Ahhh, another Fall Campaign: so exciting! Actually, I really like the theme the Stewardship Committee has presented throughout 2018 at various times and in a variety of ways. “Where Is Your Heart?” comes from our Matthew, chapter 6, passage and is focused on verse 21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Notice that it doesn’t say that the treasure follows the heart, but that the heart follows the treasure. It points to what is central in our lives, whatever our most important treasure is: is it money?; is it family?; is it cars?; is it God and the will of God?
The treasure we build up is what is central in our lives. We hope as Christians that Christ would be at the center. However, when we are perfectly honest with ourselves, that is rarely the case. How often do we go through a day without thinking about God or Jesus, without recognizing the blessings that God provides, or the strength and courage the Holy Spirit grants us? How often do we pledge to the church without even thinking about praying for guidance from our gracious God? For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew, chapters 5-7, so that our passage is nestled in the center of it. Were I to read more of chapter 6, I would have gone on to read The Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is a model for how we are to pray in righteousness. It and Jesus’ teachings lead us away from hypocrisy. Hypocrisy refers to the act of claiming to believe something but acting in a contrary way to what is believed. That is what people mean when they say the church is full of hypocrites. They know we say one thing in church but live in different manner when we leave the church. For example, we may give lip service to loving and praying for our enemies, as Jesus requires in the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5 by saying: But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Then we go out into society and spew hatred for some group, person, religious affiliation, political viewpoint, or a cause on social media or among our friends and family members. It is one thing to disagree with one another and quite another to cause division and strife. Often the treasure we support in this example is the peer pressure or political influence to give in to this way of thinking.
The Greek word for hypocrisy used in the New Testament is “hypokrisis” and means “the acting on a stage.” In bygone eras, actors would often act out more than one part, having “more than one face.” In Greek theatres, actors would usually play more than one role. Sometimes that occurred by using a two sided mask on a stick and holding up whichever role they were playing at the time. When the Gospel of Matthew explains that we are not to be hypocritical about our faith, it means we are to live out what our faith teaches us and not ignore it when it suits us.
In the commentary “Texts for Preaching”, we learn that the author of the Gospel of Matthew is warning us against “a manipulative piety that, in effect if not by conscious design, is carried out for an audience other than God.” Piety means righteousness. Jesus Christ teaches us how to be and live right with God. The hyperbolic, overstated, language is utilized as a means to grab our attention. There are clear extremes: How to give to charity without drawing attention to one’s self or drawing attention to one’s self by how we give to charity; how to pray in all righteousness as we focus on God who is the center of our righteousness, or how to pray drawing attention to ourselves. The excessive contrast brings up doing these things “in secret” as opposed to being noticed for them. Does that mean the Mission Task Force can’t put on concerts to raise money for local charities and mission causes? Does that mean we shouldn’t pray out loud together in Bible Study? It does not outlaw public prayer or pledging to congregational appeals. No, the hyperbolic language is utilized to draw attention to the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings- to smack us in the head with it, so to speak. It comes down to a focus on God, our relationship to God and how we respond to God. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
I think I can safely say that no one blows a trumpet when they give to charity. It also isn’t possible for one hand not to know what the other hand is doing as passage proclaims. Replacing that notion is the emphasis on following through with our responsibility to God. In our passage today it is by helping the poor. The intent is to glorify God and not ourselves. The emphasis is on what motivates the act of giving and of praying. We are not to have ulterior motives that are self-aggrandizing.
Our passage addresses God’s responsiveness to our hearts and minds being in the right place. Being in the right place is focused on what our primary treasure is- life with God. Our treasure is in following Jesus Christ and how he teaches us to live, to pray, to treat others, to be worthwhile disciples and good stewards, and to draw closer to God. Our treasure is in seeking God first. Even the most pious of Christians find that difficult as the world intrudes and as society dictates how we ought to live and what ought to be important to us.
I saw an ad for a bank that was offering a retirement plan. It gleefully talked about retiring “in style” without the slightest hint of humility in that preparation for retirement. It certainly didn’t acknowledge that many people, who even may work two or more jobs, can’t put aside much or any for retirement. Today having any kind of a pension plan is becoming more of a thing of the past as more, especially big, employers keep more for themselves and invest less in their employees. Those without retirement or pension plans will have to rely on Social Security, insecure at best, and the benevolence of others in their old age. Let me be clear: that fact isn’t retiring in style for far too many people.
Many of us, in this nation, focus so much of our lives and careers, our decision-making and our votes, on amassing wealth for now and for our old age with little thought to the consequence our lives, careers, decisions and votes cause others. Verse 19 encourages us not to store up treasure on earth. Hypocrisy creeps into our everyday lives all the time and we don’t recognize it or we simply ignore it. I know that when I ignore my hypocrisy, it does affect others and consequently my relationship with Jesus Christ.
Does all this mean we shouldn’t have a retirement or pension plan? Certainly not, but it does mean we are taught to reflect on our motivation for having that security and our approach to acquiring our wealth. Is it so that we can put our candidate in office who will allow us to have more, or is the more important emphasis on how we can continue to give to help others, even when we retire. Can we continue to serve God? What is the motivation behind our gaining wealth? Scripture teaches us that we don’t really own anything or earn anything, for it all belongs to the Creator God and is given to us as a gift. That teaching changes life perspective.
Jesus understood humanity very well as he proclaimed we would always have the poor with us. He knew of human beings’ propensity for greed and for getting what we want even at the expense of others. In our Old Testament passage, we hear of extreme poverty. The prophet Elisha, the student of the late prophet Elijah, ends up helping a widow living with her children in extreme poverty. This story illustrates the harsh reality for the poor in ancient Israel, where there was plenty of wealth. It brings to mind the extreme poor in our own world. There are way too many people living in abject poverty today. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In this story, an unnamed widow woman came to Elisha as she sought help with her plight. Her husband had incurred a huge debt. The widow was in the horrible position where she would have to sell her children into slavery to pay off that debt. This still happens in places around the world. The parents have the horrific and impossible choice of how to survive and help their children survive. These parents, in their poverty and debt, are told that their teen will have a good job as a nanny or a waitress where they can work off debt and buy their freedom; instead, they are sold into prostitution. It’s called human sex trafficking and is becoming a terribly prevalent reality in our modern world. Children in our own society have been affected by sex trafficking and slavery too.
When the widow asked for Elisha’s help, likely to forestall selling her children, he, insightfully, asked her what she wanted him to do. He didn’t presume he knew what was best for her. He next asked her what she had in her house and therefore offered her some semblance of respect by working with what she had. She told him she had a small jar of oil. Elisha then engaged her and her
children–so offering them some dignity—as he asked her to have the children collect as many jars as possible. The widow’s task was to take her little bit of oil and pour the oil into the jars her children brought to fill. She had to have been confused by this because she only had a small amount of oil to begin with. Yet, she followed what Elisha asked of her and she filled and filled and filled again more and more jars until the last jar was brought and the last bit of oil drained into it. Oil was a precious commodity and she was able to sell all that oil so that she and her children, together, would live better lives.
Unfortunately today, the desperate poor don’t have that kind of miracle happen in their lives. Instead, their miracle is us, people of God. We are the people who are acting as Christ’s hands and feet in the world, helping those in need. Our story reminds us that, when possible, to seek ways to involve them in the help as does Habitat for Humanity, Self-Development of People, and the Heifer Project, or similar Presbyterian projects. Those stuck in poverty are offered dignity. Many will take that offer even though some will not. However, another reality is that sometimes all we can do is be a stop gap for a person to get from one day to the next until an offer that is an improved long-term solution comes along. Offering sanitary or kitchen kits or blankets or boxes of food is sometimes all that can be done for a refugee, for instance. They will eventually need the step that offers them a better life for themselves. That is where people who are motivated by their Spirit- inspired treasure of helping refugees comes in. Those people’s hearts, their minds and their centers, are in that place. They seek to use their stewardship to help the refugees find a home and a job, and get back on their feet out of what had become a place of poverty, relying on others for help. Thank God for their treasure as their hearts and minds are in those desperate situations.
The final verse in our third scripture lesson reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that we can’t serve two “masters,” money (and that which money buys), and God. It is impossible to serve both, as we so often try to do in daily living, explains Jesus. Through these four teachings of how to give, pray, treasure, and serve only God, Jesus wants us to stop and reflect on our lives through intentional self-examination, so ferreting out the hypocrisy in them. This Gospel of Matthew passage comes around in the lectionary at the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are called to self-examination. We then repent of our wrong-doing so that God will help us rectify that which isn’t godly in our lives. We then draw closer to centering our focus on serving God.
The main point of this whole sermon boils down to our motivation in doing the things we do. And, importantly, for this Stewardship Sunday, what is the motivation behind our giving? Are we serving God or are we serving wealth? Perhaps a question we could ask ourselves concerning what we say and do, as we seek to discover just where our treasure is, would be- would Jesus approve? That is a tough question to ask of ourselves yet, following through on his approval, leads to enhanced discipleship and improved stewardship.
Jesus assures us that God will reward our improvement through our righteous motivation. This Fall Campaign season, ask yourself “Where is my treasure?” because that is where your motivation in life will be and where your heart and mind dwell. Our money and possessions are fleeting. Even people we love are fleeting. Our relationship with God is eternal. Alleluia! Amen.