The Seduction of Idols

1 Kings 18:20-39

Luke 16: 1-13

I bought my first pair of designer sunglasses the other day. I was in Macy’s looking for a birthday present for my partner- her birthday is next Sunday, and we are going away next weekend together to celebrate it- and as I was shopping for her I was seduced by these gold framed super hip Ray Bans. I’ve never bought fancy sunglasses in my life- but there at Macy’s Sunglass hut stand, the sales person even handed me a coupon for $20 off! I was seduced by feeling, “I am worth it.” So I walked out of Macy’s with sunglasses for me, and nothing for Keera. Later her parents and I split a pair of nice sunglasses for her birthday. But I left the mall feeling at once proud and fancy yet confounded, confused, wondering how that happened.

Jesus says we can’t worship God and wealth – that when we are slaves to one, we hate the other; when we love the one, we can’t be devoted to the other. Wealth is translated from mammon,  the Semetic term meaning “the treasure a person trusts in.” Treasure, riches, wealth. Was I worshipping mammon when I bought those sunglasses? We are challenged by this passage to ask what do we worship without knowing it? What do we love that is not God? In this passage from Luke, the worlds of Mammon and the world of God are diametrically opposed.

Separating these worlds though, the worlds of money and God, is not so easy, and maybe not productive. We need money to survive, we need material things to live in this world, and even we are taught to honor material things, to see God in matter. But where is the dangerous line into Mammon worship from God worship?

We are all formed by stories about money, as much as we are formed from stories about faith. Our parents, and their parents relationships to money, form our relationships to money, as much as their faith forms us, and there is not quite a formula to follow, other than those who grow up rich will have an easier time staying wealthy and those who grow up poor will have a harder shot at the riches of the world- or even at surviving the expenses of the world.

Irene Claremont DeCastillejo writes, “Only a few achieve the colossal task of holding together, without being split asunder, the clarity of their vision, alongside an ability to take their place in a materialistic world. They are the modern heroes… Artists at least have a form within which they can hold their own conflicting opposites together. But there are some who have no recognized artistic form to serve this purpose, they are artists of the living. To my mind these last are the supreme heroes in our soulless society.”

Because Christianity has a reputation of being anti-money, then abusing it, and the corporate world has a reputation for being anti soul- and abusing it, creating soul sucking environments. The religious communities are just as much to blame for not cultivating language around money and wealth and scarcity and abundance that is soul based, that helps us relate the transient material world to the eternal world of the spirit.

What would it mean to cultivate in ourselves generous souls, to reprogram our desires, the desires that are pumped through our conscious and unconscious minds to desire wealth and a certain kind of success, and a certain self image? What do we worship as false idols without knowing it? What seduces us away from our true selves who are connected to the common Good, our non-anxious selves who know everything is going to be alright because we are rooted in the cosmic bosom of love, our, we have enough in this very moment selves, our abundant selves? What do we worship that clenches us down with fear rather than opens us up with love?

Worshipping mammon leads to greed, but not the kind of obvious greed we are familiar with mocking. A different kind of greed. A soul greed, a subtle feeling that there is not enough, that we are not enough, that there is not enough love, so we need to compete with each other for it, that there are not enough jobs, so we need to compete for them, that there is not enough money so we need to compete for it.

Is there enough? The US is about 4.4% of the world population and we use about 40% of the raw materials of nature. We are known globally as the nation of excess. And here, without knowing it, we are seduced by the fear that there isn’t enough. And this material fear seeps into our very souls. Fear is a powerful motivator, and when we are afraid of not having enough, it makes us clamp down, and say this is mine, and that is yours, and if you try to take this, I’ll hurt you. We build walls around our yards and homes and countries our hearts our families to protect what is ours. Nationalism causes this fear and violence. Fear becomes a justification of xenophobia. This is not an economic or security problem; these are issues of the soul. This is the worship of a false God, a God of scarcity.

When we encounter this Israelite community in our Hebrew Bible text from 1 Kings, they were living with a sense of scarcity. The people were in year three of a drought. The story lures us into a time when King Ahab had led the Israelites astray- with his marriage to Queen Jezebel, who was a worshipper of Baal, many in the community were enticed to worship Baal instead of YHWH. Did anyone watch the National Spelling Bee championship? It is just Gold. In celebration of that, I give you alternative pronunciations of Baal. Ball. Ba’al.

The 1 Kings text we encounter is very game of thrones esq. There is a contest to see which God is the Lord of light! Who is the one true God? Is it YHWH or Baal!? There is a moment of reckoning- the people of Israel have been lead by Ahab, who married Jezzebel, we might call her the red woman. Jezebel is a powerful woman in the Bible and a devotee to the god Baal, the God of storms, the God of weather, the God that agrarian people worship. Baal is failing the people, because they are in a drought. There are 450 prophets of Baal, it was a popular thing to do, but Elijah is the only prophet of the Lord YHWH, and in this scene all the people in the community are gathered.

When everyone is gathered, Elijah, the only prophet of YHWH speaks- but he doesn’t speak to the King, he doesn’t speak to the other prophets, he draws near to the people, and knows it is a risk saying this, but he has not other option. He says to them, “How long will you go limping with two different options? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” The people fall silent.

Elijah addresses them again, and lays the ground rules for this contest, he says, we will see who is the true God, who is truly the Lord of light, by setting up two altars, by bringing in two bulls to sacrifice, and whichever altar is set on fire- that God is the true God! And the people finally answered, “Well spoken!”

So all 450 of Baal’s prophets began a dramatic ritual, of calling out to Baal from morning until noon, marching around the altar they created, and cutting themselves letting their own blood flow, as was their custom. But nothing happened. Elijah has the gaul to mock them, he says, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” But nothing happened.

So now it was Elijah’s turn, and he was seriously outnumbered. He had put himself in a risky situation. He addresses the people again, he wants to remind them of who they are. He asks them to draw close to him. First he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; then took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name” with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He invited the people into the ritual. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time.

Now you need to know something important about water in this story. The reason the people are scared, the reason King Ahab is even entertaining Elijah’s ritual contest, is because their community is in the 3rd year of a severe drought. There wasn’t enough water. There wasn’t enough food. They were scared. They feared for their own security, and it turned them inward. They were clamped down by scarcity.

While water was so incredibly valuable, Elijah had asked people to pour water on the altar, and after doing it twice, he said “do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.”

Right at the moment that the Israeli people thought there wasn’t enough, that there wasn’t going to be enough, they got a sign from God of abundance. Rather than crying out in excess, cutting himself Elijah calls to God with two simple lines, he says, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”

And when he did this, the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”

Praise be to God! YHWH is God even when it doesn’t rain. Baal is the God of instant gratification, of how are we right now? The false idol, the fair weather God, who is only with us when the sun shines or it rains at the right time. YHWH is the God of constant blessing, throughout all experiences, rain and sun, and the God of abundance, especially when we are seduced by the idols of scarcity. There is enough. This is the God that Jesus calls on, the God of abundance, when the other disciples shame Mary for breaking expensive perfume and anointing Jesus- a God of flooding abundance, and God that gives signs through material things. Wealth and money are not the problems. Worshipping scarcity is the problem, so we are driven unconsciously to fill holes in ourselves that lie telling us we are “not enough” or there is “not enough” projecting those feelings on everything around us.

Now I am still not sure if my super fly sunglasses means I was worshipping a false God—but it probably does. We get seduced by not having enough and not being enough all the time, and it makes us act in ridiculous, fearful, selfish ways. But people of God, I tell you with the confidence of Elijah, perhaps not with the gaul to mock the other God’s we worship, but I tell you that there is enough, and our God is a God of abundance. Nothing can take away your belovedness, no material shortage can change the faithfulness of God, no absence of Grace is the last word- for our God is a God steadfast love. Let us root ourselves in a God of abundance, and notice when we worship scarcity instead.

Worshipping scarcity produces separateness rather than unity. We may not even consider it worship. But when we compare ourselves to other people, when we compare our faith to other faiths, with intention to judge and cut down rather than to support. Ashley Harness from Lyndale Church in Minneapolis says that this scarcity is what lies at the heart of things like white supremacy and racism. “Scarcity tells us that dignity is a zero-sum game – if you are demanding your dignity, mine is under attack. Scarcity tells us that there must be limited access to food and water and education and housing and safety and healthcare in the world – that if you have it, my portion must be threatened. Scarcity tells us that white identity depends on black oppression. Scarcity tells us it’s my way for justice or the highway to hell. Scarcity tells us that my pain and your pain must be in competition, not shared so they might lessen. Scarcity tells us that we cannot all be free at once, that we cannot all be beloved at once that we cannot all reap the rewards of justice at once. But that scarcity mentality of white supremacy and racism, though it lives inside us, is a lie. That scarcity is a way of thinking we have inherited that makes an idol out of fear. And our God says no to that scarcity mentality. Variations on the phrase “be not afraid” appear 365 times in the Bible.”

Abundance tells us to not be afraid! Abundance tells us that our mattering can never take away from another person’s mattering. Abundance tells us that we aren’t competition to each other, but that like King so eloquently puts, “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made. We must all learn to live together as kin or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Indeed, it is so. Amen.

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