Sunday, October 8, 2006

In Our Care - Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom, all things exist, in bringing many children to glory should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the mist of the congregation I will praise you.”

Anne Lamott has written, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." Indeed, many of us have created God in our own image, using him at little more than a rubber stamp to endorse the sort of life we have already made up our mind to live. When we find that our religious expression has become just a little too cozy with our favorite ideology, it’s probably a fair assumption that we have, indeed, created God in our image.

There is a movement within Christianity – not a new one – but an increasingly popular one that I would like us to talk about this morning. This movement is simply a veneer for a sort of rampant individualism – often expressed in the ideals of consumer capitalism and selfish materialism. Our text today provides a much-needed corrective to this corrosive perversion of the Gospel. I realize that some of what I say over the course of this sermon may not be incredibly popular. But I want to open up and invite all of into a conversation about money, finding its true value and proper place in God’s vision. May we pray.

Visit any bookstore and wander over to the Christian section, and you may be surprised at what is being produced and marketed under the guise of Christianity. Many of the titles contain nothing more than self-help strategies who view God as some sort of celestial ATM, real-estate guru, or financial advisor. If you read the books and buy into the strategy, you too can figure out how to use God to make yourself rich. In other words, in these books, God is simply a tool for obtaining money. The problem is it creates a false idol – using God and forcing God to play second string to the accumulation of more and more wealth. It’s the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism.

To be sure, it’s a very popular mindset. Look at the churches who have been built on this idea that God desires nothing more than to pour an abundance of material blessing into your life. One church—one you have seen on television, and whose pastor’s wide grin you have seen on the bookstands—packs thousands of worshippers into a converted sports arena. However, Britney Spears can pack out a sports arena – but she’s hardly proclaiming the Gospel.

Most of these churches have built their ministries on a theology of ownership. In their way of thinking, God wants us to have stuff – to own property, to have lots of cash reserves, to have nice homes, to sit in business class rather than coach, to drive nice cars, to take lavish vacations. Such prosperity is seen as a sign of God’s favor – gifts from God that he wants us to enjoy. It’s easy to see why this theology is so popular. Not only can we keep the American Dream, but we can even use God to help us achieve it.

But in our text today, we find ourselves dealing with a theology of stewardship rather than one of ownership. All things have been given to us and placed in our care, but ultimately, they don’t belong to us. This goes against Bruce Wilkinson’s best-selling Prayer of Jabez with its rallying cry for God to “increase my territory!” With a proper theology of stewardship, of knowing that all things have been placed in our care but ultimately don’t belong to us, we would be loathe to pray such a selfish prayer. Indeed, we would know that we have no territory. But, for those who have read this book and prayed this prayer, I don’t hold the individual completely responsible. Individuals are part of systems, and systems are designed to produce certain results. Those of us who have grown up as American capitalists default to our money-making mode.

The popular “get-rich-with-God” mindset is particularly troublesome because it has very little to say about what we’re supposed to do with our riches once we obtain them. It’s nothing more than selfish, individualistic materialism. It stops the blessing cycle, forgetting that God blesses us in order that we might be a blessing to others. It forgets that we are not the final destination of God’s abundance. It focuses so much on God caring about me and loving me that it neglects the fact that God also loves the rest of the world. The Prosperity Gospel is one of the most powerful forms of neglect of the poor. Philosophically, their main way of helping the poor is encouraging people not to be one of them.

Even more problematic is the source from which health and wealth Gospellers draw their identity. Just as in our wider society, to which the values of the kingdom of God are supposed to stand diametrically opposed, a person’s self-worth is determined by their net worth. But the church, if we are really to be the church, must sound a definitive “no” to this way of measuring people’s worth. The church is a place where all people find their identity in the fact that they are beloved children of God, marked with his indelible image. We realize, that before a holy God, we are all equal – a fact celebrated in our common baptism, and made real again each time we gather as brothers and sisters around a table lovingly spread with bread and wine. If we are really to be the church as God designed it to function, we have to believe what Jesus said when he said he is the way, the truth, and the life. We have to do what he said to do to the least in our society. We have to go where he told us to go, from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and the ends of the earth. We have no choice but to show radical hospitality toward those for whom he died.

But our culture will resist this. And a version of Christianity that has become all too comfortable, and even overlayed itself with, the dominant culture is going to fight against such truth-telling. Then again, the dominant religious culture was also pretty resistant of Jesus and his teachings. In a letter to Time magazine, one reader wrote, “Were Jesus to come today and attempt to throw from their temples the modern Philistines who preach the gospel of wealth, they would most likely accuse him and his disciples of being Middle Eastern, sandal-wearing, gay hippie terrorists out to undermine the American way of life.”

As long as we place our identity and security in bank accounts, in IRAs, in mutual funds, and in real estate holdings, we will continue to remain insecure. The value of a dollar may be less tomorrow than it is today. But the value of life in Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the only place we can truly and properly draw our security and identity.

He provides us with a richness of life that cannot be expressed in the dominant economic terms of our society. The riches he offers us are lives full of faith, hope, and love – offered freely and generously to the whole world in his name because he has lavished them extravagantly upon us.
Late in his ministry, John Wesley wrote a sermon entitled ‘The Use of Money.’ In it, he outlined three basic principles for the early Methodists – and all Christians, really – to manage their resources by. First, he encouraged us to earn all you can. Second, save all you can. So far, this all sounds pretty good. Work hard, make money, and save up. But his third principle is the one where we run into trouble. After we have earned all we can and saved all we can, he encourages us to give all we can. Everything we have been given is an opportunity for us to bless others – to step out in faith that God wishes us to use what exceeds our most basic needs to help those whose basic needs are not even being met. In other words, we ought to live simply in order that others may simply live.

In theory, I see how this works, and I agree with it. But, I admit that, on a practical level, I have as much as trouble living this out as anyone else in this room. I like my stuff. I like having nice things, more ties than I could wear in several months, driving a nice car, eating at restaurants with multiples forks, playing golf on the lushest grass imaginable, and taking vacations to exotic locations. I come from a family where material things were always scarce, and so whatever opportunity I may now have to accumulate such things is a welcome change.

But I also remember that in the home in which I grew up, a home in which money was tight, the first ten percent of our family’s income was given back to the Lord, in gratitude for what he had given us. This tithe was not the downpayment on further material blessings, or a way of securing God’s favor, or a way of publicly declaring our religiousness. It was our way of saying thanks, of recognizing that though on paper, our family did not have enough to live on, God gave us the strength to make it. Sure enough, mortgages were paid, car repairs were made, and there was always food on the table. It encouraged an attitude of generosity out of what we did have, rather than an attitude of fear for what we didn’t have. It encouraged us to rely fully on God and to think of money as something with which we glorify God. See how different this is from obtaining money by prostituting our faith.

Do I believe that God wants us to be broke? Certainly not. But nor do I believe God wants us all to be rich. The important principle here is that we use what God has given us in accordance with his will. As individuals, we can choose to use those resources selfishly and self-indulgently, in a manner that shows neither love for God or our neighbor, or we can use those resources generously, abundantly, and extravagantly, in just the same manner God has lavished them upon us. As a faith community, we also have a choice. We can be stingy with what we have and greedy to obtain more. Everything we do can be determined by how much it is going to cost, or based on divine profit-to-earnings ratios. We can run the church like a business, bowing before the altar of Almighty Dollar rather than Almighty God. Or, we can operate like a microcosm of the kingdom of God – a place where radical hospitality is shown, a place where we enter into the pain of the alienated and suffering, a place where love of God and love of neighbor are the most important determinants of our existence. All things have been placed in our care. The question remains, however, what are we going to do with all that God has so richly blessed us with?

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