Life is full of joy; life is full of heartache. The world overflows with wonder; the world overflows with anguish. There’s so much agony, and there’s so much love.
It’s a whirlwind—this life. I’m sure you have your own desolations and ecstasies. I have my own, too. And this is what I wonder to myself—and maybe you do too. I think to myself—and now I’m thinking this question out loud with all of you—I think to myself, What does God have to do with it?
And when I ask that question, in my head, it usually sounds like that Tina Turner song, “What’s love got to do with it, got to do with it.” Here’s the line that gets me, and I wonder about it when I think about God. Tina Turner: “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” When I think about line, when it comes to God, it sounds like, “Why bother with God?”
In this whirlwind of a world, why bother with God?—why do we do this thing, this thing called church, this thing called faith? I’ve been asking basic questions this week—for myself and for us. Part of it has to do with this world, with my feelings about life, but I think most of it has to do with the Bible passages we heard from Exodus and Matthew, these verses that have been on my mind all week. They are all about God in our lives, about what we’re supposed to be doing with God, about how to think about God in the midst of all the things going on with us.
The first thing that’s clear, from these passages, is what we’re not supposed to do: no idols, no idolatry. The commandments are straightforward: “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” (Exodus 20:4).
God gives the Israelites this commandment right after they are freed from Egypt, liberated from slavery. Their bodies might be free, but they’ve still got Egypt inside their heads, the ways Egypt colonized their minds, Egyptian ideas about God taking up residence in their heads, in their thoughts. This commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol”—this is a detox program, a theological detox program, to cleanse their minds of Egyptian lies, the deceptions about the divine, about what God is like. With this command, their imaginations are being liberated from gods—the commandments are another phase of their exodus, another step of their exodus from Egypt.
I think this is probably the story of many of us, probably all of us. Over the course of our lives we inherit ideas about God that have messed up our heads, perhaps even messed up our lives—ideas about God that have latched themselves onto our brains and hearts, convincing us of things that aren’t good for us or our neighbors, untrue theologies that we’ve had to purge from us, poisons for our faith.
I feel like I’ve spent my life unlearning the relationship with God I had as I grew up. I don’t know where my ideas came from, exactly, but I do know that they are still in my head, and they affect my life, when I’m not careful.
I’ve always thought of God as somewhat predictable—that God has rules we’re supposed to learn, rules about how God operates, about how God lives with us, how the divine happens in the world. Those rules are kind of like a morality, God’s morality, God’s law, God’s law for herself, for himself. So, for example, when I do something wrong, God punishes me not because God wants to, but because God has to, because God is committed to a rulebook, a cosmic law, that God has to obey.
And the point of life, when we think about God this way, is to learn God’s rulebook so that we don’t get punished—and instead we figure out how to get rewarded for what we do, for the good stuff. So, according to this logic, if we do good then God is good to us, and if we do bad, God punishes us. A relationship with God is about obedience as a way to have our best life now, to get what we want out of God—we live our lives trying to convince God to give us things, for God to make our lives better, for God to show us that God loves us.
There’s a transactional nature to all of this—as if morality, ethics, is like economics, like capitalism. We pay God with good deeds, with justice, with right thinking, and God gives us love and acceptance and blessings, multiplied a hundred fold. Morality is our currency, the money we use to pay God to get what we want out of this life, to get what we want in this world.
When I say all of this out loud, it sounds so ridiculous to me, it feels so wrong for all sorts of reasons, but I can’t say that I’ve gotten rid of those ideas inside of me. They are still there, as almost a mental reflex, my default imagination for God—this predictable God that I can manipulate to be useful for my life, for my world, if I pray the right things, if I do the right things, if I live the right kind of life.
This is what Jesus is getting at in our passage from Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus tells the disciples not to swear by anything in heaven or on earth, because they can’t control any of it, none of it belongs to them, none of it belongs to us, we aren’t owners; we can’t use anything on this earth or in heaven, not even our own lives, as collateral for our promises, as insurance, as security, as guarantees for our words, for what we commit to with our words. None of that can be used for a down payment for our promises because all belongs to God, and God can’t be manipulated, “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool” (Matthew 5:34). “And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black” (Matthew 5:36)
All of that is a form of idolatry—to come up with an idea about how God is, about rules that God has to obey, and to worship that idea, to honor that idea with our words and thoughts. Idolatry is the creation of God that we can name and control, for our own benefit, a God that we can predict.
That’s what the Israelites learned in Egypt, with their Gods created by human hands, Gods in the form of creatures, Gods of nature—as predictable as the seasons, predictable because they were assumed to be just like what was already known. These are Gods of the establishment, Gods for the customary ways of doing things, Gods according to the common sense of the people, Gods for the people in power
because God is imagined as doing what has always been already been done, a God who obeys what is already known. God doesn’t do new things, only old things. God does the imaginable, never the unimaginable. These are Gods of the possible, not the impossible. Gods of the thinkable, the conceivable.
But the God of Israel is not like anything they experience in Egypt. We might even want to say that to call this One who speaks to Moses from a cloud, the one who authors the commandments—we might even want to say that this one is not even a God, to call this one a God is already to misunderstand, to misuse the name, to call this one a God is already to deceive ourselves, to think that this One is like all the others.
Instead, this one is identified by what has been done: “I am the one who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Who is this God who is not like anything they’ve experienced? This God is the God against slavery; this is the God of liberation.
That’s how we know this one we call God, that’s why we bother with any of this: with these Scriptures, with our faith—all because Israel was set free from slavery, all because there is a God at work in this world who liberates the oppressed, who sets the captives free, who proclaims unshackled life.
Maybe this is one thing we can know about God—that this One loves the world, that this one loves for people to be free from violence, free from all forms of slavery, liberated for a life of peace. The only sure thing, the only thing we can predict, is that God is this power of love in the world, and that God wants to share that love with us, for us to share in God’s love, to live into it, to rest into it, to let it soak through our lives, to let God’s life wash through us as God floods the world with love, washing away the sins of this world. As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth once put it, “love [is] a protest against the course of this world.” God’s love is a protest against all the ways our world enslaves people.
Faith in God is not a way to make us more comfortable with the world as it is, with the way things are. Faith in God isn’t how we get what we want, by saying the right things and living the right life.
Instead, faith is how we live for God’s liberation, for us and for our neighbors, to live without the threat of violence, to live without economies of slavery, to live without police violence, to live without border deaths, to live a life full of joy and friendship, a world bathed with God’s love.
To live without idols takes vigilance—to notice our thoughts and feelings, to pay attention to our images, our default ideas about God, our theologies. All of us have theologies, tucked away somewhere inside of us, guiding how we think and live and wonder about ourselves and our world.
To live without idols takes vigilance—and I hope that’s what we offer one another here at church, not just washing away those ideas about God that make us comfortable with the world as it is, a world always inventing new forms of slavery, but also the vigilance of watching for what God is like, what God looks like, what God feels like: church as the vigilance of wonder, faith as looking around for the mystery of God—watching for images of God’s life that are as ordinary and mysterious as the people around us, images of God, we say, imago dei, all of us created in God’s image, all of us revealing God, all of us as answers to that question I started with: Why bother with God?
We can’t help but bother with God when we come together, when we worship and fellowship, when we work and play, because we name God with our lives, the mysteries of God unveiled in your neighbor, in a stranger or a friend.
We have no need to make idols because we already have all the images of God we will ever need, if we look around, if we honor each other, if we approach people with the reverence of God.