Sermon by Burton Cooper
You shall have no other gods before me …
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord.
I know these commandments are old hat, a boring old hat, to boot, but as I stared at them these past few days, their words fell on me like a blow to the head. For the Bible is telling us that there are other gods besides God; and the Bible is implying that there are negative consequences for those of us who use God’s name wrongfully, who take God’s name in vain, as the King James version likes to say! These commandments, at first, seem a stretch --- who believes anymore that there are lots of gods? who worries about taking God’s name in vain? --- so what truth is the Bible trying to hammer into our thick heads? Where to begin?
Well, let’s begin with that old adage that if there’s a law, you can be sure that, first, there’s been some unwanted behavior. Speed limits on our roadways followed upon multiple highway deaths from fast moving cars; laws banning certain types of pesticides followed upon the death of birds and the harm to humans from the poisoning of the air and our waterways; laws restricting the use and types of weapons followed upon mass killings from such weapons --- well, at least such restrictions followed in some countries, though obviously not in ours. We can be sure, then, that the commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me” --- with the word “gods” rendered with a small “g” --- means that at least a good number of those ancient Israelites were worshipping those small “g” gods. And before we say to ourselves that this command cannot mean anything to us --- for unlike those ancient Israelites we do not worship small “g” gods: idols crafted of wood or metal, such as the famous Golden Calf --- let us remember that just as the Bible is not a book of science, it is not simply a book of historical interest either, but is a book through which, in faith, we are asked to listen for a fresh word of God addressed to us, to our lives, to the way we live and think today. So the question we need to ask ourselves is this: who are our small “g” gods that we are told to stop putting before our Lord God? This is a very different question from the one we believers usually worry about in our scientific age which is whether an intelligent, educated person can still believe that there is such a reality as God at all. The biblical words, on the other hand, may be trying to tell us that even in our so called enlightened age the question is not whether we believe in God or not, but whether we believe in the Lord God or the other gods. We discover what this can mean to us by reminding ourselves that the word God points to an ultimate reality, to the basis upon which life is founded, and that existentially, subjectively, what is God for us is what matters ultimately to us, to the values we live by, to the beliefs that give our life meaning. To use Paul Tillich’s telling phrase, the word God, whether capitalized or not, refers to an ultimate concern, to that without which life would feel empty, dried out, like chaff in our mouth. We find God, and/or our small “g” gods by asking ourselves what do we live for, what can’t we live without, what gives vitality to our lives, in what are we grounded. The Bible’s commandment does not tell us that we do not have other gods; it simply tells us not to put those other gods before God, the Lord. And this is not just some idle, innocuous
commandment, not just a piece of piety, but a warning that some of these other gods can be dangerous, destructive when they trump the Lord God, a horrifying example being what we all saw this past week in the mass killing in Las Vegas.
So let’s name some of these small “g” gods that we all live for, some of which are truly lovely. There is, first, family, we all come from family, we need our parents to need us, we need to matter to them, if we don’t it’s terrible for us; and if we have children, we live for them, they matter terribly to us, if anything would happen to them we would be shattered. We are physical and spiritual beings, so we need, we value, physical and spiritual love. We value our friends, and our other companions: we love our dogs and cats, even our pet rabbits, gerbils, fish, birds, turtles, snakes. We live for work, for our career, for accomplishing worthwhile things; beauty matters to us, art, literature, walking in the woods, climbing mountains. We value power, wealth, prestige, success. We live for the good of our community, our nation, for justice, equality, democracy, freedom. This is hardly a complete list of those things that we live for, things without which our life would be emptied of meaning, of purpose. Of course, some of these values can get out of hand: valuing power can turn us towards violence, valuing wealth can turn us towards greed; valuing physical love can turn us towards sexism, lechery; valuing prestige can turn into narcissism; valuing family, community, can turn into tribalism; valuing self can turn into selfishness, and so on. The scriptural commandment is trying to tell us two things about these values: they are all finite realities, subject to all the limits and perils of finitude, that is why they are small “g” gods, they will all ultimately die; and second, when they are put before the Lord God, they become destructive: destructive to others, destructive to ourself.
So we need to remind ourselves what reality the words, Lord God, refer to. What do we mean when we speak of a God who is Lord of all the small “g” gods. Well, there are, of course, the abstract answers to that question. God is that reality which is the reason why there is something, not nothing; God is that reality which is the reason why there is meaning in life, why there is purpose, why we have a conscience, why we feel driven to the good. But the most important thing to know about this God who is the ground of our being and our meaning is what Jesus says when he’s asked to summarize the law. You all know his answer. We are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind; and we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus says these two are like each other. True enough; they are both informed by love, so that love is our ultimate value, meaning the greatest good of humanity is our love; meaning the greatest evil of humanity is our lack of love; meaning we are to allow love to inform all our finite values, all our small “g” gods; meaning when any of our finite values, our small “g” gods, undermine the love of our neighbor, the love of the other, we are on a path to destruction, sometimes in only very small ways, sometimes in horrifying ways. There are countless examples in our political, economic, social, personal life of the ways we put these “other gods” before the Lord God; I wish I had the time now to note some of them, but really you can see them all just by turning on your TV sets to the nightly news or reading the morning newspapers or booting up your computers or your cell phones to some news website. For now, I need to say a few words, I promise, just a few words, about the commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”
When I think these days of the way we wrongly use, the way we abuse God’s name, the image that flashes into my mind is that guy on some street corner somewhere holding up a sign saying, “God Hates Fags.” It’s an extreme example but it’s of a piece with the way we all too often speak irresponsibly about God’s will, when usually it’s our own will which is at work, our own false piety which we are manifesting. When we so speak, the very word, God, suffers a loss of power, and religion appears as a source of evil. There is a more common abuse of God’s name, the one that calls upon God as if God were a “Deus ex machina,” God coming out of nowhere, with limitless power, striking down some source of our distress. This common notion of God’s omnipotence needs to be answered with some words of Bonhoeffer, words written from his prison cell not that long before his execution by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer asks us to abandon this false conception of God’s power, this Deus ex machina notion, noting that in the crucified Christ the Bible is directing us to the powerlessness and suffering of God in the world, revealing to us that our salvation lies in the Lord God “ who conquers power in the world by his weakness,” by God’s loving dying for all humanity, by God’s compassion for us. I don’t pretend to have a full understanding of this, or even much of a partial one. Bonhoeffer himself said it’s only a start to our thinking about our faith. So with this start I will end, only reminding us that what makes us a church is our right use of God’s word, our faith in the power of God’s compassion, God’s suffering with our suffering, and not simply our faith but our hope, that it is God’s compassion flooding into the world that will move all of us, all us humans, to a better future.
Thanks be to God.
Thanks be to Christ.