28 August 2022 – Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Our God is a jealous God. You’ve heard that, right? It comes from the book of Exodus (34:14), when God is remaking the tablets that Moses smashed upon seeing the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf… Yes, even while Moses was up on the mountain receiving the covenant, the people were down in the desert getting Aaron to create an idol to worship. So, yes God is jealous.
However many centuries later, God is encouraging Jeremiah to remind everyone of the same thing…that God is jealous…and that the people have “gone after worthless things”
I recently learned that jealousy and envy are different things…although we often use them interchangeably…as in “wow, your vacation sounds great, I’m so jealous.” Turns out…no, you’re not jealous…you’re actually envious. Here is what I learned, envy is wanting something that someone else has…”you had a vacation, I didn’t have a vacation…I want a vacation…(and maybe I even wish that you didn’t have a vacation!). Envy is about wanting something that you don’t have that someone else does. In the bible it’s called covetousness, and we all know there are prohibitions against it. Jealousy is not that…it’s not about what we don’t have…it’s about what we have that we are afraid of losing. Jealousy also is not a single emotion, it’s the name we give to the fear, sadness, and/or anger we feel when we are about to lose something important that we already have. Typically to a third person, but it could also be any third thing…a job, a hobby, an addiction…[Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart. p. 26ff.]
God is never envious. God can’t be envious. Because God couldn’t want (or need) anything we have…God can be and is jealous, because God is in a deep, intimate relationship with Israel…(with all of us, with all of creation, really) but they/we continue to wander off…Chasing after other gods…Forgetting about this primary relationship and searching for the attributes of it (Love, Perfection, Truth, Wisdom, Will, Strength, Omniscience, Origin, Harmony, A. H. Almaas, Facets of Unity: The Enneagram of Holy Ideas), everywhere but where it always and eternally is…with God.
In all of the prophetic literature this trope of Israel being unfaithful, going after other gods is repeated over and over, and God consistently expresses Holy jealousy over it: “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.” God fears (and is sad and angry) that this primary relationship with Israel is breaking because of their unfaithfulness, and so God is jealous.”
The core of God’s jealousy…is always our infidelity…our idolatry. We put something else in God’s place…We make something else as important…or more important…than God…
For the ancient Israelites it was the Astartes and Baals, the local, seasonal gods that they encountered in the cultures around, the ones everyone insisted were the gods responsible for the good or bad harvests, for sun and rain, for fecundity or barrenness.
For modern people…we’ve toppled or forgotten many of the old gods…but we’ve also replaced them with ideology, and money, armaments and military might, technology, and whatever we swear our allegiance to…put our utmost trust in…put our faith in…that is not God. Just because we are not making Golden Calves does not mean we are not practicing idolatry.
For every one of us…every human being…in every time and place, one of the most difficult idols to turn away from is our own ego…All those stories and core beliefs that I talked about last week…Those patterns that we all fall into…that are described pretty clearly in today’s readings…
Running after “things that do not profit”… digging cracked cisterns, instead of relying on the living water.” Doing everything ourselves, “following our own devices” instead of trusting that God will see us through. Neglecting those in prison, or the poor, or the disabled, because we can’t imagine how caring for them would benefit us…and really not wanting to imagine how we might actually be like them. Jostling for the best places, toadying to those who can get us advancements, currying favor with those we need to stroke our egos.
Now, don’t get me wrong. A healthy ego is a necessary, important thing. It does (for the most part) keep us safe; it does (for the most part) allow us to function in the world. It is the armor we put on to fight the good fight, the mask we wear to perform our roles, the wall we live behind where we can rest and recuperate. It is all of those things, but in terms of idolatry…our egos are also maybe the biggest idol any of us will have to topple.
An ego is necessary. Vital. Important. It is also, because it was constructed by humans: cracked…leaky…false. The ego is the private self, the false self, the self described so eloquently by Thomas Merton as “the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”
In the eyes of God…in the Holy Truth of Reality…the ego is an illusion. It doesn’t exist in the Reality that is God, says Merton, “because God does not know anything about [it],” (New Seeds of Contemplation, “Things in Their Identity”). Let that sink in for a minute. The ego does not exist in the Divine Reality because God does not know anything about it. God sees right through it. But we see it…we see through the veils of the ego’s reactivity. We see it, and for us it becomes reality…and when that happens…the ego becomes an idol.
The person I think I am…the person all of my ego stories insist that I am…The person all of my ego stories desperately need me to be (to maintain the illusion of a separate, competent, strong, peaceful, righteous, etc. self)…that person…that “self” is invisible to God. Who only sees what I truly am…what God created me to be… And yet, this false self—and all of the stories that go with it—is where I put most of my energy, most of my time, almost all of my faith and trust…talk about idolatry. No wonder God is jealous.
So what’s the remedy? How do we learn to see past the veils…to remember that primary relationship? Unfortunately, there are no cheat codes…there are no shortcuts…But there is a path…a narrow one (Matthew 7:14)…There is a way…the Way of Love… There are plenty of practices…and the one Jesus focuses on today is humility. Which isn’t about demeaning or debasing ourselves, nor is it about downplaying our gifts or abilities. On the contrary, humility is defined by one scholar as an “openness to new learning combined with a balanced and accurate assessment of our contributions, including our strengths, imperfections, and opportunities for growth.” [Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart. p.245].
Another scholar says, it’s learning to die to the illusion that we are somehow separate from God. [While simultaneously dying] to any grandiose delusions that we are God.” [James Finley, Dying to Ego’s Delusions]. Humility, as our Gospel reading puts it, is about learning our proper place…not as better or worse than we are…not as our ego (or super-ego) needs us to be…but as God knows us…as God sees us…with a place, alongside all the rest of creation, in an intimate, infinite, loving relationship with the Creator of all life.