Reformation 4: Theology of the Cross

Reformation 4: Theology of the Cross, October 22, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2, Psalm 9:7-18, Mark 15:33-39

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

So there was this centurion, a Roman soldier, one of many occupying Jerusalem.  Like all the Roman soldiers, he was there to do what the Romans called “maintaining order,” but which really mean keeping the boot on the neck of the Jews so that they would never get any funny ideas about freedom or anything like that.  His job was to protect Roman interests, keep their puppet Herod on the throne despite how much his own people hated him, and kill anyone who protested the established order.

One of the people he killed, or helped to kill, was a guy named Jesus of Nazareth.  Now, Jesus had the rare distinction of being counted a threat to both the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities.  And he was crucified, which was about the cruelest way the Roman Empire knew how to kill someone.  It was gruesome, bloody, and horrifying, and it took a long time.  Days, sometimes, if the so-called criminal was really healthy to begin with.  Jesus died in just a few hours.  And the centurion was there for every bloody, agonizing minute of it.  Just as he’d been there for the executions of other bandits, freedom-fighters, protestors, and anyone else who dared to oppose Rome.  And the centurion, he looks up at the mutilated corpse of this backwater preacher who was executed for the crime of daring to speak out against the way the world works, and this centurion says, “Truly, this man was God’s son!”

Really?  We know he was right, of course, but be honest with yourself: if you didn’t already know that that’s how Jesus died, if you had been there on that day two thousand years ago and been told “somewhere in this crowd is God made flesh and come to live among us,” would you pick the criminal who was brutally executed for disturbing the peace as the one?  Really?  I don’t think so.  Very few people, then or now, agreed with him.  I mean, the vast majority of both Jews and Gentiles for the next several centuries looked at Christians and said, “you want me to believe that God came to earth and suffered?  He died?  How weak is that.”  It makes no sense.  The cross of Christ was a stumbling block and a foolishness to most people.  And even after Christianity became the dominant religion, most Christians never stop to think what it really means that Jesus died on a cross.  We talk about the power of God, the might of God, but not the weakness of God.  Not the pain of God.

There’s a saying that Americans love an underdog, but that’s only partially true.  We like winners.  If an underdog wins, great!  That makes their victory all the sweeter.  But it’s a general human trait to be attracted to power, to justify power, to assume that power and glory and beauty means goodness.  We want stories in which the good guys win.  We want stories in which bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people … and so, in real life, when bad things happen to someone we try and find some reason they deserved it.  Especially if they’re poor, or different than us.  We want to believe that what happened to them could never happen to us because we are good people and we don’t deserve bad things.  We want to rejoice in the star quarterback’s skills, we don’t want to hear about how he beats his girlfriend.  We want to look up to that prosperous businessman, we don’t want to hear about how he cheated his partners or his customers or his contractors, and we don’t want to hear how he abused his employees.  We want to support and honor our police officers, not hear about the bad apples who use their power to bully and hurt people.  We want to hear stories in which everybody sees evil for what it is, good triumphs over evil, and evil gets its just deserts.  We don’t want stories where the bad guys lose, and we especially don’t want stories where most people don’t even recognize evil for what it is.  Yet that’s the story of Jesus’ death: a good man challenges evil where he finds it, and gets roundly condemned by most people around him, and gets killed, and the empire that put him to death goes on about its way unchanged and victorious for centuries afterwards.

As Christians, this is something that’s very hard to come to terms with.  Our savior—God made flesh—was not a hero.  He didn’t have a heroic Hollywood victory.  He died in pain and agony.  And that’s what God came to earth to do.  He came to earth in the last place anybody would think to look.  He didn’t choose to be born as a prince, and he didn’t choose to amass earthly power or wealth.  In fact, when he talked about power or wealth, he was pretty much always critical of it and of the people who had it.  He didn’t raise an army, he didn’t create a new government, he didn’t make a big splash—only a handful of people in the entire world remembered him when he was gone, although he transformed their lives and their telling of his story transformed others.  All the glory, all the wealth and power and control of society, all of that came later.  What came first, was death.  Death on the cross.

Our God comes to us in the form of a crucified man, a man who suffered and died.  God could have become human anywhere in any place and time, and he chose to be born as a poor man and get killed?  What does that tell us about God?

Well, it tells us that the best place to find God is in the last place a sane person would look.  In pain and suffering.  The cross is God saying “no” to power, “no” to wealth, “no” to greed, “no” to ambition.  The cross is God saying “you know all those things you humans care about and worship?  All the glory and feel-good self-justification?  They’re all wrong.”  The cross is God taking the established order, the way we think the world is meant to be, and turning everything on its head.

The cross is God saying “yes” to all those who are abandoned and abused.  God says yes to the suffering of Jesus in the crucifixion, and so God says yes to those who are suffering now.  God will be present when you suffer.  God goes to places of hell on earth, the places where we are afraid to go, even the hells we create for ourselves, and sets us free.  And if, in that moment, freedom or physical salvation is not possible, God stays there, in the midst of suffering and evil.  It’s not that it’s okay that people suffer, but that God will not abandon those who do.

When we focus on the cross, when we remember that God is always with those who suffer, those whom the world abandons, it changes our perspective on God, and it changes our perspective on the world.  When you focus on the cross, on the God who is present even in the most hellish experiences the world has to offer, we call that a theology of the cross.  When you forget that, when you focus on power and glory and miracles and all the nice lies we tell ourselves about bad things only happening to bad people, that’s called a theology of glory.  And Martin Luther used to say that the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross is that a theology of glory calls evil ‘good’ and it good ‘evil.’  A theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Let me give you an example of the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross, and what they look like in practice.  Let’s go back to that centurion at the beginning.  The Roman Empire had a theology of glory.  See, the Roman Empire was big and powerful and mighty, and the Roman Empire enforced a peace across its boundaries, the Pax Romana.  It was prosperous: it built great buildings and great engineering products, it brought water to cities in the desert, it did so many great and wonderful things.  The Emperor was called the “savior of the world.”  They put that on their money: Caesar, Savior.  That’s a theology of glory, to look at all the wonderful things they did and focus only on the good.  A theology of the cross looks at that and asks the question: how did they accomplish all of it?  And they answer is death and destruction and slavery.  They established peace by slaughtering anyone who disagreed with them, and they built all of that stuff with slave labor.  They had more slaves per capita than any society in the world until the 19th Century of the American South.  A theology of Glory looks at the peace and the beautiful surface and goes “wow, isn’t that great.”  A Theology of the Cross looks at the cost, all the lives shattered and destroyed to build that empire.

Or how about Nazi Germany. In the 1930s and 40s, most Christians in Germany supported Hitler.  Sure, he had a lot of hate-filled rhetoric, and sure, he established concentration camps where millions of people were slaughtered, but at the same time he was in favor of good, old-fashioned family values.  Honoring your parents, women staying at home.  He was very hard on people of different sexualities.  So Christians looked at him and said, “he’s a great guy, it doesn’t matter all the people who are dying because of his policies.  It doesn’t matter, the people getting marched away to concentration camps, because look at the nice society he is building.”  That’s a theology of glory.  A theology of the cross says all of those “family values” are worth nothing if they are built on the bones of the slaughtered.

Or how about the American Civil Rights era?  Many white people, including many white Christians, were absolutely against the Civil Rights marchers.  They were too disruptive, too much of a threat to the established civil society.  Even those who said “but they’ve got a good point!  They’ve been treated unjustly,” said “but they’re too militant about it, they’re too loud, they’re disrupting things.  They should be quiet and ask nicely and politely for the rights and privileges that have been denied them for centuries.”

Or how about the movie last year called Birth of a Nation, about an enslaved Baptist preacher named Nat Turner who led a slave revolt in the early 1800s.  Now, if you watch many movies about the antebellum South or listen to people today talk about the Confederacy or Southern history, you will probably hear a lot about their proud heritage, the valiant and brave fighters like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and states’ rights.  You probably will not hear much about the so-called ‘right’ they fought to protect, which was the right to own their fellow human beings.  Or they’ll admit it, but dance around it, or try and mitigate how bad it was.  This is a theology of glory, focusing on the glamour while ignoring the cost.  A theology of the cross reminds us that you can’t just ignore evil because it’s accomplishing things or done by people you otherwise admire.  In contrast to these other stories we tell of a glorious south, the 2016 movie Birth of a Nation shows in graphic detail just what slavery was like, how degrading and evil it was to black people, how it twisted and warped even good white people.  You cannot watch that movie and keep any illusions about slave-owning society.

And there is a question that keeps getting asked throughout that movie, at each horror.  Each time a black woman is raped by her owner, people ask: “Where is God?”  When slaves are tortured in horrifying ways to force them to work or to keep them from running away, people ask: “Where is God?”  When Nat is punished for baptizing a white man, people ask: “Where is God?”  When slave-owning Christians use the Christian faith to try and convince their slaves that God wants them to quietly accept as good all the evil that their masters do to them, people ask: “Where is God?”  And the movie’s answer to this question is twofold: first, that what happens is absolutely not God’s will.  None of the suffering, none of the pain, none of the horrors, none of the slavery.  These things are evil, and they are absolutely not God’s will.  And second, where is God in all of this?  God is with those who are suffering.  Even though their cause is hopeless, even though they all die in the end, even though the bad guys win, God is with Nat and his family and friends every step of the way.

A theology of glory gets blinded by power and wealth and beauty and glory.  A theology of the cross looks at the world from the point of view of those who suffer, and sees the consequences of human sin.  A theology of glory calls good ‘evil’ and evil ‘good,’ while a theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.  A theology of glory accepts Human justifications, while a theology of the cross sees the world from God’s point of view.  In every society, in every age, there is always a temptation to a theology of glory.  It makes sense to us.  It’s easier.  But it ignores God’s wisdom and presence in the world.  It ignores God’s will, and it ignores those who suffer.  A theology of the cross looks for God even in the darkest places.  A theology of the cross acknowledges the evil that humans do to one another, even when it’s people we otherwise might look up to.  A theology of the cross knows that God is there even when people suffer.  May we always see the world through God’s eyes, and through the perspective of the cross.  May we reach out to those who suffer, to see their pain and heal their wounds.


A Labor Day sermon on power, kingdoms, and crosses

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 22, September 3, 2017

Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.


When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, one of the things he taught them to pray for was that God’s kingdom might come to earth, and that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Christians around the world pray that prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, regularly. At least once a week on Sunday, and a lot of people pray it at least once a day.  I do; maybe some of you do, as well.  But here’s the question I have, each and every time I read a Bible passage about God’s kingdom, or discipleship, or what it means to follow Jesus: do we really mean it?  Do we really want to be disciples?  Do we really want God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?  Or are we like Peter, who, when he heard the cost, said “God forbid it, Lord!”  Because there is a cost.  And that cost is the cross.

It is important to remember that this life, this world, is NOT God’s kingdom yet.  God’s will is NOT done here on earth the way it is in heaven … yet.  When you’ve got a comfortable life, it can be easy to forget that.  When you’ve got a nice house, a nice job, a nice family, a nice life, when you and the people you love are generally safe, it’s really easy to look around at the world and go, “yes, heaven must be pretty much like this—there are a few improvements that could be made, here and there, and oh, won’t it be nice when I can see my dead grandparents again, but on the whole, things are great.”  It’s easy to get contented with the world as it is, instead of yearning for and working for God’s kingdom to come.

Even when our lives aren’t that great, when things go wrong one after the other, when no matter how hard we work, things just go wrong, it’s easy to get in a rut.  To tell ourselves, “yeah, there’s a lot of problems with the world, but things could be worse, and anyway I’m too busy and there’s nothing I can do about it right now.”  Particularly when we realize how much it can hurt to try to change things—when we see whistleblowers go to jail or lose friends and jobs for trying to do the right thing, when we see good people standing up for what’s right and getting attacked verbally and physically, when we see all the ways the world and our society work to break those who try to make a difference for the better, it’s easy to say, “you know, the world is what it is, and things could be worse, and trying to make a difference is awfully hard.”  And so we just kind of accept things as they are, or see the problems but don’t actually do anything about them because we know how hard it is going to be.

Even Jesus was tempted not to act for God’s kingdom.  Three times, he was temped.  The devil came to him just after his baptism, offering him the world on a plate if he would just follow Satan instead of God.  It would have been a heck of a lot easier to change things than dying on a cross.  Then, here, Peter hears what’s coming, the suffering and death, and tries to convince Jesus not to go down that road.  And Jesus says, “Get behind me, tempter!”  That’s what “satan” means, by the way, “tempter.”  If Jesus wasn’t tempted, if it didn’t look really good to just … not go down that road God set before him, he wouldn’t have had any reason to get upset here.  But he does.  Then, again, the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prays to God to ask him for some other way.  Any other way.  Even right up to the night before his death, Jesus felt that temptation to take the easy path.  To walk away.  Jesus knows how hard it’s going to be, he knows it’s going to be worth it in the end, and if there were an easier way to bring God’s kingdom here to earth he would have taken it in a heartbeat.  Even knowing there is no other way, Jesus is tempted to turn aside.  Because God’s kingdom is a wonderful, awesome, perfect, holy place … and the only way to transform the world into a place that God’s kingdom can come to involves a lot of pain, a lot of sacrifice.

The problem is power.  Who gets it, and who doesn’t.  See, a lot of human beings love power, and wealth.  We are always trying to tip the world in our own favor … even if that means cheating someone else.  And once we’ve rigged the rules in our own favor, we don’t even see that we’ve done it.  They’ve done this experiment where they have people play board games, and one player in each game will be randomly assigned to have different rules that only apply to them which make it easier to win.  Nine times out of ten, by the end of the game, those randomly selected people will be explaining why it is good and fair and right that they get those special rules, and how their win was because of their skill and hard work and not the special rules, and why anyone who says otherwise is just a bad loser.  And if you then take away that special rule favoring them, they’ll be absolutely sure that they have been cheated out of something they deserve, even when all that’s happened is that the playing field is now level.  In real life, thousands of studies show that even today, black people in America get treated far worse than white people, on average.  Yet there are a lot of white people who will point to any black person who manages to succeed anyway and say that they are proof that it’s black people who have the advantage.  It’s the same with money.  The more of it you have, the easier it is to get more … and the less likely you are to see how much of your success came from the fact that you had more to start with.

We take things that are fair and try to tilt them in our favor.  Take Labor Day.  It used to be that poor people worked sunup to sundown every day but Sunday—and a lot of them worked Sundays, too, with only enough time off to go to church.  In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the labor movement set up a day where everything would be closed so that the poorest Americans could relax and spend a day with their families.  Yet today, a lot of stores and hotels and places are open on Labor Day, so that people can go on vacation.  And who does most of the work on labor day?  The janitors, hotel maids, and retail workers, the poorest laborers in America.  The day that was set aside so that even they could take time off is now a day they almost always have to work, so that other people who are more likely to get vacations can enjoy another one.  Our world is deeply unfair.  Even here in America, where we work hard for freedom and equality, race and class and money rig the world so that some people have more resources and opportunity than other people will ever have.

And this has consequences.  Who gets stuck in an abusive relationship because they don’t have the money to escape?  Who goes to jail because they can’t afford bail, and who gets off with a slap on the wrist?  Who dies from a preventable disease because they can’t afford to go to the doctor, and who tries to make sure their taxes get lowered even if it means others die from lack of health care?  Who gets hated because of their race, class, religion, or sexuality, and who uses that hate to get elected?  These are all human things.  The desire for power, the desire for wealth, the desire for popularity, the desire to be the king of the hill.  The desire to gain the world.  These are all human things, not divine things.

God sees the world very differently.  God loves each and every one of us, of every class and tribe and race and religion and gender and sexuality.  No matter what we do, no matter how we hurt ourselves and one another, God loves us.  But God also sees through all of our self-justifications.  We may hurt or marginalize others for the sake of our own gain and convince ourselves that we are right to do so, but God sees the truth.  We may harden our hearts to the pain and suffering of others, but God does not.  And in God’s kingdom, the only one who has power and glory and might is the one person guaranteed never to misuse that power: God himself.  In God’s kingdom, there is no one who is rich at another’s expense, and there is no one who is poor.  In God’s kingdom, the rules never favor one person over another, one class over another, one race over another, one gender over another.  In God’s kingdom, nobody is ever exploited or abused.  In God’s kingdom, nobody is ever hurt.

God’s kingdom is a wonderful place.  But if God’s kingdom is going to come here, as Jesus taught us to pray that it will, the first thing that has to happen is that we have to put power where it belongs: with God.  Not with governments, or Wall Street, or corporations, or groups of people, or even with churches.  With God.  For God’s kingdom to come, people are going to have to stand up wherever we see power being abused, wherever we see the playing field being tilted, wherever injustice or hate or fear or pain creep in, and say something about it.

This is why a lot of people didn’t like Jesus.  He was a threat to the established religious order of things, but he was also a threat to the established social order of things, a threat to the established economic and political orders, too.  Jesus welcomed everyone and ate with everyone and healed everyone and taught everyone—but he also pointed out every bit of hypocrisy and injustice he saw, especially in those with power.  That made him a threat, and they killed him for it.  And people haven’t gotten any fonder of that sort of thing now than they were in Jesus’ day.

That’s part of what following Jesus means.  It’s part of what taking up your cross means.  It means doing the things that aren’t fun or easy, the things that may get you into trouble, if that is what God calls you to do.  It means pointing out the injustices in the world, the places where power and greed have warped things.  May we pick up our crosses, and follow God’s call wherever it leads.



Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jeremiah 32:1-9, 36-41

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah was not a very popular guy.  Do you know the story of Cassandra, from Greek mythology, the woman who was doomed to prophesy disaster and not be believed?  Jeremiah was the Cassandra of the Old Testament.  When all the other prophets in Judah (particularly those paid by the government) were predicting that Judah would defeat the mighty Babylonian army that was attacking them, Jeremiah said the opposite.  Even though the Judeans were God’s people, the Babylonians were going to conquer their tiny kingdom.  And Jeremiah refused to be bought off, and he refused to be silenced, and that’s why the king had him locked up at the beginning of today’s lesson.  When everyone else was turning themselves inside out to pretend things were going just fine, Jeremiah pointed out the obvious.  When everyone else was singing hymns to the glory of the Kingdom of Judah and insisting that since they were God’s people nothing bad could ever happen to them, Jeremiah pointed out the ugly truth.  They weren’t acting like God’s people, and bad things could and did happen to them.  And what was going to happen to them—being conquered by Babylon and deported into exile—was going to happen whether they believed it or not.  The only choice they had was whether they were going to let it take them by surprise, unprepared, or instead let God help them prepare for the trials ahead.

They didn’t want to hear what Jeremiah was saying.  They would rather follow false prophets who told them comforting lies.  So King Zedekiah, the ruler of Judah and the man who had ordered Jeremiah to be locked up, came to Jeremiah, and asked him why he insisted on prophesying that the Babylonians were going to win.  The answer may seem obvious: Jeremiah was a true prophet, and that’s what God had told him to say.  And I’m sure Jeremiah had told him that before, but apparently King Zedekiah had a hard time believing that God would allow anything bad to happen to God’s people.

Have you ever felt like Zedekiah?  Like you couldn’t believe something bad was happening, and so you’d rather keep you head in the sand than face it?  A man with his head buried in the sand.We laugh at the image of a guy with his head buried in the sand like an ostrich, but only because we’re looking at it from the outside—we’re not in that guy’s head pretending that everything is fine and if he can’t see the problems they don’t exist.  I know there have been times in my life when I’ve tried to pretend that everything was okay, as if wishing things would turn out fine would make it happen.  It’s hard to face unpleasant realities.  But pretending that everything is fine doesn’t make it true; and that’s as much the case today as it was two and a half thousand years ago when the Babylonian army sat right outside the Jerusalem city wall.  Jeremiah could have told King Zedekiah that.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he told King Zedekiah about a piece of property he’d just bought.

Property?  With the enemy at the gates, Jeremiah bought land?  And why tell that to the king?  I think it has to do with why we have trouble facing unpleasant truths.  I know when I don’t want to face the truth, it’s usually because I think it’s hopeless—that there’s nothing to be done.  I sometimes hide from the truth because it makes me feel like God has abandoned me, or no longer cares for me.  And there have been times in my life where I’ve hidden from the truth because I didn’t want to admit what I had done wrong.  I don’t want to see the truth because I can’t see a way forward.

But you know what?  Whether they were in exile or in Babylon or home in Jerusalem, God was with them.  Just as God is with us no matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter what happens to us.  By telling Jeremiah to buy that property, God was telling him—and the people of Judah—that there was a future, that God would be with them, that the dark times wouldn’t last forever.  God was telling them that there was something they could do: they could follow God.  There was hope for the future, but that hope could only come through facing their problems and trusting God to guide them through.  God was telling them that the promises he had made them—to be their God and to give them land—were still just as true in that time of trouble as they had been in times of safety and security.

God has made promises to us, too.  God’s promises come to us through Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  In this broken, sinful world there will be times of trial, times when the world seems to be coming apart around us, times when it’s hard to face what’s coming.  Just as God never abandoned the people of Judah, God will never abandon us.  God loves us so much that he gave his only son to die for our sake.  God loves us so much that he is willing to take our burdens on himself, and redeem us from our brokenness, and make us whole.  God will always be our God, even when we stray from the paths he has laid out for us.  And God will always be with us to guide us back home to him.  God will never draw back from doing good to us, in the midst of our brokenness.  In the midst of our darkness, there is light, and hope.  And that light comes from the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.


God is not a vending machine: the problem with the prosperity gospel

Oh Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?

–Janis Joplin

This song was written to be a satire on the materialistic culture of America.  Like all satires, it’s funny because it’s true: we do pray to God for that ‘Mercedes-Benz,’ whatever that may be for us.  There is a widespread belief that in the “prosperity Gospel”: if God loves you, you will be healthy and wealthy.  If you are spiritual enough, if you pray the right prayers, if you go to the right churches, if you have the right positive attitude, God will give you what material gifts you ask for.  And it makes sense–we all know people who self-sabotage, who assume the worst or prepare for the worst and through that very belief cause, in some sense, the worst to happen to them.  So if the opposite is true, that you can influence what happens to you by having a positive attitude, well, that seems fair.  And after all, didn’t Christ say “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).  It seems clear enough.  Decide what you want, trust in God, ask, and it’s yours.

A best-selling book was written about the Prayer of Jabez from 1 Chronicles 4:10, explaining how this one verse can lead you to a deeper spirituality that will result in material prosperity, as if God were a vending machine.  Put in the correct change (the right belief and the right attitude), make the correct selection (the right prayer) and the treat drops down into your hand.  Joel Osteen and other televangelists make similar claims, as do a wide variety of other spiritual figures from Conservative Christians to New Age gurus to business consultants and life coaches.  (And what does it say about our society that business consultants give spiritual advice?)  We all want a good, long, prosperous life.  God loves us and wants us to be happy, and has said he’ll take care of us.  Surely, putting the two together can’t be a bad thing?

But what happens when things go wrong?  What happens when we don’t get that Mercedes-Benz?  What happens when bad things happen–abuse, illness, injury, the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job?  If God rewards the right attitude, the right faith, and the right prayers with material prosperity, then the only explanation is a failure of the person in trouble.  Maybe they didn’t have a positive enough attitude.  Maybe they didn’t pray for the right things.  Maybe their faith wasn’t strong enough.  This is the fundamental problem with the prosperity gospel: during the darkest times of our lives, when we need the love and presence of our God the most, we are abandoned.

Now, I don’t mean to say that God actually leaves us, because he doesn’t.  But if we assume God only works through material prosperity and good fortune, if we assume that bad things are a sign that he is not with us, we will almost certainly blind ourselves to the ways that he is with us during times of trouble.  And then we have nothing to fall back on.  God is always with us, even if we can’t see him.  But if we can’t see or feel him, we feel as bereft as if he was truly absent.  I worked for a summer as chaplain in a mental facility, and one of the people living there was a woman with severe depression who had suffered many things in her life and so believed God was not with her.  However untrue that belief was, her anguish over the perceived abandonment was real.

But God does tell us “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8).  How do we interpret this if not through the lens of the prosperity gospel?  How do we pray to God and share with him our needs and concerns without assuming that if those needs and desires aren’t met, God has ignored us?  Let’s compare Jesus’ words in Matthew with those of James in his letter to the church:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

-James 4:2-3

Why do we ask for things?  How do we decide what we need, and how does that relate to God?  James points out that our attitude and our greed matter.  If we try to treat God like a cosmic vending machine, handing out treats on demand, we’re asking wrongly.  It’s not that pleasure is by itself bad, and it’s not that wealth itself is bad.  The problem comes when we allow our wants and desires and appetites to direct our thinking instead of our relationship with God.  If we’re focused on our own wealth and well-being, we’re probably ignoring both God and our neighbor.  James points out that selfish thinking separates us from the community as we try and get what we want through whatever means we can; we shouldn’t be surprised if it has the same effect of separating us from God, so that we cannot see the ways in which God is calling us and supporting us.

God is always with us, even when we can’t see or feel him.  God is with us even when we focus on our own selfish desires.  God is with us in good times and bad, and God knows our true needs better than we do ourselves.  God will never forsake us, in good times or in bad.  God’s love cannot be measured by health or wealth, but only in the fullness of his grace and mercy.

Don’t worry: Recession and the God of Abundance

Matthew 6:25-34. ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

In the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the reasons the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” referred to in the text is so useful a book is because it has inscribed on its cover in large letters the words “DON’T PANIC.”  It seems to me that these words are useful to remember in more times and places than just the book, and now is one of them.

Let’s be honest: the economy is in the tank, and won’t be bouncing back in the next couple of years.

Let’s be even more honest: We have been and are still incredibly blessed by God.  If you have access to a computer and the internet to read this post, you have access to more resources than most people on this planet have ever had, no matter how hard you have been hit by the recession.  If you live in the “first world,” then you almost certainly have a safety net of social programs (both secular and religious) to help when things are at their worst.  They may not be ideal or as good as they should be, but they are still better than the majority of the world’s population has ever had access to.  God has given us many blessings, and he gives them abundantly.

In some ways, we’ve been too blessed.  We are used to having so much that as a society we’ve forgotten how to tell the difference between wants and needs, between things that are handy and cool and things that truly sustain our bodies and souls.  The world around us tells us that we need the newest iPhone, the hottest car, the biggest TV, the fastest computer, the biggest house, the latest tech toy, trendy clothes, to go out to eat all the time.  Thinking like that gets people into financial trouble, by encouraging them to spend more than they can afford, leaving them no savings to fall back on in times of trouble.  But even worse than that, it causes spiritual trouble in both good times and bad.

In good times, our cultural addiction with spending money encourages people to turn away from God by promising happiness through material things.  We take the abundance God has given us and depend on it without ever thinking about the one who gave it to us.

When things turn bad, our response is even worse.  Because we’re convinced that the abundance God has given us is the minimum necessary for survival, we panic at the idea of having to get by on less.  And in our panic, we turn even further from God, grasping at anything that might keep us in the style we have become accustomed to.  I’ve seen a lot of that lately, both within and outside of the church.

DON’T PANIC.  Or, as Jesus puts it in our Gospel today, don’t worry.  Don’t bury your head under the sand, either, but don’t worry about all the things that might go wrong.  Remember how much abundance you have been given.  Then take a good hard look at how you have used the abundance God has given you–your time, your talents, your posessions.  Have you used God’s gifts as a faithful Christian, or have you used that abundance selfishly?  Have you fallen into the trap of thinking material posessions lead to happiness?  If so, what can you do to change your thinking and your way of life to be more faithful and wholesome?

DON’T WORRY.  You are in God’s hands.  You have been in God’s hands all your life.  God knows what you need.  Many people in this world will need to change their spending habits because of the financial crisis, or take other actions to deal with the situation.  But don’t do so out of panic or worry over all the bad things that might happen, over the fact that you might not be able to do and have all the things you wanted.  Do so in faith that God will help you meet your needs–your true needs, not your wishes.  Know that God loves you, and will never abandon you.

No one can lengthen their life or affect the world’s economy by worrying about it.  No one can make themselves happier by worrying.  The world and we ourselves are where we have always been: in the hands of a God who loves us, and loves us abundantly, and has given us many gifts.  And who will never abandon us, no matter how much we despair.  So don’t worry.