Sermon on Matthew 6:19-34, Lent 2, Year A, March 16, 2014
Sermon on the Mount Series
“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, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“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 unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
In the summers between years of college I painted houses, which gave me a lot of time to listen to the radio. The public radio station in Cincinnati played old time radio shows like “The Shadow,” “The Great Gildersleeve,” and “Bob and Ray,” but one of the best, to me, was “Fibber McGee and Molly.” The show was about depression-era married couple whose domestic life provided an endless stream of jokes.
The best running joke was Fibber McGee’s closet, which he claimed to have arranged “just the way he wanted it” – meaning absolutely haphazardly. It was so stuffed with junk that each time he opened the door, an avalanche buried him. The sound effects were so good I could picture everything falling out, from the rusty horse-shoe to the ten-foot pole.
The scene is funny because, like all good humor, it is based in pain. We all identify with it. We have closets full of clothing we do not wear. We have junk drawers full of things we will never use because we do not even remember what is in them. We have attics, garages, sheds, and even storage units full of stuff.
But we still get our heads turned by the garage sale merchandise sitting out in the yard as we drive by on Saturday morning, as if there was something more we needed.
Jesus and stuff
As I was reading a book on the Sermon on the Mount this week, I found a quote that summed up Jesus’ teaching here better than any other.
“Jesus’ message can be reduced to these ideas: Live simply. Possessions are mysteriously idolatrous. Trust God.” – Scott McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary) (Kindle Location 4993). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
“Mysteriously idolatrous” is the phrase that jumped out. It is so true. It is not just that possessions have the capacity to become idols, but that that power they have is mysterious. It us up there in mysteriousness with the power of sexual attraction and the fear of death.
Bible Study, this past Thursday was about these same verses. As I was finishing my preparation on Wednesday evening, I had a thought about how to apply its teaching immediately in a practical way. If you were there, you heard me suggest that we all go home and find something to throw away. Go to that closet or that drawer or the shed, and find something we know we do not need, perhaps something we have not touched in the past two years, and get rid of it.
I suggested that if there was any resistance we felt, any inner tug to keep hanging on, we should make a mental note of it. We should look at that feeling of resistance, and see how mysteriously attached we are to our stuff – even to stuff that our minds tell us we have no need of.
Well, that idea came to me on Wednesday, with no time to practice what I was preaching. But Friday morning, I got a couple of plastic bags, and headed for the closet. One bag was for the thrift shop, the other for the trash. In no time the thrift shop bag was full. Of course it was. There were shirts and pants I would never put on again.
But the clothes were still good. They had value. Styles had changed and I no longer wanted to wear them but they were still perfectly wearable. Maybe I should hang on to them? I felt that mysterious tug. I told myself it was ridiculous to hesitate. But the hesitation mysteriously remained.
Then I went to the junk drawer. Tubes of glue and rolls of tape were there, along with screwdrivers, screws, plumbing parts and twist ties; a lot of potentially useful stuff. But a lot of junk to throw away too. At the bottom was an old dirty and corroded penny.
When I looked down at it I got the oddest feeling. What do you do with an old dirty corroded penny. I generally don’t even carry pennies around. It’s not worth the time it would take to clean it. But you don’t throw away money! Mystery noted. I put it in the coin jar in the closet.
How much is enough?
We have all heard sermons on these teachings of Jesus. We know all about how Mammon is god-like, and how impossible it is to serve both the real God and Mammon at the same time. We have heard about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, but we still feel that mysterious anxiety.
The age-old answer to the question, “How much is enough?” is still, absurdly, “a little bit more.”
Twice in my life I have left nearly all my stuff behind and started over – not because I am a saint in this area, but out of sheer necessity. The first time was in 1991 when we had our own garage sale before going overseas with only our luggage. It felt powerfully liberating. The other time was a dozen years later when returned to the States with only our luggage. Again, the feeling was amazing.
Attachment and Needs
Many of us are near the time in our lives when down-sizing is necessary. And yet we resist. Why? We need to sit with that question and let it sink in. We need to ask about attachment, because that is what this is about. We need to ask about our sense of security because that is what this is about too.
And then we need to ask the God question; the trust question: what would it mean to live in a way that demonstrated my attachments were not misplaced? What would it mean to live trusting that my security is in the God of “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field”?
It is not as if we can live without food, clothing and shelter. These days, we need all kinds of things from cars to medical care. Life is complex and expensive. There is frank realism in Jesus’ teaching. He says,
“indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things”
But there are also many many things that we do not need that we keep spending money on.
The Mystery and its Effects
This is a profoundly mysterious issue. In the wealthy Western world where we live, charitable giving, even by people earning over $60,000 averages only 2% – 3%. And that amount includes donations to universities, to research and to all charitable organizations, not just to churches. With all the money we have, we still believe we need to spend 97 or 98% of it on ourselves.
We even keep spending beyond our means as well. The average US household credit card debt in 2013 was $15,252. It is very hard to hear an appeal to help the hungry or the homeless when the credit card interest keeps accumulating.
Jesus’ teaching here is simple:
“Live simply. Possessions are mysteriously idolatrous. Trust God.”
And yet this is about as hard as it gets. So, I am going to offer some practical suggestions.
First, for those of us who are needing to down size but finding it difficult to let go of things that have sentimental value and memories associated with them, perhaps you might consider taking some thoughtful pictures. Our phones have great cameras on them now. Take a picture of the big dining room set, the couch, or whatever has the memory. Keep the pictures, and then let the stuff go.
For all of us, whether downsizing now or not, I want to give us the same challenge that I gave in bible study: go home today and find something to throw away. Let it go completely. Don’t sell it, just treat it like trash. The choice of what you throw out is completely yours. Do this at least once each Sunday in Lent as a spiritual practice. Practice intentional letting go. Simplify. Un-clutter. Detach.
Next, go to the places where this stuff sits, year after year, and start thinning down. Make a pile and take it to the thrift shop. If you have not worn it or used it in the last two years, why do you still have it?
If you do have things of value that you no longer need, then give them away, or at least, sell them. Put them on eBay or Craigslist. Have a garage sale of your own.
And if any of this makes you struggle, if any of it puts a feeling of resistance or regret in your heart, notice it. Acknowledge it for the powerful force that it is. And then refuse to be a slave to that feeling. It comes from Mammon, not from God.
Give Away Money
Finally, give some money away. Most of you have churches that you are members of up North. When you go home, incase your pledge. Even if it’s only by $10 or $20 a month, increase it. Increase it every year. It is not only because your church needs it; you and I need to give more of our money away. Confront its mysterious power. You have a choice.
Then, after you have increased your tithe, look around. You and I have more than most of the world will ever imagine. Where can you do some good with your money? Find a cause, like literacy, or a problem, like malnutrition, and be a part of the solution. Invest in a micro-finance project t through an organization like Kiva. Use your money to do some good and make a difference in the world.
Become the generous person God made you to be. This is exactly what Jesus meant by “storing up treasures for yourselves in heaven.” Become liberated from the tyranny. Let loose; release; detach. You will feel better, less stressed, less anxious and less fearful.
Finally, let us hear this as a call to look at ourselves as we are, and to have a good laugh. We are all Fibber McGee’s. When you think about it, it is comical. So, let’s open the closet door, cue the sound effects of the avalanche, then let’s do something about it. Let us be followers of Jesus, determined to live simply, to say “no” to the mysterious power of possessions, and trust God.