“Story Defeats Idolatry” – Nov. 12, 2017 sermon

Joshua 24 and Psalm 78

This sermon struggles to name the difficulty of Veteran’s Day in the context of Christian worship. I believe that the church, as a peace community, has to offer an alternative to the unfettered, blind, and emotional patriotism of our day. It seems that too many churches have sold their souls for this thin gruel better served in a Soviet gulag. I have tried not to belabor the issue, but I least want you to be aware that I have struggled theologically with the idolatries of wealth and Americanism. 

Everybody has a story. Life is made up of those gatherings where we repeat our stories. If we have known each other for a long time, we tell the same stories over and over. Each time, we tell the story as if it is new and our friends laugh as if they have never heard any of this before. Then on the way home, one of our friends will grumble, “How many times is he going to tell that story? We’ve heard it a hundred times.” The more we tell our stores, the more we listen to the stories of others, the more connected we become.

Did you know that the god or gods that you actually worship are embedded in your story? Our stories tell the world who or what we worship.

In Psalm 78 we are commanded to be storytellers. Let’s see if there are other gods hidden in the stories we are telling. In Texas they have these annual rattlesnake hunts. In Sweetwater, Texas they even have an annual Rattlesnake Festival. Well, I am not big on snakes, but this is going to be our annual fake god hunt. We are going to root out the other gods that have slithered into our story.

Joshua says, “Put away the gods that your ancestors served.” Problem: We no longer know how to recognize idolatry. We have put “In God We Trust” on our money ” and “one nation under God” in our pledge and thus created the idol of “Americanism.” There’s no better day to call our attention to our idolatry than the Sunday we recognize our veterans. I would not want us to believe that our veterans died for a worthless god. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: “The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but actually never does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. It is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

The blind patriotism currently in vogue in the USA has a weak theology. It is unwilling to admit a basic biblical truth: All have sinned. We can’t fall for the temptation of drinking the potion that whatever the USA does is good, just, and right. We must remember that we are part of a body that believes that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The church has a vocation of pushing back against the nation-state, in particular the militaristic and economic habits that support the state.

Surely we can grasp that it is an affront to the holiness of God when we drag our little fake gods into the house of God and expect to be blessed. It is hard for us to wrap our minds around the polytheistic nature of our lives, but our religious history is filled with idols. Remember King Manasseh? “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole as King Ahab of Israel had done. He built altars in the house of the Lord. He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. The carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of the Lord.”

We have a history of worshiping many gods. Idolatry is first and foremost a matter of desire. What we most desperately want indicates the idols that shape our lives. We have many desires and thus many gods. We live in a land where there are many gods and many lords. We can fill a football stadium with a 100,000 people, but not a worship service. Our land is overrun with fake gods.

Jesus says we can’t worship God and Money. The Bible word is Mammon. Many folks would rather have their name on the Forbes list of the richest persons in the world rather than the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Mammon has a holy land: Wall Street. Mammon has a holy book: The New York Stock Exchange. Mammon has a mascot: The golden goose. We say, “Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Be careful, goose worshipers that the goose doesn’t become obese, develop blocked arteries, and die of a heart attack. We will insist that we don’t worship idols but the average Christian in American gives 2.5% to the church. Did you know that the tithe is a hedge against idolatry?

Our land is filled with pagan temples: Stadiums, casinos, NASCAR, college football, concerts, mega-malls and amusement parks? We have structures that make the Tower of Babel look like a Lego project. I stood outside a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi one afternoon and watched busloads of senior citizens rolling into the Cathedral of Gambling. I watched them in a room full of one-armed gods pull the lever in hopes of getting a big pot of money. I watched them give away their entire Social Security check to the casino god. So don’t try to convince me that we are not the worshiper of idols.

In Genesis 31, when Jacob has deceived his father-in-law, and as he is making his getaway, Rachel “stole her father’s household gods.” I call this move by Rachel the “just in case gods.” Rachel has given her heart, her life, and her future to Jacob, and to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but “just in case,” she has put her father’s household gods” in her checked luggage. While her husband robs her father blind, Rachel takes all his gods.

How many “just in case” gods do we possess? Perhaps you have seen the baseball movie, “Bull Durham”? Annie Savoy: “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring.” By the way, Annie was wrong about how many beads there are in a Catholic rosary.

The best defense against idolatry is our one-God story: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Joshua 24 is one big God story. The God stories are there to produce hope and faith in each new generation. The god we worship is embedded in the stories we tell.

As Christians we have a story, oh, yes we do. Somewhere in our tales of adventure, talking about the weather, the stock market, our aches and pains, our wretched relatives that we have to see whether we like it or not, we need to sprinkle in our Jesus story. Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word. But remember that our stories don’t exist to give us power over others, but to allow us to have the strength to turn the others into neighbors.  Walter Brueggemann says that the choice Joshua offers us is a life-or-death decision about God and neighbor. The God-decision is recognition that we are not God. The neighbor-decision is awareness that the ones unlike us deserve inclusion in our community and a share in the goodies of the community. When we are locked in to only one story, we become enemies of those who have a different version of the story. One story people see all other storytellers as demonic as in the frequent condemnation of Muslims that comes forth from evangelical preachers and politicians. One story people have no room for “What if?” While it seems paradoxical, you can commit to one story without excluding all other stories. When it comes to God, I commit to the Christian story. When it comes to neighbor, I commit to multiple stories.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes her writing fiction as a child. Every story she wrote featured snowy landscapes, and children with blond hair eating apples. But she’d never seen snow, didn’t have blond hair, and ate mangoes, not apples. The only story she knew came from American and British children’s literature, books packed with blond children and apples. Years later, when she came to the USA, she confronted the same problem in reverse. Her college roommate was stunned that Adichie could speak English, enjoy American pop music, and operate a stove. In other words, the roommate had inherited a single story of Africans, a story of AIDS, famine, and ignorance. It was not a story roomy enough to accommodate Adichie.

In Psalms 78, God commanded our ancestors to teach their stories to their children67so that they should set their hope in God. In order to have stories to tell we must have multiple God-experiences not multiple gods. Stories require content, events, practices, habits. It is not much of a story to tell your children that you go to church if you don’t have anything better to do. We have to practice our faith so that we can tell our children about the successes and the struggles, tell them of the times when we really knew the presence of God in difficult times, tell them of how God helped us face challenges, how we kept our faith, how we won the victory, how we overcame the world.

Our stories matter a great deal. Our God story is a hedge against idolatry. Our God story creates community, empathy, character, and a faith strong enough to live forever. The story is our daily work. “Today I will serve the Lord.” This is how you beat back the allure of false gods. You never give them the time of day.

I want us to tell our stories so that when the shout goes up, “Who is on the Lord’ss side” we and our children and our children’s children “We will serve the Lord our God and him only will be serve.” Let us go into our closets and cellars and storage units and drag our fake gods into the light of day. It is time for God’s people to have a garage sale. Drag out all those idols; sell them on the cheap. Present yourself to the Lord as willing and faithful servants, a people of pure hearts and unrelenting love and loyalty. Tell your children: This is our story. We serve God!