Sermon “The Greatest Commandment (and the hardest one to keep!)” June 25, 2017
Series on the 10 Commandments – Part 2
I Samuel 8:4-18 and Deut. 5:6-10, 6:4-6
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall no make for yourself an idol”
This is the second Sunday in our sermon series on the Ten Commandments – or “Ten Words” more accurately described. And we are looking at the second Word.
Last week we talked about the First Word being God’s self-identifying God’s self as the One who brought Israel out of bondage, out of the house of slavery, and we talked about how this first word of God helps us to interpret all the other words, all the other commands. We decided that we would try on the teachings of Rabbinic Judaism, which suggest that the first word before any command is given is God’s self-identification and therefore the command “no other gods before me” and “no idols” becomes a part of the second word from God – given to Moses for the people. Idolatry!
Do we have any problems with idolatry today in the United States of America?
Where to even begin to talk about it.
The problem begins with our reluctance in the first place to name or recognize our idols. Because if we begin to name our idols then we have to begin to acknowledge our unhealthy dependence on them. And then if we acknowledge our unhealthy dependence on our idols, then we may even begin to notice how we somewhere along the line began to be controlled by this idol, so that our lives have in some way come to belong to this other power. When that shift into being controlled by our idols happened – we’re not sure, – but we do know that somewhere along the line we seem to have lost control.
When I was in college I was in an unhealthy relationship. I became attracted and very attached to someone. I just adored her and I looked up to her as someone who had an authentic faith, she was funny, and I loved being with her. But somewhere along the road, our relationship became unhealthy, in that it started to take on a possessive quality. She would become upset if I went out with other friends and she wasn’t included, and I began to feel guilty every time I did social things without her. Many of my decisions then became controlled by what she wanted and her feelings. Somewhere along the line the freedom and trust of a friendship became fear-filled and possessive. I knew deep inside this was not good and that somehow without my even knowing when or how it happened, this person had become my idol, to the point where we were both imprisoned – both of us stuck in an unhealthy dependence on one another. It took a while to break up and took voices from friends who noticed what was happening.
What’s complicated about idols is that idolatry can begin with something good, a loving affection we have, an attraction, a desire for good things – friendship, safety, and comfort. And it’s not until we’ve crossed the line into idolatry that we begin to notice how the center of loyalty shifted to someone or something that cannot ultimately give us life. We begin to notice an unhealthy allegiance. And in the worst cases, if we fail to identify what’s going on, we become consumed by our idol, and ultimately destroyed by it.
The other tricky thing about idols is it is much easier to see idols that other people worship. It is harder to notice our own. In my case, I really could not see my idol clearly until other friends pointed out for me what was happening.
If we were to create an idolatry list for ourselves –what would be on it? Idols can be so many things: Phones, television, our job, our wealth, our social status, the brands we wear, the cars we drive, our success. We idolize our accomplishments, our piety, our righteousness.
It’s not an extreme at all in our country to say that we have made idols out of our military, our weapons, even the story we tell about ourselves as a country is idolatrous. Our idols can be our gender, our privilege, our ethnicity, our idols can be our church or the way we do things at church! Liberal churches can idolize their progressive stances and ideals, just as much as evangelical conservative churches idolize their stances on issues. Our beliefs can become our idols. Once you start looking for idols you realize they are everywhere!
It’s easier to trust in idols, much easier than to trust in God. Because idols give us what we want, the make us comfortable, and they make us feel secure. Idols are those things that appear to be God and that’s why it’s such an easy commandment to transgress.
A powerful idol I haven’t mentioned yet is the idol of whiteness. I was talking to a friend this past week, she’s black – we were talking about racism and its power at work especially in the lives of people classified as white, like me. My friend told me that honestly she couldn’t imagine this powerful force of racism ever being extinguished until white people die out…or at least become a minority.
Is this what it will take? I am not sure. But I do know that my friend has more of a realistic sense of the power of racism than I do, her being directly affected by it every hour of her day.
Is our idolization of whiteness and the legacy of worshipping at the altar of whiteness a transgression of the second commandment?
What does it mean that we are living with this long legacy of first of all refusing to admit that we are worshipping the idol of whiteness? And second we have been fooling ourselves believing that Whiteness is the same as the Divine, and that Whiteness is what Jesus upheld and was incarnated into — and all the while churches across the years and across America have been teaching their children to memorize the second commandment, predicated on the first Word –
I am the lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything…
What have white folks been teaching children about idolatry and our idolization of whiteness? How many lives have we sacrificed because of our idolatry of whiteness?
It’s hard to begin to name our idols. Because once we name them, we have to begin to look at our unhealthy dependence on them, and then we have to begin to look at how we’ve allowed ourselves to be controlled by our idols. And then we have to be willing to look at the ways that our idols are destroying us. This is hard work.
Israel did some of that work and its recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Israel is intensely critical of itself about its struggle with the second commandment. We can learn about the importance of naming our idols through our Scriptures. Israel is critical of itself. It names Baal as an idol. Israel also names politics and economics (money and wealth) and the monarchy as idols. The reason why we chose this passage from I Samuel 8- – the story that Todd read for us – is because this is a story about Israel’s struggle with idolatry! God says to Samuel:
(I’m paraphraising) – “From the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very day, these people have been forsaking me and serving other gods. Now they want a king instead of me. Okay Samuel – give it to them. Give them the idol they seek. And then Samuel proceeds to warn the people about all that will happen when they give themselves over to this idol of monarchy– your children will become enslaved to the military, your labor force will now go into producing weapons of war and all the land you work will no longer be locally or communally owned. It will now be owned by the King, the Empire and the War machine. And at some point you will begin to cry out and the Lord will not answer you.
What a sobering story. But it is a true story of the struggle with this commandment. And it sounds like us. (PAUSE – transition)
I’ve wrestled this week with the verses in Deut. 5: 9-10. It’s those verses that come right after the commandment is given about idols: I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Now we know that later on in Deuteronomy this notion that God is punishing children for their parents sins is debated and amended. This notion is debated in the Scriptures. And I’m grateful it’s not the only testimony in Scripture because it doesn’t sit well with me and ultimately I don’t believe this about God – that God would punish children for something their parents did.
But there is a challenge of truth here, and it has to do with what my friend told me this past week in her sobering comment about racism: She didn’t see the likelihood of her children or her children’s children being free from racism in this country. Why? In part because the consequences of our sins, the consequences of our idolatry to whiteness, moves across generations. This is just true. It’s not God’s active punishment as much as it is about the consequence of the unchecked unrepented idolatry in our country. And maybe that’s why there is such a serious tone to this command – if we transgress it and don’t notice it, our children will suffer. Whether it be the idolatry of white supremacy or the idolatry of fossil fuel worship, our children will experience the consequences.
But we must also not overlook the rest verse 10 which follows verse 9: To the thousandth generation God will show God’s steadfast mercy. To the thousandth generation to those who love God and keep God’s commandments.
In two verses the testimony is this: That the God of biblical faith is a God who leans toward mercy and kindness, always. If we are ever unsure about the direction God is leaning, it will be in the direction of mercy.
On this Sunday, we have heard the Great Commandment uttered again for our time – in the positive – thou shalt Love the Lord God with all your heart soul and strength! And in the negative – thou shalt NOT have other gods before me or make an idol
Jesus spoke and preached about the Great Commandment often – probably because he knew how easy it was to transgress. And probably also because Jesus himself was striving to be a follower of Yahweh – the God who self-identified as the God of Liberation. To identify our God as the God of Life and Liberation is to see ourselves mirrored in that image and therefore sent out to be a part of that liberation work.
The God we worship wants us to have life and have it abundantly. That’s what the commandments are really all about – finding life. What we’ve looked at today is the teaching that we cannot find life unless we are willing to look at our idols. God knows it’s hard, God knows we’re confused. God knows that it is often only in retrospect that we can see our idols. And all of us in different ways are groping in these grey areas of our lives, feeling ourselves pulled from one allegiance to the next, and yet trying to find our way back to the center of who we are, trying to remember and live out of that central truth that we belong to God and not to our idols.
May we all be committed together, to helping each other, to seek and find the God of Liberation and Love at the center of our lives. May it be so. AMEN