The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17A)
3 September 2017
Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The news from the Gulf Coast this week has been heartbreaking. The scale of devastation is hard for someone like me from this part of the country even to imagine. There have been stories of great heroism and resilience and we have seen people using their bodies to make present the Body of Christ in the midst of the tragedy. Among all the stories we heard this week about the flooding and devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, few enraged people as much as news of evangelical pastor Joel Osteen and his Lakewood megachurch remaining closed to those displaced by the storm until he was shamed into acting by the outcry.
What made people so mad (and so gleeful to offer their schadenfreude-laden criticism) was what they saw as the rank hypocrisy of a supposed Christian leader so baldly showing indifference to the suffering of people right there in his own backyard. This is exactly how many in secular society, especially many on the political left, view religious leaders: with great skepticism, as holier-than-thou, disconnected, and conservative; more concerned with preserving their position than working for social change, more concerned with their moralistic views than the suffering of actual people who struggle in the midst of their complex human lives.
Pastors like Osteen espouse what is sometimes called the Prosperity Gospel, a view that holds that if you have real faith, pray properly, do good works, give money to the church you are assured professional success and personal wealth. Inversely, those who are poor and suffering have only themselves to blame because there is something wrong with them or their faith or their prayers. Wealth and success are signs of God’s favour, poverty and struggle of God’s displeasure. This is the theological position from which someone can shut their doors to those in need, ignore the suffering around them, and stay silent in the face of societal, institutional, and personal expressions of racism, sexism, and homophobia.
We know, however, this is not the true message of the Gospel. We know that this kind of misrepresentation of Jesus’ message that justifies self-interest in the extreme is actually sinful and something that must be named as such and resisted. Those who decry religious leaders’ self-interested inaction and silence are correct to do so, and I understand why it creates apprehension about all religious leaders and institutions. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to clearly preach the Gospel of Christ, the Gospel of love and inclusion, of justice for the poor and dispossessed, and to allow our actions to reflect our words.
The Gospel, of course, is the Good News, not simply the text of our Bible. The Gospel is the overarching drive of Christ’s preaching, the relentless message that God has intervened decisively into history and called everyone to love God and love neighbour, the promise that it is by loving the latter that we actively love the former. The Gospel is the truth that we are called to a life bigger than our own self interest, that we are called to act on behalf of the kingdom that God is unfolding even now.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew speaks to the Gospel, the real Gospel, and its call to us and begins with a clear affirmation of Jesus’ identity:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, who will usher in the Kingdom of God, but in doing so he will face challenges, pain, and death. Jesus’ messianic identity is yoked to his rejection and suffering at the hands of the powerful. He is the leader, the one we follow, and yet his victory is achieved along a path of trials and tribulations, of suffering in solidarity with all of us. His path to new life, like ours, is not paved with gold and success, but rather tied to doing the work we have been given to do in the face of opposition from those whose power is threatened, as the priorities of society are overturned.
This is not the good news his disciples expected to hear and they found it hard to accept that God would bring salvation through resilience and resistance. In the face of their skepticism, in the face of their desire to hear a message more like that Prosperity Gospel, Jesus makes his point even clearer:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?
Our call is to join with Jesus in the path that leads away from narrow self interest and personal enrichment at the expense of others. Jesus calls us to take up the cross, to engage in the work of justice and neighbour love to which we are called, even at our own peril, even if it is unpopular, or hard, or risky. Jesus challenges us by asking if a life pursuing self-interest and riches is worth the cost of hurting other people or damaging the creation we have been given as stewards. If we only look out for ourselves, then we have failed to align our purpose with God’s purpose, which is the very drive of all the cosmos.
When Jesus says we forfeit our lives by choosing self-interest over neighbour love, he is not necessarily talking about some eternity of hellfire and damnation. He is talking about the position in which we put ourselves in the here and now. We make hell right here when we entomb ourselves in walls of gold, surround ourselves with others just like us, and turn inwards. We are called to look out, look to the world and join with God in the work that lies before us.
We should not despair, however, that this work is beyond us, too high a bar to reach. Saint Paul makes it abundantly clear that each of us has it within our grasp to do the work the Gospel lays before us:
For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
Paul shows us we are not alone in this work and that no one person is expected to carry the whole load. Each of us has our place, each of us does what we can, and together we do what had initially seemed impossible. Each of us has different gifts and skills and no matter what they are, they can be used for the advancement of justice and love. We are called to speak out and be prophetic voices. We are called to perform acts of service. We are called to teach. We are called to care for people one-on-one. But no one person need to do all these things.
Last week I talked about how at the core of our resilience in the face of frightening times is the reality that we belong to a community of people who share the values of justice and love and who are empowered by God, the author of all, to do this work. We are part of a diverse community of people with a variety of gifts who work together and cooperate with God in the unfolding of the Kingdom.
In the face of natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, in the face of rising tides of hate and violence, in the face of indifference by the powerful to what is happening around us, we have a community, we have gifts to share and power to act, and a leader who knows what it is to suffer as we have, but who has shown us that in the end love wins, and that that Resurrection life is the end to which we are called.
Andrew C. Blume✠
Aidan of Lindsifarne, 31 August 2017
© 2017 Andrew Charles Blume