There’s a story about a young new assistant rector who started one summer, probably 30 or 40 years ago, at a parish in Delaware. Recently ordained and excited to preach his first sermon, he was assigned today’s readings. He’d been working for the church for a couple of weeks, one of those bucolic little country club parishes on the Eastern seaboard. He seemed nice enough, friendly. Then he climbed into the pulpit. His first word to his new congregation, shouted, “Fornication!”
He proceeded to preach a diatribe about the state of sexual immorality. From that day forth, in that parish, and in many of the churches on the East Coast, this Sunday with our reading from Colossians has come to be known as “Fornication Sunday.” A high feast of the church for sure.
I know better than to spend a whole sermon on fornication, even on fornication Sunday. Luckily there is a throwaway line in Paul’s letter that I find surprisingly compelling.
Paul loved listing sins. It was a regular feature of his letters. Printers of old needed a lot of commas for all Paul’s lists of sins. But in today’s letter to the Colossians, Paul says something about a sin that I find fascinating. It’s a parenthetical. “Greed, (which is idolatry).”
We don’t hear much about idolatry today, but it was the worst of the sins imagined in the Hebrew Bible. This morning, I find myself wondering whether Paul’s little throwaway line, “Greed (which is idolatry)” tells us more about sin than any of Paul’s long lists. I find myself wondering if we might use the same parenthetical after naming any sin. Greed (which is idolatry), Lust (which is idolatry), Gluttony (which is idolatry), you get the picture.
David Foster Wallace, the late author and post-modern literary critic, gave a famous commencement address at Kenyon College a few years ago. Listen to Foster Wallace describe idolatry in today’s idiom.
here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Foster Wallace doesn’t use the word, but he describes idolatry, and he explains the stakes. In our day, idolatry isn’t about incense in front of statues. Idolatry is about fear. Idolatry is about what keeps us up at night: do I have enough wealth? Am I losing my good looks? Can I reach my gun?
Paul’s parenthetical is telling. Idolatry is about anxiety. False worship isn’t a joy. False worship is about fear.
Fear is at the heart of the story Jesus tells today. St. Basil, commenting on this Gospel in the fourth century, imagined his own conversation with Jesus’ parabolic rich farmer. Basil imagined asking him, “But if you fill these larger [barns], what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again? If you want storehouses, you have them in the stomachs of the poor.”
There is a freedom in Basil’s response to Jesus’ greedy protagonist. Yes, Basil is concerned about the poor. Yes he’s concerned that the hungry are fed. But he is also concerned about the rich man. This rich man is afraid. He’s working so hard to protect his wealth. He’s investing so much time and energy and labor in storehouse creation. He’s missing the point. He has enough. He has more than enough. He is already free to give away out of his abundance. But the fool can’t see his freedom. He is afraid.
At the heart of this sin of “greed” Basil the Great, Jesus and St Paul all diagnose, isn’t antipathy toward his fellow human beings. At the heart of this “greed” isn’t wanton, ugly, misanthropy. No. This man’s sin, his greed, is rooted in fear.
How much sin comes from misplaced fear?
Friends, we live in a time of fear. Yesterday, in El Paso, and already again this morning in Ohio our nations has witnessed yet more mass shootings. And I’m tired of being afraid. I’m tired of worrying about whether someone brought a gun to school, to the ballpark, to a house of worship. We live in fearful times. In fearful times we have to ask, what do we do with our fear? How do we transform our fear and move toward loving action? We need a bigger God.
As I’ve said to you before, one of the best definitions for sin I know is this: “Sin is that which diminishes my humanity, or the humanity of my neighbor.” If sin is that which diminishes humanity, for me, for my neighbor, if sin is rooted in misplaced fear, we live in a time where there are ready-made sins, ready-made places to misplace our fear. The flames of fear are being fanned in our society, sinful flames, racism, homophobia, fear of immigrants, of asylum seekers. Politicians campaign intending to make folks more fearful of their neighbor.
Let me say clearly, if your god is the god of one race, your god is an idol. If your god is the god that blesses one nation at the expense of others, that god is an idol. If your god blesses one gender identity, one orientation, one political party at the expense of all others, that god is not the God Jesus preached, that Hosea prophesied, that Paul theologized. We don’t worship that kind of small god in this church. Small gods want us to fear our neighbor, want us to stay suspicious, worried. Small gods depend on misplaced fear.
In the prophet Samuel’s final speech to the people Israel he says: “Don’t turn aside to follow useless idols that can’t help you or save you. They’re absolutely useless” then he utters the famous words: “Only fear the Lord, and serve God faithfully.” Only fear the Lord.
Fear of the Lord is a difficult turn of phrase. It almost sounds old fashioned “fear of the Lord,” but I have a sense we need to revisit the idea. The prophets understood the fear of God differently. What is fear of the Lord? It’s the difference between the fear a child has for an abusive parent, and the fear a child has for a loving parent. Parents can tell you, you need to inspire some fear in your children. Listen again to Hosea’s words from God,
“They will walk after the Lord, who roars like a lion. When [God] roars, the children will come trembling…and I will return them to their homes.”
God in God’s anger, roars. And God’s anger summons the people home. As a loving parent, God knows, children don’t survive childhood if they don’t learn the proper measure of fear. Children must learn not to touch the hot stove, not to stand near the high ledge. (As Ellis and I transition to parenthood, I’m learning that parenthood also teaches you about fear, but that’s another sermon). A certain measure of fear is necessary. We need the kind of fear that leads you home.
In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Susan hears for the first time of Aslan from Mr. Beaver. She asks him about the Lion questioning, “is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mr. Beaver replies “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
I wonder how often our lives are governed by a parenthetical, a throwaway in Paul’s letter. How often do we get stuck in sin because we are looking for safety? We are looking for control. Too often the church has used god to instill fear. Too many sermons have been preached about “fornication” meant to keep folks fearful, to keep them in line. Too many preachers have imagined themselves as sin’s traffic cops when, really, a god that small is no help to us.
Our God isn’t safe. Following Jesus will mean putting yourself on the line. It isn’t safe. It isn’t easy to spend time in Jefferson City chasing representatives and fighting for sensible gun reform. It isn’t comfortable to ride buses for 12 hours each way to Ft. Sill Oklahoma so that you can stand with other faithful folks and protest the construction of immigrant detention facility, like Laurie and a group from Holy Communion did this week. God knows, it wasn’t convenient to march through the hottest day of the summer to proclaim God’s love in the LGBTQ+ Pride parade. Worshipping God with all this ancient pomp and circumstance, serving this not-small, not-safe God requires some patience, some imagination, a willingness to go beyond our comfort zone. Following God isn’t safe. If following your god is safe, it’s probably some little god you’ve invented. You may feel safe for awhile, but check again. You will likely end up using or feeling fear.
But Friends, there is grace. Because following God, worshipping the true God means transforming fear. Fear keeps us small. Fear of the other, fear of the truth about ourselves, fear of our body, our bank account, that kind of fear keeps us small. Worshipping the one holy and living God, trusting that God, means letting go of fear. Letting fear transform into something larger. Fear makes us small. Love makes us greater. Equity makes us greater. If sin has the power to diminish, God’s love has the capacity to deepen. Gods love can transform our sinful selves. Gods love can heal our world. Don’t settle for a small god who keeps you afraid. Follow the God who isn’t safe, but who is good. Follow the God whose best name is Love.