Idols and Icons


A sermon preached on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost by the Very Reverend Tyler Doherty. A reflection on the difference between idols and icons and how God invites us to see the world.

“Idolatry” is one of those words that is likely in need of some unpacking and reimagining for it to be a true lively word for 21st century Christians. Think of all the ways “fornicators and idolators” has been used and abused in our contemporary discourse—from an explanation of the destruction of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to the AIDS crisis—it’s no wonder that many folks will tune out as soon as they hear that language and declare themselves done with organized religion and decide instead to be spiritual, but not religious. I want to make the claim, however, that idolatry remains a powerful theological concept that can illuminate a lot of our contemporary culture. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, I’d like to try to rehabilitate the idea of idolatry and show its continued relevance for our lives as 21st century Christians, people who are walking the way of love as the welcoming embrace of belovedness to all whom they meet.

So what is idolatry? Essentially, it’s worshipping the creation and not the creator. As Paul writes in the very beginning of his Letter to the Romans, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” Idolatry is really a way of seeing (or not-seeing) that sees the creation as independent from the Creator. Idolatry is process by which we sever the connection between the creation and the Creator and understand life and give it meaning in terms of the creation alone.

Let’s do a little thought experiment to demonstrate this. Say we are looking at a tree. If we see the tree and unconnected to its divine source that literally sustains it in every moment in a process of continuous creation, we tend to think that tree exists only in itself. It’s a hop, skip, and a jump to thinking of the tree as a mere natural resource in terms of “board feet of lumber”—something human beings can use, exploit, and profit from for our own selfish purposes. When we see according to the process of idolatry, our eye stops at the object, at the thing itself, and we see it as fodder for use.

Now, if we are seeing according the icon, according to the iconic process of perception, with the eye of the heart, we get a much different perspective emerging. Remember, when you pray with icons you pray through and not to an icon. An icon is a widow that opens onto God, that points, that gestures away from itself to its true source—the God of beauty, goodness, and truth. All experience is actually iconic. Everything is window that opens onto the vast, shining, illuminating source of everything that is—God. When we look at a tree as an icon, we don’t see with the eyes of profit, or the eyes of usefulness, or the eyes of manipulation and control. We see with the eye of love. We see how the tree participates in the life of God, how it reveals the Glory of God in its throwing of its branches into the blue sky, its leafing out in Spring, in its bearing of summer fruit, in the self-surrendering release of its golden yellow leaves to the scouring autumn winds.

That’s why you get all those curious verses in the Psalms that refer creation singing the praises of God—the sea roaring, the earth rejoicing, the fields exulting, the trees of the forest singing for joy. That’s all poetic language for a way of seeing that sees the creation as a window onto the creator, as an icon, as participating in the very life of God in whom we live and move and have our being.

So we have two ways of seeing, two ways of being in the world. One that sees in terms of use (the idol) and one that sees in terms of gift (the icon). And God’s deepest desire is that we become a people who live from giftedness. God’s deepest desire is for us to seek, name, and celebrate God’s loving presence in all people and all things. God’s deepest desire is for is to see and be in such a way that the “doors of perception are cleansed and we see things as they truly are, infinite,” to paraphrase William Blake.

This is why the people of Israel get in hot water time and again and why Hosea is accused of shall we say, “unfaithfulness.” Israel has taken what is secondary or tertiary and placed it at the top of its list as its matter of ultimate concern. Israel has taken wealth, power, prestige, and possessions and made them the most important thing. In the process, they’ve fallen into idolatry, they have forgotten the ground of Being from which all these things arise, and the result is a lack of justice, mercy, loving-kindness, and compassion towards the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the alien in the land. Worshipping the wrong thing—worshipping the creation instead of seeing its dependence on the creator—leads to a kind of death-dealing self-enclosure, a hard-heartedness that blinds us to God and to our neighbor. Idolatry, the inability to see each person as created in the image and likeness of God, as sheer gift, is what enables an entire city like Baltimore to be written off as crime-ridden and rat-infested. Idolatry, the inability to see each person as precious in God’s sight is what allows the shooter in Texas, motivated by idolizing “whiteness” to erase 20 people from the face of the earth.

The author of Colossians is reminding this nascent community of the same thing. The Colossians have tendency to be pretty wowed by all sorts of human knowledge and philosophies. They get entranced by visions and then start ranking who’s in and who’s out according to the acquisition of these visions. They get distracted by food and drink, observing festivals, new moons, and sabbaths. Now the problem is not with the food and drink, or festival, or new moons, of course. Again, it’s about the way of relating to those created things. It’s about whether we see with eye of idolatry or the eye of the icon. There is nothing wrong with food and drink (any Episcopalian can tell you that!). After all, God made it and declared it good! It’s when things like food and drink become ends in themselves, when they become the object of worship that we get into trouble.

Paul reminds the Colossians again and again that they are to give Christ first place in everything. To be rooted and built up in Him. To set their minds on him who is “above.” The old self to which Paul refers is the self that sees things in terms of their independence from God. The new self is the self that God in all things and all things in God. And notice, too, that when this new self comes to fruition that freedom is great result: “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! It’s the same as with the nation of Israel—seeing with the eye of the old self, the eye of use and idolatry leads to hard-heartedness towards our neighbor. Seeing with the eye of the new self, the self that is in Christ, that is rooted and grounded in his self-giving love, gives birth to a hierarchy-shattering freedom where there are no insiders or outsiders, those on the top or those on the bottom, clean or unclean.

And that’s what’s a little off with the fellow in our parable. He’s placed is personal comfort—his desire to relax, eat, drink, and be merry—above worshipping God. Again, it’s not the food and drink that is the problem, it’s the way we relate to them. In the old days before we said mass we used to say “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee” as we elevated the elements before the celebration of the Eucharist. It’s a powerful reminder of living from gift. Of seeing iconically. Of acknowledging that we don’t actually own anything that is not already God’s. That why the Eucharist is not just aa reenactment or pantomime of the last supper, but a way of seeing and being and in the world. We are Eucharistic animals called to live Eucharistically. We don’t “take” the Eucharist, we receive it as gift. And then we are called to live from that gift as gift to others. We do a profound bow at the end of the Eucharistic prayer in acknowledgement that Christ is really present in the elements, in acknowledgement that we see Christ there. But the call is to see Christ not just when sanctus bells ring, but always and everywhere—in the aspen tree’s leaves shaking in the hot summer breeze, in the face of the homeless seeking shade on the parking strip, in the hesitant stranger walking through the front doors of the Church for the first time, in Baltimore, Maryland, in faces of the slaughtered of innocents at a shopping mall in El Paso.

So the lesson of idolatry boils down to seeking true and lasting happiness in the only place it can really be found—in God. All the other places we look—power, prestige, possessions, pleasure—ultimately disappoint, but only 100% of time. It’s not that we’re bad people for looking in the wrong places. That’s part of the human condition, and why God came among us as our Savior Jesus Christ. The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus has shown us the right place to look. We look to Him who is all in all, and no place else but in the depths of the heart—free, unmerited, unearned, and waiting to be recognized, waiting to be welcomed.