Sunday, March 20, 2011

What Should I Desire Most? -- Sermon 6 on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 6:19-34

In The Christmas Carol, the heart of a young Ebenezer Scrooge grows dark and cold as he enters the world of business. His pursuit of earthly treasure has even shut his heart to the young woman to whom he’s engaged. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, which I watch every Christmas in as many formats as possible, is a telling portrait of the problem that Jesus addresses in our text this morning.

This brief section of the Sermon on the Mount is framed by two statements. In the opening paragraph Jesus says: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vs. 21). That is, wherever you put your treasure, that will be your God, as the story of Mr. Scrooge clearly illustrates. Then we close with these familiar words: “Seek first the kingdom of God.” In both of these statements and the verses that surround them, we hear this important question: In whom will I place my trust?

1. Making a Kingdom Bank Deposit

These words follow Jesus’ gift of a prayer, one that we pray each week, and perhaps even daily. Last year we spent the Lenten season exploring this prayer, which calls for us to pledge our ultimate allegiance to God. And, if we are pledging our allegiance to God, then it’s possible that this faith of ours is calling us to be subversives. We may not seek to be subversive, but if we live according to the Sermon on the Mount, then that’s what we’ll be. Yes, as ethicist Stanley Hauerwas puts it:

“Jesus is very clear. Wealth is a problem. That capitalism is an economic system justified by the production of wealth is therefore not necessarily good news for Christians.” [Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (Brazos, 2006), p. 81].
Hauerwas might be right, because when I read the gospels they tend to make me feel very uncomfortable with the way I live in the world. Indeed, if we take Jesus’ sermon seriously, it’s clear that Jesus was not a capitalist.

If this is true then what are the implications of these verses for the way we live in the world? Who is influencing our thinking – Jesus or Adam Smith? As you ponder this question think about the ways in which our thinking is influenced by the media, our friends, and even the games we play. Yes, have you ever played Monopoly or Life? I expect you have, because we’ve played them here at church on game nights, and in fact, some of you are down right ruthless in your attempts at winning the game. There is, of course, a message to these games: The winner is the one who accumulates the most property and money. We may enjoy the games, but if we take these scriptures seriously then we must admit that they reinforce values that run counter to the gospel message.

So, what’s the alternative? Jesus says, “Do not store up treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal.” Instead, store your treasure in heaven. Consider for a moment the story of the young man who came to Jesus seeking to know what it takes to experience eternal life. In the course of the conversation we learn that this young man sincerely wanted to experience oneness with God. He had diligently kept all the commandments, but something still was missing, and so Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then follow him. Then he would experience salvation. As the story goes, the young many walked away with deep sadness, because he had many possessions (Mt. 19:16-22). As I hear this word, I recognize that I too have many possessions, and I wonder how these possessions get in the way of my being a disciple of Jesus.

2. Which Master Should I choose?

This question gets asked in a different way in the verses that follow. Jesus talks about the eye being the lamp of the body. If the eye is healthy, then light enters the body. If it’s unhealthy then there will be darkness. Having said this, Jesus makes one of those memorable but challenging statements. You can’t serve two masters. You’ll end up loving one and hating the other. Therefore, you can’t love both God and mammon. Most modern translations translate mammon as wealth, but there’s something to be said about using the word mammon. You see the word stems from a root that means “to trust or believe in.” That was the pressing question for this young man – in what or in whom would he place his trust – his possessions or God? [Williamson and Allen, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, (WJK, 2004), pp. 22-23].

This issue of trust is important, because it says a lot about why we hoard and worry. When we put our trust in God who feeds the birds and clothes the grass with flowers more beautiful than anything that Solomon in his glory might wear, then we need not worry. But to do this, we must put our focus on Christ alone.

I say this knowing full well that we need jobs, stores, government services, and more to sustain our lives. But what Jesus seems to want us to understand is that while we can’t live on bread alone, we do need our daily bread. The question is – how do we draw a line between our daily bread and that treasure which captures our hearts and minds and then leads us away from God? The line may be very thin, but as Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, it may have to do with “what your heart clings to.” [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, (Fortress, 2001) 4:163]. Yes, whatever your heart clings to, that is your master.

3. First Things First

If our master is that to which our hearts cling, then how should we respond to the message of this morning’s gathering song?

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you. Alleluia, Alleluia!
This song, and the Scripture upon which it is based, invites us to prioritize our lives around the reign of God. Yes, the message is clear – first things first. The problem is, we’ve been led to believe, that we live in a world of scarcity. We’re constantly being told that there’s not enough land, water, or food, to go around. While I don’t want to instigate class warfare in this sermon, it’s becoming clear that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is increasing at an alarming rate. The wealthy are getting wealthier, while the poor are getting poorer. And, as for the traditional middle class, upon which our society is based, there are signs that it’s in danger of extinction. Why is this?

Although we’ve been told that our nation, our state, and our local governments are broke, we’ve also seen tax breaks get extended for the wealthiest amongst us, even as taxes are increasing for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Somehow that doesn’t seem right. But, it shouldn’t surprise us, because with wealth comes power, and if our lives are guided by the principle of scarcity, then we will not only worry about tomorrow, we will build as many barns as possible to hoard our treasures. We will build fences and walls to protect our treasures. Yes, that is what we will do, if we believe in the principle of scarcity. In such a world, injustice and violence reign because we think that we can survive only if we increase and protect our treasure on earth.

But, what if we put the kingdom first? What if we put our trust in God -- not the God of scarcity, but the God of abundance, the God who feeds the birds and decorates the fields with glorious flowers? How will we treat our neighbor then? As we seek to answer these questions, I want to offer another word of wisdom from Stanley Hauerwas:

Abundance not scarcity, is the mark of God’s kingdom. But the abundance must be made manifest through the lives of a people who have discovered that they can trust God and one another. Such trust is not an irrational gesture against the chaos of life, but rather a witness to the very character of God’s care of creation. (Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 83)
Yes, we worship and serve a God who pours out upon us the treasures of heaven, so that we might share this abundance with one another. But this requires that we put our trust in God and store up our treasures in heaven. Yes, let us seek first the kingdom of God, and then all that we need will be provided us.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Lent
March 20, 2011

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