We are people who are trainable, like a Jack Russell Terrier, we can be shown a hoop and told to jump through it but when you put a tasty treat at the other end, we will jump and jump and jump. Jab us in the butt with a cattle prod and we’ll probably jump even faster. Reward and punishment are the training tools of the world, perfectly valid, but pretty limited as well.
You see, economics professors will tell you that when you delay a reward, when you say that “someday, if you put this money aside, you will be able to retire without worries,” only a portion of the audience will be able to hear you, the reward diminishes in importance the longer you put it off.
Immediate rewards therefore, swell in our estimation, if I told the children’s church that for every right answer they gave me, I would give them a cookie, then they’d be much more assiduously interested in providing me with answers I’d like, probably shouting out “Jesus” all the time.
I’d get more answers, because there’d be a reward, but what would we be teaching them?
Do this, get this. It isn’t faith. It’s economics. Economics is grand, but they already teach it, not just in universities and High Schools, not just in seminars and learned colloquies. That lesson is taught on every street corner and every schoolyard. The bully does not need an endowed chair in economics to understand the value of getting pounded versus not getting pounded.
That is not faith. That is knowledge and we can test it and verify it and that is what makes it knowledge and not faith. Increase our faith in this context might as well mean “help us block out the assault of the knowledge, the wisdom of this world so that we have a chance to breathe, a chance to believe.”
And that would be a charitable reading also. I say charitable because it makes of us passive bystanders, non-participants in all of this teaching and learning of the world’s wisdom, as if we were the victims in this little play we are enacting every day called our lives, victims and not perpetrators.
Alas, it is not so.
We not only hear and learn the lessons, the wisdom of the world, we embrace it. We are built for it. Just like our bodies are designed to crave sugars and starchy foods because once upon a time we were hunters and gatherers and calories were hard to come by and sugars and starches were like little treasure troves of energy, but now that we live in a world of easy and convenient sugars and starches, we have a rash of diabetes and other diseases associated with our diets, our design is now betraying us because we have actively built a world around the notion of fulfilling that desire.
The same is true with the wisdom of the world. We have built a world of material convenience, of wealth beyond measure in tiny little packages, everyone has at least one of them in the western world, a little piece of the internet (hold up phone), or a personalized listening environment so that we no longer have the burden of hearing the birds, or the wind through the trees. Houses can be built with far smaller yards because we have so customized our interior environments, so filled them with little doo dads to distract and amaze us that we no longer feel the need to be outside.
It’s become so much a part of us that we cannot seem to let go of it. We pursue more and more, Steve Jobs was a genius at finding the holes people felt in their lives, mostly before they knew it themselves and inventing something to fill that hole. Lack social skills? Well then, we’ll reduce social interaction to texting and video chatting and if anything gets too uncomfortable, well, you’ve always got the “end” button as an escape hatch.
Is it too much mental work interacting with the universe? We’ll fill your ears with your personal soundtrack, nothing new, only things you already know you like, and then, if that isn’t enough, we’ll put a screen on it so you can watch television wherever you go because that is the hallmark of a complete and well-lived life. Isn’t it?
We eat it up, not as victims of the world’s wisdom, but as willing, enthusiastic participants, promoters of the gospel of surround me with things that make me smile and I’ll know I am alive.
How do you market Christianity to someone like that? How do you sell heaven, so very far away when there’s an Apple store in the mall?
To not see the world as it teaches us to see it is a sign that we are a failure in the eyes of the world. If we do not have these things, if we admit to failure, if we appear to suffer, failing to “keep a stiff upper lip” and the rest of that nonsense. The whole field of engineering was invented to feed this beast, coming up with ways to do things with less work, in an easier fashion, with less toil and trouble and all of the suffering that goes with it.
To live a life of ease, surrounded by your stuff is success, to lack, or to weep, or to suffer is a sign of weakness, of failure.
But we are not limited, or cursed to see the world only through the eyes that we have been given, we are not limited to everything in life being an economic exchange. We are not cursed to see the world only in this way. It just seems that we are.
Because we are not preaching a word of delayed gratification, we are not speaking of a world to come for which we live in hope of someday, maybe, by the grace of God seeing and finally celebrating the feast that is to come and so much of the rest of the liturgical language we have been saddled with for generations.
The final reward is just that, the final reward, the last one, in a long list of rewards for a life lived in faith, of a life lived on purpose, with purpose.
Paul is not ashamed of his suffering because he knows that it serves a higher purpose, a higher meaning, the meaning that all of us need to keep going. Slowly but surely the wisdom of the world robs us of that meaning, crying out and distracting us with shiny objects so that eventually we begin to believe that our purpose on this earth is to be a part of someone else’s machine, a consumer of things, a watcher of movies, a buyer of televisions.
But under all of that there is the meaning that 2 Timothy cries out. He is not ashamed of his suffering because he knows that it is in service to the truth, to the truth revealed to us by Christ that we are not just cogs in some giant machine, consumers in some great factory, like little baby birds, our heads back and our mouths open waiting for the next bit of stuff that the marketplace decides we cannot live without. We are not commodities.
We are human beings, created and beloved by God and gifted with the capacity to love and to laugh and to cry and to be alive and to do it all without fear that all of the wisdom of the world is not enough. It’s a good fear because all of the wisdom of the world is not enough. It cannot give meaning, it cannot give hope, and it cannot give life.
But the words that we speak here. The words that steal away all of our fear and replace it with hope, those are the rewards of this life that we are called into, those are the rewards that truly give us a chance to be alive, to live and love and laugh and weep together as we spread the Gospel with our voices and with our actions.
We can be bold and love unreservedly and for any of you who have tasted that kind of love in your life there is nothing better, nothing better for sale under the sun.
We can do work that matters, bringing hope and building a better world because that is the purpose of living, to grow and to share and to love and to simply be fully alive and if you are buried under a mountain of stuff, shallow rewards for a shallow life, you don’t stand a chance of finding your purpose, you are holding on to too much of the world’s wisdom and it is clouding your vision.
It is not so much surrendering to the onslaught of God’s love for you. It is more surrendering your fight against that love, your fight to bend God’s word to suit your ears, to make it all about how you are doing and not about what Christ has done.
It’s like drowning in pudding and fighting to keep someone from saving you. You know it makes no sense, but hey, pudding is tasty, I wanna stay in here a while.
You can still have the pudding when you are out of the pit, saved from drowning in shallow pleasure, faith does not reduce your joy one bit. “Increase our faith” is the dry of those who are already eating pudding, and are looking for someone to share it with.