By: Rev. Dr. Rodney W. Kennedy
There are two movements in American Christianity that appear to have nothing to do with one another, but between the two of them they are making a mess of our faith: the prosperity gospel and creationism. The parable of the mustard seed deals with both of these issues in completely different and contrasting ways. Let’s look at the parable, the two movements and then draw some conclusions.
THE PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED
Jesus contrasting the smallest seed with mountains can’t be accidental. Draw the picture: We are the smallest seed in the world and the mountains are the difficulties we face. What do we concentrate on when we see our faith as diminutive and then look at the difficulties of life? Many times we are consumed by the fear of not having enough faith. People often say to me, “I wish I had more faith.” Well, what would you do with more faith if you had it? What if you already have all the faith you need? Or think about it like this: Jesus believes in you. Isn’t that a better way to face the difficulties of life? Jesus has looked at your faith resume and said, “You have enough faith.” Jesus consistently says that there is no lack. The little boy with a sack lunch of five loaves and two fish – enough. The widow’s small coin – enough. The man born blind’s halting, doubt-riddled faith (“I believe help my unbelief”) – Enough.
Now do you see? Even if your faith is mixed with doubt, it’s still faith. You may think it is a second-rate, Salvation Army-issue hand-me-down faith, but whatever is lacking in your faith, Jesus makes it up with his faith in you. Jesus says, “I believe in you.” Jesus supplies our lack.
It took me years of personal agony to embrace Jesus believing in me. I spent years wandering in the wilderness of guilt and fear over not having enough faith. Someone was always putting a list of beliefs in my face, difficult-to-swallow beliefs, crazy, off-the-wall beliefs, and I worried that I didn’t have enough check marks next to “I BELIEVE.” On top of that church members had other lists of expectations that had morphed into solid beliefs about how preachers should walk, talk, act, and live. Those lists nearly drove me to the mental institution. Most days I was convinced that I didn’t have enough faith to face a fire ant hill. Forget about a mountain. I was in despair until one day it hit me: Jesus believed in me. He was on my side. I felt like the elephant in those COPD ads had gotten off my chest. I could breathe again.
John Claypool said that when he finally realized that Jesus believed in him that he felt like he had spent his life riding on an elephant looking for an elephant. I realize that’s two elephant stories and in order to protect my non-partisan nature, I should tell a couple of donkey stories, but I got nothing.
The hard part is admitting that we suffer from these dreaded feelings of not having enough faith. We forget that faith is not measured on a scale that says not enough, enough, or too much. We feel we are David against Goliath without slingshot and smooth, round stones.
Remember the spies sent into the land of Canaan by Joshua? Ten came back to report that the land was full of giants. They said, “We felt like grasshoppers in a land of giants.” When you feel like a grasshopper you will always be intimidated by giants, especially if they have power and wealth. You will surrender your critical thinking abilities to a total allegiance to those who seem larger than life, who talk tough, and promise to give you the world in exaggerated terms and an overuse of adverbs.
If you are comparing the amount of faith you have to the amount of trouble this country is in right now, you are underestimating your faith. When people underestimate their faith they will sell their souls are a little of nothing. It is a typical judgment error that Christians make: We underestimate our faith, our gifts, our abilities, our God. We overestimate the strength of those arrayed against us or the problems we face or the size of the mountains and the giants. This attitude chokes off the faith we already possess because when we live in a world shaped by scarcity we cannot trust that God has given us all that we need.
Can you realize that God has given us everything that we need? As a people of faith we are proclaiming the abundance of God, and as we face the difficulties of life we are enacting that abundance. After all, Jesus promises us abundant life. The good news is that we have been given all we need in order to be faithful people of God. The good news is that we worship a God who, through our worship of him, makes it possible for us to know that although we may think we have little faith, through confession and repentance, through walking without fainting, we have all the faith we need. This allows us to accept our own faith with the grace of God without regret, guilt, insecurity, or doubt.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the mountain has moved. There are mountains surrounding us and our faith that are not the kind you climb or hike or explore. They are not physical mountains like the Rocky Mountains, but mountains of hate, oppression, racism, injustice, poverty, violence in America.
The faith that is the size of a tiny mustard seed has to do with taking your faith to the mountain and going to work. Faith, even in its minimalist form is about trusting God as “almighty.” “It means that there is nowhere God is absent, powerless, or irrelevant; no situation in the universe in the face of which God is at a loss” (Williams, Tokens of Trust, 16). To have faith means to trust God, have confidence in God, take refuge in God, the God who has made everything and . . . . has made visible for us the sort of God he is and the sort of purpose he has in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus” (Williams, 15). Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed is more powerful than all the mountains that we face.
THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL’S “SEED FAITH”
It is so tempting for preachers to over-promise. We are not sure that it’s O.K. for people to live on scraps of faith, leftovers, and whatever it takes to get by. We are afflicted with the gigantic metaphors of America: Bigger is better. More is better. Money is God. We are worshipers of all that is mega and we allow that to make us feel bad about ourselves and our churches. So preachers over compensate by over-promising. After all, it is not easy to get converts these days. Promise them the moon. Promise them riches. Promise them cars and houses and fancy clothes. Promise them anything. That’s the pitch and it’s a pack of lies. It is one of the biggest lies in American Christianity.
There’s a movement in American Christianity that is called “Seed Faith.” The theology of seed faith claims that God wants you rich. The parable of the mustard seed is used to give biblical support to the idea that all you have to do is plant some small seeds – a few small checks to your favorite preacher and God will give you a huge pile of cash, as if God is an ATM machine that spits out thousands of dollars when you make a $10 contribution. Comedian/News commentator John Oliver sent a contribution of $20 to Charles Tilton to test the claim of riches. Tilton wrote back and said God has supernaturally brought us together. He received another letter from Rev. Tilton and it contained a dollar bill with instructions to send the dollar back with a check for $39. Then Tilton sent a letter with a check enclosed. Oliver says, I’ve planted and planted and at last here comes my harvest.” It was a check from John made out to Tilton’s ministry. Then Tilton sent him a dollar bill with instructions to put it in his Bible overnight and then send it back with a $49 contribution. Oliver sent Tilton $329 over seven months.
Jesus doesn’t say that we will be able to buy mountains, islands, seven million dollar houses, or $65 million jets. He says we will be able to move mountains. Faith is not your personal pimp to gain personal wealth.
Being critical of television evangelists is easy and fun, but we should be careful because there’s a lot of this “seed” faith theology in mainline churches. During the stewardship campaign we will be tempted to use Bible texts in an effort to get people to make larger pledges. Confronted by shrinking budgets we will become literalists when reading Paul’s appeals for offerings in his Corinthian correspondence. “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity.” Please note: Harvest of righteousness not harvest of riches.
Now, I have a scientific analogy for you. The smallest seed may be compared to a cell. Kenneth Miller, Brown University cell biologist, reminds us, “The cell is the smallest unit of an organism that is truly alive. The cell is the level of organization where life truly begins.” From a seed a mighty tree. From a cell the universe. This is good theology and good science.
The other “elephant” in the room is creationism. Preachers are steamed over science, especially biology, and even more especially, evolution. This attack on science is as absurd as the “seed faith” preaching about God making you wealthy. Put the two ideas together and you get God making you wealthy and ignorant at the same time. Imagine the country overrun with wealthy dumb people.
According to the creationists, evolution is the E word – the anti-Christ, the beast out of the sea, the assembled masses of Satan’s legions, the great dragon. Evolution gets blamed for everything except the common cold. Ken Ham, creationist leader, believes that the downward spiral of an ever-compromising church started when Clarence Darrow humiliated William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial.
This insistent teaching has damaged the scientific soul of our nation. Americaâ’s scientific soul, our deep and long-standing embrace of discovery, exploration, and innovation, is at risk. “”In short, America has a scientific soul. We serve as an incubator of ideas, an engine of scientific creativity that has lifted the condition of mankind everywhere and opened new horizons of understanding from which the rest of the world can draw”(Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory).
Did you know that evolution is rejected by more than half of the American people? More than 150,000,000 Americans believe that science is false and that unless we return to a supernaturalistic understanding of the universe we are doomed. The only nation in the world that has more people who don’t believe in evolution is Turkey.
“PREACHER WHY SHOULD I CARE?” OR SOME TENTATIVE CONCLUSIONS
In both the prosperity gospel and the creationism doctrine we are being treated to classic demagoguery. There is a surge of demagogues in America at the moment and they are mostly preachers and politicians. Demagogues make promises they can’t keep and teach people beliefs that are harmful and damaging. They teach that we can perceive the world exactly as it is through common sense and that we have no need for experts, scholars, or the collected wisdom of the human race. Demagoguery privileges simple explanations and confirms current beliefs. Demagoguery insists on submission to the established authority; sanction against all dissenters; commitment to the approved list of doctrines. Demagoguery perceives the world as full of enemies and those enemies are attacked, demeaned, and insulted with the lowest form of human language.
The demagogues, like the dementors of Harry Potter’s adventures, are sucking the life breath out of our faith and our democracy. They are crippling the pursuit of truth with lies. They are demeaning the guardians of our Republic with smear tactics. They are throwing dirt on our most cherished traditions and they are promising people the moon, the stars, and eternal life. Together the prosperity gospel and creationism are making a mockery of what it means to be a Christian. The prosperity gospel is heresy; creationism is a lie, an awkward attempt to literalize a metaphor. You know we have a problem when half the churches in America have stopped concentrating on God’s house not made with hands and started obsessing over “bathroom laws.” Talk about from the penthouse to the outhouse, Christianity is embarrassing herself in America. The church would be stronger if she would shed the prosperity Gospel and the literalism of creationism. If we are going to be slaves to Wealth and Ignorance, we are of all people the most confused.
Let’s go back to the marvelous reality that you already have enough faith. You don’t need to add additional rooms to the house of faith by believing that God will make you rich or that God wants to keep you ignorant, in the dark, and submissive to the powers and principalities that rule this world.
You are free to celebrate your faith, no matter how small you think it is. You are free to live in the light of knowledge, truth and wisdom. You may never get rich in money but you can be rich in goodness, grace, and kindness. What you have is enough and what you lack, God will provide. That is the good news. Amen