Hespeler, 17 September, 2017
Mark 4:26-29, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Psalm 92:1-15
f you have paid any attention at all to the news that has come out of Texas in the past month (and there has been a lot of news to attend to) chances are that you heard the name of one Houston religious leader mentioned more than any other. His name is Joel Osteen and he is the lead pastor of Lakewood Church, one of the biggest churches in a city of very big churches.
      Osteen’s church caught a lot of flack immediately after the arrival of Hurricane Harvey and the devastating floods that it brought. People were upset with it for its failure to respond – specifically its failure to offer shelter in its large and well-appointed facilities. It seemed all the worse because the church’s excuses changed a number of times in the early days. At first they said they couldn’t offer shelter because the building was inaccessible because of flooding when it clearly was not. Then, once that lie was exposed, they went with the excuse that they hadn’t offered shelter because they hadn’t been asked when lots of other companies and religious organizations had throw n open their doors without needing to be asked.
      Now I am not particularly interested in piling on Lakewood Church for what they did or didn’t do after Harvey. It was a crisis situation and, while I hope that I might do better than they did in a similar situationout needinghad been ions had been biaculcome out of th, I recognise with all humility that I might not. But I do have one issue with something that lay behind their actions. I can understand their concerns about their building and about liability, even if I don’t think they dealt with those concerns in the right way. What I don’t get, and certainly don’t agree with, is some of the theology that may have influenced some f their decisions.
      Joel Osteen, you see, preaches a very particular kind of Christian message (if it is a Christian message at all) that is known as the prosperity gospel. The promise of this message is that God wants you to be rich – that it is God’s will for you that you should have lots and lots of stuff. That is what Osteen preaches week in and week out. He has also given an excellent example to his congregation of what this is supposed to look like by amassing a personal fortune in excess of forty million dollars.
      There are a lot of problems with this prosperity gospel. It certainly contradicts many things that Jesus said. Anyone remember the time when he said, “Blessed are you who are poor,” for example? The whole train of thought also has plenty of potential to lead to abuse as Christian believers are taught a very particular application of the passage we read this morning from the second letter to the Corinthians: “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
      This prosperity preaching teaches that the way you switch on the prosperity that God intends for you to have is by giving extravagantly to the church.nd up poorer and convinced that it is their own fault.eats again elng  But when the generous givers fail to see the promised millions materialize for themselves, they are made to believe that it must be their own fault – that they didn’t have enough faith or they didn’t show it by giving generously enough and the cycle repeats again and again until somebody gets forty million dollars but a lot of people end up poorer and convinced that it is really their own fault.
      I have trouble with this teaching for all kinds of reasons, therefore, but I must admit that I do understand why it has become so popular and why churches like Lakewood have grown so large. Who wouldn’t want to hear that God wants to give you a great deal of wealth? It is also a very pleasant when you are living in a place (such as the City of Houston a month ago) where people are rich or at least have a reasonable chance of becoming rich because the underlying assumption behind it is that, if you become rich, it must be because you have deserved it – you have earned it because of your extraordinary faith or righteousness. And who doesn’t love the feeling that good things happened to you because you deserved them?
      So this can be a very successful message when all is going well. But when things fall apart completely and it is looking like they may not get back to normal for a very long time – in the aftermath of a major hurricane, for example – the prosperity gospel might fall a little short and ring a little hollow. So it is not all that surprising that Joel Osteen went through a rough patch recently in Houston, though honestly I don’t worry about him too much. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be just fine.
      But there is a question about what we do with all of this. The world is a very frightening place, after all, a place where a whole lot can go very wrong. We have been reminded of that very forcefully in recent weeks – particularly by Harvey and Irma, by massive forest fires and a major earthquake thrown in for good measure. But it’s not just the natural disasters – maybe if it was just them we could deal with that – but the human ones seem more frightening in some ways. For example, the resurgence of white supremacy and even Nazism is more disturbing in many ways.
      When we are reminded so forcefully about what is going wrong in the world for so many people, it can seem supremely selfish and self-centred to be concerned with one’s own needs and especially with things like personal wealth and prosperity. I understand that we would all like to be wealthy – who hasn’t dreamed of it at least once or twice – but when people are losing homes and livelihoods and don’t even have a clue about how they might get their life back – how petty does it seem to be asking God for prosperity for ourselves and expecting that God should make it a priority.
      Even more important, what sort of message should we offer to the world in such times? One temptation is to be positively apocalyptic. I have certainly heard some of that recently – that these disasters are God’s payback for our sins. This message can come in many forms: hurricanes are brought on by our cavalier disregard for the environment which is directly tied to the rise in ocean temperatures that feeds extreme weather. Or others will position it as God’s punishment for our society’s immorality, assuming that God is outraged at whatever particular immorality the speaker is upset about. Racial unrest such as the resurgence of white supremacy is variously portrayed as judgement for our failure to right the wrongs of the past or for moving forward too quickly in the present.
      Now, I won’t say that there is absolutely nothing to these apocalyptic pronouncements.ely nothing to these or for  will tie it to ou There are lessons to be learned, I believe, in the midst of a string of disasters. If we, as a society, could actually learn that our actions (or failures to act) have consequences and that it is time to get past the short term selfish thinking that we are so famous for, it would only be a good thing. So, I get where all of this apocalyptic talk is coming from and am somewhat sympathetic to it, but I also think that it is problematic.
      For one thing, I have some issues with how we chalk all of this up to God and God’s judgement because the God I have come to know through Jesus Christ takes no delight or comfort from any of it. God feels nothing but sorrow at the sight of people losing their homes or their livelihoods. God does nothing but sow tears of sadness when people are lost in hopelessness or fear – separated from their loved ones and all that is comforting to them.
      I think that maybe one of Jesus’ simplest parables is a better way to approach the issue. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,” he said, “and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”
      The kingdom of God, this concept that was so important to Jesus that he spoke about it all the time, was his way of talking about what God’s best intentions are for this world. (I know that some people often talk about the kingdom of God as if it was only about what happens to people after they die, but if you study everything that Jesus had to say on the topic it becomes quite clear that it was primarily about this world. It might continue on after death, of course, but the place where you were to encounter and enter the kingdom of God was here and now.)
      Jesus called it the kingdom of God precisely because he was holding it up as a counterexample to the kingdoms that you encounter in this world – kingdoms like the one that was ruled by King Herod in his day in Galilee. And the stories and parables of the kingdom of God that Jesus told make it quite clear that he believed that God’s intentions for this world are for good and not for fear and suffering.
      The kingdom was something that God would do. We could participate in it, but it was ultimately dependant on God’s action. That is what the parable of the growing seed is all about. Ultimately, Jesus is saying, our responsibility is not fix everything that goes wrong in this world. That, I think, is too heavy a burden for anyone to bear. No human can carry all the burdens of this world. But, Jesus says, what you can do is plant seeds.
      When you see racial injustice – when you see people who are treating other people as if they were less than human because of the colour of their skin or their faith or their background – you cannot and should not carry years of racial hatred, misunderstanding and evil on your own back. You cannot fix all of that at once, but you can stand up. You can denounce the wrong that you see. I know that is hard for any of us to do, it certainly is hard for me to do, but to do so is to plant a seed for a better world.
      When you see foolish thinking, the kind of thinking that just allows people to go on with their lives without thinking of the long-term impacts of their actions. When people are unwilling to make any changes in the carbon they produce, the pollution they leave in their wake because they cannot see anything beyond their next whim or desire, you cannot fix that. You cannot just make people willing to live thoughtfully or with a long view of what the impacts of their actions are. But you can plant a seed, by setting a better example yourself, by supporting government policies that help people to see the benefit in changing and that make it affordable for those with few resources.
      You don’t have to fix it, but you can and should sow seeds and I’ll tell you why. Because you never know what God can do with a seed. Someone “would sleep and rise night and day,” Jesus said, “and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” Of course, we today understand a whole lot more about how seeds grow than people did in Jesus’ day, but the point that Jesus was making still stands. You don’t have to know how the kingdom of God grows among us, you just have to plant the seeds and leave the growing to God because that is always how the kingdom of God always works.
      God doesn’t want you be wealthy. God doesn’t want you to be miserable either. God doesn’t want you to lose everything you have ever relied on either. God doesn’t ever want those who don’t follow in his path to suffer in great torment for it. Those ideas are all a perversion of the Christian gospel.
      What Jesus does want is for you to plant whatever seeds you can in this world – to stand up for what is right and just, to challenge evil, to engage in initiatives to make the world a better place. Most of all, Jesus wants to teach us to trust in God who can take whatever seeds we do manage to plant and make them grow in this world in ways that we could never even have imagined.

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