Sermon 11-16-14: “Treasures in Heaven”

November 20, 2014
My cat, Peanut, obviously doesn't worry about much.

My cat, Peanut, obviously doesn’t worry about much.

In our culture today, greed, like pride, has become a “respectable” kind of sin, which we too easily tolerate. In today’s scripture, however, Jesus tells us that this sin, far from being respectable, is so harmful that it has the power to distort the way we see everything else in life. It prevents us from loving our neighbor the way we should. In this sermon, I share a couple of specific things we can do to free ourselves from enslavement to money and possessions.

This is the second of three sermons on stewardship.

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:19-34

Audio-only this week. Click the play button below or right-click here to download audio file.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the news last week, we learned that Robert Plant, the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin, turned down a contract from business mogul Richard Branson that would have paid him and the two surviving members of the band around $300 million to reunite and tour.

Three-hundred million dollars!

That’s a lot of money to turn down, isn’t it?

If I were Robert Plant’s pastor, I would give him some advice. And I would love to be Robert Plant’s pastor, especially if he tithes. But I would tell him that our Lord might be calling him to bury the hatchet with his former bandmates, to go on tour for a few months, and make $300 million.

You might say, “Wait a second, Pastor Brent, you’re a preacher. You’re telling me that the Lord would be O.K. with Robert Plant making $300 million?”

Yes! I am.

Should Robert Plan, left, bury the hatchet and go on tour with his former bandmates?

Should Robert Plan, left, bury the hatchet and go on tour with his former bandmates?

See, if I were Robert Plant’s pastor, I would tell him something like this: “Look, I know you don’t need the money. But you know who could really use it—the people selling concessions and merchandise at all these stadium concerts; the architects, construction crews, electricians, and engineers who would be designing and building all your stage sets; the roadies who would be setting up and tearing down your equipment each night; the caterers who would be supplying food for the band and crew in each of these cities; the restaurant owners, kitchen crew, and wait staff who would get extra money and tips from all the concert-goers eating out around concert venues in each city; the police officers and security personnel who would be hired to keep everyone safe; the truck drivers who would be hauling your equipment from city to city; the costume designers, tailors, and dry cleaners who would be keeping you clothed; the parking lot attendants who would make money off of parking for the event; the gas station and convenience store owners and employees who would get extra business.”

And since in my fantasy Robert Plant is a member of HUMC, I would also tell him something like this: “I know you don’t need the money, but you know who does? The Griffiths family. Think of all the wells they could dig and water they could purify with only a small fraction of that $300 million! Think of how many of our youth—and youth who aren’t even members of the church—could go to Mexico next year on that short-term mission trip with only a small fraction of that $300 million! Think of the help we could extend to United Methodist relief agencies like UMCOR who are working to help people rebuild after natural disasters; think of how our denomination could use use a small fraction of that $300 million to help eradicate Ebola, malaria, and water-borne diseases. Think of the lives that could be saved!

“So do you see, Robert”—since I’m his pastor, maybe I would call him “Bob”?—“So you see, Bob, your job isn’t just about you. You have an opportunity to bless and love so many other people through your good work. Even more: God wants to bless and love so many other people thorough you and your good work. Because, please remember, God gave you your gifts for music; God put you in a position to be a successful rock star; and who knows whether you have not come to this kingdom of rock superstardom—which provides for you the luxury of making $300 million for doing something that nearly any 20-year-old musician sweating it out on a barroom stage would dream of doing practically for freewho knows whether you haven’t reached this place of rock superstardom for such a time as this?

“It’s not about what you want, Bob. It’s about what our Lord wants. He’s your boss—not the record label, not Richard Branson, not anyone else who wants to pay you. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the boss. Your job, like all of our jobs… your job, every bit as much as a pastor’s job, or a missionary’s job, or a doctor’s job, or a nurse’s job, or a teacher’s job—your job is also a calling. What is our Lord calling you to do with it?”

“How does the Lord want to use your financial gifts to bless and love other people?”

And isn’t this the kind of question that we should all be asking ourselves during this stewardship season? And yet, so many of us find it so hard to let our Lord be Lord of our wallets, our purses, and our bank accounts. We find it so hard to let the Lord be Lord of our money.

And Jesus gives us an important clue as to why this is so in today’s scripture—including his very strange words in verses 22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” To make sense of his words, we look at what Jesus is saying immediately before them and immediately after them. That gives us context, and we can be sure that whatever he’s saying, it has something to do with earthly treasures, money, wealth… And one thing he’s saying is that if we get this part of our lives wrong—the part related to money, wealth, and possession, the part related to valuing heavenly treasures rather than earthly treasures, the part related to serving money and wealth instead of serving God—then it has a dangerous way of changing the way we view the world and distorting the way we see everything else in life!

Here’s an example of what I mean: In my ten years of pastoral ministry, I frequently have parishioners confess their sins to me—all kinds of sins. Except In my ten years of being a pastor, I’ve never heard anyone come in and tell me, “Pastor Brent, I embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I’m greedy.” I’ve never heard it. And I’m not alone. I bet if you surveyed every pastor in the North Georgia Conference, not a single one of them would say that they’ve heard that confession. Why is that? In this world of “hashtag-FirstWorldProblems” it can’t be because yours truly is the only one who struggles with this sin!

I’ve mentioned Mark Driscoll before. He’s the now former megachurch pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He resigned a few weeks ago after a series of embarrassing revelations about his domineering, sometimes vindictive leadership style, his anger issues, and his abusive language. When the Mars Hill church announced his resignation on their website, they said, and I quote: “Pastor Mark has, at times, been guilty of arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner.” But then they said, “Pastor Mark has never been charged with any immorality, illegality or heresy,” and therefore, they said, nothing he’s done should disqualify him from being a pastor in the future.

Mark Driscoll

Mark Driscoll

And based on what I know, I agree. I hope Driscoll learns whatever he needs to learn from this experience, and that he gets to be a pastor again. He’s remarkably gifted at reaching very secular people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But it’s those words, “Never been charged with immorality,” that bother me. I’m guessing that “immorality” is a code word for, you know, those really bad sins—the ones related to S-E-X. But, as one thoughtful Christian writer wondered, “Are things like arrogance, sinful pride, sinful anger—the things that got Driscoll in trouble—are these things not immoral?” Historically, the church has always considered pride to be the worst sin. Why is it suddenly not a big deal?

The problem is that some sins are more respectable than others, let’s face it. Today, pride is a respectable kind of sin. And so is greed. And why is greed is a “respectable” kind of sin? I think it’s because we secretly buy into the lie that having more money and more possessions means that we’re better than other people. We often look down on the poor. Why are people poor? We often say it’s because they’re lazy. By contrast, we’re middle class or upper middle class because why? We worked harder. But we know that isn’t necessarily true, right?

I think of my own situation. I grew up in a family that could afford to own a house in a safe neighborhood in an excellent school district. I had access to the best medical care. College was non-negotiable: I had to go. Moreover, my parents were paying for it! And when I got out of college, I got my first job in large part because of my family’s connections and network of friends. I was practically born on third base, and it’s not because I hit a triple, if you know what I mean!

Am I so confident that if I switched places with that panhandler on the street, whom I look down upon—if I were born with the exact same disadvantages as he was—am I really so confident that I’d wind up in a much better place—much less in a place like this, as pastor of this church? It’s cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

So here’s a test to determine whether or not you’re greedy: What is your attitude toward the poor? Do you despise them? Do you look down on them?

And here’s another way you can know whether you’re greedy: what’s your attitude toward the rich? Do you resent them for being rich? If you do, it might be because you think, “They don’t deserve to have what they have—because they have so much more than I have, and that’s a problem because it means that they’re better than I am. And I don’t like that one bit!” See, if you resent rich people for being rich, you’re still buying into the lie that being wealthy and having more stuff makes you a better person.

But Jesus tells us in today’s scripture the number one way that you can know whether or not you’re greedy—that is to say, that our relationship to money and possessions is out of whack, that we’re not as generous as our Lord wants us to be with our giving, that we’re trying to serve two masters—the number one way you can know that you have a spiritual problem in this area of your life is this: you worry about money and possessions.

I couldn’t resist taking a picture of my cat Peanut last week. The very picture of contentment! Obviously a creature that sleeps 18 hours a day doesn’t worry about much. He doesn’t worry, for example, where his next meal is coming from. When his food bowl is empty, experience has taught him that all he has to do is meow and purr loudly and rub up against the leg of some human being in the house—and one of us will fill his bowl. Or one time a couple of weeks ago, I was in bed asleep and the cat literally laid on my chest, took paw, and patted me on the face, until I couldn’t ignore him any more. I got out of bed and fed him.

My cat, Peanut, obviously doesn't worry about much.

My cat, Peanut, obviously doesn’t worry about much.

Like all cats, he sleeps a lot, but he isn’t lazy. He’s an expert hunter. Years ago, after we moved into our house up near Alpharetta, Peanut earned his keep by catching not one but two mice that we had in the house. And nothing makes him happier than when he finds one of those hamster-size cockroaches in the house—which doesn’t happen very oftenor spiders, or millipedes, or whatever else. His job is to kill these things. The point is—unlike we sinful humans—he’s being exactly what God created him to be, and he’s doing exactly what God created him to do—and he doesn’t worry; he isn’t anxious. He lives in a relationship of complete dependence on us humans—day by day—never doubting for a moment that we’ll provide everything he requires to live.

This is Jesus’ point about the birds of the air: it’s not that they don’t work. As Dallas Willard points out, “They are among the busiest citizens of the earth.” They work hard, “but our feathered friends do not seem to worry about the physical supports of their life, such as food and water and shelter. They simply seek it as they need it and take what they find. And that is how we should be. Having our treasures in heaven frees us to live simply in the present so far as our vital needs are concerned. We work hard, of course, and we care for our loved ones. But we do not worry—not even about them. Having food and clothing and God, we can be content.”[1]

Oh, brothers and sisters… Don’t you want to live like this? I do!

But if we’re going to live this way, many of us need to change how we think about a couple of things.

First, every good thing that we possess comes to us from God—food, clothing, shelter, money, possessions, not to mention our life and our talent… they’re all a gift from God. And you may say, “But I work hard to earn money to provide for myself and my family.” I’m sure you do—just like the birds of the air work hard. But God has made you who you are, and he’s given us this world in which you can work and earn money. It’s still all from God, not you. Jesus says that while the birds work hard, their heavenly Father feeds them. And he feeds us and provides for all we need. So we need to let go of the worry and trust him.

Second, the Lord promises to give us what we need when we need it—and not necessarily a day before then. That’s why Jesus says we’re not allowed to worry about anything happening tomorrow or in the future. Never ever ever. We plan for tomorrow, we plan for the future, but we don’t worry about it. Jesus says in verse 34, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Max Lucado wrote a book for anxious mothers in which he translated this verse as follows: “God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”[2] He goes on to give sound advice to mothers, especially focusing on the phrase “when the time comes”:

“I don’t know what I’ll do if my husband dies.” You will, when the time comes. ¶“When my children leave the house, I don’t think that I can take it.It won’t be easy, but strength will arrive when the time comes.The key is this: Meet today’s problems with today’s strength. Don’t start tackling tomorrow’s problems until tomorrow. You do not have tomorrow’s strength yet. You simply have enough for today.[3]

And how does this relate to stewardship?

Most of us worry about money, and will we have enough of it. And maybe you tell yourself, “I know that I’m not as generous with my financial giving to church as I should be. I know I’m supposed to tithe—which means to give at least 10 percent of my income to the Lord through church—and the truth is I’m not coming close to that.” Ask yourself why: Do I really believe Jesus when he tells me that our heavenly Father will provide for my needs when I make God my top priority in life? Do I really believe that money—like everything else I possess—comes from God, that he gets to say what I do with it, and that when I give my money to him, he’ll make sure there’s more where that came from? Do I really believe that it’s possible to give to the Lord today without worrying about next week’s bills—or next month’s or next year’s?

Lisa and I tithe. The truth is, we didn’t start tithing until ten years ago when I became a pastor—which in many ways was the worst time to start because going into ministry meant leaving my engineering career, drastically reducing our standard of living, going to an expensive seminary. There were plenty of times that we worried about how on earth we’d find the money to pay some bill next week or next month. We frequently feared some “worst case scenario” that never came to pass. But in spite of our worry, we kept on being faithful to the Lord in our tithing, in part because I couldn’t, in good conscience, ask my church to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself. And you know what? God provided. Every week, every month, every year.

I didn’t set out to put Jesus’ words in today’s scripture to test, but—praise God—he proved himself true. I honestly believe he’ll do the same for you. Trust him. He’s got your back. He’ll take care of you.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 209-10.

[2] Max Lucado, Traveling Light for Mothers (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2002), 65.

[3] Ibid., 74-5.

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