Three old men are at the doctor for a memory test. The doctor asks the first, “What is three times three?” “274” he replies. The doctor worriedly says to the second, “It’s your turn. What is three times three?” “Tuesday” replies the second man. The doctor sadly turns to the third, “Okay, your turn. What’s three times three”? “Nine” he says. “That’s great!” exclaims the relieved doctor. “How did you get that”?
“Jeez, Doc, that’s simple. You just subtract 274 from Tuesday.”
The math we like is addition, or maybe even multiplication. With addition things add up and we get more. We like more. We’re supposed to be the more people of the world, not the less people. We like the abundant life and all that accompanies it, and I don’t just mean material things. We want spiritual and eternal blessings in abundance, answered prayers, new jobs, healthy children and grandchildren, good marriages and significant work and ministries. Of course, and who can blame us. Who doesn’t?
In China, did you know the polite answer to “How are you?” is “I am very busy, thank you.” If you are very busy, then you must be fine. Busy people are successful people, are important people, are blessed people.
It’s almost impossible for us to think of God, when it comes to math-like terms, than in addition. God is the God of more, the God who gives more, who wants more, who is the most.
For so many this is the way it is. But not for everyone; and not for Meister Eckhart.
Meister Eckhart (1260-1329) was a Dominican priest and theologian who exerts a hold on many contemporary spiritual writers these days. Long ago, he made the startling declaration that God and human beings are already bonded together, already in intimate contact. The only obstacle is our consciousness and the way we think incorrectly about God as being so separate from us. This mystical understanding got him in trouble with the Catholic Church, and in 1326, he was accused of heresy. He died before anything bad could happen to him.
But before he did, he said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.” Why would he say that? (He also said, “God is at home with us, but we are abroad.” Another goody.)
A few years ago the bestseller list included a book on leadership called Getting to Yes. Yes is one of the great words that adds so many wonderful
things in our lives that it’s tough to see what’s wrong with it. “Yes, I want the job.” “Yes, I will marry you.” Yes, I want to be baptized.”
Saying yes means you are wanted and needed and you belong. It means you’re important and doing something with others, something new. It’s the favorite word of the extrovert, the active person, the go-getter, the multi-tasker. We admire the person who doesn’t do just one thing at a time but two and three and more. We want to be so needed and relevant.
Doing more feels holy, or at least divinely sanctioned. We even tell ourselves it’s unpatriotic not to buy more things because that’s how we keep our economy going, which is good for everyone. We tell ourselves God is a God of Yes and more.
But here’s something interesting. The first holy thing in all creation, the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel says, was not a people or a place but a day. God made everything in creation and called it good, but when God rested on the seventh day, God called it holy.
God called holy the rest, the moment or day of subtraction, of doing less or almost nothing. That was holy to God. The sabbath is the day that recognizes enough is enough, that there’s a limit to things, and adding things on top of things on top of more isn’t the holy life. The holy day is the day of saying no not yes. It’s the day of saying can’t instead of can, won’t instead of will.
Perhaps God isn’t the God of more, at least the holy God….
Can I confess a guilty pleasure to you all? It’s a guilty pastoral pleasure, though. I enjoy watching and listening to Joel Osteen. You know, the television preacher from somewhere in Texas who’s always smiling and always saying something upbeat and positive. He took over his “daddy’s” church and now there are like 35,000 people attending each weekend. His hair never moves and he always says the same thing but it sounds so darn good. It just slides down and makes you feel all warm inside. And I need that happy stuff too.
He has some great lines. He says things like: “You didn’t get average favor. You’re heavy with favor.” (Of course with 35,000 there and hundreds of thousands more watching on TV or the internet, it’s tough not to assume someone’s getting average favor among them….) Or, “Don’t just go through it, grow through it.” Or, “Stop focusing on the problem and start focusing on the promise.” Or this absolute pearl of divine generosity: “God’s dream is for every generation to increase.” It’s basically impossible not to get caught up in
the massive dose of positive spin on life. And I’m right there with anyone who feels the feel-good vibe afterward.
Now of course anyone this popular is going to get his share of criticism. Lots of people take Joel Osteen to task because he never talks about sin. He has had to respond to this many times and his response is he doesn’t talk about sin because his ministry is to lift people up. A lot of pastors criticize him because he is a proponent of what is called the success gospel, which I would have to say he is, meaning that personal wealth is what the gospel is actually about. But neither of these two are really my problem with his stuff.
My problem is with Joel’s version of God. I don’t know how to see this God as anything other than a rather large failure, since most people don’t see an increase, most people aren’t heavily favored over others. But above all, this God could only be talked about in a society where vast materialism is the norm and people have a huge expectation that things are supposed to always get better, which of course has not been the norm for societies from Christ’s time until the mid-20th century.
If my analysis is too intense for a sweet Sunday morning, I apologize. But sometimes things have to be said. I guess I’m more of a biblical literalist than my brother Joel.
Now I understand someone may be thinking, “What are you saying, pastor? Does this mean God doesn’t want to give us good things? Does it mean we aren’t supposed to be as positive as we can, think good thoughts, and not wallow in negativity? God does dream good stuff for us.” Of course this is all true… but….
Simply put, the Christian life is not about us getting our due increase and our favor and growing through things no matter how overwhelming or tragic they are. Sometimes you just survive, and hang on and wait, seeking comfort for your wounds.
This is why I take the Apostle Paul as my expert in this matter when he says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles….”
Too many people want God to be the God of getting comfortable but the Bible shows us a God of getting comforted. And there is no promise made that God will wave his magic wand and sprinkle fairy dust and Poof, all our problems will disappear.
It’s not about getting comfortable because God loves me; it’s much more about getting comforted because God loves me.
Our prayers for the sick often don’t rescue them from death. Our worries concerning our children don’t stop them from going astray, sometimes for a season, sometimes for a long time when real consequences have set in. The job we wanted goes to someone else or it never comes at all. Marriages struggle, divorces arrive at our doorstep, wanted or not. Elections are lost. Athletic injuries cut short promising achievement.
It’s simply not good enough, or right, or biblical to say that God is the God who keeps adding more on top of more on top of more until we’re fat and happy with increase and favor. Because if this is God, then what the heck happened to so many people?
We don’t live in Disney World. We live in the real world—and this is the world in which real faith needs to help us, in my humble opinion.
Jesus lived, taught, ministered, died, and was resurrected in the real world. That’s what we hear this morning.
Christ saw people aspiring for things that wouldn’t lead them any closer to peace or joy or contentment or strength or love. He saw them want more as if more was the answer to their questions, the solution to their problems, the goal of their lives. He saw them worry about not being loved by God, doubt that God remembered them, and distrusted they had any divine comfort coming their way.
What did he say to them? He asked them to stop trying to add things and worries to their lives. He told them to hold fast to the Lord their God who watches over their lives. He said trust you are of more value to the Beloved one than birds and grass and lilies of the field. He asked us to find in the small and little and less of life the abundance and blessings and more of God.
Love God with your heart. Open your soul to your maker. Come home to the one who waits for you, to bless you, to guide you, to comfort you.