It’s a conspiracy…

Conspiracy theories.

They are popular.  Whether you are talking about theories around COVID-19, climate change, secret societies, the Deep State, who killed JFK, and more.

Why do we like them?  I think the answer to that question is quite simple – Conspiracy theories offer answers all wrapped up nice and neatly.  There are good guys and bad guys – and they are obvious as to who they are.  There are scapegoats as to who to blame.  Conspiracy theories help us identify with a tribe – a group of people that we can have a common identity with.  These theories sound factual or based on some sort of data – it’s just that some of the holes in the data are filled in with concrete statements that “must” be true, even though there is nothing to point to the truthfulness of the statements.

Conspiracy theories don’t actually help anyone though.  No conspiracy theory has even offered actual comfort to anyone.  It has not treated anyone.  It has not brought calm.  Conspiracy theories don’t save lives.  And they don’t help.

In many ways, conspiracy theories are about as helpful as many of the sayings people use at funerals when talking with a loved one who lost someone to death.

And here’s another piece of truth – this isn’t new.  If you participated in the Holy Week worship services, you would find conspiracy theories in the Scriptures – the temple authorities throwing around conspiracy theories around Jesus, to the point that he was killed to satisfy a conspiracy theory.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the temple authorities convince Pilot to post guards at Jesus’ tomb, because they have a theory that if Jesus isn’t found at the tomb, then his followers must have stolen the body in order to claim resurrection.

Conspiracy theories aren’t new.  They aren’t going away.

Easter Sermon, 2020

(This is the sermon I gave yesterday for Easter, live streamed)

Who are we?  We are quarantined.  We are uncertain of what the future looks like.  We want to gather for special days, like Easter, birthdays, weddings, funerals, and just come together for meals, to be with people we have grown to love over the years.  We want to sing loudly with the organ in the company of so many others.  We want some sense of normalcy.

Who are we?  We are lost.  We are clinging on to anything familiar.  We are desiring to fill the sanctuary again.  We are desiring to take communion.  We are desiring to share the peace.

Who are we?  We are feeling alone, anxious, down.  We are mourning the loss of what was normal.  We are starting to see how truly uncomfortable so many of our fellow citizens are – and we don’t like it.  The band aid has been ripped off and the wound is open.

Who are we?  We are starting to see for the first time the fuller picture of our society – not the sugar-coated version that has been sold to us for so very long.  While many have done well for themselves, or at least put up a façade to show that, there are plenty who are just one paycheck away from disaster – we see them now.  They may be us in fact.  While many have easy and adequate access to health care, there are plenty who do not.  That may be us in fact.  While many have a job that continues to provide for us, there are plenty who are not able to work right now.  That may be us in fact.

Who are we?  We are a people of paradox.  How fitting that we would be celebrating Easter in the midst of paradox.  Easter itself is a paradox.  The whole story of the passion, death, and resurrection is a paradox.  Jesus is both fully human and fully God.  Jesus, fully God, succumbs to death.  And Jesus, fully human, is raised by God from the dead.

Who are we?   Who are we in this Gospel story?  We want to be Mary.  But is that all we are?  We are a people of paradox.

Who are we?  On the one hand we are the guards.  Oh, we don’t want to think of ourselves as the guards.  Let’s just be clear about that.  They are bad guys, right?  And we don’t want to think of ourselves as the bad guys.  But who are they?  They are doing their job.  They are making sure that tomb stays closed – that Jesus stays in the tomb.  Can’t have a raised dead man walking about now can we?  That would change everything.

So we guard the tomb to make sure that Jesus stays in the tomb – stays away from changing anything.  We guard the established ways – ways that provide certainty and tell us that we are in control.  We guard ways and systsms that we personally benefit from, but may be unjust – ways and systems that turn a blind eye to abuse, racism, sexism, poverty, homelessness, fear, hatred, power, unjust gain, oppression, and exploitation of people and the planet.

We guard systems and ways that protect us from seeing how we willingly and unwilling participate in unjust and abusive systems, whether that be scapegoating, blame, pointing fingers at the sins of others, not listening, arguing because we believe we are right always, valuing violence as a solution to our problems, and more.  Those things are just too painful to think about, or even look directly at and so we guard the tomb to make sure that Jesus doesn’t come out and expose all these things for what they are.  We stand our guard.  Unwilling to let Jesus out of the tomb and change these systems.  We guard the tomb because we believe that if those systems change, then we will lose out.  And we don’t have the imagination to consider that there may be another way.

Who are we?  We are the guards who keep watch to ensure that the power structures stay the same.  We stand guard protecting our idols of money, partisan loyalty, power, and comfort.

The Good News is that we are more than just the guards.  Not because of anything we have done though.  But because of how Good God is.  Who are we?  We are also Mary.  We go to the tomb, not sure what to expect.  Coming in fear when we find the tomb empty.  What does this mean?  What has been unleashed in the opening of the tomb – the raising of Jesus from death?  Nothing is going to be the same.  Nothing.  And we don’t know what it means.

Who are we?  We are called into a new way of being, of living.  The resurrection of Jesus isn’t about some event that happened 2000 years ago and that was it.  It’s not about going to heaven after I die.  No, rather, it unleashes something that continues to impact our world today.  The raising of Jesus from the dead is the beginning of the New Creation, the Kingdom of God being unleashed in our midst – and all that God’s kingdom is about.  It boldly declares that nothing will get in the way of God’s kingdom and what it stands for and what it is about.  No empire, no idol, no loyalty, no hatred, no fear, no unjust system, no scapegoating, no authority, nothing can get in the way of Jesus.  Nothing is powerful enough to keep the tomb sealed.  Nothing can hold Jesus in the tomb.  That means that nothing can stop Jesus and the Kingdom of God.  That’s what the resurrection is about.  It’s the unleashing of God.

Who are we?  We are Mary.  Just as Mary was afraid, so are we.  What does an unleashed God mean for our lives?  For our world that desperately tries to hang on with every ounce of strength to ungodly ways?  And in the midst of that fear, we hear these words – Do not be afraid.

Who are we?  We are called and sent.  Just like Mary.  Not sure of what is going to happen or what the unleashing of the New Creation will mean exactly.  Not sure of how the world will resist God and God’s ways.  But regardless, we are called and sent by Jesus.

Who are we?  We are sent to proclaim good news – Good news to the poor.  And what is that good news?  That God isn’t settling for poverty any more, for oppressive systems, for unjust gains, for greed, for ignoring the needs of the poor.  But we are also sent to proclaim good news to those who are poor in other ways too.  And what is that good news?  To the rich, it is good news to hear that you have value not because of your financial balance, but because you are also loved children of God. To those struggling with loneliness, it is good news to hear that you are not alone – ever.  To those held captive by addictions, it is good news to hear that you will be set free – you are more than what holds you captive.  You have more worth and value.   To those put up a front that makes it look like you have your life all in order, it is good news to hear that God doesn’t expect you to be perfect, or to get it all right – you can’t.  Salvation isn’t about how good you are – it’s about how good God is.

Who are we?  We are sent to live in alignment with the values of the Kingdom of God – to love our neighbor as, because to love our neighbor is to love God, no matter who our neighbor is – whether they be a foreigner, a different gender, rich, poor, intelligent, lacking in intelligence, strong, weak, Republican, Democrat, or anything else.  We are sent to love our enemies, not seek revenge or redemptive violence on them.  But to love them.  And no, that’s not easy.  But if God can love us, then we can take that love, and turn and love our enemies.

Who are we?  We are sent to see the image of God in all around us so that we can live into Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and our enemies.

Who are we?  We are sent to be stewards of creation – caring for the earth, not exploiting it – for it is not ours.  We are sent to be stewards of all that God has given us – whether it be money, relationships, health, property, and more.  We are sent to use these things to build up the Kingdom of God, to participate in the unfolding of the new creation.

Who are we?  We are sent to live in the way of peace, recognizing that peace is a way of living, not a destination.  The way of peace involves offering forgiveness, while also seeking it.  The way of peace involves letting go of unrealistic expectations of others, of giving mercy and grace to others and being open to receiving them as well.  The way of peace doesn’t seek redemptive violence, but instead changes the course of events.  The way of peace is Jesus’ way.

Who are we?  We are the guard and we are Mary.  We protect the sinful established order and we are called to go and proclaim that there is a new order.  We are sinner and saint.

Maybe a better question than who we are is this – who is Jesus?  Jesus is God.  Jesus overcomes sin and death.  Jesus puts an end to unjust systems and ways.  Jesus unleashes the new creation and the kingdom of God.  Jesus brings peace.  Jesus acts.  Jesus brings all of the things and more.  Jesus does them to us and for us first.  And because Jesus acts first, we can respond – joyfully.  And Jesus calls us and sends us.

That’s who we are.  Because that’s who God is.  Christ is alive – let us rejoice!

Good Friday

Today is Good Friday.

It’s a day in which we see the values of God on full display.  It’s where we witness to what God is willing to do and what God is willing to go through to express God’s love for creation.

It’s also a day of contrast.  That contrast shows up right in the name – Good Friday.  We call it Good even though there is death.  We call it that because Jesus’ death is how death is conquered.

Today is a good day to remember some things.  We remember that death may look like it has won, but it hasn’t.  Death doesn’t get the final say.  Death is merely a stop on the journey to resurrection.  Death is like the seed that comes before the sprout of new life.  The New Creation begins with the resurrection.  But that can’t happen without death.

We should remember some other things too – things we may not want to think about actually.  Things that might make us uncomfortable and uneasy.  Things that may cause us to look inward and ask ourselves some very probing questions about ourselves and our beliefs.

Good Friday is a day to remember and reflect on these things.

So let us dive in and remember:

Let us remember that our values and Christ’s values don’t always match up.  There are some things that overlap and are similar in nature.  We may even be able to claim that some of our values are in alignment with Christ’s.  But there are plenty that are not.  Our values and Christ’s values are not equal or the same.

Let us remember that American values and Christ’s values don’t always match up. There are some things that overlap and are similar in nature.  We may even be able to claim that some of our American values are in alignment with Christ’s.  But there are plenty that are not.  American values and Christ’s values are not equal or the same.

Let us remember that Democrat Party values and Christ’s values don’t always match up. There are some things that overlap and are similar in nature.  We may even be able to claim that some of the Democrat Party values are in alignment with Christ’s.  But there are plenty that are not.  Democrat Party values and Christ’s values are not equal or the same.

Let us remember that Republican Party values and Christ’s values don’t always match up. There are some things that overlap and are similar in nature.  We may even be able to claim that some of the Republican Party values are in alignment with Christ’s.  But there are plenty that are not.  Republican Party values and Christ’s values are not equal or the same.

Let us remember that this is true whether we are talking about our personal values, our national values, our political/ideological values, our values around money and work, and more.

We are not the center of the universe.  Nor do we get to dictate to God what values God should espouse in order to agree with us.  Good Friday is the day that we remember that we are not in control, that we are not the center of all creation, that we do not dictate anything to God.

Good Friday is the day we remember that we are helpless and incapable of saving ourselves.  Good Friday is the day we remember that we are not fully in alignment with God’s will.  Good Friday is the day we remember we are the ones who shout “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” because God wouldn’t comply with our sinful desires to be in control and dictate to God what was to be.

Good Friday.  It is Good.  It is Good to remember.  To say thank you.  And to be transformed.

New habits

I read some time ago that new habits take 21 days to form.  That’s if you do them every day.  And you willingly do them.

I haven’t read anything about what happens when someone close to you takes on a new habit that you don’t like.  Or a new habit that many are doing that will impact you and that you don’t like.

Based on what I see, it appears that when a new habit is done by someone else, or many someones, and a person doesn’t like – well, that person will resist.  They will do what they can to slander the new habit in order to de-legitimize it.  They will be stubborn in regards to the new habit.  They will do what they can to protect the status quo and the beliefs that go with the status quo.  And why?  Usually it’s because the status quo benefits that person – or at least they think it does.  So why change?  The person will think they will lose what they have, rather than consider what might be gained.

I think this response really comes down to this – do we think we are in control?  We resist that which shows us how much of a lack of control we really have – at least here in the West that is.  We have been pumped with the idea that we are independent and self-reliant and that no one really has an impact on anyone else.  While a nice idea on the surface, the pandemic is showing us that those ideas are simply not true.  But this shouldn’t be a surprise really.  Every time we have a crisis, the phrase “we’re all in this together” comes out – a direct contradiction of the very idea of independence and self-reliance.

I have seen some changes happen in the last three weeks.  I have seen some cracks in the idea of partisan loyalty.  Just small cracks so far.  Hopeful cracks.  I don’t expect everyone to change.  Those that are pretty hard core left or right are not open to change, to seeing the world differently, to considering what’s best for everyone, to seeing the flaw in equating partisan political identification with our own identity.  This post isn’t about them anyway.  It’s for the others who are starting to see that loyalty to a political party or politician above all else is a recipe for disaster.  It’s for those who are remembering that such die-hard loyalty isn’t healthy and never has been.  It’s for those who recall that they are followers of Jesus and all he stands for first and foremost, not some political party or politician.  It’s for those who are are realizing and remembering that what Jesus calls us to is not the same thing as what a political party or politician calls us to.

Substitute in any of the other idols that exist in our world in place of politics and politician and you have the same effect.  Whether it be money, power, work, the economy, our addictions, or anything else that makes god-like claims on us and demands our loyalty.  They are all same.  And they all ultimately lead to disaster.  And there are people who are waking up to this reality the longer this pandemic goes on.

I don’t argue that God brought on the pandemic.  But I do argue that God works through such things regardless.  The pandemic is an opportunity for us to let go of old habits and beliefs that are out of alignment with our faith and what it means to be a follower of Jesus and replace them with new habits that are based on values of the Kingdom of God, on Shalom, on Imago Dei.

Old habits die hard, especially when we resist them.  While we can’t control what others will do, we are called to live in a new way – the way of Jesus.

Church metrics in crisis

For a long time, churches have used two metrics to measure their “success” – butts in the pews and money in the coffers.  Those metrics were fine when the church was the center of the culture – when the culture assisted in creating guilt for people to go to church on Sunday regardless of their actual beliefs.  As with any metric, there are limits.  Butts in the pews doesn’t translate into disciples, or really anything beyond who was in attendance in worship.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with measuring how many people are in attendance in worship.  That can actually be a useful metric.  But it’s a lagging indicator, not a leading one.  And, like most indicators, if it’s not read in context, it can actually provide misleading information.

For instance, if there is an increase in worship attendance, it doesn’t really tell you why.  Is it because there is a new pastor?  Or maybe the old pastor left?  Or maybe there is an uptick in discipleship?  Or maybe there’s a great deal of social ministry happening and those being helped are showing up?  Or maybe a new housing development opened up near the church?  Or maybe someone else started counting and they count a different way?

We don’t know.  Just as if attendance goes down.  Whether attendance is going up or down isn’t the real mark of success.  You could have 10,000 people in a church worship service, but if what is being taught is far from the Gospel, is that success?  At the apex of Jesus’ ministry – the night before he died – there were 12 men gathered with him and one left him.  That night others would run away and his closest disciple would deny knowing him.  Jesus’ attendance was in a significant downward trend.  Without context, we might say that he was a failure based on the numbers in attendance.

I raise this because in the midst of pandemic, I have to ask this question – what are you measuring?  Numbers of views on your livestream or recorded worship?  Views equal how many people exactly?

How about money?  How are you measuring your finances in the midst of crisis?

Having attendance and finances as the sole metrics in the midst of crisis are not great indicators to tell you how the church is doing right now.

Right now the metrics I’m looking at are who’s stepping up?  Just people who are already engaged, or are there others who are stepping up who weren’t as engaged as before?  I’m looking at ministry that is happening with the poor and outcast – how are they being served in the midst of crisis and who is doing it?  What are the creative ways in which ministry is happening?  How are those who have been engaged changing in their engagement right now?  How willing are people to adapt to new technology in order to continue the work of ministry and worship in the life of the congregation?  What stories are we sharing – stories about encounters with Jesus that are happening in the midst of crisis?  And yes, how are the finances right now?  Are people continuing to give?   Are they giving to other non-profits in the midst of crisis?  Are they giving because they see that what church is doing is actually impacting people’s lives in real ways right now?

What are you measuring?  And why?

Crisis reveals…mortality

Last week I wrote a post on what crisis reveals.

I left off one really important thing that crisis, such as a pandemic, reveals – our mortality.

We are not superman/woman.  We are not indestructible.  We aren’t immune to viruses.  No matter how strong we may think we are, or perceive others to be, we know inherently that strength has nothing to do with our survival in regards to an infectious disease.  Intelligence might help us a bit in altering our behaviors.  But even that has limits.

Viruses don’t care about our strength – a virus isn’t intimidated by our strength.  It doesn’t care what our intelligence is.  It doesn’t care what our political ideology is.  It doesn’t care what our nationality is.  It doesn’t care what our religious faith is.  It doesn’t care if we are stubborn.  It doesn’t care what our mindset is.

We are not in control.

We never have been.

We just don’t like to admit that.  We like to lie to ourselves and pretend that we are in control of our lives.  We like to think that we are independent and don’t really need anyone to survive.  But if that were true, then we should hand in everything that was made by someone else – everything.  We’d be left with nothing except what we made ourselves.  Oh, and all the tools we use to make that item would have to be of our own making.  Same for the food.  Can’t go to the store to get seeds either – someone else did the work of harvesting the seeds and packaging them.

Even if we could actually be independent of everyone else, would we really want to be?  Seems awfully lonely to not need anyone else for anything?  Forget about having children and believing we are truly independent – they’d have to learn the hard way to care for themselves right after birth.

We’re not really independent.  Being dependent isn’t great either.  What we are is interdependent – we need each other to survive.  And even then, we aren’t in control of our mortality.

I think this pandemic is teaching us what many generations have known so very well – life is fragile.  Mortality is real.  Death is real.  And Faith is real.  It’s not just some nice words that comfort us when we are uncomfortable.  Faith isn’t just some intellectual exercise in which we think we know something about God.  Rather, faith is a lived reality that shows us how God encounters us, walks with us in the midst of the shadow of the valley of death, that doesn’t abandon us in the midst of crisis.  Faith in a pandemic teaches us what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Faith allows us to grasp what resurrected life is about too.  It’s not about turning back the clocks to sometime in the past.  It’s about being transformed and going forward.

The Old Testament reading for Sunday is from Jeremiah.  It’s about the joyous return of those that were exiled.  It’s a resurrection story.  The people of Israel were resurrected and returned to their land.  They didn’t turn back the clocks though and pretend nothing happened and go on their way as it was before.  Rather, they were resurrected.  They were changed by the exile. And they lived differently.

My hope is that the same is true for us.

Facing death is a life changing experience.  It changes your perspective.  It changes you.  When you truly know your own mortality, you see life differently.  You know that life is a gift.  You know that each day is a gift.  You know that your time here is limited and not to be wasted.  Knowing your own mortality brings you closer to God.  It allows you to take seriously what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

When we finally return from our own exile, let us embrace our changed reality.  Let us learn from mortality.  Let us be embraced by faith.  Let us live our Kingdom values.

“We’re all in this together”

I hear this phrase often during tragedy and crisis – “We’re all in this together.”

It’s a great sentiment.  I wish it were true though.

Yes, we voice the ideal of unified survival.  E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.  We think of ourselves as united to one another.

Except when we don’t.  Except when it goes beyond the rhetoric to how it is lived out.  I don’t want to downplay the heroic acts that are going on.  I think they are great.  I just wish the sentiment carried on beyond response to a crisis.  Why is it that we are only all in this together when there is a crisis?  Why aren’t we all in this together at other times – especially times that aren’t dominated by crisis?  Wouldn’t being all in this together in better times actually prepare us better for when there is a crisis?

“We’re all in this together.”  Really?  So what changed that makes this statement true beyond feeling like we are all facing the same challenge and threat to our lives?  The crisis did.  But what else?  What policies can we point to that prove to us that we are in fact all in this together?  Like I said, there are certainly actions by individuals, organizations, and even governments that show that we are all in this together.  But those are short term changes designed to stop the crisis.  They aren’t meant for long term change.  After the crisis is over, what’s to stop from going back to “normal.”  Were we all in this together pre-COVID-19?

How are we all in this together with those experiencing homelessness?

How about those who have difficulty receiving or paying for health care?

How are we all in this together with those who are in low wage jobs?

How about those who struggle with mental health challenges?

How are we all in this together when it comes to stewardship of the earth?

How are we all in this together when it comes to educating children and even adults?

How are we all in this together when I hear political rhetoric and politicians use language that divides, dehumanizes, and degrades people?

How are we all in this together when I hear political rhetoric that demonizes other parties and calls them the enemy?

How are we all in this together when I hear people scapegoating and looking for others blame?

How are we all in this together when I see stories about hate crimes against Asian-Americans over COVID-19?  Or when racism and white privilege continue to go on?  Or when I hear pastors demonize the LGBTQIA+ community?

How exactly is any of that equivalent to being all in this together?

I want us to be all in this together.  I want us to continue to be all in this together beyond the crisis.  I want us to change policies and attitudes and culture and habits to show that we are serious about all of us being in this together.  Otherwise, those words are just empty ultimately – nice sentiment that is really about saving our own skin.  Not being all in this together when it really matters.  And crisis isn’t the only time that being all in this together really matters.  It really matters when there isn’t a deadly crisis.  It matters because being all in this together is really just another way of living out our faith.  It’s how we live out Shalom – wholeness, completeness, tranquility.  It’s how we live into the Imago Dei – the image of God.  It’s how we love God and our neighbor.  It’s how we live into Matthew 25 and how God will judge the nations in relation to the least of these among us.

You see, Jesus has been teaching his followers about being all in this together since the very beginning.  Not just when it’s convenient for survival in a crisis.  If you don’t practice being all in this together when there is no crisis, then I wonder how well we actually live it out when there is a crisis.

We’re all in this together.  Don’t tell me about it.  Show me.  Show me after this crisis passes.  Then I’ll know if its true.  Or if it’s a bunch of bull.

What crisis reveals

Pandemics are terrible.  All crisis is unpleasant.  I don’t know of a single person who wants to see a crisis come to them.

And at the same time crisis reveals several things.

Crisis gives us a window into realities that could otherwise be covered up.  You don’t have to look to hard to see a multitude of articles ranking how different government officials – both national and state level – are doing in the midst of crisis.  These officials’ leadership is what is being focused on.

Crisis also reveals brokenness and broken systems.  Crisis doesn’t allow us to ignore problems that already exist, but become bigger when the crisis hits.  A short list of broken systems that have become exasperated in this time of crisis include – homelessness, health care, working poor, wages, resistant beliefs, etc.  We have to take the rose colored glasses off and deal with these challenges.  Not everything was great.

Crisis reveals many things about ourselves too.  We have to deal with and cope with crisis.  Some people shut down, while others step up.  We may learn how introverted or extroverted we really are.  We may learn some realities about our work or the organization we work for and with in a time of crisis too.  What do they value?  What is essential?  what kind of adjustments are they willing to make?

Crisis also reveals things about cultures and societies as well – often unpleasant realties.  This pandemic is essentially getting in our face and yelling at us so we can’t ignore an unpleasant reality.  It’s showing us that in spite of the American creed that thinks we are special or exceptional, we just aren’t.  We’re no different than any other nation.  We are just as contagious as anyone else.  We have more cases of COVID-19 than any other country by a factor of two over the next highest country – Italy.  Granted, our mortality is lower than many other countries, but we still have the third highest number of deaths.  That’s not something I relish writing.  But it is a stark reality.

Crisis reveals things about faith and religion too.  Faith is made for such a time as this.   It is times like this that we learn how out of control we really are, that our salvation has nothing to do with how good we are, or how good of facade we put up in public.  It’s not about that.  Faith is putting it all in God’s hands, regardless of what happens to us because faith is knowing that we are not the center of all existence – rather, we must conform to reality.  This crisis is also revealing the true health of congregations around the world.  It is revealing how stuck in the past so many are and how many refuse to adapt.  It is also revealing how many are facing reality and making necessary changes.  Crisis will kill many congregations – that is a fact.  But it will also make many more stranger than they were before.  Stronger in a few ways – the ways of faith, the use of technology, the closeness of community, letting go of unhealthy systems, etc.

Crisis reveals many things. Often, unpleasant things.  But it also reveals some great things.  It reveals character.  It reveals grit.  It reveals stamina.  It reveals determination.  And more.

Let’s talk about idols

I think too many of us think that idols are some kind of ancient pagan belief system that died out long ago.  And in one sense, that’s true.

But frankly, worshipping idols never went out of fashion.  Idols are just as prevalent now as ever.  We just don’t call them idols anymore.  We like to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re beyond all that silly nonsense.

But I’m not sure what else to call the idols of our current age and culture.  Two idols that have a strong grip on America are money and partisan loyalty.  There are of course other idols too.  And America isn’t the only culture or nation bound in the grip of idols.  Every culture and nation is guilty of this.

An idol is a false god or something that is the object of worship.  Idols appear to be God-like, but they are antithesis of God.  They are the opposite of Christ.  The characteristics of idols are the exact opposite characteristics of God.

If we believe that God is love, then a simple definition of God’s characteristics can be summed up in 1 Corinthians 13:4-13 –

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(Source: NRSV)

Idols are the opposite of this description.

God is love.  And God is more too.  God is about Shalom – a Hebrew word meaning wholeness or completeness or tranquility.  God is also about the Imago Dei – the image of God.  Shalom and Imago Dei are intimately tied together.  There can be no Shalom without Imago Dei.  How could there be?  It is in seeing the image of God in all people that we know what Shalom (wholeness) is.

But idols don’t work this way.  Idols are the opposite of love.  Idols are also more.  They are about anti-Shalom and anti-Imago Dei.  Idols don’t seek out wholeness.  They seek to divide.  They seek to separate.  They seek the ego.  Idols are narcissistic.  They are blind to the image of God.  Instead they want us to see things that are not the idol, that don’t think like the idol, that don’t believe like the idol, that don’t have blind loyalty to the idol, as bad and unworthy of life itself.  Idols seek to consume all of life and destroy anything that gets in the idols way.

Idols are like a religion in their ideas and structure.  But their core beliefs are opposed to God.  They have their own gospel narrative of how they save.  Except their gospels aren’t about saving people from Sin and Death.  Rather, their gospel narratives have a twisted idea of salvation – it’s only about saving themselves – and everyone and everything is expendable in order to accomplish that goal.  That’s how narcissism works.  And idols are narcissistic at their core.  Narcissism is the belief that the narcissist is the only living thing that matters.

Idols demand blind loyalty that cost people their lives, their relationships, their health, and more.

Idols have high priests who proclaim the idols’ false gospels, declare what sacrifice people will make and impose rules on people.

Idols have sacraments that aren’t the means of grace, but instead are the means of karma – getting what you deserve.  And given that people are sinful, idols do all they can to be cruel task masters that demand perfection and inflict punishment when there is failure.

Idols have hymns of praise to their false gods.  These hymns are full of lies.

Idols have followers that carry out their faith.  Questioning the idol or the beliefs associated with the idol is unacceptable.

False gods such as money and partisan loyalty can be clearly characterized by two things that define what faith in these idols is really about – scapegoating and sacrifice.  You see, blame and guilt are essential for an idol because the idol knows that it is empty and needs someone else to blame for its failings.  Excuses are common with idols.  If only this person had done this, the plan would have worked.  The false god would have been successful.  There is always someone else to blame.  All scapegoating really does is showcase how impotent these false gods really are.  They aren’t powerful.  They can’t save.  They really can’t do anything.  They are about as powerful as the Wizard of Oz – a fraud.  Idols lead to death and destruction.

The other characteristic that accompanies idols is sacrifice. Idols demand that everyone must sacrifice – that something must be lost, or worse – something must die.  Idols demand sacrifice.  Sacrifice to appease.  Sacrifice to eliminate a threat.  Idols feed off of the pain of others, the loss that others experience.  All so a false narrative can be proclaimed.

How long will we hold onto the idols of our culture?  They demand a great deal, and offer far less in return.  Money and partisan loyalty aren’t about serving God.  They aren’t trying to serve humanity or creation.  They demand to be the center of attention.  They demand sacrifice – work yourself to death for them, destroy relationships over them, sacrifice health over them, don’t question them.  And each time they fail to provide salvation, they have someone to blame.

Two things we aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company are money and politics.  Idols don’t like to be talked about.  We are supposed to lie to ourselves – to pretend they don’t have a grip over us.  To ignore their unpleasant reality.  Instead, we are just supposed to comply with their wishes.  If people talk about money and partisan loyalty, then they realize and see that they are not alone in knowing that the idol is a false god, that it is weak, that it lies, that is it empty, that is demands and never actually gives what it promises.  If people talk about these false gods, then these gods no longer have control over people and their lives.

“But, we talk about politics so often, Matthew!”  “But we talk about the economy and the stock market all the time, Matthew!”

Yes, but we don’t talk about money – our relationship to it, how it impacts our relationships, how it demands to be the arbiter of how decisions are made – even faith related decisions.

Yes, we talk about politics plenty.  But not really.  We talk about the horse race of politics. We scapegoat those who we disagree with, regardless of the issue.  We only look to see how our side is scoring political points and the other side can be seen as evil, less human, stupid.  We seek out how our beliefs about politics are right and the other side is wrong, never considering that we might be wrong, or that there might be more than one way to think about an issue.  We talk about politics in terms of winners and losers.

We don’t really talk about money or partisan loyalty.  Because if we did, we’d realize that we have been worshipping these idols, that they have been fooling us and making us to be fools for a very long time.  And in the end, we’d have to be mad at ourselves.  The false gods aren’t really anything after all – they aren’t even alive.  They are a lie.  How mad would you get if you suddenly realize that you’ve been following the dictates of a lie?  And doing it willingly?

False idols work that way.  In the midst of this pandemic, we have an opportunity.  When this is all over, we have a choice – do we go back to “normal?”  Do we go back to the way it was before COVID-19 came?  Do we go back to our blind worship of money and partisan loyalty?

Or do we seek first the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness?  Do we seek Shalom?  Do we seek to see the Imago Dei?  Do we set aside false gods and idols in order to truly live into what we claim to believe?

I don’t want to go back to the way it was.  I want to go forward to live into the faith given to us by God.  I hope you do too.  I don’t know what others will do.  I don’t have control over anyone else.  But I will live into the Kingdom of God.

Where is God?

Where is God in the midst of a pandemic? Where is God in the midst of sheltering in place? Where is God in the midst of everything falling apart? Where is God in the midst of shortages of food and medical supplies? Where is God in the midst of uncertainty that potentially leads to more deaths? Where is God in the midst of the idols demanding sacrifice? Where is God in the midst of death, despair, hopelessness, etc.?

God is here. In the midst of it. God always has been.

God isn’t a god of convenience or being comfortable. God isn’t a god of only good times. God isn’t a god of everything going well. God isn’t a god of having your life all in order. God isn’t a god of fair weather.

God is certainly God in the midst of those things. But God is much more. It is in the midst of the terrible when we see the true nature of God, if we just open our eyes, ears, and hearts.

The theology of the cross should remind us that it is in the cross that we see a fuller picture of God’s character. God is willing to go to death. God doesn’t avoid the unpleasantness, the pain, the suffering, the death. No, God willingly goes. Because God, in Jesus, became fully human along with being fully divine. And in Jesus, God experienced the fullness of what it means to be human – to suffer, to be in pain, to be dehumanized, to be sacrificed, to be worthless compared to an idol and power.

This Sunday we’ll read how Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. A better translation is that he was moved to his very core – as if his bowels were ripped out of him. That kind of visceral response is fully human. God knows what it is like to suffer, to experience pain, to die. This is what the incarnation is all about. That’s not to diminish the good emotions and things. He experienced those too.

But it is in the cross that God’s true character is revealed to us. It is how we know that God is here. Now. Active.

Where is God? God is with God’s people. Serving them. Being with them. Feeding them. Comforting the afflicted. Sheltering the homeless, giving food to the hungry, caring for the sick, releasing those who are bound. God is here. And we are invited to follow. To do likewise.