The Church of Sheila

On March 2, the folks in Crafton Heights braved the blizzard…er, dust-up of 2014 and gathered to sit around one of the more unfortunate passages in the book of Judges, the story of Micah and his priest.  Our texts for the day included Judges 17 and 2 Peter 1:16-21.

“Everybody should believe in something,” W.C. Fields is credited with saying, “and I believe I’ll have another drink.”  While there’s no evidence that the old comic actually said that, it’s a clever line and lends itself to whatever you want… “Everybody should believe in something, and I believe I’ll have more coffee…”, or “I believe I’ll go fishing…”, or “I believe I’ll turn on the game…”  It’s cute, and illustrates that what we believe shapes our actions.

Of course, everyone does believe in something.  To be human is to believe. Each and every person ever to walk this planet has looked at something or someone and said, “Yes, this thing or this person is worth my trust and my acknowledgement.  I will regard this person.  I will honor this thing.”  To be human is to look at something and say, “Yes, that is Truth with a capital ‘T’”.

I know, sometimes – especially in church – we talk about people as being “believers” or “unbelievers”, but that’s really just shorthand for saying that someone “believes what I believe” or they don’t.  We all believe in something.  It just gets complicated when we get to talking about what or who is worth giving our lives to.

It’s been suggested that the dominant belief in the United States is a faith that might be called “Sheilaism.”  Nearly twenty years ago, a team of researchers published Habits of the Heart, the results of a massive five-year study on American communities and values.  One of the most intriguing insights of the book came in the chapter on religion. A young nurse named Sheila Larson was asked about her faith, and she said, “I believe in God.  I’m not a religious fanatic.  I can’t remember the last time I went to church.  My faith has carried me a long way.  It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” When she was asked to describe the elements of Sheilaism, she said “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

If that sounds a little extreme, then you should know that a Gallup poll indicated that 80% of Americans agreed with this statement: “An individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.”  Sheilaism is then, perhaps, the most popular religion in America.

But we didn’t invent it – not by a long shot.  In fact, as we continue our study of Judges, we see the same phenomenon.  When we left Judges last month, we said goodbye to the last of the true “Judges” in the book: Samson. I hope that some of you remember that cycle of Judges that we used so often, where the people are obedient, and then they leave God’s best for them, and are placed in a situation where they suffer, and then they cry out for God and a deliverer or a “judge” comes to save them and help them to be faithful, until they leave God’s best for them and… The reality is that that cycle has finally broken down.  For the rest of this book, it’s just people leaving God’s best.  There is no crying out, no deliverance, no restoration.  It is a description of how things are.  Spoiler alert: things are not good.  Let’s look at the text.

There was a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah. And he said to his mother, “The eleven hundred pieces of silver which were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse, and also spoke it in my ears, behold, the silver is with me; I took it.” And his mother said, “Blessed be my son by the Lord.” And he restored the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother; and his mother said, “I consecrate the silver to the Lord from my hand for my son, to make a graven image and a molten image; now therefore I will restore it to you.” So when he restored the money to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver, and gave it to the silversmith, who made it into a graven image and a molten image; and it was in the house of Micah. And the man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and teraphim, and installed one of his sons, who became his priest. (Judges 17:1-5, RSV)

OK, in the words of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem.”  Let’s just look at all the things that are wrong with the lead-in to Micah’s story:

It starts out as a burglary report.  Mom is missing 1100 pieces of silver.  It turns out that her son has taken it.  Instead of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, she excuses his behavior and offers him a formal blessing, and promises to give all of the silver to the Lord.  However, she takes 1/6 of the silver and melts it down into an idol, and Micah and his family start to worship that as their god.

In the first five verses of this story, Micah and his mother manage to violate at least six, if not seven of the ten commandments.  So far as I can see, there is no adultery or murder in this passage and there’s no record of them having broken the Sabbath…but everything else? Lying, stealing, idol worship, failing to honor one’s parents, graven images, taking the Lord’s name in vain, and probably coveting…it’s an ethical train wreck here.  How did we get to this place in “the Promised Land”, where God would be with us?  Verse 6 of chapter 17:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6, RSV)

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a theme that has grown more and more pronounced as we have walked through the book of Judges.  Here is Micah, 3000 years before the sociologists meet Sheila Larson, living into the truth of her core belief: we all get to decide what is right and wrong for us.  There is no higher standard or greater truth.

How does that look for Micah and his family?  Listen for the rest of Judges 17:

Now there was a young man of Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite; and he sojourned there. And the man departed from the town of Bethlehem in Judah, to live where he could find a place; and as he journeyed, he came to the hill country of Ephraim to the house of Micah. And Micah said to him, “From where do you come?” And he said to him, “I am a Levite of Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to sojourn where I may find a place.” And Micah said to him, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, and a suit of apparel, and your living.” And the Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man became to him like one of his sons. And Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah. Then Micah said, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest.” (Judges 17:7-13, RSV)

Micah and the Levite Worship the Idol (Artist unknown, 14th century)

Micah and the Levite Worship the Idol (Artist unknown, 14th century)

Isn’t this great?  Micah has his own god, made of silver that he stole from his mother and then she gave back to him, and now he finds his own priest!  He hires a young man, gives him a $300 suit, an apartment, and a salary. Micah tells the man that he wants him to be like “a father and a priest” – in other words, that he wants to be led and guided by this young man’s wisdom, but in reality, he treats the Levite like a son, and comes to believe that because he has his own little priest in his own little chapel that he’ll be blessed.  The problem, of course, is that he has his own little god, too.  He’s not worshiping the creator, there’s no mention of YHWH, the God of the covenant.  He has tamed and domesticated the One who brought his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land and instead, is worshiping some shiny metal and doing whatever he wants to do.

That comes back to bite him in the rear end in chapter 18, where a group of men from the tribe of Dan are on the move and they hear about Micah’s idol.  They steal the idol, and they make his priest a better offer and hire him away from Micah, and proceed to invade the town of Laish, a village beyond the boundaries of the territory that God had given to Israel.  Judges 18:27 describes Laish as “a people quiet and unsuspecting” who the Danites murdered before they burnt down the city and built their own right on top of the ruins.  There was no help for the people of Laish – no deliverer – because everyone was doing what was right in his or her own eyes.  Look at what is happening here: God’s people are going outside of God’s best and subjecting strangers to the terror that they themselves had survived.  “There was no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes…”

It is horrible.  And it happens again and again and again.  Amazing Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, a more recent study of American culture, found the same thing: that given half a chance, we tend to shape religion to suit our own lives and desires, rather than expecting our faith to shape and discipline our lives and desires.  This study reveals that in the last fifty years, Americans would rather change their religious views in order to fit with what they perceive to be politically and financially true than change their political or financial behavior so that it reflects what their religion might expect from them.

For instance, this more recent study found that politically liberal people tend to believe that religion is for those who are conservative, and so many liberals have stopped going to worship because even though they believe in God, they feel like it is compromising their politics.  What shocked me even more was the increase in the number of people who identified as political conservatives who think that “the right thing to do” is to go to church, synagogue, or mosque, even when one doesn’t believe in God.

We live in a time and place where people find it easy to worship what we find convenient and leave the other stuff aside.

Author Timothy Keller puts it this way:

The real issue…is the desire to shape and revise God…We filter out (consciously or unconsciously) things about God that our hearts can’t accept.  In some ways this is the main sin of our time.  How often have you heard someone say: I don’t believe in a God like that – I like to think of God as…?  … We, like Micah’s family, are reshaping God to fit our society and hearts instead of letting God reshape our hearts and society.

American_Idolatry_revisedOuch.

How do we go about the business of being faithful to the God who IS, rather than the God we wish there was?  I think that the reading from 2 Peter has some help for us today.

Jesus MAFA, Art in the Christian Tradition.  Used by Permission.  www.jesusmafa.com

Jesus MAFA, Art in the Christian Tradition. Used by Permission. http://www.jesusmafa.com

First, we must not only allow, but expect the Word of God to be intrusive – to walk into all the corners of our lives, boldly, and point us somewhere.  The author of this letter points back to the transfiguration on the mountain top, when their little picnic with Jesus was interrupted by a voice declaring Jesus to be the Son of God.  They may have met him as a carpenter or a schoolmate, but the voice of the Lord burst in on that reality and said, “Pay attention to him!”  The first disciples – and we ourselves, if you think about it – have been “eyewitnesses to his majesty”.  We’ve seen Truth – but sometimes find it difficult to allow that Truth to filter into and at times, disrupt our lives.

That leads to the second insight from 2 Peter, namely that this Truth is not, primarily, a matter of personal interpretation.  As Peter says, “We have the prophetic message.”  We know the Bible.  Now we have to wrestle with it and allow it to shape our lives.  We have to be open to it, and, as Peter says, allow that light to shine into the dark places of our lives. Will we always agree on what it says or how to apply it?  Not likely.  But we have to realize that none of us has the right to say that “this is my own truth”.  We need each other to continue to help us explore and navigate these waters in order that the Truth might be increasingly apparent to us and visible in our lives.

And how do we do that?  But coming together and considering this word humbly and in community.  Peter indicates that we’ve received the truth – and now we’ve got to figure out what this truth looks like in the world in which we live – and then we’ve got to live it out so that those around us can see and know it.  The only way to do this is to assemble and ask God to help us, together, to be able to grow in understanding his word, not just expressing our own opinions.

Everybody has to believe in something.  And I believe that I need the scripture, the church, and the Holy Spirit to tell me who I am.  Otherwise, I might wind up like old Micah, with a home-made temple dedicated to a shiny god following a pretend priest paid for with stolen money and offering false hope.  I can’t go there.

And, thanks be to God, he doesn’t want me – or us – to go there. So let us follow this voice, however falteringly, in the confidence that God’s Spirit will give us the light that we need at the time we need it in the places where it’s necessary.  Amen.

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