I have found that a funeral, the occasion on which we come to church when all other gods have failed, is a good place to speak the gospel.
The god of “saving for a rainy day” is dead, because cash has failed us. Modern medicine, with specialists collecting god-like salaries, has proven ineffective. The god of living a healthy lifestyle is shown to be futile. So we must call upon a God who gives us hope in the strange hopelessness of death.
Faith stories tend to begin in dark, deep despair. “When I could not go on, I found a God who has given me hope.” It is precisely in the failure of other gods that we find the true One.
Other gods promise much: “Be the envy of your friends–get the new Window’s Vista or a new Lincoln that parks itself. Buy stock in Enron or Exxon, and you can retire a millionaire. Build a strong defense and your nation will be safe.”
It doesn’t work. We have a strong desire to believe in such gods, because they offer ways in which we can save ourselves by ourselves. They play on our fears and tempt us to believe that security can be attained by our constant vigilance.
Because we fear being hurt by some foreign power, we spend more on national defense than all other nations of the world combined, while neglecting our children, the homeless, and people living in inadequate housing–all because we are afraid.
We have believed in free enterprise as the key to success. We hire people to guard soldiers, paying these private soldiers 10 times what our regular army is paid. Free-enterprise medicine is involved in bankruptcies, even for those who have health insurance. The middle class is under pressure because of outsourcing of jobs, the high cost of health care and the soaring cost of higher education. Waste from the burning of fossil fuels that power this runaway system has caused the planet to overheat, but we blindly follow this idol. The god of a free-market world has failed on its promise to make us all rich and secure.
The god of a powerful military, believed to be invincible, is unable to bring order to a country with a military budget that is laughable when compared to ours. To believe that Iraq can be put back on course by our efforts–when we have not been able to rebuild New Orleans, which harbors no insurgency ready to blow up what is built–is an amazing contradiction of reality.
True faith begins with the death of these gods. We cannot save ourselves by ourselves, when most often we need to be saved from ourselves. Only God can save us.
The initiation into the faith is baptism, which symbolizes death by drowning to be raised to follow Jesus. All other gods are dead to us, and we listen to the voice of Jesus from Scripture and from the Spirit that is as alive in the world today as it was when Jesus walked here.
We cannot expect everyone to follow, for our Lord said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:13–14)
We should not despair, because those who follow will be the salt that saves the earth, the light that leads it from darkness.
The world of Jesus begins with love for God and neighbor. Jesus extends “neighbor” to those we can’t abide in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He calls disciples to, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Lk 6:27 –28)
He warns: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Mt 6:24)
We stand now at the funeral of our false gods–wealth, power, and pride. Everyone will not repent and follow Jesus in the way of life, but I have faith that those who do will speak the world of Jesus into existence. We will spend more on children than bombs; humility will win and the U.S.A will work with others for peace. We will seek to clean up the mess we have made of the earth so it will be fit for our children. The rich will give up their false god for the true One, and we shall see a more equitable world.
I believe this not because I have faith in people, but because I have faith in the gospel of a living God, who will not be mocked by our idolatry.
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.