Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Sermon: Ordinary 25 : Mark 9:30-37 & Psalm 1 - Me, First!

Me, First - Part #1 – Psalm 1 v 3

He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

Whatever he does prospers.  American Christianity is importing a brand of our faith that is called “Prosperity Gospel.” The teaching of it goes back a long time, to the days of the Old Testament in fact. It is formed out of the belief that if someone is successful, then God must be blessing that person. The way that it is taught today goes something like: You can fulfill the American Dream by claiming victorious living in Christ. In other words, Jesus becomes the vehicle of our success.

The trouble with this kind of thinking is twofold;
a)      Firstly, it makes worldly success our goal and not heaven.
b)      Secondly, it implies that those who are not successful are either not faithful enough, or that God has cursed them instead of giving a blessing.

I believe that the purpose of Psalm 1 is to express a spiritual belief that God blesses good people and ruins the lives of sinners. The next 149 psalms are personal experiences that either confirm or confront this type of thinking.

Prosperity Gospel actually twists Christ’s words and messages into becoming magic incantations and personal enchantments that will make us prosper and our plans succeed. For instance, “Victorious living in Christ” is misconstrued from being a statement about relying on Christ during times of Christian persecution and pain, into a personal creed of being able to materially get what we want – success, security, money, wealth, and health. Believing God is no longer a matter of relying upon Him to comfort and carry us through times of crises, suffering, and failure; it becomes a byword of believing in God solely for the purpose of fulfilling our goals and dreams. In other words, we use God to advance our own agenda; we use God to achieve our own success.

In Psalm 1, we find that verse 3 supports this very notion; however, when we turn our attention to our New testament passage, we will find an entirely different story and discover that the Gospel is not about ambition and prosperity; in fact, it’s not about us at all.

Let’s sing ‘Jesus, Draw Me Close.’

Me, First – Part 2 – Mark 9:30-37

I cannot believe that Sophia Loren is celebrating her 75th birthday today. She is a superstar of a movie star and has been in the movies for over 60 years. I first saw her in a movie when I was five years old. She starred opposite Charlton Heston in the epic film ‘El Cid’ which to me is a far better movie than ‘Ben Hur’. Sophia Loren captivated my heart with her beautiful dark Italian eyes and I have been in love with her since 1962.

Ms Loren has also just completed a new movie called “Nine” which is a screen version of the Broadway show. It will be released during Thanksgiving and I’ve just viewed some trailers of the film.  Sophia Loren still looks absolutely stunning. 75 years old and still gorgeous. She once said that Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.” She also said that “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti. 

She was once asked about how actors can become successful in Hollywood. She answered: Getting ahead in a difficult profession requires avid faith in yourself. That is why some people with mediocre talent, but with great inner drive, go so much further than people with vastly superior talent.

A great inner drive can mean promoting yourself first above all other things. It’s not so much being self-centered, but being very aware of the opportunities to express yourself and display your gifts so that others will notice who you are, what you do, and what you can accomplish. A mentality of “me, first!” it takes to be successful. Unlike prosperity Gospel, it does not depend upon God’s blessings, but instead it takes a lot of luck and courage, grit and determination, pushiness and self-confidence.

The circumstances behind today’s Gospel passage reveal to us an incident that is all about drive and ambition, conflict and pride. Jesus has seriously spoken to His twelve disciples about what is going to happen to Him in Jerusalem. He has talked about being betrayed and arrested, executed and killed, but instead of comforting Jesus, His band of followers are afraid to say anything to Him. It’s almost as if they feel powerless and paralyzed emotionally and spiritually. They don’t know what to say; they have no clue as to what they should do.

But when they hit the road again and walk to another village, the disciples talk about their future without Jesus. They’re only thinking of themselves and their survival. Who will look after them when He is gone? Who will lead the group? Who will carry on the business? Who is strong enough to be the leader? In other words, they’re talking about succession issues, behind Christ’s back – quite literally – before Jesus is even gone.

Sadly, I’ve seen this happen amongst families and friends in homes or at hospital bedsides where someone is dying. Time and time again, nurses, doctors, and even pastors remind people that hearing is usually the last sense that a dying person has. They don’t want to hear about funeral arrangements, business transactions, wills or money. They just want to leave peacefully, knowing that they’re loved, that they will be missed, and that God through Jesus is ready to embrace them.

I think it was the same for Jesus that day. He had told His closest friends about how He was going to die, but instead of comforting and embracing Him, they focus on their own insecurities and talk about their own losses.

Years ago, when I worked at a rent office for a housing association in Scotland, I can remember having a very sad conversation with an elderly lady who had recently lost her husband. About a month before he died, he bought a new car and brought it home to show his wife. It was raining that day and he parked it outside of their home where his wife could see it through a window. He thought that she would be delighted with the purchase, but instead of being thankful, the man’s wife berated him for spending the money. She criticized him and chided him about not getting a spare tire for the new car. After all, he had spent all that money, so surely he would have made sure that the car had a spare tire.

The old man went out to the car in the pouring rain and checked to see if there was a spare in the trunk. He took everything out and couldn’t find the spare. By this time, the rain was pouring down hard and the old man was absolutely soaked through. He put everything back in the trunk, told his wife that there was no spare tire and that he would drive back to the dealer to get one. His wife felt as though he should do it before the dealer closed that night. Even although his clothes were wet and he was soaked through to the skin, the old man drove to the dealer. He came back home later that night with the spare tire.

Within a couple of days, he took pneumonia and within two weeks he was dead. And all that his wife could talk about was the fact that she made sure he hadn’t wasted his money because the new car had a spare tire. 

Instead of looking after her husband that ill fated night, all she could think about was her own insecurity. Instead of thinking about his well being, she pushed him beyond what he was able. Her “me, first” mentality actually caused the death of her husband.

When they came to Capernaum, Jesus confronted His disputing disciples and asked them to tell Him what they were arguing over. But once again, they remained silent, not out fear but of shame. So Jesus used the moment to teach them an important lesson. He told them that “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” In other words, to lead in God’s Kingdom and in Christ’s Way, you have to be willing to serve. Greatness is found in humility and successful leadership is discovered through being willing to be the least.

That, my friends, is what victorious living in Christ is all about. It’s not about being blessed by God because we avoid bad things. It’s not about becoming successful and prosperous through claiming it and naming it for our own. It’s not about believing God will prosper us just because we believe in His power. It’s about rejecting all of that “me, first” mentality and being willing to let “me, last” be our creed.

So I hope that we will all be careful about what we read, what we study, and what we take in, especially from so-called Christian authors who promote selfishness and prosperity, health and wealth, beauty and ambition before humility, selflessness, and old-fashioned piety. Perhaps if we actually read and studied the Bible and Gospel, we wouldn’t be so easily enticed and spiritually misled by preachers and teachers, authors and leaders who promote the American dream alongside of Christ’s Gospel.

After all, what came first: Ben Franklin’s “God helps those who help themselves” or Christ’s “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and helper of all.”


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