  Youth, beauty, and our bodies can be one; our material possessions such as our houses, cars, or cash can be idols as well.  Athletes, celebrities, television, sports, and the internet are among other idols we make.  Or in some of the recent stories in the news, our political beliefs, nationalism, or the flag are a few more responses I got and one that I know can get really touchy with a number of people I know, so not saying anymore on that.  And even in the church, our buildings, our pastors, and our doctrine were some others I heard about.  Although I’ll remind everyone to read the text of the hymn “We Are the Church,” as the church is the people…not the building, not the steeple, not the pastor (hence why Methodist pastors are moved around every here and there), the choir or music director, but the people who make up the body of Christ.  The reality is that we have more golden calves and idols that we have made than we realize.  There are things we need, though, like our cars/transportation, a roof over our head, food on the table, plus we are allowed to have fun, and entertainment is not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s when we start becoming too engrossed in the things we have or the things we enjoy and it becomes our sole focus or becomes like a god to us is when things becomes problematic. 
The good news is that while we may have things that can be idols we make, God will still show us grace and mercy in the long-run just like God did with the Israelite people.  We do like our ‘stuff,’ yet as Hebrew Bible scholar Anathea Portier-Young at Duke Divinity School observes (and this is a fairly long quote),
It is easy to mistake our own creations for our God. It is tempting to shape our plundered riches, our wages, and even the reparations for our losses into an image that pleases our senses, mollifies our anxiety, and invites admiration from our neighbors. But that thing we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god. That thing may symbolize strength and power. It may personify virility, or femininity, or aspects of both or neither; it may embody rebellion or conformity, generosity or greed. But as close as we draw to it, as much as we celebrate it and place it at the center of our lives, it did not lead us to freedom and will not lead us to our promised inheritance. It will tether us to slavery, to a worldview in which people are expendable, interchangeable commodities. It will moor us in the impatience of our ignorance and fear. We may dance with it for a day, but soon find that it has led us to our death.
The hard way forward reckons with a divine presence that continues to elude our senses even as it fills and animates them. The hard way forward knows the pain of absence and doubt, but still chooses to follow cloud and fire through the desert-landscape of freedom. And the living link between us and our God is the one who challenges and negotiates with God for our forgiveness, for God’s enduring presence among us, and for the fulfillment of every promise God has made to God’s people.[ii]
God is not meant to be seen, although we do sense God’s presence around us and through each of us.  While there might be times we may not always think so, God is STILL present with us, but it takes trust and faith, even if it’s just a little faith and just a little trust.  Our stuff is not going to last forever, yet God will be with us, even when all of our ‘stuff’ and any of the idols we may make is no longer useful.  As we enter this new week, what ways can re-focus ourselves towards God?  What are some of the things or ‘stuff’ that has become an idol for you? I know for me, I am intentionally placing my iPhone in a separate room in the morning every day to start my day off with God, then completely logging off of social media every Friday, making it a true sabbath day so that I can return my focus to God and renew myself in the same breath.  I encourage all of you to find something that has become an idol to you and set it aside one day each week, maybe two.  And remember, God will still show grace and mercy if you don’t because as we sang about earlier, there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, even amidst the idols we make. 

[i] "Definition Of IDOL". 2017. Merriam-Webster.Com. Accessed October 18 2017.

[ii] "Commentary On Exodus 32:1-14 By Anathea Portier-Young". 2017. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed October 19 2017.

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