SJF • Easter 6c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
I want to talk to you today about idols: and by idols I don’t mean statues with five heads and a dozen arms — but the more insidious idols that can creep in around the edges of even Christian worship. These idols disguise themselves so well, that one can fall into worshiping them without knowing it.
Because we are not disembodied spirits, our worship requires physical expression: we need people, places and things. We are called, as the Collect says, to worship God in all things and above all things, so things play a part in our lives: our worship lives and our ordinary lives. In the church certain people are ordained to carry out special functions in our worship. Certain places, like this building, receive special honor, as a place where we gather to worship God. Certain physical things, such as the crucifix over the altar, serve to focus our worship. These people, places and things — the means of our worship — are not meant to be the object of our worship: God is.
Some years ago a priest friend of mine, who was wearing his clericals out on the street, was challenged by an aggressive fundamentalist. “Why do you Roman Catholics worship statues? Don’t you know that’s idolatry?” My priest friend said, “First of all, I’m Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic; but I will admit there are statues and images in my church. But before I answer your question, would you mind showing me your wallet?” Somewhat startled, perhaps expecting to be hit up for a donation, the man reluctantly took out his billfold. My friend said, “Would you open it for me, please. Ah — I see you have a picture of what I assume are your wife and children. Would you mind very much tearing it up and throwing it away?” The man said, “Are you crazy! I love my wife and family.” The priest responded, “But I’m not asking you to do anything to your wife and family. I’m just talking about a picture. It’s just a piece of paper.” The man — who still didn’t seem to get the connection, though I’m sure most of you have by now — said, “It isn’t the picture, it’s what it represents!” The priest said, “Well, it’s the same way with my church. We know the image of Mary isn’t Mary, and the one of Jesus isn’t Jesus. We don’t worship these images; we honor and respect them as reminders of the reality of which they are just representations and reminders: the real Mary whose obedience changed the world, and the real Jesus whose saving death on the cross purchased salvation for all of us sinners. And I’m no more willing to destroy these reminders than you are willing to do so to the picture of your family.”
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And that’s the truth. We know full well — or at least I hope we know — that this building on the corner of 190th and Jerome is not the New Jerusalem. For one thing, the New Jerusalem doesn’t require a new roof on the parish hall every 30 years! Also the New Jerusalem is lit by the light of the Lamb, not bu our lovely knew light-bulbs just installed this week. We know that the figure over our altar is made of brass and plaster, that the icons are painted wooden panels. We do not worship the physical things that we see, but we treat them with respect as reminders of the spiritual truths that cannot be seen.
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However, sometimes people in the church do become so attached to the people, places and things of the church — which are meant to guide us and lead us to God — that we lose sight of God himself. Have you ever received a birthday package so beautifully wrapped that you said, “Oh, I hate to open it!” Or been presented with a birthday cake so beautifully decorated that you said, “Oh, I hate to cut it!” I’ve heard people say those things many times. But did you ever actually leave the present wrapped, or the cake uncut? Anyone? I didn’t think so. But sometimes in worship, people get so caught up with the things of worship, that they stop there, just as it is, and fail to reach the reality behind them.
The pagan priest at Lystra — the priest of Zeus — and of course pagans were used to idols so perhaps this was natural — was ready to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, because of what they had done, and how they spoke. But the apostles cried out, “No! Not this! We are men like you! We have come to bring you the good news... to turn you from empty idols and point you to the God who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” The apostles were there to get the people to worship the true and living God; they didn’t want to be set up themselves as idols of a new cult!
Yet many times since then, we Christians have “gotten stuck” on the things meant to guide us, like a car stuck in the ruts of the very road meant to aid our journey. When this happens, we make the error of traditionalism. And when we get stuck on a church leader or minister, we fall into what is called the cult of personality. And both of these are deadly to the church.
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First, a few words about traditionalism. It is not the same as tradition. Tradition is the heritage of our religious culture. Without tradition, we are like people with cultural amnesia, ignorant of our past. As I’ve said before, How can you do what Jesus would do if you don’t know what he did? Or what the Apostles did, or the other great saints and sages of the church’s history have done down through the years even to our own time? Tradition is a vehicle for our journey in faith, but it must be a living tradition, a vehicle which moves, which brings us somewhere, not becoming an end in itself. For that’s when tradition becomes traditionalism. As a wise man once said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Traditionalism reminds me of that tragic character from Dickens’ Great Expectations, Miss Havesham, who was jilted on her wedding day, and lived forever in that moment, in a musty room still dressed in her wedding-gown, with an untouched wedding cake covered with cobwebs, nourished only by her thirst for revenge.
But tradition is not such a musty museum. Tradition is a vital thread of truth passed on from generation to generation, linking us back to the time when Christ first promised that even as he went away he would send another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would continue to teach the disciples everything, and, importantly, remind them of all he had said and taught and done. This is tradition as the gift of God himself.
So the Spirit works to help us keep tradition in focus as we learn about the road we’ve traveled since the days of Paul and Barnabas. We learn from our history by asking questions, with respect and understanding. For when we can no longer tell what greater truth something points to, it is no longer a tradition in any meaningful sense. It has become just one more thing; it has become a vehicle that goes nowhere; it has become an idol.
Sadly, the church has a long history of people getting stuck in ruts of traditionalism, so focused on the thing itself that they loose all understanding and perspective. Sometimes people get so attached to a tradition that they even resort to violence against those who disagree or sooner die than give it up!
I’m not exaggerating. In the eighth century, a monastery of English monks resisted the instructions from Rome that they begin chanting the psalms in the Roman fashion. And so the king stationed archers in the gallery of the monastery, and as the monks persisted singing their traditional English tunes, they were slaughtered in the choir where they stood.
Maybe you’ll say, Oh, but that was in the dark ages; the eight century; things have gotten a lot better. Well, things weren’t better a thousand years later! In 17th century Russia, the Patriarch of Moscow instituted changes in worship, and open warfare broke out — thousands of people died defending the “old ways.” Whole villages were destroyed, people were burnt at the stake in the hundreds. What changes so angered these traditionalists, these “Old Believers”? What earth-shattering reforms did the Patriarch insist were crucial to the faith? To make the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two, and to say the Alleluia three times instead of once. And as those Old Believers went to the stake, they defiantly crossed themselves with two fingers instead of three. I guess they had the last word.
When people worship their worship rather than worshiping God through their worship, then worship itself has become an idol: an end in itself rather than a means to the highest end of all, which is God.
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The other side of the coin, shown in the story of Paul and Barnabas, is what happens when people start to worship the messenger instead of the one of whom the messenger speaks: this is the cult of personality I mentioned a while ago. We’ve seen this happen with televangelists who rise on the wave of popularity and then crash on the rocks of scandal. But it can also happen in more subtle ways: when ministers are seen as so central to the life of their congregation that they are valued not for what they do but for who they are.
And this is why I am glad to take this opportunity to remind you about what ministers are and what they do. This is in part a message for Sahra our seminarian who will soon be exercising ministry in the church, as an ordained minister of the church.
First of all, that word minister. People will use it with respectful tones. “Oh, she’s a minister,” they might say. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the word minister comes from the Latin word for servant. And it’s the kind of servant most of us are still familiar with: a waiter! So it’s nothing to get high and mighty about! It is about serving — about serving God and the people of God.
This is why all ordained ministers especially should take Paul and Barnabas as their model: it isn’t about us; it isn’t about who we are, but about the One whom we serve. And our primary service is to help the whole people of God to come closer to God and to each other in Christ, and then to go forth into the world in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit Jesus promised would come to the Apostles and guide them and lead them into all Truth.
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We as believers in the One God reject idolatry. We honor those who minister not for themselves but for the sake of the mission of God and its outreach to the ends of the world. Even as we gather in this place, we reach out towards the heavenly Jerusalem, of which this is merely a foretaste, to that place beyond where all symbols and traditions and ministries have their end and goal.
For in the New Jerusalem, there is no Temple. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple. There is no special class of ministers, for all of God’s people are kings and priests to God, a royal priesthood, and all of them also and at the same time servants of the Lamb. In the New Jerusalem there are no statues or images or icons, as reminders — for we will behold sanctity and divinity with our own eyes, lit by the lamp of the Lamb. In the heavenly city we shall no longer worship through traditions or customs, or things, or places, or with the help of ministers, but face to face with the one whom we adore, serving one another to the glory of God alone. God give us strength to persevere, that we may one day walk in the light of the Lamb, in the land in which there is no night, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+