Useless Foreign gods

09/22/2019 ~ Proper 20 ~ Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13 ~ Note: 23rd and 43rd Psalm used ~ Elijah Kellogg Church.

Useless Foreign gods

“And Yahweh replies: / ‘Why do they provoked me to anger / with their graven images, / with their carved images / with their useless foreign gods?’” — Jeremiah 8:19b.

The last time I led a service of worship here I mentioned this about my background to someone at coffee hour. With a name like Joseph Francis Connolly, Jr. it is hard to hide the fact that I came to maturity in the Roman Catholic tradition.

Therefore it is nearly redundant to say when I was young I was an altar boy. And no, in those days there were no altar girls. And in those days the Mass was in Latin.

These are the opening words of the Mass in Latin, taken from Psalm 43. The officiant said: “Et introibo ad altare Dei.” The server responded: “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.” “I will go to the altar of God. God, the exceeding joy of my youth.” My heritage aside, I probably took those words to heart.

Well, in those days a priest was required to say one mass every day. Further, in order for a Mass to be valid at least one member of the laity needed to be present. This necessitated the presence of a server at many of those mandatory celebrations.

I participated at my share of mandatory masses. I called these 20 minute Masses, in part because of the speed at which a priest recited the words. This was a challenge for the server because of the rapidity of the responses thereby required.

I was young but still I was not pleased to serve at these sprints since it seemed to me the celebrant was reciting words unthinkingly, by rote. I guess I did take these words to heart: “I will go to the altar of God. God, the exceeding joy of my youth.” (Slight pause.)

This is found in the Scroll of the Prophet Jeremiah: “And Yahweh replies: / ‘Why do they provoked me to anger / with their graven images, / with their carved images / with their useless foreign gods?’” (Slight pause.)

Foreign gods, sacred cows in our society and other societies are fairly easy to identify. Why? We hold graven images dear. We humans maintain graven images in everything from politics, left or right, to the Bible to sports. How many Red Sox or Patriots or Bruins or Celtic fans are here today? And yes, for some these are religions.

Well, let me address a Biblical sacred cow. Nine years ago I wrote a Christmas anthem with composer Tom Rasely, One Angel Sings. One phrase says (quote:) “One angel sings both silent yet clear.” Why is this singing angel clear and silent? (Slight pause.)

You can hunt all over Luke 2 and you will not find an angel singing. (Quote:) “…suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,…”— praising God and saying.

Singing is implied but not mentioned. We can presume it happens. And we humans have probably presumed that and read singing into the text since the day after Luke finished writing. However, singing not in the text.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to change anyone’s mind about singing angels at the Nativity. Please let the angels sing. I like it. You like it.

But by saying there is no singing involved at the Nativity how many sacred cows did I just trample on? Said trampling, however, brings up an interesting question. The question is not ‘do we have sacred cows, false gods, graven images?’

Yes we do. We always will. We are human. I think the pivotal question here is “What creates false gods, foreign gods, graven images, sacred cows?” (Slight pause.)

I am well convinced what creates false gods, foreign gods, graven images, sacred cows brings us back to the story I told about serving at 20 minute Masses. False gods are about mental disengagement, often unintentional, but something I think which may be the prime culprit in creating these gods.

Let me offer a random piece of data to support that. One of the most-watched shows on Netflix is Friends, a sitcom old enough to vote. Why? It’s comfortable mental disengagement— a comfort zone.

I want to suggest disengagement is simply comfortable. So perhaps instead of specific false gods such as the aforementioned— politics, sports and even the Bible— the real issue is ‘what creates false gods?’ Is it comfortable disengagement?

That circles us back to Scripture yet again. Earlier we recited the 23rd Psalm, the King James Version— familiar, comfortable. Then we had a hymn treatment of the 23rd Psalm— familiar, comfortable.

I love the King James. You love it. But I also know it is not a particularly good translation. Further, I would suggest in our culture that translation comes very close to having become a graven image because it is often used in a very, very secular ways.

Now, translating from any language to another is hard. It’s especially hard for Hebrew, where any given word usually has more than one singular meaning. So I invite you to listen to this treatment of the 23rd Psalm.

It tries to discover a fullness of meanings in the underlying Hebrew words and perhaps invites us to hear the work in new ways. It also might move us just a little out of a comfort zone. (Slight pause.)

“Yahweh, God! / O God, Whose name means to be! / You are my shepherd! / So, I do not need a thing. / In green, lush, grassy meadows / God lets me lie / and has prepared a bed for me / and has invited me / to be peaceful and to be at rest; / You, Yahweh, find me quiet, / tranquil pools of water / from which to drink, / places at which / I may refresh my being, / restore my inner self.”

“You are true to Your word, / and true to who You are / because You let me catch my breath, / set me in the right direction, / guide me in the paths of saving justice, /
guide me with great compassion— and I know this, / since You are the only One who really befits the name of God.”

“Even were I to walk / on a path through a deep ravine / with walls that surrounded me / like the night— / a place that was like / a parched valley, / where there is no water— and there, / in that place, were I to walk / in the midst / of that canyon without light, / even in those times I would still / not be afraid / nor would I fear danger / because I know that You, O God, / walk at my side, / and I would know / that You, O God, are with me, / and I know that You, O God, will comfort me / and will guide me.”

“And I realize Your trusty, / old shepherd’s crook / is at Your side, / ready to be used when needed. / This helps me feel safe and secure. / And, yes, You prepare a table, / a feast for me; / and You do it / right in front of all those / who despise me, my adversaries / my enemies.”

“You revive me / by generously anointing me, / by massaging my head with / a wonderful, scented oil. / And my cup— my cup is filled / to the brim, filled to overflowing / filled with every good blessing / I could imagine.”

“And these are all / Your blessings, O God, / All meant for me. / Your beauty and Your love / and Your goodness and Your faithful, steadfast kindness / chase after me, pursue me / trying to find me where I am hiding / every day of my life. / And because of that / I shall return to my true home, / the house of Yahweh, / for days without end / forever and forever, / for all time to come. / And I will make my home / the house of Yahweh / and I be with You, / O God, who loves me— / Forever and for all eternity.” [1] (Slight pause.)

Comfort zones are wonderful. We are human. We all need them. But I also think they can create false gods of various flavors. So, is there a balm in Gilead which can help us with our false gods? (Slight pause.)

It has been said Christianity is not simply a religion, not merely a faith. Christianity is a way of life.

And the place to which Christianity really invites us is total engagement of our intellect, our emotions, our whole physical being. Christianity invites us to total engagement and commitment with and to God and with and to one another— as in love God, love neighbor.

And yes, we are not perfect. We are merely human. We cannot reach total engagement and commitment as did the Christ.

That does not mean we should give up. Quite the contrary, we need to constantly work at total engagement and commitment.

So I want to say yes— yes there is a balm in Gilead. That balm consists of total engagement and total commitment to loving God and neighbor as best as we can.

And yes we are human. However, being human does not mean we should surrender to or be seduced by whatever false god with which comfortable disengagement might present us. Our humanness means we should strive to hand our lives over to God— constantly go to the altar of God— God, our exceeding joy. Amen.

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “This quote is from Steven Charleston, Native American elder and retired Episcopal Bishop of Alaska. ‘I know some people imagine the spiritual life to be very ethereal, assume it is all about communing with the holy, meditating, and having wonderful visions. In fact, it is not quite like that. Living mindfully in a spiritual way is paying attention to the details. It requires self-discipline, study, physical work, and a willingness to do the hard jobs others seek to avoid. It means engaging with strangers on issues that are unpopular. It requires self-sacrifice, generosity, volunteering, staying late. Spirituality is not an escape, but an enlistment.’”

BENEDICTION: We are commissioned by God to carry God’s peace into the world. Our words and our deeds will be used by God, for we become messengers of God’s Word in our actions. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.

[1] Note: this treatment of the Psalm combines some standard translations of the work with a more modern translation by Eugene Peterson and a scholarly translation by Mitchell Dahood, S. J.

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