The American Dream

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on October 3, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, thank you again, Lord, for your love and your persistence. Thank you for bearing with us even when others will not. Thank you for not being like all of the expectations that people place on you. Thank you for being who you are and for desiring after us and for the relationship we have with you.

I pray, Lord, that as we examine scripture this morning and as we continue in worship and as we pray to you, Lord, that our hearts would be open. I pray that our minds would be open, that our eyes would be open, that our ears would be open, Lord. I pray that your Holy Spirit would help us to be convicted. Help us to see that plank in our eyes. Help us to be transformed.

Whatever it is that we need in our seasons that we’re in — whatever season of life we’re in — let the things that we hear or think about now be part of that transformative process. Help us to be honest with ourselves and to be seeking after the places where we can be pruned and nurtured and grown. Help us to allow you to refine us into whatever it is that we need to be to participate in love with you in your mission.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

Good morning, again.

This morning, I want to talk about identity. I talk about identity periodically, because I think it’s important that we continually examine how we see ourselves, and not only how we see ourselves but how we see others, as well. The way that we see ourselves and the way we see others has a profound impact on the way that we respond to everything around us — the way that we respond to God, the way that we respond to others, the way that we respond to scripture and the Gospel… Everything that we do is based on who we think we are and who we think others are.

Too often, we find that people ignore this or even blatantly deny that connection — that how I see others doesn’t affect how I see myself, that how I see myself doesn’t affect how I see others. We do this in ways like denying that there is anything to see in the first place, but we’ll get more into that as we go.

Let’s talk about the American dream. Let’s talk about identity in America, because that’s where I live, so that’s my worldview. I grew up mostly in the states, so a lot of what I see and hear in scripture is informed by the fact that I am an American. One of the things that was still going around and in a lot of ways still is — although it’s not named as much as it used to be — is the idea of the American dream.

We identify heavily in America with the people who are wealthy and rich, and the reason for that is partly because there’s this idea of an American dream that you can be anything that you want to be, that you can become anything that you want to become, that where you start doesn’t matter. What matters is the work you put in, and the work you put in directly correlates with how far you can go. The only limitation is you, in the American dream.

Because of that, we hold to this idea that we might someday be counted among the rich and wealthy, that we might someday be counted among the successful in America, and because we see ourselves in the future as potentially being among the rich and the wealthy, we want to protect what we love most about the rich and the wealthy. We want to protect our future. The American dream is an investment in your potential future. If you might someday be counted among the elite, then whatever you believe is the good life for the elite, that’s what you want to protect.

That’s what we do: we protect the rich because we want to someday have what we see they have. If we don’t protect them, then we might someday find ourselves in their shoes, unprotected. That’s a problem. Nobody wants to find their potential future — nobody wants to reach their potential, become successful, and then realize that they undermined themselves on the way there. So, the American dream says, “You could be rich. You could be successful. You have potential, so protect that potential. Invest in the future.”

Unfortunately, there’s an identity split when we buy into the American dream, because for most of us, we’re not rich. We become split between the fact that we’re not rich and the fact that we consider ourselves to potentially be rich. We want to live like the rich and protect the rich, because that’s our investment in the future for ourselves, but we’re not actually there yet.

We’re also not poor, oftentimes. Now if you’re poor, then you’re poor. If you’re middle class, you’re not poor; you’re also not rich, but we draw that line in the sand. America is very good at closing off that gap and creating a dualistic conversation. Either you’re with the rich or you’re with the poor. We don’t deny that there’s a middle class. We simply don’t talk about it. We don’t want to talk about it, because to be middle class is to lose focus on our potential to be wealthy, and to be poor is to acknowledge that we are less than we could be. That’s what the American dream tells us.

The closer I am in lifestyle to the poor than I am to the rich, the more I demonize the poor in order to convince myself that I still have the potential to be rich. So I have this identity crisis. Americans have an identity crisis. We want to be rich. We want to empathize with the rich. We want to live into our potential to be rich. We don’t want to be poor, so we cut out the middle class. We deny who we actually are as the middle class (and obviously I’m talking to middle class people right now). We demonize the poor to remind ourselves we don’t want to be poor, and we glorify the rich to remind ourselves how good it would be to be rich.

Then you throw Christianity in there. [The previous stuff is all] before we start talking about Christianity; that’s just economics and the American dream. Then you throw Christianity in there and it mucks everything up. If the American dream wasn’t complicated enough, it gets more complicated when you get to things like Luke chapter four.

In Luke chapter four, we find Jesus returning to Nazareth, his hometown. Or, as Luke puts it in four and verse 16, “Where he had been brought up.” (NIV) It’s a Sabbath day, and he goes to the synagogue, and it’s his turn to read. He requests the scroll of the prophet, Isaiah, and when they give it to him, he unrolls it, and he finds a specific place, and he reads this, in verse 18:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.”

Luke 4:18-20, NIV

This passage from Isaiah, as Jesus reads it, the only part that Luke quotes, emphasizes the Gospel as a proclamation for the poor, the blind, the prisoners, and the oppressed, and this is what mucks up the American dream. The American dream is all about the potential to be the opposite of all of those things, so the American dream gets presented as the Gospel, yet the Gospel isn’t for those people. The Gospel is for the poor, the blind, the prisoner, and the oppressed.

We say to ourselves, “I want to identify with the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed, because I want the Gospel to be for me. I want the good news of the proclamation we find in Luke.” Yet, we’ve bought into our identity with the rich so much in the American dream that we struggle to identify with the poor.

Our identity crisis is exacerbated by the fact that the Gospel is for the poor, but we’ve already demonized the poor in order to remind ourselves that we want to be rich. Our identity crisis is exacerbated by the fact that we see ourselves as identifying with the rich, and we want to identify with the rich, but we don’t find ourselves in the proclamation of Luke. We don’t find ourselves in Matthew’s beatitude, blessed are the poor in Spirit, and we definitely don’t find ourselves in Luke’s blessings, blessed are the poor.

We struggle to find ourselves in the Gospel, yet we want to proclaim the Gospel. How can we proclaim a Gospel that’s for the poor and the prisoner and the blind and the oppressed when we keep telling ourselves that the good life is found in the rich and the wealthy and the powerful and the authoritative? The Gospel seems to be at odds with the American dream, and we want to bring them together, so what we do is we say, “Well, the American dream is the fulfillment of the Gospel — that the poor stop being poor, that the prisoner is set free, that the oppressed comes out from under the thumb of authority, that the blind are healed — and once we reach that good life of being wealthy and rich and having power in America and being respected, then we have fulfilled the Gospel of bringing people out. So, the rich can look around and say, “We’re blessed by God, because we’re rich,” and the poor get dehumanized again. “If you were blessed by God, then you would be with us, so if you want to be blessed by God, do as we tell you to do so you can be like us.”

You see how it becomes a tool for manipulation? The rich, those who are in authority, those that are not oppressed, they work to eliminate the middle class by creating this dualistic conversation, and all of the talks and the debates are split into two groups: you and me, us and them, rich and poor. By talking this way, they play on our fear to keep us from recognizing who we are, acknowledging it, and participating in the Gospel proclamation of Luke.

Until we see that as a reality — until we recognize that the question of “are you one of us” is not a Gospel question — we can’t truly respond to the Gospel invitation. The rich and powerful say, “You are one of us,” and, by default, “You’re not one of them.” The poor look at us and say, “You’re not one of us, because you identify with them.” We’re stuck in the middle, but we refuse to acknowledge the middle exists.

James chapter two… Turn with me over to James. This is really where we see this played out. James is writing a letter to a community that is struggling with this very thing. All of James is written as a harsh rebuke to a community that favors the rich over the poor, and unless we read it that way, we’ll continue to justify the fact that we are catering to wealth over Gospel.

In James chapter two, starting in verse one, he writes,

“Brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here is a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit on the floor at my feet,’ have you not discriminated amongst yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters, has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him. But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?”

James 2:1-7, NIV

James offers us this perspective: you are in the middle. The readers he’s writing to are in the middle; they’re not poor and they’re not rich. This is why they aren’t listed as the two people who come into the worship service or who come into the community or who come into the synagogue.

Imagine there’s a rich man that is a person who comes in wearing fine clothing and gold rings. That’s not you; if we’re imagining somebody coming in like that, then obviously it’s not us. Otherwise, he would say, “When you walk in wearing fine clothes and gold rings…” We’re not the rich person. Then he says, “Also, another person comes in with filthy old clothes.” Well, that’s not you, either. You have to imagine that person coming in.

James’s perspective puts his audience in the middle. You’re not the wealthy, and you’re not the super poor. You’re somewhere in the middle. If you find yourself in the middle, he says… Imagine this: you find yourself in the middle. These two people walk in, and you show one favoritism by giving them the good seat, and the other one you tell to sit on the floor. In that scenario, God exalts the poor, and he says this is “not showing favoritism.”

This is the part that we cut out when we cut out the person in the middle. When we refuse to acknowledge that there is more than just two classes — that there’s not just rich people and poor people — when we refuse to acknowledge that it’s not a dualistic scenario, we miss out on what he says here.

We say, “Well, there’s rich people, and there’s poor people, and I don’t show favoritism to either of them. It doesn’t matter how fine your clothes are or whether you wear gold jewelry or how dirty your clothes are. I’m just going to treat you both the same,” and we call that equality, but that’s not what James is talking about. He says that to not show favoritism, in verse five, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”

Wait a minute. Isn’t that favoritism? No, it’s not favoritism. Favoritism is to make sure that the privileged continue in privilege without making concessions for the underprivileged. That’s favoritism. If you have a rich person and a poor person and they walk into your congregation, and you say, “Well, equality says that we’ll treat them both the same,” but the rich person has inherent privileges as a rich person and the poor person has inherent underprivilege as a poor person, then all you’ve done is deny the disparity between the two. You’ve let them continue with a disparity between them. The poor will still be poor. The rich will still be rich.

Instead, God says, “This is how I don’t show favoritism: the rich person is already blessed with riches and wealth and ease and respect in their community and probably authority in their community, so what do I do as God? I come in, and I exalt the poor person. I choose the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom.” It’s the same proclamation that Luke made. Jesus says, “I have been anointed to proclaim the good news to the poor, the blind the prisoner, the oppressed.” He didn’t come to proclaim the good news to the rich, or as he says to the religious leaders in another place, “It’s not the healthy who need a physician, it’s the sick. I didn’t come for the righteous but the sinners.”

The rich have what they need. “Not showing favoritism” doesn’t mean pure equality; it means equity. It means exalting those who are underprivileged in order that they might stand side by side with those who are privileged. That’s precisely what James tells them, here, and then he goes a step further in verse six. He says that not only does God exalt the poor but it is in fact the rich who have exploited you. “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?”

By favoring the rich — when we take James’s perspective and find ourselves in the middle, even if we have to imagine ourselves there — by favoring the rich over the poor, we dishonor the poor, and we give ourselves over to the ones who he says are actually blaspheming the name of Jesus who saves us.

We cannot buy into the traditional American dream without falling into the same trap of pretending that we are rich and we are not poor. The catch is that if we acknowledge the reality that we are neither the very rich nor the very poor — that most people in America fall somewhere in between those two extremes — if we acknowledge that, then we still have to accept the fact that we don’t find ourselves anywhere in that Luke proclamation of the Gospel. If I’m not the poor, the prisoner, the blind, or the oppressed and I’m also not the rich, then what do I do?

The problem is that Americans work so hard to stay dualistic [e.g. rich and poor] about everything that they do, about everything that they say, that we don’t automatically identify with either James’s audience or Luke’s proclamation. We want to be rich, because that’s the American dream, but we don’t want to be rebuked by James and scripture, and we don’t want to be left out of Luke’s proclamation. We don’t want to be poor, because America says that’s failure, but we want to be rich in faith and exalted by God, and we want to be the target of Luke’s Gospel proclamation.

So, what do we do? Do we strive to be poor? Isn’t it good for us to try to have better resources so that we can care for the people we love? Do we justify being wealthy? Do we justify, that is, numbering among “the wealthy” and then cut ourselves out of the Gospel? What do we do?

James chapter two and verse 12, he continues,

“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’

“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

“You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

“In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

James 2:12-26, NIV

Here’s what we do… “Faith and deeds” is the equalizer in James. James says this is what brings us together. This is what allows you to find yourself anywhere on the spectrum from rich to poor and still find yourself in Luke’s proclamation: you participate with God for the sake of the Gospel. If the Gospel is good news for the poor, sight for the blind, freedom for the prisoner and for the oppressed out from under the oppressor, then you participate in that. If the poor are exalted to inherit the kingdom, then you support them in doing so. You participate with the work of love that God is doing among every community. You stop favoring the rich over the poor. You stop favoring the potential of the American dream over the realization of the Gospel, and you stop trying to join the two as though they are one. You join with James to not be rich and not be poor. You participate in what James suggests: that Jesus exalts the poor, that we work to do the same, and that the rich struggle to avoid the traps so that we don’t aspire to be like them.

He rebukes [the rich] heavily in James chapter five. Starting in verse one, he says,

“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”

James 5:1-6, NIV

He rebukes them heavily. James is a harsh letter. There’s a lot of good things in here, but I think one of the reasons why James is so harsh is because he’s writing to a community where the poor are being completely exploited and oppressed by the rich, and instead of standing up and doing something about it — instead of the people in the middle siding with Jesus in exalting the poor who are rich in faith and ready to inherit the kingdom — they buy into the “American dream.” They say, “Well…I need to stand with the rich for the potential that I might someday be counted among them, because that is the successful, good life that I dream of.” James says to his audience, “Don’t be that way.” If you are not poor and you are not rich, then you participate in the Gospel by participating in the mission of God among the poor and the blind and the prisoner and the oppressed.

Now, does this mean that I can’t be rich? Because a lot of you might be thinking right now, “Ok, but this just sounds like an argument from some megachurch pastor saying that if you’re poor, you should be glad that you’re poor, and you should try to stay there.” If you’ve been part of those communities, you know that’s just as manipulative and damaging as any explicit exploitation of the poor.

James is not saying that you can’t be rich. Scripture doesn’t say that you can’t be rich, but scripture does point out that there’s a problem. The problem is that when you become rich, you tend to become fickle. We tend to forget our identity as brothers and sisters in Christ. We tend to forget our identity as part of the Luke proclamation. We tend to pull up our roots of the Gospel that was proclaimed to us and replant them — transplant them — into the American dream of the good life and wealth, and as Jesus says, you can’t serve two masters. You can’t serve both God and wealth.

When we buy into the American dream, especially when we fulfill the American dream — when we realize it in our own lives — the temptation is to become fickle with our identity, to transplant our Gospel roots into the roots of mammon, and when that happens, we fail to see how we fit into God’s mission. Instead, we fuse the Gospel and the American dream together in a way so as to justify ourselves.

Are you rich right now? Stop worrying about your riches more than you worry about the poor, stop blaming the poor for being poor, and stop exploiting people so that you can maintain your wealth.

Are you poor right now? Be rich in faith, and understand that God has chosen you. You are not chosen to be poor, but God is going to exalt you, because the good news of Jesus is for you.

Are you not poor and not rich? Are you, like most Americans, somewhere in the middle? Stop playing into the exploitation of the rich. Stop deceiving yourself into thinking that the American dream is the good life. Start working to exalt the poor, and start being part of God’s shalom by your deeds, because if you claim to have faith in Jesus but your deeds exploit the poor and keep the oppressed oppressed, then you don’t really believe in the Gospel, at all.

Wherever you find yourself, whether you are rich or poor or somewhere in between, I want to encourage you that the Gospel news that Jesus shares from Isaiah in Luke 4, even if it is not a proclamation about your life, is still an invitation for you to come and participate in what God is doing, to be part of the good news, even to be those beautiful feet that bring the good news to the people about whom it is directly proclaimed.

That’s the invitation. I’m not inviting you to any particular economic status. What I am inviting you to is to be part of building something loving in a world that is trying to tell you that the good life is found in only riches and power. If that’s something that appeals to you, then I invite you to come and join us, to reach out to us, to participate in what God is doing in these communities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s