I grew up in a different theological zip code than Belmont, as my childhood church served up occasional samples of hell-fire, with a dose of fear, and a pinch of guilt. We never canceled Wednesday children’s choir for Halloween. Instead, we hosted alternate fall festivals, carefully never saying “Halloween.” While dating Connie some 30 years ago, I shared my reservations about Halloween. Connie laughed: “How can you be against Halloween? It may be the most Christ-like holiday! When else can a child ring a neighbor’s doorbell and expect to get candy? Trick-or-Treating is loving your neighbors!” Connie, like John Wesley, is less of a systematic theology leaning more towards the practicalities of faith.
My childhood faith was against a lot of things. I absorbed a subtle religious fear more than an abiding Christian hope. One night, hearing a noise, I woke up. The pinkish orange sodium vapor streetlight provided just enough glow for me to see what had to be a huge black snake coiled about five feet from my bed. Feeling too old to call for my parents, I laid awake in bed, struggling to be an adult by trying to convince myself that the “snake” was nothing. The more I stared at the black stripped mass, the more sure I grew of its evil intent. I longed for a rod or staff to comfort me. And there by my headboard, the Lord had provided a tennis racket, through the prevenient grace afforded by my not cleaning my room. Grabbing the tennis racket, I sprung from the bed, and attacked the coiled beast, delivering blow after blow until my dad flipped on the lights and declared, ”What are earth are you doing? It’s 3am!” I looked down to discover I had beaten the stew-beans out of my black and yellow Lexington Tigers ,high knee, AAU basketball, tube socks! Dad rolled his eyes. I hopped back into bed feeling good about facing down potential evil- while barefoot.
Although, 1 John 4:18 proclaims, “There is no fear in love- perfect love casts out all fear.” I absorbed fear. However, with all the things that my church intentionally, or accidentally, taught me to fear, they never taught me to fear a few things that Jesus clearly cautions us about. Jesus flatly says, “You can’t serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) “The glossy veneer of wealth chokes out God’s Word.” (MT 13) “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions.” (Luke 12:14)
Greed will harm you. Consumption can consume our lives. Our possessions can possess us. Greed makes us discontent, never letting us enjoy what we have; for consumerism always craves more. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed for your life does not consist of the abundance of your possessions.” Maybe this verse should become our homepage, or be stencilled in script on our living room thresholds, or be embossed on our wallets.
Jesus cautions, “You can’t serve God and money”, and yet over and over and over again we bow down to a false consumer-goods god. We believe that our lives do consist of the abundance of our possessions. The worst peddlers of this lie are many prosperity gospel preachers. Let us confess, that it is easy to be consumed by our consumer goods- trusting in money more than God, God’s Kingdom, faith, hope, or love.
Let us remember, that the Devil tempted Jesus to take a self-serving path of comfortable robes, golden crowns, showy miracles, and palaces with lots of hired help. Old Scratch took Jesus on a virtual tour of homes showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world”.
We so easily trade in stuff. We ask”‘what do you do for a living?” instead of “how do you live?” We judge worth by something’s market or resale value. If we take that old vase our aunt gave us to the Antiques Roadshow and discover it’s worth $123,000, we no longer see it as a loving reminder of familial love, but an asset to manage. With a new market understanding, we ask do we sell the gift, lock it up, or worry when we dust? Our political leaders practise transactional policy without blushing. They regard the purchasing powers of a modern day kingdoms more than freedom of the press, representative democracy, or the value of human life. Do we value money more than morality? Do we place our hopes more in finances than the practise of faith? When we speak of “the bottom line”, do we mean ethics, loving-kindness, mercy or money? If market gods drive our decisions then we worship and serve market gods.
It’s interesting the things that Jesus doesn’t say. Jesus doesn’t say you cannot serve “God and country”or “God and family”. Jesus never says “you can’t serve God and your vocation or your labor.” If someone said “you cannot serve God and your neighbors” that would violate Jesus’ greatest commandment! Jesus warns us to be on guard; holding a healthy respect for the power of greed to bewitch us. We tend to forget our lives do not consist of the things we consume.
Now this is not to say that money is bad. John Wesley taught us that in the hands of the righteous money “is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of God’s children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the ragged. It gives the stranger a place to lay their head. By money we may supply the place of a spouse to the widow, and a provider to the orphaned. We may be a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain; it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death!” Wesley taught: earn all you can (be honest and just labor), save all you can (not letting pride or epicurean delights drive your purchasing), and above all, give all you can (as did Jesus who gave his life). John Wesley’s sermon The Use of Money.
Jesus said, “Life is more than good meals. The body is more valuable than designer clothing. Consider the cardinals and jays: they do not plant crops or harvest, they don’t build barns, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than birds! Does obsessing and worrying add even one hour to the length of your life? If then you lack the power to add a single breath to your life, why do you worry about clothes, couches, cars, or houses? Oh, beloved seek first the Kingdom of God (who gives you life, love and breath) and everything else will be alright.” Jesus is not to stop planting corn, but warning us to not invest our hopes and dreams in possessions. Our Hope resides beyond stuff.
Where is our Hope? What do we place our hope in? What do we labor for? Our hope reside beyond our things. Our hopes rests in God’s Kingdom- on earth as in heaven. We do not live to consume, but to give. We live, keeping watch, remembering our capacity for to get spiritually side-tracked by the desire for more. We do not become possessed by our possessions remembering that all that endures is faith, hope and love.
Someone who had more than they needed came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life to fill this longing within me, for I have kept the rules, but somehow I still lack a deeper something.” Jesus said, “If you wish to taste perfection, go, and sell your stuff, and give the money to the poor, and you will find treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Jesus told a story about trading our faith stuff with a deeper hope saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried, hidden and lost in a field. Some stranger found the buried treasure while plowing someone else’s field. They went home and joyfully sold everything else they owned. They then sunk everything into purchasing that field, trading their stuff for an eternal kingdom.”
Oh, let us be on guard, not in fear, but knowing that life does not consist the abundance of stuff. Let us place our hope in the Kingdom of God: loving our neighbors as ourselves, treating neighbors as kin, welcoming strangers as neighbors, feeding the hungry like family, offering the sick with the healthcare we give our partners, clothing the poor with labels fit for our children, conducting commerce as if we are the client, treating employees as we long to be treated, remembering prisoners as if our own relatives were in jail, and listening to opponents with a loving-kindness that seeks a pathway to just peace. Let us measure our lives by the content of our character more than the cars we drive, the phones we use, the schools we attend, the trips we take, or the addresses we secure. Let us love mercy, do justice, walk humbly, and be on guard against all kinds of greed. Let us be people, who knowing that we can not serve God and wealth, choose to invest our lives in building God’s kingdom, for only what we build with faith, hope, and love endures beyond this life. Amen!