Status, wealth, power, and the Kingdom of God

Luke 4:14-30

14Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
 18″The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
      because he has anointed me
      to preach good news to the poor.
   He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
      and recovery of sight for the blind,
   to release the oppressed,
    19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

            We are in week four of a seven week journey through Stuart Murray’s book The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith in which Murray names what he believes to be the seven core convictions of Anabaptism.  I’m not going to take the time to mention what we have already covered, but I hope to give you all a handout at the end of the series with these core convictions listed for your future reference.

            Today’s core conviction is:

The frequent association of the church with status, wealth, and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness.  We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless, and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.

Status, wealth, and power.  I really don’t doubt that God blesses people with these things.  God is the giver of all things that are good.  Unfortunately, we as human beings tend to be the abusers of all things that we can get our hands on.  We cheat, steal, swindle, and abuse other people to obtain whatever we want, to gain from their status, wealth, and power, and then we claim that it was a gift from God.  “God has delivered those pagans, and their money, into our possession.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.” L

            I want to say it again upfront so that I can be as clear as possible.  I do believe that God does bless some people with money, status, and power.  It is crystal clear in Genesis 12 and the chapters that follow that God blesses the man we know as Abraham with money, livestock, and offspring.  I don’t want to say that God doesn’t do this, because it is clear that God has done this and I would say that God is still doing this today.

            But look at the reason behind why God blesses Abraham.  God blesses Abraham to be a blessing to others.  He doesn’t say “I will bless you so that you can build the biggest house, drive the nicest car, and wear the fanciest clothes.”  No, he says, “I am going to bless you so that you can be a blessing to others.  And through you, all nations will be blessed.”  And I believe that was fulfilled through Jesus Christ.

            Our scripture for this morning is the first recorded sermon by Jesus.  Pastors sometimes sit around and we joke about how people’s attention spans have gotten so much shorter over the years and now we have an ADD generation that needs entertainment and jokes and other ways to keep them involved in a sermon.  We say, “People just don’t have the ability to focus like they used to.”

            But we look at Jesus’ first sermon and we see why people were able to stay focused in his day and age: the sermon was all of two minutes long.  And that includes the reading of the scripture!  Most of us can pay attention for two minutes, can’t we?  Maybe preachers today should aim for a two minute sermon.  It sure would free up a lot of time in preparation and everyone could get out of church a little soonerJ.

            Jesus said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, release of the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor.  That seems to be Jesus’ mission statement.  He doesn’t say that he has come to bring financial wealth to the people who will follow him.  He doesn’t promise big cars and bigger houses.  But he is proclaiming a helping hand when people are in need.

            Recently someone from church said that he really appreciated that I designate a fair number of sermons to how we as Christians are called to help those that can’t help themselves, the people that Jesus calls “the least of these.”  Whether they are poor, disabled, or just stuck in a destructive system, I believe that God calls us to help those who can’t help themselves.  It isn’t a handout, but it is a hand up, up out of the systems that tend to keep people down.

But if it seems like I spend a lot of time preaching about how we are to help those that can’t help themselves, it isn’t because I am some bleeding heart liberal.  I spend a lot of time preaching about helping those that can’t help themselves because the Bible spends a lot of time teaching us to care for those that can’t help themselves.  There are over 400 distinct passages encompassing over 3,000 verses in the Bible that address issues related to poverty.  So caring for those that can’t help themselves should be important to us because it is important to God.  I’m not a bleeding heart liberal; I’m a pretty conservative interpreter of the Bible.  The Bible says to care for the least of these, so I believe that we should care for the least of these.

            So again, it is not a sin to have money and sometimes money is a blessing from God, a blessing so that you might be a blessing to others.  But that is not the way that some people in the church see it today.  There are a lot of people that preach what is often called the prosperity gospel, or health and wealth gospel.  If you only pray hard enough to God you will get a better job or a raise, a bigger house, a fancier car.  Your ulcers will miraculously heal, you will be able to run and not grow weary.  Just become a Christian and all of your desires will be given to you.  (It also often requires a small donation to that pastor’s ministry.)

            These are the pastors that are flying around the world in their private jets, riding in limousines, wearing $400 suits, and eating caviar.  All because God has blessed them…to be a blessing to others, of course.  And they bless others by telling them that all they have to do is accept Jesus and he will bless them too.  We just need to overlook the passages that warn us about building bigger barns to keep all of our stuff in.  We just need to overlook the passages that tell us that God gave up riches in heaven to become a homeless, itinerant preacher.  We overlook the passages that tell us that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.  We overlook these passages because God wants me to have my own Learjet.

No, that is not the Gospel.  That is a false gospel.  Paul says it as good as anyone in 1 Timothy 6:5b-10 where he is warning Timothy about false teachers:

…who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. 6But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

            If you were to travel I-75 in between Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio between 2004 and last Monday, you probably would have noticed something rather unique.  Outside of the Solid Rock Church stood a 62’ by 40’ statue officially known as the King of Kings statue, or better known as Touchdown Jesus.  The church built this statue in 2004 out of a large metal frame and covered it with plastic foam and fiberglass.

            Late Monday evening, during a thunderstorm, Touchdown Jesus was struck by lightning and caught on fire.  It burnt to the ground.  All that remained by Tuesday morning was the metal frame that gave the statue its form.  A sign outside the church simply said, “We will rebuild.”  Rebuild, for an estimated $700,000.00.

            If you read through the articles online about this incident and scroll down through the comments, you will find all sorts of comments about why this happened.  Some people say that it is a sign from God that the people of the Solid Rock church were living in sin.  Some people claim that it was God’s way of objecting to the large amount of money that was spent on building the statue in the first place.  Others quote from the Ten Commandments where it says that you shall not make any engraved image of God.  Some called the building and rebuilding of the statue “idol worship”.

            Why do I think that the statue of Jesus burnt down?  Well, when you make a statue out of metal and stick it 62 feet in the air with nothing else that high around, we have a name for that.  It is called a lightning rod.  62 feet is about the height of some of the smaller silos that you will find on a farm and they get struck by lightning all of the time.  But they are not made of a flammable material so they don’t burn to the ground.

            Regardless of why this statue was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground, I want us all to struggle with the cost of rebuilding the statue and the purpose that the statue fulfills.  $700,000 is a lot of money, especially in a period of economic recession.  That would pay a lot of bills and buy a lot of bags of rice for a lot of people.

            But we also have to ask if that statue really helped people connect with God.  Was it a tool used to worship our creator?  Perhaps some people felt that way, and it is really hard to criticize spending money like that.  How can you put a price on connecting with the divine?  Was it idolatry?  Were they breaking the 2nd commandment?  I don’t know.  But I guess that in the end, I come out repeating the words of Jesus (from Hosea), “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

            I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  Sure, God commands sacrifice from his people.  But I think the point is that sometimes we get so caught up in the things that we think God wants that we neglect to love those that God loves.  We get so caught up in loving God that we forget to love our neighbor.

            In Luke’s Gospel, we find the story of an expert in the law that came up to Jesus and he asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life.  And as Jesus often does, he turns it back on the teacher of the law and he says, “what do you think you need to do?”  And evidently this guy has been paying attention to Jesus because he answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself…but who is my neighbor?”

            Jesus then tells him a story about a man that was traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when some robbers came upon him, beat him, and left him for dead.  But it was a well-traveled road and a priest comes across the bloody and beaten man.  A priest!  A religious man, surely he will help.  But no, he moves to the other side of the road and keeps on walking.

            Thankfully another man comes along.  This time it is a Levite.  A good man from a good family.  Another religious man.  Surely he will help!  But no, he too crosses over to the other side of the road and keeps on walking.  I’ve got places to go and people to see.  There isn’t enough time to stop and help this man.

            But then comes a third man.  A Samaritan, an outsider.  Despicable, detestable, Samaritans and Jews did not get along.  But yet this Samaritan doesn’t cross to the other side of the road.  The Samaritan actually stops to help the Jewish man.  He tends to the man’s wounds and he puts the Jewish man on his own donkey and takes him to the nearest town.  That meant that the Samaritan had to walk.  When they get to the town, they come to an inn and the Samaritan goes to the innkeeper and gives him two silver coins, two denarii.  And he tells the innkeeper that he has to keep going on, but if the innkeeper needs more to care for the beaten man, the Samaritan is going to come back by in just a few days.  And any additional cost that is needed, the Samaritan will pay.  He gives the 1st century equivalent of a blank check to the innkeeper and says, “Just see to it that this man is cared for.”

            Jesus asks, “Which of these men was the neighbor?”  The priest?  The Levite?  No, it was the Samaritan.  The priest, the Levite, these were religious people.  These were people that were supposed to love God and serve him, but they neglect to serve another person made in the image of God.  They cross to the other side of the road to avoid helping someone, a brother in need.  And it is very possible that they did not want to become ceremonially unclean.  It is very possible that they were afraid that if they did tend to the man that they would not be able to participate in the religious ceremonies that following Sabbath.  But they did not understand the saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

            When Sonya and I moved into our home in Staunton in July of 2008, we knew where we wanted to live.  We looked specifically on the North/West side of town.  Many people might hear that and assume that we wanted to live in a house in that area so that we could be close to the church.  And that is a good reason to live in that part of town.  But that wasn’t our reason.  Our reason for wanting to live on the NW part of town is because we wanted to live close to Gypsy Hill Park.

            We love the park, with its free music and baseball games in the summer.  We love the Christmas lights in the winter.  We love the duck pond, with the exception of right after it rains.  Yeah, don’t go to the duck pond after a heavy rain.  It mixes things up a bit and there is a bit of an odor.

            Sonya and I have enjoyed being able to walk one block to get to the park and take the 1.33 mile loop around.  And thanks to the lovely stroller that the church bought for us, we love to push Paxton around the park as well.  He and I often go to the park to jog a lap or two.

            The park is just an interesting place to be.  And there are all different kinds of people at the park, and they tend to hang out in certain places.  There is the redneck section, the hippie section, the family section, the old-men-tossing-horseshoes section.  So as Paxton and I are out for our jog, we pass all of these different people.  Different ethnic groups, different social classes, different people.  We have numerous opportunities to stop and talk with all sorts of people.  If you want to meet people, just push a baby around the park or walk a dog.  It is surprising how many people will approach you and talk to you if you have either a baby in a stroller or if you are walking a dog.  Imagine how many people would talk with you if you were pushing a dog in a stroller?

            But I have something that I use almost every time that Paxton and I go to the park.  It is an amazing device that allows me to be invisible, and it makes other people invisible to me.  They can’t see me, and I can’t see them.  It is my iPod.  So no longer is it me and a couple hundred people of every race and social status in Staunton.  Now it is me and Paxton, and often Curt Cobain. 

            These people, these invisible people are my neighbors.  But by putting the headphones in my ears and avoiding eye contact, I am crossing to the other side of the road.  I am like the priest and the Levite from the story of the Good Samaritan.  Sure, I have a good reason to not stop and talk, to not stop and help.  I am trying to beat my best time and I need to get somewhere.  But these are people made in the image of God.  I might want to walk by them, I might even want to walk to the other side of the road to avoid them.  I might feel superior to them, I might feel like I am better than them.  I might want to critique the way that they are living their lives.  But that is not the way of Christ.

      Jesus said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, release of the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor.  That is pretty hard to do when you cross to the other side of the road to avoid them.

      The church was never meant to be a place of status, wealth, and power.  The church was intended to be a place of love and service to others.  We are called to care for the least of these.  It is important to God, so it should be important to us as well.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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