Sermon for 22 November 2009
By Sharyn Hall
Last week, the front page of the National Post newspaper had a very large colour cartoon of a preacher in a pulpit being blessed with money flowing from heaven. The headline reads, ‘Is Jesus a capitalist? Prosperity Gospels of the Christian Rich’. The headline and cartoon grab your attention and provoke a reaction. Inside the newspaper is a full-page story about the gospel of prosperity. There has been considerable criticism of the extravagant bonuses given to bankers and investment brokers, because of the economic failures and the huge government subsidies. Two weeks ago, people in the pews of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Anglican Church in London were told by some high-powered British bankers that there is no indication in the Christian gospels that wealth is a sin.
The CEO of Barclays Bank argued that Christianity and rewards in banking are compatible. The international advisor to Goldman Sachs aligned his work in high finance to the message of the gospels: “The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest…we have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” It is a message which would confuse many Christians, since we often read in the gospels that Jesus criticizes those who are wealthy.
The London executives are not the only Christians preaching a gospel of prosperity. Millions of North Americans follow the ‘prosperity gospel’ interpretation of scripture, which insists that Jesus wants you to have all your material dreams, and if you don’t, there is something wrong with your faith.
Prosperity is defined in the dictionary as success, wealth or well-being. In our society, we tend to think of all three as prosperity. Prosperity for people in Biblical time was a piece of fertile land and a herd of sheep. That does not constitute prosperity in North America. North Americans count prosperity as the accumulation of wealth, but there are many places in our world today where a piece of fertile land and one sheep could bring prosperity.
Today we honour the work of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF). The Primate’s fund provides relief for those who are downtrodden by poverty, natural disasters or devastating wars. PWRDF also supports development, helping people to gain not only financial stability, but also self-esteem, and hope for prosperity, whatever that means to them. The Primate’s Fund is about lifting up God’s people, as people of God’s kingdom.
Today also is the celebration in our church calendar of the Reign of Christ. When the crowds following Jesus saw his miraculous powers and heard his inspiring words, they wanted him to be their king, the successor to David. Their king would overthrow the Roman oppressors and establish the Israelite kingdom again in its previous glory, but that was not what Jesus wanted. His kingdom was God’s kingdom, a spiritual kingdom of God’s will for all creation, a kingdom in which the poor would receive care and kindness, a kingdom in which outcasts would be accepted, in which the criterion for success would be compassion, not wealth or power, in which the hope for prosperity would be for all people, not only for a few.
In our gospel story from John, when Pilate confronts Jesus at his trial with the accusation that he is a king, Jesus gives an unexpected answer. If Jesus claimed to be a king, he would be condemned as a dangerous rebel, worthy of execution, but Jesus insists that his kingdom is not a political kingdom; it is not even an earthly kingdom. Was this a clever statement to sidetrack the accusation of kingship? Probably Pilate and those standing at the trial did not understand what Jesus was saying.
In Biblical time and through the following two thousand years, an earthly kingdom was a kingdom of wealth and power and privilege. We know from hindsight that Jesus was envisioning a kingdom like no other, a kingdom without territory or material wealth. The kingdom of Jesus is the kingdom of God, which is founded on a spiritual covenant. First and foremost it is based on the relationship of mutual love between God and every human being. The principles of God’s kingdom are compassion and justice. The rewards of God’s kingdom are not prosperity or wealth. The rewards of God’s kingdom are spiritual, life-giving and beyond measure. Jesus was a kingdom-builder. He was sent by God to lay a new foundation for a kingdom built on love, not a weak notion of wishful thinking, but a strong imperative to strive for the well-being of all people.
Today we baptize an infant into the community of Christians who have taken up the mission of Jesus to build God’s kingdom. We welcome him into the kingdom in which Jesus reigns as the anointed Messiah sent to all nations to embody God’s love for all creation. As Christ’s disciples we strive to uphold the principles of God’s kingdom, the principles of compassion, justice and respect for the dignity of every human being. The Jesus gospel of prosperity is the Good News of hope for all people. The Jesus gospel of prosperity is a challenge to all of us to lift up all people in God’s kingdom. Amen.