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“Human beings — it turns out — are endlessly creative about what we can turn into idols.”

Sermon preached at All Saints Church on Sunday, October 15, 2017, by Susan Russell.

Send us anywhere you would have us go, only go there with us.
Place upon us any burden you desire, only stand by us to sustain us.
Break any tie that binds us, except the tie that binds us to you. Amen.

I inherited this prayer from the priest who mentored me during my ordination process — a prayer she inherited from the bishop who ordained her back in the day when bishops sometimes had to cross police lines to ordain women because of the bomb threats.

Yes, that actually happened.

It is the prayer I have used as the blessing in my nearly 20 years as a priest and it is the prayer I turn to  in personal meditation and reflection whenever I need to clear out the static, to regain my focus and to renew my commitment to the justice and joy we just sang about.

Lately I have been turning to it a lot — and I confess this morning that I have discovered it is a lot easier to pray to be sent anywhere God would have us go when we’re not standing in the middle of someplace we don’t want to be.

And there are lots of days lately when I don’t want to be where I am.

Because even though I remember a time when bishops sometimes had to cross police lines to ordain women because of the bomb threats I do not remember a time when there was this much static, this much chaos, this much distraction and this much intentional dismantling of the justice and joy we just sang about — this much threat to the dream of God of a world where there is a place for everyone at the table; a world of aligned with God’s love, justice and compassion.

This is not a place I wanted to be sent.
This is not a burden I wanted to bear.
This is a wilderness time I did not choose.

And then — thankfully — there are those moments when I recognize that the “go there with us/stand by us to sustain us” part is tangibly operative.

Like the moment last week when my social media feed was full of riled up people insisting that we worship the flag — and in the process abandoning the very values the flag they were insisting we worship represents: liberty and justice for all … and the constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech.

And partly because I’d  had enough and partly because I heard my mother in my head intoning “if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all” — and I definitely had nothing nice to say at all — I stepped away from the news frenzy and checked the lessons for today and discovered that the Exodus text was … wait for it … The Golden Calf. And I felt like I’d just won the lectionary cycle lottery.

The story [Alma/Will] just told so powerfully reminds us that we are not the first people to find ourselves at a loss in wilderness times. It tells us that the wilderness does not always bring out the best in us — and that when the going gets tough, the tough do not always get going. Sometimes they circle the wagons and make for themselves an idol to worship in place of the God who created them and called them and sent them and promised to sustain them.

Because the truth is the wilderness is scary and the future is uncertain … and maybe Moses is never coming down off that mountain … and maybe liberty and justice for all is a pipe dream … and maybe what we need is not a God who promises to stand by us and sustain us but something we can see and touch and control … and use to control others and forget about being a people chosen to be a light to the nations and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal — and instead grab what we can for us and for ours. Here. Now. Before it’s too late.

And so we melt down our earrings and worship a golden calf. Or a flag. Or a biblical text or a constitutional amendment we read out of context. Even religion — the very thing created to bind us together in a common experience of the holy — can become an idol when we worship it instead of God — when we weaponize it to control, reject or marginalize others.

Human beings — it turns out — are endlessly creative about what we can turn into idols.

It is what my Hebrew Scriptures professor Jim Sanders called “worshipping the gift rather than the giver” — as he warned us that even the best most awesome gifts can become ends in themselves rather than means of grace.

And it is what inspired my friend — the late awesome poet and priest Malcolm Boyd — to write this prayer:

Help us, Lord. Teach us our responsibilities to you, our community, and to all the people out there. Save us from the sin of loving religion instead of you.

Save us from worshipping the gift rather than the giver. Help us break any tie that binds us except the tie that binds us to you.

During this Giving Season we are focused on telling Our Stories — and telling where our stories connects with God’s story and with the All Saints story. One of the great arcs of God’s story throughout history is the story told and retold in the words of the prophets …

Amos. Isaiah. Micah. Jeremiah. Malcolm

… again and again calling the people … calling us … to abandon the idols we have been tempted into making in our wildernesses and return to the God who created us in love and then called us to walk in love with God and with each other.

This morning I want to add to that list the prophet Susan. And I want to share the prophetic words of our friend the Reverend Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite wrote last week in the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas:

“What do you imagine God thinks of all the calls for prayers for the victims of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history accompanied by the constant protests that ‘it’s too soon to call for gun legislation’? As gun stocks rose immediately after this domestic terrorist attack in Las Vegas it became clear to me that one of the idols Americans really worship is the Great God Gun. And I imagined God’s response to this idolatry via the profound words of Isaiah 58:”

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Why does the United States worship guns
Instead of God?

Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
They ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.

Why do you go to all these churches, but you do not see?
Why do you humble yourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your worship day,
And then just do the bidding of the National Rifle Association.

Look, you pray and then go out to buy and sell guns
And make it easier for many to commit mass murder.
Such prayers as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the worship that I choose, a day to make it easier to sell guns?
Is it to bow down the head in prayer,
And then call for prayers for gun victims?
Will you call these prayers, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the prayers that I choose:
to free the nation from the yoke of the NRA,
to undo the fraudulent interpretation of the second amendment,
to let those who fear guns in their neighborhoods be freed,
and to overturn the gun lobbies?

Is it not to share your opposition to out of control guns with your neighbors,
and to bring better policy to our nation;
when you see those in terror of gun violence,
protect them and keep them safe?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.

Here I am.

There is nowhere I will send you I will not go with you.
There is no burden I will ask you to bear that I will not stand by to sustain you.
There is no tie greater than the tie that binds me to you.

That is the promise our God makes. And that is the promise we will claim once again as we gather around this table to receive the bread and wine made holy. To be what we see. To receive who we are. And then to go out as the Body of Christ into this beautiful and broken world.

Today we will baptize Beckett, Violet, Olivia, Apolo, Valentino, Adeline, Brandy, Cruz and Charli — recognizing them as members of that Body of Christ and partners in the high calling of being sent out into the world as beacons of God’s love, justice and compassion. And when we place the oil on their foreheads and say the ancient words “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever” we are not only marking them we are reminding ourselves and each other that no matter what wilderness we face God goes there with us; that the power of God behind us is greater than any challenge in front of us — and that the indestructible power of God’s inexhaustible love is stronger than any idol we or the world can create.

Send us anywhere you would have us go, only go there with us.
Place upon us any burden you desire, only stand by us to sustain us.
Break any tie that binds us, except the tie that binds us to you. Amen.