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Sermon: Money And Possessions

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. Three major things have been going on. Firstly, there has been a major pastoral situation. Although it eventually became public, it would not be good for me to allude in any way to its nature here. Furthermore, some of the decisions I had to take in relation to this matter led to me leading worship but not preaching, in order to be free to take particular essential courses of action. Hence there were no new sermons anyway for a couple of weeks.

Secondly, around the same time we had a major gas leak at the church, at one time with gas levels high enough for us to be at the risk of an explosion. That entailed several days of having to drop everything at short notice to sort things out with the engineers.

Thirdly, as you will gather below, I also suddenly lost the use of my car. I was driving at 70 mph on the M25 when the cam belt malfunctioned. Repair of the consequent damage would have cost more than the value of the old car. So I was then thrust into an urgent search for a new car.

However, I can now belatedly bring you the sermon I preached this morning. I hope you find it helpful.

Matthew 6:19-34

Peter used to sort the post and bring it to everyone’s desks in the office where I used to work. A bit of a lad, you wouldn’t have marked him down as the most likely to become interested in God and religion.

Not until his girlfriend became a Christian. She enthusiastically joined a local evangelical church, and Peter started going with her to the church young adults’ group. They went to the Greenbelt Festival together, and he began attending the Sunday evening youth fellowship with her.

It was one Monday morning at the office after he had been to the youth group the previous night that he started a conversation about how uneasy he had been about the youth group leader. This man had invited everyone to his home for the meeting. Peter said that the man couldn’t stop going on about all his lovely furniture and other household comforts.

“That’s not what you Christians are supposed to be like, is it?” he asked me.

Peter was right. Jesus says far more about topics such as money and possessions than he does about some of the issues that frequently obsess the church. Which is not to say I don’t believe matters such as sexual ethics are – they touch on who we are at the deepest level, and I hold fairly traditional views on them. But Jesus also knew that the way we handle material things would be critical if we aim to be the whole-hearted disciples he wants us to be.

So we come to this week’s section in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus puts this question up front and centre, even when teaching a group of people in a culture full of peasants living at subsistence level. How much more relevant is it to us, in a society that depends upon us buying plenty of ‘stuff’? Indeed, much of our culture is defined by an addiction to consumer goods.

Let’s dive in, then, and see whether by following Jesus’ teaching here we can offer a distinctive witness to him in our world.

Firstly, let’s recognise that our attitude to money and possessions is a matter of the heart: ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (verse 21). But what does this mean?

On Monday, people’s lives will be flooded with hearts – on cards, on balloons, chocolate-shaped ones, and so on. The heart will be the visual logo for Valentine’s Day. In our culture, we take the heart to be symbolic of the emotions and the affections.

But it would be dangerous to transfer our use of the word ‘heart’ to the world of the Bible. For Jewish people, if you wanted to talk about the emotions, the body part you symbolically used was … the bowels. When Jewish people referred to the heart, they meant something far deeper than we do: the heart represented the very core of a person’s being. So when Jesus says your treasure is where your heart is, he isn’t merely referring to the emotional pull of certain things, he’s talking about giving complete allegiance to them.

And to take that further, if Jesus is telling us that our treasure needs to be ‘treasures in heaven’, he is calling us to an undiluted commitment to him. Those who treasure money and possessions are those who devote their lives to them. Our devotion is to Jesus and his kingdom.

How do we work this out in the life of faith? One thing I recommend is that we ensure we do not simply make assumptions about our spending habits and our lifestyle decisions. We can do that by submitting every major decision about finances or possessions to God in prayer. And when I say ‘submitting’ I do so deliberately, because we must be willing for God to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the plans we propose.

So it came as an encouragement last week when my old car suddenly gave up the ghost that Debbie and I had separately come to the same conclusion about the budget we should set for a replacement. We kept within that budget – the car I chose was £25 under the budget, and fits well what I need for ministry.

This, then, is Jesus’ first command about money and possessions. Ensure you are wholeheartedly committed to his cause, and judge everything in the light of that.

Secondly, Jesus sees our attitude to riches as a test of our spiritual health. Why on earth does he suddenly start going on about healthy and unhealthy eyes (verses 22-23)? I mean, obviously a healthy eye means good sight and a diseased eye causes poor sight, but why on earth does that suddenly appear in the middle of teaching about wealth rather than health?

There is a simple explanation, and the footnotes in some Bibles point you towards it. When Jesus refers to healthy eyes, the word translated ‘healthy’ can also be translated ‘generous’. Does it begin to make sense now? A healthy attitude is a generous attitude. Generosity is a hallmark of a disciple.

And how important that is today. The other day I found myself in a conversation with a young man just in from work who glibly talked about the way he spent £30 to £40 a day on himself, and how he was partly funding that from an additional job that paid ‘cash in hand’. His approach may be crude, but it is more typical than we might like to think.

But Jesus says that the symptoms of true health are not acquisition, but generosity, not getting but giving. It is more blessèd to give than to receive. If you want to see like Jesus sees, then let him open your eyes to the needs you can meet by generous giving on your part. And yes, as well as your finances and your material possessions, consider too generosity in the giving of your time, skills and most of all your love.

Of course you will need discernment, because while the need constitutes the call, the need may not constitute your call. But those with generous eyes are open to what God directs them to see.

So far, then, we’ve seen that our attitude to wealth and property is about our allegiance to Christ and our willingness to be generous is a measure of our spiritual health. The third thing Jesus says is very similar. In fact, you could say Jesus repeats himself from a different angle. The way we treat material possessions says something about what we worship. We cannot serve two masters, he tells us. We either worship God or we worship Mammon (which is more than just money: it seems to be the spiritual force behind the love of money).

The point Jesus is making is this: God believes in monogamy. Not just in marriage, but in the life of the spirit, too. Only one can hold our adoration. Whatever commands our worship requires so much of us that we cannot possibly have anything left over for anything or anyone else in the same way. However much we attempt a spiritual version of bigamy by trying to retain an allegiance to money alongside devotion to God (rather like the youth group leader I mentioned in the introduction), in the end it just won’t work. We’ll have to choose.

Yet at the same time, we need money and material things for life. How do we decide what to do? What is an acceptable standard of living? Is it the same for everyone? Didn’t God make the material world good? How do we know when we’ve crossed the line from using something good as a servant into adoring it as an idol?

Here is where I return to the point I made in the first section about prayer. If prayer helps tease out issues of undiluted commitment, it will help here in distinguishing whether we are using something responsibly while retaining our devotion to God or trespassing in the land of idolatry.

As you know, I enjoy gadgets, and this can be a particular temptation for me. Some years ago, I was wondering whether to replace the computer I had. The one I had was getting old, and there was a good case for a new one. However, I was wary, because I knew I could deceive myself and come up with all sorts of reasons to buy a new PC, when really I might just have been lusting after the latest technological advances. So I prayed, and I left it with God.

What I didn’t know was the way one of my church members was praying for me at the time. One Saturday, she went down to the church building and prayed everywhere around it. while praying for me there, she distinctly heard the Holy Spirit speak to her and say, “Tell Dave he can have what he wants.” She relayed this message to me a day or two later. She had no idea I was thinking of buying a new computer: I had told nobody.

So I underline the point again: make it a habit to commit your financial and lifestyle decisions to God in prayer. Be willing to hear him say, ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Wait’. If your worship is for Christ, you will want to do this.

The fourth and final aspect that Jesus addresses here is a practical one. He realises that some of his listeners will be thinking, “It’s all very well calling me to undiluted commitment, to generosity and to ensuring that I only worship God, but that all sounds expensive. How will I ever have enough to live on?” Jesus knows he needs to address the question of worry.

Sure enough, he reassures us about God’s special love and care for us. As human beings made in the image of God (unlike the rest of creation), we are worth more than ‘the birds of the air’ or ‘the flowers of the field’.

After that, you would expect the punch line to be about chilling out and trusting God. Jesus wants us to have faith, doesn’t he?

But it isn’t what he says. Or at least the kind of faith and trust Jesus calls us to is not of the quiet, serene, ‘let go and let God’ variety. His application is different: ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (verse 33). Sure, don’t worry and obsess about your basic needs, because your heavenly Father will look after you. But neither should you just sit back: God is looking for those who are radically committed to his kingdom. The kingdom comes first, says Jesus. Concentrate on the great purposes of God. Yes, he will take care of us, but he isn’t our sugar daddy, he’s our Lord. We owe him our prime allegiance.

To return to the subject of my car: when my old car dramatically gave up the ghost last weekend – at 70 mph on the M25, near the Heathrow exit – it came at a bad time for us. We are still adjusting to the shock of the cost of living in Surrey. So many things are more expensive here, from DVD lending fees in the library to swimming lessons for the children. We are having to trim our spending, regardless of the recession. For the car to give up at this juncture was not the kind of timing we would have preferred.

Part of our praying, then, was not only about how much to spend. Even before that, it was about our desire to fulfil the will of the God who had led us here. Did I need a car to fulfil that will? Yes. What kind of car? A small one would be fine. Even within those parameters, we were still looking at spending more than we were keen to do. Yet God worked through various people who heard of our need and gave us gifts that considerably mitigated the negative effect upon our finances. He honoured our desire to be about his kingdom business.

I could tell you plenty of other stories. CAMEO heard on Wednesday an account of how God provided my funds to go to theological college. But I don’t have time to repeat that this morning, or to give other testimonies.

I do have time to say to you that it makes Jesus sense to put God at the centre of our lives. It makes Jesus sense to be generous givers, rather than mean takers. It makes Jesus sense to worship God rather than consumerism. And it makes Jesus sense to follow the kingdom passionately while we entrust the provision of our needs to our heavenly Father.

So why not live like this? We know it makes sense. Jesus sense.

Disneyland

I promised a post about our trip last week to Disneyland Paris. In order to be a man of my word, here it is. Three different rambles follow below.

Money
Any increase in British visitors will be matched by a reported increase in the number of mortgage applications. Make no mistake, it is every bit as expensive as you are warned it will be. More so, actually. It makes motorway service stations look like charity shops. How much should a lunch-time cheeseburger, fries and bottle of water cost you? Did I hear someone suggest ten of our finest British pounds? Why, you would be right, sir.

And the other costs are equally appalling, be it food, drink, ice cream, gifts or small necessities. The place is capitalism red in tooth and claw. With a captive audience (like the motorway service stations), they pick a number out and charge it. This is not a complete rant against capitalism, but marks what unrestrained sin can do. Not that laws can make people good, but if there is no competition present to rein things in, sometimes there need to be other constraints. Of course, there won’t be any restrictions on the Mickey Mouse Empire while it rakes in so many Euros for France. And yes, this is small fry compared with far more pressing needs in the world. It’s just one example of what happens when greed runs rampant. No jokes about bankers, please.

Behaviour
I also found the behaviour of the French interesting. Like any culture, the dominant characteristics were both good and bad. The hôtel staff couldn’t have been more obliging. On the other hand, many of the punters flouted the smoking bans and shoved anyone out of the way, children included, to get on a bus. I know it’s said that queuing is a peculiarly British thing, but to me it enshrines a value about fairness and equality. I know too you could  make similar credit and debit remarks about we Brits, and that none of these statements should be taken as blanket criticisms, as if one could stereotype everyone. However, it remains curious to me that certain positive and negative traits exhibit themselves within a culture. Maybe Pam BG could shed some Girardian light on this?

Story
In one park there is a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse holding hands. Beneath it is a plaque with some words from Michael D Eisner, who was Chief Executive of Disney when the Paris operation was opened in 1992. Eisner says that the company wanted to set up a park in Europe, because it was European folk tales that had originally inspired Walt. It was therefore a ‘coming home’ of sorts.

That is at least to some extent true – think Pinocchio or Peter Pan, for example. I’m not sure how they justified their expansion to Japan, mind you!

However, one thing you inevitably can’t escape in Disneyland is the notion of story and narrative. In the Frontierland section, you realise how Disney used to tell a story of the Wild West that wasn’t sensitive to Native Americans. But it’s OK, because then they discovered Pocahontas. On the ride called ‘It’s A Small, Small World’, you travel on a boat past models of children from all around the world in their different costumes and cultures, all singing the song after which the ride is named. It becomes a narrative: everywhere, around the world, however different we are, we are really all the same underneath. (To which the Christian wants to answer both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, I think.)

It reminded me of the importance of story. So many live by a big story, be it the ones told by capitalism, communism, Islam or Christianity. Others – fearing the postmodern suspicion that these stories are power-plays to include the privileged and exclude others – choose instead to populate their lives with little segments from here and there. But the privilege of the Christian witness or preacher is to help locate people in the story of God – the story of God’s redeeming, sacrificial love, which because it is sacrificial is not a power-play. God finds each one of us and places us in his dramatic, epic story of love. We then become facilitators, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to do the same. What a privilege.