November 3, 2019

“Whom Do You Serve?”

Haggai 2:8; Matthew 6:19-21,24

Today’s sermon is the beginning of a 3-week focus upon stewardship here at the 1st Presbyterian Church of Ashland. The fall is often called “Stewardship season” at the church because it is when we focus on the financial stewardship and plan for the following year’s budget. Yet in reality, there is no season for stewardship when it comes to the church. In fact, every sermon I have preached since I have come here nearly 3 years ago has been about stewardship, for stewardship is more than just about giving money. The definition of stewardship is as follows: The careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” Stewardship is about managing the many gifts of time, latent and treasure God has blessed us with, being faithful with what God has given us, in order to do the work of faith in the world. It is about showing our faith in all aspects of our lives, in what we do with our time, our talents, our treasure-these are gifts given to us, and we are to use them for God’s glory. I can therefore truthfully look back and say that all of my sermons this past year have had something to do with living out our faith, about our very lives being an offering to God. This is just another in a long line of sermons about stewardship, and how we use our time, talent and treasure.

Today, we’ll focus upon T number 3-“treasure”. What do we consider treasure today? What does our treasure say about our hearts? Jesus says in the first part of today’s lesson that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The ancient Hebrews believed the heart was where the will was located. I guess in some ways we may still believe that. I heard a sports reporter speaking after last Saturday’s college game between Washington State and the University of Oregon. The Ducks won the game 37-35 on a last-second field goal. The reporter, in speaking about Washington State said, “They just didn’t have the heart to win today,” which really is another way to say they didn’t have the will to win. A person’s will is their intention for life. It speaks of their actions and activities in the world- how they live their lives, and tells us what they value and treasure most in life. Today’s verses challenge us to look at what we value, at what we treasure.

We humans collect treasures all the time and assign status to one another on the basis of what treasure has been acquired. It used to be that treasure and status among Native Americans was based upon how many horses one owned. Many years ago, I took a church group on a mission trip to a Native American Yakama reservation in Eastern Washington, where our friends from “Mending Wings” live. As I passed by many homes and small farms, I noticed a lot of cars in the front yards, some of them that seemed to be in working condition, and others that were rusted out. I was told by one of the locals that status among the Yakama community depended upon how many cars one owns, running or not. Apparently, cars have replaced horses for the Yakama. They displayed their treasure, their status in plain view for all to see.

Wealth and status are powerful driving forces in our culture. Many years ago, when our son Sam was a second-grader, his wealth and status depended upon how many Pokémon cards he owned, and more importantly, which ones he owned. For example, in Pokémon, a “Charizard” card is much more valuable than a “Pikachu” card, I think. Now at the time, my son’s standing within his second-grade community was affected by his acquisition of cards, that is, by his amount and type of treasure. So when it came time to spend his allowance, we went to the only store in the small community of Fort Bragg that actually sold Pokémon cards, and he would purchase more of his treasure. Yet the coveting of status and standing in one’s community is not limited to second grade. We all crave status or standing.

In 1996, just after our son Sam was born, we decided we needed to get rid of our cars, an old ‘88 Volkswagen Fox, and ‘87 Toyota Pickup. We saw commercials for the New Plymouth Voyager-sleek, redesigned, cool red color. It was listed in consumer reports as the “best buy” of the year. I was hooked! I remember thinking- “Wow, if we drive around in this, we’ll have some real status-we’ll be able to transport Sam around in style! We’ll look just like the cool young happening family in the commercial.” Well, we did in fact purchase the exact same van in the commercial, right down to the red color. Here, however, is the reality of that “treasure”-that van lasted until around 2006, and was a money pit, to say the least. It was in the shop more than an auto mechanic. It did not give me any more status than driving any other car. We finally ended up donating the van to a nearby Christian camp that the kids attended. They used it as a food van for the summer camps for one summer, and then it disappeared, never to be seen again. That treasure wasn’t true and lasting. I had initially craved that Red Plymouth van, but its rewards were in reality hollow.

Now you might think that this misdirected desire of chasing wealth and status is a relatively new thing. Yet Proverbs 23:4-5, written well over 2,800 years ago says, “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be wise enough to stop. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes to itself wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”- or perhaps it ends up being towed by a tow truck to the shop…

You may remember in my sermon from last Sunday, I spoke about the ancient Hebrews choosing a new way, going back to Jerusalem to rebuild God’s temple and their lives after having been in captivity in Babylon. In Haggai 2:8, we learn that in the midst of the people trying to rebuild the temple and scrape their financial resources together, that their accumulated wealth, both the silver and gold belong to God, not them.

We humans have struggled with our cravings, and have been coveting what we think to be “our” silver and gold for millennia. Church reformer from the 1500's Martin Luther said, “ See to it that greed does not take you in with a sweet suggestion and lovely deception like this: that you intend to advance yourself or your children to a position. The more you get, the more you will want; and you will always be aiming for something higher and better. No one is satisfied with his or her position in life.”

The problem is that there will always be another more powerful Pokémon card, there will always be a bigger home, a better, newer car or van, a treasure that we think can give us more standing, or more security in society. All of these treasures are temporary. In time the Pokémon card gets damaged, or another kind of card becomes the next in thing. In time, sometimes RIGHT after you purchase it, the van begins to fall apart. That is why Jesus says to us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal.” Why does Jesus use these three examples? Theologian Dale Brunner says, “The moth represents nature’s corrosion eating away. The rust represents time’s corrosion eating away, and the thief represents humanity’s corrosion eating away- All three together represent the insecurity of life lived for the accumulation of wealth and status.”

Jesus is trying here to teach us where to aim our hearts, where to focus the will, the intent of our lives. Rather than seeking the treasure of human popularity, the treasure of status or wealth in society, the faithful are called to seek the treasure of God’s esteem. We are called to find our worth in God and God alone. If we can do this, then our hearts will be opened, and our wills, our very lives will be in God’s hands. Our will becomes directed toward pleasing God, toward making our very lives an offering to God.

And yet, Jesus didn’t stop there. He broke things down even further for us. Jesus went on to say, “a person cannot serve both God and mammon.” Some versions of this passage say “It is impossible to serve both God and mammon.” What is this word, Mammon? The word is an Aramaic word meaning “money or possessions”. Martin Luther, in looking at this passage, said- “the emphasis here is on the little word SERVE. It is no sin to have money and property, wife and children, house and home. But you must not let it be your master. You must make it serve you, and you must become its master.” Money, status, standing, possessions- all of these are tools for the kindom of God, for they are given by God. Material possessions, money- mammon if you will is not supposed to be something that separates us from our spiritual journey. If mammon is not used to promote the kindom of God, then our spiritual journey is lacking.

Jesus doesn’t want us to waste our lives practicing the impossible, trying to serve two gods at the same time. The course for a Christian to follow is simply to make their decision that one will no longer allow one’s life to be determined by the treasures of success, awards, accomplishments, status, appointments, salaries, material possessions-that we will not be ruled by our quest for treasure. Brunner says “We are asked by this passage to turn our backs resolutely on the gods of the world, to deny the gods of success to whom most give unquestioning loyalty, and to serve ONLY the Living God.” What might that look like?

There is a story about two American Christians who went with their church on a trip that was going around the world. Before they started, their minister asked them to observe and to remember any unusual and interesting things they might see in the countries through which they traveled. These two, without thinking too much about it, promised to do so. In Bhopal, India one day, they saw two girls pulling a crude plow in the field by the side of the road, while an old man held the handles and directed it. One of the Christians thought it was a strange scene and snapped a picture.

"That’s a curious scene! I suppose they are very poor," he said to the missionary who was the interpreter and guide. "Yes," was the reply, " When the church was being built this family was eager to give something to it, but they had no money. They sold their only ox and gave the money to the church. This spring they are pulling the plow themselves."

Two Christians were quiet for several minutes. Then one said, "That must have been a real sacrifice." But the missionary said, "They did not call it that. They thought it was fortunate they had an ox to sell." You see this family saw their value and status coming not from the world around them, but from God and God alone. y did not let their possessions rule them but used them for the glory of God.

Jesus does not remove our desire for success or status. He redirects it. Rather than directing our ambition towards earthly success, Jesus calls us to become a success before God, to accumulate treasures in heaven- faith, hope, love, and service. Jesus doesn’t quash ambition; he elevates it.

So, Jesus asks us today, “Whom do you Serve?” As we all now consider how to use the resources God has blessed us with of time, talent and treasure for our congregation and for the kindom locally and globally, may our hearts be in line with God, so that all we have and all we are might be an offering to God’s glory. Living a life in this way is treasure indeed. Alleluia! Amen.


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