Sunday, March 2, 2014
Text: Matthew 6:24-34
Fat Tuesday is nearly here with Ash Wednesday close on its heels. At the risk of dampening our Mardi Gras spirits prematurely—I’ll do that officially on Wednesday—I’m announcing our Lenten sermon theme now and giving you a little preview with this evening’s sermon.
As you know, we at Open Table don’t observe Lent with breast beating remorse. We don’t pay penance or give up guilty pleasure for 40 days to get back into God’s good graces. If we “give up” something for Lent this year, we might do so as part of an ecumenical effort to use less carbon fuels and thus be more caring of Mother Earth. If we give up meat, it might be out of concern for other creatures and our own good health. If we embark on a Lenten journey, we might walk a nontraditional path to the cross and beyond. So you won’t be surprised to hear that my sermonic emphasis this Lent may sound a little off-kilter. And here it is: I’m going to preach about giving up God for Lent—or more precisely, giving up a certain kind of God for Lent—or even more precisely, giving up certain kinds of gods for Lent.
The idea for the sermon series comes from one of those blogging pastors (does anyone not have their own blog these days?) who is spending this year trying out atheism in order to answer a question that recently stumped him: “What difference does God make in your life?” Maybe you’d have a ready answer for “What difference does God make in your life?” But pastor Ryan Bell needs to experiment with atheism this year in order to figure out that answer. He says he’s not (yet?) an atheist, but he’s going to try to live as if he is and see if his life is any different as a result.
I don’t find Bell’s quest shocking. Most pastors and most religious people probably experiment with atheism periodically. I succumb to practical atheism whenever I give up on hope or when I become convinced of my own self-sufficiency and live as if I don’t believe in God—which, for me, is about every other Thursday. Others may think I dabble in theoretical atheism when I don’t believe in the God they believe in. And I confess that at several points in my faith journey I have given up the God I used to believe in for the God I can believe in.
But I have always exchanged the God I Used To Believe In for another God—like an upgrade on my iPhone for an improved way of connecting, learning, evolving.
Have you ever given up God? Or given up some version of God you’d inherited but needed to let go of before you could connect with a more authentic God?
This Lent, I’m going to suggest there may be ideas about God you might want to replace, that your current God, like your current iPhone, might be upgraded. It can be a pain to upgrade. You have to learn how to operate differently. You might lose some folks in your contacts list. But you’ll be better equipped to move into the future if you do.
Today, as we conclude our study of the Sermon on the Mount, I’m suggesting that we have sometimes been “operating” with the God of the prosperity gospel. But the Jesus we encounter in Matthew’s Gospel isn’t preaching the Prosperity Gospel and seems to be leading us away from the God who promises success and wealth and toward another God—whom we may see more clearly when our Lenten journey takes us all the way to the cross.
Now the prosperity God is a hard one to give up. You know how some spiritual overachievers give up chocolate, bread, coffee, and wine for Lent while others sacrifice only Brussels sprouts? Giving up the Prosperity God will not be for the folks who can only give up Brussels sprouts. Religions that guarantee ultimate rewards in heaven have great appeal. Religions that promise immediate rewards in this life are even more alluring. “Send in money to my television ministry, and your cancer will be cured.” “Pray and God will find a way for you to pay all your bills.” “Join our church and God will give your financial success (a promise maybe implied by the pastor’s big house and fine cars).” These voices say that God— the prosperity God—intends for you to prosper financially.
I understand the appeal. The Prosperity God is deeply embedded in American capitalism’s Gospel of bootstrap striving. But I don’t think the Prosperity Gospel appeals only to the needy or greedy. We’re enthrall to it because we have a deep need to believe in cause and effect—lest the universe become overwhelmingly unmanageable in our minds and hearts—to the point that we often confuse correlation with causation. But this over-reliance on causality (if we do X, then God/the Universe does Y) runs counter to spiritual truths about unfathomable mystery and our need for humility. We want to have more control over Life. And the Prosperity God becomes a power that I can manipulate and for whom I am the focus. That’s a powerful god—and a god worth worshiping if you believe what you need most is to be in control and look successful and have clear and simple answers to the big questions in life.
I gave up the Prosperity God for these reasons:
1) I can’t see much evidence that this God delivers consistently. “Name it and claim it,” some preach. Well, you know good folks who pray faithfully that their chronic illness will be healed or that a job that can pay the bills will come along—yet the illness or the debt remains. You know mean-as-snakes folks who are flourishing. This disconnect was observed as early as Job. I’m not minimizing the benefits of having a positive attitude as we attempt new things and persistent amidst challenges. I’m not denying the power of prayer, though I’d like to nuance that statement if I had time. But I can’t believe in the God who bestows special favors on those offering the right prayers or patronizing the right preachers. The purveyors of this grace-less Gospel have a self-interest in selling it to the desperate.
2) I also gave up the Prosperity God after seeing in the Bible conflicting evidence about this God. Sure, the Prosperity God sometimes seems to make an appearance in scriptures, as when YHWH’s promise to Abram of land and descendants is contingent on the circumcision of those descendants (Gen. 17). I can see how prosperity preachers find enough scriptures to make their case that if you do this, God will bless you. And that God has favorites God selects to bless. I see where they get this. But in Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, God especially loves the poor and lowly and persecuted—but blesses them not with wealth and power and prestige—but with mercy and a role to play in ushering the upside down kingdom of God. Today’s text explicitly says the God of Money and the God of Jesus are antithetical. You can’t love both God and Money. And the way to please God is to care less about appearances (what clothes you wear) because it’s all about trusting God to care for you. The wildflowers in the field are our spiritual model—not televangelists hawking their wares.
3) Finally, I found it easy to give up the prosperity God because I just don’t think I like this tit-for-tat God who plays favorites, and I don’t think this God will make me and my world better. The Success God will lead me—will lead our congregation—into frenzy and striving and smugness and self-centeredness. Here’s what will bring us healing and hope, love and lightness of being, according to Jesus:
- Knowing there’s far more to life than the food we put in our stomachs and the clothes we hang on our bodies.
- Watching the freedom loving birds of the air, careless in the care of God, and learning from them.
Not being so preoccupied with getting that we can’t respond to God’s giving.
- Relaxing into the present moment. As we will do now, appreciating each new breath. Pause.
- Oh, I know. Our congregation isn’t strongly influenced by the popular versions of the prosperity Gospel. You may be thinking I should have preached this sermon elsewhere. But there’s a subtler Prosperity Gospel that might snare progressives. There’s a slightly disguised prosperity God to whom I do sometimes pay homage. It’s the Prosperity God who says it’s all up to me. And I must do it today. And if I do it and do it now, the Universe will be set to rights.
So again and again I come here to join you as we realign our skewed priorities before the God of grace. I will worship the God who spoke quaintly these words to the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich:
“All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
This is what the wild birds and wild flowers know. I have given up—and have to keep giving up—the Prosperity God in order to worship the God of Grace and Mystery, the God who is with me in times of deep suffering, the God who holds the people I love even when their minds and bodies are not healing, the God who loves us even when we can’t love ourselves, the God Jesus loved and served.
PRAYER: God who adorns the lilies and feeds the ravens, we will do what we can to clothe and feed ourselves. But we know life is more. We give up now a need to control you and others and allow you to say to us as we try to hear, without fully understanding: All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well. Amen.