From Barrier to Blessing

Delivered June 4, 2000 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper

Sermon Text:
Matthew 6:19-24
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy,
and where thieves break in and steal.
20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not
destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body
will be full of light.
23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If
then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the
other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot
serve both God and Money.

WKOX, a radio station in Chicago, ran a contest a number of years ago, and that was: “What would you be willing to do for $10,000?” Well Jay Gwaltney was one of 6,000 entrants who sent in what they would do for $10,000 – and he won. And his offer was to eat every bit of an 11-foot birch sapling. And although it took him a few days to do it, in full view of the public, he ate the 11 foot birch tree, beginning with a birch leaf salad.

Well, $10,000 just wouldn’t cut it nowadays, would it? Not for a birch sapling anyway. Today we’ve got, ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’, and after that came, ‘Who wants to marry a multi-millionaire?’ Of course, that didn’t end quite so well. But then there is the next show that’s called, ‘Greed’, which doesn’t offer a measly one million dollars but doubles that to two million dollars as a prize. And then finally, just this last week, we were exposed to the next great adventure called ‘Survivor,’ where 16 strangers are put on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific, competing for 1 million dollars, to see who will be the last one surviving.

We are a culture that is obsessed with money. Just think of the most recent lottery. Remember just a couple of weeks ago when people were buying in a frenzy to see who could win the biggest lottery ever. Of course, most people didn’t calculate or couldn’t even conceive of the odds of 1 in 76 million as being the chances of winning, but that doesn’t really matter. We are driven by this sense that there’s something out there, money, and it will make life wonderful. You know, our culture is even more obsessed by wealth than it is with sex, and that’s saying a lot.

But you know, today is no different than the time when Jesus Christ lived. In the time of Christ, people were also obsessed with wealth and money and all that came with it. And that’s why one out every six verses in Matthew, Mark and Luke are about money and wealth. And more than one out of every three parables that Jesus tells, are also about material possessions. Sometimes people complain about how preachers are always talking about money, when in fact, we generally talk about it far less than Jesus did. And here at Central we don’t talk about it much at all, so it’s probably about time.

So if you would, please open your Bibles with me, to Matthew, chapter 6, as we look at one of Jesus’ teachings on the subject of money and wealth. You can find this on page 685 of your red pew bibles. Matthew, chapter 6, starting at verse 19. Hear the word of the Lord.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, 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. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

Please join me as we pray.

Lord, we thank you for these your words to us in Scripture, and we thank you for the words of Jesus Christ. And we pray now that the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit within us, would teach us the truth that Jesus was trying to teach His disciples then, and us, His disciples, now, about our relationship to money and wealth and treasure and what you want us to do about them in our daily lives. For we ask it in Jesus name, Amen.

Well, as we look at this passage, we see it’s really a passage with a number of different contrasts. The first contrast is between two different treasures, or two different goals in life. In other words, what treasure are we seeking to accumulate in our lives? Earthly treasure or heavenly treasure? And Jesus tells us that earthly treasure is really very precarious and can be lost in many different ways. The moth eating at our clothes – it then uses the word “rust,” although the word more often refers to rats eating at riches stored up, for example in barns, eating at stored grains. And Jesus also talks about how thieves can come in and steal possessions we might cherish in our homes. In other words, no place is safe for a worldly treasure. And Jesus contrasts that to heavenly treasure, which is incorruptible, it cannot be destroyed, it cannot be damaged. It is there, not just for the short time of our life here, but it will be with us for eternity. And he asks us, which kind of treasure are we most seeking? Which one have we made it our goal to accumulate? And Jesus knew the reality – that for most of us, we are far more conscious of earthly wealth than heavenly treasures.

We are more focused on gaining earthly treasures than the heavenly kind. What is the difference between the two? To illustrate, let me share with you a story about the early church in Rome. You see, in the third century when the church had been just beginning to thrive, a Roman Emperor came along, Decius, and he began to institute one of the most severe persecutions of the church. And part of the way that they wanted to break the church was by taking away their treasures. And so into one of the churches came a group of Roman soldiers demanding to see the treasures of the church in order to take them away and make the church poor again. They wanted to break the spirit of the Christians by taking away their treasure. Well, the pastor of the church, Laurentius, told them, “You see the treasure – all around you.” And the Roman soldier looked around and said, “I don’t see any gold, I don’t see any treasure here at all.” “Because you’re not looking in the right place,” he replied, pointing at the people in the Church, many of whom were poor, some of them blind, widows and orphans, and he said, “This is our treasure. You see, we here at the church believe that what we keep for ourselves is lost, but what we give away lasts forever. These people are our treasure.” That obviously didn’t compute very well with that Roman soldier and it doesn’t really compute very well with us, either, when it gets right down to it, because we do prize earthly treasures. We often do think we can keep things to ourselves, not realizing the truth that whatever we keep for ourselves is ultimately lost, yet what we give away is what lasts forever. Two kinds of treasure.

The next contrast Jesus speaks of are two different kinds of eyes – describing two different lifestyles. If you read in the NIV it compares the two eyes as being good eyes and bad eyes. Well, in the Greek, the word for “good” actually means a “single” eye, so it would read, “if your eye is single, your whole body is full of light” and that phrase, “single eye” was often used as a metaphor for generosity. A person with a single eye was a person with a generous heart, a generous lifestyle. And this eye is compared to one which is “bad,” which translates the Greek word meaning “evil.” And you’ve probable heard of the “evil eye,” even if you aren’t sure what it really means. But in Near Eastern culture, an evil eye, symbolizes someone who is self-centered, who wants things for himself and will take them at the expense of his neighbors. In other words, a person who is stingy, self centered, self-absorbed. And so Jesus here is saying, “There are two kinds of people you can be: a generous person or a self absorbed person – a person who gives away his or her life, or a person who seeks to hoard things hoping somehow to create a better life by keeping to him or herself all that we have or are able to accumulate.

Of course, you and I know that generally those who hoard are the most miserable. On the other hand, those who are the freest with giving their life away are by far the most joyful and free in life. This is why Jesus says, “If your eye is dark, then how great is the darkness within you.” If we are people afraid to be generous, if we are people who are absorbed in self, then truly we are people of darkness – for what we think will bring salvation, actually enslaves us.

Then Jesus goes on to his final contrast, the contrast of masters. We’ve seen the contrast of treasures, the contrast of lifestyle, and now the contrast of masters, where one master is God and the other is money. And Jesus says, “You cannot serve two masters, you can only have one allegiance in life.” Another way of saying that is “you can only trust, ultimately, one thing.” You see, most of us wouldn’t say – in fact almost no one would say – “Money is my god,” would we? It is not the way we think. But what is a God? Is it not that which we give our allegiance too? A god is something we put our trust in. And when we examine our lives we need to ask, “Where do we really place our trust?” Do we place our trust in things of this world to bring us satisfaction, to bring us security, to bring us comfort? Or do we look to God alone? When most of us are honest, we will say, that very often, possibly even most often, we look to the things of the world and trust in them to bring us what we want in life.

Now we often put a veneer of godliness over our attitudes, but when it gets right down to it, the reality is that it is the stuff of earth that we look to for our trust and not to God. The problem with this is that it means we have made money, wealth, possessions our god; it’s what we look to. And the problem with that, is that money was never intended to be a god, money was created by God to be a blessing to you and me. We have taken this blessing of God and we’ve turned it into a barrier. A barrier between ourselves and God and also often a barrier between ourselves and others.

You see when Jesus says you can only serve two masters, one of the things we need to realize here is that the word “to serve,” actually means “to be a slave to.” It is not a nice, comfortable word. “Serving” is something we relate to today and we have all sorts of images of what serving is about. But to be a slave means that we are going to be the property of someone else. The image is powerful, but uncomfortable. The question Jesus poses is whether we are going to be a slave to wealth and possessions and money, and the pursuit after them, or are we going to be a slave of God, owed fully by Him, pursuing only his purposes. Now the truth is, God IS the owner of everything, so we do already belong to God. The question is whether we recognize this truth that we belong to God and that money is simply a blessing from Him, to be used for His purposes, or whether we are going to, in our self-deception, elevate money to something it was never intended to be. In fact, something that we not only use and pursue, but something that begins to use and enslave us.

Money is not neutral, it can be used for good, but it can also be very insidious. Think about the lottery mentioned earlier. Now many of us probably thought, “How wonderful to win the three hundred and fifty million dollars.” But we could only think that if we have either never looked at what happens to people who win the lottery or we don’t care. Do you know what happens to those who win the lottery? Their lives are destroyed. The vast majority of people, when they first win the prize, say, “Nothing is going to change, because I love my life the way it is.” But within a year, studies that have followed up people who have won lotteries find that over 90% wish they had never won, because it destroyed their families; it destroyed their friendships; it destroyed their life; because they became enslaved to it. Not only them, but the people around them began to look at them in a different way. Money can destroy.

But most of us don’t even want 350+ million dollars. Most of us only want about $10,000 more. A study was done by a financial institution asking people “How much money do you need to begin the live the life you really want to live?” And the average answer was between $8-12,000. “If I just had $8-12,000 more per year, then my life would be good – just 10,000.” You know the funny thing is, when those people do get that $10,000 more, you know what happens? They still say, “If I just had $10,000 more.” It doesn’t matter what our income is, we are never satisfied. When we get more, we simply want more, if that is our focus. If we are trusting in that to bring fulfillment, to bring comfort, to bring security, to bring a good life, then it will never satisfy. It ends up becoming our god.

That finishes the 3 contrasting pairs of Jesus’ teaching: two treasures, two lifestyles, two masters. But these 3 pairs raise for us two questions. The first is “How do we gain our wealth?” The second is “How do we dispose of it?” Obviously we are not to be focused on wealth, but to gain an understanding of where we stand, we must ask some hard questions. How and at what cost have we gained our wealth? Has it come at the cost of our health, working too long, not getting enough sleep? Has it come at the expense of our family and relationships? I know of a number of marriages and families – even in this congregation – who are in difficulty because – although they may not recognize it as the pursuit of wealth and possessions – the father is never home because he is out working to provide the good life. Or maybe it’s both parents who work full-time and who therefore are too tired to really communicate, are too tired to spend quality time with children. At what cost have we gained the wealth that we have? And this assumes that we do not gain our wealth at the expense of the welfare of others.

The second question is “How do we dispose of our wealth?” What’s our perspective on how we use the wealth that we’ve gained? There is a critical contrast that goes with this question, “Do I view as my possessions, my wealth, my money, as things that I own, that I have earned and get to do with as I please? Or do I view my wealth as something that belongs to God and since I am his servant, his slave, all that I have needs to be used for his purposes?” Those are the only two options we have: “Does it belong to me? Does it belong to God?” The answer determines how I will go about disposing of my income, my wealth. Whether it will be inward- and self-focused or whether it will be outward-focused. And our lifestyle will also reveal which option we operate with.

Take a Christian in the San Francisco Bay area, Dr. Johnson, who went to the church I attended when I lived out there. He made a very good salary. He was very well known and respected, and had a highly successful practice. But he decided that he was not going to live at the standard of living his income would afford him. Rather, he would take the average standard of living in his county, and that was the standard at which he would live. Anything God blessed him with over and above that, he believed that God had given him, in order to give away. And so when you went to his house, you thought he was a just a guy like you. Unless you knew him, you would guess he made the same income you did, because everything in his house looked about the same as everyone else’s. But the Lord had made him, through a simple understanding of who he was before God, to be one of the most generous people that I have ever known. He took seriously the truth that he was God’s servant, that his wealth was not his, so therefore it wasn’t his to dispose of for himself, but rather for God. He did not ask, “How much should I give away for God” His question was “How much does God really want for me to keep for myself?” And anything else is to go outside.

And that leads us finally to the two principles of how we live our lives in relationship to wealth. Those two principles are GENEROSITY and SIMPLICITY… generosity and simplicity. God wants us to be generous; God desires for us to give away as much as possible. In fact, that’s why he blesses us in this world. All through Scripture when you look at each passage where it talks about how God wants to bless His people, if you read just a little bit further in almost every case, you know what you’ll find? You’ll find that God has blessed his people for a purpose: in order that they might be a blessing to others.

But there are many things that work against our being generous. We’ve talked about a few, such as our attitude concerning whether something belongs to me or to God, but there are other barriers, also. One to the key areas that prevents us from being generous is that our lifestyles are messed up. That’s where simplicity comes into play. You see, God desires for us to live simple lifestyles. Another interesting statistic is that most young families spend 9% more than their income. When you spend 9% more than they make, that can only go on for so long. That kind of lifestyle choice prevents generosity, because if I am spending more on myself than I’m even getting, then how is it even possible for me to give out? It becomes virtually impossible, other than by going further into debt. There are many things that we do, many lifestyle choices we make, that actually prevent us from living the way God desires, that prevent us from being generous.

Simplicity says: “I’m not going to buy more than I need.” “I’m not going to eat more than my body needs for health.” “I’m not going to surround myself with trappings I don’t need, bought with money I don’t have to impress people I don’t even like.”

You may not have noticed, but I have not yet mentioned giving to the church. The reason is that when it gets right down to it, generosity and simplicity, ordering our lives to give away of our wealth is not mainly about the church. That is simply one small part of the generosity that God has for us. In fact, if you’re giving the biblical tithe to Central, giving the 10%, then if each one of us was true to God’s desires for us, we’d probably be giving more outside the Church than inside the Church. Giving to the Church would be a small part of what we give. And our giving would not be dependent on whether we got a tax deduction. We would give simply because it is God’s heart’s desire.

Now the question always arises, “How much are we to give?” And that’s a question no one can answer for anyone else, because every single one of us is in a different place. Since I don’t have the answer let me read for you two quotes from respected Christians that can help guide us. One is Mother Theresa, who said, “If you give what you do not need, it’s not generosity.” These are her words. “If you give what you don’t need, it’s not generosity.”

And then C. S. Lewis – I like this – he says, “I don’t believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I’m afraid the only safe rule is that we should give more than we can spare.” You see, there are no easy equations for this. It’s more a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of whether our hearts are inclined to God or to possessions; where we are building our treasure; whether we have chosen a life of generosity or of self-absorption.

Let me close with one final story. Bob Buford, who was the founder, president and CEO – until he sold it a couple of years ago – of Buford Television, Incorporated, told this story:

“In my mid forties as a successful businessman, I was in the habit of seeing a strategic planner every year. This one particular year, my wife and I went to a brilliant man, who at the time was the highest paid consultant with the American Management Association. He let me talk for two to three hours, as was his practice, and then we came to a stopping point in the conversation and he said this, ‘You know, I’ve been listening to you this morning, and I want to tell you how I’m doing strategic planning these days. People make their lives entirely too complicated. I’m going to draw a box on this piece of paper and I want you to tell what the main thing in your life is. And listening to you, it’s either money, or Jesus Christ. And if you will tell me which of these two things it is that you’ve been talking about all morning, then I’ll help you make a strategic plan based on that priority. But if you can’t tell me which it is, then you will oscillate between these two values, as I’ve seen you do for several years now, and you’re going to continue to be confused.’ Bob Buford continues, “No one had ever put it to me that way, I just sat still for a while, and then I did the math. Eternity is longer than time, so I put a cross in that box. I decided to make Christ the primary loyalty in my life and that was the day of my second conversion.”

May God give each one of us the grace to put a cross in that box for each of our lives. Let’s pray together.

Lord, we do thank you that you have blessed us with so much. Lord, at the same time we ask forgiveness, that we have often used your blessings in such a way that they have become a barrier between ourselves and you and ourselves and others. Lord, we pray that you would free us up again, that we might use those blessings in order to be a blessing to others and a blessing to you as well. For we ask it in Jesus name. Amen.