Sunday, October 22, 2017

"Where Your Treasure Is." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Where Your Treasure Is"

Matthew 6:19-24; 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 24-34

In the movie “Jaws,” a marine biologist is desperate to find out what’s gone wrong with the sharks in the area.  A large shark is brought in, and the biologist lays the shark up on a table and proceeds to do an autopsy.  He slits open the shark’s belly.  Out of the belly comes first one fish…and then another.  He takes dozens of fish from the shark’s belly.  Then there’s a blender.  An old Florida license plate.  Assorted bits and pieces of this and that.  The shark really is an “eating machine.”
            But it’s an utterly indiscriminate eating machine.  The shark was consuming everything in sight—whether it was good for it or not.
            Someone said that the story of the shark is a parable of modern society.  We consume indiscriminately.  We have deep, vast hungers.  We try to satisfy them in different ways.  But often we consume and collect much that we don’t need…and that isn’t good for us.
            And so, for a while I’ve been wondering if part of our calling in the church today isn’t to find out what people want and then give it to them, to try to satisfy all their hungers-- but rather to give people food that’s worth having and to school people in how to be hungry in the right ways.

            The gospel lesson we heard is from a collection Jesus’ teachings on assorted matters in the Sermon on the Mount.  There’s a theme in this section: the urgency of seeking the kingdom of heaven above all earthly distractions.[1]
            In this passage, we hear Jesus warning against the human tendency to collect things and treasure them    and to judge peoples’ status by what they have.  In some cultures, one is judged by one’s livestock, in others, by the possession of precious metals and rare gems.  In some societies, a woman’s dowry might have been treasured clothing or jewelry.
            In a money economy, those who aspire to a higher status work to acquire monetary wealth. Then, when someone has enough money, they can show their wealth with luxury cars, large and elegant homes, fine artwork or valuable jewelry--to name a few of our treasures.  

            The problem with investing our sense of worth and safety in money and possessions is that it is never truly safe.  Cash can be lost or stolen. Expensive cars can rust…and clothing can be damaged by insects.  Homes and other treasured possessions can be destroyed in wildfires or floods.  Deadbolt locks, safety deposit boxes, bank accounts--none of these can protect what we desire most deeply in our hearts.
            I think Tom Long is right when he says what our hearts truly desire is “to count--to count for something and to count to someone. To come to the end of a day--or the end of a life--with the satisfaction of having stood for what is good, with the joy of having been loved and having loved well in return, with the memory of having shown mercy, and with the peace of having walked with God--these are the true treasures, the treasures of the kingdom, a fortune no thief can plunder.”[2]
            The call to store up treasures in heaven is radical call to be oriented toward God’s way of love and abundance and justice in how we see the world.  If we see life as a gift from God, a bountiful outpouring of God’s providing, then we can be free to hold possessions with a light grasp and to be generous toward others. In contrast, if we see things through spiritual eyes that are “unhealthy,” we’ll see life as a competition between winners and losers over scarce resources. In the wise words of Proverbs, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”[3] 
             If we see the world in terms of scarcity, we won’t be freed from fear and selfishness. But if we have a healthy vision of life, we can trust in God’s goodness and abundance, and we will be free to be generous. 
            “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus teaches. “You cannot serve God and mammon--or wealth.”  “Mammon” is an Aramaic word that means “money” or “possessions.”
            Many of us like to believe we have chosen to serve God-- not mammon. But in our daily life it is often mammon that sets our priorities. Of course, we’d like to share more toward the poor, but it’s too hard, because we need so much for ourselves. We hope to be more charitable in the future, but at the moment we have too many obligations.  We’re afraid we won’t have enough.
            We live in such a materialistic society that it’s hard for us to look critically at how much power money and possessions have over how we see things and make choices.
            Ultimately, whether we serve God or wealth depends upon trust-- trusting God to provide what we really need.  
            Jesus continues, and the “therefore” in verse 25 tells us that this is all connected. “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith?
            “Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’…. indeed, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
            “So, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
            In the original Greek, the verbs translated as “look” and “consider” are strong verbs that suggest more than a casual glance. They invite us to study, to really look, at a world that God has created and has pronounced “good,” a world where God provides abundantly, a world where we don’t need to be imprisoned by worry or anxiety. Jesus invites us to imagine living in such a world of goodness and abundance.
            Yes, the rent or mortgage and insurance and taxes still have to be paid, and we still need to buy groceries, and the checkbook still has to be balanced. But we have seen this other world-- the world of God’s gracious, faithful care and abundance. 

            During stewardship season, we are challenged to hold our relationship with money up to the light of our Christian faith.  Our faith challenges us to strive to overcome our tendency to live out of fear, guarding whatever wealth we have left--   and instead open our lives more fully to the truth we hear in First Timothy:   “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
            What is the life that really is life?  It is the life that focuses on the only true security that human beings have in this world, the completely reliable love of God.  “Take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you were made,” writes the author of 1 Timothy.  “It is God alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to God be honor and eternal dominion.  Amen.”

            It is one of the many paradoxes of faith that-- at the very times when we feel most anxious about our own sufficiency--   the act of sharing and generosity is the act that can give us the greatest joy and sense of peace.  It changes the lenses through which we see our own situation. 
            It is an act of liberation to be generous, an act that frees us from the bondage of anxiety, disappointment, and resentment over the loss of the false security.  It is an act of freedom that can replace false security with the real security of God, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”     It is an act of faith to commit ourselves to giving God the first fruits of our lives.
            “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”
            The “life that really is life” is a life of contentment.  The “life that really is life” is a life of trust in God’s gracious providing for what we really need, rather than endless desire and striving for more.
            So-- let us strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness…and store up treasures in heaven.   Let us open ourselves to the riches of the “life that really is life!”
            May it be so!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 22, 2017

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 73.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, p. 74.
[3] Proverbs 23:6.