Monday, November 13, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, NOvember 12

HI all--this was the sermon preached yesterday, November 12, at Exton Community Baptist Church. It was on a most difficult topic--money and stewardship! The text is the story of the rich young man, Matthew 19:16-26.

An insecure man came to Jesus one day. We know he was insecure because he came to ask Jesus what good thing he had to do in order to gain eternal life. And he knew that he had done ‘em all. Kept the commandments flawlessly. Never murdered, never killed anybody; never committed adultery; never stolen, never borne false witness; honored his father and mother completely, loved his neighbor as himself. Whatever Jesus asked him, he knew that he could look the great teacher in the eye and say, “I’m perfect on that one.” Perhaps the great teacher would look at him and say approvingly, “There is nothing more you can do; just keep it up!” Or maybe the teacher would show him to the disciples and say, “Look at this young man; here is a young man who pleases me and pleases my Father. Peter, why can’t you be more like this man? Andrew, why can’t you be more like this man? John–Matthew–Simon–why can’t you be more like this man?” The insecure rich young man was like a dog coming to Jesus, showing off, hoping that Jesus might pet him and maybe throw him a bone.
But you know what? Most of the time, God doesn’t throw you a bone. Most of the time, God throws you a curveball. And the curveball says to you, basically, “You’ve got it all wrong.” You think you’ve achieved so much, but there’s a radically different way of thinking about this stuff that you just missed. Jesus threw a curveball to the rich young man. He said, “Oh, by the way, there is one more thing; you have to go and sell all of your possessions and give all of the money to the poor; and then, come and follow me.” And we read that the man went away grieving.
I should say he went away grieving; he thought he would be a hero, he thought he would be a model to the other disciples; he hoped people would be awestruck at how well he had done. But instead, they were awestruck at the words of Jesus, and the rich young man was not a hero–the rich young man was humbled.
So what is the point of this story? On one level, it’s a story about money. And indeed, there’s a lot here that can speak to our American culture about money and wealth. On this level, it challenges us to think about how we view and treat our money and our possessions. We’ll talk about this a little bit later on in the sermon.
But before we get there we have to go to the deeper level, where we realize that this story most deeply not about money; this story is about availability. What do I mean by this? I mean that here we learn from Jesus that Christian living is not primarily about good things we have done; at its heart, Christian living is about being available to God. Christian living is not about accomplishments as much as it is about availability.
Listen to how the rich young man approaches Jesus: “teacher, what good deed must I do to receive eternal life?” The rich young man assumes that receiving eternal life must be a result of his accomplishments. What good deed must I do? What must I accomplish? How high do I have to build this mountain of good deeds before you look at me and say, “OK. You’re good by me. You get eternal life? Is it high enough now? Do you love me yet? Did I get my ticket for heaven punched yet?”
Jesus is not at all impressed by this man’s mountain of achievements. Instead, he challenges him to think in a radically different way about the gospel. He gives the man two challenges: first, he says go and sell everything and give it to the poor; and then, come, give up your job and life here, and come and follow me. Both of these challenges are about availability. The rich young man can accomplish a whole big mountain of things, but this is not really what Jesus wants. Jesus wants a person who is completely available to him, a person who is completely available to be used in whatever way God wants to use that person: his money and his time.
What do we learn from this story? I think this: the call of the gospel is not a call to achieve, it is a call to be available. When we say we want to follow Jesus, the first thing we do is not to accomplish something. The first thing we have to do is give everything away. I don’t mean that we physically go through and give everything away. But in our hearts, we give everything away. In our hearts, we give away our homes, our possessions, our money. Everything we have, we give away and we give control over it to God. No longer do we get the last word about anything in our lives: our bodies, our time, our money. God gets the last word. And there may come a time when God calls us away from all these things, and because we’ve already given them away in our hearts, we can easily go ahead and give them away in the world.
What Jesus did when he told that rich young man to give everything was to diagnose his heart. He revealed that that man hadn’t yet given up control of his money to God. It was still his money, and he couldn’t bear to part with it in the world because he couldn’t bear to part with it in his heart. In your heart, if you’ve already given over control of your money to God, then it shouldn’t be a big deal whatever God asks you to do with it.
I have some friends who work managing other people’s money. I always think that would be an interesting job. I always wonder how I’d react if one of my clients called me and said they wanted to do something stupid with their money, like invest it all in baseball cards or something. I think I’d say something like, “Well, I don’t really think it’s such a good idea, but–hey–it’s not my money. It’s yours, so I’ll do with it whatever you want.” It would be kind of fun, really, to have money that I had no personal vested interest in–it was just completely up to my client to do whatever they wanted to with. It’s not my money; I just manage it.
Of course, this is what the reality should be with our money and God. In reality, we’ve already given our money to God. We’ve given it away in our hearts, and so it should be no big deal to give it away physically. If God calls us to give it all away, we do it; it’s not our money; we just manage it.
The call of Jesus on this young man’s life was not to accomplish, accomplish, accomplish. Rather, the call of Jesus was to become completely available to God, especially in the areas where that meant the most–money and time. This is when you know you are getting close to God–when you are fully available to God, when there is no area in your life to which God does not have full access. If there is no darkened chamber of your heart where you hold on to the person you used to be, you are getting close to God.
I wonder if you have considered that Jesus’ call on your life is not to achieve, achieve, achieve or accomplish, accomplish, accomplish. In fact, Jesus is just not really that impressed with all of our achievements and accomplishments. He didn’t do backflips when the young man told him how perfect he had been; he just acknowledged it and moved on. What he really wants is not people to give him the best from their lives; he wants people to give him their whole lives. C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, and many other books, said it like this: “Give me everything. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you.”
This is what God wants: you. Every part of you. Certainly, there are lots of things God wants us to do: feed the poor. Clothe the naked. Worship and glorify his name. Share his love. But we can do all of these–and more–and it will not amount to a hill of beans if deep down we still cling to our right to run our own life and stubbornly cling to control. Because this is what Jesus wants: us. Every part of us. Jesus wants us to be completely open and available for wherever he might use us.
So you’re at home this afternoon, figuring out what your commitment to the church is going to be for 2007. Big decisions. Decisions that it’s our duty to take seriously. Will we be able to up our giving this year? Will we have to drop it? What can we do?
Well, I think you have to start with this principle: God does not want you to give him 10% of your money. God wants 100%, every last penny of your money. Now that does not mean that 100% of your income should go to the church. I’m aware that churches do stupid things when they talk about money, that many people have been hurt by the way churches have talked about money. I’m not talking about the church controlling your money or giving your money to me; I’m talking about recognizing that your money is not your own–it is God’s. I’m asking that you realize what the rich young man could not: it’s not your money. You just manage it. If we are going to be faithful about using our money as God wants us to, we have to realize at the beginning that our job is not to give him 5 or 10 or 25 % and keep the remaining 75 or 90 or 100 % for ourselves. Our job is to recognize that it all is his and see what God might want us to put where.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a professional theologian. Theologians sit around and write books about how they understand God–and that’s their job. They publish their thoughts about God for all the world to see. Now my job has theology involved in it too–in a sense, I am a chief theologian.
But are you aware that you all are theologians? Most of you have even written theological books, even though they haven’t been published yet–and they probably never will be. They are called your budget and your checkbook. And these two documents are a work of theology. They demonstrate what the writer thinks about God; they demonstrate how the writer understands God. Because Christians believe their money is God’s money, it follows that they spend money in ways they think God wants them to spend the money. And so the items in your budget and your checkbook reflect how you believe God wants you to spend your money. I firmly believe that my budget and my checkbook reflect my true belief in God more than any sermon I could preach. If you want to honestly know what you believe about God, look at the books of theology you’ve already written.
Jill and I are passionate believers in what the church is doing. And I don’t just mean our church. We’ve heard a lot this morning about what our church is doing, and the great ministry that we can do here in Exton if we pitch in. But, truly, I’m not so passionate about Exton as I am about the church. Part of what Jesus did when he was here was to take ordinary individuals who wanted to follow them, and he turned them into a church. He said, “Here are my teachings; now live in community with each other and work them out.” And it’s amazing, it’s marvelous really, to consider that God created these communities for us, communities that care for each other and reach the world.
And so when Jill and I sit down to write our work of theology, our budget, we want to show that we value the church in the same way God values the church. And so this is where our work of theology will start: right here. We will acknowledge the special place that the church has in the Christian life because it is the church that God uses specially to bind us together and to care for the world. So we will tithe, believing that since Jesus loves the church so much, this is where he’d want a sizable portion of his money going.
Well, enough about me; you all are going to have to go and write your books of theology. You will have to decide how much of God’s money goes to the food budget, and how much to the mortgage, and yes, how much of it will come here. My prayer is not that you sign your lives away to the church; my prayer is that you will give yourselves away, heart, soul, and checkbook to God and that his priorities will determine how you give in 2007.