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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving, 2010: Thanks for Less

Judges 18:14-26

Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, I was a fan of magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, not for their stories on how to repair the car or the washing machine, but because of the amazing future they declared we would all be living just around the corner. We would be living in expansive and inexpensive houses, powered by solar rays. Meals would be cooked, beds made, and the whole house cleaned by robots. To get to school, work, or play, we would choose whether to take our private helicopter, flying car, or personal jet pack. The workweek would only be about twenty hours long, and vacation time would be abundant. Cancer, heart disease, and bad breath would be eradicated, and we would live long and healthy lives. War would be banished, poverty eliminated. It was guaranteed: things would just keep getting better and better, forever.

So, when families gathered for sacred festivals like Thanksgiving, no matter what tragedies had occurred over the past year – the death of a loved one, a major accident or illness, the loss of a job, a bad year at school – we could always give thanks knowing that things would get better. The children would live in a better world than the parents, and the grandchildren would live in a safer, cleaner, richer, more wonderful world yet. Progress, said General Electric for us all, was our most important product. Thank you, Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t feel that way to me anymore. And as I listen to you and to other people much smarter and more insightful than I, that unshakeable faith in the unlimited progress of the human species, or of this particular corner of it, doesn’t seem to be very secure. Will we have secure retirements? Will the air be breathable and the water drinkable? Will we be able to afford to be sick? Will there be work? Will there be a place for us to live in safety and comfort? Will our children be well educated? Fifty years ago, those were rhetorical questions. Today they are frighteningly real. Tomorrow, when we gather around the Thanksgiving table with our loved ones, we may be giving thanks not for more, but for less than we had a year or more ago. In a culture which defined the American Dream as a better and brighter future for all those who worked hard and kept the faith, how do we give thanks when things may be worse?

In the seventeenth and eighteenth chapter of the Book of Judges, there is a largely unknown story about a man named Micah. He stole eleven hundred pieces of silver from his mother, but then, repentant, returned them to her. Mom was so delighted that she had some of the silver made into an idol, which she gave to Micah. Micah built a shrine in his house for the idol and hired his own personal priest to live in the house and offer daily sacrifice to the idol. “Now I know the Lord will prosper me,” exclaimed Micah, “because the Levite has become my priest.” Micah’s future was so bright he needed to wear sunglasses (which he probably bought with some of the leftover stolen money).

Well, the tribe of Dan had not been given its own territory when Canaan was being divided up, so they sent out a scouting party, followed by an army of six hundred men to look for some real estate. The scouting party came to Micah’s house, and returned to the army to report:
Then the five men who had gone to spy out the land (that is, Laish) said to their comrades, ‘Do you know that in these buildings there are an ephod, teraphim, and an idol of cast metal? Now therefore consider what you will do.’ So they turned in that direction and came to the house of the young Levite, at the home of Micah, and greeted him. While the six hundred men of the Danites, armed with their weapons of war, stood by the entrance of the gate, the five men who had gone to spy out the land proceeded to enter and take the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim. The priest was standing by the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men armed with weapons of war. When the men went into Micah’s house and took the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim, the priest said to them, ‘What are you doing?’ They said to him, ‘Keep quiet! Put your hand over your mouth, and come with us, and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one person, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?’ Then the priest accepted the offer. He took the ephod, the teraphim, and the idol, and went along with the people.
So they resumed their journey, putting the little ones, the livestock, and the goods in front of them. When they were some distance from the home of Micah, the men who were in the houses near Micah’s house were called out, and they overtook the Danites. They shouted to the Danites, who turned around and said to Micah, ‘What is the matter that you come with such a company?’ He replied, ‘You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? How then can you ask me, “What is the matter?” ’ And the Danites said to him, ‘You had better not let your voice be heard among us or else hot-tempered fellows will attack you, and you will lose your life and the lives of your household.’ Then the Danites went on their way. When Micah saw that they were too strong for him, he turned and went back to his home.[1]

The Danites took Micah’s god, his priest, and the sacred vestments for the priest. His life, which had seemed to be on a path to unlimited prosperity and bliss, had been destroyed. When the Danites asked him what his problem was, he wailed You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? David Baily Harned writes

It is unfortunate that Micah is robbed of all that matters to him. But it is more unfortunate that nothing matters to Micah except the things of which he is robbed.[2] 

 All the men of Micah’s village formed a posse to chase down six hundred Danite warriors and help Micah recover the idol, the sacred vestments, and the chaplain he was keeping stashed for private use in his house. Surrounded by friends and family members, neighbors and strangers who have offered their very lives for Micah’s sake, Micah can only whine that without his personal idol and priest, his life is ruined and he has nothing left.

The tragedy, Harned continues, is not that Micah has lost his gods but that he has forgotten his neighbors, not that he has been robbed of his religion but that his religion has robbed him of (people).[3]

Perhaps we, like Micah, have been robbed by the Danites of Wall Street and Washington and Richmond, seeking to enlarge their territory at our expense. Perhaps we have been looted by the tribes of cancer and aging and ignorance, by fears concocted and fanned by smirking buffoons clothed as media pundits. But Micah’s real enemy is not the Danites: all they can take is what was never real to begin with. Micah’s nemesis is his own misplaced faith, which allows him to worship a private deity through a priest at his command, without any obligation or responsibility to anyone other than himself. Micah’s religion is about Micah and his personal prosperity, regardless of whatever happens around him.

If anyone is less thankful this Thanksgiving than before, then they, like Micah, have been robbed by a false idol. But you and I are here tonight because we have not sworn allegiance to a private idol made of precious metal, but to a Savior who calls us out of our isolation and into sacred community. We worship a Messiah who calls us to a cross, not to prosperity. We follow a Master who surrendered his own life for the salvation even of those who crucified him.

Yes, these are hard times, and they may not get easier. Yes, pain and illness and unemployment are absolutely real. But look around: tonight the whole village has turned out to fight the Danites with us. No tribe, no angel or principality, nor life nor death nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all Creation can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord. And not only has Jesus given himself to us, he has given us each other. No raiding party from Dan or from Wall Street or from the depths of hell can change that.

So when your idols have been stolen, or when they turn to the dust they always are, look around you and see what can never be taken away. And when your friend, your neighbor, or even your enemy stands in the dust, wailing that all that gave them life and hope and meaning has been taken away, do not you leave them. Stand with them and call them home, like the neighbors of Laish, like the father of the prodigal son, and like Jesus.

[1] Judges 18:14-26, New Revised Standard Version
[2] Harned, David Baily, The Ambiguity of Religion, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1968, p. 10
[3] Ibid., p. 10

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