A sermon originally entitled “Mine!” given October 9. 2011 at First Congregational Church UCC in West Boylston, MA.
OLD TESTAMENT LESSON Exodus 32:1-14
A CHRISTIAN LETTER Philippians 4:1-9 (& Acts 16:11-15)
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 22:1-14
One thing I recently noticed about my little boy “AJ” is that when he builds things, it’s about the process, not the goal. For instance, when he’s building a tower with these big cardboard blocks and it gets too high, he knocks them down and starts over again. His play is not about being the biggest, nor the best, nor the tallest, nor any other human measure of success. It’s about playing – about stacking blocks. That’s where his fun is, that’s what makes it meaningful and valuable to him. What’s more, his parents’ approval is not important. …Well, at least not yet! – But our participation is.
Now, recently we had a dinner for a number of friends and their toddlers at our home. After some visiting, we went into the room where the kids were playing, and … guess what … … … The Dads saw the kids playing with these big blocks!
Well, as good parents, we had to participate, shouldn’t we?
But, the play of the Dads (me included) was very different. We didn’t build towers just for the fun of building. Noooo… We had to build the BIGGEST tower. So, working together, we built a HUGE tower, nearly touching the ceiling, which in that room is quite high. The Moms held the kids back while we worked, saying they didn’t want the kids to topple the tower, but I think they were also afraid someone would get trampled in all that furious activity.
Well, when the tower was done, we took a few pictures, and then the Moms let the kids go. … … A few seconds later, the Dads had to act as human umbrellas so that the little ones wouldn’t get seriously bonked as they knocked the tower down. Great fun, we all laughed, and the kids went right back to building towers on their own in imitation of what their Fathers had done. But once again, at that age, they were enjoying just building, not competing, and not comprehending their fathers’ competitive spirit.
It occurs to me this simple desire to do, or to build, rather than to achieve, especially achievement for the purposes of self glorification or self justification, underlies today’s story from Exodus of the Golden Calf and also the reading from Philippians.
So, let’s think about little AJ for a moment. For him, it’s about being and doing, not owning. He has no interest in building the biggest tower, although he sure likes to build big towers! He has fun building them, knocking them down, and building them again. He enjoys the process of building.
When the fathers entered the picture, we wanted to build the BIGGEST tower we could – a goal. Yet, we were working together. There was no competitiveness between us, we worked together to make that tower. And, we were definitely proud of our accomplishment when we finished. (It was a REALLY BIG TOWER!) But you see, because we’re older than AJ, we’ve learned to compete, something he hasn’t learned yet.
As we grew up, we had learned that we got a lot of praise for being the best, or doing the best, or having the best. And I think that our wives (knowing their husbands all too well) made sure we got that praise we unconsciously wanted for making that tower, the BIGGEST tower. You see, we invested some of ourselves in that tower. In some way, that accomplishment was a reflection of us – we were the best, because we had built the biggest. We were really good tower builders!
As we mature, we learn to set goals for ourselves, and to achieve them. We also learn to want to own them. We learn to say “I did that” or “I own that” or “I am that.” We all have learned to want to be the biggest, the best, the fastest, the richest, to have the nicest home on the block, or the nicest garden, or the coolest smartphone, or the snazziest new car, or the biggest church in town, or the best golden calf.
All that wanting is about US. We want those things because in some way they magnify US. We’ve learned that possession and recognition validate our sense of self-worth. Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting the best, but there is a line we cross when we begin to want something purely for our own sake, where it becomes a tool for our own self-exultation. When that line is crossed, we have begun making an idol of ourselves.
In fact, any idol is ultimately about us. Anything we seek to possess for our own in order to magnify our own greatness in our own eyes, or in the eyes of others, whether a thing, or a status, or a prize, is an idol.
Now, building block towers was not an idol for my son. He was just having fun doing it. We fathers came closer to that line, but I don’t think we crossed it. We didn’t do it for self-glorification – we weren’t each building our own towers to prove we were better than the others, nor were we doing it as a group to show we were the best dads ever. We did it to play, to have fun together.
On the other hand, the Golden Calf in Exodus was an idol in the classic sense of the word: something you bestowed gifts and sacrifices upon; and you expected a favor from the god in return. It was a transaction. The god’s value depended on its ability to fulfill its half of the bargain.
In a sense, the person making a sacrifice to a god is seeking to control it. This is why the Hebrew God has no name, and no likenesses. Without a name, and without an idol, it is very clear that our God is a god that you cannot control. It is clear that our God is a god whose relationship with us is fundamentally different from the relationship we have with idols. Our God is a god who desires a relationship with us for reasons that have nothing to do with human ambition or human effort.
You see, our God isn’t about owning. Our God gave us this creation to live in. Our God gave us the ability to freely choose to follow him. Our God gave the Hebrews their freedom and a new land; our God gave the World his only Son. Our God is about giving – not owning; about freedom – not control; about growth – not constraint; about grace – not debts, about our journey in relationship with him, not about us owning God, or God owning us.
So, is there an idol within the Philippian church? If so, how is Paul confronting it in his letter?
In his epistle, Paul emphasizes the importance of being “in Christ” – the importance of being united, of working together and keeping focused on Christ, not being discouraged when things get hard. He emphasizes the great confidence he has in the Philippians. He knows they have learned to love God, that they are mature Christians, earnest in their hearts towards God, devoted to the Good News of Jesus, and carrying the Holy Spirit within themselves. So, where’s the problem?
You see it in the second verse of chapter 4, which reads “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” Who were these women? Why did he single them out by name near the end of his letter? Why did he then go on to say “Yes, and I ask you … help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”
Paul knows that Euodia and Syntyche are good, godly people. He loves them. They are clearly leaders within the church, and worked closely with Paul to establish it 10 or 15 years earlier, but that time is past. Many of those who have founded and built the church are now gone; and Paul himself is in a prison far away. The original inspiration and enthusiasm have vanished. New challenges have arisen, and the people of Philippi are discouraged and confused. Euodia and Syntyche, once allies and friends, are now on opposite sides of a controversy over the future of their church (… THEIR church).
From the way Paul says what he says, I think he’d heard about the controversy and knew these two leaders, these two people he knew and loved so well, were now crossing the line. Their own validity was tied up in this battle over who is right; over who “owns” the church. In other words, they had made idols of their Church, themselves, and their God.
Paul doesn’t try to settle the quarrel. He knows there is no need for Moses to come down and intercede with God on their behalf because they already have all the tools they need to do it themselves. The solution is not to judge who is right and who is wrong. The church isn’t theirs, it is Christ’s; and so they must come together and seek the mind of Christ. They must find Christ’s way, not their way. The solution is to abandon idols, all idols, including that most pernicious idol of all, the idol of ourselves.
Paul closes his letter by saying “beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Paul is urging the Philippians to not think of themselves, but to “think of these things” that are excellent and worthy of praise. He is talking about doing, not owning. In other words, he is saying they should be like AJ. Don’t worry about whose tower is taller, or whose position is “better.” Instead, rejoice in Christ working through you to build that tower, or that church, or your family, or our nation. The joy is in the building and in the ministry that we engage in together as followers in the footsteps of Christ. The Joy and Peace of Christ cannot be found in reaching some human-defined goal, or creating a golden calf of our own.
Paul doesn’t mention the specifics of the quarrel between these two women because he doesn’t need to. The specifics are irrelevant, the issue is not about whether Christ is blessing the agenda of one or another. The issue is about the need to come together, to be united, in seeking Christ’s will. That is the only way the controversy, and the pain and the hurt that arises from it, can be resolved.
May all of us, like AJ, rejoice in the gift and – perhaps – the fun – of each moment, for the God of peace is within us.
Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).