Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
6th Sunday after Epiphany
February 12, 2017
Humor, Idols, and Great Potential
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish¦. (Deut. 30:17-18)
These words from Deuteronomy come at the end of Moses’ life, just before the Israelites cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. They don’t yet have a king; they don’t yet have a temple; they don’t yet have a country to defend; they don’t yet have anything like the soul-killing seriousness that comes with being a global power bent on preserving itself at all costs. It’s no wonder that Moses gives the Israelites this warning at this juncture: But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish¦. (Deut. 30:17-18). It’s as though Moses is saying, You’ve been in the wilderness, and you’ve had no choice but to believe and trust in God because He has fed you continually with manna. But beware: soon you will build houses and plant crops and gain power, and that’s when you are truly at risk of losing yourself.
How do we resist being led astray so that we maintain faith in God and not in something else? And what are those other gods that might be trying to lead us astray, anyway? Today I want to explore some possible answers to those questions.
In response to the first question”how do we resist being led astray so that we maintain faith in God and not in something else”I want to offer that humor is a better bulwark against idolatry than we might realize. In some ways it’s obvious: if we can laugh about something, we’re in no risk of worshipping it. Our jobs, our roles as mother or father, our children, taking care of our aging parents, church”if we can find a little bit of humor in those things, then we’ve created a little bit of a buffer, a little bit of perspective, and we’re able to continue faithfully parenting or working or caretaking but without letting it take full control of us. We can hold those responsibilities lightly. Humor helps us remember that the safety and happiness and future of the world and of the ones we love do not ultimately depend on us.
I remember last year in January, we were getting ready for our big, intergenerational Harry Potter Sunday School class. As far as I can tell, that was the first time St. John’s had done an intergenerational Sunday School class like that. I was in charge of it, and I really wanted it to go well but I was just kind of freaking out that it would be terrible and everyone would hate it. I went into Robert’s office and I said, Okay, Robert, I’m just really nervous that this Harry Potter thing is going to crash and burn. I mean, I don’t want to be responsible for ruining St. John’s on doing intergenerational programs in the future.
And Robert laughed and looked at me kind of funny, and he said, Daniel, I doubt even you could permanently ruin St. John’s on anything. In case you missed it, this was Robert’s gentle way of saying, Relax, big guy. You’re just not that important. And he was right!
Humor is necessary not only for us as individuals, but also for communities. Take our current political climate, example. Humor gives us a healthy level of distance from the whole thing. If we can’t find a measure of distance from the turmoil, then we risk falling into mere partisanship. On the one hand, we might be in danger of jettisoning our moral compass and pretending that our current administration hasn’t said and done some immature, reactionary and even hateful things. It has. Christians don’t have to pretend otherwise, or try to shift the focus of scrutiny onto past administrations to make ourselves feel better, even if they also did terrible things.
On the other hand, all of this He isn’t my president stuff, it’s not helping anybody. It’s one of those alternative facts we’ve all gotten so good at pointing out. He is our president, all of us, and we must hope and pray for him to succeed within his realm of responsibility. Critics of our President are in danger of a bitter self-righteousness, as though we’d rather him fail and prove us right than have him succeed and prove us wrong. If we can’t find some distance and hopefully a little humor about all of it, then we’re in danger of worshipping our own biases, as though the progressive agenda is the source of the world’s goodness rather than God.
I imagine that by this point, we’re all a bit uncomfortable. I think that’s good. But we don’t have to be too uncomfortable. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. Our help isn’t in the powers and principalities of this or any other presidential administration. We’re bigger than our votes! Besides, if the Church can’t be a conscience for our country, then who can?
I haven’t been alive for too long, but it does seem to me that as a country we’ve drifted further and further into our respective corners over the past twenty or so years. Or maybe I’m just particularly sensitive to this most recent election because it’s the first one I’ve seen as a priest. I don’t know, but like most of us, I have a corner which I think is better than the others at getting the job done. It’s good and right that Christians should be informed and vote and even argue and all that. But we have to be clear about what it is we’re arguing about: we’re arguing about which values should come first when it comes to governing, we’re not arguing about whether the other party’s values are good. Here’s what I mean: I have never met a Democrat who didn’t value honest pay for honest work. And I’ve never met a Republican who didn’t care about helping poor people. Both of those are Christian values. It’s just that the two philosophies prioritize those values and go about fulfilling them differently when it comes to ordering society.
In the United States, we have for centuries seen the baton pass back and forth between different philosophies of government. Christians have helped to make this possible. Christian people claim that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), and that the first kingdom to which we belong is God’s kingdom. The first Christians didn’t stop living in the Roman Empire; they simply denied the authority of the Roman Empire to command their religious allegiance¦.they sought to clarify the strictly limited loyalty that they believed they owed to government. In other words, there are levels of loyalty: the level of acceptance of legitimate authority which made you pay taxes or drive your chariot on the right side of the road was something different from the loyalty that dictated your most fundamental moral options. If our first loyalty is to God, then all other kinds of worldly authority can change, or even seem to disappear altogether, without changing the fundamental character of what it means to be the Church, a community whose mission is to worship God and be God’s agent in the redemption of the world.
Think how liberating that is: it’s okay to laugh at Caesar a little because Caesar doesn’t command your ultimate allegiance. Remember that joke about President Obama using a teleprompter to talk to elementary school kids? That’s kind of funny! Or President Trump tweeting his adolescent angst in the middle of the night? That’s kind of funny! It’s okay to protest. It’s okay not to protest. It’s okay to care more on some days and less on others”because the City of God doesn’t depend solely on our efforts for its realization. We can enjoy a peaceful transfer of worldly power because we know it’s worldly, because even if the United States itself were, in our lifetime, to go the way of Rome and Persia and Assyria and the other great powers of history, even if that happened, and even if we all went down with it, the Word of God whom we worship when we pray Our Father in Heaven, the Word of God who dwells in our hearts would continue to rule all things in heaven and on earth.
But if thine heart turn away¦and worship other gods, says Deuteronomy, ye shall perish (Deut. 30:17-18, King James).
In answer to our second question, what other gods who might lead us astray? Right now, I think the two most tempting gods are security and purity. Security tempts us towards isolation. There are some violent people in the world, both at home and abroad, and those people have given in to the soul-killing seriousness that comes with believing that humanity is in full and utter control of things. They want to rid the earth of whatever group of people they’ve deemed unworthy. Our temptation is to take security and transform it from a value worth upholding into a god who dictates our actions. I don’t know where the line between value and idolatry is. In recent memory, I think President Obama’s administration crossed it pretty egregiously with his drone program. I think President Trump’s administration is in danger of making similar mistakes. And even if I’m wrong about that, I am sure that those are questions Christians have to ask.
The second god is purity. This is one Protestant Churches are particularly prone to worshipping. It’s an unfortunate symptom of the Reformation. We broke with the Church of Rome once, and as unavoidable as that was, it set a precedent for Protestants all over the place: as Protestants, if we don’t like something, we leave and start something else. I realize many of us feel this one particularly keenly. It’s true that sometimes the only response to a situation is to remove yourself from it. But it’s also true that sometimes that in so doing, we stop worshipping God and start worshipping our notions of purity. Christians have to be wary of giving purity too much power over our decisions. Again, this is particularly true for us in a polarized political climate. For example, when some folks look at St. John’s, they say, That church is too liberal, and that bothers some of us. Others look at us and say, That church is too conservative, and that bothers some of us. But the truth is that the only word in either of those sentences we have any business worrying about is Church. If we’re really and truly Church, then who cares? Haters are gonna hate.
The good news is that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us from taking ourselves too seriously so that we might take our faith more seriously. Death isn’t the end! A group of lighthearted people following Jesus through a broken and bitter world can accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine. So, I want to finish with a reminder:
St. John’s is a powerful church, what we might call a prominent family. As a community, we left the wilderness a long time ago. This parish has money. We have good educations. We have influence through our familial and work and social relationships. We get along with each other. By virtue of our location in downtown Montgomery, we have proximity to power. We enjoy capable and steady leadership and a good reputation in the diocese. And to top it all off, we’ve got lots of lawyers! I hang out with some of them at men’s group fairly regularly. They can be very stubborn and persuasive people!
But more than all of that, we have a sense of humor about it. A couple years ago when I was here interviewing and trying to get a job, I attended a service here on a Sunday morning. And after the service I was just wandering around in here taking it all in. An older woman whom I had met before the service came up to me and she said, It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?
What do you mean?
She pointed to all the plaques and memorials and things on the walls. She said, Some churches have the Stations of the Cross on the walls. Well we have the Stations of St. John’s. She was quite tickled with herself. I came to learn that she’s related to some of the folks to whom these plaques and memorials are dedicated.
All this history. All the influence that comes with being part of a prominent, historical family. All the stress and anxiety and burdens that come with that, too. All the sins and graces. All of it”she was able to laugh about it. That kind of humor is a good and holy thing because only when power can laugh at itself is it capable of doing good in the world. Only when power can laugh at itself can it be put to God’s uses; otherwise, it’s prone to running after other false gods like security and purity.
We’re not here for the seriousness of mere survival. And we’re certainly not here merely to compete with other churches. This is a powerful community, but one with a sense of humor. That is such a gift. Maybe we’ve only just scratched the surface of what we could accomplish for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Maybe in our time and place, when so many in our country are scared or angry or worn out or just trying to survive, maybe in the midst of all that, maybe the good news of Jesus Christ is us.