Reformation Sunday 2022c

Old Testament – Exodus 32:1-6

New Testament – Galatians 5:16-26

 

Doctors of Idolatry 

 

INTRODUCTION: Well, the time is almost upon us.  By tomorrow night there will be an untold number of kids (and probably a few adults!) slowly sliding into sugar comas after consuming way too much candy.

 

And given that Audrey, amazingly, found Costco (of all places!) totally out of candy after swinging by there a few days ago on her way home from work, well, perhaps the sugar comas will be especially numerous this year. 

 

Of course, being good Protestant folk, October 31st is also more than just a day to go trick-or-treating. For according to the pages of history, it was 505 years ago tomorrow that Martin Luther also famously nailed his 95 Theses on the front door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

 

Although truth be told, that story is kind of like the one about George Washington and that cherry tree. It probably didn’t actually happen that way. Instead, it is believed October 31, 1517 was simply the day that Luther delivered his 95 Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz. Whatever the specifics, though, October 31st is still officially considered to be the day the Protestant Reformation got started.

 

And so along with other assorted Protestant traditions, the Sunday before October 31st is often recognized as Reformation Sunday. Yep, every year about this time, we pause to recognize and celebrate that just over 500 years ago now we Protestants got our start.            

 

ONE: Of course,  given that the word “protestant”  comes from the Latin word for “protest,” perhaps it shouldn’t surprise any of us that the Protestant tradition is hardly a unified and cohesive group of people. Apparently, it’s just in our shared DNA not to get along with folks - even when those people are also Protestants!  

 

Yep, from primitive foot-washing Baptists, to swinging-from-the-chandelier and shouting Pentecostals, to formal and high-church liturgical Lutherans, the Protestant tradition covers a lot of territory. So much so, we can often be pretty suspicious of each other. 

 

I recently came across a funny bit online that, I think, encapsulates the issue. As the story goes, a man comes across another fellow on a bridge one day about to jump.   

 

Says the first man, "Don't do it!"

"Nobody loves me," says the second.

"God loves you. Do you believe in God?" asks the first.

"Yes," comes the reply. 

“Well," Are you a Christian, a Jew, or something else?" 

"I am Christian," says the second. 

"Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”

 "Protestant."

 "This is great! I am a Protestant too! What branch?" 

 "Well, I happen to be a Baptist."

“Are you kiddin’ me? I am Baptist! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"

 "Northern Baptist." 

"Marvelous! So am I! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

"Northern Conservative Baptist."

 “Unbelievable! So am I. Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"

 "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region," says the second man.

And with that, the first man suddenly becomes furious. Grabbing the second by the shoulders, he yells, “Well, die then heretic scum!” and he pushes the second man off the bridge.

 

Yep, it just seems to be in our DNA as Protestants to argue and fuss - even amongst ourselves. 

 

TWO: But that said, perhaps one of the perks about such different traditions trying to live together means we each have a unique voice to bring to the discussion. 

 

Sure, we can fuss and fight with each other unnecessarily, but on the plus side all those differences can create a kind of rich tapestry when it comes to the Christian faith as a whole. And we Presbyterians? Well, we’re no different. For we too have a unique view of the faith that can be its own important voice. 

 

So I have recently been meeting with Alan Harris, Bethany Sterling, Melissa Hall, Robert Wright, and J Ray Joellenbeck to discuss what it means to be, not just a Presbyterian, but also a ruling elder. We’ve learned about Presbyterian church government, read portions of both the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions, and discussed the ordination vows they will be taking in just a few weeks as they begin terms on the session. They have tolerated me well, and I am thankful for their time! 

 

During our time together, we have also discussed some of the classic, bedrock ideas at the heart of Presbyterian tradition. Ideas like the sovereignty and providence of God, as well as the need to go about our business “decently and in order” as we like to say. 

 

Yep, if there ‘s one thing we Presbyterians like to do, it’s move deliberately and purposefully - to put it delicately. Why, we’ll form a committee to look into whether or not we should even form a committee in the first place!          

 

THREE: But there is another idea we Presbyterians bring to the Protestant tradition that is also really, really important, I think.

 

While other Protestant traditions worry about, say, how one was baptized, or holiness and purity, or whether one can say down to the day, time, and moment they were saved, we Presbyterians? Well, we spend a lot of our time worrying about idolatry. Yep, if there is one thing we Presbyterians know, it’s that humans can be quick to worship things other than God and God alone.    

 

And what more proof do we need than the Israelites gathered at the base of Mount Sinai? Tired of waiting on Moses to return from the summit, the people start getting anxious and before long they’re begging Aaron to build them a golden calf to worship.

 

Keep in mind, such philandering on their part comes shortly after being told in the Ten Commandments to first, worship God and God alone; and second, to refrain from making any images of God. No wonder our forefather Calvin is famous for saying “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory.” Because, truth be told, it is!   

 

And let’s not act like the problem of idolatry is from some bygone era that doesn’t pertain to us savvy, modern, and hip people - as if we have somehow transcended such barbarous and antiquated behavior. Because as far as I can tell, and despite all our technological advancements and fancy inventions, golden calves can still be found pretty easily. 

 

Some of us, after all, bow to the golden calf of a career. Others of us pay homage at the altar of our families and children. Still others of us genuflect before our bank accounts. And let’s not forget those marvelous and handy cell phones many of us carry with us at all times. There are quite a few of us that are also slaves to those, admittedly, handy and clever devices.      

 

And last but not least, there is the way we have become idolatrous when it comes to, dare I suggest it, politics. Yep, given the deep divisions that currently infect our nation right now, I can’t help but conclude we have decided it is politics, and not God, that saves us. Because if one has convinced themselves it is politics that saves us, well, then one’s party naturally has to win no matter the cost or expense, right?  

 

No wonder politics in this country has turned into a zero-sum game.                

 

FOUR: So Presbyterians, it seems to me, are needed now more than ever. 

For we are, as I like to think, the “doctors of idolatry.” It’s we who specialize in the field of idolatry and it’s we who are always looking for the ways it can creep into our lives.

 

And not that we always catch it, or are even exempt from committing it ourselves, but looking for it is one of our favorite past-times and fortes. And good thing it is, as far as I'm concerned. For the human heart really is “a perpetual idol factory.”                 

 

There is a story about a wandering ascetic seeking shelter one snowy, cold night at a temple. Although he had his reservations, the priest on duty decided the man could stay: “Very well, you can stay, but only for the night. This is a temple, not a hospice. In the morning you’ll have to go.”

 

In the dead of the night, though, the priest was awakened by a crackling sound coming from inside the temple. Rushing into the chamber, the priest found the ascetic warming himself by a fire - a fire he had started by using a wooden statue of the Buddha. “I thought this cold would kill me,” said the wanderer upon seeing the priest.

 

“Are you out of your mind,” howled the priest? Do you know what you have done? That was a Buddha statue. You have burned the Buddha!” 

 

With the fire burning away, the ascetic began to poke around in the embers with a stick. “Now what are you doing?” demanded the priest. Said the ascetic, “I am simply searching for the bones of the Buddha whom you say I burned.”  

 

Well, as those who spend a lot of our time worrying about idolatry, we get it, right? For even the best of religious intentions and endeavors can become idolatrous - especially when it comes to humans.                  

 

CONCLUSION: Well, there are all kinds of doctors in this world, right?

 

There are all kinds of people with specialized knowledge who are experts in assorted fields. There are doctors of philosophy, and ethics, and economics, and theology, and physics, and medicine, and on and on and on.

 

Of course, as far as I am concerned, everyone in this sanctuary also has a doctorate. Yep, as good Presbyterians, we each have a doctorate in idolatry. For that is our own area of speciality, right? Knowing that the human heart is a  “perpetual idol factory”, we’re the ones that are constantly on guard and on the lookout for idolatry. 

 

And good thing. Because these days, it seems to me, our world needs as many doctors of idolatry as we can possibly find.                  

 

Now to the Ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.