“…their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
This would seem so very easy. What could be more simple? Unfortunately it is not that easy because we are a people who seem to love other things. We love money, cars, prestige, honor, our selves. There always seems to be something out there to attract each and every one of us as an idol. It is religions based on idols that are worthless.
Talking about idolatry is really not very trendy today. It sometimes seems as dated as some of the prophets from the Hebrew Scriptures. But it can occur in so many forms that it is time, I think, to examine the idea anew. I find it somewhat interesting that in our current struggles in the Episcopal Church idolatry seems to be making a strong comeback. Like the song of the Sirens it calls people to leap into the abyss of idol worship. It blinds us to the truth.
For some in the Episcopal Church today the idol seems to be the Anglican Communion. We are willing to sacrifice anything or anyone at the altar to this idol. In fact, sadly some are willing even to be dishonest in their pursuit of this idol. At General Convention one of the most amazing things, and to me the most surprising thing, was seeing how different dioceses voted on some issues. I observed conservative dioceses voting with liberal dioceses in what I could only see as an attempt to force the sacrifice of the Episcopal Church on the altar of idolatry to gain access to the Anglican Communion. The liberals were at least voting their hearts. The conservatives however were coldly calculating in voting against the things they claim to hold dear and voting for the things to which they are totally opposed. It was an example of idolatry pure and simple, clothed in Christian platitudes. It was for me a sad day.
But reflecting on it has caused me to remember something very important. You can find idols where you least expect them. Who would expect a concept like the Anglican Communion to become an idol? Certainly not me. I wonder if fear of idolatry was why Jesus told the deaf man he healed to not tell anyone about it. Perhaps Jesus was concerned that people would make an idol out of the healing, missing the point of God being among them. And it would be so easy to do. After all, there is nothing wrong with a great healing. But allowing a healing to eclipse the presence of God in their midst would be an act of idolatry.
Of course Episcopalians are not the only ones able to find idols out of what should and can be good ways to spread the kingdom. People make an idol of Scripture, placing readings of God’s own word in conflict with the very message of God. People can make idols of their church, just as it has happened with the idea of the Anglican Communion. People can also make idols of power, authority, money, the creeds, the 39 Articles, our own personal beliefs, and many, many other things. Seeing God as any of these things is idolatry plain and simple. But it is not plain and simple when the idol in our life is something associated with the church. After all, how could that be an idol? It is about the church!
Many people are going though life in our world today looking for faith or religion, or something to cling to. They might not even have a word for what they are looking for. There are many people and organizations out there willing to try to tell them that they have the answer. Some of these people and organizations claim to be Christian, some claim to be of other faiths, some claim to be of a faith all of their own.
What saddens me is how these searching individuals may feel if they look to the Episcopal Church for the answer to their problems. We seem to be so tied up with political idols and issues, demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice people to them, that I have to wonder who would want to come to us? What if they were the next person needed to be sacrificed at the altar of expediency? I would not blame them for saying “no thank you” and moving on to the church next door.
In fact, we see that happening in some places in the Episcopal Church. Some alarmists would try and convince us that the Episcopal Church is dying. You might well look around and disagree, because at St. Peter’s we are growing. The secret of growth is no secret at all. The key to growth is a loving, caring, Christian community. That is what we are blessed to have here at St. Peter’s. Unlike other parishes who are willing to waste tremendous amounts of time and energy on the idolatrous things available to worry about, we focus on loving others and serving God. Hmmm, that is starting to sound strangely like this sermon began: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
I think that if we can maintain this focus we will be served well in our Christian witness in this community.