Sunday, March 6, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "What Value of Idols"

Habakkuk 2:15-20

Doom to the one who makes his companions drunk, pouring out your wrath in order to see them naked. 16 You have drunk your fill of dishonor rather than glory. So drink and stagger. The cup of the Lord’s strong hand will come around to you; disgrace will engulf you. 17 Because of the violence done to Lebanon, he will overwhelm you; the destruction of animals will terrify you, as will human bloodshed and violence throughout the land, the villages, and all their inhabitants. 18 Of what value is an idol, when its potter carves it, or a cast image that has been shaped? It is a teacher of lies, for the potter trusts the pottery, though it is incapable of speaking. 19 Doom to the one saying to the tree, “Wake up!” or “Get up” to the silent stone. Does it teach? Look, it is overlaid with gold and silver, but there is no breath within it. 20 But the Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him.  (Common English Bible)

“Treading on the Heights: A Lent Alongside Habakkuk,” Week Four

I remember very vividly the first time as an adult that I was denied Holy Communion: the entire congregation came up, row by row, to the altar, and made a circle around the altar to partake of communion.  I was the only one in the entire sanctuary sitting outside of the circle, and they proceed to participate in the Lord’s Supper literally with their backs turned to me.  I hadn’t realized, walking into the church that Sunday, that this was the way they performed Holy Communion; I had taken for granted that, as a lifelong Christian, I would be able to.

It was a mortifying experience for someone who was born and raised in the Disciples of Christ tradition of open communion.  But as I continued in my faith journey, I realized just how uncommon it actually is for many, many congregations to deny communion to all but what they determine (through their own criteria) as the select few.  I read about one such church, Our Savior Lutheran Church in Texas, in Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s definitive 2010 tome, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us:

Two large black gates and a white stone gatehouse mark the entrance to the church grounds…Set atop a hill overlooking the northwest suburbs of Houston…with its meandering walkways, shaded lawns, and duck-filled pond; OSL’s grounds have the feel of a retreat center—quiet, protected, and set apart…

One way in which the parish’s conservatism manifests itself is in its strict interpretation of the LCMS doctrine of Closed Communion.  An explanation of this practice appears in the parish’s printed program, the weekly bulletin, and on the pew cards, and is carefully and tactfully explained to any self-identified visitors, who are given a green welcome ribbon to pin on as they enter the sanctuary.

“Those who commune together at this altar…declare their personal allegiance to the doctrinal position of this Lutheran congregation,” the explanation reads.  “Therefore, participation in Communion is normally limited to members of this congregation or of sister congregations within the confessional fellowship of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.”

This reading of Closed Communion is indicative of how seriously the parish takes its beliefs.  “If you take Communion in the wrong way,” explains Assistant Pastor Thomas Glammeyer, “you are asking God’s punishment.”

What fascinates me is that the act of partaking in Holy Communion is a gesture of faith in God, but here, you have to “declare (your) personal allegiance to the doctrinal position” of an individual congregation.  So one’s faith in God is substituted out for this personal allegiance in order to participate in God’s sacrament.

Yet their pastor says, “If you take Communion in the wrong way you are asking God’s punishment.”

I mean, yeah, you probably do, because in all honesty, substituting adherence to a doctrine in place of genuine faith in God that may exist outside of that doctrine, there’s a word for that: idolatry.  Because we have placed our doctrine about God above God.  And that’s really a timeless problem, but it's one we're still going to try to tackle today, because that is what God is proclaiming to Habakkuk here.

This is a new (well, newish now) sermon series for the church season of Lent, which commemorates the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan, and the season takes us all the way up to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and then Easter Sunday.

Traditionally, Lent is a penitential, even penal season: it is when we are supposed to give something up, but in more orthodox settings, those fasts are much more extensive—daylong entire fasts, or fasting from multiple different foods for the entirety of Lent, not just beer and chocolate.

In that wrestling with penitence and punishment, then, Habakkuk serves as a vivid and sympathetic guide.  We know very little about him personally except that he served as a prophet during the twilight of the kingdom of Judah, after the capable and righteous king Josiah dies in 609 BCE, it is less than twenty-five years to the catastrophic sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, and in between those two events is likely when Habakkuk is prophesying.

Habakkuk, though, is really more conversing with God—arguing with God, really—rather than prophesying to us, which is what makes him such a compelling character, at least, to me.  We began by going through the prophet’s first back-and-forth with God, about the injustice the prophet sees around him and God’s response that the Babylonians are being roused to attack Judah.  Then we heard the prophet’s clearly anguished reply to this plan of God’s—he didn’t like it at all.

Last week, God replied once more, and it is a reply long enough that we could only cover most of it last week, and we continue God’s replay—God’s harangue, really—today, and God does not let up, tearing into Jerusalem for its excesses—drinking its fill of dishonor while also making one’s companions drunk—and for its idolatry, but in truth, excess and idolatry often go hand in hand, even when we think they might not.

Because honestly, Christianity is full of idolatry, and no, I don’t mean the “was Jesus born on December 25?” skepticism that you hear around Christmas (and truthfully, He probably wasn’t).  I am talking about idolatry in the purest sense of the term: the elevation of human-made things into divine things meant to take the place of God in our lives and in our faith.

And our doctrine—and the sheer extent of it—tends to be *the* human-made thing we do this to.  I get that you might say “But doesn’t doctrine—that is, sound teaching—come from God?”  And sure, 1 Timothy does indeed say that about Scripture, that it is a source of sound teaching, but it isn’t really doctrine.  Doctrine is systematic, structured, it has an orderliness and concreteness to it.

But God is hardly concrete.  Indeed, I think, God is probably hardly structured, at least not in any sense that we can comprehend.  Think about what those terms mean: it means that God is rigid, incapable of movement.  It means that like the Holy of Holies of old, we have managed to keep God in a square box without any room for movement of the Spirit that might escape its confines.

And that is simply no way for us as custodians of the Word to treat the Word.  But we do.  We take the ways in which we were meant to view God and treat them as God.  It’s painfully ironic: our reverence for these sacred and holy things may actually be doing more harm than good, but it is.

Think about the simple statement that the Bible is inerrant, or infallible.  Most of us have heard that said about Scripture.  But nowhere in Scripture does it say that it—Scripture—is in fact either inerrant or infallible.  The closest we get is that same passage out of 1 Timothy that says many things about Scripture, that it is useful, that it is inspired, but not that it is inerrant or infallible.

Yet we have elevated Scripture up in order to separate ourselves from other believers.

Why?  Because it allows us to say that our doctrine is better, more pure, whatever, and as a result, ultimately, what it means, if only implicitly, is that we are going to heaven and you are not, and we have a word for the ones who are not, we call them heretics.

Which, really, is the whole point of idolatry: to use something, anything, other than the grace of the one true God as a means by which we can be saved.  In this case, the grace isn’t enough, you have to sign up for all sorts of other beliefs and creeds.  “By grace alone” we have emphatically not been; rather, we have been more like the pigs in Animal House: "all Christians are equal, but some are more equal than others."

This is by no means the only idolatry we are tempted with—just look at just how over-the-top commercialism has gotten surrounding Christmas—but it is one of the most constant, because creating distinctions of “us” and “them” is endemic to religion; it was true in the Hebrew Bible, when Moses commanded the deaths of entire tribes of people in Deuteronomy, and it is true today.

The First Commandment, though, of the Ten handed down to Moses atop Mount Sinai, is “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”

But what about our doctrine?  No gods before God.

But what about the denomination?  No gods before God.

But what about the Bible?  No gods before God.

You live for, breathe for, love, and serve God.  Everything and everyone else—me, other pastors, other theologians—is middle management trying to help you do that first thing.  God comes first.

That is what God is trying to impress upon Habakkuk (you knew I would get around to mentioning him at some point, right?!).  “Of what value is an idol?  It is a teacher of lies, for the potter trusts the pottery though it is incapable of speaking.”

Of what value are our idols of doctrine and divisiveness?  They are teachers of lies, because it means we trust not our maker—God—but what we make—the doctrine, even though, like literal pottery, it is incapable of speaking to us, much less of speaking to us in the profound way that only God can!

Of what value are our idols, our potteries that we have crafted for ourselves, when Jesus says to us that the entirety of the Law and the Prophets hangs only on whether we have loved God entirely and whether we have loved our neighbors as ourselves?

Because if we are unable or unwilling to do that, then our idols will not be able to save us.

We may think they will, and it may comfort us to do so.  But that is not what God wants from us.  It has never been what God wants from us.  What God has always wanted from us is, quite simply, love, the sort of love that can only come from faith.

May we find that love in our faith in God, rather than in our idols, so that God may again come first, and let that be enough.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 6, 2016

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