The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Once in awhile somewhere in this country things get all heated up about posting a copy of the 10 Commandments on public property. I’m surprised we haven’t heard about it in this campaign. Maybe that’s because right now, we’re so obsessed about money. That’s all we ever hear about.
In places like Texas, where the 10 Commandments are carved in granite on the lawn of the state capitol, I wonder what might happen if legislators actually read and tried to apply them.
Honoring the Sabbath, would they shut down all commerce and activity on Saturdays - including college football games - and encourage a quiet day of fasting and meditation at home? Would they wonder if capital punishment is state-sanctioned murder in the eyes of God? Would they discourage coveting by re-distributing wealth?
The ones that might really be a challenge for everyone across the political spectrum, however, are the first two. You shall have no other gods before me. And You shall not make for yourself any idol.
Now we usually think of “other gods” as the gods of other religions, ones we don’t like. And we think of “idols” as statues of these odious deities. This is probably what the Israelites initially meant. But before too long, they understood the first two commandments in much broader terms. Idolatry became anything that might substitute for God and God’s ways. An idol was whatever had become the ultimate concern, in the service of which they were perfectly willing to sweep aside God’s ways.
As examples, the prophets pointed to nationalism, corruption, power, and hedonism. Every time Israel seemed to lose its way, they went back to the central organizing principle: You shall have no other gods before me. And You shall not make for yourself any idol.
For Christians, the central organizing reality is the person of Christ. Everything else is shaped by him and his teachings. In baptism we say You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. That’s why in our second reading, Paul talked about putting on the whole armor of Christ before heading out into this world of competing pressures and concerns. In the face of other powers, we need to know who we are.
This was the issue in the gospel we heard today, too. Many of Jesus’ disciples had abandoned him, and he wondered aloud to the rest, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter replied “Lord, to whom can we go?” For Peter, Jesus and his teachings had become his ultimate concern, the one reality that would shape and prioritize everything else. There was nowhere else to go that made any sense.
This is also what we heard Joshua saying to the people as he was about to die. Joshua was the successor to Moses, becoming the leader after Moses died just before entering the Promised Land. Joshua was now very old. As his departing word, he put it to his people:
Look, we’ve come this far, out of slavery in Egypt, through the miserable Sinai desert for 40 long years, battling our way across the Jordan River at Jericho, settling in this land. Don’t blow it now. Don’t put other concerns before God, just because you’re trying to establish a new country and you’re surrounded by enemies. So choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
Joshua’s challenge is as fresh today as it was 3,000 years ago. In the face of competing pressures and concerns, people of faith still can slip into idolatry. We all do.
On a national level, as I mentioned, the economy has become the ultimate concern, shaping our approach to every other concern according to the demands of this fearsome and voracious idol. But in the service of maintaining our high standard of living, do we really want to sweep aside God’s ways? - being good stewards of creation, caring for the stranger and the poor, glorifying God through beauty and art, healing the sick, and pursuing reconciliation among the nations? How might we switch things - putting these concerns of God’s first, and then figuring out how to shape a sustainable and healthy economy according to these priorities?
And on a personal level, idolatry is just as much an issue. We can make all sorts of things our ultimate concern, sweeping aside those good things that God intends for us. And the problem with idols is that they deliver the opposite of what they promise.
Drugs and alcohol promise ecstasy, but when put first, they deliver misery. Money promises expansiveness and freedom, but when put first, it delivers a tight little isolated life. Worry promises that it will help us avoid bad things in the future, but it only delivers unhappiness in the present. I wonder what your idol might be, your ultimate concern that will never deliver what it seems to promise, and how it shapes other concerns of yours.
So if the 10 commandments put idolatry at the top of the “Thou shalt not” list, is it simply a matter of making a choice? As Joshua said, As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
Well, I find that usually, it’s a bit trickier.
First, we must come to terms with how our idol is not, in fact, ever going to deliver what we thought it would. This is a hard thing to admit, especially when we’ve invested so much time and energy into serving it. There’s a grief we must pass through in giving up our idols.
Then we must open ourselves to the unknown, to a lack of guarantees. When we leave behind idols, we don’t substitute them for something that, like them, offers easy promises. We return to the risk of living by faith.
The God of the Israelites was a vast and mysterious God you couldn’t even name, let alone predict. The Christ of our faith ended up on a cross, and resurrected into some incomprehensible form. So when we say that we will put God first in our lives, we are saying that we are willing to not know, but to move in a Godward direction nonetheless.
An alcoholic must trust that the unknown of life without alcohol will provide more comfort and pleasure than life with it, even if she can’t picture what that might be like. A nation consumed with economic worry must trust that shaping our priorities according to God’s ways will result in a healthier and stronger society, even if we don’t know how that will come about.
When the Israelites forsook the gods of Egypt and the relative security of slavery, they entered into a 40-year period of unknowing. They followed a cloud, and only had enough food for one day at a time. There were no guarantees, and all they could do was put one foot in front of another, and keep heading in what seemed to be God’s direction.
That’s all we can do. We can admit that our lesser gods will ultimately disappoint by not delivering what they promise. We can then face into the unknown, without any promises other than that God will continue to be present to us, and to guide us. And we can put one foot in front of another, doing our best to follow God as revealed in Christ.
Choosing to serve God, will discover that we have more than enough for this day, day by day. And over time, we will look back and realize how far we have come into a new and bountiful land.