Putting the American Dream to Death
Show video: Casting Crowns – “American Dream”
The American Dream. What is the American Dream? Think about that. What does that phrase mean to you? The American Dream.
Well maybe it’s tattoos and McDonalds.
I googled it the other day, just those words, “The American Dream” and it popped up and told me there were 24,400,000 possibilities for me to pursue. I did not search them all. I did check Wikipedia, however, the poor man’s encyclopedia.
The American Dream it said, “Is a national ethos of the US in which freedom includes a promise of the possibility of prosperity and success. Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone with opportunity for each according to ability and achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.”
There are many noble expressions concerning the American Dream and famous people have invoked it in their speeches and included it in their writings, including people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who invoked that term in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The term also appeared in the musings of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. More recently in the writings of Henry Kissinger. And back in 2006 Barak Obama who was not yet then president wrote a book the byline which was entitled, “Reclaiming the American Dream.”
Let’s face it, you and I are fortunate enough to in the country that most of the rest of the word wants to live in. Most of the rest of the world would like to live in America. In fact we have thousands of people each year who die trying to get into the United States. It’s true. We have hundreds of thousands of others who actually make it into the United States and they’re actively pursuing and chasing The American Dream.
The American Dream is this idea that if you work hard and you apply yourself that you too can be rich, you can be successful, and you can be prosperous. You take that to another country around the world, there’s a lot of other countries around the world where that’s just not possible – no matter how hard you apply yourself, no matter how hard you work the government’s not going to let you be rich or prosperous or successful.
But here in America it’s something we have. It’s a liberty, a freedom that we have to achieve. “It’s the land of opportunity,” it’s often been called. Here you can create a life for your family that the rest of the world would long to have. You can get the best education. You can own your own land. You can build a business. And you can live your dreams. And that’s the American Dream.
And there are so many people over the past 2 centuries that have done exactly that. They came here with just the clothes on their back. Stepped off a ship, stepped off an airplane, walked across the border with just the clothes on their back or whatever they had and because they worked hard and applied themselves and they had ingenuity and they had ideas that they were able to run with they were able to build a business or get rich and own a house and do things that they never could have done back where they were born and raised.
The American Dream overall is a very good thing. It’s one of the things that makes our country great. It has been a very bright spot in our world’s history. But over time the dream has drifted to include some aspects that run in direct contrast to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We say we are one nation under God, and so we might assume that God’s dream and the American dream fit together like a hand in glove. That is not necessarily an accurate assumption.
As Richard Stearns who wrote the book The Hole in Our Gospel which is the book on which this series and the accompanying study is based he said, “The, ‘American Dream,’ is so ingrained in our thinking that most of us embrace it without thinking twice about it and about whether it is consistent with our faith values OR whether it might actually harm us and our kids…But if we scrutinize the values inherent in it we should begin to feel somewhat uncomfortable with their implications.”
A man named David Platt pastor’s a very large Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL and a couple of years ago he wrote a very impacting little book entitled Radical. That’s the title in big print. The smaller byline underneath is “Taking back your faith from the American Dream.” And in it Platt said this: “Somewhere along the way we missed what is radical about our faith and we replaced it with what is comfortable. We are starting to redefine Christianity. We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist Him into a version of Jesus with which we are more comfortable; a nice, middle-class, American Jesus.”
So this morning as we continue our series exploring what God expects of those who would truly follow His Son Jesus Christ and to live the whole gospel, if we are not going to allow a hole in our gospel it’s important that we can separate the American Dream from the gospel. To ask ourselves as Jesus did, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet forfeit his soul?” or “Are we building our castles in the sand or on the solid rock that will stand against the wind and the waves?”
Understanding God’s dream takes a little work. It doesn’t show up clearly in campaign rhetoric. It doesn’t leap neatly off the platform page of any political party. It weaves in and out through Scripture in the pages of the Old and New Testament. It comes from the lips of Jesus. And we should pay particular attention every time we hear Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”
God’s dream for me and for you, for the church and the world, for the whole creation is the Kingdom of God.
So here is my main point this morning: If we are to live the whole gospel then we must be about building God’s heavenly kingdom not our own earthly empire. So once again this has much to do with how we view success, prosperity, our earthly wealth and possessions.
And you may say, “Well didn’t we talk about that last week?” And the answer is, “Yes we did. We talked about one aspect of that.” Why then would we spend another week on a similar issue? “Because it is pretty clear from the amount of time that Jesus spends on this subject that He knew that this was one of the most prominent areas of life where the hole in our gospel most often appears.
For instance when it comes to wealth and money the American Dream often promotes this view, “You know what I’ve worked hard, I’ve earned it, I deserve it, I am free to do whatever I want with it.” And it can be easy for us Christians to fall into that same way of thinking. But is that a Biblical value? Is that what Jesus taught?
Well this is precisely what we’re going to look at this morning as look at another parable by Jesus. This is called the Parable of the talents and you heard it read from Matthew 25. This passage of scripture is one of Jesus’ stories of God’s dream.
The story is simple. The Kingdom of God is like a man of great means who went on a long journey. So before he left he called together his servants and gave each some of his financial resources called “talents” to manage while he was away.
Now before we dig into this parable I want to define for you what a talent is. The word talent had a different use or understanding in the context in which the scripture was written than we now understand it, generally. We often think of talent as some particular skill that the music director is talented; has the talent to lead the choir and play the piano. Or someone has the talent to play football. Or paint a beautiful picture. Or some other type of talent or skill.
But in the context in which the scripture was written a talent was the weight of a product that related to its value economically. A talent had a weight of 75 pounds. So if you had one talent of dirt you had 75 lbs of dirt. If you had a talent of gold you had 75 lbs of it. So when it says the master gives the servants “talents,” it means money, lots of money.
If you assume gold at a value of $1000 an ounce, which is a conservative value in today’s economy, one talent of gold would be worth roughly $1 million. So one talent was as great sum, five talents was a ridiculously large sum, perhaps as large as you might earn in a lifetime. So to one servant the wealthy master gives five talents, to another two and to another one; and he leaves on his extended journey.
Then one day the master comes back to see what his servants have done with his talents. Each has had resources, opportunity, and a result. Each is asked to give an accounting. Each is given a reward. So what do we discover in this story about God’s dream?
Let’s start with the obvious.
1. It is not our money, it’s God’s.
The master went on a journey the Bible says and left them vast sums of money in the hands of his trusted followers. Every talent the servants had was the property of the master. The amounts were not equal but the responsibility and the expectation of the master were equal.
The servants clearly understood that the money was not theirs. It belonged to the master, they were only stewards.
To cut to the chase if the master is God/Jesus then who are the servants? We are. You and I and the whole church of Jesus Christ are disciples of the risen Lord. We have been given his resources to do his work, until the end of the age.
This is where God’s dream and the American dream begin to clash. We live in the land of what’s mine is mine. You know, “I’m a self-made man. I’m a self-made woman. God says, “No. You just used what I gave you to do that.” We celebrate private property in our country and the right to amass and keep personal wealth. But the deeper truth is that all that we have, and all that we are, is on loan from God. It’s all God’s. Which means ultimately none of it is mine.
Psalm 24:1 says it beautifully: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live it.” I don’t hear any exceptions.
We make think it’s ours. The devil may think some of it is his. But no. It says the world and everything in it. So I don’t own anything. It’s all on loan. This means I should hold everything in my hands a little more lightly. I’m not a self made man, no matter how hard I worked to get here. Admitting that is a little scary. It’s also the first step in learning to use God’s gifts, God’s way.
You see privilege carries with it responsibility.
And one day He’s going to come back. And when He comes back He’s going to do just what we see this master doing in the story, He’s going to demand an accounting. What did you do with what I gave you?
Now if everything placed in my hands is God’s, that means God might have something to say about what I do with it. And this leads us to our next point. The parable says, Again it will be like a man going on a journey who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. (vs. 14)
2. We are entrusted with money and resources not entitled to them.
Once again we should feel a clash between the American Dream and God’s dream. We live in an entitled nation. Biblical faith teaches that everything should be received from God with joy and gratitude, but not because we earned it or deserved it. Deep gladness comes from the discovery that a God of love and mercy chose to fill our life with meaning by providing what we need and often what we want. To be entrusted is to commit ourselves to serving that master with the good things he has placed in our hands.
If one of us gave ten thousand dollars to our mutual funds manger we would expect him or her to take a reasonable fee for their labor to manage our money. We would not expect them to take all our money build themselves a second home at the beach. We would expect them to look after our investment goals. We are like that mutual funds manager when it comes to God. Our biggest responsibility is to use God’s resources in a way that consistent with God’s dream and God’s kingdom.
We are entrusted, not entitled. And that’s important to get right because it is easy – even encouraged – to live like somebody owes us. I’m not talking about social security or Medicare. I’m talking about the deep sense many of us have that we are entitled to what we have, we are entitled to have more of it, and if we don’t have what we want something has gone horribly wrong. I heard a Christian writer say recently:
“If you are entitled to everything you are grateful for nothing.”
When we get beyond the sense of being entitled, something new can happen. Our lives begin to turn inside out. There’s freedom for God’s dream to become our dream. In the most consumption driven nation in the history of the world, there is the opportunity discover deep joy and satisfaction not in how much more we can acquire but in what we can provide for that divine dream called the kingdom of God.
And that leads me to the final point:
3. God expects us to invest in His kingdom.
In verse 19 of this parable and following we see that the master returned after a long journey to take an account and do a reckoning. The master came back. And ladies and gentlemen our Master Jesus Christ is coming back one of these days. He’s been on a long journey. But He is coming back and will demand a reckoning from us when He arrives, sure as I’m standing here.
The first two servants did well. What a return on investment! They doubled their money. The one entrusted with five talents created ten. The one entrusted with two, created four. Here’s the key: They had done what they could, where they were with what they had. They had done what they could, where they were with what they had. And each receives the same blessing: Well done good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share you master’s happiness!
What about the third servant? The Bible says he did nothing. He just buried his responsibility. And what is the master’s response? “You wicked, lazy servant!…you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest…Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
But now here's the point, at least it’s a point for me. He was not condemned by the master because he had less. He was condemned because he did less. It wasn’t what he had that condemned him it was what he failed to do with what he had. It was not a matter of his capacity that condemned him. It was the matter of his commitment that condemned him.
What does God want for his kingdom? He wants us to invest, to risk, what he has put in hands to bless and extend his way in this world. He’s looking for venture capitalists for the kingdom of God. There is no judgment in this text for disciples who try and fail; only for the ones who in the name of playing it safe do not try at all.
Each of us has been given resources to invest in what God is doing in this community and in this world. This church has been given resources to invest. The most important thing is that we invest them wholeheartedly in the priorities that serve the mission of God. Reward in the parable is not tied to how much somebody earned, but how obedient somebody was.
Success according to the American Dream is measured by how little or how much we have. Success is measured in God’s dream by what we do with what we have. And here’s that intriguing promise. If we will invest what we have in what God is doing, we will find we will have more to invest.
When it comes to living God’s dream the worst thing we can do is do nothing. To sit on our hands thinking that one day I’ll finally have the time to invest. To sit on our wallets waiting for the day that the denominations will work out their theological problems. To look at crazy world with timidity and fear and bury our talents – however many – in the ground and wait until what we think better times are ahead.
There’s an old Jewish proverb that put it this way, “If charity cost nothing the world would be full of philanthropists.”
When the master comes back one day what words would you like him to speak over the ministry of this congregation, and the ministry of your personal life? I know what I’d like to hear:
We’ll done good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!
To hear those words, that great benediction spoken over the sum total of our lives, we will have to love God’s dream more than the American Dream, no matter how fine some parts of it are.
A man with leprosy came to Jesus begging him on his knees and said, “If you are willing you can make me clean.” If you are willing. He understood it was not a question of Christ’s capacity. He knew he could make him clean but it was just a question of his willingness. If you are willing you can make me clean.
My friends you are already making a great difference in the world, but if you are willing you can make even a greater impact for the cause of Christ in this community and around the world.
We could get started this week. We could get started this afternoon. Here’s a challenge. I plan to take it and I encourage you to do the same as we strive to live the whole gospel. At the bottom of your handout you will find a question. I want to challenge you to thoughtfully and prayerfully devote some time this week to answering this question:
What do I need to change with my spending, saving, and giving so that one day I will hear these words from my Lord – “You have been faithful in with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”?