is my stuff transparent to my spirit or my spirit shackled to my stuff?

Deuteronomy 4:25-31
Matthew 6:19-21

On this first sunday of Lent,
we continue our worship series
begun Ash Wednesday.

At preachers’ camp last summer,
a suggestion for a focus during Lent this year
was sin—
perhaps using Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Speaking of Sin
to affirm the importance of sin
particularly in a culture that dismisses it—rejects it,
to affirm our need, as the people of God,
to talk about it—
to acknowledge its reality and importance.

Russ and I started talking more specifically
about the seven deadly sins—
which, as you might imagine,
had particular appeal to me!
Especially considering, that counting Ash Wednesday,
there were seven worship services leading up to Holy Week!
Perfect.

Y’all know the seven deadly sins?
What are they?
Pride, greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, wrath.
Well, collectively, we know them!
So y’all may also know this,
that the seven deadly sins are not biblical—
which is to say, they’re not found in one list in the Bible
identified as the seven deadly sins.
A fourth century monk by the name of Evagrius Ponticus
actually came up with them.
And I’m sure it’s just unfortunate coincidence
that his name, Evagrius Ponticus,
makes me think of evading vague pontifications!
Evagrius Ponticus came up with the list,
but it was validated by Pope Gregory, and used by Dante.

But here’s the thing:
how important it remains
for us to consider the sins we would identify as deadly
these days—in our culture.
What sins bring death?—are deadly?
And I’m thinking today mainly of what we condone—
of what we accept as just the way things are.
I’m thinking of the fear, the rage, and the violence of our culture.
I’m thinking of the ways we dismiss people as insignificant—
people who don’t look like us, act like us, think like us.
I’m thinking of groups of people
who don’t matter as much as other groups
in our schools, in Congress and in our courts,
in our jails, in our churches, on our streets,
tucked away in institutions.
We may proudly proclaim the self evident equality of all men at creation,
but practically speaking, it breaks down pretty quickly after that.

Remembering Ash Wednesday’s observation,
that there may well be good reason our culture is so fascinated
with zombie movies and vampires—
because we are, in more ways than we want to consider or acknowledge—
we are becoming ever more the living dead—
ever more desensitized to those around us,
ever more removed—abstracted from the world around us.
And so we live lives touched by death.
And I’m going to suggest, this Lenten season, we consider sin
as that which touches our living with death.

As such, we’ll be using the Ash Wednesday looking graphic
on the cover of our bulletins throughout Lent—
the image of the ashen cross
with which we were marked this past Wednesday
as a reminder not just of our mortality,
but of all that brings death to our living—
and as a reminder that the choices we make
can limit death’s touch—
or not.

We’re also going to explore the possibility
that our faith offers us an antidote to deadly—
that in our affirmations and teaching,
in our stories and traditions and practices,
there is a balance offered to the death that surrounds us.

And I think we can be fairly explicit here.
The balance our faith offers is love—
including the sense of responsibility
we have to and for each other,
the self-evident interdependence of creation,
and the preferential concern
for those our culture so easily dismisses.
Love is to be realized in our care for each other and our world.
Such love undoes death.

Now today, we focus on and consider the sin of idolatry.
In some ways it seems an odd thing, doesn’t it?
On the one hand, so very biblical—and biblically integral.
It’s the first two of the Ten Commandments.
Given to Moses on Mt. Sinai:
“I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol,
whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above,
or that is on the earth beneath,
or that is in the water under the earth.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them;
for I the Lord your God am a jealous God ….” (Exodus 20:2-5).
So not just important to God and God’s people,
but fundamental to who and how they are.

So, on the one hand, that.
And yet, on the other hand,
we often tend to think such prohibitions irrelevant.
We don’t do that, we think.
Because when we think of idols,
we often think of idols like this.
This is an African fertility god.
It’s from Nigeria
Dad got it while in Nigeria from 1957 to 1958
teaching science at the
Iwo Baptist Boys High School.

There were always a variety of household gods in pagan culture—
differently depicted for different emphases and expectations.
The way they were made would indicate their role in the home—
some to ward off evil spirits,
some to ensure fertility.
People would give them up if they became Christian
which is how this one came to Dad.
Or that’s the story Dad was told!
He can’t be entirely sure that it wasn’t made
to be sold to people like him.
You know—suckers!
This idolatry business.

You could originally tell this was a fertility god
because of massively grotesque, protruding breasts.
Dad carved them down
before taking this then mutilated god with identity issues
back to South Carolina’s more delicate sensibilities!
He was young and foolish, he now says,
without a seminary education and life experience.

This is what we think of,
an idol made by hands.
How foolish to believe this would ensure fertility.
How naive to have faith that this would ward off evil spirits.
How primitive to even fear evil spirits.
These our thoughts on idols.
We think of things made to be gods.
Maybe we think of the golden calf.
Maybe we think of Rachel stealing her father’s household gods.
And we dismiss the prohibition as archaic—irrelevant,

Though we live surrounded by idols
and don’t think twice about them:
jeans we pay obscene amounts for,
tennis shoes we kill for,
smart tvs, ipods and pads,
bank accounts and bonuses.

Commercials play on precisely
the foolishness that believes clothes or scents
or the car we drive make us more attractive,
the naiveté that has faith in money’s power,
the primitive fear of not having all we’re supposed to have.
Foolish as it is though,
idols create people and a world in their hollow image,
and we would be fools indeed
to ignore the fact that money and stuff
have been invested with more meaning
than they deserve—and more power.
This idolatry business.

I love the psalms we read today—
excerpts from psalms 115 and 135.
“Why do the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’
Our God is in the heavens and answers to no one.”
In comparison, their gods
that they can point to and identify and locate,
“Here are our gods.”
Those gods
“are crafted by hand, mere silver and gold,
with mouths that are mute
and eyes that are blind,
with ears that are deaf and noses that cannot smell.
Their hands cannot feel, their feet cannot walk,
their throats are silent.
Their makers, their worshippers, who rely on them
will become just like these hollow images.”

You become what you worship.
So worship with care.
You don’t want to become a hollow image.
“Let all believers trust God,
their help and shield.”

When we think of idols,
we tend to think of things made to be gods,
not as much of things made, as gods.
But if idolatry is
making gods of things—
of things we make—
things of earth,
that’s where our New Testament text comes in,
don’t you think?
Don’t worship things you make.
It’s not worth it.
Store up your treasure in heaven.

Our culture worries me—
all the death in it,
all the prioritizing which is mostly
all the settling for so much less.
It worries me for our children and youth, yes,
but for each one of us too.

So what to do—for health and hope?
Get rid of stuff?
No.
Well, maybe some of it needs to go!
But it needs to be less some indiscriminate purging of stuff
some theologically justified opportunity to declutter,
as you deciding what comes and goes.
It needs to be you aware of why you have what you have—
what it’s for—how important it is,
you aware of the difference
between what you need and what you want,
you aware of how many do not have what they need,
and how that doesn’t have anything to do
with what you’ve earned and what you deserve.
They don’t have what they need.

In the end, of course, it’s not about stuff.
And maybe, more and more,
when we think of idols,
we think of American idols,
or matinee idols or sports idols
in our celebrity culture—
of those we idolize.
It’s almost become heroic, don’t you think?
When did it become okay to look up to
what we’re called to look down upon?

It’s not just about stuff.
It’s also experience.
It’s relationships and people—
living, breathing people
who are not made—
who see us and speak to us.
Bottom line, you see, it’s about you and me—
this idolatry business.
it’s about us—
about what’s important to us—
about what’s most important,
explicitly or implicitly—
recognized as such or not.
It’s what gets our time,
our money,
our attention.
It’s what we draw on when we’re bored,
when we’re afraid.

I occasionally get onto Sydney and Audra,
because sometimes when Sydney’s reading,
the world stops.
With Audra it’s the TV.
Now that’s not always a bad thing.
That’s one of the joys of reading, of a good show.
But I know from my own experience,
I can get so caught up in another world,
that I resent being pulled back into this one
you know, like for dinner,
or conversation—for people.

When what I want is only to be had to the detriment of others,
I need to question that.
Doesn’t matter how good a thing it is.

Our culture worries me—
all the death in it.
But I go back to our scripture reading—
the last part—
after the warning about idols.
Because from there, we read—
so from the reality of the living dead we read,
we will seek the Lord our God,
and we will find God if we search
with all your heart and soul.
In our distress, when all these things
have happened to us in time to come (and in time now),
we will return to the Lord our God and heed God.
Because the Lord our God is a merciful God,
God will neither abandon us nor destroy us,
and will not forget the covenant made long ago now.

We confessed to having too many priorities
that are not of God.
Hear now these words of assurance.
There’s hope.
Even for us.
Even these days in our culture.
Even for the living dead.
And it’s really not that it’s risky—
that you might lose your treasure
to moth or rust or thieves—
that sweater,
that bicycle,
and we need to be safer—smarter—
store them in heaven.
It’s really not banking on some future reward—
stars in the crown, right?
It is rather that there’s nothing worth heaven on earth, right?
Value what’s worth valuing.
And that ain’t stuff,
Except, of course, some of it is, isn’t it?

This is called the unexpected development in the sermon.
You’re supposed to trip over that a little bit.
What do you mean, you’re supposed to wonder.

But I do actually, I confess,
store up treasures on earth—
joyfully, intentionally,
even greedily.
And while some of those treasures aren’t things,
some are:

the out of control laughter of children,
giggles,
an excited puppy’s tail wagging its whole body,
not so much raindrops on roses,
though I would include crisp apple strudel
(especially with a warm vanilla sauce!),
anyone still want to go with snow falling? I will.
the taste of good food in the company of good friends,
the first sip of the day’s first cup of coffee,
books and music in which to lose yourself
to find yourself,
the look of the groom when he first sees the bride,
or of a parent watching the accomplishment of a child—
or just watching the child sleep,
the way your body feels after good exercise—
or a good meal,
the joy of ongoing conversation,
moments of grace and wonder—
of knowing forgiveness, gratitude, and hope,
the smells of yeast rolls rising, soup simmering,
and the outdoors after rain,
the touch of someone who loves you,
sex with the right person and the right level of commitment,
sunrise and sunset at the beach,
and over the mountains, and down the street
(how many of y’all saw it last night? beautiful, wasn’t it?
even over the Beltway),
the community in fellowship and worship,
to name a few—
treasures on earth,

but never ones threatened by moth, rust or thieves—
treasures that open my heart as storehouse
to make of earth, heaven.

For where you treasure is, there your heart will be too.
You become what you worship.
So worship with care,
and where your heart is, there your treasure will be too.

And love, only love, will undo death.

God,
may I always seek the treasure worth knowing,
and thus always protect my heart and soul
in worthwhile.
And the people said,
“Amen.”

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