Theology 101: Idolatry

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 

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Politics and Religion.

Those are the two things that are off limits at my mother’s dinner table. You can burp the alphabet, tell an off color joke, you can come to dinner dressed in the clothes you woke up in. But you start talking about religion or politics, and You. Are. Done.

Perhaps this is because my mother is a good southern woman who was raised to keep conversation polite.  Here’s what I think: it is because these are the two topics that are most likely to start an argument. Because we don’t all think the same things, do we? In my family, we are all across the map—Baptists sitting next to atheists, sitting next to Republicans, sitting next to whatever Bernie Sanders people are calling themselves these days. So the potential for conflict, when it comes to religion and politics, is high. And once the door is open, everyone has an opinion. Better to keep the door closed. Better to keep things safe.

Which makes for some really polite, but incredibly boring dinner parties. Because let me tell you, the dinners I remember best aren’t the ones where everyone behaved themselves. I bet you know what I am talking about. In my family, there are some pretty epic stories about individuals who broke the rules, resulting in some pretty heated conversations.

Luke’s Gospel this morning describes one of those “memorable” dinner parties. One of those parties that didn’t exactly go as planned. Because Jesus showed up.

Who knows why the Pharisee invited Jesus to his dinner party—maybe he was just trying to be friendly, maybe he was curious about the new rabbi in town. Maybe he figured this new guy would play it safe, stick to the rule-book, not ruffle the feathers.

Maybe he figured that, just like we do, Jesus knew what the rules were and cared about them. Because that is what we all really want right?  When I have a dinner party, I expect people to behave. And when I go to a party and don’t know everyone there, then I try my best to behave too. I stand quietly in the social area. Maybe I say hi to a few folks. And if we get to talking, we stick to “safe” conversation: “What do you do?”” Where do you live?” “Tell me about your kids.” You get the picture.

Not Jesus. It quickly becomes clear that Jesus is “that guy”—you know, the guy at the dinner party that everyone can’t stop staring at, or listening to, because he is making a scene.

A-Woman-With-DropsyIt all starts with a sick man. There is a man at the party with Dropsy. Anyone know what dropsy is? It is severe edema. Probably caused by severe heart failure. The man is swollen up like a balloon. Makes you wonder what he is doing at a dinner party—edema can be incredibly painful, and was essential as slow, painful death sentence in Jesus’ Day—people who suffered from it slowly drowned in their own bodies.

So of course, Jesus draws their attention to this man, whose suffering is on full display while they eat and make merry on the Sabbath. He asks them—if your child or your ox was drowning in a well, would you save them on the Sabbath? What about this man, who is drowning in his body? Is there a difference?

But Jesus isn’t done. He just can’t help himself. He moves on to the guests themselves. All of a sudden we are getting advice from the Rabbi about seating assignments and guest lists. He is like the ancient Jewish version of Ms Manners, only none of these people asked him for advice.

Whenever they ask prospective presidents who they would like to meet someday or have a meal with, and they say Jesus—I think of this dinner party. Because clearly, Jesus isn’t interested in playing by anybody’s rules. Jesus isn’t going to behave and be polite. He is going to speak truth. To the poor and the sick, and to the wealthy and powerful. Doesn’t matter who you are, Jesus is going to say what needs to be said.

And what is the truth that needs to be said?

Perhaps we need to hear that we have spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter.

Let me explain. A friend of mine was sharing this week that she HATES this text, because Jesus seems to single out all of these people based on their social statues or health status. For her, this just seems wrong. Aren’t we all just people, she asks? But of course we do this all the time. If we are really honest with ourselves, we are constantly sorting ourselves against the people around us, ranking ourselves based on who seems to have the most, or the least; whose life seems better or worse than our own. And if we are honest, most of us would prefer to find ourselves, if not at the top of our pecking order, at least above the median.

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Why? Because many of us have been raised to believe that these are the things that define us. That our job, our house, our stuff, even our health are the things that matter. That our worth is roughly equivalent to our investment account or the appearance of our home. A fellow clergy person shared with me recently that when he was young his dad raised him to grow up and take care of his family. So he did. He got a job, and he lived at his job. Barely saw the family that he was trying to provide for. He was just doing what he had been taught.

And perhaps you may notice as well that these are things that we think we can control. We decide what we do, where we live, what car we drive, whether we work on at the gym every morning. And if we can control them, it can be tempting to believe that others can too. So we judge the poor, the unemployed, the sick. Can’t you just get a job? Can’t you stay out of trouble? Can’t you just take care of yourself? How quickly grace evaporates when we think we have control. We do this. We do this.

But not Jesus. Jesus will have none of that. For Jesus, dinner tables aren’t just dinner tables. They are practice grounds for the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, and in the Kingdom of God, everyone is invited to the dinner party. All of our jockeying, all that sorting that we waste our time worrying over, none of that matters in God’s house. If we are honest, those things can be a weight around our necks, pulling us down and away from what really matters. And what really matters? Paul perhaps said it best when he said: let mutual love continue. What matters is the community that gathers at Christ’s table—not where we sit, but that we are there. Together. What matters is that the Jesus who sat at that table and pissed off the Pharisees didn’t preach anything he didn’t also do himself—for Jesus built a ministry out of welcoming the lonely, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, whether those people had everything or barely enough to get by.

And guess who we worship?

Not success.Martin-Luther-idolatry.jpg

Not money.

Not comfort.

Not power.

All of those are false idols. False promises of a secure life.

We worship Jesus, who entered this world poor and weak and small so that he could teach us about a love that doesn’t rank or divide, or exclude.

We worship Jesus, who doesn’t care who you are or what you have—he just bids you come.

We worship Jesus, whose table is open to all of us, because whatever we have, we all get hungry and thirsty, and God would feed us.

We worship Jesus, who is the same today, yesterday and forever.

We worship Jesus.

And that is enough.

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When Knowledge Becomes an Idol

1 CORINTHIANS 8:1-13

1Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.

4Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.8“Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

MARK 1:21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

I just want to start our conversation today by acknowledging that I am about to say something that could very well sound like Presbyterian Heresy. My only consolation is knowing that, as the frozen chosen, you are highly unlikely to get riled up enough to walk out on me, but here it goes:

God doesn’t care how smart we are.

There it is. I said it. I, your Harvard educated, knowledge loving, greek and Hebrew reading Presbyterian pastor, just admitted that God’s primary concern isn’t how “smart” we are. Coming from the reformed tradition, this might seem like quite a shock—the very foundations of Presbyterianism rest on the ideals of the Enlightenment. John Calvin started the movement that encompasses Presbyterianism with the idea that our intellect is our first means to God—he believed that, given an education, the common man (or woman) could approach God by him or herself.

By democratizing access to the tools of religion, Calvin unwittingly spawned a revolution in everything that the church held sacred. Suddenly everyone had an (educated) opinion about God’s will for the church. Whereas before, the priests guarded access to Truth through the Word and the liturgy, all of a sudden every change was up for debate. And my, what a debate! Imagine, Christians debating and fighting over every aspect of the life of the church—basically everything we take for granted in this sanctuary was, at one point, considered heresy or worse by Christians who preceded us. Just a sample of things that educated Christians fought over:

-pews (a development of the reformation era that went hand in hand with Calvin’s belief that the work of liturgy was first and foremost not the sacrament, but approaching God through the accumulation of knowledge in the sermon

-candles: too ritualistic or a biblical symbol of Christ?

-stained glass: does it distract from or enhance the worship of the people of God?

-the organ: too modern, or a new means of making a joyful noise to the Lord?

-choir robes: are they a symbol of pride and vanity, or a reminder of our roles?

-the hymnal: is it ir is it not permissible to sing music that isn’t scripture, but inspired by it?

It is easy to forget that so much of what we take for granted was, at one point or another, the subject of debate, often involving two side who “knew” what God wanted, and who “knew” the other side was mistaken, sinful, or worse.

But Jesus doesn’t seem all that concerned these sorts of debates when he shows up at the synagogue in our reading this morning. He didn’t take note of how many candles there were (or weren’t). He didn’t comment on the music, and as far as we know he brought no special clothes. No, when Jesus turned up in the synagogue in Capernum, he was interested in one thing, and that was this: holiness.

Now holiness is one of those words that can mean a lot of different things to different people, so let’s think about what holiness is.

I’ve heard it said that holiness is like cheese…it’s all about maturity. I think we need a little more than that to go on, however.

So here it is: one of the best ways I can describe it for myself is that holiness is like exercise.

Most of us don’t go to the gym because it is our favorite place to be. We go there because we want to be healthy, and we know that one way to get healthy is to exercise. There are a lot of different ways to go about it—you can run, or lift weights, or take a yoga class. All of them will get you moving in the direction of the kind of healthy you want to be.

  1. It is about improvement rather than a final destination. Exercise isn’t the goal—it helps you get somewhere that you want to be.
  2. If exercise is about improvement, then it follows that the more you do it, the closer you get to your goal.
  3. There is a cost, but if you do it enough it is worth it. Exercise takes time, and sometimes it will make you sore. You might even get hurt. But you have to push through it—you have to endure the difficulty—if you want to reap the reward.
  4. It is easier for some of us than others. We don’t like to hear this, but we don’t all improve at the same pace. Some people start exercising and see immediate and obvious changes, while others of us struggle or notice little difference. But all of us improve. All of us are better for doing it.
  5. Finally, maintenance is required. When you reach your fitness goals, you don’t get to stop and go back to the way you were before. If you want to stay fit, you have to keep exercising. Of course, uou can quit anytime you want, but if you do, it will cost you.

All of this is to say that holiness, like exercise, is a process. It is a question of character, less a why than a how. It is about the process of drawing closer to God. And just like exercise, the process of holiness can be expressed in a myriad of ways, but no one expression is necessarily the best version. And in fact, a healthy relationship with God is secure enough in itself to handle the reality that the process will always change.

In Presbyterian speak, Holiness is something that we call Sanctification, which is a fancy theological word that means that holiness is expressed through the ways in which we live out our lives as people saved and transformed by God’s grace.

So what might be the “spiritual exercises” of holiness that we are called to practice? When Jesus spoke about holiness, what did he have in mind? I have a few ideas:

  • Hospitality: our faith needs to be welcoming to others. Look at Jesus—he was willing to welcome anyone who came to him with an open heart seeking God. So we must ask ourselves: who is welcome at our table, and whom do we merely tolerate? Are we accepting others as they are in love, or are we rigid in our expectations about what the hungry and thirsty are allowed to look like?
  • Justice: Jesus came for the sick, the imprisoned, the broken, and the marginalized. In other words, he was concerned with justice for all of God’s people. In our scripture this morning, he addresses this problem by banishing the demon that possesses a sick man. Now, the medical establishment doesn’t recognize demon possession (and good luck getting your insurance to reimburse an exorcism) but how many of us can relate to the notion that we can be possessed by forces beyond us? How many of us have seen the damage wrought to loved ones and strangers who are possessed by poverty, hunger, addiction, sickness, greed, materialism, feelings of inadequacy? And so our own faith ought to be interested in healing brokenness, too, whatever form it takes.
  • Love: whatever we do, if we can’t do it with love, we are lost.

If you need an example of what this might look like, I draw your attention to our second reading this morning, from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Apparently the community was having some problems with hospitality. In this case, knowledge was getting in the way of being welcoming to newer Christians

You see, in Corinth, a port city known for its plethora of cultural and religious backgrounds, many new Christians were not Jewish but Gentile. Many of them had grown up surrounded by a culture in which people routinely sacrified meat before the idols of pagan gods. To eat that meat was to pledge your allegiance and fealty to the god or goddess.

More mature Christians like Paul understood those idols to be nothing but stone and wood. Any oaths or offerings made to them were meaningless. The meat couldn’t possibly possess the power of a God that didn’t exist, so there was no conflict in eating the meat if you were a Christian. But the newer Christians had trouble with this. They struggled already to maintain their relationship to Christ in a pluralistic society, and seeing mature Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols was apparently not just confusing, but dangerous to their faith in God.

So what does Paul do? Paul exhorts the stronger Christians to bend for the weaker ones—to hold off doing things, even things that are perfectly okay, in the interest of loving their brothers and sisters of nascent faith. To stay away from idol meat, even if you know it is just meat, because you love your brothers and sisters in Christ more than you love being right.

In other words, process. Paul exhorts the Corinthians, reminds us, that holiness, true holiness, isn’t about being right. It is about the work of hospitality, justice, and love, both to one another and to the world beyond the church. Because it is that work, that willingness to bend for one another, that will ultimately bear the fruit of a mature faith.

Because that is the goal, isn’t it? And I don’t know about you, but it is a lot easier to get there together than alone. We need one another to encourage, to exhort, to remind us that every path walked in faith is holy, and valid, and necessary.

So I have to wonder: what sort of team do we want to be? What sort of holiness are we after here at IPC? Because the Holy Spirit is out there, bidding us come. But we move forward if we aren’t together. It’s up to us to focus on what’s most important: love, justice, hospitality—and trust that if we focus on those things, the rest will work itself out.