The momentous decisions of the Supreme Court this week deserve comment. I can do no better than direct you to our Bishop’s message posted this week on the diocesan website.
RCL Year C, Proper 8
I’m winding up this sermon series today on the God we don’t believe in. I wanted to preach on this because in classes and conversations over the last year it has become clear to me that we don’t always teach and communicate our tradition very well. And when we don’t do it, there’s an open space for other ideas to be communicated instead, theological ideas from the Internet or radio or books or even just our own thinking. Some of those ideas can help, but some of them can harm. So we’ve talked about what God does and does not do: God does not expect us to get our theology exactly right. God does not send us suffering as a punishment. God does not hold our guilt before us. And we’ve talked about who God is: God, unto Godself, not a bigger, better version of ourselves. So today, we learn about what we can expect as a result of all that. What will our lives look like, if we follow this God?
There are some who preach the message that following God brings real, tangible blessings to our lives. There’s truth in it, but the problem lies in how those blessings are understood. The theology called the prosperity gospel, or the ‘gospel of health and wealth,’ teaches that having faith will lead to material blessings, to financial success and good health. (Giving to particular ministries helps also, usually the ministries connected to the preacher.) The idea is that the Bible is a kind of contract between God and us: if we have faith, then God will reward us. God wants us to be happy and healthy, and if we do the right things, we will be.
We can name names of prominent televangelists and others at the forefront of this theology, many of whom enjoy unlimited authority and considerable personal wealth as a natural outcome of their ministry. In its more extreme examples, it is pretty obviously in conflict with Jesus’ example and teaching of self-sacrifice and loving relationship. Although there are scripture texts that can be pulled out of context to support prosperity preaching, the overall bias of scripture is pretty strongly against the accumulation of wealth and the idol of personal success. But although we might know that, in less extreme ways, it is easy for all of us to think that God will somehow reward us for doing right.
There’s a theologian and writer named James Fowler who wrote a book called Stages of Faith. Fowler explains faith through the lens of developmental psychology, understanding faith to be something we grow in just as we grow and mature in other ways in our lives. In this sense, faith is how we understand God and how God acts in our lives. Just as our understanding of ourselves and others and how the world works changes over time, so too should our understanding of God. From the child’s imaginative faith to the heroic sacrificial faith of the great saints, all of us progress through identifiable stages – though the path isn’t always linear and one-way. Just as we can regress emotionally, we regress in our faith, or we can find ourselves in uncomfortable transition between one stage and another in different aspects of our lives. Suddenly what we’d understood to be true of God no longer lines up with our experience. We might be thrown into crisis, with an image of God that no longer fits who we are and how we see the world. At times like this, we’re faced with a choice: retreat into an earlier safe-feeling idea, regardless of whether it still makes sense; abandon our faith altogether; or grow.
One of those stages, says Fowler, is what he calls literal faith, where we bargain with God. In this stage, we understand God to be one who rewards us when we’re good and punishes us when we’re bad. It’s an understanding that works well until it doesn’t – till God seems to be more unpredictable and less reliable than we’d thought. Because it doesn’t take much living before we see that bad people get away with things without being punished, as we talked about a few weeks ago. And even more obviously, it becomes clear that no matter how good we think we are, we’re not always rewarded in just the way we hope. Bad things, sometimes a lot of bad things, happen to good people.
Today’s gospel is one of those crisis points for the disciples. All has been well with Jesus, and they can feel the momentum building. Now they’re on the road to Jerusalem, and great things are ahead, they can feel it. But first they travel through Samaria, and those obnoxious Samaritans don’t receive them well. Shall we zap them with a thunderbolt? the disciples ask Jesus. No, you idiots, he responds. Oh, you can hear them thinking. But I thought we were on the road to Jerusalem to claim your power. People can’t be nasty to us now – we’ve got the power! Let’s use it! After all, what use is traveling with God if we can’t zap the bad guys? No, Jesus says. And they move on.
So then some of them start negotiating with Jesus. We’re behind you all the way, man. You’re it, you’re the thing, we’re sure of that. We’ve just got this list of terms we need to go over with you. It’ll only take a second. No, Jesus says. No no no no. Either you go with me or you don’t. He does no bargaining, makes no promises to them in return. There’s no, ‘Come with me and you’ll get to zap the bad guys,’ or ‘Come with me and claim the kingdom,’ or ‘Come with me and make your fortune.’ It’s simply, follow me. Are you coming? And off he goes, not looking to see if they’re following or not.
We would rather have the bargain, I think. We would rather say, ok, God, I’ll follow, I’ll live the Christian life, and in return, I know that you will ____. Fill in the blank: land me a good job; keep me from getting fired; make me well again; protect my kids; whatever it might be for you. But God makes none of those promises. God’s only real promise is, I will be with you.
Here’s an example of this in our community life right now: At ECA, we have been exploring the option of affiliating ourselves with a fledgling community organizing movement in our area. Stepping forward into this offers us the possibility of new relationships with others in our community, and new training in skills that will help us put our desire for more neighborhood involvement into action. It will require a commitment from us of time and people and money. But there are no guarantees – no certain outcomes of what it will lead to. All we know is what we’re already experiencing of it, in excited vestry conversations about our future and our vision, and new people being attracted to leadership, and meetings with people we wouldn’t otherwise know. All we can do is pray and discern, do as much careful research as we can, and step into it. We believe this is a way God can work with us, leading us more deeply into faithful witness in our lives and in our ministry together. But we don’t know what that will mean, really, because God doesn’t promise success – at least, not the way we think of success. All we can do is try it and see.
We are always being given opportunities like this – new possibilities to venture forward, not knowing exactly where we will end up. There’s that famous poem that was quoted by King George VI at the beginning of WWII: The poet asks for a light to go safely into the unknown, and the response is ‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’ God doesn’t promise us goodies and security and all that our little hearts desire. Instead, God promises relationship – love and companionship that is more than any particular outcome we could have in mind. That’s what life abundant means – life that is fuller and richer in the living of it, concerned not with holding on to what we already have but rather to the deeper love that is offered us. May we find ourselves ready to respond to that simple invitation, ‘Follow me’ – ready to move further up and further in. Amen.