16th Sunday After Pentecost A
I saw a poll which said that only 17% of Anglican clergy could name all Ten Commandments. Now that was Church of England clergy, ok? I can’t imagine what that percentage would be among Episcopal clergy, (we could take a poll right now!).
So maybe some review is in order. The Ten Commandments are traditionally divided into God-centric and people-centric commandments. The God-centric commandments are: you shall have no other God’s before me, you shall not have idols, and you shall not take Lord’s name in vain. The people-centric commandments are about taking a Sabbath day, honoring our parents, not stealing, not committing adultery, not killing, not coveting, and not giving a false witness. While there is something to the traditional designation of how the Ten Commandments are divided up, the first three about relationship with God and the final seven about relationship between people, the subject is always God and the object is always us. All of the Ten Commandments are about God and how we, in turn, relate to him.
For our review we can ask if there is any importance to the order of the Commandments? Maybe. What is easier to obey: not murdering someone or having one God? Don’t answer right away, which commandment is easier to obey, not murdering, or having one god? Since the ten commandments are something of a contract, God is leading with the hardest commandment, having no other gods before him, just so we will know what the terms are so that if we don’t agree to the terms we can get out before even the fine print is established. “You shall have no other gods before me.” Get on board here, or head back to Egypt.
It seems easy enough: You shall have no other Gods before me, and you shall not make for yourself an idol. After all, how hard can that be? It’s not too hard being a monotheist these days, and when we talk about God, we are almost universally talking about the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Heck, even the atheists don’t believe in that God. You don’t hear Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens declaiming the pantheon of the Hindus or the Native American Sky Spirit. No, for the atheists, they don’t believe in our God, they are clear about that. The point is that God is God, God is one, this is not a hard piece of information to get behind these days.
The same is likely to be the case when it comes to idols. Nobody here has taken something from the creation, say, some wood or gold and has carved or otherwise manipulated it and attributed divine powers to it. Nobody has a rain god in their pocket, nobody here has a private, personal god that looks over the family. God rules out idols for the Hebrews because they are about to go into Canaan where idols were everywhere and for every purpose: fertility, rain, the harvest, the home, everything. But we don’t have that do we? Well that’s good, we are covered then on those first two commandments: we are a one-God people. And we don’t have idols.
But, it’s just not that simple,
God put a qualifier on the idol part: “you shall not bow down to them or worship them.” On the face of it, that sounds pretty harmless, God is talking about the actual practice of bowing, prostrating oneself in a ritualistic way to these idols. Of course nobody here is literally bowing down to idols. But there are lots of ways of bowing down. There are lots of ways of honoring something in our lives. There are lots of ways to show our true allegiances. And there are indeed lots of gods.
So fess up, who is your god? One god is seldom enough for most people. What do you cling to for help, satisfaction, and security? Who or what do you put first in your heart and mind? The two biggest idols I know of are Career and Children. Oh, boy! Now he’s done it. As one of my friends would say, “Now he’s gone from preachin’ to meddlin’!”
This is the part of the sermon where I make you mad. The secret of preaching, though, is that you can really only say what you know, and believe me I am acquainted with the gods and idols of Career and Children. Career and Children are popular idols because they are so central to our lives. That’s not all wrong though, the problem comes up with their position in our lives, central. God must be central, and when He is not, then you need to ask yourself, “who is my god?” What do you give honor to before you give honor to God? There are countless of lesser idols to worship too: sports, sex, physical perfection, intellectual power, social standing, you name it! The thing about us human beings is that we will worship just about anything.
Personally, I have been tempted in the past few weeks to worship an idol, the idol of health. I have a dear friend, a new friend, who was in mortal danger, but no longer is, she is still going to have a long rough road, but she is out of the woods; and for a time I almost gave honor to the idol of health. See? Idolatry is such a subtle thing. We have a concern and then, just for a moment, we lose perspective, and then we have placed all our concern and hope in the wrong place. Idolatry is too narrow a perspective, I was placing too much emphasis on the health of my friend and not enough on the author of health for my friend.
The problem that has always been with idolatry from the days before Moses up until today is that the idols are right in front of us and are made of the things that we have always needed and wanted. Those ancient people weren’t dummies you know, they went to those idols for the things that they needed: they needed rain, they needed the harvest, they needed children and they needed to feed their families. God is calling us away from our idols to recognize Him as the author of all creation. Doing this was absolutely counter-cultural then, in Moses’ time and it still is. When we leave the idols behind the culture looks and wonders what our problem is. But when we worship God, we say, “God is the Creator.” God creates all the things that we love: health, careers, children, sex, sports, all of it.
The only sin then, the only sin, is idolatry, taking something from the creation and imbuing it with the powers that belong to God, the power to make us whole. Look at those commandments, those, “shall nots” and you will see a person acting as if their own desires were the creator and not God.
When we see that God is God, and that we are not, and neither is anything else, then we are doing something monumental: we are working with the grain of the universe. Do you hear that? Just like woodworkers that submit their work to the grain of the wood, so too do we when we see ourselves and everything else as created, and God as creator. It’s that simple and it’s that difficult. When we finally see God as God, then we are in harmony with how creation was intended to be, we are working with the grain of the universe.
What this comes down to is simple awareness. Awareness that God is the author of all, full stop, and without remainder. God is God. This awareness is never far from us and we need not prepare to receive it. Simply remind yourself that those children were made by God, be aware that God allows your career to blossom, or to dry up. God is our sole source of happiness and satisfaction. Be aware, be mindful of the grain of the universe that God, your one God, has established. And then, like the woodworker, you will live and work, not against the grain, but with the grain that God has established. So, yes, one God is enough.