Lenten Service – March 20, 2019
Scripture: Psalm 46
One could argue that the First Commandment is the hardest one to keep. “You shall have no other gods besides me.”
The alternative is idolatry. Literally, of course, we are told in the Second Commandment not to make graven images and bow down to them—but one does not need to make a graven image to put something other than God in the place that only God should occupy in our lives. It’s so very easy to do.
The three major ones, according to a book written years ago by Richard Foster, are Money, Sex, and Power. Money may be the biggest of all—even in church. But I would argue that when we appear to be making money into an idol in the church, or in the lives of individual Christians, we may actually be bowing down to a much more insidious, much more pernicious false god.
That false god is fear.
Many years ago at the Disciples’ Upper Midwest Regional Assembly, held in Des Moines, our Regional Minister preached a stirring message. It was Saturday morning, and his message was part of the worship service that began our day, which would continue with business meetings and workshops. Richard’s message was about trusting God—because God can be trusted. When he finished speaking, we all felt energized, ready to storm the gates of Hell, if that’s what God called us to do.
Then we took a short break, during which we all exclaimed over what a power sermon it had been, how very true it was. After the break came a business meeting, and the first item on the agenda was the Region’s budget.
If you know anything at all about church life beyond the local congregation, you know that regional church—presbytery, district, diocese, whatever your tradition might call the level just above congregations, perhaps in a specific geographical area like a state—has been in financial trouble for quite some time now. That reality was just starting to hit home at the time of this particular Regional Assembly, and we had to deal with the reality that we had substantially less money available to us than we were going to need in order to meet all the obligations we had traditionally been able to meet. Tough decisions had had to be made by the Regional staff and board as they prepared the budget we were to discuss and approve.
If we had had a meter that measured the level of anxiety in that room, it likely would have been overloaded. What happened to trusting God? What happened to following God’s call even if it meant storming the gates of Hell?
In the face of a dire-looking Regional budget, it all went right out of the window. I couldn’t help but wonder: do we trust God, or don’t we? Because the discussion quickly turned into a hand-wringing session: “What are we going to do??”
And it did not occur to one single person in that room that it might be useful to pause the discussion, and pray.
Then, awhile later, as fear continued to consume our Regional church, the Regional board called a special meeting, at which some board members hoped to force out the Regional Minister. His offense was that he had not been able to wave a magic wand and take us back to some unspecified “good old days,” when there were plenty of people and plenty of money in churches, and we were a dominant force in our communities and culture.
This time, at least, we did have folks who led the board in prayer, and helped us to understand the 21st-century context in which we were doing business. (For some reason, it had never occurred to anyone on the board that just about every regional church body, regardless of denomination, was in the same situation, so it wasn’t the perceived incompetence of our Regional Minister that was causing our problems.)
When money is an idol in the church, it goes hand-in-hand with this bigger, badder Goliath of an idol: fear.
We don’t have enough! How do we get more? How do we avoid losing what we already have? Who’s to blame for our not having enough? Somebody’s got to be held accountable!
But the idol of fear in churches affects a lot more than just our relationship with money. A few years ago a blogger named John Pavlovitz posted on this very subject. He was speaking specifically about the evangelical branch of American Christianity, but I am not sure but that his argument holds true for all of us.
The way we talk sometimes, people have got to wonder if our God is worth anything at all. I may step on toes here, but I see evidence of this in a meme that goes around on social media from time to time, often in cartoon form. It is sometimes presented as a letter from a child to God:
Why do you allow so much violence in schools?
Signed, A concerned student
And the response is:
Dear concerned student,
I’m not allowed in school.
My response to this whenever I see it (and if you know me at all you know I’m not really good at letting things like this go by uncommented-on) is, “Do we really think our God is so puny that a court ruling or official policy can keep him out of a school or anywhere else?” I mean, this is the God who created the universe, the God who parted the Red Sea, the God who brought Jesus back from the dead!
Two decades ago when I was in seminary, one of our professors did a long presentation one morning about postmodernism, which I think was the first sign of what is now being called “The Great Emergence,” the upheaval all of Western culture and Western Christianity appears to be dealing with right now, just as we did five hundred years ago with the Protestant Reformation, five hundred years before that with the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches, and five hundred years before that with the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christian monasticism.
Dr. Shelton was presenting this so we would be aware of it, and think through how it would affect our ministries. When he had said his piece, he opened the floor for questions, and the first one was, “How do we fight this?”
When fear becomes our idol, everything becomes a fight.
When fear becomes an idol, the main focus of faith is on what John Pavlovitz calls “external sin management.” In other words, the faithful take on the task of pulling up the tares growing among the wheat—finding and rooting out the evil in other people, or worse, trying to destroy the people we decide are evil, policing the world and the behavior of all its inhabitants (just in case God can’t, or won’t).
When fear becomes an idol we turn inward; instead of loving our neighbors we lock our doors, install expensive security systems, and keep our phones in hand ready to dial 911 the minute anybody who doesn’t look like us crosses our field of vision. (Never mind that “as often as you did it to the least of these” nonsense; Jesus was too naïve to understand how dangerous the world really is.)
When fear becomes an idol, anger becomes big business—and we gravitate to those voices, whether they be on radio, on television, on the internet, or in pulpits—who tell us with compelling certainty who deserves our wrath, and God’s (…as though without our input, God doesn’t have any idea who his enemies are).
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, so we’ve heard and seen at the movies, a Jedi master by the name of Yoda was speaking to one of his students, one Anakin Skywalker, later to be known as Darth Vader—personification of all that is evil in that galaxy far, far away, of which we were first made aware in the 1977 movie Star Wars.
(Should we draw wisdom for life as Christians from a movie like Star Wars, in which the Jedi way is both a religion and a type of martial arts, mixed with a certain amount of what we might call magic? We can argue about that another time.)
What Yoda told Anakin Skywalker rings very true to me as I look around my world: “Fear,” he said, “is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate lead to suffering”—violence, bigotry, bullying, persecution, you name it. When fear becomes an idol—when fear occupies the place that should only be occupied by the God who made heaven and earth, and raised our Lord Jesus from the dead—people suffer.
Our God, through the psalmist, through the witness of all of Scripture, shows us an alternative. God is our refuge and strength…therefore, we will not fear, even though the world should change, even if the mountains tumble into the sea, even if politics or social upheaval or terror attacks make it feel like the earth is shaking. When we’re tempted to make fear our idol, which would lead us to anger, which leads to hate, which leads us to inflict suffering on ourselves and others, we hear God’s voice speaking to us in the psalm, not just in the pretty, comfortable language we’ve come to know (“Be still and know that I am God”), but in the much stronger language of the Jewish translation I just read:
Realize that I am God!
I dominate the nations;
I dominate the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us. We miss the flavor of those words when they’re translated into English: Adonai Sabaoth—it means something like “God the Commander-in-Chief of all the armies of heaven.” That is the God who is our refuge and stronghold. And as Paul says in Romans 8, “If [that] God is for us, who is against us?”
But even though the entire witness of Scripture, not just in Psalm 46 and Romans 8 but throughout the Book, tells us that God is our refuge and strength, and always present to help us in trouble, they’d be just words if not for something else that is very important. This is where the stones we’ve received come into play.
The second verse of “Come, Thou Fount” begins with a sort of obscure Scripture reference: “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” Obviously this hymn isn’t talking about Mr. Scrooge, the miserable old character in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The reference is to 1 Samuel chapter 7, after the Israelites have won a decisive victory against the Philistines. Samuel goes to a place called Mizpah, and sets up a commemorative stone, which he calls “Ebenezer.” The reason, he says, is because “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
Ebenezer, in Hebrew, means “stone of help.” ’Eben, stone; ‘ezer, help.
(Incidentally, that Hebrew word ‘ezer, help, is most often used in the Bible as a description for God. One place where it’s used to refer to someone other than God is in Genesis 2. God sees Adam in the garden alone, and says, “It is not good”; and he determines to make Adam a suitable helper to be his partner. God determines to make Adam an ‘ezer that will be fitting for him. Given that ‘ezer refers most often to God, and we’d never say God is our subordinate, how can we say that Adam’s ‘ezer, the woman, Eve, is a subordinate being?)
Whenever Israel saw the Ebenezer, they would remember Samuel’s words: “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
We have stones of our own. Maybe we carry them in our pockets, or maybe we’ve got them on our desk or our dresser. And every time we see them, perhaps we can also remember, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
When I first got to my last church, the local Head Start program was renting space in the church building. But a new community childcare center, Kids World, was being built, and Head Start would be moving there as soon as it was finished. So a lot of our church board meetings included a certain amount of hand-wringing about what we were going to do without that rental income from Head Start.
One of our elders finally had enough of it. She said something that we repeated many, many times over the years when we were talking about money or just about anything else: “We’ve been taken care of before, and we’ll be taken care of again.”
Our Ebenezer tells us, “We’ve been taken care of before, and we’ll be taken care of again.” We know God can be trusted because God has proven trustworthy by helping us, guiding us, guarding us, in hard times up until now. Our Ebenezer reminds us of that.
And if God can be trusted, then we have no need for an idol like fear.
God is our refuge and stronghold, a help in trouble, very near. Therefore, we will put aside the false idol of fear; therefore, we will not fear, even though the earth reels and the mountains crash into the sea. We will not fear, even though people don’t look like us or act like us or worship in the same way we do. We will not fear even though our leaders are, inevitably, human beings and, like every one of us, a mixture of good and bad, strong and weak.
God is our refuge and our stronghold, a help in trouble, very near. Or, in Martin Luther’s paraphrase: “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”
Therefore, we will not fear. Here we raise our Ebenezer. God has taken care of before, and God will take care of us again.
We will not fear.
Make it so.
 Richard J. Foster, Money, Sex, and Power: The Challenge of the Disciplined Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 1985).
 “The Greatest False Idol of Evangelical Christianity,” January 15, 2015 (https://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/01/15/the-greatest-false-idol-of-modern-christianity/).