Confronting Our Idols

On May 14, 2017, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Confronting Our Idols Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Easter 5, 2017 Acts 17.27-29 When I was child I was convinced that I was unworthy of God’s grace, and yet, I longed for it, hoped for it, prayed for it, and still believed that if i were to receive it it would be in spite of my […]

Confronting Our Idols
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Easter 5, 2017
Acts 17.27-29

When I was child I was convinced that I was unworthy of God’s grace, and yet, I longed for it, hoped for it, prayed for it, and still believed that if i were to receive it it would be in spite of my depravity and odious nature. Nothing healthy or life-giving can come from such self-loathing.

My every prayer as a child included begging for the forgiveness of sins, too innumerable to count as they were, though surely I wasn’t all bad all time; but I was taught my goodness was as filthy rags and God’s holiness demanded a perfection I was compelled to strive toward and incapable of ever achieving. What a set up for failure, fear, and frustration! But Hallelujah for growing up and outgrowing the ogre God!

I would eventually come to realize that the God of my childhood, the punishing, vengeful, angry god was a false god, a graven image of low self esteem, learned fear, and the projection of other people’s insecurities. God save us from the graven images, the idols, the false gods of impotence and fear, tribalism and superstition that are sold to us as the living God of grace and goodness!

Of course, I have confronted and toppled other false deities in my life.

The god who not only prefers but demands heterosexuality…that petty god is not god enough for me.

The god who had a Y chromosome and therefore deifies and privileges the Y chromosome…that deity of misogyny is not god enough for me.

The god who becomes a government weapon or a political party’s mascot is not god enough for me.

The god who only values Christians and cannot see the faithfulness, the holiness, the sincerity, or the virtue of other religious paths is not nearly god enough for me.

The god of cruelty that would fill us with wonder, complex feelings, the ability to think critically and then forbid that we should employ such gifts…oh, such a monstrous god is nowhere near god enough for me.

These are each idols that at one time or another attracted me with the beauty of an impressive golden calf, but proved to be as impotent, as false, as hopeless, as damaging as any other graven image.

In our stories, in our imaginations, in our vocabularies, in our rituals, in our poetry, we try to explain the Sacredness we experience, but then we literalize the explanations and lose connection to the experience, and in our limited perspective, we forget that not only is explanation of experience not the same as experience, but we only experience what we can at any given moment, and our experience is not the totality of what there is to experience. So, really, our dogmatic certainty, our doctrinal debates, our so-called orthodoxies are little more than the gods of self-righteousness and self-aggrandizement and in the final analysis, they are simply not god enough.

We love our stories, and if we will explore them deeply and not cheapen them with needless literalism, they will remain powerful, liberating, and life-giving for us.

When we refuse to take even our own language too literally, then God is a loving father, a protective mother, a strong castle, a mighty warrior, a soaring eagle, a cloud by day and a fire by night, a beautiful rainbow, a caring nursemaid, a trinity, a unity, a pantheon of beings, an impersonal power, a loving presence, and a constant friend. If we insist that any image is the final word for god, we have settled for stale idolatry, but when we remember that every image points not to itself but aways from itself to something greater, then images become useful to us. To literalize them is to deify them; but to play with them freely allows them to be tools used by God rather than idols that try to limit or replace God.

In the Middle Ages, a Dominican monk, Meister Elkhart wrote, “I pray God to rid me of God.” In other words, he wanted to move past the idols, the graven images, the fears, the prejudices, the self-righteous arrogance that too often wrapped themselves in the language of piety.

Any god that doesn’t celebrate the joy of a transgender person coming to terms with their wholeness is not god enough; may the god which is Love rid the false god of transphobia from our hearts.

Any god that doesn’t weep when people are hungry, that doesn’t call people to care for refugees, that doesn’t long for peace, that doesn’t want all people clothed, housed, educated, and offered medical care is just not god enough…God beyond our limited notions of God, heal us from the damage of those limited notions.

That’s what Luke is telling us in the book of Acts today. The Apostle Paul is strolling around Athens and sees altars and images all over the place. The fire god, the water god, the god of romance, the god of protection, the deity of wisdom, the goddess of fertility…some gods are weak and some are powerful, some are angry and some are kind, some are fond of all humans and some are fond only of their devotees, some are mindful of all creation and some are volatile beings in desperate need of mood stabilizers. They all represent something meaningful about the human psyche and human relationships, but if taken literally, none of them are god enough.

But there is one more altar, one that doesn’t have an image. It is the altar to an unknown god. And Paul said, “see that? That’s the best altar of all. That’s the one that gets at what God is more than any of the others.”

The god you can love and whose love you can experience even while being mystified by the depths of such love, the god who allows us to name her/him/it for our own convenience but who is in no way limited to or by those names, that is the god that Jesus said is spirit, that Moses understood as the Great I Am, that Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said was the ground of being.

The god that is known in human genius, human virtue, and human love while being infinitely more than genius, virtue, and human understandings of love, the god that cannot be trapped in a book or a sacrament or a prophet or symbol or a name, that is the God we encounter in Jesus, in nature, in one another, in moments of sacred silence…that is the one in which we live and move and have our being.

How many idols have we allowed to stand in for god? How many fears, prejudices, goals, desires, regrets, hatreds have we worshiped in the place of an unknown, unnamed, all-inclusive, all-loving God? How many golden calves have we settled for before moving deeper and deeper into the mystery of unfathomable love?

Whatever you have thought God was, God is more.

We don’t have to trap god in any box or image or doctrine…we can simply trust that God is never separate from us. Like air, like light, like love, like the order of the universe…God is, and what is, must include us, and whatever is enough to include all of us can’t be limited by any name, image, or tradition.

We can’t pin God down, but we can get to the place where we experience God as a love that will never let us go. Any other sort of god simply is not god enough, and this is the good news. Amen.

(C) Durrell Watkins 2017

God beyond all notions of God,
Give me confidence in your love and grace.
Fill me with peace and joy.

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