1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "success" as "favourable or desired outcome; also: the attainment of wealth, favour, or eminence." [http://www.merriam-webster.com] Some related words are: accomplishment, achievement, attainment; triumph, victory. The opposite of success is failure. Success is a big deal in our society. Everybody wants to be successful. Of course, what that looks like varies from person to person, but generally speaking, people who are considered successful have a good job, a nice house, the right number of cars, respect from their colleagues. And the more you have of these things, the more successful you’re considered to be. Bigger, better, and more seem to be characteristics of people or ventures that are considered successful. Businesses that have gotten bigger, practices that have gotten better, products that have increased in value - these are successes. You probably know this from work - to be considered successful at work, you have to work hard, never give up, and of course, produce bigger and better.
Now, this focus we have on success, the high value we place on it, is carried over into our religious life, as well. More specifically, into the life of the church. For instance, if I do a search for "church success stories" on the Internet, this is what I get: Wilshire Baptist Church in Texas is a success because it has grown to over 3,000 members in the last fifty years. St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Virginia is a success because it was able to raise its donations from $150,000 to $170,000 in one year. Even within this Synod and this congregation, we think of that a church is successful when it’s getting bigger and better. By contrast, when a church closes, like Christ Lutheran in Scarborough did a few weeks ago, nobody calls that a success. Some people even think of it as a failure. No doubt if you look at our annual report and see that our membership and finances are dropping, you’ll be tempted to think that we are unsuccessful. If we aren’t getting bigger and better, how can we be a success? And if we want to be a success, why aren’t we doing more to get more members and more donations?
But to all the people who say that, both outside the church and in it, I want to say, "Lord, save me from temptation." Yup - it might be a little harsh for me to say this, but this way of thinking, this way of living our lives is a temptation that we ought to be resisting.
You see, this kind of success is empty. For one thing, no matter how much money or power or status we have, none of these things love us when we’re lonely, or offer us comfort when we’re sick. None of these things have ever stopped a person from dying. The friends that you make when you’re successful are often the first people to leave you when you become a "failure."
For another thing, the pursuit of success has no end. It’s ceaseless. It makes us miserable and actually dooms us to failure because when it comes to success, there’s always more. There’s always more money to make, more people to bring on board, a bigger job to strive for, more things to buy. The problem with success is that it never actually gives you any fulfilment or contentment. You always want more. Success becomes your God - the thing which you fear, love, and trust above all else.
And people who want to be successful are taught never to let anything get in the way of that. Which sounds good on the surface, but what it really means is that they have to be cold, calculating, dispassionate, ruthless with themselves and with others. And in the end, their drive to succeed takes away their humanity, and the dignity of those around them - people become commodities, or tools, or resources, or seats in a pew.
And God doesn’t like it. "With what shall I come before the LORD," says the person seeking religious success in our reading from Micah. "Shall I come before the LORD with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" How can I be a success before God - should I give the church all my money? All my time? Will God be happy if I make all my family members go to church, too? "He has told you, O mortal, what is good;" responds Micah. "And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" God isn’t interested in bigger or better or more. God is interested in fairness, and equality, and humility, things that usually get in the way of success. You might even say that God is interested in failure.
But, oh, is that temptation hard to resist. Success is so seductive! It promises us immediate gratification - which it doesn’t deliver. It tells us we can’t be any kind of person worth anything without it. We need it to give meaning and value and purpose to our lives. Or so we think.
It’s like drowning - imagine that you’re caught in a rushing river, clinging for dear life to a tree branch. Even though the branch is small and unstable, it’s the only thing you have, so you hold on. Well, now imagine that somebody in a boat nearby says "Let go of the branch and swim over to me." Now if that was me, I would not be letting go unless there was something else to grab onto, that’s for sure. No matter how small that branch is, regardless of the fact that I’m going to drown if I persist in hanging on to it, that branch is better than me being on my own. I need the assurance that there will be something else for me to hang onto before I let go. And in just the same way, it’s almost impossible for us to let go of our need to be successful without having something else to grab onto. When life becomes overwhelming, we cling to the first thing at hand, to this empty purpose, and with nothing else in sight, we don’t dare let go. The only way we can relinquish our hold on this dangerous false idol we’re clutching is if God offers us something better to grab onto. Something to take the place of the success that drives us along every day.
So what does God have for us? What does God offer that is more solid and dependable than a floating tree branch? God offers us the promise of comfort, fulfillment, and mercy - God offers us blessing.
And so we come our Gospel reading for today - the Beatitudes. Now, there are many ways of looking at what is considered the first sermon of Jesus. They are seen as ethical guidelines, as directions on how to be happy, as comfort to those who find themselves in a bad situation. And they are all of those things. But they are also signposts to success - that is, to God’s idea of success. They show us that what Jesus proclaimed last week is true, that the kingdom of heaven has indeed come near, and it can be seen in those who are trodden upon and those who are considered failures.
- "Blessed are the poor in spirit" - well, to us, anybody who’s poor in anything is a failure, but Jesus promises them the kingdom of heaven.
- "Blessed are those who mourn" - can’t get over your loss, you’re weak and you’ll never get anywhere, except that Jesus offers them comfort like they’ve never had.
- "Blessed are the meek" - in our world, they’d never make it. How far can you go if you don’t stand up for yourself? Well, for Jesus, they’ll go so far as to inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" - righteousness - justice and equality - never got anybody a good job, but in Jesus’ kingdom, those are the people who are filled and never want for anything.
- "Blessed are the merciful" - they’re like the meek, they’ll let anybody just walk all over them. The merciful are bad for profits. Except that in Jesus’ kingdom the merciful receive mercy themselves, something we’re all badly in need of.
- "Blessed are the pure in heart" - if you can’t tell when someone’s out to get you, you deserve it. But according to Jesus, cynics never see God.
- "Blessed are the peacemakers" - well, that doesn’t fit very well with "divide and conquer" does it? Unless you want to be one of God’s own children. God’s children don’t need to conquer - they’re given everything they need anyway.
- "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake," and "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account." We all know that nobody trusts or hires anybody with a bad reputation. But, then again, who needs a good job when you’ve been given the kingdom of heaven.
Yup, God doesn’t operate on the same model of success that we do. God doesn’t reward those who are powerful, or wealthy, or highly respected. Being successful is not a sign of God’s blessing. God favours the poor, God rewards the failures, and God’s reward doesn’t take the shape of money or power. That is what the cross is all about. Jesus’ death - a failure to most people - resulted in the biggest success of all: new life and the defeat of death.
Now, this sounds all nice and dandy, but what happens when you put it smack up against reality? What happens when you try and live your life this way, shunning the successes of the world, and you find that you’re in danger of losing your job, or your house, or your church? Can we really honestly believe that we’ll survive if we turn our backs on bigger and better and more? Isn’t that a little naive? A little foolish?
Well, as Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth, in our second reading, "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to use who are being saved it is the power of God." Paul, after God struck him blind about it, finally understands how things really work. "God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength." Paul is no dummy - he lived a hard life and he knew the realities of the world - if you followed Christ, you suffered torture. If you turned your back on success, you would be without a home or family. But Paul was able to let go of those things, because God offered him something even better. "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption."
Yes, living our lives according to the Beatitudes is foolish. Turning our backs on worldly success, on the comfort and security that it grants us, is foolish. But God is foolish and what God offers us in return is so much better - new life, mercy, comfort, the kingdom of heaven. God offers us justice and peace. God offers us a world where all people are equal, and everybody is fulfilled and content. There’s no better offer than that, and we can thank God that it is one that is offered to us again and again, until we finally accept. Thanks be to God, Amen.