“To whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
This past week the Powerball jackpot reached $250 million. (I'll bet you didn’t think I’d start my sermon that way.) There were a number of discussions, in the parish office, about what we would do if one of us won. Promises were made about paltry million dollar gifts to the rest of the staff, and presents to the parish, if one of us were to suddenly be hundreds of millions of dollars richer. A certain director of outreach forbade a priest on staff, I don’t want to say who, from buying a lottery ticket in his clerical collar. Said director of outreach ended up buying a ticket for said priest, to preserve the social standing of the clergy of St. Mark's.
The drawing came on Wednesday, and I am sorry to relate to you that St. Mark’s is not immeasurably richer this week.
The past week the New York Times also ran an interesting story. I like to keep an eye on stories of religious significance and this one was concerning a conference that happened recently in Fort Worth, Texas. The article was about a prosperity gospel conference, headed by Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. You might recognize them from TV: perfectly white teeth, in mouths that are perpetually smiling, with hair perfectly coiffed and immovable. They had a huge conference last week, preaching to thousands the news that if you have sufficient faith in God, if you give sacrificially, and can “claim that blessing,” (whatever that means) God will bless you financially. And to demonstrate the truth of what they were preaching, they told story after story about how God had blessed them with money, and possessions, often sent in by people who listen to their message. There was miraculous story after story about how people have given them money, stocks, plane tickets, even motorcycles, to demonstrate their faith in God and their anxiousness for a blessing. It seemed to me just a little too similar to another story which has been in the news lately: Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of people of billions of dollars. Was this prosperity gospel much different, I wondered? Isn't a Ponzi scheme just a Ponzi scheme, whether it has religious overtones or not? And while I might go down, say on last Wednesday last to purchase a Powerball ticket when the prize hits $250 million, I don't expect that, when the numbers come up I will be that any better off because of my faith, or that God will bless me specially, because of the degree of trust that I have in him.
I understand the attraction of such a message, of course. In this time, when our economy is on such rickety footing and millions are facing unemployment, when we are spending money faster even then we can print it, when health insurance is an increasing and pervasive problem, who indeed doesn’t want certainty: returns on investment, guaranteed by smart investment bankers, or even better by God?
Just as with Bernie Madoff, so with the Copelands: if it seems too good to be true it probably is. God is not simply an ATM machine, who feeds out money if you deposit faith and sacrificial giving.
I am sometimes accused of being melancholic in my preaching, but I often wonder if the reverse is not actually the case: isn't it possible that our lives might be harder, because we know God? Might we not be called into harder and more difficult situations and interactions, because of what we believe?
At the least it is an open and perennial question that we all wrestle with. And in the Gospel this morning some, at least, of those people who have been following Jesus around come to the conclusion that it isn't an open question at all. That life following Jesus as teacher and Messiah is difficult and hard, and they don't want to do it any more. Who of us hasn't asked the same question that they do: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Which is another way of asking why the life of faith is hard, why God's doesn't simply bless us with health and wealth, why the life of faith might actually make our lives harder and not easier?
It isn’t just the cannibalism language that Jesus is using in the Gospel that we’ve heard for the past few Sundays, that those followers find so difficult: “I am the bread of life, unless you eat of this bread, you will have no life within you.” It is the whole narrative, the faith entire that he is proclaiming. If religion is a crutch, then people are far more inclined to look for the inevitably disappointing Messiah who doesn't ask for much, rather then the Jesus who makes significant demands. “Maybe,” say those fickle followers, “maybe we need to rethink this whole 'following Jesus' thing.”
Certainly, if we look to the lives of the disciples and the saints throughout the ages, it is hard ti dispute that their lives were made shorter and more unpleasant by their life of faith. Peter, who is perhaps not the sharpest knife in the disciple drawer, but occasionally rises from his confusion to speak words of resounding truth: “Where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” But I wonder if those words seemed a little strained to him, when he was being crucified upside down?
The martyrs too, throughout the ages, when they were going to their rather gruesome deaths, being gutted, or quartered, or eaten by lions, or griddled or shot with multiple arrows, surely they wondered slightly about this open question, about whether it was fair that God demanded so much, even their very life blood.
Surely the saints, even those ones who made it to peaceful death, surely there were times when they wondered if the cost of God’s friendship was a trifle high, or if instead of the monastic life they wouldn’t rather live a dissolute life. St. Augustine would certainly fall into that camp. Or I think of the story, perhaps apocryphal, of Teresa of Avila, thrown from a cart into the mud, on her way to found a monastic house. “God,” she said, as she shook her fist at the heavens, “if this is the way that you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.” I doubt that she was the first, or will be the last to ask a variation on that question.
The question that I have been circling this morning is our own very private question that I don't doubt we ask sometimes: isn't the faith too difficult, doesn't God ask too much of us, isn't the cost of discipleship just a bit too high?
The Copelands would like you to think that faith is a panacea – financial and otherwise – that to have enough faith is to have certainty. I'm sure it is just incidental that they make millions on such a message. I will not tell you that. I will tell you instead the opposite – that this question of faith is one of the great wagers that we as humans make, a gamble as much as is the lottery. I will tell you that faith is dangerous – that God will ask much of you and if, pertly, you are tempted to ask why you then should believe, I will you give you the answer from the Gospel this morning – because these are the words of eternal life. They are not the words of temporal riches, or the words of earthly happiness. Faith doesn’t explain away the hardness of life, or the intellectual quandaries that we find ourselves in, or the existential angst of life and death, suffering and joy. But these are the words of eternal life, and true words, and once we have heard the truth of them we are indeed trapped.
Which is to say that we are right to fear, even a little bit, the hardness of Jesus teachings. These words of eternal life are hard words – they are hard to understand, words about bread and wine, the water of life, Jesus’ coming death.
But they are also hard, uncomfortable words. They are not the words of ease and comfort that one might want to hear, indeed that many long to hear, and look to prosperity gospel conferences, or financiers or political platforms to provide.
They are the words of cost, the words of sacrifice, the words that we should find a little condemning now and then. For they tell us that it is not enough to be religious in that narrow sense – we must care for people who are hard to care for. They tell us that our lives must be poured out, as Jesus’ poured his life out for us. Those words of life tell us that we must give more than we are willing to, more even then we are sure that we can. That the only sure wager or return on investment is not sure or certain in any of the terms that human wisdom or prudence find compelling – not perhaps as long as the odds on the Powerball, but daunting nevertheless.
But where else can we go? These are the words of eternal life, and having found them, or been found by them, we are caught.
Lord, teach us the words of eternal life. Give us this bread always. Take away our thirst forever. Grant us so to know you that we may gamble away our lives on you – who is our unsure certainty, our hard teaching of comfort, verily even the Word of eternal life. Amen.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia
23 August 2009