Sermon for January 31, 2016

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Matthew 6:7-21


What’s In Your Wallet?

         We’ve all seen the ads. Frustrated passengers jockey for their preferred seat on an airplane, in the adult game equivalent of musical chairs. The ever-charming Alec Baldwin hooks our travel anxiety by reminding us throughout the 30-second television spot that if only we had the right credit card our lives wouldn’t be so miserable. He then looks us in the eye with a seductive gleam and asks, “What’s in your wallet?”

         If you have a billfold or purse with you this morning, try this experiment with me. Take it out of your pocket or bag and open it up. I’m not going to ask you to turn it in or put the whole thing in the offering plate. There’s no trick here. Open it up and make a mental note of three different kinds of things you carry there. If you didn’t bring a wallet you can vicariously experience this with me.

         In my billfold I have money, some i.d. and credit cards, a referral for a better hairdresser, a gift card to Eldridge’s, photos of my grandchildren, and the business cards I’ve exchanged with a half a dozen people from around town. Our wallets tell us a great deal about what we treasure.

Most of us know each other pretty well, and we trust each other. Yet this was a little bit hard, wasn’t it? If you think this exercise was awkward for us who know one another, imagine how awkward it was for Jesus, whom many did not know!

         Yet Jesus asked the same question to people who poured out from their villages to hear him teach in the natural amphitheater of hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee. He knew what the people had in our wallets, but he wanted them to think about it. He invited them to notice that for the most part, the treasures they carried with them everywhere, as close to their body as a pocket, reflected for the most part, choices that will not last and cannot satisfy. Jesus wanted to free us from that which encumbers a joyful life, so he taught us how to empty out our pockets of unnecessary things now.  “Lay up your treasures in heaven,” he said, “where moth won’t get them and where your treasures cannot spoil, rust or rot.”

         This past Wednesday morning, I asked the women’s Bible study group to reflect with me on what kind of treasures Jesus could be talking about. They started naming treasures they anticipate will endure in heaven, things like: trust, no more bills, deep love of family and friends, all things outdoors, beautiful, growing and bright, goodwill for all people, joy, and peace.

         They imagined that the saints who have gone before us are part of God’s treasures in heaven who look after us, and they longed to become those angels for someone else. They looked to that day when they would be wholly at home with God and reunited with family who had died and who they believe they will see again. Of course one person also looked to heaven’s treasure as the place where we can eat all the chocolate we want and not gain weight. Can I get an Amen to that?

         But then they noticed something remarkable. Right before Jesus’ invitation to lay up treasures in heaven, he taught them a prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” What if the treasures of heaven are also intended to be experienced as treasures on earth? What if God sent Jesus into the world to invite us to heaven now when we act as if these treasures are already at hand?

         One woman remarked that if live as if we’ve already won the heavenly lottery, as if the kingdom of God is already at hand, as if Gods treasures are already and always available to us, then that changes everything. She’s right of course. What would change in your life if you truly believed that Jesus prayed as if this would come to pass? God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, not just in the sweet by and by, not only after death when we are reunited with God and all our loved ones who have gone before, but now, on earth as it is in heaven. “The kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “the Kingdom of heaven in heaven is at hand.”

         Maybe we would begin to let go of all those things that we know we can’t take with us to heaven anyway. Maybe we would let go of them now: bitterness, criticism, strife, fear, anxiety, the need to control others, judgment, anxiety. I wonder what we’re really asking when we pray “God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth is it is in heaven.” Are we asking God to magically clean up the messes we’ve made? Are we asking God to fix those broken and annoying people we don’t trust or like? Or are we humbly asking God to help us invest in things that endure, so that we won’t continue to suffer by carrying around those things that do not? When we ask God to strengthen our faith and increase our love for one another, we lay up treasures like empathy, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, generosity and gratitude in the here and now.

         Some may argue that such a kingdom on earth as in heaven is but a dream, that we can only hint at the ways we will be connected in spirit with God and with one another in glory. It’s true that when a loved one dies, we miss their physical presence like having a piece of our body ripped out, the pain and suffering feels at first unbearable and never unending. Nothing can take that away from us. We can’t talk ourselves out of grief.

         But we are not a people without hope. When we lay up treasures in heaven, when we seek a Godly life, trusting in God in all things, then we begin to experience the abundant joy that God intends for us now, even in the midst of our greatest suffering.

         The test of our successful investment in heavens treasures comes when we least expect it. We’re tested whenever we face difficult things together. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor and pray for those who persecute you. What good is it when you only love people who already love you? Everybody does that.” The test of the stock we’ve invested in heaven is how we navigate our challenges in life and as a church together. We store up heaven’s treasures of patience, tolerance, gratitude, trust and forgiveness, so that when we lose a pastor, as in the recently departure of our Pastor Rachel, or when we contemplate a shift in how we work with one another, as in the proposed By-Law Revisions, we navigate this transitions gracefully.

         Paul says in his letters to the early churches that we will be known for our love for one another and by our fruits, that is, by what we produce at the testing point. The fruits of the Spirit, or our treasures in heaven includenine attributes of a Christian life. In his letter to the Galatians Paul wrote: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."                   

We have a tendency to become anxious when things are not as they once were. We fear we’ll be left out of the new story, or that what we want won’t matter. We’re worried that as things change, we’ll no longer feel at home, but rather like strangers in a strange land. No life or community is immune to the necessity of change. Some transitions are more painful for us than others, representing the loss of something we cherish. It’s quite understandable that we resist that which makes us uneasy. As human creatures we naturally want to avoid suffering if we can. The question for us as followers of the way of Christ is not whether or not we will face challenges and transitions, we will. The test of faith is how we lavish one another with treasures from heaven when we do.

         Change is not only inevitable, but also carries within each opportunity, certain gifts. Artist Anna Marie Eggert put it this way. “Life is like a painting. If you don’t have a contrast of deep color in one area, you don’t’ experience the light in another.” Stepping back from life’s challenges, we discover that through our greatest suffering, we often experience our deepest joy.

         Beloved in faith, open your paint box and notice the necessity of both darkness and light. Pray without ceasing that God will help you lay up heavenly treasures both shadow and light. Then on that day you will be ready when Jesus calls you to account with the question, “What have you got in your wallet?” Amen