For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.  I Timothy 2:5

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.  St. Luke 16:13
ONE:  A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on September 19, 2010, by the Rev. Christopher L. Webber

It’s dangerous doctrine you’ve been hearing this morning. Dangerous the way atomic power is dangerous; dangerous the way brain surgery is dangerous. It’s a life-giving gift but easily misused and then disastrous.

There is one God.

That seems like such a simple, obvious statement but there’s no convincing evidence that any human beings ever figured it out on their own.  And I wonder, can we think our way back to the way human beings saw the world in the beginning of human history?  What would the world seem like to you, if you had never been to school and no one had given you guidance? How would you answer the basic questions?  Where does the sun come from each morning? What makes the rain fall — or not fall?  What is the breath that shows we’re alive? Why do the crops grow better some years than others and sometimes hardly at all?

The world is a place full of mysteries and human beings are creatures that look for explanations. And it’s clear that there are powers beyond us that control the sun and rain and crops and that we need to understand those powers to work with them, to get them on our side.  It’s natural for human beings to begin to talk about these powers as gods, personified powers that shape our lives. It’s natural for human beings to be polytheistic, to have many gods, and I think many of us still do. I mean, there is no more basic piece of folk-wisdom that “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” But that’s what monotheism asks of us. Don’t put your trust in money or insurance policies or the President of the United States; don’t worship success or security or put your priorities on family or friends; don’t pretend to worship one God if worshiping one God is less important to you than playing games on Sunday morning or sleeping in or if you make decisions for your convenience rather than out of a love for God and neighbor.

I’m not sure any of us can really claim to be monotheistic, to worship one God and one God only, always.  No wonder we complain so constantly about how complicated our lives are, how many pressures we have to deal with, the conflicts we’re always caught in. Monotheists don’t have that problem.  For them, it’s simple. As the second reading says, “There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind.” Just one.  One to worship.  One to obey. One to serve.  One to honor.  Just one.  Simple. And we know it.

We know it. It’s hard to balance conflicting claims on our time, our money, our minds. Jesus said it in today’s gospel.  “No one can serve two masters.” We’re just not smart enough, strong enough, wise enough, to balance it out and we wind up torn and troubled and lacking the peace we know we want and never seem to find except perhaps in those rare times maybe on a Sunday morning, maybe at the end of a long day when we kneel in prayer, and we remember that there is one God, only one, and that one God is there for us.

But we are instinctive polytheists, pagans, worshippers at many shrines: children, work, family, relaxation, sports, shopping, food, and not to forget it, Self – the chief god in our pantheon.  And all these gods require sacrifices, but all of them give us little rewards also to keep us coming and worshiping.  We can imagine, dimly, what it might be like to simplify, to worship only one God, subordinate all these other claims to God’s claim, but mostly we can’t quite bring ourselves to do it.  But that’s not what’s dangerous.

What’s dangerous is what happens when people do become monotheists, when people do get tired of the constant conflicts between these competing gods and give their lives completely to one. I read a book not long ago called “The Battle for God” by Karen Armstrong. It’s a survey of the growing fundamentalist movements in Islam, and Christianity, and Judaism. Within all three of the great monotheistic traditions there appeared over the last century and a half leaders, thinkers, who took God’s claim on their lives with total seriousness: if there is one God then there is also one solution to everything, one way of living that makes a total claim on our lives and nothing else matters.  It’s that way of thinking that flies airplanes into office buildings, that fills a truck witrh explosivves and drives it up to a check point and blows it up, that straps a belt of explosives around the waist and walks into a school in Russia or a restaurant in Israel or maybe one day a New York City subway train and pushes a button to blow it up.

But it’s also that way of thinking that says if you don’t see it my way, you aren’t patriotic, that has no room for another point of view; that sees President Obama as a dangerous fanatic or John McCain as too willing to compromise, that refuses to go to church with someone who thinks differently about sexuality, that would rather divide than unite, that wants life to be clear and simple even if it isn’t.

That’s why I say monotheism is a dangerous doctrine: it may be true – I think it is – but in the hands of people who are afraid or left out or insecure it becomes a weapon of mass destruction: a way of feeling good about yourself by feeling bad about everyone else, or at least everyone who doesn’t see things in the same exact way you see them.  And when others continue to see things differently, then they need to be destroyed. This kind of monotheism is at work in Islamic terrorism, in Jewish resistance to peace agreements,  and in American politics which has seldom been so angrily polarized  as it is today.

So we have a choice it would seem between a life torn apart by conflicting claims or blown up by a single claim, between a pointless polytheism that gives life no focus or purpose or meaning and a maniacal monotheism that would destroy the world in order to save it.  Isn’t this why we have a cross as the symbol of our faith? Don’t we need to come back again and again to our call as followers of Jesus, who, the Bible tells us, “When he was abused, (he) did not return abuse; when he suffered, (he) did not threaten . . .” (I Peter 2:323) Christianity is not about dominating others, controlling others, having our own way. It’s about giving control to a God we can trust completely to accomplish God’s purpose in God’s way in God’s time. It’s a monotheism that doesn’t put God at the center because God is already there but allows God to be the center by not substituting our will. It’s a monotheism that truly believes it is God’s world and therefore can let God work and be confident that God is able. The terrorists and religious and political fundamentalists are basically insecure, frightened of a world of change, unable to relax and let God be in charge. And that’s not true monotheism, maybe it could be called paranoid monotheism, obsessive monotheism, and the tragedy is that it takes the simplicity of monotheism, the gift of simplicity, and tries to destroy the beautiful diversity that can flourish within simplicity and reduce it all to the dull gray conformity that keeps reappearing as Nazism or Communism or whatever kind of fundamentalism it is that allows no room for the spirit, that tolerates no freedom to explore and grow – as if we knew better than God what the world should be like.

But if God is truly God, there will always be one or two things that we don’t quite understand and there will be need to be room to tolerate the ones who don’t quite get it, who might even possibly be us. And that really is simple: simpler than blowing ourselves up, simpler than denouncing others as unpatriotic or unAmerican, simpler than dividing Christian churches over sexual differences, simpler than letting our lives be torn apart by conflicting claims: simple: as simple as serving one master – as Jesus said in today’s Gospel – serving one Master instead of two or three or a thousand, as simple as not demanding instant solutions but instead letting God nourish in us the kind of compassion and mercy and forgiveness that Jesus showed us both by his living and by his dying, and which this world still needs more than anything else.

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