March 11, 2018
There are a limited number of strategies that have allowed the church to flourish. The church can paint a terrible picture of the rest of the world and offer itself as your only hope for survival. The church can push buttons of guilt and shame— core feelings that all but the most psychopathic person can feel—and then offer relief for the very feelings that they have induced and amplified. The church can offer a terrifying vision of hell and a way to escape it. The church can offer a beautiful vision of heaven, particularly to those for whom life on this earth is no heaven at all (the poor, the sick, the outcasts), and offer instructions on how to punch your ticket to get in. There are core insecurities that we all have about life and death, about meaning and purpose, about whether we have lived a worthy life. Pews have been filled by manipulating those concerns.
What unites all of these “lesser” answers that the church can give is that they appeal to our self-interest. They may not tell us exactly what we want to hear—we do have to feel bad for a while; we do have to go to church; we do have to share our stuff—but if we do what we are told to do then we will get what we want. One way or another, this is the church telling us what we want to hear: that the unforgivable can be forgiven; that there is a way out of hell; that heaven is going to be amazing; and that God’s dream for you in the meantime is for you to be rich.
The ultimate version of the church that tells us what we want to hear is the prosperity Gospel in America. In a uniquely American blend of capitalism and Christian faith, it turns out that God wants us to be rich. In fact, whatever your dream is, that is what God wants for you. How great is that, right? Trust me, this message fills stadiums, leads the best seller lists, and supports some of the most shallow understandings of how God is present in our world.
One person who has studied this prosperity Gospel is a woman named Kate Bowler. She is a Church History professor at the Duke Divinity School. Her book is called, “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.” In the book, she paints a picture of churches who simply tell us what we want to hear—which, of course, is the temptation of everyone who has ever stood in a pulpit and cared about the people in the pews (and cared about his or her job!) If you are faithful, then God will bless you—materially, concretely. Not only are we bedazzled by stuff but God likes to give us stuff, too!
The irony in Kate Bowler’s life is that as she was writing this book on the prosperity Gospel, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. In her mid-thirties with a husband and a child and a great job, everything in her life changed. Her life, it seems, became the great counterargument to the theology that she had researched. Someone just told her the truth that no one wants to hear. She now found herself in the precise “zip code” in which a Gospel that is only about hearing what we want to hear is struck dumb.
Kate Bowler has plenty to say, as do her friends and guests on her amazing podcast which is called, “Everything Happens…” If you happen to be a podcast kind of person, I urge you to give her a listen. She speaks about doctors who tell us the truth, friends who live truths like, “I can’t control this or fix this but I will be completely with you through this.” She points to the good news that is about the possibility, with God’s help, of living with integrity and even humor through the most terrible challenges of this life. She unveils the power of a God who inspires us to give rather than appealing to our most base desire to “get.”
Life tells us all sorts of truths that we don’t want to hear: things that are so unfair that our jaws drop and our hearts break. Your job is gone and you know it is because the folks who cheated won. Your spouse confirms their infidelity but, good news—it didn’t mean that much to them so it really shouldn’t mean that much to you. (What?) The “haves” in society get richer and richer and the “have nots” are struggling every day. When these things hit someone else, we work hard to defend ourselves against the truth or we just look the other way. When these things hit us, even very faithful people lose their faith.
Why? We lose our faith because at some level the deal we were sure someone struck was that God wouldn’t let stuff like that happen to us. If we are faithful, life isn’t supposed to be this hard. If we are faithful, life isn’t supposed to include cancer and infidelity and failure in all it’s forms. If we are faithful, God is supposed to bless us…right? We find comfort in the thought that things will all work out.
While everyone is free to believe that as long as they can, I don’t think we are free to ground that belief in Scripture. Think about it… Nothing is easy for Jesus. In order to respond to God’s calling, he had to lose face in his hometown: he was the son who abandoned his parents; he just left; he was supposed to care for them. When he shows up to be baptized, he has an amazing, mountain top moment: “You are my Son, the beloved…” Then, before he can barely take a breath, he is driven into the wilderness where he suffers. He does amazing things: preaching and teaching and healing people but the more that he does this, the more overwhelming the crowds and their needs become. As all this unfolds, in the Gospel of Mark, the only people who seem to recognize who Jesus is are…the demons, whom Jesus keeps telling to be quiet! (Seriously…check this out!)
The thing that we need to realize is that this is Mark not only presenting us with a vision of who Jesus was but it is also Mark speaking to the experience of the earliest Christians. In the wake of Jesus’ arrest and horrible death and the stories that were circulating of his resurrection, it was brutally difficult to be a follower of Christ. People were thrown together who didn’t necessarily like each other or get along. The needs in the community could be very overwhelming. The challenges were huge and evident daily. Of course, if you forgot all that and just considered that every day it was a challenge to avoid the authorities who wanted nothing more than to arrest you, the challenge to simply survive was overwhelming. There was nothing easy or smooth about being a Christian. These folks were not going to generate or even tolerate a prosperity Gospel.
Like Kate Bowler—like every one of us who has ever suffered precisely because we have done the right and caring and compassionate thing— the earliest Christians as well as Christians today need to know that suffering is a built in part of this life, not a sign that we weren’t sufficiently faithful. We need to know that faithful people can fail. We need to understand that you can be living with integrity and speaking the truth that needs to be told and the world can punish you mightily. We need to hear that Christ has been there and done that. We need to see him get knocked down and get back up again. We need to see how people can support, and love, and care for one another through such things. We need to hear the good news that there is a God who suffers with us.
This brings us to our text. It is homecoming day for Jesus! Imagine that you live in Nazareth. Word has been passing for weeks now that this man has been traveling the countryside, healing people and teaching and preaching. It sounds like he is the “real deal,” not just the latest charlatan. And…here’s the kicker… the word is that he’s from Nazareth! This is the big break that is going to put Nazareth on the map! If we are his hometown, then imagine how “special” we are about to be. My bunion? Gone! Your deaf ear? Healed! Our little town that has struggled for so long is finally going to prosper! Thank God!
The problem is that things start to go haywire from the start. Somehow, no one seems to have really connected the dots and realized that this man, strutting into town with his ragtag group of disciples, is Jesus, the carpenter’s kid. Now, we have to pause and recognize what a threat having him roll into town was for the present order of things. The whole community depended on each generation taking care of the other generation. Parents took care of children. Children grew up and took care of their parents and then had children who would grow up and take care of them. Generally, if you were a man, you followed your father’s vocation. This was how things stayed stable. This was the structure on which people could depend.
So, Jesus shows up in the synagogue (his home church!). In this case, it is not the Pharisees or the Sadducees or the Priests or the Rabbis who have a problem with him. Rather, the folks who object are the people who knew him best (or so they thought!) Jesus begins to teach, presumably proclaiming the same good news that had been rolling across the countryside. However, almost as soon as he opens his mouth, people object: “Where does he get off telling us what’s true?” “The only deeds of power that those hands should be doing is making a nice set of shelves!” “Isn’t this the Son of Mary?” (No one referred to being the son of a mother, unless of course people wanted to reference that he had been illegitimate in the first place and oh, by the way, this was the same mother whom he abandoned.) They are offended…not so much by the truth that he proclaims. (Mark, unlike the other Gospels, doesn’t even tell us Jesus’ words.) They are offended because his mere presence is a challenge to their security and prosperity, an invitation to every other young man in town to become an irresponsible traveler, too.
Other Gospels tell us that Jesus’ very life was threatened by the folks in his hometown. Mark doesn’t go there. Instead, Mark leaves us with an image of Jesus shaking his head at the people’s unwillingness to hear the truth, at their unbelief. We see a moment in which the people’s faithlessness, renders Jesus powerless.
Long before Judas betrays him or the disciples abandon him, his hometown disowns him when they realize that this is not about what’s in it for them… Have we come to grips with a Jesus who makes life more complicated, more challenging and more faithful?