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Sermon on the Mount – PART 3

Where Your Heart Is

1 Corinthians 3: 1-9
Matthew 6: 1 – 34

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Prayer:
God before and God behind,
God for us and God for others,
we give thanks for life and all its blessings.
We treasure from you
days to work and night to rest.
We cherish from you
days to plan and nights to dream.
O God, help us catch a vision
of your kingdom here on earth.
Help us to imagine new ways of being
which reflect your rules of life.
Amen

We are half way through the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount consists of 111 verses found in chapters 5, 6 and 7 in the Gospel of Matthew. Some people have said to me that they are enjoying this series of sermons. They had always thought the Sermon on the Mount consisted of only the Beatitudes, you know the sayings like
“Blessed are the poor in spirit….
Blessed are they who mourn….
They found it surprising that there was such a variety of sayings all put together in the Sermon on the Mount.

Remember how I have said before that this is probably a collection of Jesus’ sayings. It might even be considered a collection of the greatest hits of Jesus. Jesus probably never sat down and said all these sayings one after the other in a long sequence like this. That would not be a good teaching style. A good teacher often repeated a good saying more than once, and would elaborate and illustrate the saying, just as Jesus has done in this section of the sermon.

Now there is so much material in Chapter 6, that I could preach five sermons on these sayings. But so as to not go on too long, and yet not just skim over each of the parts of this chapter, I have decided to concentrate on the middle saying: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Have you ever played the board game called LIFE? It is a little like monopoly, where you have a board and you throw the dice to move around the squares. But in this game you pick a career which determines how much money you earn. This past summer I was playing this game for the first time with my nieces and nephews at the cottage. I was a doctor earning $80,000 every time I crossed a Pay-Day square. One of my nephews was a lawyer earning $90,000 every time he crossed a Pay-Day square. One of my nieces was a chartered accountant earning $60,000 each time she crossed a Pay-Day square. As we moved our miniature cars around the board we frequently landed on spaces marked LIFE. Here we picked up LIFE cards that said things like “win a dance contest and earn $10,000”, or “pay taxes of 30% on your earnings”. Eventually we reached the game’s final space. So we checked the rule booklet to see how you won the game and there printed in very large letters under “How to Win” it said, The player with the most money wins!

Predictably, the goal of the board game called LIFE is to get the most money. The people who created the game stated that they were trying to simulate what life is like, and chose to focus on money. You do not win by being loyal to friends. You do not win by taking care of your family. You do not win by giving money away to charity. You win by collecting the most money. That is the rule!

After we put the game away, it seemed to me that I saw the same rules pop up everywhere. I remember reading a student survey which said that for 75% of all students their most important goal is to “become wealthy”. When I go to the shopping mall, I join with people who say that shopping is their favourite activity. When I go to Tim Horton’s for my lunch time soup and bagel, I am aware that people like me spend fifty times more money on fast food than on helping the poor. It seems that everywhere you turn the rules of the board game called LIFE still apply. You win in life by getting the most money.

But we are not alone. Two thousand years ago some people lived by a similar philosophy. They agreed that the winner is the one with the most money. As Jesus searched for a way to summarize this ancient culture’s take on money, he talks about storing up for themselves treasures on earth. Literally, Jesus says that they were “treasuring treasure on earth”, for their own selfish purposes. And as we heard later in this chapter, Jesus goes on to describe the people as “worrying” about money.

But Jesus invites us to take a closer look at these rules of LIFE. Last week we noted that Jesus talked about “Sex, Politics and Religion”; well this week he picks up another taboo subject: “Money.” Right there in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, he talks about the temporary nature of our obsession with material things. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal.” Jesus is pointing out that a life focused on gaining more possessions is focused on things that are temporary, things that do not last. You see, in Jesus’ day there was no climate-controlled storage or banks, as we know it. Most people in Jesus’ day kept their fine clothes at home, and most of their clothes were made of wool, so moths and other insects could readily destroy the clothing. Any money they saved was usually kept in a strong box and buried in the ground, so the buried treasure would be corroded by rust or stolen by thieves. It was all very transient. Things did not last!

The same is true today. Think of most of the modern appliances we buy that seem to have a limited life span. Or the obsession with cell phones, blackberries, i-pads, and all sorts of gadgets which become out of date before the year is out. I was at the computer store to buy a laptop computer for Scott, my partner, and I asked the clerk about up-grading my laptop, the one on which I write my sermons. I was told that since my laptop was three years old, it was considered out-of-date and it was not worth upgrading. It would be cheaper to just buy another one. I said, “No thank you, I will just keep using it as is.”

But Jesus invites us to consider not just the short-lived nature of possessions. He urges us to understand their dark powerful nature. Possessions have the power to impact our hearts: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The heart is Jesus’ way of talking about that place where we make decisions and hold our commitments. Just as we have a physical organ called the heart that controls the rest of our physical activities, so we have a spiritual heart that controls our commitments and the decisions we make.

In a similar way, Jesus reveals that treasuring treasure results in a dark life. Jesus is using a powerful image here of the eye and light and darkness. Listen again to this proverbial saying: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if the eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if the eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” In the time of Jesus, people believed that the way vision worked, was not that light entered through the eye, but that the eye was like a lamp and saw things through projecting light from the eye onto objects. So what you focused on, you saw. So in the same way, Jesus here is talking about our focus. Just as we have a physical organ called the eye that controls our body’s activities, so we also have a spiritual eye that controls our quality of life. What you focus on will either fill your life with light or darkness. It is not just about money. It is a power that corrupts the heart and fills life with blackness.

But Jesus’ most alarming statement about money is found in the last proverb. “No one can serve two masters. Either (you) will hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth.” The word for wealth can be translated as either “mammon” or money or possessions. In calling money a “master” and in contrasting serving God with serving money, Jesus almost elevates money to a supernatural being with supernatural powers.

Have you read any of the C. S. Lewis books or seen the movies from The Chronicles of Narnia series? So far, three of them have become delightful movies. The first is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the second, The Prince of Caspian were delightful. In the third novel and movie called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we meet a well educated and very well-to-do cousin of the four children, called Eustace. But Eustace continually fantasizes and worries about riches and power. Well, during an adventure on an island in Narnia, Eustace stumbles upon a dragon. He watches the dragon leave its cave, limp to the edge of a pool, and die. Curious, Eustace explores the dragon’s cave. It is filled with coins, jewelry and precious stones. As he imagines all he might do with his secret treasure, he falls asleep. When he awakes, he feels awkward; not himself. He lopes out of the cave to the pool of water nearby. When he stares at its surface, he sees a dragon reflected back. C. S. Lewis wrote, “In an instant he realized the truth. The dragon face in the pool was his own reflection. There was no doubt of it. It moved as he moved: it opened and shut its mouth as he opened and shut his mouth. He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” What C. S. Lewis wrote as fiction, Jesus says is true to life.

The reality is that we are all governed by the rules of the game LIFE. We might struggle against it, but our whole society is ruled by the principle that success means having more possessions. I am sure when we stop and think about it, we will be amazed at the ways in which those rules transform us, and it begins at a very early age.

A friend of mine who collects dolls as a hobby, was having financial trouble and so went to see a financial counselor. When she had clarified where her money was going, she was horrified to find out how much she was spending on her hobby and how little she was giving to others, including her church. She said to me that she was shocked that her spending habits did not reflect her beliefs. She had always talked about how it is important to share with others and give to her church, but somehow her hobby had crept up on her spending habits without her knowing it. You see, the transformation from human to dragon happens without us even noticing it.

Thankfully, Jesus offers a different perspective on life. He invites us into a new way of thinking, a new way of approaching treasures: “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” You see, the whole Sermon on the Mount is giving us a different way to imagine our world. We are called to see the world as the Kingdom of God here on earth. How do we live as if the Kingdom of God were beginning here and now in our midst?

You see, in Jesus’ world, when we use our possessions for others, we make eternal investments – no insect, no rust, no thief or no planned obsolescence can touch them. How encouraging to consider that every penny, every possession, everything we have, can become an eternal investment in God’s kingdom. Jesus invites us to live in a world where our possessions do not rule over us, but where, when we use our possessions in a healthy way for ourselves, our families and for others, those finances take on an enduring quality.

Jesus invites us into a world where the dark power of money can be transformed into a positive force: “If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” The word “healthy” can also mean “generous”. It is a life focus that looks generously towards others. In Jesus’ world, in the Kingdom of God he invites us to imagine, life is about seeing what possessions can do for others; it is about focusing on the right things, using our possession in heavenly ways, righteous ways. When we share and help with the needs of others, dragons are transformed into angels. The dark world of greed becomes a source of light.

In reading the Annual Report I am very impressed with the level of giving to the various projects and missions of the church and community. We are beacons of light, we can deal a death blow to the dragon of greed.

Through our giving to others, including support of this congregation and the United Church Mission and Service Fund, we are re-writing the rules of LIFE. We say success does not go to the one who has the most money. Success goes to the one who has compassion, cares for others, shares what they have with the needy. We have a whole new way of enjoying the game of life.

Dostoevsky wrote a brilliant novel called The Idiot. In this novel Prince Myshkin is thrust into a culture obsessed with money and power. But the Prince has no greed or envy. He does not want wealth or power. He refuses to treasure treasure for himself. In contrast to what everyone else is doing around him, his behaviour is so abnormal people do not know what to do with him. Eventually they conclude that he is an idiot.

This story raises the question of who is the real idiot – the one who focuses on what is temporary and darkly powerful or the one who focuses on what is eternal and a positive force of light. May our faith in Jesus who imagines us into a new way of being, lead us to be generous and open-handed – even if the world thinks we are fools.

Amen

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