The First Commandment

We have all learned to set and achieve goals for ourselves, and to own them. We learn to say “I did that” or “I own that” or “I am that.” We want to be (or have) the biggest, the best, or the fastest, and know how to achieve such things; and there is nothing wrong with this: it is part of our identity, one of the ways we define who we are to ourselves and to others.

But sometimes, we come to want something because in some way we think it will magnify or justify our identity, rather than just defining it. When that subtle line is crossed, a line we are rarely (if ever) aware of, we have begun making an idol of ourselves.


WallStreetBullStatueDelivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA

October 5, 2014.

Scriptures:
   Exodus 32:7-14  (The Message): The Golden Calf
   Acts 16:11-15 (NRSV): Paul Establishes the Philippian Church
   Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV): Paul Advises the Philippian Church

Podcast:


Note: This sermon was presented at the church where I serve is Minister.  It is derived from last week’s sermon, which was given at my boyhood church, where I am from time to time invited to preach as a Pulpit Supply Minister: Centre Church in Brattleboro, VT.  Both sermons in turn have their genesis in a sermon given while I was a Seminarian at First Congregational Church (UCC) in West Boylston, MA.”  While this sermon is almost identical to last week’s sermon (and similar to the original from three years ago) there are some significant differences, partly due to my tailoring each message to address where each congregation was “at” at the time; and partly due to the evolution of my thinking and insights regarding the relevance and implications of the First Commandment for us in the modern world.


I’ve noticed that when young children play, it’s often about the process – or journey, if you will – not the goal.  For instance, when my son builds a tower with blocks and it gets too high, he knocks it down and starts over, and over, and over.

Such play is not about being the biggest, nor the best, nor the tallest, nor any other measure of success.  It’s about playing – about stacking blocks.  That’s where the fun is, that’s what makes it valuable.  What’s more, as parents, our judgment of the quality of the results is not important. …Well, at least not yet!  – But our participation is.

A couple of years ago, we invited some of our friends and their toddlers over for dinner. Once everyone arrived, we all went into the room where the kids were playing, and … guess what …  … … The Dads saw the kids playing with my son’s big cardboard blocks!

Well, as good fathers, we had to participate, didn’t we?

But our play was very different.  We didn’t build towers just for the fun of building.  Noooo…  We had to build the BIGGEST tower.  And, so we built a HUGE tower, nearly touching the ceiling, which in that room is quite high.

The Moms held the kids back from participating while we worked, saying they didn’t want them to topple the tower; but I think they were more afraid that someone would get trampled in all that furious activity.

When the tower was done, we took a few pictures, congratulated ourselves, and then the Moms let the kids go.  … … A few seconds later, we had to act as human umbrellas to prevent our little ones from getting seriously bonked as that tower came tumbling down. Great fun. We all laughed, and the children went back to building towers on their own, in imitation of what their Fathers had done.

It occurs to me that the importance of this childlike desire to do, rather than to achieve, is an important point of the story of the Golden Calf and our reading from Philippians.

Let’s think about the children again: they had no interest in building the biggest tower, until we did!  They had fun in the building, and knocking down, and then building again.  They enjoyed the process of building. It was about the journey, not about a particular goal.

But, the fathers wanted to build the BIGGEST tower we could – a goal.  We were proud of our accomplishment (it was a REALLY BIG TOWER); but you see, we knew how to compete, something they have not yet learned, and our competitive spirit actually prevented them from participating.

As we grow up, we learn to value being praised for being the best, or doing the best, or having the best.  And that evening, our wives (knowing their husbands all too well) made sure we were praised for building our tower, the BIGGEST tower.   They understood that our accomplishment was a reflection of us – we were the best, because we built the biggest.  We were really good tower builders!

We have all learned to set and achieve goals for ourselves, and to own them.  We learn to say “I did that” or “I own that” or “I am that.”  We want to be (or have) the biggest, the best, or the fastest, and know how to achieve such things; and there is nothing wrong with this: it is part of our identity, one of the ways we define who we are to ourselves and to others.

But sometimes, we come to want something because in some way we think it will magnify or justify our identity, rather than just defining it.  When that subtle line is crossed, a line we are rarely (if ever) aware of at the time, we have begun making an idol of ourselves.

Any idol, … ANY IDOL, … is ultimately about us.  Anything we seek to possess as our own – whether a thing, or a status, or a prize, or the truth – becomes an idol when owning it magnifies, or justifies, our own sense of self worth.

An idol is something you control: you decide what will be done with it. In fact, making a sacrifice to an idol is simply an attempt to control it – a demand for a favor in return for your sacrifice. It is a transaction: the idol’s value depends on its ability to fulfill its part of the bargain. The Golden Calf was such an idol: something you bestowed gifts and sacrifices upon; and you expected a return on your investment.

This is why the Hebrew God has an unknown name, has no likenesses, and tolerates no competitors.  Without a name, and without an idol, our God is a god you cannot possess or control.  Without competitors, you have no alternatives when looking for favors.   God’s relationship with us is fundamentally different from the relationship we have with any of our idols.  God desires relationship with us for reasons that have nothing to do with human ambition or human effort, or human self-justification.

God isn’t about owning or control.  God gave us Creation.  God gave us the ability to freely choose.  God gave the Hebrews their freedom and a new land; God gave the World that only child.  God is about giving – not owning; about freedom – not control; about growth – not constraint; about grace – not debts, about our journey together in relationship. That relationship is not about us owning God, or God owning us. God is not our idol; nor are we God’s idols.

But, was there an idol within the Philippian church?

Paul writes of being “in Christ” – of the importance of being united, of working together, of focusing on Christ; and not being discouraged when things get hard.  He emphasizes the great confidence he has in the Philippians.  He knows they love God, and that they are mature Christians: earnest, devoted, 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?  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 knew Euodia and Syntyche well.  They are leaders in that church, and worked closely with him to establish it, a decade earlier. But, that time is past: the church’s founder, Lydia, is gone; as are many others who worked beside her and Paul back then. Paul himself is in prison far away.  The original inspiration and enthusiasm have vanished.  New challenges have arisen, and the people are discouraged and confused. The future is no longer clear or bright. Euodia and Syntyche, once allies, are now on opposite sides of a controversy over the path their church (THEIR church) should take.

Paul knew of the controversy, but also saw the deeper issue, that they had crossed that line: their own sense of validity and self worth was tied up in this battle over who was right; over who “owned” the church, over who owned the truth.  In other words, they had made idols of their Church, idols of themselves and idols of their own particular understanding and relationship with God.

Paul doesn’t try to settle the quarrel, and doesn’t pick sides.  There is no need for Moses or (anyone else) to intercede on their behalf because the solution is not to judge who is right or who is wrong.  The church is not theirs. It is Christ’s; which is why Paul says they must come together and seek the mind of Christ, that they must find Christ’s way in humility and with an openness to learn and be corrected. They must abandon idols, all idols, including that most pernicious idol of all, the idol of ourselves.

Paul closes by saying “beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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 urges the Philippians to not think of themselves, but to “think of these things” that are already right there in front of them, that are excellent and worthy of praise.  He is also talking about doing, not owning, not winning.

He says they should be like our children.  After all, we are all children of God. We needn’t worry about whose tower is taller. Instead, rejoice in Christ working through us to build that tower, or that church, or our family, or our nation.  Joy is found 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 in creating a golden calf all our own.

Paul doesn’t mention the specifics of the quarrel because it doesn’t matter.  The issue is not about whether Christ is blessing one or the other.  The challenge is how to come together in seeking Christ’s will.  This is the only way the controversy, and the pain and hurt in that church, will be resolved.

Author Anne Lamott is often quoted as saying “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.” Let’s think about that for a moment.

If we have certainty, if there is no doubt, then where is our faith? Faith is irrelevant, useless, if certainty exists. We like idols because they provide something concrete to worship and rely upon. But worshipping something that is solid and fully understood requires no faith. It extinguishes faith by substituting something concrete – a tool – to do our bidding, instead of requiring us to listen for the voice of God within us, and in those around us.

Once we make an idol of ourselves, thinking we already know all that is needed, then there is no need to listen to the other, or have faith in them. We become immovable, forgetting what is said in the very first chapter of Matthew, where we are told that Jesus shall be known as Immanuel – God with Us – the God who walks at our side through life. It is our relationship and participation in this journey of faith that matters to God, just like when we interact with our own children. Being open to the process of change that occurs in response to the voice and move of God in us, and in those around us, is essential to our journey of faith.

We are called to participate in our relationship with God, and that is always a two way street. Even God, at the end of our reading from Exodus, shows us that relationship requires listening and response. God responds to Moses’ plea. And so, we know that God listens to us, and changes, just as we are called to listen to God, and be changed.

The First Commandment is first for a reason: I believe that, in part, it is because God wants to participate in the lives of his children; not be idolized by them.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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