Do Not Say, “I Must Be Living Right”
Matthew 16:21-28, Exodus 3:1-15
I had a college friend, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, who decided that I needed driving lessons. He didn’t object, in general, to the way I drove. And I often provided transportation for friends in the Christian fellowship since I had access to my parents’ car. He did object to the fact that I was unwilling to pass other cars – on back, northern NY, curvy, hilly, two lane roads. I told him, “If God wants me to get somewhere faster, the slow cars in front of me will get out of the way.” He asserted that they would get out of the way if I passed them.
“If God wants me to get there faster, God will clear the way.” That statement isn’t exactly the same as “I must be living right”, but it has a little of the same sentiment – the “God is on my side” sentiment.
Sandlin wrote: “Have you ever been riding in a car when the driver pulls into a parking space right in front of the store and proclaims, ‘I must be living right!’?
Sure, they are half joking but keep in mind it’s only half joking…These are the same folks who ask God to help them win sporting events.”
“I must be living right.” That statement immediately sets us against others. One team wins. They, therefore, must be living right! Someone gets a good parking spot. That person must be living right! The team that lost, therefore, must be guilty of not living right. Those who missed out on good parking spaces must be bad. The poor are responsible for their own plight. The sick are responsible for being sick.
We’ve heard the reasoning put forward by some after hurricanes or other disasters. Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgement on New Orleans. Sandy was God’s judgement on the sinful northeast part of this country. The implication is that those untouched were living right – they were on God’s right side, or God was on their side – so they escaped disaster.
There is a particularly American approach to faith that is called The Prosperity Gospel. It is the faith proclaimed by Norman Vincent Peale, by Robert Schuller, and, most recently, Joel Osteen (as well as others). Osteen has been criticized in the wake of Hurricane Harvey because his mega church didn’t open its doors to those displaced.
W. Island (a social justice advocate) wrote in response:
“[T]he real culprit is prosperity gospel. Prosperity gospel’s tenet suggesting having faith, tithing, and donating to the church will bring wealth and prosperity to you is a big bunch of malarkey. Plant seeds of money and in return money, wealth, and prosperity will be sown, preachers say. It’s the Trump University of religious beliefs. It’s like a casino without the bright lights and loud sounds of the slot machines. It’s a ponzi scheme that Bernie Maddoff would have applauded.
And with prosperity gospel, you don’t have to hide your wealth. Flaunting it is how you receive more donations. Joel Osteen lives in a $10.5 million mansion. Creflo dollar has two Rolls Royces, a private jet and three multi-million dollar mansions. TD Jakes’ net worth is north of $140 million. Bishop David Oyedo’s church, Winners’ Chapel, seats 50,000 people and his net worth is $150 million. People seem to want a rich pastor. They truly believe that these guys deserve to have millions, and you can receive millions too if you give them your hard earned money.”
“I must be living right” seems to promise that God will reward the righteous, God will give them blessed lives of ease and comfort. God will make parking spaces available, clear the road of slow cars, and make sports teams champions. “I must I be living right” leads to our expectation that the church will be safe, protected – and wealthy. Just a week or so ago, a presbytery leader said we needed to work on making more churches in St. Petersburg successes. He asserted that we have two successful churches. “What churches are they?” I asked. He named them. They are the largest and the wealthiest churches in the city. They sit in wealthy neighborhoods. They have huge complexes.
But, where is the Biblical justification for such a prosperity gospel, for a gospel that assumes that those who live right will be rewarded?
There might be a few passages that seem to promise prosperity, success, power, and comfort. Some years ago, there was a popular movement that embodied the prosperity gospel. It was based on one verse in the Old Testament. Someone wrote a book about the Prayer of Jabez. People in the town where I lived were reading the book that seemed to promise wealth from God – all based on a one verse prayer.
But, overall, the scripture points to a different kind of faith. It asks God’s people to care for others, to be aware of the vulnerable and to live in ways that lift up the oppressed and seek justice for all. This morning’s gospel lesson is what followed Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah – a declaration that embodied a hope for prosperity, safety, and success. Jesus spoke of what being the Messiah meant: not success and prosperity, but suffering and death. Then, he said to them, “If any what to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Island continued her reflection on the prosperity gospel. “Not everyone can be successful. We all can’t and don’t have million dollar mansions like Osteen or Pat Robertson. So does that mean we haven’t prayed hard enough? What about the child who has leukemia? Or the person who lost their job? Or the thousands of people who had every possession swept away in a flood? These people didn’t do anything to deserve the problems they are currently having. So where is God’s favor for them?”
Some have noted that this hurricane has not resulted in the “blaming” rhetoric that we often heard after other disasters. It seems that the hurricane struck the heart of an area that felt it lived “right.” The prosperity gospel has failed. It has no good answer to the suffering that comes upon the righteous and the unrighteous. I read of one pastor who used to “blame the victims” until his own home flooded – about a year ago. He had to rethink his theology.
Ana Carter Florence, in her reflection on the gospel passage, wrote of an Old Testament scholar who looked at church mission statements. They may not have been outright proclamations of the prosperity gospel, but they were focused on the self – the self being those congregations. She summarized his findings. “The churches generally described their mission in terms of being warm and welcoming communities. They wrote of their commitment to serve Jesus by ministering to the needs of the community. They described their efforts to provide excellent educational programs, fellowship opportunities, and weekly worship. They declared themselves committed to inspiring, biblical preaching. But not a church he surveyed mentioned the call to suffer in Jesus’ name. What was missing from practically every mission statement was the cross – at least, the cross Jesus is trying to show us in this passage.”
I have to admit I was angry at the assumption that the successful churches in our area were those with good, strong bank accounts and lots of members. There is another church in the city that struggles, day to day. They’ve had a large turnover in pastors. Yet, they reach out to the homeless – feeding them and offering them shelter. They reach out to the hungry. They have a passion – passion – for ministry to and with the most vulnerable in our area. I said, “They are a successful church!” He couldn’t see it. Most can’t. We see only the struggle, or the lack of funds. By the world’s standards, they are weak. They are a failure.
Sandlin wrote, “I hate to burst the bubble but God doesn’t care which team wins or how close to the store entrance you get to park your car….When you say things like this, what are you saying about the folks who had to park in that very last spot next to the shopping cart return where the car doors get all dinged up? And for that matter, if you are ‘living right,’ why didnʼt you take that spot and leave the one up front for someone else?”
Where is the suffering that Jesus endured for the sake of God’s plan and God’s ways? Do we think his cross excused us from that suffering? Or did it not show us that God is present in the midst of it? Jesus is our example. He’s not an insurance policy against the ills of the world. He isn’t a promise of success and comfort. He’s the one who was willing to lay down his life so that God’s great love would be visible through him.
The Christian church chose the cross as its symbol. Yet, at the same time, we seem to reject it. We reject what it asks of us. We forget that it calls us to be willing to give of ourselves fully. Churches need to be willing to die in order to serve the most vulnerable. We are to minister not from worldly strength but from the knowledge that God is with us – even in our own weakness and vulnerability.
“I must be living right” has the wrong focus. It focuses on the self – whether the self is an individual, a faith community, or even a nation. It lacks an awareness of Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow where he leads us. As I was looking at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance web site, I was struck by the fact that Presbyterians are still present responding to disasters that happened some time ago. Many speak of our tendency, in this country, to respond immediately, but to be absent in the long run. We might hope for that day when God won’t ask anything of us, when we can be comfortable and removed from the world’s suffering. But that isn’t God’s call. We are to take up the cross and follow – into the midst of the world’s pain and messiness. It is there we find the Messiah.