Monday, October 17, 2011

October 16, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - A Good Return On Your Investment

This morning we continue through our study of The Sermon On the Mount. Today we study Matthew 6:19-24.

Listen to the words of Jesus as recorded by Matthew –

One of Ann Landers’ best letters came from a woman writing about her husband’s unusual request.

For years he was hiding money, saying he didn’t trust banks. She laughed about it, which made him mad, so one day he said he wanted his money to be buried with him. She agreed to honor his request, thinking it wouldn’t amount to much money. When he passed away she remembered her promise. Counting the money she was shocked to find it amounted to more than $60,000, in cash. That put her in a dilemma. She wanted to honor her husband’s request but didn’t want to bury all that cash. She agonized over what to do and finally came up with a great solution. She took the cash to the bank, deposited it in her account, wrote out a check for the amount, and placed the check in the coffin. That’s a wise investment.

This morning, continuing in the Sermon On the Mount, we come to a passage about wise investments – Matthew 6:19-24. Investments are tricky these days. If you have an investment account your are better off not opening a statement when it arrives in the mail.

Jesus spoke often of making wise investments – investments of our lives – and he certainly does in this passage.

He begins by speaking to our sense of security. Do not, he says, 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.

Everyone wants to build some measure of security in life, so we are naturally driven to try and build wealth, because wealth, in our eyes, represents security.

In my class on St. Augustine’s City of God, there is a section where St. Augustine compares a rich man and a poor man. Augustine writes Let us imagine two individuals – for each man, like a letter in a word, is an integral part of a city or of a kingdom, however extensive. Of these two men, let us suppose that one is poor, or, better, in moderate circumstances; the other, extremely wealthy. But, our wealthy man is haunted by fear, heavy with cares, feverish with greed, never secure, always restless, breathless from endless quarrels with his enemies. By these miseries, he adds to his possessions beyond measure, but he also piles up for himself a mountain of distressing worries. The man of modest means is content with a small and compact patrimony. He is loved by his own, enjoys the sweetness of peace in his relations with kindred, neighbors, and friends, is religious and pious, of kindly disposition, healthy in body, self-restrained, chaste in morals, and at peace with his conscience. I wonder if there is anyone so senseless as to hesitate over which of the two to prefer (Book IV, Chapter 3, pp. 87-88). When I ask the class if they agree that the poor man has the better life, they always agree. I then ask them, why is it, then, that no one aspires to be poor? People do not come to this country because it is their dream to be poor; they come to this country because it is their dream to be wealthy.

And make no mistake about it; a measure of wealth does make a difference in life. To be able to afford housing, food, education, and medical care is no small matter.

But Jesus provides a reminder that those resources are not as secure as we might think. No matter what we have, it is susceptible to loss. If you are seeking to invest money, where will it be safe? Is it ever really safe? A lot of people lost a lot of money in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. A lot of people have lost money on their homes. A lot of people have lost money in the stock market. It was just a few years ago that home values, the stock market, and other avenues of wealth-building seemed to be on the way up with no foreseeable end in sight. But the end came.

Jesus says treasure of the earthly variety is never really secure and points to the irony of investing so much of life into what is ultimately neither secure nor of lasting value. We think they are secure, but they are not. Everything, he says, is subject to forces that threaten security. Our stuff is subject to decay, it is subject to theft, and it is subject to market forces.

What do we have that we cannot lose? Almost everything is subject to loss, as Jesus says. What do we have that we cannot lose?

Jesus encourages us to invest in what is of lasting, eternal value. Jesus did not hold to the view that this world did not matter. Jesus knew that people needed bread to survive but also said that we cannot live on bread alone. His theology was not one of simply enduring this world until one reaches eternity. Jesus knew that people had needs and concerns and he was not insensitive to those needs and concerns. But Jesus reminds us of the spiritual component of life. Life does consist of more than our jobs and our stuff. Life consists of other people, many of whom face great difficulty and need us to enter into their lives.

A wise investment, then, is other people. How many of you remember the names of school teachers, Sunday School teachers, coaches, or others who invested in your lives. I can still tell you the name of my 2nd through the 6th grade teachers (I don’t know why I can’t remember the name of my 1st grade teacher. Must have been a bad year, perhaps).

The message of investing in other people is a message to individuals but to the church as a body as well. During one of the Roman persecutions of the church, soldiers entered a church meaning to plunder the church of its treasures they believed to be there. The leader of the soldiers demanded show my your treasures at once! The church leader pointed at the orphans who were being fed, to the sick who were being cared for, and the poor who were receiving provision, and said these are the treasures of the church (Barclay, p. 242).

Then Jesus mentions the eye, and as he does he reminds that he seek to give us a new vision of life. We can be remarkably blind at times to what is right in front of us. When we took the youth to All People’s Christian Center in LA last summer, one evening we took a driving tour of downtown. A staff member from the center was with us and he took us down a block where there were some very upscale restaurants. There were tables along the sidewalk and a lot of people eating outside. It was in the evening, at dusk, and as we turned the corner there were people setting up tents on the sidewalk. They were homeless people, large numbers, just around the corner from great affluence. There were families, some with very young children, and it was a jarring sight.

I commented on the odd image of affluence and need being so close together and Larry, our guide, reminded me that it wasn’t any different in our community. I vividly remember him commenting on how we fail to see some of the needs right in front of us. Do we see what is on our own doorstep? We actually learn not to see the need in front of us.

There is a responsibility that comes with the resources we are given, I believe. There is a responsibility that remains to our brothers and sisters in need. One of the great dangers of affluence is the way it can insulate us from the needs of others. As we have more, our circles change, and the changes can further remove us from those who suffer great need in life.

There is also a need to hold accountable those who see people as little more than instruments to make money. There is, thankfully, a much greater awareness of the tragedy of child labor. Companies are more sensitive to examine their supply change to see if children are being exploited as cheap labor, but the problem hasn’t been completely solved, it is still a terrible blight upon our world.

Jesus then reminds us that investing in the wrong things can place us in terrible bondage.

One of the tragedies of our modern era is that we can find ourselves with so much, but at the same time with relatively little. We can have many things, and in the process find we are not able to be generous because we are so entrapped by those things that we have a poverty of the soul

When Walt Disney was working on a cartoon version of the legend of King Midas, the sound technicians found something very interesting. As they sought a way to create the sound of coins clinking together they finally discovered that rattling chains gave them the desired sound. Chains representing money. Isn’t that an interesting irony?

Interestingly, the word for mammon, which is the word for money in this passage, comes from a word that means to entrust. It carried the idea of entrusted to another that which we own or possess, as a person entrusts their money to a banker. Over time, though, it came to mean that in which we place our trust. So mammon – money or possessions – morph from being something we entrust to another to being something in which we place our trust. This highlights another irony as our money bears the imprint of In God we trust when the reality is that money so often receives our trust.

So the question comes down to this – what is our treasure? Is it something that is of lasting value, or something that in the end provides no security?

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