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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, October 9, 2011
Everybody has heard about American Idol. The program aims to discover the best singer in the country through a series of nationwide auditions in which viewer voting determines the winner. It was created by Simon Fuller as a spin-off from the British show Pop Idol and the show has since become one of the most popular in the history of American television. To people with religious sensibilities, however, the use of the description, “idol,” makes us nervous. More about that in a minute.
Every organization has meetings: staff meetings, executive meetings, strategy meetings, town meetings, how-goes-it meetings. And someone once defined a meeting as “a get-together where people talk about the things they should be doing instead of having a meeting.”
In today’s reading from Exodus, the people are having another kind of meeting – a sort of “rump session” while the boss is away. In his infinite wisdom, First Officer Aaron is trying to maintain order by giving the Hebrew nomads something concrete. You see, Moses has been gone now for a long time. Originally, he was just going to saunter up to the top of the mountain, grab some new laws, and come right back. But he wasn’t back….
Well, the people have to have something to rely on, right? So Aaron collects rings and necklaces and earrings and throws them into a pot, melting them down. He molds from them an image of a calf and exclaims, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Later, he was to offer this explanation to an incensed Moses: “So I said to the people, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”) Pretty funny.
The gist of this story is that when you settle, you sin. When you resolutely fail to see yourself as you really are (in this case, afraid), you’re going to put your own needs first. Let’s say that St. Patrick’s started a Monday evening feeding program for the community’s poor. We have lots of parishioners sign up to set up, cook, serve, and clean up. We do this for three or four years.
Each year, more and more of the parish participates until, after four years, it dawns on someone that we’re actually having fun doing this together. We find belongingness and meaning. So, more is better, right? We begin to have feeding programs on Wednesdays and Fridays, too. Pot luck. We’re having fun now! In fact, it’s rather a shame that we spend so much time on Mondays setting up, cooking, serving and cleaning up when the same moochers show up every Monday.
So let’s continue the program, only not invite the hungry. We’re going through the same motions – setting up, cooking, serving and cleaning up – only it’s for us now and not for them. We still think we’re filling that serving square, but we’ve lost that lovin’ feeling….
Well, this is the last – and I do mean – straw. Some prophet who doesn’t care much about his precious membership at St. Patrick’s starts screaming at us: “How does God want you to serve Him? Should you slavishly set up, cook, serve, and clean up? Will God be pleased that you feed 100 parishioners in His name? Is your abundance not meant to be shared with those who really need it?”
I said before that the beginning of mischief is the resolute failure to see ourselves as we really are. It’s the failure to be humble. Monsignor Joseph Gallagher, in his book, How to Survive Being Human, speaks of humility as, “the willingness to be what you are and to do what you can.” Humility is living in the truth of things. Humility is secure in reality, where you’re neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than you actually are.
Humility is living in the truth of things. It’s about knowing ourselves. But it’s also about right relationships. [Robert F. Morneau] One afternoon in 1953, reporters and officials gathered at a Chicago railroad station to await the arrival of the previous year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner. He stepped off the train – a giant of a man for the times – six-feet-four, with busy hair and a large mustache.
As cameras flashed, city officials approached him with hands outstretched and began telling him how honored they were to meet him. He thanked them politely and then, looking over their heads, asked if he could be excused for a moment.
He walked through the crowd with quick strides until he reached the side of an elderly woman who was struggling as she tried to carry two large suitcases. He picked up her bags in his big hands and escorted the woman to a bus. As he helped her aboard, he wished her a safe journey.
Meanwhile, the crowd tagged along behind him. He turned to them and said, “Sorry to have kept you waiting.” The man was Albert Schweitzer, the famous missionary-doctor, who had spent his life helping the poorest of the poor in Africa. A member of the reception committee said to one of the reporters, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.”
Humility is living in the truth of things. It’s about knowing ourselves. About right relationships. In the words of the prophet, “to love kindness.”
[Paul Wilkes] Akiba was one of the greatest Jewish teachers of the Law and was a contemporary of the apostle Paul. He and Eliezer, the renowned leader of the academy, were constantly at odds over their differing interpretations of the Law. Once, during a severe drought, Eliezer was asked to lead the people in prayer to relieve the drought. Nothing happened.
A few days later, Akiba led the prayers. He had hardly begun when the rains fell. It would have been an easy thing for Akiba to smile smugly at Eliezer or acknowledge the cheering people. But, instead, Akiba told them the story of a king who had two daughters – one loveable and the other, repulsive.
When the loveable daughter came to him with a request, the king would never grant it immediately, preferring to hear her voice, to have her present with him. The other daughter immediately got what she wanted, so he could be rid of her. In this way, Akiba had put his own prayer in perspective for the people and had taken Eliezer off an embarrassing hook. Humility is loving kindness.
Which leads us back to American Idol. I find it ironic that this title is used in this context. In what sense is a young pop singer an “idol”? I suppose the slang definition means some wildly popular new singer, maybe even with a little talent. But he or she cannot be an idol without our aiding and abetting. The fact is, idols are there to distract us from the hard stuff.
The people at the base of that mountain 4,000 years ago needed a distraction. They were worried. They were afraid. Their greatest nightmare – that this God thing was a chimera, that God was not really present with them at all. Maybe didn’t even exist. So, if God maybe didn’t exist, maybe they could just create one as a security blanket to divert their attention from their existential pain.
By the way, anybody catch the final score of the Oregon – Cal game?