Tearing Down Idols

Tearing Down Idols

As I began studying the lessons for this week I started with the Old Testament Lesson, reading it first in the Revised Standard Version. I came across this line in Zephaniah. “I will punish the men who are thickening on their lees..” To be honest I had no idea what a thick lee was but given the threat to be punished I hoped that I didn’t have one. But gratefully we are reading the lessons in the English Standard Version that makes it much clearer. In this translation it say “I will punish the men who are complacent…those who say in their hearts ‘The Lord will not do good nor will he do ill.’”

This is the context that reveals the subject of the men’s complacency. They had not rid themselves their idols, as the Lord commanded. And in addition they convinced themselves that the Lord was not going to do anything about it. That is why they said to themselves, “The Lord will not do good or ill.” But according to the prophet they were about to have a rude awakening.

When I read of their complacency my mind went immediately to Jesus speaking to the Church at Laodicea in the Revelation to John. Jesus says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot or cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” This complacent/lukewarm church in Laodicea was also about to have a rude awakening.

The connection between Zephaniah and Revelation is their devotion to the idols that result their complacency and lukewarmness. It doesn’t use the word “idol” in Revelation but listen to why Jesus says that they are lukewarm and the idolatry becomes clear. “For you say I am rich. I have prospered and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” Their wealth has replaced their need for God and so their wealth has become an idol. As Martin Luther put it, “Whatever your heart clings to and trusts in is your god.” 

As difficult as these words are to hear, they call upon us today to do some serious soul searching and ask the Lord if we are Laodiceans. I say that because I am pretty certain that none of us wants to be spit out of the Lord’s mouth. And in case you are saying to yourself that you are not rich, let me offer some perspective.

Here are two $1 bills. Over half of the world lives on this per day. 2 bucks! I pay more for that for a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts! According to the New York Times last September, the median income for an American family is $59,000. Meanwhile over half of the world has an annual income of about $730. That means that the typical American family makes 80 times what over half the world makes in a year. 80 Times! Can you imagine if someone from those parts of the world heard us talking on our Bluetooth while driving our nice cars saying, “I just don’t know how I am going to make ends meet and here the preacher is talking about tithing. He must have lost his everlovin mind!”

Let me make this personal. By American standards, I as a priest and Beth as a social worker together make an income that would be considered middle class. But by the standards of the rest of the world we are wealthy. I mean not just wealthy but stinken rich and therein lies the problem. Why? Because Jesus spoke about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He said that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for me to enter the kingdom of God. That verse rightfully troubles me.

I heard Francis Chan preach on this passage and he said that he has studied this passage for over 20 years and he has finally come to understand what Jesus really meant when He say that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He said that what Jesus really means was that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Oh my.

Of course the saving line of that portion of Scripture is when the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus answers, “With man it is impossible but with God all things are possible.” So I have hope but I can’t think for a minute that this qualification lets me off the hook so that I can return to my idol and be comfortable with my complacency and lukewarmness.

So rather it feels that way or not, the reality is that we in America are rich and that presents us with a challenge. How do we know money if is an idol to us?

To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, “If you are spending most of your paycheck to pay on consumer debt, you might be a Laodicean.” “If you are seeking financial security above seeking first the kingdom of God, you might be a Laodicean.” “If you give to God your leftovers rather than His first fruits off the top, you might be a Laodicean.” “If you are financially well off but you are hoarding it for yourself rather than sewing it into the kingdom, you might be a Laodicean.”

And of course money is not the only idol that we have in this country. Why we even have a TV show called American Idol and it is aptly named because we are idolatrous in our love of fame. Last week it was on both TV and radio news all day long that Taylor Swift showed up in a local T J Max. Imagine that!! The news folks were so excited about this report that you would have thought that someone had just discovered a cure for cancer. And think of all the ones idolized who simply are famous for being famous.

What about sports? Don’t even get me started. I played sports growing up so I understand the love of a game but come on! You have to admit that sports has become even more than a religion for a vast part of our population. And it’s not just in America. When I lived in Britain the group I was most afraid of were the soccer hooligans. They would get on a train and slash the seats with knives, start fights and even kill folks who supported the opposing team…sacrificing humans to their gods.

Imagine if in order to save money our Vestry decided not to put a roof on the Chapel and we had no heat or air conditioning in the building. In addition imagine that we charged your $50 for parking. Do you think that would have a wee bit of an affect on our Sunday attendance? And yet it could be 5 below and sleeting and folks would still consider it a privilege to pour into Nissan Stadium and freeze their buns off to watch the Titans. “If watching a leather ball getting moved around is more important to you than receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, you might be a Laodicean.”

Sex, politics, amusement, success, I could go on and on about the idols in our society and so could you. But we must also be aware of idols in the Church.

If you know the Bible from cover to cover but you are still as mean as a snake in a sack then you could rightfully be accused of bibliolatry. I have known Anglicans who seem to worship the liturgy even more than the Lord of the liturgy if they even know Him at all. And you have probably met “Christians” who all but hate you if you do not share their doctrines. That too is idolatry. The list of idols in the Church also seems endless. So what do we do about it? How do we tear down our idols?

The answer comes in our lessons today. St. Paul tells us who we are and Jesus tells us what to do. If we will follow their wisdom then we will be anything but complacent or enticed by idols. We will begin to tear down our idols.

First St. Paul tells us who we are. “For you are children of the light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness…for since we belong to the day let us be sober having put on the breastplate of faith and love and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

Jesus declared “I am the light of the world.” If we are “in Christ”, as it repeatedly describes in the New Testament, then we are children of the light. We will share His passion for the kingdom. We will share His compassion for the sick and the poor and the defenseless. We will share His trust of the Father to bring all things to their appointed ends. We will share His knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

And notice what St. Paul says that we put on as our armor. Faith, hope and love. Sound familiar? If the ultimate pursuit of your life is to fbe amous or to be the best dressed or to have the best cars or to live in the best homes, then you will be naturally drawn to the consumer gods. But if you seek to clothe yourself with faith, hope and love then you will be drawn to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who alone grants us these things. So St. Paul tells us who we are. We are children of the light and we need to live accordingly in faith, hope and love.

Next Jesus tells us what to do to avoid complacency and idolatry. He tells a parable to exhort us to become wise stewards. He calls us to this because if we are stewards of God then we will not be servants of the world because a man cannot serve two Masters. But before we can become wise stewards we must first understand what it means to be a steward.

A steward is not an owner. A steward manages that which belongs to the Master on the Master’s behalf. Here is where we rich folks often get it wrong. We think that it belongs to us and so we can do with it whatever we choose. We fail to understand that as stewards we will give an accounting for what we have done with the Master’s resources.

The parish that I came from in Chattanooga was a very wealthy one and I learned there that rich folks also tend to give with strings attached because they wrongly think that it is their money. They fall to the temptation to think like an owner rather than a steward. Conversely I knew a wealthy guy who was incredibly generous and he used to say to me, “I’m not worried about giving it away because it’s not mine in the first place. Besides God has plenty more where that came from.” That’s thinking like a steward.

In this parable Jesus calls on us not just to be a stewards but to be wise stewards. How do we do that?

First we reject the wicked servant’s perspective. He saw the Master as a hard and unfair man and that perspective led to him being paralyzed with fear. He said, “So I was afraid and hid your talent in the ground.”

But that is not the God and Father that Jesus came to reveal. Jesus came to reveal a God who, as we read in the Psalms, has “been our refuge from one generation to another.” He is a Father who is full of compassion, who did not even spare His own Son for us. This view of God will allows us to take risks and step out in faith rather than being frozen with fear.

Second we become wise stewards when we put the Master’s resources where it has the best opportunity to grow. That is what the stewards in the parable did. And we find those places where His resources can grow when we start thinking like stewards who make the kingdom their priority.

For example when you buy a new car the dealer will walk you out and pat you on the back and tell you that you have made a wise investment. But that is a lie. A new car is not an investment because that the new car will depreciate 19% in the first year. You lose hundreds of dollars just driving it out of the dealership!

What if instead you bought a reliable used car and took the difference between that and a new car and gave it to Food for the Poor or sponsored a child at World Vision or sewed it into St. Patrick’s? It is my conviction that it is in this way that we see the Master’s resources grow because we would be helping to grow His kingdom which is His priority.

And the win/win for us in being wise stewards is that it takes our hearts away from idols and put them where they need to be. The Scripture tells us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. Our hearts follow the money. If we sew our treasure into idols then we will be idolaters. If we sew our treasure into the kingdom then that is where our hearts will be and we will be honored as wise stewards.

So in the end this parable tells us that we have two choices. Our choices are to either be rebuked because of our thickening lees or being blessed because we became wise stewards. On the Last Day rather than being spit out of Jesus’ mouth we will hear, “Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.”

Equality or Justice?

No Equality

It seems that many of the debates in our society today center around the idea of equality. We hear of social equality, marriage equality and more recently the hot topic is income equality. While at first blush these ideals seem to concur with Christian ethics, as the saying goes, “it ain’t necessarily so.”

Christian ethics would have us champion justice rather than equality. Amos 5:24 “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream.”

The prophet Micah said

“He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Justness is an attribute of God, and because man is created in His image, there is an inherent desire for justice as well as a disdain for injustice. Equality however is a different story. It is not a biblical concept. Jesus set the opposite example of equality by “not regarding equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:6). St Paul says that we are to have that same mind and goes on to say, “Do noting from rivalry or conceit but in humility count others a more significant than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3)

Jesus treated all of His disciples justly but He did not treat them equally. He was particularly close to John, whom the Scriptures call “beloved.” He had a unique relationship with Peter, James and John, taking them alone to the Mount of Transfiguration. He had a different relationship with the 12 Apostles than he did with the 72 disciples as well as the 120 and the masses.

Even in the life to come there will not be equality. Jesus tells the Apostles that they will sit on the 12 thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). While I don’t pretend to understand what that means exactly it does tell me that I won’t be on a throne because those seats are already taken. I seriously doubt that I will spend eternity pouting because “that’s not fair.”

It seems in the distribution of gifts and ministries that the Holy Spirit is also uninterested in equality. St. Paul tells us that prophecy is a greater gift than tongues. In the list of ministries “apostles” take precedent over “pastors and teachers.” All in the Body of Christ are gifted but not all are gifted equally. Some gifts have more honor than others. That is all by the Spirit’s choice who treats no one unjustly.

The danger of equality is that it is rooted in covetousness. Equality is expressed when I demand what you have, even if I have done nothing to deserve or earn it. Equality, especially income equality, is a Marxist concept that is the fruit and fuel of dialectical materialism. In theory it does sound like a utopian dream but because of the fall of man, it became a nightmare. Last century 94 million people were killed under this quest for equality in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Eastern Europe. That is over 15 times the number that died in the Holocaust, over which we are justifiably outraged. There is not one example anywhere in the world that this Marxist demand for equality has worked.

As George Orwell pointed out in Animal Farm, the quest for equality inevitably leads to some pigs being more equal than others. In the supposed communist utopia of Cuba the average worker earns about $25 per month, while according to Forbes the estimated net worth of Fidel Castro was $900 million. It therefore must be concluded that the quest for equality inevitably leads to injustice on a massive scale.

Consider this example. When I was in the university many of my classes were graded on a curve. This meant that a certain percentage would get an A and a certain percentage would fail and the rest would compete for the grades in between. Imagine the response if the professor announced that in the name of equality the nerds, who had burned to midnight oil to get the A’s, would have to share their grades with the jocks, who never came to class, so that everyone comes out with a C. The nerds would rightly be crying out for justice rather than equality.

Eschewing equality, the Christian focuses on justice and this ethic begins with the imago Dei. That is that all men are created in the image of God. We are to treat others with honor and respect and come to the aid of the defenseless such as the widow and orphan and the unborn. We are to champion for those who are treated unjustly because of their sex or race or beliefs. The only equality that we should seek is equality under the law and in this we are really demanding that justice be blind, which it must be if it is to be just.

God’s Vision for You

God's Vision

Last week Fr. Chris challenged us to have a vision for our spiritual lives. He asked where we see ourselves to be spiritually in 3 months or 3 years or 10 years. His point is that we don’t mature by osmosis. He suggested that a good place to begin is with our baptismal covenant and the responsibilities that we promise the Lord that we will undertake. Fr. Chris wrote later, “spiritual growth is not an accident. It has to be a priority and a discipline.” I could not agree more.

So I want to piggyback on his sermon today and suggest to you that having a vision of where you are going begins with a vision of how you see yourself. So who are you? How do you see yourself in relation to God? What do you think that God thinks about you? Your answers will definitely impact your journey.

If you see God as an angry teacher then you will tend to sit in the very back of the class so that He never calls on you. If you see yourself as that last kid that God would pick to be on His team then you will be a no show to the game. If you see yourself as that loser child who is always disappointing his Father then you imagine that every time God see you He lets out a heavy sigh. If you see God as strict taskmaster then you go through your day flinching every time you think that He is about to give you a smack.

The vision that you have of God and of yourself in relationship to God will affect how much you are willing to sacrifice to accomplish your spiritual goals. If the vision is not compelling then the sacrifice simply will not be worth it. But if the vision is compelling then come hell or high water you will do what needs to be done.

First lets tackle the question of how the Lord sees you. We just read it in the Psalm. 149 vs. 4. It says “For the Lord takes pleasure in His people.” There is a beautiful passage in the prophet Zephaniah that takes it a step further.

The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
    a mighty savior,
Who will rejoice over you with gladness,
    and renew you in his love,
Who will sing joyfully because of you,

Does that fit with your current vision of God, that He rejoices with gladness and sings with joy because of you? This is the God that Jesus came to reveal to us. One who wants us to call him “Father” and is so concerned about every facet of our lives that He knows the number of the hairs on our heads. (Some of us make His job easier). If you ever doubt His love for you then go back to good Friday and remember what He gave up to make you His own. He literally moved heaven and earth to redeem you.

That is how God sees us. So how are we to see ourselves? According to the Scriptures first and foremost we are to see ourselves as people who are in Christ. When you were baptized you were buried with Christ and raised with Him to a new life. This means that you no longer belong to yourself. Jesus tells us that He is the Vine and we are the branches and apart from Him we can do nothing. He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride “and the two shall be as one.” He unites Himself to us through offering us His Body and Blood so that when we receive the consecrated bread and wine we receive Him. That is how united we are with Him. This is our identity. Who are we? We are “in Christ” that is who we are.

St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians prays that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened to understand three other things that will impact how we see our selves. First he prays that we would know the hope to which He has called us.

As most of you know, hope is used in a very different way in the New Testament than we use it in today. In the New Testament, hope is a reality in God that we have not yet realized. But it is so certain of a reality that it should affect how we live our lives today.

If you knew that your name was in an irrevocable trust and that at some point in the future that you would inherit a vast fortune, do you think it would have an impact on how you live your life today? Of course it would. If nothing else you wouldn’t any longer worry about your financial future. You would also most likely live more joyously and more generously.

Well our future in Christ is more certain than an irrevocable trust and as St. Paul prayed, may the eyes of our heats be enlightened to see it.

And what is that hope, what is the reality yet to be realized? It is the promised return of Christ. It is the promised resurrection of the dead. It is the promise that these bodies of corruption will be exchanged for incorruptible ones. It is the promise that we will be joint heirs with Christ in a new heaven and a new earth. It is the promise that we will be with the Lord forever.

And should this hope affect how we live our lives today? How could it not? Our hope is what gives us different priorities from the world as well as different values and different goals. The world is about grabbing all the gusto and “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But we are to be about loving God with all of our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. The world is about storing up riches on earth. We are to be about storing up riches in heaven. We understand that while you can’t take it with you, you can send it on ahead by being good stewards of the Lord’s resources. The certainty of our future, our hope, most definitely influences how we live from day to day. If it does not then the eyes of your heart still needs to be enlightened.

The next thing that St. Paul prays for us is in some translations that we would know of his glorious inheritance AMONG the saints. Actually the way this sentence is structured it can also read, as our translation does, that we would know his glorious inheritance IN the saints. They are God’s glorious inheritance. This brings to mind the time of persecution in the early church when the deacon was ordered to turn over the treasures of the church to the governing officials and a couple of days later the deacon brought them the poor and the sick. He understood the true riches of the Church.

“His glorious inheritance in the saints” brings us to our celebration today that is a continuation of our celebration of All Saints’ last Wednesday. The Scriptures tell us to give honor where honor is due and so the Church has made a principle feast and given us two opportunities for doing just that. When you consider it, you realize that we stand on some pretty broad shoulders. It is almost beyond our imaginations what those before us have gone through and suffered and sacrificed in order to give us the precious heritage that we hold so dear. This leaves us with the question if we are willing to do the same for those who come after us? The “faith once delivered to the saints” is a treasure that we are to pass on without addition or dilution.

The third thing for which he prays is that we would know the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe. If God willed all of these wonderful things for us, but did not have the power to bring them about, then our hope would be nothing more than a wish. But because of His power then all things are possible and so we do not hope in vain. His sovereignty over all secures us in our daily lives and allows us to rest in His will.

In his new book called Anxious For Nothing, Max Lucado tells of a time when he was visiting in Brazil with a long time friend who was a missionary pilot. Max said, He flew a circuit of remote towns in a four-seat plane that threatened to come undone at the slightest gust of wind. Wilbur and Orville had a sturdier aircraft.”

As they were flying over the jungle Max’s mind was filled with visions of crash landing and being swallowed by an anaconda. He gripped his seat and squirmed like a kid. Finally the pilot shouted to him over the noise of the engine, “We won’t face anything that I can’t handle. You might as well trust me to fly the plane.”

If we were to really know the greatness of God’s power toward us, we absolutely could trust Him to fly the plane. Because of the greatness of His power we can see events in our lives as reflections of His loving and powerful care. While not everything that happens to us every day is a direct result of the hand of God, you don’t have to have too many divine appointments happen before you start to doubt coincidences and start believing that the Shepherd is watching over His sheep.

Some people doubt that the Lord is that intimately involved in each of our lives but that is because, to quote JB Phillips, their god is too small. If He can spin universes off of His fingertips then He can get you where you need to be when you need to be there. When I think back over my life I realize that if x or y or z did not happen then I would not be who or where I am today. What brought about the x or y or z in my life if not the power of the Lord? It wasn’t an alignment of the planets and it certainly wasn’t my doing. I’m not smart enough to weave what has become the tapestry of my life.

And where we particularly see His power at work towards us is when He brings good out of evil. In His power He was able to take the execution of the only sinless Man who ever lived and make it the very cause of our salvation. I would imagine that if we had the time that nearly every one here could give a testimony of something happening to them that they would not wish on their worst enemy and yet God was able to work it to the good. People who are able to see His power work in this circumstance are people of faith and often are used as wounded healers. People who cannot see God’s power at work, even among things that go badly, become crippled by bitterness and unforgiveness. So we need to understand His power.

Fr. Chris reminded us last week that we do not fulfill our spiritual vision by wandering aimlessly towards it. As the saying goes, “if you have nothing to aim at you will hit it every time.” But God has not called us to hit nothing. As St. Paul’s prayer demonstrates, God has great intentionality for us. He calls us to a sure vision. He calls us to be enlightened to see that vision. He calls us to see ourselves through His eyes and as a result we will do whatever it takes to see the vision fulfilled.

Let us pray. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” Amen.