The Rev. Noah Van Niel
St. John the Evangelist
October 15th, 2017
Pentecost 19 (Proper 23 A): Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Of all the exceptional capacities human beings have, one of the most unique is our inherent capacity to be religious. From the earliest discoveries of human civilization, to the Egyptians, to the Native Americans, to the people of Israel, to the Greeks and Romans, to the East and to the West and the North and the South human beings share the conviction that there is something more to this world than what meets their senses, they share the drive to explore it, and the desire to worship it. Our capacity and inclination to worship is part of being human.
Like most deep desires, this desire to worship can be a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good in that our questing spirits drive us to discover of God and experience God in our lives. In fact I see the common human desire to worship the divine as a powerful argument that God exists, how else could you explain such commonalities across such wildly different times and places? But the impulse to worship can be a bad thing when that impulse is directed away from God, for then it can lead us down some wayward paths. Our human need to worship can often lead us into the realm of idolatry.
Idolatry is treating something as God that is not God; mistaking a lesser power for a higher one; confusing a temporal thing with an eternal thing. And idolatry is a problem that has plagued members of the Judeo-Christian religions since their foundation.
Just take a look at what happens at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After years of wandering in the desert, wondering whether God was really there for them anymore, the Israelites have a direct encounter with God at the base of the mountain—thunder, lightning, smoke, fire, the whole show. This is when God calls Moses up the mountain to instruct him in the Law of the people of Israel, the Ten Commandments and other rules for living. Moses is gone a long time, forty days and forty nights. And the people—who have just had a divine encounter and know Moses is up there meeting with God—start getting impatient. They’re getting antsy, for their need to worship has been put on hold without an outlet. And since Moses is taking too long, they build the golden calf and that becomes the object of their praying, praising and partying.
Idols become idols not because our propensity to worship is bad, but because that need gets misdirected. The impulse is pure, the object is not. We want to give glory and praise to something greater than ourselves because it comes naturally to us, but often, too often, the object of that adoration is not God, but something else. Idols can be things, like golden calves, or that new car we obsess about, or that sports team we fanatically cheer for. Money is often an idol for us. Idols can be people: politicians, captivating teachers, movie stars. And more insidiously idols can be ideas, ideas that we cling to with the hope that they will provide our restless souls with an outlet for their need to look at something and feel overwhelmingly drawn to it: power, success, fame, perfection. Idols are things that take our deep craving for the unseen God and offer us something seen, but far less satisfying instead.
It is the one of the most important jobs of religion to offer us something that can continuously satisfy those deep desires to worship while helping us steer clear of falling into idolatry. The church helps us shed the false idols that accrue in our secular lives by channeling our prayers and praises to their proper end. But even the Church can become and idol. If we’re not watching out for it, we can start to cling to parts of the Church with such fervency that we start to worship them and not the God to which they point. This can happen with the things in the church—the building, the art work, the reredos. It can happen with the people of the church—a charismatic priest or preacher. It can happen with the music, or the rituals or the vestments. And it can even happen with the idea of the church—it feels good to say we go to church so we go not because we care what happens there, but because it makes us feel important, or righteous, or justified.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love so many of those aspects of the church that I just listed. The architecture, the art, the music, the rituals, the people I see there. But those are not the primary purpose of the church, nor should they form its primary identity. They are all meant as aides to point us in the direction of Jesus Christ who himself is pointing us to the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God. To the extent they do that, they are helpful. To the extent they do not, they can become idols.
So as people of faith, we constantly need to be asking ourselves how does this thing—this piece of music, this piece of art, this ministry, this program, this event, this worship service, this ritual act—help bring us to Jesus so that we might bring about the reign of God which he proclaimed. All those components are important and necessary to a healthy church community, but they cannot be the primary motivation for our existence or else we stop being the Church and start becoming an “organization” that does churchy stuff. If we start to worship ourselves, and not God, we’re heading down the path that leads to idolatry not the kingdom of heaven.
Now, if the kingdom of heaven is what we, as a church, are called to create, it would be helpful to have some direction about what exactly that kingdom looks like so we could know if we’re on track. Lucky for us, for the past few weeks Jesus has been giving us glimpses of that kingdom through his parables. And by reading these parables closely we can glean that, according to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is a place of compassion and kindness with a Lord who forgives our deepest debts. We learn that it’s run with a spirit of abundant generosity, by a Lord who gives everyone an equal share of glory no matter when they show up. We’ve learned that the people there are called to work, not for themselves but for others, like faithful servants in a vineyard they work to produce the fruits of the kingdom. And this week we learn that the kingdom is like a joyous banquet that has been opened to everyone, the invitation going out to the good and the bad. The only barrier to entry, it seems, is if you don’t agree to play by the house rules (i.e. put on the wedding robe). The noticeable wrath that forms the coda to many of these parables is only shown to those who do not agree to live out the qualities the Lord of the Kingdom exhibits in their own lives. For the call to the kingdom is a call to a world of forgiveness and mercy, a call to be a people who are generous and work hard for others. And it is a kingdom to which all are welcome. Put all those together and what becomes clear is that the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of love.
That is what we are about. That is what we are supposed to be doing: building up a kingdom of love. To the extent we are creating a community whose law is love we can know we are on track. We do it here in church so we can do it out there in the world. All those other aspects of the church can be really helpful in bringing us into contact with that love made flesh in Jesus Christ and helping us imagine what a Kingdom of Love, might look like in action. But they are the means, not the end. I had a coach in High School who was full of aphorisms that were odd, but memorable. One of his favorites was, “The main thing, is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” And for us, as people of faith, as Christians, as a church, the main thing is love. Love is our rule and our goal. If what we are doing is loving, then what we are building is God’s kingdom. If we cling to that we can be assured of steering clear of those false idols that build up over our lives and lure us away from God. And we can be assured that the deep desire to worship that is written on our hearts, and into our DNA, will find its fullest expression and truest end.