American Idol

American Idol - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

This is a transcript from the August 25, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

First of all, I just want to talk about American Idol. We all know the show, right? Show of hands, have you ever watched it before? The premise is that singers come in and they perform and they're competing to become the next American Idol in music specifically. The idea, using idol is that there's nothing higher than that point. That once you reach that spot, you're idolized, everybody wants to be like you, everybody wants to be you and that is the number one thing that defines success.

All right? That's the ultimate. This shows kind of what our society thinks of entertainers in a way. That there is the maximum lifestyle; you get all the money, you could buy all the boats and the cars and the houses. That's where we're working from that this has become a constant in our society -- Whether it's American Idol or music, there's things. Whatever your interests are, there is an idol within that type of interest.

The person that you want to be like, that's what you're going to strive for but sometimes these things can be anti-God. I want to tell you a story, we didn't have scripture in the bulletin because I picked the whole chapter of Exodus 32 which is pretty long and I didn't want you to have to sit through me reading that. What I'll do is I'm going to summarize it for you.

This is the story of the Israelites as they come out of Egypt, they were in slavery now they were freed, now they are in the wilderness. God has promised them a promised land at some point but they're not there yet. Now, Moses has gone up to the mountain to speak with God and Moses has been gone for a long time. The Israelites start to get restless. They're like, "Well, I don't want this God. It doesn't seem like this God is doing anything."

The leader that was down there, Aaron, for reasons we don't know, maybe they were good intentions, said, "Well, bring me all your gold earrings and we'll melt it down. All your jewelry; the gold jewelry and we will melt it down." They created a golden calf. Then they celebrated this golden calf as their new god because it was there, then, now. They knew they could give sacrifices to it and they'd be okay.

Meanwhile, Moses is up on the mountain with God and God is like, "What are your people doing?" God's pretty upset. God wants to wipe out all the Israelites down there. Moses says, "Hang on, hang on." Moses changes God's mind, which is another sermon another time.

Then Moses goes down with the Ten Commandments that God has given him. Moses goes down and sees that the golden calf is there-- This is where we end the story. We say, he came down, gave the Ten Commandments. Guess what? There's more to the story that we often don't tell. That Moses goes down there and says, "Because of this, now you need to go and kill your brother, your cousin and any Levites in our camp." 3,500 were killed that night. We stay away from that because we don't know what to do with it usually. That's the story of the golden calf.

When we think of Moses as a prophet, prophets tend to remind us of the main thing. They tend to say, "The route you're going right now is not the right way, it's missing the main thing. It's missing loving God and loving your neighbor." God sends prophetic voices whether it's Moses or Jonah, Jeremiah. The Old Testament is filled with them. They are speaking into their culture, their society at a certain place and time about a certain thing that that society is doing. They have gone off track.

Israel is repeating their own story in some ways. I think a couple of weeks ago, the mission trip service, we showed a video about justice. One of the things the video said was often times people who free the oppressed become the oppressors at some point. Israelites are on that route as of this moment. The God that they worshiped freed them from Israel, freed from slavery and now they're saying, "I don't need that God. Even though he freed us from slavery, we actually knew we had food then, we had a purpose, but now we're wandering in the wilderness. We don't know where our food is coming from, we don't know what our purpose is, so no more of that God. We're going to have this god instead."

That's one step closer to them eventually saying, "No, now we're in charge and these people are not welcomed here." Prophets expose and topple each group's idols and blind spots. They come in and tell us where we have fallen short.

Walter Brueggemann wrote extensively on prophetic voice and he says that the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Basically what that's saying is the prophets says, “What you think is right, right now actually is not." That there's this different reality that you've been missing and you are not in line with that reality.

Prophets are bringing us back to the main thing. I think the problem with idols and what prophets do is they tell us that, there aren't absolutes. That we don't have to be as  the world says, you're either Democrat or Republican or you're Christian or you're atheist." Those are false choices, those are absolutes and the prophet says, "No, there's another way." When we start to think that way, when we're, it's either Republican or Democrat or pro-gun, anti-gun, pro-choice or pro-life, that's the type of thinking that ends up creating idols in our mind.

Let's talk about idols for a second. The tendency is that religion is absolute. Absolute ties everything. That's just our deep yearning for some solid ground to stand on to say, "It's either this or that and we know where you stand if you're over there or over here." Humans, we don't like being in the grey. It feels uneasy, it feels like the wilderness. Like it was for the Israelites.

God often requests or charges us with things but God never commands. If you think back to the Ten Commandments, I heard all of you starting to think, "What?" Like, "He gave me the Ten Commandments?" The original word tends to be more of charges, that these are things you should do. God requests, God offers us to partake in this new reality, in this love for each other and for God.

Israelites were requested by God to offer gold, silver and bronze when they built the tabernacle before all this golden calf stuff happened. God said, "You need to offer those." In the case of the calf, the offering of gold is commended by Aaron, you must bring me this, to make this happen. Specifically, he called for the earrings of the people which in the Old Testament, the ears are a symbol for obedience, for listening. They are literally peeling off their earrings, they're peeling off their obedience and hearing and listening to God.

Idols command us. They command of us. The calf has become the absolute for the Israelites. It's the false choice. The golden calf begins with democracy at its worse, a panicked mob forcing a leader to do something irrational. Idols don't want us to change our perspective. Proverbs 29 says something to the extent of people kind of go crazy if they have no vision. That's kind of what was happening with the Israelites.

Idols don't want us to change our perspective, instead, idols want us to be more liberal or conservative. More Christian or more atheist. After that, it makes us fight against each other. Pin us against one other; pro-life versus pro-choice, and so on. 

One of the things in my own life that I feel has changed for me in a way that afterwards it revealed it as an idol for myself, and Russ has talked about it after the services, the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. It wasn't that long ago that I was against it and I was stuck in this place of just thinking, this is what the Bible teaches me. This is what I know is right. As you can see, I'm saying what I know is right and I don't want to budge on this. Whether it's through study or experience, that it slowly started to change for me.

I started to see that me trying to be right with it was the idol. That it wasn't really about the LGBTQ people, but it was about me being right instead of me loving my neighbor as myself, that being right was the absolute. It was the idol. What are the idols in your own life? It doesn't have to be things. It can be ideas. It can be politics, it can be a philosophy or it can be things. It can be money, it can be homes, it can be whatever your idols are. Where are those idols in your own life that are the ultimate, that it is covering up the vision of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself?

But let's finish up with the Israelites' story. I did say earlier that this was a start for the Israelites for a path where they become the oppressors again. Not too far later in the Bible, in first Kings, there is a King called Solomon and Solomon's given this entire empire, power and wealth. He's been told that God has given him that power to take care of everyone, especially what they called the underside so maybe the poor, the needy and that was a constant call God had for the Israelites back then because they were once poor, enslaved that they always needed to remember those who are poor and who are enslaved.

But instead what he does, he builds a temple to God using slaves. He builds military bases and he becomes an arms dealer. He uses his wealth and power to control others to dominate, expand his kingdom at the expense of the poor and needy. His power becomes the absolute. It becomes the idol, that nothing other than that is worthy. Now the poor and the needy are suffering and the empire eventually diminishes.

I think this is the part where I can give some insight to that last piece of the golden calf story that we really don't know what to do with when 3,500 are killed. I think it's a good illustration of how our idols destroy us. That the idols we have, end up taking everything from us to the point where we can't see anybody else. We can't hear the cries of the people in need. Takes everything.

How I see it playing out today, and I'll be real honest, I was very nervous for this morning because I come from a place, and I've talked about this before, where politics is in my blood. I can't seem to get it out, no matter how hard I try and so I'm very in tune to the political culture and the conversations going on. For me, for many, many years, like I said, it was about being right and so whoever I disagreed with, I thought they were wrong so they were bad and I didn't want to associate with them.

I don't know if I've told this story before, but it's kind of fun. Some of you will think it's fun, some of you won't. In Iowa, you know we have those caucuses instead of primaries where it's a wild ride but in Boyden, Iowa, the Republicans meet in the library, the big space and the Democrats of the town meet in the basement of the bank with the lights turned off, their cars hidden somewhere else so nobody knows who they are.

That's the environment I grew up in. But I see this as playing a larger role across the country right now. Where you're either-- If you aren't pro gun, you're not pro-life. You can't be a Republican. If you didn't vote Democrat in the last election then that means you're a bigot or a fascist. These are absolutes. These are false choices we are giving each other. One of the other pieces of that that I see is this rise of nationalism because it's very different than patriotism.

Patriotism, you're proud of your country. You have dialogue together, you work together about how to make this place better.

But nationalism to me seems like an idol because it's commanding that you must think this way, you must believe this or you're not a part of us. I think this is in direct parallel to the Israelites and what they went through because we have somehow lost our vision. That there's no alternative, that either you're this or that, and if you're a Democrat, you don't love America. If you're Republican, you love America or vice versa for each one.

That we've made these absolutes and we've divided each other so deep and I only bring this up because we all have to brace in some way for 2020. No matter who we root for, we all can agree that it's going to be ugly. But one of the things that I see in the church, the opportunity the church has that is so wonderful, is that this is a place where all of us, whether left, right, middle, far left, far right, this is a place where we can come together and show the world how to be with one another, how to love one another.

I think we do that well here. I have friends on both sides of the aisle too and it's fun to have debates and whatnot, but if we lose the vision of loving that person and instead holding up the idol of absolutes of if you disagree with me, then we have nothing we can do together. That is an idol. We all participate in this in some way. Writing the sermon, thinking about this, it revealed certain things to me in my own life, whether it's my politics or leadership in ways that I have idols that I tend not to listen to the others who are crying.

We all have those blind spots. We need to learn how to speak with our prophetic voice as a church to show that there is a different reality, that this doesn't have to be the only way. We are more complex than red and blue. We're human beings with different thoughts, emotions, ideas. Richard Rohr talks about the prophetic gift and what happens. Richard Rohr says, "Biblical tradition reveals that whenever the prophetic gift is lacking in any group or religion, such a group will very soon be self-serving, self-perpetuating and self-promoting.

Without prophetic criticism, all sense of mission and message is lost. Establishment of any kind usually moved toward their own self. In fact, the question of mission is not even asked because self perpetuation has become the end in itself. We need prophets. We need prophetic voices to remind us of those who are the least of these, because I think when we hold others up as an idol, when we hold our own ideas up as idol or power, then we forget that. I think these are the differences between idol and God. To walk away with that. An idol commands of us. That's just a monologue. It's just one person talking and it represents spiritual power, represents it.

But God offers asks for devotion for dialogue to connect with one another and God is the spiritual power, not just a representation of it. Don't feed into the idols of our world. Every week we have these banners sitting in front of us. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself and we end every service with that blessing to go out and love your neighbor as yourself. This is our vision. No matter where we are, which side of the aisle we're on, this is our mission as a church, as the body of Christ. To love God and to love others.

When we lose sight of that, that's when other things become idols and we start destroying ourselves. Keep the vision, love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Let's pray. God, may you continue to show us the idols in our own life, the places we fall short, and we just want to be right and show us your alternative reality where we can participate in the kingdom of God by making all things new. Help us to be a beacon of hope and light in our world of how to live with one another. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.