Caring for God's Reputation

Inspired by Mark 10:17-31

A few months ago, your council decided that we should begin a stewardship campaign beginning on the first Sunday in Lent. I liked that idea because it was unique, outside the box, and what better season than Lent to refocus our efforts on stewardship? So, we were all asked to bring stewardship ideas to future meetings. Now, I’m not sure what your experience has been with pastors and stewardship but typically, pastors are notorious for avoiding anything stewardship related like the plague! There are many theories out there for this, some of them very logical, but at the end of the day, I think they’d just prefer to play good cop to your bad cop.

Most pastors want to be the ones who talk to you about how much God loves you, and at best challenge you to be a nicer person, and then leave all the negative stuff, like money, to stewardship committees and councils to deal with. Well, I’m not your average pastor, as you may have guessed by now, for good or bad. I think pastors are missing out on a huge opportunity when not talking about stewardship from the pulpit. One of my favorite books on the subject is called Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate. The author, J. Clif Christopher, writes, “Nothing is more revealing of what is happening inside people’s hearts than the decisions they are making with their [wallets]. Ouch! I remember thinking the first time I read that.

That is probably one of the most convicting sentences I have ever read. After hearing that, how can pastors not talk about stewardship from their pulpits? So, after council made that decision, I sat down and read all of the Bible stories that we will be reading this Lent and lo and behold, they all lend themselves very well to the topic of stewardship! So guess what I’ll be talking about every Sunday this Lent? Stewardship! Well, nobody got up and left so we’re off to a good start! Although, the real test will be if anyone comes back for the rest of Lent! And some of you are thinking right now, “I already don’t like Lent very much and now he’s gonna throw stewardship on top of it!” Calm down, remember, I’m not your usual pastor so let me share my approach before you leave and don’t come back 'til Easter.

The dictionary definition of stewardship is, “the job of supervising or taking care of something.” So, if money is the only thing you think about when you hear the word stewardship, then your only seeing one part of it, one very small part of it. Stewardship is anything that God calls us to take care of. Sometimes that’s about money directly, sometimes that’s about money indirectly, and sometimes it’s not about money at all. So, with each of our Bible stories that we will read during the Sundays of Lent, we will be asking one key question, “What is God calling us to take care of in this story?” Sometimes money will be easily connectible to that answer, and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes I will make the connection for you and sometimes I may not.

So with all that in mind, let’s dig into our Bible story for today. It’s a fairly well-known Bible story, usually just titled, The Rich Man, sometimes The Rich Man’s Question. I’m gonna come at it from a little different angle than what you’re probably expecting because remember, we’re asking ourselves, “What is God calling us to take care of in this story?” So, the rich man in our story gets to be the butt of everyone’s jokes in this story but the reality is, the jokes on them. If you walk away from this story feeling bad for him, think again, cuz this story is meant to teach us all a lesson, not just the poor rich man. We’re all supposed to walk away from this story with our head hung low. Because the answer to that question, “What is God calling us to take care of in this story?” is—God’s reputation.

God’s reputation. What in the world is Pastor Ron talking about? Stay with me now. The key moment in this story, the part that tells us that this story is about more than just a rich guy with bad priorities, is right in the middle, right after the rich guy walks away sad, Jesus says, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s world!” And here’s a key moment, Mark then shares with us that, “His words startled the disciples.” But he reiterates by saying, “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s world.” And again, Mark shares that, “They were shocked even more and said to each other, ‘Then who can be saved?’” Why would they be startled? Why would they be shocked? And why would they ask, “who can be saved?”

They were startled and shocked because they had lived their lives under a false assumption about prosperity and wealth. They had been working under the assumption that if you were wealthy, if you were prosperous, then that must mean that God favored you, God was happy with you, that God loved you more than your fellow humans who weren’t as well off. So, when they see that not even this poor rich guy might not be favored by God, they were shook to their very core! “If he’s having trouble, how in the hell are we gonna get in?” is what they were probably thinking! “We’re doomed!” they thought! This kind of theology is alive and well today, unfortunately. Scholars today call it “prosperity gospel.” Pastors like me call it the scourge of Christianity!

And if you think we Lutherans are immune to it, think again! I hear it embedded in so many questions and laments that I’ve heard over the years. Questions like, “Why won’t God answer my prayer?” Or “Why won’t God end my suffering?” The subtext under those question often is, “What am I doing wrong for God to ignore me?” Sometimes these sentiments are disguised in humor with statements like, “I must have been really bad for God to let that happen to me!” As they laugh it off. Or, “I guess God’s timing is different than mine!” As they walk away sad like the poor rich man. Somehow, humans got it in their heads that if things are going well, then God must be pleased with me, and so the reverse of that must be true as well.

And that’s just not the way I see our relationship with God working, nor do I see that as very biblical. Think of all the stories that got us here when we started back in the Hebrew scriptures last Fall: Jacob wrestling with God and having a limp for the rest of his life afterwards; Israel in slavery; all the men in Ruth’s family dying at the same time; the God-ordained kingdom of Israel splits in two; The northern kingdom is destroyed; the southern kingdom is conquered and sent into exile in Babylon! I mean, story after story of things not going their way! Now, you may also remember that oftentimes in those stories things turned around for them. Why? Because life is a roller coaster! Not because God’s love for them increased and decreased based on their behavior. No, because that’s just the way life works.

God never promised to take the roller coaster away, or to provide a kiddie roller coaster for you as soon as your faith was good enough. And God isn’t the carnival worker flipping the switches of the roller coaster either! What does God promise? God promises to ride that roller coaster with you, to be a constant companion on the roller coaster that is life. So, when we hear people lamenting how God isn’t answering their prayer or how they must not be good enough for their suffering to end, we should feel a responsibility to defend God’s honor, to defend God’s reputation. Now, in the moment of someone’s suffering, it is not the time to correct the destructive theology that I hear. All I can do in those moments is be present. Which is why I thank God each week for this pulpit.

However, I believe the call to defend God’s honor, to defend God’s reputation, falls on all of us. When we hear people blame God for their misfortune, or blame their unworthiness for their misfortune, those are places that we can identify that need an injection of grace and good news. The good news that that’s not how God works, that God is not so petty that God would withhold love and blessings because we’re bad or because we don’t line up with God’s expectations! We are all called to be stewards of God’s reputation, of God’s honor.

We are all called to care for God’s reputation. And in doing so, we are not only caring for others, we are preparing for the next time that roller coaster hits a scary turn. Defending God’s reputation in this way is nothing short of defending against despair, something that the prosperity gospel sets people up for. May this season of Lent, and this story of the poor rich man, encourage us to defend God’s reputation whenever given the opportunity, as we share God’s unconditional love with the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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