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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Sunday, 9 October 2011

I-dolatry?  A sermon involving Steve Jobs

This sermon was preached at St Mary's Stebbing on 9th October 2011
The readings were Exodus 32, 1-14 and Matthew 22 1-14.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers, who died this week, said in 2005 “You’ve got to find what you love”. He meant in terms of career choice, but I’m stealing his wisdom for us today as we look at what our priorities should be as Christians. This is not a re run of our “your church needs you” thing from last month, though if you hesitated then you might not today!

You’ve got to find what you love. You’ve got to find things in life that will nourish strengthen stimulate and grow you to be the person God made you to be. You need to work it out. That sounds as if I’ve gone all heretical and forgotten about grace, but our working out of course will involve God, or at least it should.

When we read the narrative of the golden calf, once again we are going to be likely to identify ourselves with Moses, who remained faithful and who intervened on behalf of Israel so that the Lord relented. Yet I am convinced that every church today and down the ages has its Golden Calf. We have a golden calf and we need to allow God to break it down and burn it up as Moses did with the original.
What is our Golden Calf? It could be many things, but I think watching this video might help us see what we need to do to root it out - by the way, ignore the captions, they are a bit distracting.

So what’s more important to us – rules, or love? For 5 years I’ve been working towards a situation here where our church is seen as inclusive and welcoming of all people of all ages and all social groups, and I know I am not alone in rejoicing at the fact that there has been a sea change. You only have to look at our Alpha course to see that the village community does not see itself as so separate from the church community any more. At last more and more people are beginning to trust us, beginning to realize we are not that weird and that we are committed to the transformation of this community.  But there are still more steps on this journey.

The thing is when the Israelites made the golden calf they did it with the co-operation and direction of their acting leader Aaron. He was trying to keep the community focused on God – after the calf and its altar are made he says “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord” – in his mind this is still Yahweh worship, not idolatry. That’s a hugely important lesson for leaders – or potential leaders, in the importance of authority and of faithfulness to the truth, to God, to his Spirit and his Word. If we lose that, we don’t just lose direction for ourselves, but for the people we lead.

Now, I’m not going to compare myself to Moses and I could point you to some Aaronesque leadership mistakes I have made in the distant and recent past, but preachers I feel work best when they include themselves in the teaching – we, rather than you …

The consequences of the idolatry of the Golden Calf was a reduction in numbers of the people of Israel by about 3000, after Moses commanded the Levites to effectively cull the people. Our golden calves, our over adherence to the way we do things, to the expectations we have of what church is for, even our reliance on technology, all have the potential to destroy this fellowship if we let them get in the way of the task that God is calling us to – to reach out to the people of this community with the good news of the love of God. We are not a stiff necked, stubborn people, are we?

Now Alpha is the most significant way in which that has been done during my time here, but I am convinced there is more to do. Alpha is not for everyone – in fact church was we do it today is not for everyone.
We are unlikely in the short term to be setting up a skate park or a rock venue, but at least we are trying to express church differently – in Feast and Soul Space, in YouthConnect and Scamps. If you don’t get what is going on in those contexts don’t panic cos to be honest it probably means they are not designed for you. There is an argument that says fresh expressions of church can be spoiled if too many established Christians go to them1 Perhaps we should be encouraging people to come with us if we do go – as happened on Sunday at Feast.

Worship can sometimes be a golden calf – as in the kind of church we like to go to. That tends to function more on an individual basis, but it is true that we can make an idol out of worship itself – as addressed in the song “the heart of worship” by Matt Redman. As I will never tire of saying, worship is not primarily supposed to entertain us, it is supposed to bless God, and  in so doing we are also uplifted and nourished then that’s great, but the primary focus of our worship must be God, and not the quality of our playing or singing, the snazziness of the visuals or the sound system or the lights.
Worship is not a consumer product to be bought and sold on iTunes, it comes from our hearts and goes to the heart of God. It may come as a surprise to you but God does not have a favourite form of worship. He just longs for us to share in the celebration of his Kingdom.

And to bring our two readings together, the presence of a golden calf, an idol, disrupting the spiritual life of a person or a church, is likely to be a reason why that person, that church, end up being cast in the role of the invited guests, who miss out on the wedding banquet because their priorities are wrong and they put themselves first, not God, not the Kingdom.

And those who are on the edge of church – who get married here, who come to a funeral here, who bring their children for baptism, who are on Alpha, or who come to Soul Space, to Scamps or even some of the families who come to Feast, in my mind these are the ones – both good and bad please note – that the servants of the king go out and invite to the banquet.

The sad thing is in the long view, many of us started off there, as seekers, as people who were invited to church, to socials to Christmas services and so on. We came to faith through the witness of the Christian community, but somehow we have become infected by what has been called churchianity, where the church – what we stand for, how we think people should behave, how we want things to stay, all that has become the rules that we live by, replacing or strangling the relationship we should be living by – a relationship with God in Christ, a saving relationship.
Now to my mind the way to shake the burden of that idol off our shoulders is to look outside the church – no one could fail to be moved by the stuff Becky shared with us about Uganda, or the stuff we hear from Ukraine, Romania and India – but just as we are blessed to hear the testimony of those who come to faith, let us resolve to keep our faith as fresh and new as those people we hear about.

By engaging with those who do not yet know Jesus, we gain an understanding – or in my case a reminder, of what it is like to live like that. Moses had to plead with God for the Israelites, and I’ve spent a fait bit of time recently pleading with God for the people of this Christian community and those whom he has chosen who are currently beyond it.
God is at work out there, and as we have been saying a fair amount recently, we need to look for what the Spirit is doing, and join in. If that means we have to take risks then that’s fine, in fact I’d say its more likely that we will coincide with the work of the kingdom if we are taking risks, and if it means we fail then that’s also OK as long as we get back up and keep going – let’s not forget Apple sacked Steve Jobs in 1980.

In the same speech in which Jobs said you have to find what you love – which reminds me by the way, we should do that because that’s what God did, that is the message of the parable of the lost sheep -  in that same speech to Stanford University graduating class in 2005, Jobs gave 2 other pieces of advice which are relevant to our situation. He said, “Stay hungry, and stay foolish”.

If we let our spiritual hunger, our desire to know God more intimately, to get deeper into his word and to walk in step with his Spirit, if we let that subside, we risk the creation of a golden calf, the idol of static faith that thinks it has got there, thinks it has arrived and got everything sorted. That’s when relationship with Jesus turns into relationship with rules.

And if we never want to appear foolish, if we are always going to play safe and keep ourselves to ourselves, we won’t be able to take the risks necessary to reach out from our comfort zone into the world we don’t know any more.

You’ve got to find what you love

Stay hungry

Stay foolish

For many are invited, but few are chosen.