November 13, 2011
Scripture: Luke 12: 13-21
Rich Toward God,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
I remember the first time I saw Joel Osteen on television. It was a Saturday morning and I woke up to find Bill drinking his coffee and completely engrossed in a televangelist program. Now, I can assure you, this is not a regular occurrence (the televangelist program part, that is). “This guy’s great!” Bill exclaimed. Curious, and to be honest a bit concerned about this new lapse in character, I sat down next to him on the couch and watched.
Have any of you listened to Joel Osteen? How many of you have heard of Joel Osteen?
I’ll never forget that in this particular segment that we were watching, he told a story of a “hillbilly family” as he referred to them, a family that had never left their small town, they had never watched television or listened to the radio, and they decided to take a vacation to New York City. The first day they were there the father took his son to see a famous skyscraper. They were so impressed, they were especially intrigued by the elevator. This very old woman came along and pressed a button and then the walls opened up right in front of them. She stepped into a room and then the walls closed back up. They sat there contemplating what they had just seen. About that time the walls opened back up and out stepped a beautiful, 24-year old woman. In disbelief, the son said, “Dad, what just happened?”
The dad said, “I don’t know son, but get your mother.”
And the audience in the stadium of oh, I don’t know, probably several thousand there that day roared in laughter at this punch line.
Mr. Osteen, or simply Joel as his mega church followers call him, was preaching on John 15: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in Me, you will bear much fruit and your fruit will remain.” Joel’s interpretation of this passage goes something like this: If you are a good person and if you believe in God, then God will eventually reward you with the fruits of happiness and stability in your life – you will be successful, wealthy, and prosperous – the walls of opportunity will open before you and you will be pleased to find both youth and beauty waiting for you on the other side.
Now, I’ll give it to him, he was funny and engaging. He was charismatic. He was inspiring. And, his message was feel-good.
Joel Osteen is not the first to preach the Prosperity Gospel. His is not a theology that fell from the sky. There have been many variations of American Christianity, particularly throughout the 20th century, from strains of the New Thought movement to “Thinkonomics,” that perpetuate this notion that belief in God and giving to the Church will result in the fruits of our own wealth and material benefit.
In the 1970s, Rev. Ike, pastor of a large, 5,000 member church in New York City, would often tell his congregation to, “Close your eyes and see green.” There’s no way you can equate God with poverty, he preached, pointing out that biblical images of Heaven feature streets of gold and other signs of luxury. And he handed out money sheets. Sheets of paper with a picture of $100 bills on it, telling people to hold the piece of paper in their right hand and pray, and then send money back to him in an envelope.
I can’t help but think how easy my job would be if I could just get up here and preach that if you give the church your money, you will be guaranteed a rate of return that will be paid back to you in immense wealth and prosperity. And, really, how easy your job would be if this were the message we’re to receive because it would mean that our faith is completely self-serving and not so counter-cultural after all. But, we know this is not the gospel that Jesus preaches. Rather, this is the gospel of greed that paints the glory and beauty of our lives with the amount of money in our bank account and the abundance of our possessions.
In fact, in today’s Gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus speaks directly against such an ideology; telling the man in the crowd who wants his brother to divide his family inheritance with him, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15).
Yet, this consumerist faith that glorifies greed is what sells in our culture. While many true gospel churches are shutting their doors, the churches that preach the Prosperity Gospel are mega. They have multiple campuses with coffee shops, bookstores, and restaurants inside. People across the country readily buy into the packaging of Christian life as a consumer commodity, as a customizable experience or a promise of salvific riches.
What I find so fascinating is that despite the consumer-driven, materialistic culture we live in, we are still so hesitant to talk about money on a personal level, not only in our churches but also in every arena of our lives. I imagine that the people in Rev. Ike’s congregation can readily hold pieces of paper and pray for a windfall, but not so readily admit their debt to a friend over coffee or share financial anxieties with someone as close as a parent or a spouse. Why are we so uncomfortable talking about money? To do so is like airing our dirty laundry in public.
As part of our coursework in my UCC polity class in Divinity School we took a trip to the Mass Conference Center in Framingham and we met with the Conference staff. During our conversation about Stewardship Minister and President, Jim Antal shared the story of when he was serving a small church in Connecticut and he had preached several times on the topic of money. After one service he received an anonymous note from a parishioner that read, “Pastor, Please stop talking about money! It’s so crass.”
The very next Sunday, when he got up to preach, he took with him a bible out of which he had taken a pair of scissors and cut all of the passages that talk about money. The book looked as if it had been absolutely decimated. What was left were some sad looking sheets of paper between two covers. He held up this bible before his congregation and told them that this is what the Bible would look like if we took out all the places where Jesus and Paul and the Prophets and God teach and talk about money.
And for those of you who are sitting there worrying and wondering…uh oh, is she going to talk about money every week? No, I will not be talking about money every week or even every other. But, every now and then not only during the annual Stewardship Campaign, but also throughout the year, I will preach on the topic of money, possessions, and giving.
I will do this not because it is easy for me to talk about money, because I can assure you it’s not. But I am making a commitment to do this as your pastor because money matters to Jesus and so it should matter to us. Jesus talks an awful lot about money. Jesus talks about money in the gospels more than anything else: more than love, more than healing, more than forgiveness and sin. As Rev. Jean Lenk reminded us when she was here, the only thing that Jesus talks about more than money is the kingdom of God. But, believe it or not, Jesus did not talk about money so much because he wanted every church for generations to come to have a balanced budget or a successful stewardship campaign.
Jesus talked about money because in doing so he wanted to expose the natural propensity toward greed and selfishness that each one of us possesses. Perhaps nowhere is he more direct on the matter than in this morning’s gospel lesson of the parable of the rich fool. Jesus tells the story of a man whose land produced an abundant crop one season and instead of rejoicing in God for blessing him with this abundance, the man complains about not having enough room to store all of his extra grain and goods. The man’s solution: build several larger barns so that he can store all that he has and be set for many years to come. Jesus tells us that God calls this rich man a fool and ends the parable by saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Lk 12:21).
Jesus talked about money because he wants us to be rich toward God, generous in spirit and abounding in faith. Jesus talked about money because our attitude toward and treatment of money is a part and parcel of our discipleship. Taking a portion of what we earn, of what is ours, and giving it away to someone or something else is a spiritual practice. And we do so without the promise that it will come back to us in a financial windfall.
You may have noticed that during our Sunday morning worship service there is a time when the offering plates are passed around the congregation. Now, the purpose of this practice is not to put money in the church’s pocket. I can assure you that the church is not going to get rich off of the loose offering. The purpose of this time during worship is the same as that of our time of Scripture reading and prayer: it is a faith practice that works to deepen our relationship with God. Passing the offering plate is a moment each week in which we have the opportunity to heed Jesus’ warning, “To be on our guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
This year we have added an offering to the Children’s Message as well. Just as we talk about Scripture, pray, and sing with the children, we also ask them to give a portion of what they have away. We do this to teach our children the power of generosity and the reality that all of our good blessings come from God.
Making a financial commitment to the church through an annual pledge is another opportunity for us to confront our human greed, to begin to liberate ourselves from the secrecy and shame surrounding money in our lives, and to help us to grow in our relationship to God and our discipleship to Christ.
Next Sunday, during our Thanksgiving service, I invite you to join Carl and Diane Francis, to join Lorraine and Don Young, who spoke so eloquently last week about his faith practice of giving to the church, to join me and Bill and to join Marcia and Craig Barnes who have committed to matching mine and Bill’s pledge increase of 20% in the coming year, and to join a number of others who have shared with me that they will be increasing their pledge this year to bring your pledges with you to worship and to place them on the altar as a visible sign of our recognition of God’s grace in our lives and our commitment to growing deeper in discipleship through giving. Let it be our prayer on this day that in giving away a portion of what is ours, may we become rich toward God.
 McDonald, G. Jeffrey, Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul, New York, NY: Basic Books (2010)