by Ellen Sims
texts: Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:11-13
(We reserve third Sundays for contemplative prayer: a brief reflection on one or more of the day’s scriptures and prayers offered, sung, and enacted in varied ways. This was my reflection.)
I hope you caught last week Terry Gross’s NPR radio interview with church historian Kate Bowler. Bowler’s newest book, Everything Happens for a Reason, And Other Lies I’ve Loved, describes how living with a new terminal stage four colon cancer diagnosis is made more difficult by well-intentioned people who try to comfort with statements based on the “prosperity gospel.”
The prosperity gospel, which grew out of Pentecostalism and has been advanced by televangelists, promises that if you’re living right and praying right, you will prosper, physically and financially. You can hear the prosperity gospel in popular clichés:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“God is writing you a better story.”
“God just needed another angel.”
(after the death of a child!)
“Name it and claim it.”
(Hint: Be suspicious if your theology is distilled into a pithy rhyme.)
And of course, “If you send money to our ministry, God will bless you and your bank account and heal your sick daughter.”
We so want to believe that life is that simple, that tragedy can be avoided, that God can be used like a vending machine: put in a prayer, and out drops the money you need for next month’s rent.
I know that Matthew 7:7 says, “Ask and you shall receive.” Scriptures like this one are taken out of context.
Maybe one source of this misunderstanding of God’s providence and power is found in the several covenants God makes in Genesis with Noah and then with Abraham and his progeny, to whom God promised land and descendants to outnumber the stars. I believe at the root of these covenants is a bedrock truth that God’s faithful promise of love endures. And I believe covenants that we make as members of God’s family — the covenant of marriage, for instance, or covenants like our “new member covenant” — bind us to one another and to God in healthy ways, especially in an era of easy come/ easy go relationships.
But next Sunday we must speak of Jesus’s invitation to take up our crosses to follow him. It’s a grim invitation devoid of any promise of prosperity. It is a promise of suffering. And we see in today’s Gospel reading that immediately after Jesus is baptized and named God’s beloved, the Spirit of God drives him out into the harsh wilderness among the wild beasts to be tempted and tormented by Satan.
Jesus never was rewarded with a lovely home or a new car.
Why do bad things happen? That’s the million dollar question we revisit several times a year. We’ll explore more fully “the theodicy” question soon. Today I ask you that question in this form: Did the 17 students and teachers shot to death in Parkland, Florida, this week lack faith? Were they not ardent enough in their prayers when the shooter pointed his assault rifle in their faces? And where was God in that high school?
I believe God was crying in anguish then and God is speaking to us now through our minds and hearts about what we can do to prevent such horrors. Our country is committing societal suicide. Nothing can be more important right now than seeking the peace of Christ to end gun violence with very specific laws and with practices and resources and interventions and attentiveness and compassion and a spirituality that equips us in nonviolence.
God doesn’t need to reward us with a check in the mail. We pray not as a talisman against cancer. We keep covenant with God’s ways because they help bring in the kin*dom of God. Herein is our hope: the consequence, if not reward, of keeping covenant with God is peace and compassion, the hallmarks of God’s realm.