A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on June 26, 2011.
O, Lord, our God, we pause in the midst of worship to ponder in silence your goodness to us for the many gifts that you have given us. We would list all of the blessings we have received from your hand, but our memories are too frail to remember all of them and our spirits are too impaired to realize each and every one. Help us to know those things that are truly blessings and gifts from you and not things that we have made ourselves. Forgive us if we forget.
Forgive us if we take for granted or take credit for your goodness and assume that what we have is simply the product of our own hands. In moments of difficulty, keep gratitude and thanksgiving in the forefront of our hearts. Even if someone we love has passed from us, remind us of the good years and the treasured memories. We would not fail to give you thanks even if that shared chapter in our lives is over. Even if our heart is not what it once was, we give you thanks for a world of extraordinary care, a world in which we live and have the benefit of.
We thank you for dedicated physicians, nurses, and others who treat us. We thank you for those who deliver us from pain and help us in our healing. Where would be without them. Surely what years we have already had would be shortened if not for these nearby. So for them, we give you thanks.
Most of all, we give you thanks for what you have done for us through Jesus Christ. We thank you for the fact that you have saved us, that you forgiven us, and that you have delivered us from our sins. We thank you that you have changed our hearts from the hardened stone of selfishness to be open to love. We thank you that as your son, Jesus Christ, walked with the disciples of old that he walks with us still and provides us with glorious grace. We thank you that he is our constant companion and that, as he taught his disciples to pray, he teaches us now to pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Francois Fénelon was a bishop with a thing for Jesus. He was in and out of favor with his beloved Catholic church, which didn’t fully appreciate Fénelon’s emphasis on the deeper life. His primary contribution to the contemplative life was arguably his insight into the self, which he describes as the inner voice that suggests you live for yourself. He said, “The voice of self-love is even more powerful than the voice of the serpent.”
–David L. Goetz in Death By Suburb
If you have paid attention to any financial news since the mid-term congressional elections, you will know that much of the debate in Washington these days is around how to fix budget deficits and what to do about the national debt. Everyone agrees we need to do something, but the parties disagree on what to do. Some think that the answer is in taxes. Some think that the answer is in spending cuts.
Most people will agree that some spending cuts are needed. There was agreement for a while on the idea that we have to do something about entitlements, but recently that agreement has begun to break down. It has begun to break down because, for many years, a lot of people have thought that when politicians were talking about entitlements, they were talking about something that pertained to the people who are chronically poor because they refuse to work. We would classify these as people who are on welfare. A lot of people think the problem with the nation is we have all these entitlements for poor people who think they don’t have to work, who think they are owed something, and who just simply live on government handouts.
As the conversation has gone along, all of a sudden we hear politicians talk about entitlements and they say things like Social Security. I did not realize we were talking about Social Security when they were first talking about entitlements. The politicians say things like Medicare. Hm. I am 58. I was counting on Medicare. I did not realize that was going to be an entitlement.
I have even heard someone describe the tax deduction for the interest portion of your mortgage payment as an entitlement or tax deductibility of contributions to organizations as fine as this church. We find ourselves saying, “Oh, wait a minute. I thought you were talking about something that affected somebody else. I thought you were talking about people who thought they were owed something. I did not know that you were talking about my Social Security, my Medicare, or my income tax deductions. I was planning on this. I have planned my finances around the deductibility of all these things. A portion of my retirement is based on Social Security. How am I going to retire if I don’t have Medicare? I can’t afford the insurance when I am that age? Wait a minute! I have paid into this. I am owed this. You can’t take that away from me!” Oops! That’s the language of entitlement, isn’t it? You can’t take that away from me. I am owed this.
All of a sudden we find out that entitlements are not just for the poor and the people on welfare. Whenever we start thinking that there is something that is ours by right that no one has the right to take away from us, all of a sudden, we find out that we have a spirit of entitlement as well.
This really should not come as a surprise because I believe that the spirit of entitlement is engrained in the human nature. It goes all the way back to the Garden, to Adam and Eve. We all have it in ourselves and we encounter it every day.
Have you ever been to an SEC football game? It does not matter who you are a fan of. At a typical SEC football game, there are going to be somewhere between 80,000 to 110,000 people in a football stadium. In a typical stadium, there are probably 100 bathrooms. You start doing the math, and you realize that somebody did not plan well. At a typical SEC football game, at some point, you will find yourself in a long line. There is always somebody who thinks they do not have to wait in line. Right? Somebody who just barges in, and everybody says, “Hey, who do you think you are?” Do you not know they are entitled?
This upcoming Fourth of July weekend, you will be traveling. You will be in the left lane, solid 80 miles an hour; traffic in the right lane, solid 70 miles an hour. Somebody will get behind you and start blinking their lights like you have some place to go, but they are entitled to go however fast they want to go anytime they want to go that fast. We all think we are, in some way, privileged, that the rules don’t apply to us, that we deserve this. You just don’t understand. I need to be ahead of you. You don’t understand. I need to go faster. Get out of my way! I am privileged. What are you doing slowing me down? All of this is the language and the spirit of entitlement. We should be able to do what we want to do when we want it, and nobody should get in our way.
It all goes back to the Garden. I believe that the spirit of entitlement is one way to understand what we would classify as the fall or original sin. Original here does not necessarily mean the first, but it is the root of everything. It is the root of all sin. It is the origination.
Pay attention to the story. It says, “The serpent was more subtle than any other creature in the world.” He is great. You really have to appreciate him. The serpent says, “Does God say you can’t eat any of this?” By indirection, he points her exactly where he wants her to go.
Eve responds, “Oh no, we can eat it all, except this one tree,” and all of a sudden without ever mentioning it, the serpent has her thinking about the one thing she doesn’t have.
“Oh, well, that is because God is saving it all. God doesn’t want you to have it.”
You can almost hear the conversation she has when she goes back to Adam.
“Do you know what? God is holding out on us. We are not only the most important people in the world, we are the only people in the world. We have every right to everything that God has. I think we ought to march right down to that tree eat get some. We deserve the fruit off of that tree.”
You can hear Adam, “That is right! I can’t believe God is holding out on us. He has saved the best stuff. We ought to go down there . . . .” and they defend their right, their privilege, their rank in the world. They go and they eat.
What happens with this belief that everything is owed to them, this belief that there is something they ought to have because they are special or that they should be considered higher than they are or that they have privilege? What is the result? It ruins everything.
Think about it. They had all of creation. This is all brand new, and God said, “You take it. You go and use it. You have dominion over everything. It is all yours to use. I just ask that you don’t eat from the one tree in the middle of the Garden. But the rest of it is all yours.”
Are they thinking about the wealth of all creation? No. They are thinking about the one thing they don’t have. They are thinking about the one thing they think is due them. So everything that was good now comes to an end. They can’t enjoy what they have any more because they are only thinking about what they should have.
If you read through the 3rd chapter of Genesis, work is cursed and God says it will always have the potential for frustration. Child birth is cursed. It will always have the potential for pain. At the very best, what had been a full world to them is now half empty because all they can think about is what they don’t have. When we fall prey to that, it ruins everything. There is no joy in what we do have.
In relationships, it sure ruined everything there, didn’t it? In the Bible, public nakedness is always bound together with shame. If someone is caught naked in public, they should be ashamed. If they are not, they have no shame. It is always tied together with shame. Here we have this couple who have enjoyed the beauty of creation. They have been created so there is no barrier between them. I don’t it is the nakedness that makes them ashamed, but their awareness of it because they have had shame in realizing they have disobeyed God. The first thing they have to do is make clothes because their relationship will never be the same again. They hide from God. They enjoyed God in the Garden, but now they have to hide from God. God comes looking for them and asks, “Where are you?”
“I knew I was naked and I hid myself. I knew I was ashamed.”
“Why would you be ashamed?”
“We ate from the tree.”
The original piece of all this, the original sin, because it is the root of all sin, is this sense that, You owed me. Life owed me. The planets should have lined up and provided everything I wanted. God, you are holding out on me.
Almost every sin that we can think of finds its root in this. Jealousy and envy. We think about friends that we have a hard time being joyful for because of what they have. We have a hard time being joyful for them because we don’t have it. Who do they think they are to get to go there, have that, do this? That should have been mine.
Anger and bitterness. We are angry because we don’t have it. We are selfish because all we can think about is how we are going to get it.
Go back to what was said about the serpent. It is very subtle. If we had taken a poll and asked, Is entitlement a problem for you, we would all have said, No. That is a problem for somebody else. I don’t have a problem with entitlement. But just look at all the ways people who sell products try to get our attention. You deserve it. You are worth it. You really ought to have this. I want it all. I want it now. We realize that this sense of personal entitlement is not only what is wrong with the government’s budget but it is what’s wrong with many of our budgets. We bought everything thinking we were entitled. Somebody owes us. If everybody else has it, I ought to have it. All of a sudden, all we can think about is what we don’t have, what we should have, and there is no joy left in life for all the goodness that God has given us.
What do we do? This is not in the text but these are my suggestions. I would say cut the word deserve out of our vocabulary. There are a lot of things we want. There are a lot of things that would be great, but I don’t know what I deserve. Based on my life, circumstances, or profession, I don’t know anything that I deserve, but I know a lot of stuff that is gift, a lot of things that I enjoy that are pure gift from God’s hand.
If I could begin to think of life as gift, and if I could challenge the idea that I ought to have something or that I deserve something, and make myself think about the many other things that I am blessed to have, I begin to fight against that spirit of entitlement that has been around since Adam and Eve.
Probably the best antidote is a spirit of thanksgiving, a spirit of gratitude, in which I am not focusing on the one thing I think I ought to have, but instead I focus on all the things I do have, and I say, “Thank you, God.”
In our relationship with God, what do we really think? Are we really angry because God did not provide all these things that we thought somehow we should have? Do we never stop to pay attention and realize what God has already done? What did God promise us but to restore us to himself, to love us as if there is no other? He gives us Jesus who comes and dies for us. What is it Paul says in Romans, “Why one would hardly die for a righteous person, but for us, while we were yet sinners Christ died for the unrighteous.”
Don’t we realize what we already have? Why would we focus on the things that we think we are owed and forget about the things that we did not deserve that God has given us?
What did we deserve? We deserve the outcome of our sin.
What are we thankful for? We are thankful for the grace of God. This is so much more than we ever deserved, but it was given to us freely, ours to enjoy the benefits of even now.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.