This is the fourth in a series of sermons on The Sermon on the Mount, preached at the Antioch United Methodist Church in Nashville.
Bear Sterns. Lehman Brothers. Fannie May and Freddie Mac. AIG. Washington Mutual. Just a few months ago these were names that we may have been familiar with, but were hardly on the tips of our tongues. These days however, their names are recited daily as symbols of an economic crisis spiraling out of control around us. Our leaders in Washington are scurrying around, trying to find some way to repair the damage, to keep things solvent, arguing over which approach is the best. On Friday, the men who are vying to be the rulers of our kingdom tried to explain why their plan is the better one for restoring economic vitality. Yet, far removed from the stratosphere of Washington and Wall Street investment bankers, thousands of Americans looked at the growing pile of bills, the increasing debt, and the letters from the mortgage company threatening foreclosure, and wondered what they were going to do.
In the midst of all of this turmoil, in the midst of economic uncertainty, in the midst of wondering how we will pay the bills, Jesus confronts us with a different economic vision, one that doesn’t seem to worry about default credit swaps and sub-prime mortgages. It is a teaching that we frankly wish to push aside as naïve and out of touch with the realities of our world. After all, Jesus didn’t face the pressures we face in a global economy, did he? We live in world of high finance, of acquisitions and mergers, and how could Jesus have had a clue about what we face today. “Okay Jesus,” we tell the teacher, “you just go over there and focus on spiritual stuff and we’ll take care of the business here.”
But could it be possible that Jesus’ words for us today are both a warning and a call to renewal reminding us that we have replaced our faith in God with our faith in the almighty dollar? Could it be that Jesus’ simplicity and naiveté about issues of money is a check and balance against the voices in our world that try to tell us that the most important thing in life is getting more stuff? Could it be that Jesus knew far more about the power of money than we could possibly imagine. Could it be that we need to look at this scripture again and begin to take it seriously?
Last week, as we talked about the practices of faith in the kingdom, Jesus condemned religiosity, the extravagant use of religious practices to gain one’s favor with God and the faith community. Religiosity is about putting ourselves above God and others, drawing attention to ourselves in our pursuit of appearing holier than thou. In many ways, religiosity is spiritual greed, an attempt to gain more and more religion for ourselves, with little concern for who stands in the way, or the underlying purposes behind that faith.
This week, we see Jesus make a shift from talking about the sins of religiosity to the sins of materialism. Materialism is the desire to make the things of the world — the stuff that we accumulate — our Gods, letting them get in the way of our attempts to follow Jesus. Materialism and consumerism have become the religions of our day, the guiding forces that motivate us to wake in the morning, and to toss and turn at night when the worry that comes with them overcomes us. As one author has written, we have been infected with “affluenza,” the belief that that affluence in money and possessions is the symbol of our success and failure in life.
To quote Gordon Gecko from the movie “Wall Street,” our society has acted out the belief that “greed, for want of a better word is good.” We have laid down at the altar of greed, suggesting as Gecko did in the movie that “…Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.” And taking that as our new mantra, the masters of the universe that control American business and finance have acted on that greed, finding all sorts of creative and shaky ways to use other’s money and dreams to finance what now looks like a house of cards about to tumble in a pile on the ground.
And the fact is, for all the Wall Street hotshots and corporate CEO’s with multimillion dollar salaries, we too listened to the voices of greed in our world. Whether we knew it or not, we too believed the myth that home prices could rise indefinitely. We too believed that we could insure our way out of trouble. We too somehow thought that borrowing money without adequate income makes sense. No, it’s not simply the bankers who are to blame. The fact is that we bought into their dreams and visions in our own pursuit of affluence and comfort and stability.
It’s folks like me and you, possibly even folks in this room, who purchased more house than we could afford, believing the loan officer when she said that we could afford to spend fifty percent of our income on housing.
It’s folks like you and me who didn’t cut back on our lifestyle even though our income wasn’t rising as fast as our expenses.
It’s folks like you and me who were blinded by the myths of the American dream and didn’t live within the confines of the reality that we only have so much money to spend.
And, it’s folks like you and me who have convinced ourselves that we deserve what we own, that this stuff that surrounds us is ours, and that we could worship both God and money.
The crisis we find ourselves is of our own making, built in the belief that the pursuit of the almighty dollar is a good and noble thing. But as the Apostle Paul reminds us, the love and worship of money leads us down the road to ruin as greed consumes us, envy overtakes us, and fear overwhelms us.
And Jesus the economist stands there on the hill with a new teaching, a different way, saying “See, I knew what I was talking about all along.”
“You have your priorities in the wrong place,” Jesus says. “If you place your faith in the power of money, then you might as well expect that you will be disappointed along the way. No, the only thing worth passionately desiring is God. In God’s kingdom, loving God comes first – and then everything else falls in place behind that.”
Jesus understands that greedy materialism and obsessive consumerism takes us down the road to worry and fear. When we are always questioning if we have “enough,” we live without security, wondering when the shoe will drop. For most of us that fear is very real, for most statistics suggest that many of us are only two missed paychecks away from falling into poverty. To worship the dollar is to know that we can be abandoned and left on the street alone.
But Jesus reminds us that the economy of God’s kingdom is not filled with worry. After all, most of life is out of our control. Simplify. Enjoy life. Watch God work. When our treasure is not found in the vaults and safes of our banks but rather in the internal spaces of our hearts we begin to understand that the worries and cares of this world aren’t worth a hill of beans.
This teaching of Jesus isn’t especially complicated, nor is it hard. In some ways it is simple common sense, based in the knowledge that the more we have the more complicated our lives become and the further we have to fall. When we recognize that all comes from God and focus first on seeking after God’s right ways of being, we are able to cast aside all those things that we purchase in the attempt to find security and satisfaction. Living in the economy of the kingdom is to recognize that the most important thing is the love of the one who created us and knows far more than we do what we truly need.
G. K. Chesterton, the British theologian, noted: “There are two ways to get enough: One is to accumulate more and more, the other is to desire less.”
What Jesus tells us from that mountain in Galilee is that the second way is the way of God’s kingdom. When we seek after more and more, we find ourselves in ruins. However, when we begin to desire less, then we are always satisfied.
Friends, we find ourselves today in the midst of a big mess, one that is likely to only get worse before it gets better, and we are here because we as a society believed that seeking after more and more was the most important thing in life. And Jesus reminds us that there are much more important things we need to consider, casting aside the pursuit of stuff for that which is eternal and will never fail.
Rabbi Hofetz Chaim was well known through the world of his day as a man filled with wisdom and grace. One day, an American tourist visited in the rabbi’s home and was astonished to see that it was only a simple room filled with books, plus a table and a bench.
The tourist asked, "Rabbi, where is your furniture?"
"Where is yours?" replied the rabbi.
"Mine?" asked the puzzled American. "But I’m a visitor here. I’m only passing through."
"So am I," said Hofetz Chaim.
May we all begin to understand that thing things of this world are fleeting, and that we are all just passing through.
For when we do, money will no longer be our God, and the cares of this world will grow strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.