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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 22, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 6:19-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I imagine there won’t be much more than a handful of people here today who don’t know someone who lost something in the Sonoma and Napa County fires earlier this month.  A fellow bass in the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus has an apartment in San Francisco and some property in Wikiup, an area just a little north of Santa Rosa.  This is what is left of his vacation home on that property.

He’s a collector of cars, not really antiques, but vintage cars.  There is nothing salvageable left of the cars he had on this property.

I’m sure many of you have similar stories to tell.  If not from these fires, from the hurricanes that have devastated the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas over the past several weeks.  Or perhaps you have a personal story of the sudden, uncontrollable loss of property or household.  These losses seem so capricious, as if Mother Earth is suddenly angry and starts flailing her arms, destroying everything they hit.

“At least you’re okay.”  “At least you’re safe.”  I suppose I could go back and count up how many times people responded to my chorus friend’s Facebook posts about not knowing what was happening in the evacuation zone, then about seeing a satellite photo of the area that suggested his home was destroyed, and then of being allowed to see for himself and of these pictures of ash.  And, yes, I am very grateful my friend is safe, but that doesn’t make the loss any less real.

My friend is, I think, still mostly in a state of shock.  He’s seen the nothingness of the ash, the haunting witness of the chimney, the crumpled exoskeleton of his cars.  But the depth of the loss hasn’t set in.  For the loss isn’t just of the stuff.  It’s the loss of the tangible memories that will need to be grieved.

When my home was broken into several years ago, the thieves took the jewelry box on my dresser.  They didn’t open it, or they would have left it.  It has nothing of resale value in it.  But it had my mother’s sorority pin in it, and a pen knife with the name of the company her father started when he immigrated to the United States engraved on the handle.  And even more important to me, it had a lapel pin I bought my mother when I was 9 or 10 years old, of a dove.  Smaller than the end of my finger, that pin is the one thing I miss most of all.

The thieves stole stuff, sure enough.  But they also stole those tangible memories of my mother.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.”  Jesus might as well have said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where wildfires and hurricanes consume and where thieves break in and steal.”

In context, Jesus has talking about spiritual things.  When you give alms, be so quiet about it that even your left hand doesn’t even know what your right hand is doing.  When you pray, don’t make a show of it; keep it simple; keep it between you and God.  When you fast, don’t make a show of it; keep it between you and God.  And then he says, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth …”

Because of the context, some people think that the “treasures” Jesus is talking about must also be intangible, spiritual things.  However, I think when he talks about the “treasures” we store up on earth, he is literally taking about things, things that can be destroyed, that moth and rust and fire and hurricane literally consume.

Tom Sine asks and interesting question:  “How many of us unwittingly have allowed aspirations and values of the imperial global shopping mall define for us what is important and what is of value – what is the ‘good life’?”[1]  I know I succumb to the cultural definition of “the good life,” and I’m a professional Jesus-follower.  Despite my best intentions, I get caught up in what Sine calls “the up-scaling impulses of our middle-class lifestyles.”[2]  “If we are serious about finding a way to embody more authentically the aspirations and values of our faith instead of those of the culture, we need … to rediscover the kingdom of God as not only a theology we affirm on Sunday but a reason to get out of bed on Monday.”[3]

This will take new images, a new mind-set, a new way of thinking.  The pathway to those new images, to that new mind-set, to that new way of thinking is right there in today’s gospel lesson.  We need to store up our treasures in heaven.

Maybe there’s a problem with the word “in.”  “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  The word “in” implies that heaven is a place, the place we go to when we die.  And while heaven may be what God has instore for us after this life ends, it is certainly a reality here and now.  Heaven, the kin-dom of God, is at hand; it is within you; it is now.

So, how do we dream ourselves into, live ourselves into, serve ourselves into, celebrate ourselves into that reality that is already here?  How can we act ourselves into a new way of thinking and seeing and being that frees us from the valuing of things so that we can value each other and the rest of creation, so that we can value relationships?  Jesus says it has to do with our relationship with the material, particularly with money.

David Weiss somewhat amusingly write about Jesus’ relationship with money, with things.  “Although I suspect that Jesus’ views on wealth sit rather uncomfortably beside our own, he didn’t have a problem with material goods.  After all, he knew how to throw a party; he entertained thousands (albeit on rather simple fare: loaves and fishes) and still had leftovers (Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10).  He turned water into wine, and not just into Mogen David (or worse, Boone’s Farm!); we’re talking a vintage wine that impressed the connoisseurs (John 2:1-10).  And he didn’t seem to mind at all when a woman of some means (regardless of her reputation) bathed his feet with costly perfume in a scene so suggestive that it unnerved even the Calvin Kleins of the first century Jewish community (Luke 7:36-50).

“Yet Jesus saw a clear priority between goods and people.  Goods are here in order to serve the needs and celebrate the joys of people.  People are not here in order to accumulate goods; nor simply to labor so that others might accumulate goods; and least of all to become pawns in a system in which wealth takes on a life of its own and bends human lives at all levels to its own inhuman and inexorable yearning to see more and more of itself.”[4]

When Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he is inviting us to look at how we use things.  Take a look at your bank and credit card statements and see how you spend your money.  Take a look at where and how your wealth is invested.  That’s where your treasure is.  That’s what’s important to you.  That’s what your value.  That’s where your heart is.

Today, as you know, is Pledge Sunday.  We’ve been traveling along the Generous Way of Jesus, and today we take a stand.  Today we say, “I’m going to store up this portion of my money in heaven by investing in the church.”  (Then it’s the responsibility of us as a community to make sure those investments get used to further the kin-dom of God.)

So, here’s what’s going to happen.  In a moment, you will be invited forward.  We ask that you bring your pledge, today’s offering, your green attendance sheet – whatever gift you are ready to make today.  Come forward to either side of the communion table, place your gift in one of the baskets and receive a blessing from Pastor Brenda or me.  I know that there are people who pledged online; if you’re one of them, come forward and receive a blessing.  If you’re visiting for the first time or if you’re still fairly new to the church, we don’t expect you to make a pledge.  Still, please come forward with your attendance sheet and let that be your offering, and receive a blessing.  There’s no particular order in which we’re asking people to come forward – just come when you feel moved to do so.

So, my friends, my fellow sojourners along the Generous Way of Jesus, come in celebration, come is hope, come in love.

Amen.

[1] Tom Sine, “Making It Real,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/making-it-real (written in 2008; accessed 16 October 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David R. Weiss, “Putting the Rich on Notice,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/putting-rich-notice (posted written in 1998; accessed 16 October 2017).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 30, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-51
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love this passage from Romans.  It is one of my two favorite passages from the Epistles, the collection of letters in the New Testament.  I include it frequently in memorial services and I want it read at my memorial service (though I hope that detail isn’t needed for a long time).  I agree with Jim Wallis who says, “This remarkable and uplifting passage describes the unshakable promise of God.”[1]

Notice what Paul doesn’t say in this passage.  He doesn’t say that people who follow Jesus will live a life free of hardship, conflict, and weakness.  In fact, “Paul assumes that weakness, conflict, and hardship are normal for the Christian life and, for that matter, human life.”[2]

How’s that for good news?  Congratulations, Christian, your life will have plenty of hardship.  You will face conflict (perhaps especially because of your faith).  And when you face the principalities and powers you will see how weak (at least as culture measures it) you are.

Do you see how antithetical to our culture’s general messages all of this is?  The general message of our culture is that you cannot just feel powerful, you can be powerful.  The general message of our culture is that conflict should be avoided because you can’t be happy if you’re in conflict (I sometimes call this the tyranny of ‘nice’), and happiness (not joy, but happiness) is the to be pursued.  The general message of our culture is that if you are facing hardship it’s your own darn fault; you, in some way, chose this.

Is it any wonder that the “prosperity gospel” is an American invention?  Even if you haven’t heard the term before, you know of this theology.  It’s a theology that is more steeped in American values than Christian values.  It’s a theology that tells us that the goal of the Christian life is “to get out of adversity and into security.”[3]  People who subscribe to this particularly American form of Christianity (that has become very popular in parts of Africa and South America) are pushed to believe in the God of the quick fix who will make us happy, prosperous, and protected.  It’s a theology that says that all of our uncomfortable feelings, our insecurities, and our weaknesses are bad that that we should move into strength, security, and control.[4]

This is how Wikipedia defines it:  “Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel …) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth.…

“The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be happy.  The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith.  This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession.”[5]

Televangelists have embraced this theology and made it famous.  Oral Roberts was a huge proponent of this theology.  T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Creflo Dollar are three of the more prominent contemporary preachers of this.  The whole “Prayer of Jabez” movement – if you don’t know about it, don’t worry, you can ignore it – came out of this theology.

All of this is a false gospel.

What Jesus preached was not personal prosperity.  What Jesus preached as the kin-dom of God.  And the kin-dom of God was always presented as an alternative to the kingdom of Caesar.  This kin-dom of God is subversive and infiltrates the systems that oppress, the systems that allow a small elite to be wealthy at the expense of the masses.  The kin-dom of God is how the arc of history bends toward justice.  Just look at the parables in today’s gospel reading.

The kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed sown in a field.  It grows into a big old shrub and birds come and nest there.

A mustard bush is neither big nor wonderful; it is invasive, fast-growing, and impossible to get rid of (like darnel, the weed sown among the wheat in last week’s parable).  To say the kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed is to say that the kin-dom of God is like kudzu, that it’s like Scotch broom, that it’s like like morning glories and dandelions.  “And birds of the air?  The last place we want them is in our grain fields.  You’ve heard of scarecrows?”[6]

The kin-dom of God is like yeast that a woman mixed into three measures of flour until it was all leavened.

Have you ever heard the expression, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”?  This little aphorism actually is from the Bible.  It’s in both the letter to the Galatians and the first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul uses it in much the same way we might use the expression, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.”  “Jesus shows the same understanding when he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15).  His parable begins with the common assumption:  Leaven equals … corruption.”[7]

And three measures of flour?  According to Jim Douglass, that’s about 50 pounds – enough to make bread for more than a hundred people.  Oh my goodness, the leaven of God is far more corrupting than a rotten apple somewhere in a barrel.[8]

And consider the woman’s actions.  She “hides” the leaven, the corrupting leaven, in the flour.  She sneaks God’s tiny corrupting power into the giant bin of flour, transforming the whole shebang.  I like the way Douglass restates the parable:  “The reign of God is like a tiny, corrupt substance, which a shrewd woman took and hid in a huge amount of flour, until it accomplished a [massive] transformation.”[9]

The kid-dom of God is like a buried treasure that someone finds, so he goes and sells all he has so he can buy the field.  The kin-dom of God is like a merchant who finds the perfect pearl and sells all he has so he can buy it.  The kin-dom of God is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught every kind of fish.”

Here’s the thing:  The kid-dom Jesus announces turns things upside down.  Once it takes root, you can’t get rid of it and it upsets all your plans for your farm and for the rest of your life.  In the kin-dom Jesus announces, serfs are buying land, a peasant woman bakes bread for 100 and feeds them.  The kin-dom Jesus announces is rising, “and there we find our daily bread.  Fish are breaking through nets, the rich are selling all they have [so that maybe they, too, can be part of it].  The kin-dom Jesus announces is springing up faster than we can uproot it.

I hope you noticed that “the objects described [in this series of short parables] are inseparable from actions and actors:  Seed is sown by a sower, yeast is hidden by a woman, the treasure hunter and the merchant buy and sell, the fishers fish.  The kingdom is not about static symbols but about people engaged in action.”[10]

The kin-dom Jesus announces is “subversive, unstoppable, invasive, a nuisance, urgent, shocking, and abundant.  It requires action and commitment and inspires extreme behavior.”[11]  It is not about your financial blessing and physical well-being.

If we make the commitment to the kin-dom of God that Jesus announced, our pets will still die, our spouses will still disappoint us from time to time, we will watch our children make bad choices or suffer and there won’t be a thing we can do about it, we will watch our parents and grandparents grow old, and we will face health crises and financial hardships at different points in our lives.  In fact, if we make the commitment to the kin-dom of God that Jesus announced, we will face more hardship than that.  The principalities and powers in their many forms will try to stop us, sometimes simply with inertia and sometimes with more overt forms of persecution.  This is especially true when we undertake the extreme action the kin-dom requires of us.

What Paul is saying in the passage from Romans is that “adversity is part of life, and especially part of the Christian life lived in conflict with the world.

“Success, according to this passage, is not the avoidance of adversity but knowing the love of God in adversity.  The promise made by the passage is not that God will remove the difficulties of life, but that God will continue to love us through them.

“Those who accept the adversities of life and find God’s love in the midst of them are those who become the wise, healed, whole, and joyful people.  Often Christians whose faith has been purified through suffering are the most joyful of all.  On the other hand, those who spend their lives in the desperate attempt to avoid hardship and pain often end up most miserable and filled with anxiety.”[12]

That said, “Suffering does not necessarily lead to spiritual maturity.  It can lead to bitterness, frustration, anger, and violence.  We all know people who have allowed their suffering to embitter them and destroy their lives.  Even social movements, in response to injustice and suffering, can become violent forces of revenge and hatred.

“But oppression and suffering can also lead to trust in the love of God.  Suffering can help us let go of everything and realize that there is no alternative but to depend on God.  Abandoning ourselves to the love of God leads to spiritual maturity and wisdom.”[13]

Paul asks, Who can separate us from the love of God?  Can trouble?  No.  Hardship?  No. Persecution?  No.  Famine?  No.  Nakedness?  No.  Danger?  No.  Sword?  No.

So, what are you afraid of?

“Are you afraid that your weakness could separate you from the love of God?  It can’t.  Are you afraid that your inadequacies could separate you from the love of God?  They can’t.  Are you afraid that your inner poverty could separate you from the love of God?  It can’t.

“Difficult marriage, loneliness, anxiety over your children’s future?  They can’t.  Negative self-image?  It can’t.  Economic hardship, racial hatred, street crime?  They can’t.

“Rejection by loved ones, the suffering of loved ones?  They can’t.  Persecution by the authorities, going to jail?  They can’t.  The President?  He can’t.  [Congress?  They can’t.]  War?  It can’t.  Nuclear war?  Even it can’t.”[14]

That is the promise of this passage:  the unshakable promise of God.  Whether we feel it or not, whether we accept it or not, it’s there.  It’s our choice.  Amen.

[1] Jim Wallis, “The Unshakable Promise of God,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/unshakable-promise-god (accessed 25 July 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Prosperity theology,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology (accessed 29 July 2017).

[6] Laurel A. Dykstra, “A Pearl Like a Fishnet,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pearl-fishnet (accessed 25 July 2017).

[7] Jim Douglass, “A Parable of Corruption,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/parable-corruption? (accessed 25 July 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dykstra, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wallis, op. cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

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