Sermon written for The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK

Matthew 6:19-21

Money doesn’t grow on trees; save before you spend. Prepare for retirement. Have your nest egg ready.

Many of us learn and repeat such life management principles as if they were Bible verses. And, it’s common sense, right? And our financial advisors would tell us nothing less.

And, even if we aren’t talking about money, we are people who calculate our lives on good returns for our investments. For example:

We meet a newcomer in town whom we’d really love to spend more time with, but then after learning he’s is only going to be in the area for six months, we make no effort. Who wants to make a friend who will only leave soon?

We find a new recipe for a cake that looks to die for, but after learning such a tasty cake means rolling in layers and layers of filing for hours on end, we decide to forget it.   Who has that kind of time?

We think of sponsoring a child in a local school who is struggling to keep up their coursework, but then look at our calendar again realizing we have less time to give than we originally thought. So, we fight off the guilt, but decline saying, “My hour a month couldn’t possibility make a difference.”

I think we all cautiously invest if we don’t see possibility of high returns.

Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest men agrees. Though he would never give away publically his investment secrets, there are several principals that he readily prescribes to.

If you want to invest like Buffet: you’re told to:

  1. invest in companies with sound management with proven capacity for success with high returns
  2. determine whether the public voice and management of the company is of sound mind and judgment,
  3. choose to make investments only with a fall back margin of safety.[i]

And Buffet is not alone in thinking this way: the human experience is about a desire to be on the winning team.

And, with all of this being true about how WE see the world, how do we receive Jesus’ words from our gospel reading for today?

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

So, I ask you this morning, in our interpretation: do we make these words purely spiritual, assuming Jesus is talking about some sort of soul winning process?

Do we modify Jesus’ words in our own minds? Interpreting them to be about our money yes, but only a small portion?

Or do we hear Jesus’ words as a radical interruption into what we invest in altogether—our time, our talent and our finances?

The last option is probably the scariest option of them all.

And it’s true, Jesus, as I’ve come to know him always blows my mind with his radical approach to all things on this planet. Yet, through Jesus’ teachings, we are invited into the kingdom of God—a kingdom where the investment advice of this world of even the richest men is reduced to rubbish.

I believe Jesus boils down his advice on investment to this: “what are you acquiring?”

Saying: “But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.“

It’s not that Jesus is saying stuff is bad. Or that we all don’t need stuff—like clothes in our backs, food in our bellies, or a way to get from point A to B. But he is asking us to consider the emotional and financial value we put on the stuff that surrounds our lives. Are we investing wisely?

What I find interesting about the placement of these 3 verses in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is that they immediately follow a series of exhortations about what it means to live your life of faith in community.

Earlier in the passage, Jesus tells his followers to beware of practicing their piety before others—as they give, as they pray and as they fast.

Give without making a show of it.

Go pray in your prayer closet.

Fast with a cheerful face.

And by verse 19—Jesus continues with this same thought--- encouraging his followers to reconsider how the stuff that surrounds their lives draws attention to themselves, gives them esteem.

When I was 14 and started high school in Chattanooga, TN all I wanted was a North Face jacket. Not because I was one to be out in sub-zero temperatures. Not because I believed this particular kind of jacket would be durable for years to come. No. I wanted a North Face jacket because it simply said North Face.

And all the cool kids had North Face. I wanted to be counted among them.

(Sadly, I never got such a jacket because my parents weren’t into name brands. But when I turned 30 and I decided just for the sake of being a grown up I “deserved” one and bought my own).

But, Jesus says store up treasures in heaven. Treasures that don’t get seen. And don’t give us labels as in a particular crowd in the here and now.

Why? Because what you acquire on earth can be destroyed.

Your livestock and grains in the barn can die or mold.

Your new shiny cars will one day rust.

Your granite countertops will soon be out of style.

Your financial portfolio will one day fall prey to stock market crashes.

You’ll leave your North Face jacket on a plane one day.

So lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Store up treasures in eternal things.

What might this be, you might wonder? Treasures in heaven?

At this juncture, commentaries rarely provide any insight here but here’s my two-word take. LOVE PEOPLE.

Invest the richness of your life in somebody other than yourself. Notice I didn’t say riches or wealth. Because often we might think, “Well I don’t have as much to give as so and so over there so why does it matter that I give? I’m sure somebody else can do my share . . . ”

In August of 2012, my husband and I traveled to Malawi and Kenya for our first overseas adventure right after he became President and CEO of Feed the Children – a trip I believe Kevin told you something about when he shared a bit of his testimony with you several weeks ago.

One of the most important stops for me on this trip came when we met a group of young men called the Hardy Boys-- group of 20s and 30s something young men with special needs. They’d lived in the Feed The Children orphanage in Nairobi, KENYA since childhood but who had aged out of the system. (Thus, the “Hardy House” was created for them to live in for the rest of their life for most all of them have no family that is interested in caring for them).

When I first met these “boys” I learned that because of their disabilities, they were unable to do the one thing that they most wanted to do—work. In a country like Kenya without the protection for accommodating work environments, there are no jobs with persons with disabilities. Literally their whole lives is about doing their chores around the group home, taking care of their chickens and monkeys that fill their yards in the afternoon and delighting in anyone who will come and have a cup of tea with them.

But when I began to get to know these boys, I realized that nothing had or could stop them from storing up treasures in heaven—investing in what has lasting value.

Our visit began with a meal, we ate together foods they thought we’d like the best. Pizza, It’s what all Americans like the best, isn’t it?

After supper we sang one of their favorite songs, “Kum By Yah” together. Drool rolled down the cheeks of some their faces and the blind members of the group twitched their heads back and forth. But the rest of them couldn’t stop clapping their hands. God came near—just as the words Kum By Yah are translated.

As we were getting ready to leave, one of the men, Christian motioned me over.

Christian, I’d learned was an artist. Though confined to a wheelchair and unable to use his right hair because of his cerebral palsy, he liked to draw and paint as often as he could.

Before I knew it, in my hand laid a sketchbook--- a year’s worth of his beautiful paintings. When I asked him what he was giving it to me? He simply said, “It’s yours.”

And this was my take away of the whole visit: in this motley crew that most everyone in the world had written off as unimportant and insignificant that I saw something about God that I, as a seminary educated, able bodied, able sighted person hardly knew: that God dwells where people invest in the kingdom of God.

For these men were using their life, even with all their challenges as instruments of God’s love in the world. They were in the business of storing up treasures in heaven.

And this is truth: investment that the Hardy boys understand and practice is all is what the kingdom of heaven is all about.

And friends gathered here in Weatherford, OK today, I have some good news for you.

Just like the Hardy Boys, we’ve all got richness in our life. We’ve all got talents. We’ve all got time to give. We’ve all got the ability to pick up the phone and tell someone we’re thinking about them. We can all love people. We can all love somebody.

And when loving people becomes our priority, the strings of our bank accounts will align themselves naturally toward the heart of God.

We’ll want to use what we have to contribute toward things that matter. It won’t be some thing we set out to do . . . it will just happen.

Today is Consencration Sunday-- usually one of the most dreaded days of the year by many churchgoers. For it's the time that you are asked to take time to consider and say publically that you are going to invest the ministries of the church this upcoming year by your intentional commitments of finances. I’ve experienced such a day in all the churches I’ve been a part of through the years

And I have to confess though that today is one of my favorite Sundays. Not because (as some of my pastor friends call it) it’s “Raise the Pastor’s Salary Day” but because of how days like today ask me to be serrious about my own financial investments.

And do it in community!

For it’s a day when we get to do something powerful together: invest our coming year in what has lasting value.

It’s a day we get to remember that our church is part of how God is bringing the kingdom of heaven to Weatherford, OK—and God is using each and every one of us to make it happen.

It’s a day we get to remind ourselves that our giving today can bless future generations.

Our pledge cards, though seemingly just a piece of paper with some numbers on them really mean so much!

It’s a document that says we believe in Federated Church and want others in the community to find the same love than we’ve found here.

It’s a document saying that our treasures are being stored beyond this place—in the good work that is going into the world through our 3 denominational bodies in the areas of outreach, justice and compassion ministry.

And especially this year, it’s a document saying our treasure is in our children, those who are here and those who will come in the future.

Even more so, as you sign that pledge card it’s a love note of sorts to the kids in our Positive Pathway program—that you care about them and want them to succed greatly in school.

So, my friends, I tell you today, in your pledging, in your giving to God, you are doing no small thing. You are investing in what can not be destroyed.

It's a high calling to invest like this. To believe that as Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” It’s a high calling to take Jesus’ words seriously.

But today let us practice doing just this: let us store up for treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.

AMEN

[i] “The Investment Principles of Warren Buffet” http://www.buffettsecrets.com/buffett-investment-principles.htm

I’ve heard it said countless times that everything you need to know about workplace or a school comes when you see who sits with whom at what lunch table.

And it’s true. When you think about it, whom we dine with or choose not to dine with—is often one of the biggest indicators of our values, our likes and what matters to us the most.

There’s one thing I know for sure: in some way, we all know what it feels like to be welcomed at a table or not.

In the gospel lection from Sunday, we found a parable told by Jesus about a group of people who were trying to find their place at the table too.

It’s a story with an intense name: “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” (A great text to preach on near Halloween, wouldn’t you say?)

It’s a story that has created a lot of confusion over the centuries because of the anti-Semitism found in popular interpretations of its meaning.

But, it’s a story I believe that has a lot to teach us about the kingdom of God and who is sitting among us as when we come to the Lord’s Table.

The audience gathered around Matthew when we reach chapter 21 of his gospel are the high-class religious leaders of the day, those with the most influence in society. They’d recently seen Jesus turning over the money changing tables in the temple courts. They’d heard Jesus say with clear authority: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”

For Jesus, there was no time to waste on this Jesus’ last week of life.

Again, he needed to teach. So Jesus told another convicting parable. Saying:

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, and dug a wine press it in. He left the country, and told the tenants of the land that they were in charge. When the harvest time came, the landowner sent his salves back to collect his produce.

But then things got real. It was like a mob take-over of the vineyard! There was no way the landowner was going to get his property back.

For when the slaves arrive to collect the harvest, they’re first are beaten, stoned and one is even killed.

In response, the landowner then sends another delegation of slaves to collect his produce and again, the representatives of the master are beaten, stoned and some killed.

When none of this worked, the landowner sent his son. (Crazy choice don’t you think?)

But again, Jesus says the tenants are angry. They show no respect for the son either. They take matters into their own hands to protect what they think is theirs. The landowner’s son is soon killed too.

And it is at this point that the parable abruptly ends. The text transitions our attention back to the crowd gathered around Jesus.

In verse 40, Jesus asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do those tenants?”

This question is Jesus’ way of saying, ok, let’s slow down and think a minute.

The religious pompous, though, were quick to answer, saying in verse 41 about the landowner: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Or in other words—those crazy tenants, Jesus—please tell us that that they are going to get what they deserve! Please tell us that they’re going to die too.

What comes next is Jesus not affirming or even acknowledging what they say—rather drawing attention back to the scriptures and the using metaphors describing the kingdom of God.

And while some preachers and teachers might then proceed with the rest of the sermon giving you a lecture on Matthew’s take on Jewish/ Christian relations and what came of the Christian movement after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD—and how possibly Jesus was telling this parable to condemn the religious leaders of the day for what was to come after his death . . . .

I am not going to go there.

Instead, in light of the commentary of Professor David Lose, I want to help you think of the parable in this way:

What if we lay aside what the landlord might do in this parable and instead focus on what the landlord actually did?

Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. And I agree with David Lose when he says that this is one such occasion.

It’s the question, I believe, that leads us I believe to gospel. So what did the landlord do?

Though we could easily get caught up in the use of the word “slaves” and the willing sacrifice of life (such as why did the landlord willing hand over his slaves and his sons for torture and slaughter?), if we read this passage allegorically, gems of the landlord’s character begin to shine through.

Gems like determination, persistence and unconditional love.

For, there was nothing that the landlord would not sacrifice on behalf of staying in relationship with the tenants on his land.

Nothing. He gave it all.

Even his own beloved son!

And the same was true of Jesus is what He was trying to convey.

In modern terms Jesus’ message would go something like this:

Listen, crowds, I am about to give my life, own very life so that you can live abundantly too. I am about to show you how determined I am in my mission. Nothing, no nothing is going to separate me from you if you only open yourself up to receive me.

And in giving my life, I’m creating a new kind of kingdom.

A kingdom where it doesn’t matter who deserved what: rich or poor!

A kingdom where it doesn’t matter what your position is: slave or free!

A kingdom where it doesn’t matter where your faith story began: Jew or Gentile!

This is all you need to know about my kingdom. I’m going to be the cornerstone on which it is all built.

It is as if this parable is leading us to SEE what God's table might look like.

For there’s room at God’s table for brothers and sisters who have been eating at the table their whole life who are superstars of Sunday School. And there’s room for those who have not.

There is room at God’s table for those who follow scriptures to the degree of the law and have their daily devotions every day. And there’s room for those who are not.

There is room at the table of God for those who are from the United States with citizenship. And there’s for those who do not.

The question in becomes when is the last time our churches, our communion suppers and our dinner tables were full of people that lived into Jesus' words about what God's table is all about?

The Way God Sees the World

A sermon preached from Matthew 5:1-12  & Micah 6:1-8

Let me start off this morning by saying that I realize the sermon title: “The Way God Sees the World” is presumptuous. Last time I checked, I was not nor ever would be called God. Even with a seminary degree and all from Duke Divinity School like your pastor (Go Blue Devils!) and with ordination accreditation ascribed to my name, I claim I am a human being with limitations to understanding the mystery of the Divine. And if there is one thing I am certain of in this world, God is God and I am not.

But this morning, the message I feel I have to offer is exactly this: a glimpse into the way that God sees the world.

And I boldly offer such based on our New Testament lesson for this morning taken from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5. For within the first 12 verses of this text, we find Jesus laying out for us some very straightforward, yet often misinterpreted descriptions of the world.  God looks upon and says, “These folks get it. They’re not waiting on arriving in heaven to see my face and know me. They are living in the kingdom of heaven right now.”

Last week in our lectionary reading, the first disciples of Jesus have just been asked to join this new spiritual movement. Jesus met Peter, James, John and Andrew and said you’ll be fishermen no more— “Come fish for people with me.”

And as chapter 5 opens, Jesus’ teaching ministry is about get quite busy. Folks from all over the countryside have heard about him and are curious to know more. The crowds want to know what is Jesus’ next move. The disciples, however, are given premier access. Matthew 5 opens by telling us that the crowds have followed Jesus up to a mountainside. Jesus sits down with the disciples beside him and begins to say words that no one could have seen coming.

Jesus was expected by many to be a political leader after all—one who rose up to mobilize the Jews in force to overtake the oppressive Roman leadership. 

If he truly was the Messiah—the one for whom they had been waiting for hundreds of years, then surely he’d have a message of power proclaiming himself ruler of all. Surely he would teach this crowd gathered to raise up an army and fight back

But instead of anything like this, what we hear is:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  . . .

Biblical scholar NT Wright talks about this paradigm shift when he says: “When God wants to change the world, God doesn’t send in the tanks. God instead sends in the meek.”

And it is meek Jesus on the scene. But, was Jesus out of his mind? Did Jesus really know what he was saying?

Yep. He did. For Jesus goes on to call out these groups of people as blessed: poor in spirit, mourners, meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and persecuted.  He’s making some very clear statements about what life will be like for those who want to follow him.

There are so many preachers and teachers who at this moment of a sermon would parse out this text for you by explaining the difference between blessed and happy. Some translations say these are the blessed statements others say these are the happy statements. These pastors would say, "Happiness is short-lived and blessing is eternal." And their message could be summed up as: “We oh people of God need to focus our attention on less worldly things”

Then there would be some preachers who would go down the route of telling you that the Greek adjective markarios which the NRSV translates to English as “Blessed” can actually mean “fortunate” “happy” “in a privileged position” or “well off” (all true in fact) saying if you follow exactly what Jesus says then you have more fortune, happiness or privilege in your life, etc.    Joel Osteen, anyone?

And even others would go down the route of saying that the beatitudes are about missions. Jesus doesn’t favor the rich and well off in life they’d say. Then these preachers would come down hard on their congregations with a strong voice: “We’ll be a better church, oh people of God if we spend more of our budget on the “least of these” instead of on our fancy new buildings or big staff salaries.”

And to all of these interpretations, I say there would be some truth found within, but maybe not the deeper question that Jesus is trying to help us understand. And this is: how does God see the world?

I have been blessed (pardon the pun given today’s scripture) over the years to travel a lot internationally. When I was in high school, college and even seminary, I always jumped at the opportunity to go abroad on service learning trips. When I was 14, I took my first big adventure out of the country without my parents to the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean to be mentored by a missionary teacher. And after that I was hooked. There was just something about seeing another country with a culture different from my own that enlivened me like nothing else could.

Maybe if you have traveled a lot or lived in another country other than the US, you know what I mean. Cultural immersion trips have the power to change our lives forever -- if we are open to take in what we see and hear.

When I was 18, I booked a trip alone to Tanzania and Kenya for three weeks. Though I would be staying with friends of our family when I arrived, who were Americans, I was eager to get to know Africa as I’d had read and studied about it in school. I wanted to taste the food. I wanted to smell the air. I wanted to shake hands with new friends. I wanted to see Africa the way Africans saw their country.

But I have to tell you that whole trip turned out to be a bust. Never did I taste Ugali. Never did I go into any non-expats homes’. Never did I go anywhere that a person of non-European descent would go. My hosts wouldn’t allow it.

The Africa they saw, I learned, was the Africa through their American eyes. Their body had no sight or no taste for anything that didn’t resemble what was most familiar to them.  For three weeks, I ate a lot of pancakes, pizza and tacos in Nairobi—strange, right? I came back to the US three weeks later only having tried bottled water from an African bottling company.

In the same way, I believe many of us read and understand the beatitudes much like my “Americanized African” trip.

We read these scriptures through the lens of what we know: being human, the way my friends introduced me to American food in Africa.

We digest scripture literally. We make salvation about where we go when we die. We might even look at beatitudes as a checklist for righteous behavior. And we stop engaging the scriptures right there.

We don’t take a step back and see the bigger picture. We don't see the feast of a new kind of life that Jesus is offering his followers. "Come learn of me," Jesus is saying, and "You will never position yourself in the world in the same way. Because the kingdom of heaven is not about some specific action you do. It’s not about how poor or rich you are. It’s not about how many mission trips your church takes. It’s about seeing the world with God’s vision, taking your place as a citizen of heaven even as you abide as a citizen of earth."

I'll say it again, you take your place as a citizen of heaven even as you abide as a citizen of earth.

This feast of living is what makes the gospel of Christ so mind shattering! The kingdom of heaven IS here and it can be known through human ambassadors like us. How? When we see the world as God sees it.

Again, I’m not God. But one of the gifts of my travels over the years and especially my most recent travels with our family’s ministry within Feed The Children has been seeing the face of God in what most people would call the unlikely places.

Christian and ElizabethIn August of 2012, my husband and I traveled to Malawi and Kenya for our first overseas adventure since he took over as President and CEO of Feed The Children a few months before. It was a trip of many jewels but one of the most important encounters for me during our time there was with a group of young men called the Hardy Boys—a group of 20s and 30s something young men with special needs. They had lived in the Feed The Children orphanage in Nairobi since childhood but had aged out of the system. (Thus, the “Hardy House” was created for them to live in for the rest of their life for most all of them have no family that is interested in caring for them).

Though full of life challenges and unable to do the one thing that they all wanted to do—work—for there are no jobs with persons with disabilities in Kenya (like most developing countries), the joy in their faces communicated to us beyond words and moved me to tears.  During our time, one of the men, Christian gave me a year’s worth of his beautiful paintings in a sketchbook (pictured to the right). We ate together a meal with foods they thought we’d like the best. And later around chairs, we sang one of their favorite songs, “Kumbayah” together while drool rolled down the cheeks of some their faces and the blind ones twitched their heads back and forth and the rest of them couldn’t stop clapping their hands.

It was in this motley crew that most everyone in the world had written off as unimportant and insignificant that I saw something about God that I, as a seminary educated, able-bodied, able sighted person hardly knew: that God dwells where people have given their life to Jesus—all of it.

These men were using their life, even with all their challenges, as instruments of God’s love in the world.

And this is truth: the way God sees the world is much like the Hardy boys do. And on that August day in their living room, I was standing on holy ground.

This does not mean, however, that we should any way glamorize the harsh realities of poverty. It does not mean that embodying compassion or enduring persecution is a bed of roses. It does not mean that hungering for righteousness is a delightful kind of labor.

No- not at all: injustice is real in this world and God asks us to lend our voices to do what we can to speak out against the greatest ills. Doesn’t our Old Testament reading for this morning make it plain? “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”

But in all of this, the world that God sees and Jesus exhorts us to get to know is a world where every mourner is comforted, where the meek inherit the earth, and where those who endure persecution KNOW they are doing divine work. And in this world there is joy, even in the midst of pain and suffering.

This kind of life goes against all modern notions of happiness. For in a nation where we constitute the "good life" with a well-paying job, children in good schools, the  ability to go to see as many movies in a weekend that we want, granite countertops,  stainless steel appliances and having enough money to hire someone to clean our house and cut our grass, we don’t realize how POOR and OFF the mark we really all.

Again, not that having things is bad. But just that we’ve got the narrative of blessing all wrong.

Are we focused alone on our little kingdom on this earth or are we seeing the kingdom of heaven come to earth?

This is what I know without a shadow of doubt: when we come and see the world that God sees it, we are blessed. God's kingdom IS among us! How could we not be?

We are blessed as we mourn.

We are blessed as we purify our hearts.

We are blessed as we make peace.

We are blessed because we are living within the kingdom of heaven. And though onlookers may say falsehoods about us and mock the ways we spend our time, our talents and our money, we can not be shaken for God gives us vision for the plans of his world. We just need to follow.

For Jesus’ coming and showing us the way to the kingdom of heaven, today we can rejoice and be glad. There’s more than meets the eye in this world in which we live and this is good news for all of us today.

AMEN