Word of the Week

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.


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

Mark 10:17-31

Last week, we began by asking ourselves some big picture questions as a congregation: who are we? And where are we going? Following the lead of Micah 6:8, we answered by remembering that our first calling as a community is to do justice by simply opening our eyes and seeing people that we might otherwise overlook.  Justice begins with opening our eyes to see. But this morning, let’s take the conversation one step further—asking again, who are we?

If you are like most, you probably would answer this question based on where you find yourself in this moment of your life. I am a grandmother. I am retired. I live in Reston. I work in Tysons. I live in a brick house. I drive a Honda hybrid.

Though we know intellectually that we are more than our jobs or more than our titles or even more than what we own, it is very easy to talk about who we are by the stuff around us. It very easy to be people who are always out for the hunt for something more—just as a recent survey of American reported than a large majority feel that they deserve right now a 20% increase in pay or that if they made at least 20% more money than they made right now then they’d be happier.

But Micah’s exhortation encourages us today—that our second call as congregation is to be a people who “love mercy.” People who not only see the needs of those around them, but begin to use their resources they have—whether they be time, talent or even finances to come to the aid of others.

And in this calling, as we consider living it out, can come in direct assault to the ways and the stuff around us that we normally define ourselves by.  What if we didn’t buy the new I Phone 5 and instead sponsored a child monthly through a relief organization in lieu of that extra special data cell phone plan? What if we waited to purchase a vacation home and instead agreed to assist our grandchildren for paying for college? What if we left our high paying job (and thus guarantee for an early retirement) for a career in the non-profit sector where we knew we could use our talents for the great good of our community?

Ouch! This “love mercy” stuff is no easy calling . . .

However, as we take a closer look at our gospel lesson for this morning, we know that we are in good company.  The earliest disciples suffered from the same struggle too.  The cost of discipleship was in fact harder than their check-list faith paradigm from the past might have otherwise imagined.

As recorded in Mark 10, Jesus has had a hectic day of ministry but a man comes running toward him after the blessing of the children. This man was a courageous young fellow as he risked ridicule by humbly approaching this Teacher everyone was talking about.  Clues from other gospels help identify him by the title of Rich Young Ruler.

And because of his wealth, this was also a guy who we can imagine got everything his heart desired—only the best social status, the best camel his dinari could buy, and handsome garments to wear to prove to the world that he was somebody. Basically, his life was on a direct path where everything was as it should be. (Though I’m sure he still thought he needed 20% more!)

Furthermore, from this passage, we gather that even in the religious realm, the Rich Young Ruler was the kind of guy with every t crossed and i dotted— he followed the commandments of his faith doing everything that was expected of him.

However, one huge unanswered question mark remained. Was he completing the right to-do list? The Rich Young Ruler wanted to know if his efforts to be a godly person were enough to get him on the “Who’s Who of God’s People” yearbook.

Thus, we hear him uttering this question to Christ: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” in verse 17.

And this question is not just one that 1st century Jews were asking themselves—it still lingers as one of the most pondered questions in the modern-day.

Answer the question in a book of 150 pages or less with good marketing and you’ll be a bestselling author. Speak prophetically about the nature of salvation with specific dates about Jesus’ second coming and you’ll be the founder of a new branch of Christianity. Preach a five step salvation plan and you might just be a pastor of a growing mega church.

But why? I believe it’s because there is something in all of us that craves a checklist faith: we want concrete answers. We want a rubric that leaves us with a chart full of gold stars from God at the end of our lives. And we want all of these achievements in a package we can easily understand, so we’ll have time left where we can cram in everything else in our lives that we think is important.

In the same way, the Rich Young Ruler truly got this desire of ours. In his craving to know what Jesus’ bottom line was for salvation, he was just asking to see the black and white meaning of eternal salvation. So, why couldn’t Jesus, this good teacher, just tell him? He knew whatever it was, he could do it.

In typical Jesus fashion, he steers clear of an easy answer and adds an impossible addendum to the commandments he was already keeping in verse 21: “Go, sell everything that you have and give it to the poor.”

“What, are you crazy?” the man must have thought, “This is NOT what I expected to hear!”

For, he knew he could not give up everything as Jesus said. Jesus was asking for ownership of ALL of his life, not just the part he could easily give him.

Having a conversation about money and faith . . . Oh, this would be too hard. Impossible in fact, for a guy like him, as everything in his life was tied in some way to physical possessions.

Asking this man to give up his stuff was more than just a call to poverty (as this passage is not just about money), but it was a call to complete surrender of his life. It was a call to acts of mercy, to a lifestyle of mercy.

Thus, we read in verse 22 that the man’s “face fell” upon hearing Jesus’ exhortation. He journeys away saddened by the proposal. For, he could do nothing.

And, the Rich Young Ruler was not the only one for whom to love mercy would be difficult.

The disciples found themselves confused too. Was there any possibility of salvation for them either? Peter (as always) quickly speaks: “We have left everything to follow you!” Peter wants to make it clear that if anyone had made great sacrifices, they certainly had. Wouldn’t that certainly be enough for his kingdom? And while Jesus says their efforts will be recognized, he doesn’t directly answer the question. Because to love mercy was not something that could be translated  into a black and white spread sheet or action that could be qualified by human standards . . .

Because perhaps because Jesus’ life provided a completely new paradigm of loving neighbors that would not be dependent on human ability to follow the law . . .

Perhaps because salvation would take its cues from the cross— a place of self-emptying, a place of unselfish love, a place where the mercy of our Lord the gift given for us all!

You see, the type of kingdom the Rich Young Ruler, the disciples and even you and I are often looking for is one where we don’t have to suffer. A kingdom where we can be sure of our salvation we had the right answers or a kingdom where our faith does not have to change our daily to-day lifestyle, vacation plans or shopping trips to the mall. Many of us live on fixed incomes after all. We’ve made decisions about what to do with our finances years before we retired. There is no way we could change now!

I feel I would remiss if I didn’t interject here that I totally understand how hard this is, to open up a conversation on acts of mercy that flow out of our pocketbook.

Not even pastor types, with a Revs in front of their names are experts at mercy. We too like our stuff as much as the next person.  (It is true, that I have been accused on many occasions of having a love obsession with my IPad or my purse collection).

Maybe this is why Jesus said in verse 25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Did you know that in Jerusalem there is an eye in the needle gate? Kevin and I saw it ourselves a couple years ago on a trip to the region.

In ancient times, the needle of the eye gate was purposely built with a very small entry way so to prohibit invaders from coming into the city. However, this safety feature was not without its disadvantages. What if they wanted to get necessary goods into the city?

When traders wanted to come into the city of David with their camels (or other animals) loaded with goods, they could not fit in the gate. The only way for the camels to get in “the eye of the needle” gate was for the owners to unload their goods and leave it outside until someone else was able to bring it in through another way.

So, to is our work if we are going to be people who enter the kingdom of God as lovers of mercy.  If we are going to be people who live in the city of God, then we are going to have unload on a regular basis, so to make room for of God’s ways in our lives.

But, why? Really, why mercy? Could that just be left to someone else?

Biblical commentator, David Lose, answers the question in this way—we love mercy because:

The way we spend our money (and I would add here time and talents) “has a great impact on the welfare of our neighbor. Notice that Jesus doen’t just tell the man simply to give his wealth away, but rather he tells him to give it to the poor. . . . Jesus invites not just the rich man but all of us to imagine that we are, indeed, stewards of our wealth, charged to use all that we have to best care of all the people God has given us as companions along the way.”

We love mercy because there are those whom we need to assist that will not otherwise have what they need unless we give. Simple as that.

He also adds that we are to love mercy because:

The way we spent our money (or our time and talents) has a great impact on our own welfare as well. Consider [how our relationship with what we earn ourselves] can mask our dependence on God and each other by creating a sense not just of independence, but actually of not needing each other. . . . Jesus knows there are few things more important than for us to do than to share our abundance.”

We love mercy because it is good for us. We remember who our Creator. We remember to whom we belong which is to ALL our human brothers and sisters. We remember that just as we give, we receive.

How did this passage end? Look with me at verse 31. It’s a favorite of mine: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

This my friends, is THE radical message of the teachings of Jesus. Our life is found loving mercy. For as we give we might just find that no matter how much money is or is not in our bank accounts, retirement funds, or how much our savings bonds are worth, we’d rather love mercy than be in love with our new car, dream vacation or even season tickets to our favorite sporting team.

Hear me not say today that Jesus is not anti-stuff or anti fun. God, I believe wants to us to enjoy what brings us delight and what we’ve been blessed with. What good is it to have anything if we walk around feeling guilty about it all the time?

But, in the end, we are to love the most is mercy. Our lives as Christians are to overflow with mercy. Or church is to overflow with mercy—not just when we have enough in savings or our building suddenly stops aging or when our pledges get over a certain amount for the year ahead or even when we have a certain number of people in worship, when we think we can afford  it. Nope. Mercy is never about cost and benefit analysis. Nope. Jesus says, “Be merciful now. Be merciful now. It’s what I’ve asked you to do if you want to follow me.”