Year B Lent 3: Superstitions and the first commandment

The rest of the sermon:

God spoke these words: I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol … you shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God… (Exodus 20, extract)

The writers who reported this commandment to us were not describing people who prefer to play than to pray; and they were not talking about making idols out of our addictions. No; according to the commentaries:

“It was not self-evident to people in OT times that there was only one God; the demand to worship only one God had to struggle against a polytheism which to many people seemed more natural, reflecting the complexity and unpredictability of the world.” (Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford: OUP, 2001, p. 81)

So do we really need to be reminded still to worship one God, and one God only, forsaking all others?

I posted this week on facebook a request for people’s “favourite” superstitions. The results could be divided roughly into three types:

1. Beliefs that portents or signs in nature tell us something about the way that the world is working. Examples include the “red sky at night” rhymes, which forecast the weather, and one from a friend and mentor, “a green Christmas means a full graveyard,” predicting the effects of a mild winter on the spread of viruses and other maladies. These are less superstitions than “folk wisdom,” with their basis in observation and extrapolation, they aim simply to inform and warn.

2. Beliefs and practices that promote good luck, sometimes by capitalizing on good fortune already achieved, sometimes by buying luck: finding a four-leaf clover or picking up a penny; wearing inside-out pyjamas for a snow day; winning the wishbone, or throwing a coin in a wishing well. I don’t for the life of me know how getting bird poop on you ever became lucky!

3. Beliefs and practices that ward off evil or malign influence: avoiding certain numbers; holding breath when passing a graveyard to keep out ghosts; touching wood to avoid “tempting fate” when relating good news; avoiding stepping on the cracks in the pavement in case of breaking one’s mother’s back (or, in some rare cases, jumping on them!); throwing slipped salt over the left shoulder. Other evil portents – frogs in the house, magpies, black cats – simply bear witness to the malignancy of the powers that be that are already in effect.

There are also a few fond beliefs that, to my mind, seem to come out of common sense practice: if you walk under a ladder, you undertake a certain amount of risk that something/one will fall on you. And if you break a mirror, you will probably be picking up broken glass for at least seven years.

The fullest category, at least anecdotally, seems to be the third: warding off evil or malign influences. How far away really is that from an ancient practice of mollifying, courting or appeasing the polytheistic gods?

Does it matter, or it is it an indication that we have yet fully to trust that “the Lord your God” is the one, the true, the living God who holds all things in the hands that created them, and loves all that those hands have made?

The online dictionary at merriam-webster.com defines “superstition” as

a) belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or b) a false conception of causation an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition.

That definition has some slightly derogatory tones, and I really don’t wish anyone offence here, but I did notice that, put together, the two aspects of this definition came surprisingly close to describing a polytheistic belief map in which certain forces or gods were to be propitiated out of fear, and some to be courted to provoke magical good luck.

Our actions not only reflect but reinforce our beliefs. If we make God a talisman, we can lose him. If we make a polished idol, it may tarnish. If we look for God only in omens, we might miss  or misinterpret the signs. When we act out of fear, we create for ourselves a false idol of God, one based in fear instead of love. We end up believing that bad things happen to us because we angered God – even that we bring misfortune upon those we love by angering a touchy and prickly god. A mother sits in the hospital grieving over her sick infant, searching her guilty soul for the trigger, the infraction or infringement which she committed which caused God to afflict that baby, when the gospel tells us that God loves us so much that God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, was willing to die to bring us back to God. Our God is a jealous God, not in the petty sense of lashing out when things don’t go well in the relationship, but because God has a passion for us, God loves us steadfastly and single-mindedly, because we were made for God.

It is true that the commandments talk about punishment. They contain consequences. But the promise far outweighs the warning. Love God, the commandments say, and God’s steadfast love will be felt for a thousand generations. Love God, and you will not steal, or murder, or deceive one another; love God, and you will love your neighbour.

Luther’s Small Catechism is a great guide to the commandments because Luther understood all of the commandments as flowing from this first: to love God.  So he explained the commandment regarding murder:

“We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].”

And the commandments regarding theft and false witness:

“We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business [that his means are preserved and his condition is improved].”

And

“We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” (http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php#tencommandments)

So, love God, because life is better that way. Love God, because God is jealous for you, passionate about you, loving you through the ages; and that love will lead to into righteous acts towards those around you, building up the community of the faithful and spreading the steadfast love of God to all of God’s children.

The Psalmist writes in beautiful poetry, that one day tells its tale to another. Our worship of God has consequences beyond ourselves, and our own generations. If we worship idols, acting out of primal fears of the old gods, our children and our children’s children learn that worship from us, and they continue in fear of bad luck and vengeance. But if we worship the one, true and living God in faith and love, then our worship joins that of the heavens, and its tale is told from one day to the next, for one hundred and seventy-five years, for a thousand generations, forever.

As Lent continues, perhaps we might spend a little of our reflection time taking an audit of our helpful and unhelpful beliefs and devotions. What seeds are we sowing for the future? Do we tell the tale of the old gods of the polytheistic days, or do we sing the gospel song of the heavens, declaring the glory of God? Which story do we want to pass on to generations yet unborn, to the next hundred and seventy-five years of St Andrew’s?

 

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