“Everyone is going to worship something,” one of my seminary professors used to say. The question is, “Do you know what that is for you?”1
When I asked the Rev. Linda Parker, the Presbyterian Campus Minister at North Carolina Central University, to preach last Sunday, I didn’t ask her to engage our Lenten book read. When you have a guest preacher you let them to their thing. But I must say, she did an amazing job addressing the themes of these chapters. She spoke about a rich man who feasted sumptuously every day behind the gates of his home. And Lazarus, who sat outside those same gates every day, longing for crumps to drop from that fancy dinner table; dogs came to lick his sores. Rev. Parker invited us to think about what a “gateless existence,” as she calls it, might look like. Free from oppressive structures and systems – not just individuals being cruel to each other, though there is plenty of that – but systems that inherently favor one over another, systems that favor folks that look like you and me, that privilege folks like us who live in the neighborhoods we live in and the schools we tend to go to. What if the gates to our schools and our churches and our neighborhoods were flung open wide, she wondered, so all might come in?
But something stands in the way of that gateless existence. We are afraid. Or, put differently, we worship things other than that kind of a vision. “Everyone is going to worship something. Do you know what that is for you?” Professor Norman Wirzba, in chapter 9 of “Way of Love,” the subject of the aforementioned Lenten Community Book read, writes: “The beauty of love is that it grows rather than diminishes by giving. Once people become inspired by love, it is impossible to predict or limit the forms of good that can emerge.
In a similar manner, small acts of ill will or neglect multiply in their effect, because the persons injured or slighted now act out of their pain and desperation. An ethos of harm comes to dominate communities and places, through which those who reside there learn to make sense of their lives. They plan their lives according to the injuries they expect and become willing participants in economies that extend malevolence to the world. Small acts of ill will, rather than producing a beautiful garden, multiply and spread throughout the workings of communities and cultures, turning them into forces that produce injury and hurt.”2
My guess is that’s what happened at the foot of Mount Sinai in today’s text. One person’s anxiety infected another, and another and, as we know from sociology and history, group-think takes over, and even good people in crowds will say or do things beyond what they would do on their own. When people get anxious and afraid they don’t make good choices. When groups of people get afraid together, bad things happen. After 430 years of slavery in Egypt, after the crushing brutality, the Israelites have to learn how to be a community claimed by God. After the dramatic escape through the Red Sea, God offers provision – manna to eat, water swinging from a rock. A few chapters later, God invites Moses up the mountain, and for six days he waits. It is not until the seventh day that God begins to speak, for 40 days and 40 nights (24:18).
Yet down at the bottom of the mountain they wonder: What are we doing? Moses is up there with the Lord and we are stuck down here in the middle of nowhere. I wonder what he’s doing? I wonder why he’s not back? How long are we going to be here? Is there a chance we’re alone?
One of the best known theologians of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr, said that – as human beings – while we are made in the image of God, we are also creatures of God. Because we are created, we are finite. Because we know we are finite, we are anxious. For Niebuhr, this anxiety becomes the occasion for our sin.3 Long before Niebuhr came along, another theologian, Blaise Pascal, described what he called “a God shaped hole” in each of us.4 No matter what our station is in life – our age, our education, our socio-economic status, our success – each of us is aware that we still need something. There is a space in us that we tend to want to fill.5
The people in their anxiety rush Aaron, then he caves. Bring gold, melt it, pour it into this calf mold, and the people said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Aaron builds an altar and proclaims, “tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They got up and ate and drank and were satisfied, for the moment, that their space had been filled.
“Everyone is going to worship something,” my professor would say. It isn’t too hard to find idols – the things we make into gods that captivate our attention and elicit from us a reverence and the worship that should be directed to our true Lord. Like the Israelites, we tend to fashion idols – and worship them – because we are both impatient with the promises of God and hesitant to trust in them.6
What are your idols? What might you worship? How do we try and fill Pascal’s “God-shaped hole” within us?
We fill it with food and drink, with enough busyness to keep us from having to think too much. We fill it with all sorts of desires – the desire for money, the desire for more, more, more, which is insidious and exhausting. For status, the new job, the title, which is related to money but is more about what people think of us, being noticed, noted as important or influential.
We worship the things that go on this time of year – and I’ll confess I enjoy a good basketball game as much as anyone – but we surely worship the things that go on in the Dean Dome or Cameron Indoor Stadium. Our modern cathedrals aren’t Christian churches, they are stadiums and arenas.
We idolize our bodies, the bodies of others, six-pack abs and shoulders. We idolize our education, how thoughtful and witty and persuasive. We idolize our schedules, our families – who we want them to be, what we want them to achieve. In this hyper-partisan era we idolize ideology, our own perfectly correct set of opinions to the exclusion of all else. We yearn for ways to fill that hole, that emptiness, within each of us. We stuff it full of things, of time, of activities, of desires, of our pet projects, and we drink, we eat, we work, we press and press and press so hard. When the only thing that can fill that space is God.
Deep down, I think the people knew. My guess is they knew so much of what they did missed the mark and they, in all sorts of ways, fell short of the glory of God. I don’t know if the guilt crept in as they were eating and drinking and rising up to revel, or when the headache set in the next morning. But here’s the good news. Even as we look to our idols, the things we put in place of our God, God remains gracious. God was furious but Moses – God bless him – steps in, and invites God to remember God’s own story. You brought them out of Egypt, with great power and a mighty hand. You have hung in there before, Moses says. Hang in there again. We’ll get there. Together. God takes a deep breath and decides to keep God’s own promises – proving, as God does again and again, that there is only One who is truly worthy of our worship.
“Everyone is going to worship something,” one of my seminary professors used to say. The question is, “Do you know what, or WHO, that really is for you?”
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Norman Wirzba, “Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity,” (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), p 130.
2. Niebuhr, Reinhold, Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 1.
3. Pascal, Blaise, Pensees.
4. I am grateful to my friend the Rev. Pen Peery for these lines.
5. This is also from Pen.
6. This is not his original thought but, it was Shirley Guthrie that articulated the question so powerfully.