Everyday Idolatries

This sermon on “Everyday Idolatries” was preached at Christ Church on February 1, 2015.

The passage from Deuteronomy is part of Moses’ farewell speech to Israel as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. They had escaped from bondage in Egypt, wandered for 40 years in the Sinai Wilderness, and now stood near the East Bank of the Jordan River—ready to cross over into the Land of Milk and Honey.

Moses will not go with them. He’s at the end of his life. So he speaks to them about their desire to have a new prophet who will be a spokesperson for God. Now a prophet is not primarily a foreteller of the future. Rather a prophet is one who listens for the voice of God who said, “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who will speak to them everything that I command.”

Then there’s a warning against “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak. . . . ”

Idolatry is the worship of other gods. When I think of idolatry I’m tempted to imagine altars to the gods of Olympus, temples to Isis, shrines to the Earth Mother, or rocks piled high on a mountaintop dedicated to the Baals of the Philistines. But recently I ran across the phrase, “everyday idolatries,” referring not to formal religious dedication, liturgy, and practice—but to something much more informal, below the level of anything I might normally think of as a god, a divinity.

Football | Christ Episcopal Church Dayton OhioHere on Super Bowl weekend/Sunday dare I suggest “football” as an example. There is a regular schedule of services/games. There is a liturgy of bands, cheers, team colors, uniforms, mascots, color commentators, play by play callers, food, and so on. I’m not suggesting that football is idolatry, in itself, but for some people it is. Their devotion is to their team. They give it their money, time, and attention. The same can be said of most, if not all sports. Curling might be an exception.

Certain celebrities are treated as deities among some of their fans. Whole industries have grown up around delivering regular news and every detail (real or imagined) of the rich and famous.

Almost anyone or anything can become an idol. This is what I invite you to ponder in your life as I’m pondering it in mine. Who or what do we idolize? What might be the everyday idolatries that draw us away from our devotion to Jesus and to the realm of God?

I remember a line from the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Screwtape is a senior demon in hell who writes a series of letters to his nephew, Wormwood, a junior tempter. Wormwood is attempting to secure the damnation of a British man known only as “the Patient.” The uncle uses the letters to offer advice to young Wormwood about his project.

Wormwood wants his Patient to engage is some horrible, spectacular sin, to which his uncle responds:

“It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

That’s how I think it is with everyday idolatries—nothing particularly dramatic or overt. The commandment is that “You have no other gods before me.” But inasmuch as I become focused on that which is not God—that which draws my time, attention, energy, and resources—then I am “edged away from the Light and out into the Nothing.”

bible | Christ Episcopal Church Dayton OhioThese everyday idolatries can be good things in and of themselves: family, country, church—even the Bible. It’s when my devotion to them distracts me from the call of Jesus on my life, then I’ve made that good thing into an idol.

A few decades ago the Charismatic Movement, as it was called, became very popular in American Christianity—including in The Episcopal Church. At the particular time that I’m thinking about, I was serving as Assistant Rector of a parish in suburban Columbus. A number of parishioners were involved in the Charismatic Movement, including the Rector.

One particular group within the parish became obsessed with demon possession. They began to suspect that anything difficult that people experienced was a sign that they were possessed by a Wormwood or worse and needed exorcism. Before long, common colds, parking tickets, even a broken dish became an occasion for exorcism. The group became so focused on keeping the devil out of people that they ignored the love of Him for whom they were trying to keep everyone else pure.

And we all known Bible-loving, Bible-believing Christians who, after a time used the Good Book not so much as a witness to the love and grace of God—but rather more like a club with which to beat others over the head.

Shortly after the Israelites entered the Promised Land they began to worship other gods: the Baals of the Philistines, the land itself, their kings. And they soon regretted their request for prophets, because prophets they got—one after another—all condemning them and calling them back to covenant faithfulness.

According to Paul in today’s epistle, there is no such thing as another god. Although he may be right, it’s not as easy as that. The question is whether we treat that which is not God as God.

What I’m inviting you to do, as we approach the season of Lent, is to become much more self reflective, to seriously and deeply consider what idols might we have quietly and even unconsciously allowed into our lives—those everyday idolatries—and to turn back—to repent—to redirect ourselves and our church to the devotion of Jesus as the one who points us toward the true God.


Annual Parish Meeting Address

Actually, this is a two-part address. Part I was the sermon about “Everyday Idolatries” on the personal level. I now invite you to think with me about everyday idolatries on the corporate and institutional level.

A number of researchers have recently been identifying deep trends affecting Christian institutions. We can’t ignore them, because they’re part of the cultural air that we breathe. So our challenge is to discern how to adapt faithfully and creatively to them.

These deep trends are more pervasive than temporary fads. We cannot pretend that they don’t exist, or that they’ll simply go away. There are many such trends that we could examine, but today I want us to focus on three.

Trend One: The Digital Revolution

Love it or hate it, we’re in the midst of a digital revolution that’s fundamentally reshaping much of our daily lives.

When I was ordained a priest, the tools of the trade in communications were “landline telephones” (We didn’t call them that—they were the only kind of telephones.), mimeograph machines that produced mass mailings and church bulletins, the U.S. postal service where a first class postage stamp cost 8 cents. The real avant guard might even have had a portable typewriter.

Now we have computers, tablets, and smartphones; websites, email, instant messages, digital newsletters, and social media.

There are tremendous advantages to new technologies. Our Finance Committee meets monthly by conference call. We haven’t had a face-to-face meeting for several years. It saves gasoline, time, and is far more efficient.

This coming Wednesday an Education for Ministry (EFM) group will begin meeting weekly in our parlor. They have installed a Smart TV that will allow members who live at great distances, when driving conditions are poor, to still attend meetings by teleconferencing with Skype.

But you can’t do that with everything. There’s no way to send virtual Holy Communion—and even if there were, it wouldn’t be the same as the communion of the body of Christ—we the people.

Words on a screen can never replace words spoken from mouths; the tonal ambiguity of text can lead to misunderstanding, and reliance on virtual means of communication can impair our ability to have profound experiences together in the flesh.

Our growing dependence on technology for sociality, collaboration and education is affecting yet another aspect of our
lives: how we think. On one hand, human beings have never had such immediate access to facts and figures, exposure to such a wide range of thoughts and research, or the ability to communicate those thoughts so freely to anyone at any time.

On the other hand, this flood of technological stimulation overwhelms our ability to remain attentive to a single pursuit for a long period of time. How can we best understand the benefits and constraints of technology on our thinking? On the cultivation of wisdom?

Any strategy that churches develop must take into account the ways that the digital revolution is changing daily life—for good and for ill.

But we need to acknowledge that the digital revolution is with us to stay and then learn how to harness it in ways that benefit the Gospel of Jesus.

Trend 2: Reconfiguring denominations and emerging forms of congregating

The decline of mainline Protestantism’s membership and cultural influence has opened the door for a range of new configurations, most of which differ sharply from the mainline model.

Megachurches have exploded onto the scene, attracting new members by the thousands and planting satellite campuses across the country.

On the other end of the spectrum, a growing number of young Christians have moved in the opposite direction. “New
Monastics,” as they have been called, create intentional communities among the poor to live out their faith in the neglected places of society.

Many other Christians, especially among younger generations, have also begun experimenting with new patterns of congregating. House churches have sprouted up around the country, often growing out of local networks of people committed to a biblical form of congregating. Others are gathering around music or particular forms of social witness, where Christian community—and often intentional living arrangements—are connected to a desire to find life in community less encumbered by traditional institutions and established notions of “church.”

In its most extreme form, frustration with traditional institutions has led to what is commonly called “I’m spiritual but not religious”, in which a more private and individual form of spirituality undermines the
search for community.

Amidst these nondenominational movements and new forms of congregating, denominations find themselves struggling.

The terms “conservative,” “liberal,” “traditional” and “progressive” are now more indicative of people’s loyalties than
”Methodist,” “Episcopal” or even “Roman Catholic.”

The future of denominations isn’t clear; what is clear is that the old structures are changing dramatically. The focus of this coming summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church will be re-structuring. The focus of our last Diocesan Convention was re-structuring. But the Diocese gave up—not knowing how or what to restructure other than to do away with deaneries which no one knew what to do with.

Trend 3: Questioning institutions

According to a
recent Gallup poll, only 44 percent of Americans have confidence in churches and other religious institutions.

This lack of institutional trust extends far beyond the walls of religious institutions. Government, education, the economic system, healthcare institutions are all suffering the same demise of consumer confidence.

There’s deep confusion over the nature, place and role of institutions in American society.

In February of the year 2000, my first Annual Parish Meeting here at Christ Church there were competitive elections: 2 and 3 candidates for every open position. Today we have 4 open seats on the vestry and one nominee.

It is evidence to me that we are very much a part of the larger societal trend where participation in the inner workings of the institution of the Church is being played out.

I spoke earlier this morning about idols. We have been in downtown Dayton since our beginning, first on South Jefferson and then in this building since 1879. That is 136 years at 20 West First Street.

I’m asking, have we made idols, graven images, that are taking us away from the true God?

The question is not have we been called into the service of Jesus and his Gospel. It’s not whether we’re called to serve God’s people and God’s creation. The question is whether we’ve become more devoted to the ways and means than to the ends.

History | Christ Episcopal Church Dayton OhioThe context has changed. Our building—the whole second floor of the parish house was designed for a flourishing Sunday School with a classroom for almost every grade in school.

Our Sanctuary was designed to hold at least 350 people in worship.

Our un-insulated Nave was designed in an era when energy was extremely cheap and when global warming wasn’t on the radar.

In light of the deep trends, in light of the prophetic witness, where have we made idols that separate us from the worship of God?

I’m not clear about this. But I know that these are the questions.

What I’m inviting you to do is to become much more self reflective, to seriously and deeply consider what idols might we have quietly and even unconsciously allowed into our lives—those everyday idolatries—and to turn back—to repent—to redirect ourselves and our church to the devotion of Jesus as the one who points us toward the one true God.