It is well known that every single person on our planet has a god. All people from Christians, Jews and Muslims to Indigenous Animists, Agnostics and Atheists, each one has a god. For whatever it is that one trusts in, whatever they look toward as a reliable and dependable source of identity, security and meaning in their life is their god. They may not use that term, they may not call their social status or their wealth or their relative happiness, their god, but that is what it is, and I believe it is a good term for it. And it turns out that mankind is quite good at making and endless number of gods for our lives. Which is why the first commandment is so jarring. “You shall have no other gods before me.” All the other gods of our own creation come to an end when faced with the one true God. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the divine trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit will tolerate no other gods to stand in His presence.
And so, our gods come and go. The old gods are often repackaged and rebranded and sold to us in ways that we find clever and informative. So, we will find that the new gods of our post-Covid world aren’t really all that new. They are just the ones that seem most important and useful to our lives in this moment. Part of our job here tonight, part of what we ought to be doing as Christians is exposing these false gods, not just for our sakes but for the sake of our neighbor. For even if you are ready to dispatch the latest trending manmade god, it doesn’t mean that your friends and family will be able to do the same.
It turns out that the Covid-19 pandemic was the perfect situation for our god making desires to really get things rolling. The threat of a fast-spreading deadly virus brought to light our desire to put our trust in someone or something outside of ourselves. Though we didn’t want to admit it, our lack of control over our world was brought to light. Mankind went into a frenzy to find something that would give our lives the foundation and framework necessary to press on. We needed something or several things that would provide a sense of identity, a sense of security, and a sense of meaning. And the one thing that really claimed its spot in the limelight was the whole discussion and idea of safety.
Safety has become a popular god these days. And rightly so, after all it is a god that demands love and compassion, a god that seeks to care for our neighbor. A god that can be called upon equally by worrisome grandmothers as well as government bureaucrats. It is a simple god that offers proven results for obedience. If you are safe, if you practice safe things, if safety is your driving concern why then you will save lives. And what sort of monster wouldn’t want to save lives?
One of the difficult realities of the pandemic was that it rendered most of us passive. I loved the memes that would show a scene from The Walking Dead on one side and a picture of an overweight guys eating Cheetos on his couch in torn gray sweatpants on the other. And the words would say, “The pandemic we wanted vs. the pandemic we got.” There was no call for boldness no plea for charging into battle and winning the day. No, we were to stay home and stay safe. Safety moved ever so slowly from something that most people value in their lives to a virtue that we all ought to strive to achieve. Of course, we want to live in safe homes and drive safe cars but do we really aspire to live safe lives? I don’t know about you, but I think this is a strange virtue for us to rally around. In fact, the classic virtues seem to stand somewhat opposed to it. Think how different wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice are from safety. But safety is precisely what people began to identify themselves with. It grounded them during the pandemic. A friend of mine told me just recently about a conversation he had with someone he hadn’t seen for almost 13 months and as they were catching up, she asked him, “So did you and your family get sick, or did you stay safe?” There was no other option, you either got Covid-19 or you were safe. Safety is a good and gentle god after all.
And while the god of safety gives us some identity where it really shines is in providing security for our lives. By knowing what places and people are safe and which are not we are able to build for ourselves some structure for how to organize our lives. And security was what people seemed to cherish more than anything else. The big question about worship was no longer if it was faithful or true or inspiring or even engaging to the curious observer, no all anyone wanted to know was if it was safe. Here at Grace, we simply stopped speaking about the safety. I remember telling one very concerned member that having church indoors probably wasn’t all that safe. Singing was going to be safe either, celebrating communion certainly wasn’t safe and that common cup, why that was a recipe for disaster. But our concern, our focus wasn’t about being safe. But without the promise and elevation of safety many felt they simply couldn’t participate.
Aspiring to safety fills people lives with a specific purpose. The god of safety clearly provides a sense of identity for us, and it excels in leading us toward security, but it also provides many people with meaning in their daily activities. It may not be a bold or courageous thing, but safety has the unique ability to elevate the most mundane task to a noble endeavor. Acts of love were redefined by separation and distance. Not visiting grandma, not gathering with friends, not going to church were all works of faithful service. Being safe was what society needed, it is what our culture demanded and so it dominated our conversations and understanding of good and faithful actions.
But surely there is more to the living of our lives than beings safe. Certainly, the church ought not be driven by allegiance to what is safe, but rather what is good and right and salutary. I think we would do well to recall C.S. Lewis words in his famous book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is an easily overlooked conversation between the children and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver talking about Aslan, who, if you don’t know, is the Christ-figure in Lewis’ work. It goes like this:
“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Bests? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!’ said Susan, “I’d thought he was man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Our God is good, and he is faithful and just but that doesn’t make him safe. In fact, it would be easy to show how the call of discipleship is anything but safe. Perhaps in our life, here in America the faith looks safe and so safety makes sense as an ally to the true faith. But throughout history this hasn’t been the case. Many of the faithful became martyrs, confessing Christ was anything but safe. To follow Christ is to bear a across not search out safety. To find our identity, security and meaning in the god of safety is a delusion we choose to believe because we think we can control it, and by controlling this god we can control our destiny in this age.
But the god’s that we create always fail when brought before the true God. St. Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) You’ve died and risen in Christ your Lord. You have a new life, a life that can love your neighbor, a life that can practice compassion for the broken and hurting, you can even form a sanctuary of sorts for those who await the return of the King. But it is time to stop pretending like any of this will be safe.