Idolatry and its Twin – Br. Mark Brown

Br. Mark Brown
Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13
Psalm 115:1-10
Matthew 9:32-38

The topic this evening is idolatry; idolatry and its twin sibling. Idolatry is one of the hot button issues of the Bible—especially for God. In Exodus we read: “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. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” [Exodus 20:2-5a]  I like the older translation: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. You may recognize this as the first of what we call the Ten Commandments.

In spite of the Ten Commandments we read over and over in the Scriptures how prone we human beings are to bowing down before false gods.  The prophet Hosea has this to say: “With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. Your calf is rejected, O Samaria. My anger burns against them…For it is from Israel, an artisan made it; it is not God. The calf of Samaria shall be broken to pieces.” [Hosea 8:4b-6]  And this evening’s psalm: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.  They have mouths, but they cannot speak; eyes have they, but they cannot see.” [Psalm 115:4-5]

Of course, not every graven image is an idol.  And not every idol is a graven image. As you can see if you look around, we have quite a few graven images right here—the lovely white marble Madonna and Child at the back of the chapel, the exquisite crucifix behind the altar, the pictures of saints in the stained glass. These are not idols, of course, but aids to devotion; they are meant to point beyond themselves to the glory of God.  And they are ways to tell the stories of our faith.

The Church long ago, after considerable conflict, came to the conclusion that representations of Christ and the saints and people in the Bible were permissible, since we know that they are not gods and we do not worship them. (I should say “most of the Church” because there are some Christians who do not allow images in their places of worship.  And Judaism and Islam have hewn to a strict interpretation of the first commandment. You are very unlikely to see statues or pictorial representations of humans or animals in a mosque or synagogue.)  But Christians are, by and large, comfortable with the notion that statues, works of art and “graven images” are not in fact idols.

We also understand that not every idol, not every false god is a graven image. “Their god is their belly…,” Paul complains of the enemies of Christ in Philippians [3:19].  Many things can become false gods; many things or preoccupations or attachments can become idols. Money. Status. Power. These can be false gods. Career, country, even family.  Anything we put before God can be a kind of idol.  And in that sense, we’re probably all idolatrous sooner or later.

But there is yet another kind of false god. And that is what we imagine God to be. God is always more than what the human mind can comprehend or express. What we believe to be true and what we say to be true about God may indeed be true—but it is not all of the truth.  God is always more. Clinging too rigidly to our notions of God, clinging too rigidly to our own current thinking in a way that does not permit deeper understanding is a kind of idolatry. We are worshipping an incomplete image of God.  We have jumped to conclusions about God. To worship God in truth we must recognize the mystery of God that is far beyond what we can comprehend.

What we think we understand about God may indeed point us in the right direction. But there is wisdom in maintaining a posture of openness to deeper, fuller understanding of the mystery of God’s being.  To close the mind is to risk a form of idolatry.  To be closed to fuller understanding is to risk worshipping a false god—a god of our own invention.

And this type of idolatry has a twin sibling. The twin sibling of jumping to conclusions about God is jumping to conclusions about people. These twins are the offspring of the logical fallacy sometimes called “hasty conclusion”.  With God there is always more. With human beings there is always more.

We jump to conclusions about people all the time.  And sometimes with reason.  One of my responsibilities in the community is HR, Human Resources.  I help the Brothers decide who to hire for a job.  We have to make decisions based on limited understanding of the people who apply. We also have to decide who to invite to test a monastic vocation with us—again, based on limited understanding.  Everyone has to decide if and whom to marry, whom to be friends with, whom to trust.  We make decisions based on limited understanding all the time because we need to.  But, with God there is always more than we can imagine; with people there is always more than we can imagine.

When selecting an employee or Brother or spouse or friend or someone to trust, when electing someone for president or senator or mayor or dog-catcher we do the best we can with the information we have.  But there is always more. As our Rule puts it in the chapter on Silence (27): “…since Christ dwells in us we too are mysteries that cannot be fathomed….”  And, as Genesis puts it, we are made in the image and likeness of God.  With God there is always more; with people there is always more. We human beings are mysteries unfolding in time—in time and eternity.  And none of us yet has the ability to see what God does with human beings in eternity. “What we will be has not yet been revealed…” [1 John 3:2]

We jump to conclusions—sometimes we have to; decisions have to be made. The remedy for this is simple; simple, but not easy.  As with God, so with human beings: there is wisdom in maintaining a posture of openness to deeper, fuller understanding of the mystery of God’s being.  And there is wisdom in maintaining a posture of openness to deeper, fuller understanding of the mystery of human beings.

Perhaps the best place to start is with our own selves. We are mysteries even to ourselves!  We have but partial knowledge of what we are in God’s eyes. We have only partial knowledge of the fullness of our own being. “What we will be has not yet been revealed…”

I’m aware of some of my flaws as a human being.  But for the rest I have to depend on others to tell me. It’s surprising sometimes how oblivious we can be to our flaws—perhaps some of you can relate. But what we are even more oblivious to is how God sees us, how God envisions us in the fullness of perfection, how God dreams of us as truly and completely reflecting God’s image and likeness.  With human beings, as with God, there is more, more and more. And still more.

There is wisdom in modesty; wisdom in recognizing and accepting the limits of our understanding.  There is wisdom in cultivating an inner disposition of openness to fuller truth.  If we’ve jumped to conclusions about God, if we’ve jumped to conclusions about someone else, if we’ve jumped to conclusions about ourselves—we might want to consider a re-wind on that jump to wait upon more mature reflection.

Rather than conclusions too hastily concluded, better to enjoy being a little lost—“…lost in wonder, love and praise” as one of our hymns puts it [Hymnal 1982 #657] A little wonder, love and praise before God; a little wonder, love and praise before others; a little wonder, love and praise before our own selves.






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1 Comment

  1. Katharine Range on August 25, 2014 at 10:40

    Thank you so much for your sermon. It hits home perfectly on the issue I’m dealing with right now: removing all idols, known and unknown so that I can come closer to God and his children without impediment. You and your brothers are so inspiring and I’m grateful for the insight you offer here.

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