Other Gods

On my drives from Davenport to DeWitt, and from DeWitt to Davenport, I listen to a lot of NPR.

Last Sunday morning, as I was on my way to preach a sermon that touched upon violence at a house of worship, some people on Weekend Editionwere talking about violence at houses of worship and security at houses of worship.

A couple of guests—a Muslim imam and a Christian pastor—said that they had armed security at their mosque and at their church. They needed to have armed security in order to keep their congregations safe. And I’m not about to tell them something different. They know their experiences. They know their congregations. They have to make their decisions.

But a Jewish rabbi gave the answer that I hope we would give. Every act of evil that we commit, perpetuates evil. Every act of fear that we commit, perpetuates fear. And every act of love that we commit, perpetuates love. So she chooses to act out of love.

And I think that’s good advice. Act out of love. All the time. Even when you’re afraid. Especially when you’re afraid.

In today’s reading from the book of Acts, we meet Paul. You know Paul’s story.

Early on, all of the people who put their faith in Jesus were Jewish. They were a little revolutionary group within the Judaism of the late second-temple era. They talked about things like a messiah who had been crucified by the Roman government and who had risen on the third day. They talked about a kingdom that was not of this world, but that was in it and growing. They talked about how everything was going to change.

These Jesus-people were challenging the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities… and that’s a problem. So some of the Jewish authorities came down on them hard. They persecuted the early believers. And Paul was the most passionate of them all: he ravaged the church, he sent believers to prison, he persecuted the church.

And then, one day, he was on his way to Damascus, when a flash of light knocked him to the ground and he heard a voice saying, “Why are you persecuting me? Go into the city. I’ll send someone to tell you what you need to know.” And, suddenly, Paul was blind.

The people who were with him took him into the city of Damascus, and he met a believer named Ananias. And Ananias restored his sight and told him what he needed to know. And Paul was changed. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was baptized.

He went from persecuting the church with great zeal, to spreading the gospel with great zeal.

And he went out, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

In today’s reading from the book of Acts, we meet Paul in Lystra—a city in modern-day Turkey—along with the apostle Barnabas. There’s this man who has spent his whole life unable to use his feet… a man who has never walked. And he is listening intently to Paul as he preaches. 

Paul sees him and sees that he has the faith to be healed. So, Paul commands him to stand and walk. And he does.

And the crowd goes wild.

Now, the crowd is made up of people who worship the Greek gods and who follow the traditions of those gods. You might remember some of the names: Zeus and Hera, Aphrodite and Ares and Hephaestus, the muses and the fates, the nymphs who watched over trees and streams. The world teemed with gods and spirits. They were everywhere.

And these people see what is happening and they cry out, “The gods have come to us in human form!” They think that Barnabas is Zeus (the king of the gods) and that Paul is Hermes (the messenger of the gods).

Now, I need a bit of an aside here. The people in the crowd do not think that Barnabas is Zeus-become-one-of-us or that Paul is Hermes-become-one-of-us. They believed that their gods sometimes came down from Mount Olympus disguised as humans… or eagles… or satyrs… or ants… or swans… or whatever. They believe that these two men are gods wearing human suits. That is a far cry from Jesus, who we believe is God-become-one-of-us.

But they see Barnabas and Paul and they say, “The gods have come down to us!” And the local priest of Zeus brings out oxen and garlands. The people want to worship and offer sacrifices. And Paul shouts.

No! Why are you doing this? We’re not gods, we’re mortals. We’re like you. But we have good news. You can put away these worthless things; you can put away these idols of wood and stone. You can turn to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the seas and all that is in them. You can turn to the living God, who fills your bellies with food and your hearts with joy.

All you need to do is turn away from the gods you have known.

We live in a world teeming with gods. They are everywhere.

God gave us a whole world to enjoy, and it’s good to take some time to enjoy the things that are in it. But we are good at turning to those things and worshipping them.

There are people in this world—there are probably even people in this sanctuary—who worship money, or work, or their nation, or their flag, or entertainment, or sports, or health, or civility, or any of the other gods who wander through this world… the gods that we have made for ourselves out of wood and stone and cloth and ideas.

And believe me. I get it. The gods that we have made are enticing; they are seductive.

I am a Christian pastor. Don’t think for a moment that I am not tempted by the siren songs power or privilege or prestige. Don’t think for a moment that I am not tempted by promises of wealth or fame or reputation. I get it.

We live in a world that asks us to worship other gods. We live in a world that rewardsus for worshipping other gods. And we live in a world where those other gods can take over.

And the big thing that those gods offer… is safety and security.

Why do we worship wealth? So we will never have to worry about not having enough.

Why do we worship strength? So we will never have to worry about getting hurt.

Why do we worship popularity? So we will never have to worry about being alone.

And we have made gods for each of these things and for so many more. So that when we’re afraid, we have something we can turn to. So that when we’re afraid, we have something that will protect us.

And when we are afraid, we will do terrible things. We will make terrible sacrifices at the altars of the gods who we have made. We will sacrifice our family and friends. We will sacrifice our time and integrity. We will sacrifice our very lives and we will certainly sacrifice the lives of others in the temples of those gods. Sometimes in little ways. Sometimes in big ways.

When the Jewish authorities were afraid of what these followers of Jesus would bring down on them, they made terrible sacrifices. When Paul was persecuting the church, he stood by and nodded in approval when people stoned Stephen. And in the verses after the story we read today, some people show up to stone Paul.

And when Christians gained power, and when we were afraid, we made terrible sacrifices. We built whole machineries of death to use against our Jewish friends and neighbors.

When we have been afraid, we have sought refuge in the gods we have made, and we have found ways to be terrible to each other. With every act of fear, we have perpetuated fear. With every act of evil, we have perpetuated evil.

And it hasn’t worked. We still don’t feel safe. We still don’t feel secure.

So what if we tried something else?

What if, when we are afraid, we don’t turn to the gods that we have made? What if we don’t put our faith in wealth, or strength, or popularity? What if we don’t put our faith in money, or weapons, or reputation?

What if we put our faith in the living God, who creates and sustains the heavens and the earth and the seas and everything that is in them? What if we put our faith in the living God who fills our bellies with food and our hearts with joy? What if we put our faith in the LORD who is our shepherd?

What if we put our faith in the God who is love? What if, when we were afraid, we responded with love?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know exactly what that would look like; I don’t know exactly how to do it. I would need someone to help me imagine; I would need someone to help me train. Maybe a rabbi like the one who I heard on NPR.

And I know that even if I can’t see that world yet, I get little glimpses of it in every act of love, and every act of charity, and every act of kindness. And I know that every time I think that I don’t know if I can love—every time I feel like I am too afraid to love—and I love anyway, I get a little closer to that world. I get a little closer to that kingdom of God. 

And I get a little closer to a God who loved the world this way: he created a world and gave it as a gift to itself; and when he saw that we had broken it, he became one of us and showed us a better way; and when we hung him on a cross and buried him in a tomb, he got up and said, “I’m not done with you yet. Keep following me. You can love better.”

Hallelujah. Amen. 

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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