Before Moses ever descended Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, the second of which reads "you shall not make for yourself an idol" (Exodus 20:4), the Hebrews grew impatient. They nagged Aaron for an idol. They wanted him to build an altar so they could bow down to it. They created "gods of gold" (32:31) and danced around it. Aaron tried his best to put the best face on a bad situation. But, as the saying goes, you can put lipstick on a golden calf but it will always be an idol. In giving in to the mob’s anxieties, Aaron gave in to idolatry.
It is very easy to make an idol and we don’t need to hock our earrings to do it—although outward symbols certainly help! All we have to do is make our deepest fears and our deepest desires the center of our world.
An idol is something that stands in between us and God. An idol also stands in between us and our world, because an idol allows us to view life through a very narrow lens and see what we want. Idols block our relationship with God and our ability to deal with the world as it is. An idol is built from our fears and our fantasies.
These past few weeks, we have seen one of our cultures most dearly loved idols fail us, and in the middle of it all, we had a fleeting glimpse of heresy.
The best question not answered by either candidate during the whole second town-hall-style presidential debate was when one woman asked ''Is it right to treat medical care as a commodity?''
That question briefly exposed an idolatry all that take for granted and live by every day. And that idol is The Market.
According to the Theology of the Market, the answer to the question is ''Why stop at health care? Everything is a commodity!''
Theologian Harvey Cox once analyzed the religious language of the business pages and found a kind of religion at work. He said, ''Since the earliest stages of human history there have been bazaars, rialtos, and trading posts -- all markets.
''But The Market was never God, because there were other centers of value and meaning, other 'gods.' The Market operated within a plethora of other institutions that restrained it.''
Only in recent generations has The Market risen ''to become today's First Cause.''
Cox was not the first to observe that The Market had become like a religion. At about the same time as Cox's essay, the writers of ''Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,'' wondered what a culture would be like if its whole cosmology was built around commerce. So they imagined an alien race called the Ferengi and their religion known as ''The Rules of Acquisition.'' Here are some:
1. Once you have their money ... never give it back.
18. A Ferengi without profit is no Ferengi at all.
34. Peace is good for business.
35. War is good for business.
45. Expand, or die.
58. There is no substitute for success.
60. Keep your lies consistent.
89. Ask not what your profits can do for you, ask what you can do for your profits.
97. Enough ... is never enough.
When we stopped talking about the market as a kind of shorthand for large group psychology and turned into the center of meaning for an otherwise unbelieving society, then we turned The Market into our own little god.
We are having a crisis of faith. Some true believers in the Wisdom of the Market, are now blaming their former Delphic High Priests and pine for the sin of regulation. Still they want sacrifice.
True believers tell us that it’s judgment day—and a cruel one at that. Just this morning, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times:
Over the long run, you cannot spin the market. You cannot sweet talk it into going up or beg it not to go down. It’s going to do whatever it’s going to do — whichever way greed and fear tug it. And the market always bats last and it always bats a thousand.
Or maybe god—the god of the market—is dead. As Cox said, ''Like the proverbial shark that stops moving, The Market that stops expanding dies. That could happen. If it does, then Nietzsche will have been right after all. He will just have had the wrong God in mind.''
What Jesus taught never appeared to more true. He said ''Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.''
The god of The Market lives because of our fear of scarcity—our fear of being without. It also lives because of our desire for more. Scarcity and greed are close cousins.
Of course, there is an antidote to the Golden Calf of The Market, and Saint Paul shared it with the Philippians and with us today:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
This month I have been made profoundly aware of how nervous people are. I am mindful of the real sacrifice and pain the people right here in this parish are feeling, whether it is a person whose pension or annuity income is shrinking or a business owner facing drastic choices or people who are wondering if their jobs are safe. These are scary, worrisome times. And so I find Terry Parsons very practical words to be most helpful. She says:
Rebuke scarcity. Don't try to manage fear well or try not to let it upset you. Wholeheartedly rebuke it. Stand up to the fear of scarcity and say No! God does not live in our fear.
Claim abundance. In the story of the loaves and fishes, Jesus tells his disciples to feed thousands with a few loaves of bread and fish. The disciples retreat into scarcity because it is safer than the risk of relying on Jesus' wisdom. To risk feeling stupid or foolish, especially in financial matters, is to bravely claim the abundance God intends for his people.
Cultivate holy habits of prayer, keeping the Sabbath, and nurturing generosity.
Say thank you. If you have less now than you did before, that will feel a lot like scarcity. Take extra care to thank God out loud in exchange for every prayer of supplication.
At a time when money is tight and the markets are slipping fast, we must remember that the Market and money are not our idols but our tools. Money can be an enormous power for good—our power for good. As bad and as scary as things are right now, we still have more wealth, and all that wealth brings, than most people in most of the world. We still have the power to make profound differences in the lives of people.
Whether it is seeing to elimination of poverty by supporting the Millennium Development Goals, or by making sure your local food bank has enough food to feed the hungry or seeing to it that kids have books to read or the homeless have a safe, clean place to sleep, or by providing for free or low-cost basic health care locally, we can do powerful good with the wealth we have.
We have a choice, and it is before us every single day: we can live in service to The Market, or use our money in service to God, all God's people and all God's creation.
The god of The Market has let us down because its promises are hollow and its premises bankrupt. As a master, it will take everything from us and give nothing back. It failed us because it contained only our fears and our worst fantasies.
Moses interceded with God because he understood that we fall back on our idols when we are most uncertain. Jesus taught us that the antidote to fear is faith. He showed us that wealth that lasts and makes us truly rich comes from faith, generosity of spirit, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and, above all, hope.
23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23A-RCL) Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9