American Idols

Sermon text: Exodus 32:1–11;14

There’s one thing about this story that’s always struck me as a little odd: things seem to get out of hand rather quickly. One minute, everyone’s patiently waiting for Moses to return from Sinai, then it’s “everyone grab your gold, let’s make a cow?” The Bible doesn’t tend to color and shade it’s narrative, so passages like this one can feel rather…abrupt. All of sudden, we’re confronted with gilded bovine and Aaron is shouting “These are your gods O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Why? Why do they do this? I think the answer lies in the opening line of the story: When the people saw that Moses was delayed coming down the mountain…” The Israelites are scared. The Bible doesn’t really tell us how long Moses is up there for. When he leaves, it says he went up for forty days and forty nights, but we probably shouldn’t take that too literally. Noah’s in the boat forty days and forty nights, Jesus was in the wilderness forty days and forty nights, it’s basically just the Bible’s way of saying he was up there for a long time.

And the Israelites are frightened! That’s generally their MO for most of the time they’re in the wilderness. They’ve been dissatisfied for a bit now. They’re starting to fight amongst each other, and express misgivings about their common destination. Earlier in Exodus you get one of my favorite lines in the entire Bible, the Israelites complain to Moses, “It would have been better to serve the Egyptians than die in the desert.” And yet, it’s not wandering in the desert that spurs this loss of faith. It’s when Moses disappears on the mountaintop, gone for a long time, it is in this time of fear and uncertainty that the Israelites cast their faith aside. Idolatry is a response to fear.

There is a lot of fear in our world right now. This year has seemed to careen from tragedy to tragedy. Acts of terror, natural disasters, diseases, political unrest and instability. One of the things this year has revealed is how isolated from each other we have become. Robert Putnam has a new book named Bowling Alone, in which he chronicles the decline of American civic institutions, like PTAs, Rotary Clubs, churches, and yes, bowling leagues — places where people would come together in community, across ideological and socio-economic divides. Putnam suggests that the decline in these institutions has not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in organizations to replace them, and as a result we have weakened the social fabric that holds us together. In this diminished condition, fear stemming from external threat spreads like wildfire. Our alienation from each other creates fertile earth for fear to grow, to transmute into suspicion, distrust, animosity. Faith and community are not nourished by stony ground. In response to fear and separated from each other, we begin to worship idols. It happens quick.

There are two idolatrous tendencies, in particular, that I see increasingly plaguing our culture. Now to be clear, I’m not saying that every person engages in what I am about to describe. I am speaking, instead, about broader trends that I find troubling. The first is an infatuation with individualism. More and more, focus has shifted, we are told that what is most important is fostering our own success, maximizing personal gain and achievement. In this worldview, community is only important insofar as it facilitates the rise of the individual. Too often we create social ties only with those who share our ideological and socio-economic backgrounds, those who can help foster our success. The prominence of social media has, ironically, further contributed to declining social ties — we are encouraged to think of ourselves as brands, to emphasize the ways we are exceptional, the way we stand out against the cultural fabric.

This hyper-individualism stands in stark contrast to the social order God calls us to create. The Bible is unapologetically communitarian. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters…that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” In his letter to the Romans he advises “Do not be proud, be willing to associate with people of low position.” In Acts, the first Christian community is described as one in which “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” In Galatians, Paul reminds that all divisions are rendered moot in the eyes of God, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” The fact that these passages sound so foreign to our modern sensibilities reveals our entrenched commitment to individualism. I don’t think the answer is for everyone to immediately join a commune, but I do believe that something needs to be done. The Bible is clear in its suggestion that strengthening community and equality are the most important social ends, yet our obsession with individual achievement obstructs our ability to live into this call.

The second idol hindering our pursuit of God’s kingdom is treating monetary gain as a matter of ultimate concern. Increasingly, the financial bottom line has become the final arbiter in our decision-making. In questions about how we structure our economy, economic growth is worshipped at the expense of fair economic distribution. More and more, we see people worshiping the rich and famous on the sole basis of their wealth and fame. The Kardashians alone, stand as example par excellence of this trend. And I can’t tell you how many articles I read, aimed at college students, that rank the “best” majors and careers solely by how financially lucrative they are, as if that should be the most important factor governing the choice of a profession.

The Bible is explicit in its condemnation of pursuing wealth for its own end, it’s no coincidence that the idol in our story is cast from gold. The prophets in particular reserve special ire for those who profit at others expense. Amos decries those that “trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land,” as well as those who “sell the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” In Luke, Jesus instructs “whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, whoever has food is to do likewise.” Indeed, earlier in the book Jesus makes clear his identification with the poor and oppressed: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Time and again the Bible stresses the importance of using wealth to close the gap between rich and poor, to make life easier for those who endure economic hardship. When financial gain becomes our primary motivation, it hinders our ability to care for the poor and vulnerable as God calls us to do.

Now, the reason I am describing these idolatrous trends is that both of them reach their ruinous zenith in Donald Trump. He embodies our twin cultural idols of hyper-individualism and financial worship. Just as the Israelites turned to idols in fearful times, the chaos of our present moment has contributed to the rise of a man who embodies our nation’s worst demons.

To be clear, I am not speaking about Donald Trump today because he is not prepared to be president, or because I find his policies politically disagreeable. I am talking about him from this pulpit because his candidacy flies in the face of the gospel, the policies he proposes are idolatrous.

The ostensible merits to Trump’s candidacy hinge around his career as a businessman, but that career can only be viewed as an asset if one already believes that making money is, in and of itself, a sign of moral worth. It has been well documented that Trump amassed his fortune by short-changing contractors and small business owners, engaging in discriminatory housing practices, and by defrauding vulnerable consumers in scams like Trump University. We are supposed to see this as an asset? “Woe to you who sell the poor for silver.”

Although it’s tempting to point to his gilded planes and other such ostentatious displays of opulence to provide evidence of how he worships of the dollar, these are merely superficial quips. Far more revealing, however, is one of his core campaign promises. Repeatedly he has made clear his intention to deport the approximately 11 million undocumented people living in this country. Now, even if this would improve our economic bottom-line, would that make it right? Would it align his plan with God’s plan? Trump is promising to break families apart, to forcibly exile many who came to this country as young children, who have never known another home, to return many to the countries they fled for fear of violence or persecution. How does this square with God’s commandment to Moses in Leviticus, that “the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you?” How does this square with Jesus’ call to “love you neighbor as yourself?” Trump’s policy puts more value on the dollar than on human life, and reveals the depths of his idolatry.

Likewise, Trump embodies the excesses of hyper-individualism. It is tempting to point to his incessant self-aggrandizement, rampant egotism, and vicious treatment of those with whom he disagrees as evidence, but again this sin is better reflected in his proposed policies. Trump exploits our country’s worst demons, fomenting fear and prejudice in an attempt to rend and tear our multicultural social fabric. Through portraying peaceful Muslims as closeted terrorists, immigrants as drug smugglers, killers, and rapists, and peaceful protesters as thugs and criminals Trump seeks to divide us from one another, to shatter the type of unified community called for in our biblical texts. In Donald Trump’s America, we should suspect everyone around us, and have only ourselves upon which to rely. This is a dangerous political precedent, yes, but it’s also a repudiation of the social order God calls us to create.

I haven’t even touched on his glowing praise for torture, his calls to murder the families of enemy combatants, his disregard for our natural environment, or any of the other myriad ways in which Trump plants his flag firmly in defiance of the path God calls us to walk. His candidacy is not just a threat to this country, it is a threat to the very values God calls us to live by. I believe it is the responsibility of all who take the gospel seriously to do whatever we can to ensure that this type of hatred, violence, and idolatry are defeated this November.

I went back and forth about whether to preach this today. Although I’m no stranger to making political references in my sermons, I’ve never spent this much time talking about political matters, let alone used such stark language to describe the political landscape. To be honest, even now, I’m still uncomfortable. Our political discourse has become so fraught, emotionally charged, and, frankly, aggressive that it has become almost taboo to discuss political matters outside ones own home, or circle of friends.

The final nudge that made me feel called to preach on this topic came from an unlikely source: the Presbyterian Book of Confessions. For those unfamiliar, the Book of Confessions serves, alongside the Book of Order, as our church’s governing text. It is a series of documents, spanning several centuries, that profess what our church believes about God. All in all, it’s a fairly dry read, and hasn’t pushed me to do much of anything in my life, apart from passing my ordination exams.

A couple weeks ago, however, I picked it up and was thumbing through its pages when I was struck by an overarching theme: many of the confessions were penned in response to pressing, and divisive, political crises. The Scots confession, considered by many to be the founding document of the Presbyterian Church, emerged from a period of intense political turmoil between the Scottish, English, and French. The Westminster Standards were written during the English civil war in 1642. More recent confessions include the Declaration of Barmen, which lamented the complicity of the German Church in supporting Hitler’s rise to power, and the recently adopted Belhar confession, which was written in South Africa in response to Apartheid.

Though I cannot hope to speak with comparable eloquence, these documents impress upon me the importance of speaking in God’s name against political injustice, particularly when things are volatile. Throughout history, figures like Trump have sought to exploit our fears, to try and lure us from the path God would have us walk. The fact that he is the standard-bearer for one of our major political parties reveals the truth we see in Exodus: people turn to idols when they are afraid. It is thus doubly important that in these grave and pivotal moments, people of faith must not stay silent. We cannot allow a gospel of hatred, division, greed, and self-interest to replace the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When you get down to it, that’s why I felt called to write the sermon I did. Love of one’s neighbor, speaking out on behalf of the poor and vulnerable and against those would oppress them, fostering community among people of all races and religions: these are not political convictions I learned in a classroom. These are religious convictions I learned in those pews. If we cannot unmask such blatant idolatry, if we cannot speak forcefully to ensure it is not given root in our minds and hearts, what does it mean to be a Christian?