Idols and Lies

Exodus 20:1–17; I Corinthians 1:18–25, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on March 10, 2024

I want to invite you into the process of “thickening” our ancestral story from Exodus. Let’s begin by setting the scene. The people of Israel have arrived at Mount Sinai “at the third new moon” after being liberated from slavery in Egypt. It was at this same holy mountain in the desert wilderness that God first appeared to the young shepherd Moses as a fiery presence, blazing in a bush. God spoke out of the fire, commanding Moses to confront Pharoah, the King of Egypt, with God’s demand: “Let my people go!” And God said that once the people were set free, Moses should bring them back to Mount Sinai to meet God. So, today’s story represents a full circle moment. God has enveloped the mountain with fire and smoke, thunder, and lightning. Out of a thick cloud comes a loud trumpet blast. The people have spent three days purifying themselves so that they can approach even the base of the holy mountain. And God has summoned Moses to come up and receive the commandments face to face, warning the people not to follow.

I believe this morning’s gathering words can frame our reading of the commandments in a helpful way. We could hear them as rules describing how to be “right.” Received as a cut-and-dried set of “dos” and “don’ts,” these laws become hard and trampled ground. They reinforce a rigid moral certainty that shields us from wrestling with our doubts, or with the contradictions and complexities of love. What if, instead, we read the commandments as an invitation into genuine relationship with God, a relationship that will dig up our world, like a mole, a plow, a relationship that will both unsettle us and liberate us?

As we explore our Lenten theme of ancestors, I’ve been thinking about oatmeal—which is my ancestral food. I say that because my ancestor, Ferdinand Schumacher, invented oatmeal and founded the company that eventually became Quaker Oats. Ferdinand came to Ohio as an immigrant from Germany. He was in the grocery business and carried oats in his store. Americans thought oats were only fit for horses to eat, and were put off by the long time required to cook whole oats. This dilemma spurred Ferdinand to invent the process of rolling oats, enabling them to cook more quickly and easily. When oatmeal proved popular, Ferdinand built a factory using waterpower from the Ohio Canal. Despite suffering a devastating fire, the business grew.

However, Ferdinand came into conflict with his own shareholders. They wanted to advertise, and he did not believe in advertising. They chose the “Quaker” emblem to represent their oatmeal despite the fact that they were not Quakers. Ferdinand felt that was dishonest. The end result of this conflict was that the shareholders took over the company and forced Ferdinand out. So, I see the “Quaker” emblem as a bit of an idol. Though I don’t share Ferdinand’s distrust of all advertising, the grinning Quaker has become a symbol for me of how capitalism drives us, collectively, to tell false, incomplete, destructive stories about who we are and why we’re here. And I also know that, despite my ancestor’s attempts to be “right” and “pure,” through his rejection of advertising (and his support for the temperance movement) that he was ultimately a driver of the process of industrialization. His life’s work contributed to the posture of exploitation that has led our world to the point of climate crisis. His story, unfolding in the late 1800s, is interwoven with the story of colonization that happened here, among wealthy families like the Pillsburys, whose money constructed our beautiful church building.

Sometimes I think about all this as I cook oatmeal (the regular oats, never the quick ones) with milk, vanilla, and salt. I prepare toppings of dried and fresh fruit, roasted nuts, brown sugar, and some more milk and I take a bite of that warm, sweet, salty, chewy, nourishing breakfast, and I feel my connection to something very deep and very complicated—gratitude and responsibility, love and grief and hope. I experience a similar mixture of feelings as we hear the ancestral voice of scripture, and as we celebrate this beautiful sanctuary with Brad’s awesome Rice Krispy church. In our Gaza study groups we discussed an episode of The Daily podcast that focuses on the foundational events of 1948—the formation of the state of Israel, the war with Arab neighbors and the displacement of Palestinian refugees. The podcast describes how the two sides have developed conflicting stories about this pivotal time, stories that have been reinforced and ritualized through generations. The problem is, neither story is complete or fully truthful. It’s an understandable dynamic, given that these narratives were formed out of traumatic experiences of injustice and oppression. And yet the function of these stories has been to make it impossible for the two parties to see each other’s humanity or chart a path forward. 

Somewhat to my own surprise, our theme of “ancestors” is causing me to focus on the “jealous” nature of God, as described by the author of Exodus. The God of the commandments is “our God.” And “our God” makes a claim on us. This God of our ancestors is alive, and responds in ever-creative ways to a changing world. This is a God whose holiness, whose otherness, constantly unsettles us, like a mountain on fire. I am hearing “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” as divine challenges to our too-thin stories about who we are and why we are here. I am receiving the commandments as a counter-narrative to the capitalist lies we have passed down as Gospel truth through so many generations.

The context of the people’s release from slavery is crucial. We are to keep Sabbath in emulation of God’s own identity as creator and liberator. The Sabbath rhythm keeps our work from being merely an idol, a tool of extraction. Honoring parents (or elders, or ancestors?) and avoiding coveting, along with the prohibitions of murder and theft all suggest to me that we do exist not for competition and scarcity, consumption and hoarding. We are here to live in just and loving community. Though I’d like to let go of the idea that God is actively “punishing children for the iniquity of parents” I think we can see that there are multi-generational consequences when we allow thin stories, idolatrous stories, stories that lie, to shape our lives.   

Friends, the call to us, in this season of Lent, is to turn again toward our God, the living God, to return to the God of holiness and otherness, and to allow this God to dig up our world so that new life can blossom. Amen.