A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on October 15, 2006.
Based on Mark 10:17-31 (Proper 23, Year B).
“Prosperity theology” is bunk. You may have heard of it. The basic doctrine states that prosperity or wealth is the external evidence of God’s favor. So those who are rich have been specially blessed by God. It’s the favored theology of various televangelists who tell their flocks that sending them money in the name of God is the impetus for gaining wealth.
But in a sense, prosperity theology is really nothing new. In Jesus’ day, conventional wisdom equated wealth with blessing and poverty with curse. In other words, riches were seen as a blessing from God and poverty was seen as a sign of sinfulness. And this was the dominant, unquestioned view for thousands of years. How else to explain why one person seemed to have the world at his feet while another seemed to be perpetually stomped upon?
But this is a pretty dangerous worldview, leading to some very questionable theology. It gives not only worldly power to the rich but spiritual power as well, creating a terrible imbalance of resources while setting up God as a vengeful deity. Fortunately, few people would subscribe to this theology today. And, according to a recent Time Magazine poll that looked at issues of “God and Wealth,” only 7% of Christians agreed that poverty was a sign that God was unhappy with something in a person’s life. Although 7% of all Christians in America is still a pretty large number of people.
In Jesus’ day, it wasn’t just poverty that was a sign of sinfulness but any physical ailment or disability. Such as blindness or leprosy or the inability to walk. Which is why Jesus’ healing miracles are all the more poignant – they lift those supposedly cursed by God to the status of being blessed by God. And it’s why so much of Jesus’ earthly ministry was spent among the poor and the oppressed and the downtrodden. But this whole notion that the rich weren’t necessarily uniquely blessed and the poor weren’t necessarily all sinners was a radical shift in outlook. It threatened the spiritual, economic, and communal standing of the rich, while giving new hope to the poor.
And precisely in order to make this point, Jesus resorts to such dramatic imagery: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Yes, it’s hyperbole; a comical exaggeration used to make an important point. But the implications are clear: in order to fully become Christ’s disciple, we must shed much emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial baggage. And boy, do we carry around a lot of each.
As 21st century Americans living in Westchester County, when we hear the story of the rich man seeking to follow Jesus, we prefer the metaphorical interpretation. We don’t want to think about literally selling everything we own and giving the money to the poor. It cuts a bit too close to the things we hold dear. This parable makes us defensive and we start coming up with justifications for things that might be exempt. Like that new flat screen TV. Surely we could hold onto that.
But imagine hearing this passage in rural Africa. This same passage that makes us a bit uncomfortable and forces us to brush away the true implications, might be a word of hope to the impoverished of the world. And this is a massive population. Especially when you consider that one billion people in the world live on less than one dollar a day. And it’s not just that a dollar goes a lot farther in the developing world. “One dollar a day” refers to what it would buy here at home. That’s like a family of four living on less than $1,460 per year. One dollar a day is the threshold below which there are insufficient calories to keep the body alive. These one billion people live in extreme poverty. It is among this population that a child dies from a preventable disease like malaria every eight seconds; and it is among this population that nearly 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS. How do you think they hear this passage? I can’t imagine they’re worried about giving up their SUV.
But even if we can’t go to extreme measures and sell everything and enter a monastery, we can take a stand on behalf of the poor. Even if we are not called to such radical sacrifice, we must think seriously about our own financial stewardship in our culture of consumerism. This was precisely what last night’s U2 eucharist was all about (and the place was packed by the way). Last night was about putting our faith into action on behalf of the world’s poor. And towards that end we raised both awareness about the world’s need and also some money to support the work of Episcopal Relief and Development. Money earmarked to help fight extreme global poverty.
It’s not hard to contrast our culture of extreme materialism with the culture of extreme global poverty. We live in a world of extremes and to live in one extreme and ignore the other is to blatantly disregard our Christian faith. Faith must be lived out in the world. It’s not just about coming here and being “spiritually fed” every week. This is important, obviously, but we also need to take our faith out into the world. And, again, while we can’t all quit our jobs and take the first plane to Africa, we can support causes that bring relief to the world’s poor. And if that means letting go of some of our earthly possessions in the process, we become wise stewards indeed.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006