17 September 2006

Sermon for 17 September 2006 - "Truly Prosperous"

When George Adams lost his job at an Ohio tile factory last October, the most practical thing he did, he thinks, was to go to a new church, even though he had to move his wife and four preteen boys to Conroe, a suburb of Houston, to do it. Conroe, you see, is not far from Lakewood, the home church of mega-pastor and best-selling author Joel Osteen. Osteen’s relentlessly upbeat television sermons had helped Adams, 49, get through the hard times, and now Adams was expecting the smiling, Texas-twanged 43-year-old to help boost him back toward success. And Osteen did. Inspired by the preacher’s insistence that one of God’s top priorities is to shower blessings on Christians in this lifetime – and by the corollary assumption that one of the worst things a person can do is to expect anything less – Adams marched into Gullo Ford in Conroe looking for work. He didn’t have entry-level aspirations: “God has showed me that he doesn’t want me to be a run-of-the-mill person,” he explains. He demanded to know what the dealership’s top salesmen made – and got the job. Banishing all doubt – “You can’t sell a $40,000-to-$50,000 car with menial thoughts” – Adams took four days to retail his first vehicle, a Ford F-150 Lariat with leather interior. He knew that many fellow salesmen don’t notch their first score until their second week. “Right now, I’m above average!” he exclaims. “It’s a new day God has given me! I’m on my way to a six-figure income!” The sales commission will help with this month’s rent, but Adams hates renting. Once that six-figure income has been rolling in for a while, he will buy his dream house: “Twenty-five acres,” he says. “And three bedrooms. We’re going to have a schoolhouse (his children are home-schooled). We want horses and ponies for the boys, so a horse barn. And a pond. And maybe some cattle.”

“I’m dreaming big – because all of heaven is dreaming big,” Adams continues. “Jesus died for our sins. That was the best gift God could give us. But we have something else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do what he ordained, God wants to support us. It’s Joel Osteen’s ministry that told me. Why would an awesome and mighty God want anything less for his children?”[1]

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, our mouths can speak blessings and curses, truth and lies, and we don’t always know which is which. Our lives on this Way of the Cross are filled with uncertainties and dangers. Be our stronghold in the midst of confusing times. Be our strength when we are weak. Be our truth when we believe lies. Be our blessing when all we see are curses. Save us from ourselves and set us, once again, on the Way of the Cross. Amen.

I just read the introduction to TIME magazine’s cover story last week. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a better example of the church asking the wrong questions of itself. Here are a few more quotes for your amusement:

Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.

Joyce Meyer

I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think God wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think God wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?

Joel Osteen
Note: the following sentence in the article read: “The room’s warm lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile shoes.”

But what does God want for us? What does Jesus want from us? There are real questions from genuine people of faith in all of this, and I don’t want to let my cynical view of the church and her sins cloud the issue. In today’s gospel reading, it’s obvious that Peter and the disciples were wrong about Jesus – if they were wrong, how are we going to know any better? If our fellow Christians think that following Jesus is about getting our desires fulfilled, who are we to insist on a different way? What IS God up to in all of this?

First, I think, Jesus shows us very powerfully that we are, indeed, approaching Him and His Father with the wrong ends in mind. Don Juel, a former professor at Luther seminary, says that this section of Mark’s gospel should be known as “The Way of the Cross,” because Jesus shows that the way of the Messiah is the way of the cross. For the first half of Mark’s gospel, people have been asking who this Jesus of Nazareth really is: now Jesus will show them. But people don’t quite understand. Like Peter, they see that there’s something of God in Jesus, enough that they think he is the Messiah, but they, and we, don’t understand what that means.

In the verses just prior to our reading today, Jesus heals a blind man twice. The first time Jesus heals him, his vision is restored, but he doesn’t know what he’s seeing. He says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” So Jesus clarifies his vision so that the blind man can see correctly. Brian Stoffregen says that “Peter's idea of a Messiah who suffers and dies is about the same as seeing trees walking -- it just doesn't any sense to him… One may see Jesus' miracles and hear his teaching and still come to the wrong conclusion about who he is and the source of his power. [2]

In the blind man’s partial sight, we see our own partial faith exposed. Why do we teach Sunday School and confirmation to our young people? Why do I ask for adults to come to Bible Study on Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights? Why do I go to retreats and conferences and listen to speakers when I can? Because none of us have the single, perfect, 100% clear picture of who Jesus is and what Jesus is about in our lives, that’s why. We need reflection, education and consideration about Jesus because we don't always understand Jesus on our own. And also we do it because all of us come to Jesus with our own agendas and purposes. Most of us are here this morning because we believe that God’s got something to give to us, which is certainly true, but all too often what we want from God is aimed at our own lives, at our own needs, at our own wants, and the minute Jesus starts talking about denial, sacrifice and crosses, we grow very uncomfortable and very, very worried about what Jesus might ask of us.

So the prosperity gospel sells. “Name It and Claim It” theology sucks in the people because it paints a picture of God that is exactly what we want: a heavenly vending machine. Plug in my faith and my offerings, and God will spit out the job I want, the dream home, the ponies and horse barns and nice Lexus and crocodile shoes. Or maybe here in Minnesota we’d just get the new snowmobile or the ATV or a new icehouse or mukluks. We’ve seen that God is good and that Jesus gives life, but we don’t see that the life Jesus offers isn’t drawn from the script of our dreams.

Marva Dawn once wrote about going to the World Council of Churches’ booth at a world’s fair, where the gospel was presented with flashing neon lights and a dazzling ‘show.’ She was horrified:

“If people are saved by a spectacular Christ,” she wrote, “will they find him in the fumbling of their own devotional life or in the humble services of local parishes where pastors and organists make mistakes? Will a glitzy portrayal of Christ nurture in new believers his character of willing suffering and sacrificial obedience? Will it create an awareness of the idolatries of our age and lead to repentance? And does a flashy, hard-rock sound track bring people to a Christ who calls us away from the world's superficiality to deeper reflection and meditation?[3]

It’s a hard thing, getting this partial view of God and mistaking our own preconceptions for the genuine thing. Peter made that mistake by claiming that the Messiah, God’s anointed one, could never suffer and die. All of the disciples made that mistake when they began to argue about who was the greatest among them. We make that mistake when we think that God’s business in this world is making sure that my desires are met, my politicians get elected, my bank account is stable, or my church gets enough in the offering plate to keep the lights on for one more month.

The Gospel’s power doesn’t come from meeting my needs or my dreams: the Gospel’s power comes from God reaching down into the world as it is and loving it through the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ. The Gospel’s power comes from the Holy Spirit filling people of faith where we are, not where we’d like to be. The Gospel’s power comes when God clarifies our vision, so that we see all of creation through the lens of the cross of Christ. The Gospel’s power comes when we reach that point where we realize that nothing, nothing, NOTHING in all of creation, can compare with the love of God in Jesus Christ. The Gospel’s power comes when our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our very lives are swallowed up in the cross, and we become like Jesus, pouring out our lives for the sake of the world. Rich or poor, young or old, Baptist or Lutheran, Democrat or Republican, American or Iraqi, none of that matters when the power of the Gospel takes hold: we are simply Jesus’ followers, whatever the future may bring. Now we see clearly that God wants only one thing for us: to believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and to follow Him wherever He leads.

Professor Juel wrote,

“Taking up your cross should be seen less as a project than as the character of discipleship. We follow because we trust that God will complete what [God] has begun at our baptism…and if our vocation is to care for the neighbor, Luther insisted, we will not need to seek out suffering. It will come routinely, as any parent will attest…Following Jesus will not involve a cross of our choosing – and it promises deliverance that is likewise not the result of any grand project.”[4]

Is this a prosperity theology? Yes and no. No, it is not a prosperity theology for ourselves. We don’t take up a cross to receive a reward at some point in the future. But the cross we bear will be a cross that will cause our faith to prosper and grow, and that’s been the point all along. Yes, God wants us to be rich: rich in generosity, rich in service, rich in love, rich in compassion, rich in joy, rich in prayer, rich in faith. These are the riches that God promises to the faithful, and this is the prosperous life of those who follow Jesus. May God bless you with all of this and more for your own bearing of the cross. Amen.

[1] “Does God Want You To Be Rich?” Van Biema, David and Chu, Jeff. TIME magazine, September 18, 2006, Vol. 168, No. 12. © 2006, Time, Inc. pp. 48-56

[3] Dawn, Marva. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, © 19??, Dunno Press. p. 50

[4] Juel, Donald. Word & World, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer 1994. © Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. p. 354

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points. It really makes you wonder how anyone can read the Gospels and come away with the "gospel of prosperity."