I was very moved by this reflection and I hope you will take a moment to read it and be moved by it too.
From a sermon given on October 12, 2008 • Pentecost XXII
When Worship Goes Wrong
The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, Dean of Washington National Cathedral
“This was the week the sky fell.” That comment by a stock broker on Friday pretty well sums up what Americans and people around the world have been feeling. The market has been jittery for weeks and months, falling nearly 40% from its peak a year ago and wiping out some two trillion dollars of people’s savings. Last week’s declines in the stock market were the worst in history.
People I talked to last week were checking the stock market numbers every few minutes as if they were taking their temperature. We saw pictures of stock traders staring at the numbers and looking as if they’d seen a ghost. And we’ve probably all had conversations with people who have watched their life savings nearly disappear and have a hard time imagining that they will ever be able to retire. Everything seems shaky, at least for the moment, and we’re left wondering, “How did this happen?” “How could we be so vulnerable?” and, for us here today, “What does this mean for us as people of faith?”
To explore this I want you to travel back with me 3000 years to another crisis, the one we heard about in our Old Testament lesson. This one takes place in the baking heat of a Middle Eastern desert. Moses is leading the Hebrew people through the wilderness as they flee from slavery under the Pharaoh in Egypt. But along the way a rebellion erupts as the crowd decides it’s time for them to worship a different god.
Moses has gone up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, and his followers are exhausted, restless, tired of this endless journey they’ve been on. They’ve had enough. It’s time for some comfort, some assurance. So they decide to create an image of a more manageable, less demanding god. They gather all the gold jewelry they have brought along, cast them into the form of a golden calf, and throw a festival of burnt offerings and sacrifices to worship this different god.
That may sound like nonsense, because we’re sure we have progressed to the point where such idolatry is unthinkable. But all of us human beings are worshipers. We all bow down before something that we believe is of infinite worth to us. And we tend to get confused about the object of our worship. In fact, we humans are at heart polytheists. We worship all sorts of gods. The Egyptians worshiped a whole pantheon of them, as did the Romans. When St. Paul went to preach in Athens, he found the Athenians hedging their bets by worshiping Apollo, Aphrodite, and Athena.
And we Americans are polytheists too. We worship Venus, the goddess of beauty. Just think of the money and time spent to make ourselves look handsome and beautiful. We as a superpower worship Mars, the god of war and battle, and our entertainment keeps us enthralled with Eros, the god of passion and sex. And of course we worship the god of wealth. My guess is that the greatest god in this city, the one to whom more sacrifices are made and to whom more people dedicate their lives, is the god of work. Many are willing to sacrifice just about everything in their lives in order to bow down before this god.
“Idolatry”, consorting with “other gods,” has been from the beginning one of the most serious concerns for people of faith. In fact, of the Ten Commandments at the foundation of Jewish and Christian faith, the first two concern the object of our worship. “You shall have no other gods but me” and “You shall not make for yourself graven image,” or “an idol.” Our first and deepest danger is that we will worship the wrong God.
Most scholars believe that those Hebrews’ golden calf was an idol for the Canaanite god Baal, who also went by the name Mammon. In other words, they began to worship a god of wealth, but not just money itself, but a god who oversees a whole economy that creates the wealth that ensures that I get mine. Mammon seemed to them a more reliable god, one who could help them live just they way they wanted to. And to this day, of all the gods we tend to worship, chances are that somewhere in the pantheon for most of us is Baal or Mammon.
My guess is that there has been a great deal of Mammon worship going on in recent years among those who have driven our economy nearly over the brink. Despite the good intentions of many in the world of banking and finance, a climate of irresponsibility, and greed seized large parts of that industry and led to widespread lending of money without assessing the borrower’s ability to pay it back. And all this was masked in complex financial arrangements few even understood. America’s money has been mishandled for maximum profit.
But I want to suggest that the real golden calf of our time, the real god we Americans worship, isn’t simply the god of wealth, but the god of “More.” This is the god who declares that we can live without limits, that more wealth, more growth, more spending must always be the way of the future. Whether you look at what is happening in our economic crisis, or to our climate, or to our energy resources, or at the general driven-ness and anxiety of American society, it is clear that as a society we have come to worship the golden calf of unlimited growth. That wise poet and essayist Wendell Berry puts it this way:
The commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness; all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable.
Our national faith has become, “There’s always more,” Berry says. The average American stopped saving years ago and is living on debt and juggling multiple credit cards. We are seeing the consequences of our unlimited burning of fossil fuels. We are watching the gaps between rich and poor expand dangerously. If we can’t afford something, we borrow or charge it. But now, everywhere we look, we are having to face the fact that we are entering a world of inescapable limits—in our deteriorating climate, in energy resources, in the economy, in our driven, consumer-driven pace of life.
And the surprise is, worshiping this golden calf hasn’t made us Americans a happier people. By recent measures, American happiness peaked in the 1950’s and is in decline. In a New York Times article recently Daniel Goleman reported that people born after 1955 are three times as likely as their grandparents to have had a serious bout of depression. And a report found that the average American child reported higher levels of anxiety than the average child who was under psychiatric care in the 1950s.
This golden calf of More that we are worshiping, like all golden calves, will eventually fail us. The fact is that we need limits, constraint, even disappointment, if our lives are to grow deeper. Most of us know parents or others of an older generation who endured immense limitations—in health or education or bad luck in jobs or simply hard times—and yet who showed a quality of faith and wisdom that came from the struggle. Real marriages grow out of living with limits. So does good parenting. So does great art. So does generosity, and love, and faith.
I am beginning to hear some surprising things these days. People are talking about simplifying their lives, staying close to home, getting out of debt, living a smaller, slower, more grounded life. Living with limits. That sounds more like what it means to be creatures who worship a generous and loving God.
You and I are not called to worship Mammon’s golden calf. We are not called to be rulers of the universe or godlike animals. We are called to be that holiest of things, creatures, made in the image of the God of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, of Jesus and Mary and Paul, who holds us, gives a handful of years on this earth to learn how to love, and calls to be caregivers for the most vulnerable, for the earth and for each other.
I want to give you something on this anxiety-ridden day that you can keep turning to in the days and weeks ahead. Something to keep you focused on the one true god. That gift is the 23rd Psalm, which we sang a few minutes ago. It is one of the priceless jewels of our faith. I suspect that a good many of you probably still know by heart. Whatever has happened to your portfolio, to your job, in your concern for your children or for the earth or your own future, this is a gift that can carry you, if you will carry it. I hope you will cut it out and put it in your wallet or purse, read it at least once a day, and keep it with you in the weeks ahead.
You remember how it goes:
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters…
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.
For you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me….
This Psalm doesn’t deny that we are affected by forces we cannot control, and that the world can be terrifying. But it draws us to the true God, who walks with us into our fears and calms our yearning for More.
My news for you today as that we don’t need to fear. Because whatever comes, this God will go with us. This moment, for all its worry and threat, brings with it a real gift—an invitation to turn to the one god who is God, the God we meet at the table of the Eucharist today.
And so I want to close by inviting you to turn in your leaflet and read with me that 23rd Psalm. Let us read it quietly, prayerfully.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
And leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul.
And guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of darkness I shall fear no evil,
For you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You spread a table for me in the presence of those who trouble me.
You anoint my head with oil.
And my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Let that be our Declaration of Independence from the golden calves of our time, our way forward, our promise, and our hope.