A sermon on Luke 6:17-26, Jeremiah 17:5-10 & Psalm 1 by Nathan Nettleton, 11 February 2007
There is a fundamental culture clash between those who put their trust in God and those who pursue wealth, comfort and celebrity.
One of the confusing things about modern Christianity in countries like ours is trying to work out what real difference it makes in people's lives. From time to time, surveys are done trying to find out, and while they are able to detect some different beliefs, if they survey lifestyle indicators, they generally find that people who identify themselves as followers of Jesus are largely indistinguishable from the people around them. They work the same sorts of jobs for the same sorts of hours and the same pay. They live in the same sorts of houses with the same sorts of mortgages and drive the same sorts of cars. They send their kids to the same sorts of schools and do the same sorts of things with their holidays. They have the same sorts of spending patterns on the same sorts of consumer items. Yet the readings we heard tonight from Jeremiah and Luke's gospel, and our psalm, all spoke of there being two significantly different ways of living: a way that is blessed, but at odds with the world around us, and a way that goes with the majority, but leads to ruin. So, are we getting it all wrong somewhere?
It is probably worth noting at the outset, that this is not a new question, although I suspect it is more extreme than ever before. Jesus' words about "blessed are you who are poor," and "woe to you who are rich" have been causing his followers to look for loopholes ever since he spoke them. The better known version from Matthew's gospel already contains evidence of the early attempts to soften the blow of these words. In Matthew's account, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" and "Blessed are you who hunger for righteousness". But even then, the difficulty comes in trying to explain how one can be poor in spirit while focussing a lot of time and energy on trying to be at least as well off as those around us. We may not feel wealthy, and there is a massive industry that keeps assuring us that we are not there yet, but on a global scale, the average Australian is in the top 5 - 10% of the world's wealthiest people. Sure, James Packer, Dick Pratt and Nicole Kidman are massively wealthier than you and me, but if all the world's people were spread out on a wealth spectrum, we'd still be at the same end of the spectrum as them and a lot closer to their end than we are to the middle.
Now if you take the words of Jesus here simply at face value, then he saying something like "it is spiritually good to be in the bottom half of that spectrum and spiritually disastrous to be in the top half". So what are we to make of these words when we are not only in the top half, but the top half of the top half, and most of us, myself included, in the top half of the top half of the top half? And, if we are so comfortably ensconced in the top half of the top half, why do so many of us so often feel anxious about whether we are able to keep our heads above water and like we are struggling to make ends meet? I think these things are closely related, and if we can begin to see why we feel so financially insecure, we will begin to understand what Jesus was talking about and what we might do about it.
The readings we heard speak of two different ways, and one of the helpful ways of beginning to understand what is going on is to stop thinking of them as the religious way and the non-religious way, but as the ways of two separate and competing religions. It is not that those who pursue wealth and comfort and celebrity have no religious faith, but that they have put their faith in something other than what Jesus calls us to put our faith in. It is still a religion. It is still about the pursuit of meaning and putting our trust in a higher power to save us from ruin and deliver us into the promised land where all will be well. It still involves believing various doctrines and putting ultimate faith in something we can neither see nor prove. It still has its priests and temples and ritual practices. But Jesus called it cursed, and calls us to abandon it and follow him. He seems pretty clear that the two are not compatible faiths. It is one or the other. "You cannot serve two masters."
What we might call "the cult of consumerism" is a religious faith system, and it is so massively dominant in our society that it is impossible for us to be untouched by it. You only have to watch a few ads on the TV to see how religious its claims are. They don't tell you that you should consider this car because it will reliably transport you from A to B. They tell you that owning it will change your life and make you a better and more desirable person. This drink will lead you into life in all its fullness. This handbag will be a touch of the divine. This dining option will reconcile your family one to another and bring true happiness. The meaning of life, the fulfilment of our deepest yearnings, is always just a purchase away, and then another, and if your not sure what purchase will take you there, just look around you and learn from other consumers. Salvation is at hand. And if you doubt me, think back to what Americans were asked by their leaders to do after the terrorists attacks of 9/11. They were told to shop. Several leaders, including the mayor of New York City told people that it was their moral duty to get out and shop, to ensure that the economy kept powering on and the values that America stood for were protected from this attack. Go to the shopping mall temples and offer your sacrifices to the power that makes the country great. Pray if you must, but for God's sake, shop!
When a group of American families decided to see what it was like to get off the consumption juggernaut and made a compact to go for a year without buying any new consumer items other than their food, toiletries and underwear, they were widely denounced as being immoral and anti-American. It's a fundamentalist religious system, and they had dared to question it. What was it that Jesus said? "Blessed are you when people revile you and defame you". The phenomena of shopping as a way to deal with an emotional state is now well known. But equally well known is the fact that the relief is only ever short lived. Like a drug, there is always another hit needed, and salvation is forever still another purchase away. Who was the billionaire who when asked "how much money does it take to satisfy a man?", answered, "Just a little more"?
Jesus offers a radically different vision to the cult of consumerism. He makes it clear that not only does salvation not lie in the accumulation of possessions, but that the accumulation of possessions is an insidious addiction that makes it virtually impossible for us to embrace the things that are the way of salvation. "You cannot serve two masters."Learning to trust God is pretty near impossible so long as we are accumulating the stuff that everyone else is putting their trust in. These things are religious idols, material objects that become objects of worship and securers of our hopes and dreams.
Jesus is not opposed to abundance or enamoured with miserable impoverishment. The miracle of the loaves and fish is just one of many examples of Jesus demonstrating God's promise of abundance for all. And Jesus invited the rich as well as the poor to come and follow him, although he openly observed that the rich found it far more difficult to take up his invitation. If you have few possessions and investments, they are not hard to leave behind. But if you have invested everything in things here, the pain of walking away is more than most people can bear, no matter what sort of abundance is promised. Jesus is not simply saying that the system will be turned upside down so that the winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, will be reversed. Taken in total, Jesus' message is clearly one of the reconciliation of all to all. The whole system of winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, will be done away with, not just maintained in reverse. But for right now, he is being very realistic about the fact that some have the inside running and some don't. "Blessed are you..." "Woe to you..."
When Richard Rohr, the Franciscan teacher, was speaking Melbourne late last year, one of his main themes was that there are only two ways to reach the sort of openness to God that will truly transform our lives. Just two ways: prayer or suffering. And he said that 98% of people are unable to make the sort of commitment to prayer that it takes, so for 98% of us, the only thing that will open us up to God is suffering. "
"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven."
Gee we have trouble believing that don't we? Just listen to the way you respond to other people's news. If someone tells you that they have just lost all their money and are now bankrupt, we don't say, "O wow! You're so lucky! What a blessing!", do we? Or if someone tell us that they have just inherited a million dollars, we don't say, "O you poor thing! I'm so sorry! I'll see if I can organise some friends to help you keep from going off the rails." Which faith system's understanding of blessings and curses do we really believe in? I know I am still far too entangled in the values of consumerism to allow God the sort of transforming claim on my life that I hunger to reach. And if one thing is for sure, the almighty power of the market is way to strong for any of us to resist on our own. In our congregational covenant, we commit ourselves to holding one another accountable for the integrity with which we live our lives and relationships, and that includes the way we spend our money and handle our possessions. And one of the most shockingly counter-cultural but surprisingly life-giving things we could do is to begin to live that out more radically. It won't come easily. If you gently question me about the reasons for some purchase or investment that I've made, I'll probably bristle, because I've been well trained by our society to think that it's none of your business. But if I'm serious about letting God touch me and heal me and transform me into what I was created to be, then I'll have cause to thank you for having the courage and compassion to be the mouthpiece of God that I need to hear.
We are caught in the midst of a massive clash of cultures, one of which we have simply inherited without every thinking about it, and the other which we are called to cross over to. If that call came simply as a set of instructions, we'd have no hope, but it doesn't. It comes in the person of Jesus, in God come among us as one of us to lead us in the new way. In Jesus we've seen what this new way looks like, and though it might take a death before there is resurrection for us too, we do know that the way of life will prevail and that even death cannot destroy the life that God is giving us.