This sermon was preached by a friend of mine Brandon Perkins and has been shared with his permission. You can follow Brandon on Twitter @thePreacherPerk
The Problem with the American Dream
Luke 18:10-13, 18-25
I have a confession, It’s a confession that I hope will not discount your trust in me to be your youth day preacher this morning. I, Brandon J. Perkins am an addict. That’s right I am addict. However, before you throw me out of your church please listen to my predicament and how I arrived in my current state. I suppose my addiction can be traced to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA on July 4, 1776. It was there that Caucasian male colonists had been meeting in an effort to find a way to end the tyranny that they faced. When they emerged from their meetings on this fateful day they gave us a document whose words dripped with the double mindedness. On that document I read,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It is these words that have both broken bonds and yet tighten shackles.
It these words that have both liberated and oppressed.
It is these words that have brought joy and the same words have brought sorrow.
It is these words that lie at the heart of my addiction.
These words are my drug because I am in fact addicted to the American Dream, and if you are honest with yourselves today you too are in fact addicted to this American Dream.
The problem is this Dream looks good on paper. It looks good until you dig through the white supremacist patriarchal layers that make up its foundation. Those words that created this Dream were never intended for people who look like me. They were never intended for any Daughters of Eve. They were never intended for anybody that wasn’t White, Male, and Wealthy, and yet we have taken this dream and made it our own.
Yes, those words have created a culture that sends us to school every day t learn what they want us to learn while devaluing critical thinking skills and an appreciation for all the peoples of the world. Yes, we take out tens of thousands in student loans trying to be what society calls “successful.” Yes, we become suspicious of men who look like us because society has said they are threat to our security. Yes, we listen to music with great musical rhythms and beats, but ignore the lyrics that degrade our sisters as they say, “you're an animal, baby, it's in your nature.” Yes, we tear down our sisters because they are not as light skinned as us and their hair isn’t as straight as ours because that is the definition of beauty that has been fed to us. Yes, we come to church because of habit and may never ask the question, “What does any of this have to do with my life.”
We have gotten hooked on the drug of the American Dream that tells us to Get Money, Get Status, and Get Religion while ignoring how, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” alludes so many of us. We ignore how these words have done more to foster separation, inequality, and a devaluing of human life than they have to foster community. We must ask ourselves this morning, “How can we as people of God deal with our addiction to the American Dream?”
Historical and Body-
In our text this morning we see another person who has either subconsciously or willing ingested the drug of the Dream. It is not the American Dream, but the Jewish Dream. It is a dream similar to our dream. With the summer of Roman occupation was glaring down upon the backs of God’s chosen people this nation of people needed some hope. With injustice in the distribution of wealth these people needed something to hold on to. With a system designed for their demise and servitude these people needed to believe that things could be different. It is this environment that births this ruler who appears in our text.
We are not told if he is from the Jewish peasantry or the Jewish elite.
We aren’t told if he grew up on Wall Street or Blank Street.
We aren’t told if he grew up with the best education or no education at all. All we know is that now he is a ruler under the oppressive Roman Empire ruling over people who look like him.
The problem with getting status is that we have to check who our loyalties lie with. You can go off to school and get a bachelors and masters degree (and you should as I am a huge advocate for higher education), land a job with the Federal Government, and end up signing off on policies that make it harder for folks who you grew up with to get into college. You can land a job with a Fortune 500 company and then see policies enacted that prohibit persons whom you love from getting affordable homes. You can become a doctor because of your desire to save lives, but then be forced to turn needy patients away because they cannot your hourly rate. You can become a preacher of this glorious Gospel, but then be lead astray to become a celebrity preacher on a reality TV show on BET, TLC, or Lifetime.
We have to check who our loyalties lie with.
Are we gonna serve people or are we gonna serve an principalities and powers with unjust policies?
Here in this text with this ruler who has a great deal of status and power we find Jesus doing as he has so often done. The great Rabbi is teaching but more than that he is embodying how the kingdom of God should look. Growing up I remember hearing about the kingdom of God, but it was a kingdom that my grandma said was in the sweet by and by. It was a kingdom with three gates in the East, three in the West, three in the North, and three in the South. It was one with streets paved with gold. It was one where I’m told that every day will Sunday and sweet Sabbath will have no end. But the kingdom of God that Jesus is talking about in Luke 18 is not the one in the sweet by and by, but it is the one that He wants to see come on Earth. It is kingdom that we pray about as we say, “Our Father and Mother, Hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done. On Earth as it is in Heaven.”
This kingdom of God takes seriously the present needs of humanity. Yes, I can hear Rev. Dr. James Cone say,
“What good are golden crowns, slippers, white robes, or even eternal life, if it means that we have to turn our backs on the pain and suffering of our own children?”
Yes, any religion that teaches us to spend our entire lives pursuing a Heavenly kingdom and forsaking our call to build one here on Earth is a religion not worth having.
That’s why Jesus here in this 18th chapter of Luke spends time telling parables about widows looking for justice. He spends time telling us about the righteousness of the Pharisee vs. the Tax Collector. He spends times telling us to that kingdom of God belongs to the little children and that we should never hinder them from partaking in it. While Jesus is teaching us about equality and a new way of being here comes this ruler.
Can you imagine the scene? Jesus is teaching a new kingdom on Earth in the midst of a poor population of people who need to have a reason to hope and believe that better days are ahead of them and then here comes one of their own who through some means has escaped a life of poverty and hopelessness. He comes in this crowd of poor people whom he shares a lineage with not dressed similar to them, but wearing the clothes of the Roman Empire. Then this sellout has the nerve to interrupt the teaching of Jesus and ask a question. Listen to his words again, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
When you have ingested this American Dream, when you have ingested the philosophy of Get Money, Get Status, and Get Religion you reduce everything in life down to, “what do I have to do get what I want.” This ruler comes to Jesus and essentially says what formula do I have to perform to get into this kingdom that I’ve heard you talking about. When I was in the 11th grade I took Geometry, a class I hated and never really understood the meaning of. Nevertheless I did learn a thing or two about formulas. I learned from the Pythagorean Theorem, the formula for a right triangle in case you all didn’t know, that A2 + B2 will always equal C2. This ruler in our text is trying to figure out how he can solve for C and reach eternal life. Can’t you hear him saying…
“Look Jesus, I’ve got money I can give you, I’ve got a great job if you need a favor, I’ve got relationships with the High Priest if you want inside track to the Temple. Jesus I’ve got all these things I just need to know what I got to do to get this last piece of the puzzle.”
Yes, this ruler shows us what happens when you reduce religion to your idol and you it view as something that you do to get something in return, and is that the same kind of religion that we perpetuate today. I’m glad this morning to be in a PCUSA church because as compared to other denominations I’ve preached in the PCUSA at least talks about justice, equality, and access. Yet, this morning I stopped by to say that we still got work to do because we haven’t quite figured out how this thing works.
Yes, we send kids on mission trips to foreign countries. Yes, we will partner with congregations to paint houses and mend fences. Yes, we will even spend time working in food banks, and these are all great things. Yet, we when we do the things we so often leave saying, look what we did, look how much we accomplished, and aren’t we proud of ourselves. We have made all about us and it this kind of religion that I like to call 11 o’clock news religion.
Yes, an 11 o’clock news religion is one that gets highlighted after the news anchor has informed us about which countries are at war, what person has committed a crime in our neighborhood, which Falcon’s or Braves’ player something great at practice or in a game, and what tomorrows weather will be like. It is a religion that gets mentioned as time filer for a news station. It is a religion that many of us will just completely bypass for reruns of Family Guy or American Dad. It is a religion that no one in the world seems to care about.
That’s why the ruler is not rattled when Jesus begins his line of questioning about his keeping of the commandments. He knows what it means to not to commit adultery. He knows what it means to not murder. He knows what it means to not steal. He knows what it means to not bear false witness against his neighbor. He knows what it means to honor his father and mother. He knows the commandments because all that he has is a religion of laws, rituals, and formulas. He has an 11 o’clock news religion.
But Jesus tries to push the man beyond a religion that won’t change the lives of humanity. Can’t you hear him say to the man,
“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Jesus is in essence telling the man,
“Do something that makes the world take notice. Don’t just have an 11 o’clock news religion, but also a Breaking News religion.”
On the evening that the Zimmerman verdict came out I was sitting in my apartment watching Sherlock Holmes on TV with my sister when during the regularly scheduled movie something happened. I got on Facebook as I so often do and I began to see post after post saying that we had a verdict. I turned to my Twitter account and began to see tweet after tweet saying we had a verdict and that he was found not guilty. I began to flick through the stations and movies that were on TV had gone off and now all I saw was reporters at the Sanford County Courthouse with the caption Breaking News flashing across the screen. I realized that when Breaking News is happening nothing else matters.
That’s what Jesus wanted to see. He wanted to see a man who had sold out, got the great job, and the great money do something that would shake up the establishment.
Can you imagine the headlines;
“Former Chief Magistrate sells all that he has for the benefit of educating all children in Galilee.”
“Ex Roman Magistrate buys affordable homes for all in Capernaum.”
“Former Magistrate uses money for food programs in Jerusalem.”
Jesus told the ruler what he is telling us today,
“I want you to live your faith so well that the world has to stop and take notice!”
But how do we live a faith like this…
1) We recognize our past failures.
We have to acknowledge that we have often times made God fit into our box where we want the Divine to answer our prayers even if they are selfish. We have to acknowledge that some of our intentions are not for the betterment of the whole, but are for our betterment alone. We recognize that so often our religion is the religion of the Pharisee of v. 11 who said,
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
Yes, we recognize our shortcomings knowing that in order to go forward we must not embody the attitude of the Pharisee, but of the tax collector in v. 13. Yes, this tax collector saw the posture of the Pharisee but choose instead to stand a far off, and as he stood to pray he would not even look up to Heaven, but all he could do was lift his voice and say,
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
A repentant heart for our actions done and undone propels us into to our present responsibilities.
2) We recognize our present responsibilities.
We take the blinders off of our eyes and get off the drug of this American dream and see our world for what it really is. We become active at our churches such as this one and in our communities in programs that follow the example of Jesus of meeting real needs in real time. We tutor our classmates because we recognize that all of us can learn. We refuse to buy into the idea that we need the latest and greatest gadgets and clothes while our brothers and sisters in our own communities are doing without. We get involved in asking the serious questions about how and why the injustices that we see exist and then we plan as a church, community, city, and state, on ways that we can affect real change. We recognize that we give our whole selves mind, body, and spirit to the service of following Jesus and cannot rest nor tire until we see people come to the knowledge that Jesus cares as much about your present life as he does your eternal life.
3) We recognize that a new kingdom has come
Yes, when a live a faith that makes the world take notice. Yes, when we live a faith that recognizes that the Founding Fathers had it wrong, and that we should say, “All people are created equal and we are responsible for ensuring Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness happens for all of us.” Yes, when we live a faith that shatters the old American Dream, we can then cast a new one. For I heard the late poet Margaret Walker say in her poem “For My People,”
“Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men and women now
rise and take control.”
This is our charge, This is our calling, This is how we dream a New American Dream.