Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
1st Reading: Micah 6:1-8
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
A great heresy has arisen in the past 15 years. It has probably existed for hundreds or thousands of years, but nowadays many books are written on the subject and many false preachers try to snag people into believing it. It is called the "Prosperity Gospel" and teaches that if you please God, you will be rich, you will get a lot of money. Many of these false preachers have many fancy houses and cars, and have deluded themselves into thinking they deserve it, that God favors them so makes them rich, and they tell their followers if only God loved them more, they too could be rich. In doing so they dupe their followers into giving them more and more, widows into giving their last dime, not using their offerings to do good in their communities or to make poor people's lives better, but instead making the poor poorer and lining their own pockets. Wikipedia puts it this way "the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one's material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, God will deliver security and prosperity." We don't teach the prosperity Gospel in our church, however it is a common belief and value that most of us live with every day. We see the poor and we wonder what they did wrong, we wonder if they do drugs, or are lazy. We live in our secure houses and feel that we did everything right and deserve to have the nice juicer and counter tops, etc. I grew up poor and I remember seeing people worse off than us and wondering what they did wrong, my parents blaming them for bringing more children into the world than they could care for, all the while in our family of 6 enjoying foodstamps and free lunch at school. Even when we were poor we blamed those who were poorer than us for their condition.
Our readings for today tear down every argument for the Prosperity Gospel and I'm going to take you through them one by one.
In the Micah reading, God and humans are arguing. Human values and God's values are not matching up. God reminds the people of what God has done for them. None of it is about wealth or riches. It is all about relationship and experiences. God has done many saving acts, delivered them out of slavery in Egypt, led them to a place of safety, given them leaders both male and female who would lead them. The story about Balak and Balaam is about a curse being put on the Israelites, but how God acted pre-emptively to turn it into a blessing, instead. Countless times in the scriptures, God takes what was meant for ill and turns it into something good. Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery so he could predict the famine and save many from starvation. The people of Israel respond to God's complaint, with trying to give God wealth and riches. God says, "How many times do I have to tell you what I want from you? I don't want your stuff. I want your hearts. I want you to be focussed on the same things I am, to value the same things I do, to love who and what I love.” What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?
If anyone ever said that wealth was important to God, they can read this scripture, as the Israelites try to buy God's forgiveness with food and cattle and rams and jars of oil and even to offer a child to God, as if all these things didn't already belong to God. God doesn't care about things. They are meaningless. They are temporary. God cares about relationship that is lasting and real. God wants something from us. We know we aren't meeting the requirements. So we give what we value, money and things. But what God wants is a new focus on what God cares about, lovingkindness, justice, humility, and relationship, priceless, valuable beyond measure to build the Kingdom of God.
Paul's letter to the Corinthians points out that what is wise to humans is foolishness to God. What is valuable to humans are things like nobility, wealth, being smart, miracles, power to get things done. To us today, I would add that this world values youth, beauty, an education, being able to express yourself well. However, God chooses Disciples in Paul's time and not many of them have money or smarts or looks, not many are in the middle or upper class, and not many are held in high regard. However, that is just the kind of people that God chooses to work through so that we humans don't start to think that God values what most humans value. God doesn't value appearances of having it all together. God wants real people and chooses to work through people who are ordinary and imperfect and foolish to get things done.
So if we think God works through money, or rewards people with riches for doing good works, we know it isn't true. God shows God doesn't value what we value, and works through the foolishness of the cross to reveal the foolishness of our human values. The cross was a symbol of human power, the power of the Roman Empire over the most powerless, hopeless people. It represented breaking people's bodies, breaking their spirits so that all who witnessed and feared would obey. It meant publicly humiliating people who had crossed the powers of this world. It represented the powers of this world to control those who are less powerful. The cross is the instrument that God used to say the powers of this world are meaningless and foolish, when God raised Jesus after his death on just such an instrument of the powers of this world to take away life of anyone who stood in the way of the Roman Empire or gave an alternative view of power.
Finally Paul talks about boasting. No one can boast in any earthly powers, not strength, not brains, not money, not possessions, not positions, not good works, nothing. The only thing that we can claim, is the foolish cross and the wisdom of God who made the ridiculous gesture of claiming us all through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. If anyone tells you your wealth means God loves you and has blessed you and you are meant to have it because of divine will, this scripture tells you no. No boasting in the stuff you have or the wealth. The only only only thing you can boast in is God's love. It is the only thing that lasts, the only thing that means anything.
Finally, Jesus begins his ministry by saying what is most important. He's just been inaugurated and now he's giving his first State of the Union address, laying out what is important under his rule, in his administration. This is what God values. This is who God is blessing: the poor, the meek, the grieving, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the naive, those who make peace, those who get picked on and hurt because of their faith and commitment to God.
We hear the Beatitudes so often, it is hard to hear them in a fresh way that breaks through to our hearts. According to the dictionary, blessing means God's favor and protection. God favors and protects those who are mourning, who are hungry and thirsty, who are grieving. Some have said that these are the be-attitudes, that this is the way we should live, however we really can't change our situation to make sure we are grieving or meek. This isn't a checklist to pass or fail. It is a way of looking at people around us and who we are charged with protecting. It is a word of encouragement and reassurance for those who are already feeling like failures because of their situation and the values of this world that say if you're poor, you don't matter, if you're merciful, you are weak, if you are hungry and thirsty, you must have done something to deserve it.
Here are my fresh beatitudes for you, God honors those who take the bus, for they will see and hear people everyone rejects, God favors those who receive SNAP benefits, for they have a different perspective about nutrition and money, blessed are those who cry themselves to sleep at night, for God is with them, God protects the undocumented through people like me and you for we were once immigrants and outsiders, too, God forgives those who can't forgive themselves, and offers them new life. If ever the values of God and the values of this world are shown to be at odds, here it is in Jesus' executive orders of who and what God values and who and what we should value. This world values power and money and having it all together. Not God! God is with the powerless and abandoned and broken and bumbling.
Take Jesus, God's son. He shows what matters most to God. Not money, not strength, not security, not political power. What matters to God is relationship, love, mercy, humility, lovingkindness. These are what matters to God and what matter to us, the Disciples that are being taught the company mission and values, and beginning our training to bring in the Kingdom. We are invited to look at the world differently than we ever have before. What the world taught us to value, is not what matters to God. Now we see through God's eyes and we honor those who suffer and are in need. Because of that we will suffer, too, but it will be nothing compared to the joy we know from relationship with God and realizing the vision of a world built on love, equity, and justice.
Believe me I hesitated when writing this sermon about the values of this world and greedy pastors on this day when we vote on a budget. Talking about money is a very uncomfortable subject for me. However, when we talk about our values, we see where each other is coming from and it doesn't have to be so scary. This is God's church and you vote here based on the insights that God has given you. I hope you will feel encouraged to speak up, to let love fill your hearts for one another and for God and God's values. And in our daily lives, may we stand up for those most rejected, because the one most rejected is Jesus himself. He is here and we have the chance to honor the one willing to be foolish for us and give his life for foolish, undeserving people, because relationship and love mean everything.