Sunday February 27, 2011 8 Epiphany
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: Matthew 6: 24- 34
Theme: You Gotta Serve Somebody
When I was in college I had a good friend named Earl Todd Twist. He was a tall, tough, smart boy from Montana. He had a very ordered mind and was quite thoughtful. One day in the midst of a Bible study Earl Todd Twist made this observation. “You know it seems that in our world people love things and exploit people in order to get things, when really its supposed to be the other way round, we are called to love people and exploit things to serve that purpose.” It is probably one of the best and shortest sermons I’ve ever heard. I’ve never forgotten it. I should probably stop right now. But I’m not as smart as Earl Todd Twist. And besides preachers get paid by the word.
In essence I believe that this is what Jesus is saying in our Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount today. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matt. 6:24)
The word for wealth that many Bible’s still use is mammon which is the Aramaic word meaning “money” or “possessions.” In itself it is a neutral word. There was no pagan God called Mammon but using the word in this passage is rather like our cultural idiom of saying you cannot be devoted to God and to the “The Almighty Dollar.” In this passage Jesus is confronting our deep human tendency to allow our thirst for possessions to control us, to set our hearts on them in subtle but destructive ways.
In the Veggie Tales cartoon series there is an episode which features a store called StuffMart. You’ve probably been to a StuffMart. In one episode three salesmen try to work their retail magic on a newcomer to their neighborhood and they sing a little song for her that has these lyrics.
Salesmen: We represent the Stuff Mart
Salesman #2: An enormous land of goodies
Salesman #1: Would you mind if we stepped in, please?
Salesmen: And as associates of the Stuff Mart
Salesman #1: It looks like you could use some stuff!....
Salesman #1: If you need a rubber hose
Salesman #2 and #3: We got those!
Salesman #1: A rhododendron tree
Salesman #2 and #3: We got three!
Salesman #1: A wrap-around deck
Salesman #2 and #3: Gotta check!
But if you need a window scraper
And a gross of toilet paper
Or a rachet set and pliers
And surround sound amplifiers
And a solar turkey chopper
Or a padded gopher bopper
Flannel shirts for looking grungy
And some rope for goin' bunji
Bunji! Bunji! Bunji-wun-gee-fun-gee!
Here we go, bunji! Come on!
Salesman #1: What we've mentioned are only just some
Salesman #2: Of the wonderful things yet to come
Salesman #1: These pictures you keep are so ... nice
Salesman #3: But you really should take our advice
Salesman #1: Happiness waits at the Stuff Mart!
Salesmen: All you need is lots ... more ... stuff!
Salesman #2 and #3: You really, really ought to!
Madame: How could I afford not to?
Salesman #1: Happiness waits at the Stuff Mart!
Salesmen: All you need is lots ... more ... stuff!
It is a clever and dead-on satire pointing out American’s incredible appetite for stuff. Our materialistic culture ought to be well aware of the incredible power of money and possessions on our lives, but acquisitiveness has become so much a part of the air we breathe that we seem to lack the critical distance to really see the story of our possessions. Isn’t it interesting how our quest for material possessions has a way of starting out as a means to enrich our lives but eventually they end up taking on a life of their own, becoming a kind of beast to be fed, a little less than a god. Too easily our possessions become not our helpful servant but our demanding master.
Oh, yes we all know the right answer to the contest between God and mammon. We faithfully say that we have chosen to serve God, not mammon, but too often in our daily life it is mammon that sets our priorities and determines our choices. We would like to show more generosity toward the less fortunate but we cannot because there are so many things we need from the StuffMart ….. We truly intend to be more charitable in the future but for right now there are just too many things we need to buy ourselves.
You know the dilemmas yourself. Many families work multiple jobs to make ends meet, especially in this time of recession, giving up time with their children because there is so much they want to get for them, so many opportunities they want to provide. We all know people who struggle to pay off consumer debt while they drive a new car and have closets full of great clothes and shoes we wish we had. We all know people, they may in fact be us, who are literally working themselves to death, abandoning their families and marriages to give themselves to work often with what seem the best intentions and sanctioned by our achievement sick society. The other day a student asked me to hold her cell phone while she played with her friends. She handed me her new iphone and I realized that I was having phone envy with an 8 year old. Since when does an 8 year old need a new iphone? StuffMart….
I’m not sure if it has ever happened to you but once in a while I look around at all the stuff in my house or garage or office and think, “Where did all this stuff come from? Do I really need all this stuff?” I’m amazed at times that just 6 years after losing almost everything in Hurricane Katrina that once again I am surrounded by things. The truth is that it is not just empty nesters or retirees that need to think about simplifying or downsizing. We all are steeping in a culture of acquisition, of more is better, upsized meals, Costco-sized living. You know there is something wrong when Grande means medium and we have to invent some new word for large, Vente? And what does it mean that the word ginormous has become standard English.
Into our super-sized lives, Jesus strides with his first-century wisdom that seems so contemporary. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in an steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
What does it mean to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven? Instead of assessing our worth and that of others in terms of acquired treasures, cars, houses, art, which makes one so vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life, Jesus’ followers are instructed to look for invulnerable treasures, to build up treasures that cannot be taken away. What are these treasures? My guess is that you know these treasures, you’ve tasted them many times. They are the simple treasures of kindness for its own sake, kindness performed in myriad ways, everyday kindness that can make all the difference in someone else’s life but more importantly in yours. They are acts of friendship when you realize that the person in front of you is really needing someone to talk with and listen. The challenging effort it sometimes takes to be a true friend. The treasure is the real difference between being a friend and wanting to have friends. It is the treasure that no one can take away from you of realizing that the gifts and resources you have are gifts from God and you can use them to care for people, you can hold them loosely enough to be used in ways that bring glory to God.
Storing up treasures in heaven seems to mean beginning to see the world like God sees it. Oh, I realize that is tricky business but it is the business that our spiritual health depends upon. Valuing people over things. Valuing building relationships over building status. Valuing the welfare of the many over the wealth of a few. Investing ourselves in the care and development of children and youth instead of thinking that they are too much trouble or we’ve done our time. Daring to take a conversation into the depth of the spiritual when we are so tempted to remain aloof and shallow talking about the weather or the news of the day. Becoming people to who talk about things that matter to people on the inside, about what moves them in a God-ward direction. Sitting quietly to listen to God’s still small voice instead of running around desperately trying to fill our emptiness. Seeking treasure in heaven is a way of opening yourself up to the movement of God’s Spirit in a way that no amount of purchasing power could ever accomplish. It is in the end a way of finding the freedom that exists in God, for in serving God is perfect freedom.
Bob Dylan said it well in his song, “Gotta serve somebody.”
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
Bob Dylan’s music, Jesus’ words, Matthew’s Gospel all point to a spiritual truth. Our lives are lived in service to what we believe is most important. In fact, what we choose to serve becomes the shape of our spiritual life: the way we order our loves, the way we deploy our resources for good or ill, the way we invest ourselves in people, our 401K’s, our children’s future, our community’s long-term health.
Sermons rarely give you all the answers you need. But hopefully they invite you into living the questions upon which your life truly depends. These words of Jesus really do call us into a time of reflection and prayer. I want to call you into a time of prayerful consideration about how you are spending your life, what are you investing your life in? Is it something you would call treasure in heaven that thief or rest or moth or a crashed hard drive or a fall in the market can’t take away? Have you by your life and love and compassion and care and money helped someone on their path toward knowing and loving God?
What do you possess that you just couldn’t live without? How has your life slipped off the edge, lost focus and become serving mammon instead of serving God? How have you invested your life in a way that really says that people are more important than things? How have you used things to value people to help them become more human, more fully alive, more open to God? What is a your money for? Is it a gift from God to be used for the kingdom? Or is it your own private possession that is beginning to possess you?
We know what is important. I’m not for a minute going to tell you that I think that this is an easy spiritual task, very few spiritual tasks actually are easy. The point is that this is the way that leads to life. This is the way that will fill your whole body with light. This is the path that leads to true freedom, to the everlasting life that Jesus is always talking about and is so deeply attractive.
You gotta serve somebody, that’s for sure, but who or what you choose to serve makes all the difference. For in serving Christ is perfect freedom.