Lectionary Passages Nov. 16, 2014. Zephaniah 1:7-18, Ps 90: 1-12, 1Thess. 5:1-11, Matt. 25:14-30
I'm amazed at how often the scripture readings resonate with current events or ideas.
This week I've been wondering about the correlation of wealth and the demise of organized religion. I notice it in society, in my church, and in myself. When people are comfortably wealthy and safe-not worrying about where food and shelter come from, we tend to feel in control of life. We question the need for God, we blame others for their situations and congratulate ourselves for what goes well in our lives.
I was at our church's seniors gathering last Wednesday when participants were encouraged to bring a book to share. One book was "The Lessons of History" by Will and Ariel Durant. An exert of the book observes that Christianity is declining, just like other religions in the past, when situations change. They say; "If another great war should devastate Western civilization, the resultant destruction of cities, the dissemination of poverty, and the disgrace of science may leave the Church, as in A.D. 476, the sole hope and guide of those who survive the cataclysm."
Wow. It takes tragedy for people to turn to God.
That idea, that people will cling to religion when they are in desperate need, is something I've seen too. When I visited South Sudan in 2009, I met people who had nothing and they lived in constant uncertainty and violence, however, their churches were vibrant places of belief, hope, and change for the better. Even here in Edmonton, people seem to reconnect to their faith at times of sickness and loss and need, rather than when they are "fat and happy."
I've been wondering about the wealth in my congregation, and in my life. Where is the balance point between spending our extra on fancy houses, recreation, lessons...and working to better the lives of others and investing time and money in making our church community a vibrant place of belief, hope, and change for the better? Sometimes wealth hurts our community. It fragments us as we spend time at cottages, on numerous vacations, at too many events. Sunday worship and time together get pushed to bottom priority-how does that help us or others? Are we building God's kingdom as we spend on ourselves, or are we escaping the needs we have at home, at church, in the world?
Zephaniah's words speak into wealth. (He is writing in Jerusalem, at a time of prosperity and religious corruption. Wikipedia has a good, short, description.) I was struck by verse 12. "...I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, 'the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.'"
These people are wealthy and disinterested in God. They are effectively atheists, saying that God is irrelevant. They are a picture of complacency.
I feel pretty complacent too, my life is good. I have a little extra for luxuries. Zephaniah speaks into that too. In verse 8 he references "those who dress themselves in foreign attire." He is talking about luxurious imported fabrics and clothing that the rich and stylish are wearing. This reference is a call to simplicity instead of waste. I think we should pay attention, we who eat Californian strawberrries in the winter, guzzle African and Colombian coffee, travel constantly for "fun", and regularly update our wardrobes with clothing produced in foreign sweatshops.
I struggle to know how to live and preach this message! I do try to live simply, to find a faithful balance between sinful self-indulgence and ridiculous austerity. I want to live generously, acknowledging my need for God, sharing what I have, loving and laughing-not getting caught up in the delusions of control and individualism. I am called, as a believer and pastor, to challenge people to live justly, but it is difficult.
Zephaniah, Jesus, and many other Biblical prophets speak out strongly ( and often offensively) against the use of wealth for self indulgence. They kick us in the butt of our complacency, they advocate for the powerless. It's a hard message. It's desperately needed. How can we engage and stop resting on our dregs?