There are some very seductive messages going around at the moment in Christian communities in Perth, you may have heard some of them yourselves. They are messages which attract a great many more people than we have here this morning!
One of them is that wealth is a mark of faith. The teaching is something like this: if you give money in faith to the church, God will reward you by giving you back a multiple of the faith that you have expressed. Its not surprising that this is an attractive message to people, particularly those who don’t have much money to start with. The idea which underlies this theology, (what we call the “prosperity gospel”) is simple, God wants everyone to be prosperous, God wants everyone to have a lot of money. If as a sign of your own faith you give sacrificially to the Church, God will make you rich. It isn’t any wonder that the churches that use this teaching don’t have the kinds of financial challenges which we face here in this Parish, they don’t need to have jumble sales and fetes. But whilst those churches have healthy bank accounts there is no evidence that I have ever seen to show that all of the members of those communities have now become millionaires.
Another teaching which is prevalent in some of the churches in this city is that if you are truly a Christian, your life will be marked out by victory in all situations. That is to say that a sign of your level of faith will be how well everything in your life is going. If you live the victorious Christian life you will not be sick, you will not have problems at work, and your family will be happy and successful. When you live your life in victory – because of your faith – nothing will stop you from being all that you want to be.
I don’t know if you have heard these messages, they aren’t new, and they aren’t limited to the churches that teach them here in Perth, they are found all over the world. I speak about them this morning because they trouble me greatly. Despite the fact that they encourage people into a deeper relationship with God; even though they lead to incredible commitment from those who accept them; despite the fact that they are presented alongside a good number of scriptural proof texts to justify that they are “Christian” and “Biblical” – they leave me deeply worried. It seems to me that those people who advocate these teachings have lost a grip on the reality of what life is actually like for people – even for Christian people, and more importantly they seem to set people up for failure and guilt, when the wealth doesn’t arrive, and when life isn’t problem free. They also seem to ignore huge aspects of our Christian tradition.
If the lives of the faithful are to be without problems, then the saints and martyrs of the church were obviously not as holy and devout as we had understood them to be! If God’s ultimate wish for us is for us is that we should be prosperous financially, it would seem strange that Jesus spent so much time with those who were poor and marginalised and outcasts from the rest of society. They are attractive ideas, we would all like to live lives without any financial worries or other difficulties, but they are a message which has divorced itself from the Christian tradition and indeed from the experience of most Christian people.
This week I have been reading a book on the life of Gladys Aylward – Gladys was an English missionary in China in the 1930s. It has been a moment of re-connection for me because she was one of my childhood heroes. When I was growing up I was deeply affected by a film (an old film now) about her life called “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” Having performed fairly poorly at school, and then after a time working as a maid, Gladys felt God’s call to her to go as a missionary to China. But none of the mission societies shared the same view, and so eventually she went out alone, not under the umbrella of any organisation, as an independent missionary. If you did that now you would be a fairly rare breed, but doing it then (especially as a woman) was unheard of. The heart of the story of her life (what is so inspiring for those who come into contact with it) is that faced with the need to flee from her home when the Japanese invaded Yangcheng, she decided that rather than returning to England, she would try to travel on foot over the mountains into Free China. But, unwilling to leave behind her all of the work which she had been doing, she set off on her journey to find freedom with over 100 orphans who were in her care, travelling with her and one assistant, (a Chinese convert named Timothy) travelling with her through the enemy occupied mountains.
There is a moment in the film, which is also re-counted in the book which has never left me since I first saw that film when I was about six years old. After many days of walking, and many sleepless nights, with almost no food or proper shelter, Gladys Aylward was at breaking point. She grappled with despair as never before. Had she stayed in Yangcheng the Japanese may have let the children live, now that she was half way up a mountain it seemed that they were all going to die. In the midst of this pain, 13 year old girl in the group, trying to give their leader hope, reminded her of the much-loved story of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. To which Gladys responded in a cry of desperation, “but I am not Moses.” “Of course you’re not,” said the young girl. “But Moses’ God is still our God.” Gladys and those children made it to Free China, with God’s help, and the twist in the story is that she and the orphans were met on their arrival by one of the very people who had turned her down for missionary service.
The reading from the Old Testament which we heard this morning, as we continue to follow the saga of the Israelites leaving their slavery behind them and heading towards the promised land, is a challenge to what we know to be possible. Some of us will approach the story confident that because it is in the Bible it actually happened. Others of us will wonder whether the parting of the Red Sea is really simply picture language rather than literal language that speaks of God’s faithfulness. However we understand this account, we read it because it is not just a story for the Hebrew people – through Jesus it is the story of each of us as well.
Just like Gladys Aylward’s journey, our own lives are journeys too. They are pilgrimages in which at some points we will feel especially happy and contented, and at other times we will feel like we are being surrounded by impossible options, none of which are any good for us. In the story from the Book of Exodus this morning, the Hebrew people have left slavery in Egypt, but now Pharaoh has sent his soldiers after them to bring them back – on one side they are hemmed in by an un-crossable sea, and on the other the enemy is approaching them. They feel like God has led them out into the wilderness to die. (Life can feel like that for all of us sometimes.) Then God does something amazing, we know the story so it doesn’t amaze us when we hear it in church, but if we hadn’t heard the story before, the parting of the Red Sea is both surprising and incredible. The waters move and create a highway. The barrier of the sea is removed, the threat of the enemy is destroyed, and the Hebrew people are able to continue their journey to the promised land. Above all, this is a story of God’s faithfulness.
I am aware, as others of you will be, that some members of our community here at St John’s are having a really hard time at the moment. Some of you are living in the moment before the waters part, when there seems to be little hope of the resolution of problems – without any options on either side. In some senses we might all feel that the whole world is living like that, as we see the enormous poverty in some continents and the unrelenting thirst for war and destruction in others. Today afterall is September 11th a day that is etched in our memory because of the destruction which it brought on so many innocent people’s lives, not just on that day, but in all that has happened since. A few days ago we marked the anniversary of the Bali bombings. In New Orleans we have seen the terrible potential for devastation from hurricanes and storms which are beyond our control. We might well feel like the Hebrew people, hemmed in by the Red Sea as their enemy approached. But we know the end of the story, we know in the long run God is in control, even though it might not always feel like it.
On Wednesday of this week (14th), the Church around the world celebrates the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross; Anglicans know this celebration better by the title Holy Cross Day. Prosperity and victory mean very different things when we look at them in the shape of the cross. In Christ, to prosper is to be willing to give up everything, for the ultimate victory which he brought came only through being pierced by the nails of the cross. It is the triumph of the cross, which offers new life in Christ. As Paul says in our epistle reading this morning, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves… whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” The cross reminds us most of all that the message of God’s love for all humanity could never be silenced. That in God all that is broken has already been restored in eternity. The cross confirms for us the faithfulness of God.
So when we are feeling like God is a long way away from us, and that nothing is going to plan, let’s remain strong as a community, for each of our individual members, in our belief that God will ultimately be faithful. God wants us to live lives which are marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit: healthy and holy lives full of joy and happiness. But when our lives are marked by other things – failure, hardship, illness or disagreement, this is not necessarily a sign of our lack of faith, or an indication that God has abandoned us. Just like the Israelites, we will find at different times of our lives that we seem to be caught between an approaching enemy, and muddy waters through which we cannot pass. And when we are in that place, let’s be strong for each other, with the love and care of Christ, believing that in God’s time the waters will be rolled back and new opportunities for growth and change will be made available as we journey together in faith and in hope.
Whatever our circumstances, when we feel like crying with that missionary, “But I’m not Moses.” Let’s hear the words of the young girl who reminded her, “Of course you’re not, but Moses’ God is still our God.”