The readings this morning are all about the rich and the poor, about those who have a lot and those who have nothing at all. Depending on what sort of church you go to, you may hear the long, admonishing passages about how to care for those who don’t have anything, how to pry open your hand and give of your own abundance. They all culminate in Jesus, of course, who, on his way to a rich person’s house who is yet not so rich that he is able to rescue his daughter from the jaws of death, is apprehended by a woman who spent her little all trying to get well to no avail. Death and illness are those two great equalizers. No matter how much you have, in the end, you will have nothing at all unless you have Jesus. But I am getting ahead of myself.
It’s not just that people can be poor—both individually and corporately—its that whole ages, whole cultural expressions can’t escape their own peculiar kinds of poverty. Look at any place at any time and pause to be amazed by what wasn’t available. Indoor plumbing, perhaps, or 5G. I always like to look at ancient Sparta in shuddering horror. All that military training and gruel seems so bleak to think about. The other brilliant way to judge your own valuation of what makes a person rich or poor is to go to another country and judge all the people by what they don’t have that you think they should—like sense, or the ability to even speak English.
Our own age has a lot of lacks. Not only are there plenty of actual poor and actual sick, but there is a deep intellectual and spiritual poverty that seems only to increase with the amount of wealth and stuff with which most ordinary people are able to fill up their lives. And nowhere is it more obvious—I think, and I’m sure one or two people will agree with me—than in various kinds of churches that have lots and lots and lots and lots of money to spend but lack any serious exposition of the Bible.
You had to know I was going to come around to it. It’s too metaphorically wonderful not to. It is the business of the new president of the SBC preaching a very, very similar sermon to the old president of the SBC. You can watch the mash-up here. Yesterday, the new president of the SBC issued a statement. Here is a bit of it:
We employ a preaching team approach at Redemption Church that is comprised of eight men from our staff/congregation who meet weekly to discuss study insights, outlines, and approaches to the text. This sermon prep process includes working in the languages, consulting commentaries and books, and listening to strong communicators. In that process, I learned about my friend J.D. Greear’s messages on Romans and discovered what he had recently preached resonated with the direction God was leading me and our preaching team. We often consulted his manuscripts along with other resources as we prepared. I found that J.D. Greear’s message on Romans 1 was insightful, particularly his three points of application. With his permission, I borrowed some of his insights and those three closing points. The story of Paul David Tripp was from his devotional New Morning Mercies on January 22nd. His story took place in India. Our team also, with his permission, used The Summit Church’s chapter and verse breakdown of Romans as we mapped out our entire series.
Being a lowly person and not in the SBC, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a “preaching team approach” and was astonished to learn that more than one church thinks about sermons in that way. The pastor who preaches the sermons has a group of people around him to “meet weekly” to “discuss study insights, outlines, and approaches to the text.” These people work through the “the languages” and commentaries and books and so on. The “so on” occasionally includes sermons of the same kind from other churches who must also have similar kinds of “preaching teams.”
I shouldn’t resort to scare quotes. I’m not trying to be sarcastic, I’m just a bit shocked is all. I’ve spent more hours than I’ve wanted to since the dawn of youtube watching sermons of different kinds—Lutheran, Catholic, Pentecostal, and yes, even Baptist. The mighty and the weak alike can bung their efforts online and anyone can watch them. It is quite a remarkable time to be alive. And there is a lot of preaching out there to observe. And, if you watch a lot of sermons, you will be able to see that the poor beleaguered small-town guy climbing up into a creaky pulpit, lacking a silver tongue and a screen behind him to help him remember his point, is often as not far more interesting to listen to than the slick guy on a stage wearing expensive tennis shoes and a muscle shirt, possibly even shouting his inanities because if he didn’t, no one would think anything exciting was happening. Although, my favorite is still the church—though I think now I will always just call it the preaching team—who decided they needed to build a whole basketball court because the life-saving news of the cross was not very compelling I guess.
The idea that the latter kind of sermon—the one with the stage and the screen and the expensive clothes—requires a team of people to cobble it together particularly shocks me because, well, of all the sermons of that kind that I’ve watched, the thing that most defines them is how not very rich they are. It’s that they are so…what’s the word? Impoverished? Often very shallow. Sometimes flirting with outright heresy.
Let me hasten to add that it is not the size of the church that determines the poverty of the sermon. I have been able to sit in actual church buildings with at least a thousand other people and emerge a puddle of grief, conviction, and hope because of the deft, life-giving, ableness of the preacher. Because whoever it was had clearly spent the week alone at his desk, facing the darkness of the human condition, wrestling with not only the details and difficulties of Greek and Hebrew, but with God himself, and stood up in the pulpit—standing, not perched on a stool—to lean over and implore his people to know God. The confidence in the voice came not from of charisma or even conviction, but because, well, to employ another now ruined expression, he did the work.
The trouble is, though many people in the world are rich, especially in this country, and can afford to buy whatever they want the minute they want it, yet they will all, even the rich ones, eventually face death. They will all come down to the grave one by one, whether they can afford good healthcare during their lives, or whether they can put their children into good schools, or if they are able to buy smart wellness homes that calibrate automatically to their own emotional and spiritual health. All those people are still going to die. And what then? Does it matter? Are we just wasting our time until it’s all over, hoping that there will be oblivion at the end and not a conscious everlasting painful separation from God?
Are we so rich that God’s own testimony of himself in the scriptures is not necessary for our lives now and forever? For many people stumbling along to church (and my goodness, it is so hard for most of us to get there, so many hindrances, both internal and external, draw the world away from the pew) they might imagine that the preacher has One Job—to proclaim the gospel so that they might be everlastingly healed from all their diseases, so that they might go into the astonishing lavish richness of God’s own kingdom. Sure, the pastor has a lot of other secondary jobs. As an Anglican, rightly administering the sacraments is a really big one, especially since when the sermon is really good, it moves the worshiper to leap out of her seat and go up to the communion rail, desperate again to taste the goodness of Christ and His Body, as that is the only way to make it through the week in a sane and comfortable state of mind. But if you can’t be bothered with the sermon, what hope is there for the people who are perishing?
Death and disease are great equalizers, but the other one is the Word, the hope of God’s call to the person going down to the grave. Jesus has time for every single person who reaches out his hands in sickening poverty of spirit. The only thing he asks is that you admit how poor and needy you are, that you recognize your true condition, that you don’t lie about having your life together. By his grace, when you go to church, you discover over and over again that his power can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine. It’s time for the church–in all its different expressions–to beg again for mercy, to crack open the book and read it as if it really is the true and living word.