Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
My first introduction to the prosperity gospel was during my time as a PCUSA Young Adult Volunteer in Zambia. Trinity just commissioned Jamal Hyrams as a Young Adult Volunteer in Asheville a few weeks ago. Before leaving on that year of service, my faith was strengthened with a sound and promising theology during my orientation week with the program. I hope Jamal experiences the same thing this weeks as he attends his orientation. And then, when I arrived in Zambia, my faith was stretched in ways I could never imagine. You have to understand, I grew up in a small, white, straight back PCUSA church where the services never went over an hour. And there was never more than a sniffle or cry of a baby in worship. Zambian worship is anything but that – they are anywhere from two to four hours long with boisterous singing, choreographed dancing, clapping of hands, authentic weeping, and a deep faith embodied in ways I so desperately wanted to embrace. And while there were theologies in this Presbyterian denomination that I struggled with, overall, it was a healthy, sound, and reformed denomination, much like we are. But that’s not the case for every denomination or church in Zambia, or in the United States. The prosperity gospel was all the rage during my time in Zambia. It’s a theology that feeds off the poor to make the powerful, usually the pastor, rich. It’s the understanding that if you increase your giving to the church or to the pastor’s pockets, your health and wealth will improve and bring you closer to God. It’s a theology that preys on the vulnerable and invites people into a false hope that ultimately will lead to unimaginable disappointment. In the evenings, at my host family’s home, and when we had power, we would flip through the few channels they purchased and stop on the televised megachurch worship services. People would pay whatever they had, from the last bit of money in their bank accounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the pastors or prophets, a title often used, to “heal” their ailment or make them wealthy. I wish you could hear my host father rage angerly against it. In 2014, it was one of the biggest conflicts the Zambian mainline denominations faced. Members of my host father’s church would go to his Presbyterian service in the morning and then the Pentecostal service in the afternoon, where this type of theology lived. It’s fascinating how people will flock to it, even here in the United States! Think about it, when hopelessness is much more than a burden but a reality, of course, this type of theology feels good and brings about a hope when all else seems lost. I’d forgotten until I prepared this sermon this week, that my host father, who is no longer with us, would use this passage regularly to preach against that toxic theology in hopes of bringing his members back to a realistic world and yet, keep the hope and the good news a live, especially when life for his members was anything but good news.
And so, whether this was Paul or a Pseudonym of Paul writing to Timothy in our letter today, there is still a message for people of faith here to grasp, even if we are not people enamored by the prosperity gospel. The author is writing to Timothy and the church in Ephesus, an evangelized community that held close the narrative of “Christian hope and Christ in the future.” He was writing, to Jewish Christian people who lived under the Roman rule – a dynamic, pluralistic, politically tense, religiously polytheistic, and powerful social world. Equally, as Clarice Martin writes, they are part of a culture “in which luxury and indulgence were largely the possession of a small” nobility. They lived among lower status social climbers “who eyed the prize of privilege and struggled to attain it,” but would do all they could to attain it. To say the least, greed vs. contentment, poverty vs. wealth, social climbing vs. established status, abundance vs. scarcity were on the minds of Paul’s congregations. Paul addressed these issues in several of his letters. And a part of me finds comfort in this, since so much of our day to day lives center around these issues as well. I mean, just this week, there’s been nothing but conversations around debt. But let me be clear. Money is not the issue for Paul. And comfort and being well off is not the issue for Paul either. Paul is concerned about the “love of money” and finding content outside the emotions that tend to turn us inward instead of outward.
Paul is concerned about the emotion around the gaining of wealth and what is does to the growth of who we are and who we are to become. Paul is challenging Timothy and the people of Ephesus to not only think about what it means to be content, we will get to that soon, but also what evolves within oneself when the love of money, the greed of power, the abundance of materialism with a scarcity mindset, when those emotions take over instead of the emotions and actions we know that God instills within us. And to stretch us a step forward, Paul is also addressing the emotions that turn us deeper into ourselves, thoughts that come when greed or selfishness enters on our mind. We all know these thoughts, whether we can help it or not – jealousy, the unkind and selfish words, gossip, the hopelessness when all seems lost, the made-up stories that are absolutely not true, the darkness and depression that keeps us locked within ourselves the worst parts of us that we don’t speak of, but are battling against day to day. These thoughts tend to isolate us from our community, our loved ones, from God. They lift us high into our heads instead of grounding us in our hearts. These thoughts turn us inward instead of opening ourselves up. We tend to be restless people with a sense of dissatisfaction. We struggle with thoughts that there must be something more than this.
But here, Paul is saying that God and all that we learn from our radical Lord, is enough. Paul links contentment with godliness. He writes, “godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have.” You’re probably thinking, so we’re just supposed to be happy? Come on, Rev, it’s not that easy. Goodness, no it’s not. Paul later writes these words, “compete in the good fight of faith.” “Compete in the good fight of faith.” “The good fight.” What fight is good? Well our beloved Frederick Buechner has a few words on this. He wrote, “it’s not the fight to overcome the best of the competition [or the love of money] that he’s talking about but the fight [the good fight] to overcome the worst in ourselves.” Happiness, as we know, doesn’t just come. We can’t just be happy. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of recalculating, a lot of motivation and adjusting our mindset towards the good in our world. It takes intentionality and maybe removing ourselves from of a unhealthy situation or relationship. It’s the building and the growing to become God’s people. It’s the working on our faults and being grounded in our hearts to try as might do to be godly and good people. It’s not being filled with consistent joy and laughter, it might mean taking a medication to stabilize our brain chemistry or going to a weekly therapy session, or embracing the feeling after finishing a good book, or giving thanks that your family is safe and healthy. It’s appreciating the comfort of your home, even if it’s not the cleanest or housed with that new TV. It’s being at ease with your body, a body we’re so hard on, and yet a body that holds you safely on the ground or in a chair. It’s being at ease with your mind. A mind that might be forgetful but holds tight to good memories and can place those not so good memories way in the back. It’s being at ease with your situation at hand, knowing it’s either exactly where you want to be or knowing it might be temporary.
The Broadway music production of The Color Purple had me in ugly tears from the first note to the last. If you haven’t read the book or seen the production, let me tell you about Celie. Celie lived a hard and abusive childhood and far too early marriage. Her babies were given away when she was young and then she was given away to be married and to serve a hard and harsh man. The story goes through her life and how she found friendships, courage, and hope in the strong women around her. Eventually, she’s reunited with her children and finds enough courage to leave her husband and start a life on her own. Towards the end of production, you start to see her back straighten and a light in her eyes. That alone will bring you to tears and then Celie sings the powerful and heartfelt song about the things that she has right now and is okay with, content with. She can live abundantly with the small, few things she has and know that she’s loved and beautiful and is on the way to living a solid, caring, and hopeful life. She sings,
“Got my house, it still keep(s) the cold out.
Got my chair when my body can’t hold out.
God my hands doing good like they s’posed to.
Showing my heart to the folks that I’m close to.
God my eyes though they don’t see as far now
They see more ‘bout how things really are now.”
“I believe I have inside of me
Everything that I need to live a bountiful life
And all the love alive in me
I’ll stand as tall as the tallest tree.
I’m thankful for every day that I’m given
Both the easy and the hard ones I’m livin’
But most of all, I’m thankful
Loving who I really am.”
Our text today, it reads harshly. Initially, it feels like we are doing something wrong in our world, but ultimately, it’s inviting us to pursue a life that God and Christ himself, wants for us. A content life. A life with our family and friends. A body and mind that can care for others and love many and welcome the lonely with laughter and friendship. May we not get bogged down in the restlessness of our day to day, but instead seek out that one small or large piece of our day that brings us full contentment, even if it’s just for a moment. It’ll take practice and lots of intentionality, but it’s a good fight to pursue.
 Clarice J Martin, Brian K. Blount, General Editor, Cain Hope Felder, Clarice J. Martin, and Emerson B Powery, Associate Editors, True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 409.
 Martin, s410.