Here is the sermon I gave in chapel for the Krost Symposium on Environmental Justice.
I recently made a presentation at Texas Lutheran University’s Krost Symposium on Environmental Justice with the title above. Unfortunately the video does not include the images and graphics from the powerpoint I used which was a big part of the presentation.
Wow! My last post was here was exactly 7 months ago. So, to prove that I have not been just sitting idly by and ignoring the problems posed by consumerism, ecological devastation, etc., here is the homily I will be preaching this Sunday in connection with a teaching series our community is going through which I also wrote on Creation and Discipleship.
Would everyone please stand? Put your right hand over your heart. Repeat after me, “I pledge allegiance…” Please sit down.
Many of us grew up pledging allegiance, to flags, to states, to nations. Some of us may have even pledged allegiance to a Christian flag. Perhaps we did this without thinking. We did what we were told or what everyone else was doing. Consciously and unconsciously we all make commitments, we all pledge allegiance, whether it’s to the ideas that drive us or belief systems that shape us, whether it’s to specific places or people, to political parties or organizations. We all pledge allegiance.
Last weekend we celebrated the Fourth of July. This is a day when we retell the myths and stories of the United States, consciously or unconsciously, myths and stories about freedom, democracy and even the divine role of this country in the world and through history. This is how the idea of a nation and those in power continue to court and maintain the allegiance of its citizens.
Telling stories is also how we remind ourselves who we are as followers of Jesus and where our allegiance and commitments lie. The Israelites and modern Jews tell the story of the Exodus during Passover to remind themselves that they are a people who have been liberated from oppression by Yahweh in order to follow this God and be God’s people in the world, to bear witness to this God who sets people free.
Later in the Old Testament the people cry out to God to be a nation like the other nations around them. It’s hard to not fit in. It’s hard to be different. We all want to belong. Belonging is part of what it means to be human. But sometimes this need to belong can get us into trouble. It can lead us to belong to the wrong groups or we can belong for the wrong reasons. So, reluctantly, God relents and allows the Israelites to form a nation, like other nations. The Israelites now belong to the group of nations around them, but they have sacrificed something in the process.
We all have competing allegiances and commitments. We must all make choices between these commitments. God asked Abram to leave his homeland and everything he knew based on God’s covenant promise. Jesus asked his followers to leave their commitments to family to form a new family. He asked them to leave others to bury their loved ones and to leave the comfort and stability of their homes and support systems to follow him. The call for us as Christians is radical.
It is also important to distinguish between what God creates and what human beings create with our own creative and destructive impulses. God did not create nations. God did not draw borders in the dirt. God did create diversity. We see the biodiversity in the creation story with plants, animals and all kinds of living creatures. In the story of the tower of Babel, when the people try to achieve god-like power and status by consolidating and centralizing power by forming one people and one language, God reiterates that diversity is the way of creation, not sameness. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes, not to make everyone the same, not so that everyone would hear one language, but so that each one would hear the Gospel in their own language. Paul reiterates over and over that the unity of the Body of Christ is in its diversity, not in spite of it.
What happens when we pledge allegiance to nations, parties or ideologies above God’s reign in the world? History tells us disaster ensues. One of the main features of civilizations throughout history that have collapsed is that they have destroyed the creation that supports their growing populations. As citizens of God’s kingdom we belong to a nation that includes all of creation. The president of this “nation” is the Creator, not just of this planet, but the entire cosmos.
So, what allegiances and commitments are required of us as followers of Jesus and citizens of the kingdom of God? Clearly our allegiance crosses borders and transcends nations. Our commitment is to all of creation and all of humanity in all of its diversity, but also to this particular piece of creation we call home and these particular people we call brothers and sisters. So if you would please stand again, and let us pledge allegiance once again…
I pledge allegiance…
To the Creator of all things and the creation which sustains me
To the soil beneath my feet which feeds me and all creatures that make up my home
To all those who the Creator has made including those who speak, look and think different than me
To the plants and creatures that are my roommates in this place
To the Body of Christ and my brothers and sisters who help me fulfill my calling as a child of God.
I don’t remember the first time I heard the idea that God’s provision of the land to the Israelites was conditional. I know it was a sermon I listened to online, but I don’t remember who it was or where I found it. That simple idea changed the way I thought about the modern nation of Israel and their conflict with Palestinians. Leviticus 26 describes this provisional gift of the land to the Israelites, but it goes deeper than a place for them to lay their heads.
You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to worship at them; for I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord. (Lev 26:1-2)
I’ve written a bit here about idolatry and about Sabbath, but I’m not sure I’ve connected the two the way this passage does. The rest of Leviticus 26 is framed, and should be read, with this initial statement in mind. Do not make and/or worship idols and keep my sabbaths. I am God.
I’ve unpacked before that Sabbath is not about taking a day off to lie in the hammock (but that does sound nice). The sabbatical laws include the Sabbath day in the creation narrative and enshrined in Exodus (20:8-11), the Sabbatical year every seventh year to give the land rest and culminate in the vision of the Jubilee in which both land, humans and non-human animals are restored to right and whole relationships. These laws gather together a vision of the right relationship between YHWH, God’s people and the land including non-human animals.
Who cares about idolatry?
To our ears idolatry in the Bible sounds strange and foreign. It doesn’t sound like anything we would ever do. “Don’t make little (or big) figurines/statues out of wood or stone and then bow down to them.” That doesn’t seem like much to ask. I haven’t been tempted to do that lately and don’t foresee my new whittling hobby turning into a religious obsession. Am I right?
However, in the marketplace of gods and religions that Israel found itself in, this was a real problem. People had friends and family (especially after the intermingling during the Babylonian Exile) who subscribed to all kinds of different gods and religious notions. In a world where you are focused primarily on survival and security for yourself and your clan, people were probably willing to go along with whatever seemed to work. They were not concerned the way we are with whether or not a theological idea or religious belief system is the correct one. They wanted a good yield from crops and their livestock to be protected. They didn’t want to get killed by other clans, tribes or nations.
I’m not saying they didn’t actually believe in these gods or the myths and beliefs surrounding them. I’m sure they did (though let’s admit that it’s pretty hard to get inside the head of these people). What I’m saying is that their rationale or reason for choosing to believe or follow particular god or gods did not stem from their quest to discover the “Truth”, their own existential journey for self-enlightenment or self-actualization. These are modern inventions.
What is idolatry?
The prohibition against idolatry comes from Exodus 20:2-6,
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The end of this prohibition certainly sounds overly harsh to our ears, but this kind of prohibition was a new thing and worshiping whatever god worked for you was probably the norm. Monotheism was the new kid on the block and the point had to be made that this was serious. The game had changed.
In this prohibition to worship or create idols we have the same reason given as in Leviticus 26, “I am the Lord your God.” In other words, I am YHWH, the one who demands absolute worship and rejection of other gods. The invocation of the name of their God and their relation ship as God’s people is tied in to what God has done for them, “the one who brought you out of Egypt.” So, in part, idolatry has to do with relationships and right-relatedness. These people have entered into a covenant relationship with YHWH through their ancestors, the oft invoked “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
YHWH has also held up YHWH’s end of the deal. They have been incredibly liberated from slavery in Egypt. This is the foundational act which ties these people to YHWH and which is invoked to maintain their covenantal commitments to this God and what this God requires. With this background in mind then, idolatry is a breaking of this covenant relationship with YHWH particularly by following other gods, creating and worshiping idols.
So, why does this YHWH, the new kid on the block, demand something that none of the other gods do? I’ll explore the answer in the next post which will connect Sabbath to this idea of idolatry.
Last year around the same time that our annual consumer frenzy was reaching a fever pitch I was wrapping up a series inspired by fellow Truett grad, preacher extraordinaire and soon-to-be published author, Kyndall Rae Rothaus, about the nature of our purchases and how they function in the consumer religion (Holy Purchases). I’ve just gone back and re-read these posts and am again struck by how enmeshed we are (I am) in this religious-economic system.
I would love to say that because I have diagnosed these things to an extent, I am somehow immune or above, but that’s always the biggest lie. That is the danger of any purity code whether it’s Leviticus or Fair Trade. You believe somehow that you are able to live up to its perfection by following the letter of that law. Jesus clearly points out that the spirit of the law is more important than the literal interpretation and strict adherence when he repeatedly breaks the ritualistic practices of sabbath-keeping. Purity codes can twist us into valuing holiness for its own sake and devaluing life and creation. We keep ourselves apart and separate so we can believe that we are different.
Maybe this is why Paul writes in Phillipians 2:3 that we are to “regard others as better than yourselves.” It’s not about demeaning ourselves, but rather humbly exalting others and placing ourselves within the greater context of all creation. We are created and loved, but not as special and unique as we would like to think. We are no better or worse than others no matter what we buy or don’t buy. By all means live faithfully and follow your convictions, but don’t believe for a second that this gives you any special status with God or anyone else for that matter. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t.
Hope everyone has a happy and blessed holiday this week. Let’s remember our native brothers and sisters this week. They have given and continue to give gifts to us, if we are open to receive them. Sometimes it looks like repentance and confession, but those are also gifts to be thankful for.