After Hurricane Isabel, my neighbor Larry was anxious about trees on his property that could easily topple in future storms. He hadn’t lost any, but he was anxious so he had a tree company come out and consult on his trees. There were a couple of obvious candidates to be felled, another one that was selected looked fine.
I asked Larry about the tree. He told me the tree guys said its roots were rotten. Looking at the tree I didn’t see anything that looked wrong. Maybe there were some signs up high in a few branches, but there were trees all over our neighborhood and they all seemed fine. In fact the storm had not taken any of the trees around our street. Larry was just being overly cautious.
I watched as the tree came down. I was curious to see if Larry was making a fuss over nothing, or if I needed to have the tree guys check my trees. It was quite a process, ropes were strung, men climbed, branches trimmed, then the saws did their relentless work and the tree came down were it would not hit anything in our tightly packed neighborhood.
That’s when I saw the inside of the trunk. It was about two feet across. The first couple inches were solid, good strong wood. But the rest of the trunk the rot was obvious. The rot from the roots had started to climb up inside the trunk. It was infecting the whole tree. What looked to the casual passer-by as a fine, solid tree, would have become an accident waiting to happen.
As we journey through words of scripture that matter, our word this week is idolatry.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul says he is anxious to preach the gospel because the tree is rotten to the core and could come crashing down at any minute. The tree is the human race as it rebelled against God. As Paul saw it, humans were made to worship, love and serve the creator God. This is the way to healthy, fruitful living. Yet that demands humility on our part. The humility to let God be God, to celebrate God, and acknowledge God’s power in our lives. To affirm that we are less than God.
This is where Paul says we have fallen short. Thinking of Genesis, Paul says we were created to bear God’s image. Instead we have created idols in our images, that are subject to decay and death. Sin for Paul is anything humans desire that is not God. All sin, then, equates with idolatry. And it rots us from the inside out.
Frederick Buechner says it this way: “Idolatry is the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth.”
Which is to say, under certain circumstances, anything such as: money, sex, moral principles, physical health and appearance, sports, power, patriotism, race, social or intellectual preeminence, religion, entertainment, power, possessions.
In one way or another, these can all be good parts of life. But to make them the standard by which all other values are measured, to make them your masters, to make them gods, is to look to them to justify your life and save your soul. And that is sheer folly.
Reaching back to the commandments we realize something about our God and God’s care for humanity that we lose sight of when we chase after the various idols that catch our eye. That eight of the commandments begin with “Thou shall not…” indicates they open up life rather than close it down. That is, they focus on the outer limits of conduct rather than specific behaviors. God’s primary concern is not to create the human community, but to protect it from behaviors that have potential for destroying it. The two positively framed commands, then, lend positive credence to the other eight. For example, not bearing false witness invites speaking well of one’s neighbor, not killing suggests efforts to preserve life, and not wrongfully using the name of God commends the praise of God. It is not enough in life to simply avoid crimes.
And that brings us to the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
I think this is the first commandment because idolatry makes love impossible. If we break any of the other commandments, we have already broken the first one. We have already elevated ourselves, and our desires, above all else.
The story of the golden calf shows how the people strayed from their worship of God. Few of us have melted our jewelry to form farm critters Perhaps idolatry for our contemporary mindset is best seen in light of Jesus’ great commandment, to love God with all our heart and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Self-love is nothing if it does not include the love of our neighbor; and of the God who created us all in God’s divine image.
It is this balance in the objects of our devotion that act as a safe guard against idolatry. It keeps us from creating golden calves. Yet we still do. We can love ourselves too much. We can also love others to a possessive excess. We can become so focused on our love of God that we demean other people in the process.
Learning to love is difficult because it takes not only our devotion, but our time. And we live in a fast-food culture. Many settle for something less than love, even in the most intimate of relationships. We all know couples who despair, or even despise each other, yet stay together. I could admire my grandmother for the control she exerted in a dysfunctional system. But I also have to face the lasting ill-effects of a long-troubled marriage.
Many young people today have grown up understanding that love means possessing and being possessed. It is the consumer model of love. One that can lead to an “If I can’t have her, nobody will,” ethic that is downright dangerous.
Recently it was noted that almost 50% of the murders in North Dakota were “domestic” in origin. It is as though many men, and some women, cannot give up the illusion of possessing another person. The idea of that person –and “idea” is related to the word idol – becomes more important than the actual living creature. It is much safer to love an idol than a real person who is capable of surprising you, loving you and demanding love in return.
It is this sense of ourselves as the center of whatever we think, act or believe that is at the crux of idolatry. And perhaps the biggest idol today, in religion and in life, is the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke. When he prays it is to thank God he is not like other people, the ones who don’t go to church, or when they do, don’t say the prayers right.
Such idolatry is the original equal opportunity employer. It’s the Protestant fundamentalist looking down on the mainstream Christian as not “really” Christian. It is the conservative Catholic who despises the cafeteria ones. It is the progressive liberal who mocks anyone uncomfortable with the most despairing of human situations. It is the spiritual seeker who sneers, “You go to church? I find God in nature.”
Idolatry is only about golden calves in so far as we can see the golden calf in the objects of our desire loom so large on our horizon it eclipses the sun. It has blocked out all else. And the more we stare and chase and are fascinated by such golden calves, not only will our retina get burned, we will rot from the inside out.