Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Texts: Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6,19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
Letting Go of Glittering Images
On March 30, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Fasting. Once more popular and prevalent than feast days like Thanksgiving, Fast Days were opportunities for the political community to gather in prayer in order to place a national crisis within a larger, ultimate context.
When Lincoln issued this proclamation, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the nation was in such a crisis. The Confederacy had not only proved impossible to defeat, but its armies were successfully invading the North. The fate of the United States hung in the balance. At the center of the his proclamation, Lincoln wrote the following:
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown.
But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!
It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
Reading these words more than 150 years later, Lincoln’s language here remains startling. Lincoln’s rhetoric of responsibility, of mutual accountability, is all but lost in contemporary political culture. We have become accustomed to a politics of blame where national difficulties are most often attributed to a rival party’s policies.
Rarer still is the theological message he delivered. Lincoln named blessings that many have come to view as central to our national identity: “peace,” “prosperity,” “wealth,” “power,” and the belief that these blessings come from our superior “wisdom and virtue.”
Lincoln wanted his fellow citizens to recognize that every blessing they had was, first and foremost, a gift from God. He encouraged them to confess that they had “forgotten God” and had come to rely too much on their own self-sufficiency. Nations, like individuals, owe everything they count as their own to forces larger than themselves. Only by remembering this truth could the nation be preserved.
Lincoln was far from the first political leader to use this language. In Colonial New England, during times of crisis, the entire colony would stop and hear a “Fast Sermon” so they could search their souls and repent of the sins affecting their common life before it was “too late.”
Most often, the sins identified in these sermons concerned the material prosperity the colonists had achieved, which exceeded what previous generations had experienced. Almost without exception, these sermons would look back on the lives of those who came before them in order to note how far they had fallen spiritually. In order to survive the crisis then faced, they had to remember their forbearers’ faith.
Standing at the point of origin for this rhetorical tradition is today’s reading from Exodus. Here, we encounter the paradigmatic moment of backsliding in the Bible. The Hebrews have followed the Lord through the Red Sea. God has preserved them in the wilderness by giving them manna to eat and water to drink.
However, while Moses is away on the mountain, the people approach Aaron and ask for a God to worship. Aaron collects their gold and casts an image of a calf, which recalled the fertility gods worshipped in Egypt. They begin to worship this image, making sacrifices for their “well-being” and to dance before it.
God reports this activity to Moses, and he is about to strike them down. Moses, however, begs God to spare his people and to remember his promises to preserve them forever. Then God, miraculously, changes his mind and forgives the people. The crisis passes and disaster is avoided.
Within Judaism and Christianity, this passage from Exodus identifies the basic shape of every sin that affects humankind: Idolatry. Fundamentally, idolatry means the worship of other gods. To fall prey to the sin of idolatry is to put other things in the place God should occupy in our lives. A trace of that unfaithfulness is found running through every other sin we commit.
Idolatry stands behind Lincoln’s proclamation at two points. Idolatry begins with forgetfulness. Lincoln therefore mourns the fact that “we have forgotten God.” Likewise, in today’s reading from Exodus, the people turn to Aaron after forgetting what they have experienced. They not only forget Moses who has disappeared from their midst but all the moments in their journey when God has acted on their behalf. Most importantly, by returning to the gods that they worshiped in Egypt, they forget their own identity. They forget, in other words, who they were as a liberated people and return to a kind of slavery.
Lincoln also identifies what idolatry looks like in our own American context. For the Hebrews, Idolatry took the form of returning to religious practices that had made them slaves. In contrast, Lincoln identifies the “prosperity” we feel as the result our enlarging national “numbers, wealth and power.” These material goods give an identity founded on sand rather than rock. Rather than making us free the worship of these things makes us slaves.
It has become common coin for Christian preachers to equate idolatry with selfishness, with self-centeredness. Idolatry means, a campus evangelist once explained to me when I was in college, placing yourself on the throne of your life. Idolatry collapses the moment we step off that throne and let God take our place.
However, I think that today’s reading from Exodus identifies a deeper lesson that we ignore at our peril. I don’t think the connection between idolatry and self-centeredness is straightforward. I don’t think the Hebrews acted selfishly. I think they were miserable waiting for Moses to return. They were worried that God had forgotten them. This anxiety forced them to create idols that only increased the power of the fears that drove them away from God in the first place.
The problem with idols is that we become like the thing we worship. Living a life dedicated to wealth, power and prosperity makes us miserable. We become lonely, lifeless, godless beings, created by an excess of earthly desires that make us strangers to God, to each other, to ourselves. Following sociologists and psychologists, we might call this phenomenon “affluenza,” the social disease and distress so many feel living in a society marked by increasing inequality.
I believe this disease and distress is real. No matter what success any of us might experience, living a life dedicated to excess wrecks our lives and dissolves the ties binding us together.
I believe this disease and distress is widespread. No matter who we are or how generous we have been, each of us can relate to this loneliness, this longing, this fear, this unhappiness.
Finally, I believe that John Calvin was right when he wrote, in the early seventeenth century, that “every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” Idolatry defines more than a deviant practice or the unintended consequence of wayward economic policies. It describes a central part of the human condition, the original sin that keeps us from knowing and accepting God’s love. It can only be cured therefore by an even more powerful act of grace.
This grace is evident at the end of our reading from Exodus, when God changes his mind and, rather than destroying his people, determines to remain faithful to them in spite of their unfaithfulness. This, in turn, begins the pattern of redemption that will be fulfilled when Christ comes to redeem us, to forgive us, and to reconcile us.
Lincoln was therefore right to call for prayer, because the heart of the problem he identified was spiritual. Idolatry can only be broken though a deliberate act of remembrance, repentance, and return. My God have mercy on us, as he had mercy on the Hebrews. May God lead us to see beyond the idols that wrap us in the chains of anxiety and imprison us lonely cells of our own making. May God liberate us from this bondage that we fall into repeatedly so that we might feel the joy of his forgiveness. May we return to the Lord who waits to welcome us as a father who thought his son was lost, but now is found, dead, but now alive. Amen.