The Law and the Gospel, Greed and Generosity, and a Sermon Critique

I am a…eh, somewhat pious person. I spent almost my entire life attending church. I accepted Christ and was baptized at 11. I have read (not memorized!) the entire Bible. I attended youth group in high school and Bible study in college. I have been on a mission trip. I am working my way through the works of C.S. Lewis and a book about church history. I sang in a church choir. I have experienced setbacks and doubts in my faith from time to time, but have always returned to it. My relationship with God is the most important one in my life.

So when I say that I hate church—the Sunday-morning routine, the hypocrisy, the “everything is great—I’m so blessed!” attitude, the promise of rewards for specific good behaviors, the unwillingness to broach tough issues—I want you to understand where I’m coming from.

"You had a life-changing experience here? That's nice, but I'd really rather talk about the ivy on my neighbor's house."

But not this church: Holy Trinity Church in Clapham (London). This is my favorite church.

This whole calendar year, I have been struggling with issues within my “home” church and the Christian church as a whole. For the most part, I have not been able to define the issues, other than the occasional disagreement on minor details and a vague sense of unease. As part of my latest self-improvement efforts, I am determined to pin down and address the trouble, and see where and how I might deal with, or even fix it.

Yesterday, I finally grabbed at something specific. It’s not the whole issue, and may be not even a large part of the issue. But at last I found a place to put my finger on.

Yesterday’s sermon was about greed. The pastor talked about how the United States is a consumerist culture, he talked about Luke 12:13-21 (a parable about a rich man who depended too much on his wealth). He compared Matthew 6:26 and Proverbs 6:6-8, using them as examples of a balance between depending on God to sustain us and being careful to save. He talked about how many people are numb to the sin of greed, how Christians should be on guard against greed as much as any other sin, how we shouldn’t compare ourselves to the wealthy and desire more. He said that we should compare ourselves to those who are poorer and be grateful for (and generous with) what we already have, and that we should involve God in our financial decisions, and that God provides for us things like rain for crops.

At face value, I do not have a problem with any of these things—though I would like to point out that it took me a paragraph to sum up 45 minutes. But after I read a blog post that Joy shared with me, I am more aware of sermons that preach the Law more than the Gospel. And after listening to a podcast that critiqued a sermon by Joel Osteen, I am more aware of sermons that use the word “you” more than “Jesus” and, as the episode says, “Preach the Christian rather than the Christ.” (Side note: both those sources I link are essentially Lutheran, but my current church is not Lutheran.)

Here is the link to yesterday’s sermon if you want to watch/hear it for yourself. PLEASE NOTE: I’m including it ONLY so you can hear exactly what was said, if you wish not to take just my word for it. I DID NOT include the link to invite hostility or discourtesy to anyone involved.

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Peace and love, bro.

When it was over, I realized that this sermon had preached the Law—telling me what is wrong in my life, that I am guilty of a sin, that I must make amends and live differently. But the sermon did not preach the Gospel—that even though I am powerless to save myself from a cycle of sin, God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice offers forgiveness and eternal life. And this was in a Christian church that is supposed to be speaking the “good news”! I’m not saying that we need to leave out the problem of sin. I’m saying we need to not leave out the hope and joy and promise of the gospel.

The most glaring example is that the pastor cited, among other verses, 1 Corinthians 6:10 as a reason not to be greedy:

nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

He completely neglected to mention the very next verse:

Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

The second part could be a summary of the gospel—what our faith is based on. It would have been a helpful thing to include.

What made me angry enough to weep (literally) was that the sermon did not include an example of how Christ showed generosity—even though Christ is the standard by which we Christians are to live our lives. If you want an example of generosity, giving His life as a sacrifice for our sins works fairly well. Or, for a milder example, the times when He used His power to heal people or feed them, or spoke to them when He was tired and preferred solitude. (Hey, maybe Jesus was an introvert!) Another example might be how the God of the universe and eternity gave up the wealth of heaven and attendance by angels to descend to a moment in time and a spot on the earth to show us lowly creatures the way to eternal life.

I’m more than a little upset about this because it’s kind of a big deal.

But no. The sermon did end with an example—of how Ebeneezer Scrooge stopped being greedy after his “conversion” in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Really? A fictional character who was scared into generosity by a few ghosts? Even if he didn’t use Jesus as an example, he at least could have mentioned someone who a.) had actually existed and b.) was converted and influenced by Jesus Christ. Since that’s what Christians are supposed to be doing.

 

A slight disparity

 

Another bit that also made me Hulk-smash angry was that he said that being generous rather than greedy makes you happier. This came toward the end of the sermon, just before the Scrooge illustration, and it almost sounded like a bribe. And brother, I have words about stuff like that. It’s true that it’s better to give than to receive—Acts 20:35 says so—but it’s not the reason to do it in the first place. When people start using happiness as a motivator for living a godly life, it raises my hackles. If you start doing the godly thing because you think it will make you “happy” by whatever definition, you are in for a world of disappointment. Living the Christian life does not guarantee prosperity or happiness of any kind in this world. If you want personal examples, try this single 28-year-old who is trying to practice the virtue of chastity. Yeah I could tell you a thing or two about how happy it makes me.

Jesus Himself said we will have troubles. Our joy and hope is that He is greater than those troubles. And if you go to church and all you hear is what you’re doing wrong and what you should be doing instead, that puts the burden of the Law on you, and that is exactly what Jesus came to address. That is not the whole truth (so help me, God).

No, we shouldn’t be greedy. Yes, we should be generous. But we’re also guaranteed to screw it all up. Time after time, God forgives us for doing it wrong, Jesus shows us what to do right, and the Holy Spirit works in us to make us more like Him. If a sermon leaves all that out, and only provides a list of do’s and don’ts, it’s not a Christian sermon.

Now I’m all het up. Here, have another pretty church picture:

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

5 thoughts on “The Law and the Gospel, Greed and Generosity, and a Sermon Critique

  1. Good thoughts and well written. Sounds like you’re frustrated with topical preaching–one of my chief pet peeves, too, when it comes to Sunday sermons. I much prefer expository sermons.

  2. Or Introverts in the Church by Adam McHugh.
    I listened to the sermon, Em. You summed it up well. His words made me feel restless. Like no, that’s not quite right. Your words needed to be part of that sermon. To give it accuracy, hope and a Christ focus.
    Following Christ is not easy. And church life can be a struggle. I often agonize over why. Keep searching and working with it, Em. It’s worth it.

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