[Sermon] Turn Us From Our Idols

I was given the sacred opportunity to preach a sermon today - the third Sunday after the Epiphany - at Truckee Lutheran Presbyterian Church (sermon starts at the 5:50 mark) and/or read it here. May it speak new life into you.

Ponder with me for a moment… Reflecting back to a year ago… So many people thought 2020 was going to be epic. A new decade. A “new vision,” as some (including myself) posited.

And then, spring happened. And the wheels started coming off. And we were all proved right. It was epic, for sure. Just not in the direction that we’d wanted. We all lived through it, so I won’t rehash the headlines of 2020.

At this point in the new year, I don’t know about you, but I’m keeping my expectations low for 2021. The good news is, God works wonders in our low expectations. We’re not out of the tunnel of the pandemic yet, though there is a light appearing on the horizon. Political division is still a deep-seated issue in this country and the world. And life goes on, stumbling forward, as always.

It’s now that I’d like to ask you…
What idols have you leaned on to help get you through?

I say this not to judge. I fall prey to idolatry myself. It’s part of the human experience. As individuals untethered from the shalom of God, in our rise to individual glory, we desperately grasp for shiny objects (physical, spiritual, and ideological) to latch onto and put our trust in. All of these idols are meant to bolster our personal autonomy and power in order to tame the chaos of an uncertain life.

Social Media is a big idol for me, and I know, a lot of our culture today. All too often, I turn to my social feeds in order to amplify my performative punditry in the midst of political upheaval and the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic. If I could just be RIGHT online in front of my friends and “friends” on social media, I might be able to justify my existence.

Afterall… Without my rightness, who am I? Why am I here? What significance do I have?

Even my non-political posts have a hint of performative righteousness in them. If I can situate myself in the perfect place — here, let me clear off my desk, pour a fresh steamy cup of coffee, turn the obscure book I’m reading to just the right page (with the text that I want to share highlighted), and throw the right Instagram filter on it, — I might be able to save myself from the despair that comes from being human in a chaotic world.

But then, after I hit ‘post’, it kicks in…
Who will ‘like’ it?
Who might share it, even?!
And then…
Who might NOT like or share it?
Who might actually challenge it?

I poise myself to defend my subtle inference hanging like a talisman in my feed.

What? Only 5 likes?!
And that jerk, I KNEW they’d say something passive-aggressive (or just flat-out aggressive).

When Inauguration Day hit, I noticed the impulse to rush to social media and show how “my guy” had won. I was right, THEY were wrong.

After all, partisan politics is the new religion. It used to be a scandal if a Catholic and a Protestant got married in this country or a Christian and a Jew. Today, it’s Liberals and Conservatives. Partisan politics is ripe with idolatry.

Until the wheels come off, that is…

When the wheels come off, our grip tightens on those idols before they dissolve and crumble like sand through our fingers. Multitudes of likes on social media can leave us feeling hollow and empty. When our politician doesn’t come through on their promises, it can leave us feeling betrayed and hurt.

Turning to our psalm for today, we see a beautiful cry of lament, praise, thanksgiving, wisdom, and exhortation. The crisis that the psalmist experiences when all of his idols fail him prompts the big question of whether or not he (or anyone?) can trust and take refuge in God in the face of enemies.

When I was researching the text, I learned that the Hebrew word Ak occurs 7 times throughout these verses. Ak translates to ‘only’ (or ‘alone’). God alone. Only God. “Only for God do I wait in silence. Only God is my rock and my salvation.”

The sequence of possessive nouns is powerful in the 6th verse: my rock, my salvation, my fortress, my refuge. The determined Psalmist claims God as his own so as to create a verbal fortress with his words.

And then the psalmist turns things from the personal to the communal (God is OUR refuge).

Knowing that crises might lead us to depend on unfaithful means of hope and salvation, the Psalmist names those things that challenge the ‘ak’ (status in the world, extortion, robbery, riches). In verse nine, the point is driven home for our current context: The NRSV version directly addresses politics: “Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion;” The Common English Version keeps it more general, but pulls no punches, “Human beings are nothing but a breath. Human beings are nothing but lies. They don’t even register on a scale.”

The thing I love so much about the psalms is their honesty and raw vulnerability. We’ve all been there, confronted with disappointment and despair. The shiny object or “perfect human” has proved to be a farce. When that happens, there’s only one move left… To put our trust in God only.

It is the prayer’s affirmation of God’s hesed (meaning: God’s steadfast love and mercy towards humanity) that solidly undergirds all that has come before; we cannot exclaim God as our own without God’s hesed; we cannot confirm God as our rock or fortress or refuge without God’s hesed; we cannot proclaim that God is our only refuge without God’s hesed; we cannot exhort others to give up their delusional and vain dependencies without God’s hesed; we cannot advocate reliance on God alone as refuge and hope and salvation without God’s hesed. This is God’s initial move, not ours.

This ties directly into our Gospel reading from Mark. Jesus himself is like the Psalmist when he proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).

Jesus has just been baptized and is beginning his ministry. He’s telling folks the time has come. The Kingdom of God is here. Believe the good news. And he starts calling people. Now, he didn’t say he was starting a fancy new school or shiva. He doesn’t call the most qualified. In those days, a rabbi would be looking to train, groom, and promote the best students. The ones most committed. I mean, it makes sense! It’s what I would do!

But Jesus, he’s down in Galilee (of all places!) calling fishermen (of all people!). We easily miss how bananas he is. He doesn’t look for the best and the brightest. He goes down to the loading dock. To the unqualified. These people are not looking to get into the religion business at all.

First he picks Peter who always seems to leap before he looks. Who promises big but doesn’t follow through. Who is kind of lovable but also very flawed. (I don’t know if Jesus’s nickname for Peter, “The Rock” was a compliment.)

Next, he picks Andrew. He’s shy. Introverted to an excruciating degree. A man who, like the midcentury cartoon character Caspar Milquetoast, is a “man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” Andrew is not in any way a bastion of strong leadership.

Then he picks James and John… Two brothers who are gruesome and violent. They’re so wild that Jesus nicknames them “the sons of thunder”.

These people (THESE PEOPLE) are the ones Jesus picks to secure the future of the church. Friends, we talk a lot about church decline these days, but I have to say, any right-minded person versed in structural leadership or organizational development can see that the church was set up for failure before it even started. It is only through God’s grace that we’re here today worshipping together.

This is just the point…

We want to do it ourselves. We want to be right. We want to wrestle control of this chaotic human existence. Our egoic nature makes us turn to idols. We turn other people into idols. We turn ourselves into idols. We turn technology into idols. We turn zip codes and diet plans and workout routines into idols. All of this idol-making only leads to one place — utter disappointment. Our idols must be obliterated in order for our trust to be turned to the unconditional, unearnable, and unflinching love of God.

Our idol-making selves must come to their end in order for God’s love to break in and make us anew. To make us… Human again.

There’s a big call in today’s culture for people to live as perfect beings. In the church, we’re often told to get our spiritual houses in order and make a path for God.

But here’s what Jesus comes to reveal… God doesn’t need or want a path! God comes when God necessitates. The Kingdom of God is not something that you and I usher in through our awesomeness assigning Jesus as our mere personal assistant. The Kingdom of God breaks through our idolatrous ways in order to arrest us with God’s love. The hound of heaven tracks us down in our idolatry just like the fist-shaking psalmist we heard from today.

Repenting and believing the good news does not require us to get our lives together beforehand. It means that God comes to people who are minding their own business and then whoosh it happens. Repentance is initiated by God and results in a change of heart. It is when God breaks in and moves us from belief in ourselves to belief in the good news that stands right there on the dock in Birkenstocks calling ragamuffins like you and me into a divine mission far bigger than any of our idolatrous self-saving schemes.

Yes, the gospel is an ode to ragamuffins, not a mission statement for perfect people (because those people don’t exist).

Friends, on this Epiphany Sunday, may you know that God isn’t waiting for you to have the perfect cup of coffee and a bullet journal behind the perfect Instagram filter. May you find peace and rest knowing that no politician can ever truly save us. This allows us to remove our religious fervor from them and instead grant them grace instead of holding them to our schemes of political, moral, civic, and personal perfection that no one can ever meet up to. Jesus meets us all in the least spiritual parts of our lives. In our cubicles. In our Frosted-Flakes-covered minivan interiors. After a fight with our loved ones at 3 am. After being dumped or dropped from the squad.

We are called not to pave the way or do our part — but to loosen our grip and follow the one who has been crucified in the name of idolatry and who the God of mercy raises to give us faith in the Ak, the only One, who can save us.

The way has been paved.
You are named and claimed in Christ,
A whole and complete child of God
From your first breath to your last