Success: So-Called Christian Values Series

May 9, 2021

Series: May 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: Matthew 16:24-26

Today's Sermon


"Success:  So-Called Christian Values Series"


Matthew 16:24-26

          Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

Success: So-Called Christian Values Series

            We are in the middle of a series about so-called Christian values, in which we examine if what we’ve been told the Christian faith is about is really what it is about.  I recognize that a series which raises such questions can take a toll, so I am grateful for your open hearts and minds.  These explorations my shake you up a little, but they will also be freeing.

            Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24).  Okay, that part may not feel freeing yet, though those of you with Buddhist sensibilities might already sense promise.  That’s kind of a tough sell, Jesus.  Deny yourself and take up your own execution.  That will really pack ‘em in to church coming off of a pandemic when people have gotten used to Sunday mornings in their pjs or hiking shoes.

            Sure enough, some churches have not only glossed over this message of Jesus’, they have gone so far as to preach its opposite.  It’s called the prosperity gospel, and it does pack them in.  Some of these churches are big.  The thrust of the prosperity gospel is that God will bless you materially, lavishly for your faith.  In fact, material excess is not an afront to the gospel; it’s a sign of how faithful you are.  The point of faith is your own worldly success.  It’s based on a perversion of the true gospel, twisting the message of rightful empowerment of those who have been denied power.  These churches will promise you success if you do what they tell you, and of course one of the things they tell you is to give them a lot of money (and you will already be conditioned not to ask questions about their pastor’s private jet because as you already know such wealth is a sign of God’s favor.  Do you see the convenience of the feedback loop?)  As I said, many of those churches are packed because, to put it bluntly, one way to fill a church is to lie to people, though ultimately the lie breaks down. 

            Jesus does at times offer promise for people who want to follow him (see Mk. 10:28-31), but it’s always couched in selflessness and care for neighbor. Jesus’ own life and teaching demonstrates that the journey is not about being successful by the world’s standards. Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit and activist, once famously said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.  The path of discipleship will inevitably lead to the cross. 

            Have I left you feeling let down?  First, I told you it may not be so simple as forcing people to always be forgiving. Then, I argued that being non controversially nice isn’t the highest Christian value.  Now, I’m saying being a Christian won’t make you successful; it might even get you killed! Well, remember, there was some good news in allowing the victim to choose forgiveness on their timeline and for the community to be sure forgiveness is coupled with accountability.  Remember rethinking a sole allegiance to being nice could help make some real improvements for people.  Similarly, Jesus’ invitation for his followers to take up their cross doesn’t have to be a killer of a message (no pun intended).  There may be some life to be gained by letting go of the life that we think we’re supposed to live, but can never really live up to. How trapped are by notions of success? Are we truly free?

          This is an extraordinarily countercultural message, for we are inundated with messages of how to make our lives better by having and buying more.  I heard a commercial the other day that said, “You’re self-care routine should make you feel amazing!”  The ad was for razors.  In a TED, the great British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said “the most simple way into a culture and into an age is to ask:  What do people worship?”[1] He then went on to posit what a future anthropologist will conclude about us, having looked at the books that fill our shelves and conclude that what we worshiped the self—self-help, self-esteem, self-realization.  He said, “They’ll look at the way we talk about morality as being true to oneself, the way we talk about politics as a matter of individual rights, and they’ll look at this wonderful new religious ritual we have created. You know the one?  Called the ‘selfie.’ ”[2]  Now Sacks doesn’t offer a blanket condemnation of this.  He says, “this is great.  It’s liberating.  It’s empowering.  But, he says, with all our obsession with ourselves, we also have to remember the art of us.  The topic of his talk was facing the future without fear and he says “the simplest way of safeguarding the future ‘you’ is to strengthen the future ‘us’ in three dimensions:  the us of relationships, the us of identity, and the us of responsibility. 

          Sacks doesn’t just preach at his audience, he offers testimony about his own life.  He recalls a time when, in his own words, he was “self-obsessed and thoroughly unpleasant to know,” until met someone who “was everything that I wasn’t.  She radiated sunshine.  She emanated joy.”  He tells this having been married to her for 47 years.[3]  We think obsessing over our own pursuits will fulfill us, when so often it’s only when we get outside ourselves and try to offer a gift to someone else that we feel alive.  Remember, Jesus didn’t just say you must take up your cross; he said those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Mt. 16:26).  

          What Jesus invites us to do is hard, but it is worth it.  We had made a mistake by thinking life is about easy, and easy success. What people truly want is worthwhile not easy, and they are willing to do what’s hard.  Author of UntamedGlennon Doyle says her mantra has become “We can do hard things.”  We can do them and it’s rewarding to do them, reaching beyond ourselves.  When Shane Claiborne diagnoses the declining state of the church today he says, “We’re not losing young people because we’re making the gospel too hard, but because we’re making it too easy.”[4]  His point is not to make faith artificially difficult, but to make it authentically meaningful, worthy of sacrifice and commitment. Every worthwhile pursuit in our lives makes demands, why would we treat faith like a free ticket to success, “cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer would call it. Maybe this is why Jesus isn’t as keen on recruiting new people as modern churches are.  As our youth ministries’ director Jeff points out, whenever the crowds around Jesus grow, he makes it harder for them to follow, effectively weeding out those who don’t want to do hard things.  

          Hard, “crucifyingly” so, and yet totally worth it.  Lose your life and gain it.  Rob Schenck converted to evangelical Christianity as a young man.  He became a leader in the anti-abortion movement, rising to a place of significant power in the religious right.  He found himself on private jets, on the capitol steps, and in expensive clubs, the innermost circles.  Success!  And, then over a number of years it started to collapse around an empty center when he realized it simply didn’t square with the Jesus to whom he had given his life so many years ago.  He recently wrote a remarkable blog post entitled, “Why I May Quit Evangelicalism,” pointing out the kinds of hypocrisy you can imagine.  It is a model for us all to reflect critically on our own commitments.

          Over time, Rev. Schenck’s outspokenness whether it’s on gun violence protection, being affirming of gay colleagues, or critique of political idolatry has cost him mightily among his peers.  He doesn’t have the same access he once did.  I’m sure he’s received plenty of hate mail.  Perhaps the worst sign of all, he’s been pushed to the edge of relevance. That remarkable blog post I mentioned had only 27 views when last I looked at it. 

          The edge, of course, is where Jesus always hung out and hangs out still, and there Schenk has rediscovered his path.  In the blog, he remembers being in Bible college in 1974 discovering that the president of the college used to sweep the floors of the administration building. When Schenck asked him why, the president responded, “To teach you what ministry is all about.”[5]  This is the faith to which Schenck has returned.  He reflects, “After recently walking away from the ministry high-life, the memories of a once simpler and authentic servanthood came roaring back to me—and it didn’t carry with it a warning sticker reading, ‘I’m evangelical—and I vote!’ Instead, that earlier faith instructed me to proclaim, ‘Here am I, Lord.  Send me.”

          That’s his story, and did you catch what it contained?  Freedom.  Freedom from all he was expected to be freedom to be who he is called to be.  When you realize following Jesus is about discovering your best gift and learning to share it with the world, that’s when you find something better than success, life.