[Jesus said] “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
- Matthew 6:24
As we saw last time, the idols that have infiltrated our faith are falling left and right under the stress and changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. We looked at the falicy of thinking “it can’t happen to me” or “that only happens to ___ people”. With that we tore down the idol of modern medicine and the belief that there’s a pill for whatever ails you. We also looked at the changes in family dynamics as children did school from home and the family was “cooped up” for months on end and the grandparents and other extended family couldn’t be visited. This time we’ll look at a couple more idols removed from their thrones by a microscopic virus.
When Covid-19 first landed on our shores in a few nursing homes in the Seattle area, very few thought it would spread with such rapidity throughout the country. By the middle of March, stay at home orders were issued with fines and penalties for non-compliance. Restaurants, clothing stores, malls, parks, and all manner of places for doing business were shut down overnight. Back then we were told it would only be for 14 days to “flatten the curve”, but that two weeks turned into two months and now it looks like there will be business restrictions for a year or more. Do you remember the last movie you saw in a cinema? The last live show / concert?
Suddenly those who build their lives around their work found their most important measure of self (and self worth) were floundering. It’s not just the economic impact of closed businesses that show them to be an idol, it’s how they affect our attitudes and identities. If I thought of myself first and foremost as a __(insert vocation here)___, and then that business was shuttered by the government, my sense of self is shaken and needs to be reexamined. Who am I if I’m not working in a particular field? Am I really not an essential worker?
Of course there is the financial side of it too. The government stepped in with
stimulus checks, loan forbearance, increased unemployment benefits and the like, but all that doesn’t tackle the spiritual dimension of setting one’s vocation as one’s god. When I “fear, love, and trust in” my ability to earn an income that takes care of all my needs - what do I need God for? Maybe when I die and want to get to heaven, but He’s pretty irrelevant in my day to day life - until the idol falls. This idol of money and I must obey my master (making more $) is very pervasive in our land. Greed and discontent and jealousy over the fortunes of others (why do they get an extra $600 week while I have to work at minimum wage?) were suddenly revealed for the idols they are. When this idol was overthrown by Covid-19 it led to many other disruptions.
Yet we have known the dangers of putting money before God since Moses carried the two tablets of the Law down from Mt. Sinai. Jesus warns against the Canaanite god “Mammon” in the reading cited above. Paul instructs Timothy to be on guard as “the love of money is a root of all forms of evil” (I Tim. 6:10). Greed even made it to the list of 7 deadly sins in the middle ages. Yet this god shows no signs of going away anytime soon in our consumer driven, capitalistic society. Perhaps it’s a good thing to have runs on toilet paper and canned goods, to have one’s paycheck reduced to 60% of what one previously earned, and other means of “involuntary simplicity”. By doing this we see what is most important in life - and it’s not the pursuit of wealth. We come to see how we are reliant on God, not just for salvation and eternal life, but also for “our daily bread.” We have learned, reluctantly at first, that the really important things in life are things that money cannot buy. Maybe an economic downturn was just we as a society needed.
Related to this is a personal idol, and idol I did not realize existed until it was pointed out at the Doxology retreat I attended in October. This idol remained firmly enthroned throughout the early days of the pandemic and demanded my offerings of love and devotion. The idol was myself. What hit me like a cannonball as worship was forbidden (or fined heavily if you gathered with more than 10 people) was the fact that Church and all it does to help people in times of crisis was deemed “Non-Essential” - yet liquor stores, racetracks, and strip clubs could remain operational. If the Church is not essential, then those who work in the church are deemed non essential employees. In short - I don’t matter to this culture. This sense of being non-essential was compounded by the fact that I was still working, but not getting paid (no offerings = no salary). We made sure every member of the congregation got a phone call every week or 10 days to see how they were weathering the Covid storm, but Michelle and I got zero phone calls to see how we were doing, even though she was a front line worker and I was a high risk candidate.
The demon of self-pity and self-loathing was firmly enthroned. I don’t know how many weeks or months I was stuck in this “funk” of “nothing you do matters to anyone.” When I received word that Pastor Merz was taking a call to Montana and Pastor Serina was leaving the same week for CTCR in St. Louis, I went back to my Lutheran Confessions and Walther and began to read again what the church is and what church work is all about. Then it hit me; It’s not about me, it never has been, it never shall be (world without end. Amen.?) All that matters is that the good news of new life in Christ Jesus is being boldly proclaimed - by Zoom or Facebook live if need be. How governor Murphy feels about this being essential or not is really quite irrelevant. How the culture, both within and outside of the church, receives this message is not my responsibility. My worth is not tied to how well received this Gospel is by others. All that matters is that I am, and ever shall be, a blood-bought child of God, saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Salaries, recognition, numbers online, all that stuff is just icing on the cupcake - they don’t really matter.
Perhaps a healthy dose of humility was called for, even if it is bitter medicine. When we turn inwards as individuals or as a congregation and forget the real task of which we get to take part, then maybe God steps in and uses these events like Covid-19 to get us to look outside of ourselves and to the salvation and well being of others. For all the damage; emotional, spiritual, economic, relational, physical, etc. that this pandemic caused, maybe God can still use it to make some good come of it. God truly works in mysterious ways if this is the case.
Now, the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects are not the only things that have happened in the last 7-8 months. There are a few other idols which have not been shown for what they are by this crisis, but are certainly toppling now. We’ll take a look at the idols of nature / eco-warriorism, social fabrics and race relations, and how God overthrows these idols as well in the next blog.
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.