Shuck and Jive

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sermon: The Silence Beyond Idols

Here is today's sermon:

The Silence Beyond Idols
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
March 29th, 2009
Fifth Sunday In Lent
Surah 6:74-79

One thing I miss about Montana is the sky. It seems to stretch farther there than in most places. As it stretches the blue deepens in the day and the stars brighten at night. The sky stretched to its limits allows more stars to be seen. All of them loom larger and brighter than they do in most places.

I miss the Montana stars. I remember many nights lost in them. I wondered about them. The desire to somehow go to them was so strong that I often felt trapped on Earth. At other times I felt at peace. Amidst all the struggles of life and amidst all our limitations, the unlimited vastness of it all was in a sense, a comfort.

I think that I might have entered a career in theology because of the stars. While astronomy might be a more logical choice for a person who worries about the stars, I knew I couldn’t get there physically. Perhaps through theology I could get there metaphysically.

In any case, I have been acquainted with the night, a star gazer.

So I was delighted to find this story about Abraham contemplating the stars in the Qur’an. It is the story of Abraham’s spiritual awakening.

On one level, the story is a communication to the Prophet regarding the truth of monotheism over against the polytheism of his adversaries. The point of the story seems to be that Abraham, too, discovered the truth of monotheism as opposed to the polytheism of his time. In the Qur’an, Abraham tells his father, “"Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error."

In a similar way, Muhammad saw his father and his people in manifest error.

Monotheistic traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are suspicious of idols. To worship an idol is to mistake the created for the Creator. Theologian Paul Tillich talked about faith as the quest for the “ultimate concern.” In one of his dialogues, Tillich said:
“The object of ultimate concern has many names. And we call all what is not concerned with the truly ultimate — that is something finite but worshiped as ultimate — we call that idolatry.”
Tillich also adds:
“…the decisive thing is that even monotheism can be idolatrous, which means that the God of monotheism, the theistic god…can become an idol.”
We tend to worry about the speck in another’s eye, not seeing the beam in our own. I remember growing up and hearing and believing that Catholics were idol worshipers because they had statues of Mary and the saints and so forth. Likewise the many gods of the Hindu tradition were idols. I later realized that I misunderstood how those icons functioned. They were not idols. They were not ends in themselves but vehicles to the Mystery, the Ultimate Concern, beyond them.

We all make idols. We do this when we insist that our conception of God, our religion, our beliefs and so forth are ultimate. Spiritual awakening is the ongoing process of realizing that what we thought was ultimate is not ultimate. What we thought was permanent is temporary. What we thought was real is an illusion.

The story in the Qur’an of Abraham and the stars is larger than the movement from paganism or polytheism to monotheism, even though that may have been the historical situation in Muhammad’s time.

It is a story of spiritual awakening. It is a delightful story. Abraham is shown the stars and he says, “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, they are not it.” He contemplates the moon. “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, this is not it.” He feels the warmth of the sun. “This is it!” Then, “No, this is not it.”

Finally, he declares: "For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to Allah."

In other words, he commits himself to the task of “setting his face” toward that which is Ultimate, not temporary. He will not allow himself be satisfied with confusing his temporary conception of God with God. Abraham is thus a hero. The quest of the hero is to discover the Mystery beyond all description of Mystery. Or as Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God.”

This story in the Qur’an echoes another story about Abraham. It is found in the Book of Jubilees which was written about 100 years or so before Jesus and 700 years before Muhammed. In this story, Abraham sits all night watching the stars to see if they can tell him anything about the coming year.

In his intense contemplation, the text says, “a word came into his heart.”

What a wonderful phrase. That is the experience of insight. A word came into his heart and he comes to a realization that he doesn’t need to worry about it. “All are in the hand of the Lord” he concludes.

We aren’t told what that word was that came into his heart. Both the story in Jubilees and the Qur’an are wisely silent about the content. We just read the effects of it upon Abraham. Touched by the Mystery beyond words, addressed by the Sacred Silence beyond all the noise, Abraham submits.

Like Job, who wrestles, questions and demands, and finally, (finally!), the Holy One addresses him from the whirlwind and refuses to answer Job’s questions. But Job, is satisfied.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;

Nothing else is needed. He is given that rare, fleeting, yet searing glimpse of the Mystery. Job, too, submits. “I repent in dust and ashes.”

As I read these stories of the heroes who stay up all night….

Abraham who contemplates the stars until morning...

Job who refuses to be satisfied by conventional answers to suffering…

Jacob who wrestles with the angel and refuses to loosen his grip…

Thomas who demands to see the marks in Jesus’ hands and side…

Muhammad who waits for years in the cave for the word…

Hagar with her son Ishmael, cast out into the wilderness….

Mary, in the stable with her newborn, who ponders all these things in her heart…

All receive a word, but not an answer to their specific questions.

They are confronted ultimately, I think, with the Holy Silence, the presence of Mystery beyond words, beyond answers, and beyond their idols.

They are heroes because they don’t dismiss their questions. They don’t give up in asking.

You and I, too, have many questions. Through our own personal struggles with illness, with uncertainty, with grief, with loneliness, with limitations, with idols…

May we too discover a word that comes into our hearts.

A word that is not an answer, but instead a Presence.

The Presence of the Holy in whom we live and move and have our being.


  1. I love hearing that recording of the Muslim prayer in the sanctuary. It is the sound of reverence.

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  3. Another very fine sermon, and well-delivered!