This past week hurricane Laura hit the Louisiana coast with relatively minor damage unlike 3 years ago when Harvey, caused devastation from high winds and storm surge, a tremendous amounts of rain leading to flooding at the 1000 year storm levels.
I remember a report from then regarding Joel Osteen, the televangelist who heads the Lakewood Church in Houston, the 17,000 seat megachurch at the site of the old multipurpose sports arena that used to house the Houston Rockets. Pastor Olsteen promotes the so-called “health and wealth gospel,” which I will not comment on directly other than to say its a load of hogwash, was in the news. It wasn’t the type of news he normally likes to get. He was criticized for the lack of response to the tens of thousands of people who were displaced during the hurricane. People without shelter, food, any amenities, who scrambled away from the storm with their families just to stay alive.
Osteen claimed, on Sunday after worship, that the church was inaccessible due to severe flooding. The next days this was called into question when video footage was posted on social media showing the church and the surrounding lands dry, a few cars in the parking lot and driving the roads around it. During this Osteen kept tweeting religious remarks like “There’s a simple phrase you have to get down in your spirit, ‘God’s got this’” Someone replied that his pastor was out checking flooded cars for trapped people, not sitting at home tweeting pick me up lines. It reminded me of the old Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where Jim would be in the midst of a pack of ravaging lions while Marvin watched from the relative
safety of his helicopter.
Well it only got worse as the week progressed as more and more social and regular media around the world picked up on this. Osteen and his church kept making excuses. He began to block people from his Twitter account if they asked why the Church wasn’t helping. Some chided him saying people were dying across the freeway and their building was closed. Members of the congregation became furious and started pressuring Osteen and the leadership. Finally Osteen relented and late Tuesday opened his doors claiming he would have done it sooner but he hadn’t been asked to do so.
He hadn’t been asked….He hadn’t been asked…give me a break. What kind of Gospel was he preaching when one couldn’t respond to the basic needs of our suffering siblings. God wanting prosperity for us doesn’t mean God wants us to be materially rich, that’s poor theology. I believe God wanting everyone to prosper means a richness of spirit lived in the response of our lives…in other words how we act towards other, how we live out our faith, what are the rules we play by…that’s what determines our wealth!
Romans 12:9-21 is just one place in Scripture that lays out the actions of Christian behavior pretty clearly, as does Jesus’ life. The actions are clear…and yes they can be difficult to live out. It is a way of living that emphasizes values different from our society and culture.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Never avenge yourselves, No,’if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
They are very difficult and counter-cultural and at times counterintuitive. They threatened the existing order back in Jesus’ time and they still do today. That’s why Jesus said he was going to suffer and die, because those in power and who benefitted from the established order weren’t going to let him to destabilize things further with is new way of living. Peter knew that bucking the system would lead to no good, and that’s why he tried to rebuke Jesus. In essence Peter was saying no Lord, this doesn’t have to happen, we can avoid it. We don’t have to live by these new rules…let’s cruise under the radar…tweet out some religious platitudes without confronting the system. But Jesus’ stern response to Peter points to His reality. Don’t tempt me Peter, I must live by the rules of God’s Kingdom not of the culture is what Jesus is saying. And he goes on: if you want to be my followers, if you want to follow this way of life you must deny yourself. You must deny all that you’ve been taught by this culture, this society’s teaching about what is valuable,
about what prosperity is and instead espouse the values of God’s kingdom.
So “what does this mean to us?” Is this just an abstract idea, without any concrete examples that we can envision? Or not? Are there opportunities for us to live these teachings?
I believe if we try just a bit we can come up with some examples.
On being a welcoming Church, the Cathedral says it has open doors, open hearts open minds… a statement of radical hospitality and inclusiveness. A focus of this has been entered for a while around the acceptance of differences in sexuality, gender expression and marriage. These ideas of what is means to be a truly welcoming Church has been a matter of contention for many over the years including within our own Church. There have been many arguments made from those opposed to this inclusiveness saying that the Church is wrong and just bowing down to the culture. But in reality, I’d say the difficult choice is standing up for the idea of radical inclusiveness, that God and God’s sacraments are available to all. That’s the difficult route. PB Michael Curry says “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are
a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all”. That is the radical idea, that is the Kingdom value that the arms outstretched on the cross are a sign of love reaching out to everyone. Then there’s the idea about justice. I believe most people are for justice…but are they willing to accept God’s justice? I think most people think about justice as being something to do with judicial justice. But God’s justice is about fairness and equality for all of God’s children. Eric Law says: “As a Christian, doing justice is part of my calling and duty. Justice means equal distribution of power and privilege
among all people.” What? Can’t I just give a little out of my surplus? Are we
willing to carry this cross or are we going to rebuke Jesus for speaking those harsh
I wonder, when we look at our day to day lives, how many opportunities we have to take a stand for Kingdom living? How many opportunities to live the life described in Romans, and witnessed to in Jesus’s life? I don’t believe we need to think of big ideas, just simple ones. How about the “do not repay evil for evil?” I can’t imagine driving anywhere on any day without messing that one up. How about the way we deal with friends, families, strangers when we’re tired or feeling that something we value is threatened?
“There is no point in converting people to Christ if they do not convert their vision of the world and of life, since Christ becomes merely a symbol for all we love and want already – without Him. This kind of Christianity is more terrifying than agnosticism or hedonism.” – Alexander Schmemann (Orthodox Priest).
I believe our biggest challenge as Christians is to live into what Jesus asks when it runs counter to culture, to carry our cross and follow him when we really want to be like Peter and say no Lord, let’s avoid the difficult choices.
I think back to Joel Osteen three years ago. I don’t know, can we cast a stone at him without looking at ourselves first? Truth to tell, at times I think we’re tweeting out more good feelings than we’re pulling people out of cars. However, I don’t see these readings as a condemnation…I see them as an invitation. An invitation into a life of discipleship. And it is through that kind of discipleship that we will find true life and true prosperity. God has elected us, God elects us scandalously just as God elects the lowly and the outcast. How’s that for prosperity gospel.
Thanks be to God!