I don’t normally talk about specific theologies, but there’s one out there called “prosperity theology” or “prosperity gospel.” What do you think of when you hear the word prosperity? Success? Wealth? Favor? You’re doing good, right? The main premise, as I understand it, is that if you’re doing good, living right, giving generously (especially to your church), then God will bless you with an abundance of health and wealth. It’s like the really good Good News. Actually, someone sent me an email linking to an article that said one of these prosperity gospel pastors was calling for her congregation to give the equivalent of one month’s salary to the church. I don’t know if this was to tithe or if it was a bonus gift requirement, but the joke was that this could help us shore up the budget at All Saints’. But that’s not what we do or how we do it. Because what happens when you’re doing everything right, and suddenly the wheels fall of? What happens when bad things happen to good people? Does that mean God has rejected you or punished you? When everything’s going right, it’s easy to celebrate abundance. It’s easy to celebrate Nineveh’s repentance and God changing God’s mind. Our Psalm is like a cheerful lullaby, for of course we wait for God alone our hope and strength. And of course the disciples are just going to pick up and follow the charismatic Jesus along his way. All is good! The kingdom of God is theirs. Honestly, this view of doing good and being good and getting abundance and blessing in return sounds conditional and very me-centered. What am I getting out of my living a seemingly godly life?
Anymore, when things seem a little too good to be true or a little too shiny, perfect, or easy, I wonder where the mess is. Because real life is messy and complicated. Real life has uncompromising people and shutdowns, poverty and illness, affluence and addiction. Real life has bad things happen to good people without our understanding why, and if our whole view of God is that we get the good when we are good, then to get reality means that we’re bad. That’s not our theology. That’s not our understanding of God because that’s not what’s been revealed to us in our Scripture nor in the life of Jesus Christ.
Did you hear the reading from Jonah? Was this account from his first call from God? No. It’s the second time…because the first time he got a call from God, he thought it would be a good idea to run the other way; only that plan led him to the belly of a big fish. He ended up in Nineveh anyway. This, the second time, he decided to go ahead and do what God told him to. I imagine him walking across a big city like Little Rock, a three days’ walk across, proclaiming the city’s doom. But the people actually listen and repent, and then what’s God do but see their repentance and change God’s mind! That’s great for the people and God, but where does that leave Jonah? What kind of prophet is he if what he says doesn’t come true? What kind of credibility does he have? Jonah goes into a pretty deep pity party, feeling sorry for himself, and he more accurately reflects the Psalms that describe the doubt and despair than hope and praise.
When we hear about faithful and imperfect lives of people more like ourselves, what do we see revealed about God? How do we read “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, there is my hope”? It comes not always from a place of richness and abundance with a tone of rejoicing; we can read the same line from a place of wondering, wandering . . . a place of wilderness . . . a place where we are really hoping there is hope at all.
Maybe we can hear the letter to the Corinthians not as a dismissal of things of this world but of a non-attachment grounded in the assurance of the kingdom of heaven, consistent with love of neighbor and self and God. As we navigate the reality of our lives, we see that it is but for the grace of God that any of us experience the gift of life, let alone that of abundance. And our concept and perception of what is rich in this life truly depends on what we value . . . and not just materially. Jesus’s Way set forth the example of living into a life of radical hospitality and welcome, of invitation and generosity, and of inverting the status quo. I repeat often: this doesn’t mean it will be easy. Jesus shows us the way of life, death, and resurrection; therein lies our hope.
Before we hear about Simon and Andrew, James and John dropping what they’re doing to follow Jesus, we hear that this happens after John has been arrested. John was doing what he did, being the prophet that he was. He had said that he would decrease and that the one to come would increase. We know John doesn’t get a happy ending. Lest we too lightly see the apostles cheerfully following Jesus, we’re given the simple fact that John had been arrested. There is reason for pause. There are risks to be taken. Risks not just in living life as we are given it to live but especially if we are living into who God has called us to be.
Here’s a big clue for whether or not we’re following the way of Christ: who stands to receive the glory? If we are living deeply into a life for the glory of God, it’s God who gets the glory, and that’s not something our ego likes to hear.
But it’s so good for our hearts.
I took the time to hear Scarlett Lewis talk about the Choose Love Movement when she came to St. Thomas in Springdale. Her child Jesse was one of those murdered at Sandy Hook. Rather than be anchored by the weight of the tragedy, she had the presence to notice signs that surrounded her and grace to give her strength that the best thing she could do would be to choose love and to forgive. What an incredible witness to following Christ.
I also know that we’re forming a Faith Voices NWA, a regional group of Faith Voices Arkansas. As a regional group, the intent is to bring together clergy in our area so that we can share a united voice that can be louder and stronger on moral issues of our time. But before we can be united in one voice, we have to build relationships not just between faiths but even between denominations. What can we do to reach across the denominational divide so that we can actually be one Body? Such relationship-building truly requires us to know ourselves and be open enough to let God work through us.
For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, there is my hope.
It’s okay to be still. It’s okay to step aside and let the Holy Spirit move through us. Because isn’t the hope for us all that God’s dream for us be manifest, that the presence of Christ be realized in, through, and by us and our neighbors? That’s our invitation. Jesus, in inviting the apostles to follow him, is likewise inviting us. “Follow me, and I’ll teach you to fish for people,” he’s saying. Follow him, and we’ll learn how to be caught up in the net of unconditional love, grace, and mercy of God. Therein lies our hope.