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"#godspriorities vs. #pompositygospel" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 3, 2017

posted Sep 25, 2017, 8:31 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

A few weeks ago, I looked ahead at the calendar and realized that on Labor Day Weekend I wanted to preach about the meaning of work, about the Christian concept of vocation, the spirituality and purpose of labor.  I picked our reading from the Gospel of Matthew based on recommendations for Labor Day readings.  Everything seemed set.

And then, over the course of August, a number of things happened to change what I heard in the Gospel of Matthew.  I began to pay more attention to the way Jesus talked about wealth.  “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

This change from a focus on work to wealth (or from labor to capital) started with the amusing disaster of Louise Linton’s tweets.  As you probably remember, Linton and her husband, the secretary of the treasury, used a military jet to fly down to Fort Knox, where America keeps its gold.  Cabinet secretaries normally travel on commercial airlines; military jets are only meant for urgent travel.  What could be urgent about checking our gold stash?

Linton reveled in the excursion.  She shared a photo of herself stepping off the plane, name dropping all the fashion designers she wore.  #rolandmouret, #tomford, #hermesscarf

The post did not garner Linton the praise she wanted.  No, instead people commented negatively, including Jenni Miller, who tweeted, “Glad we could pay for your little getaway.”  Linton lashed out, saying she and her husband paid more in taxes than Miller and saying Miller was “adorably out of touch.”  So, first Linton luxuriated in her wealth and then used it again as a defense against critique.  It did not go well for Linton.

And soon people began to ask why the Secretary of the Treasury had to take an emergency trip on August 21 to see America’s gold at Fort Knox.  He made the one-day trip to a spot of totality for the eclipse.  That frivolous use of government resources has now generated an inspector general investigation into the misappropriation of funds.  #adorablesurprise

All of which would have not surprised Jesus.  He knew, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  So, is your heart wrapped up in a Hermes Scarf or do you seek treasure in heaven?

One would think a pastor would clearly seek just treasure in heaven; but this week also brought attention to Joel Osteen, leader of a Houston megachurch who preaches a prosperity gospel.  Basically, the prosperity gospel advises that we can get wealthy by praying to God; and conversely that we know we’re blessed by God if we are wealthy.  If we’re poor it's just because we don’t want to be wealthy; we haven’t, as Osteen proclaims in his book, claimed our ‘best life now.’  #hermesjesus.

As flood waters rose in Houston, Joel Osteen tweeted out his prayers.  But, despite having the largest church in Houston, he didn’t open the doors of the sanctuary to those who needed, well, sanctuary.  Soon Osteen faced his own twitter storm.  My favorite post came from a satirical Christian website that spoofed Osteen with the headline, “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of [His Book,] ‘Your Best Life Now’.”  A photo showed the SS Blessed passing people.  And commentary explained that Osteen shouted to people clinging to their roof tops, “God wants His best for you! Enlarge your vision, develop a healthy self-image, and choose to be happy!”  #pompositygospel.

Linton and Osteen experienced the truth of something else Jesus said, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”  While I laughed at the news of Linton and Osteen, I realize we face that same question too.  Much will be expected of us too.

Our reading today comes from one of Jesus’ longest discussions about his expectations for disciples: the Sermon on the Mount.  The Beatitudes - “blessed are the poor” - is the most famous section of that sermon.

Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount consciously portrayed Jesus as a new Moses.  We’re meant to hear the whole Sermon on the Mount as like Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

Throughout, Jesus’ sermon reflected key Jewish concepts, even in its very structure.  Rabbis in the time of Jesus spoke of three pillars of the Jewish faith: study, prayer, and doing good.  Jesus followed this same pattern.  First, he taught the disciples the deeper meaning of scripture; a section in which he says, “you’ve heard it said but I say to you.”  Then he taught them how to pray; the Lord’s Prayer.  And know, in our section today, he turned to the theme of “doing good.”

Jesus developed the theme of doing good by creating a series of dualisms: treasures on earth vs. treasures in heaven, light vs darkness, God vs. wealth.

He drew these distinctions sharply.  “If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”  Jesus wanted his disciples to choose God’s priorities over worldly priorities.  We can’t do both according to Jesus.

Much of the critique of Linton focused on her trolling of Jenni Miller.  But perhaps we ought to look more at where she went: Fort Knox.  What does it mean for the government to horde gold while we continue to cut and to underfund programs that help the poor and vulnerable?  Much like Joel Osteen praying behind his locked facade, we want to know if people chose God’s priorities over material priorities.  What matters most to us in our lives?  And do we even have a sense of God’s priorities for us in this life?

Years ago, David Brooks wrote a column which helped me think about that question of what matters most.  He distinguished between resumé virtues and eulogy virtues, explaining:

“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the resumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

Or, in other words, resumé virtues get a job but eulogy virtues make a life.

Brooks makes his distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues without the sharpness of Jesus.  And yet I think similar insight propels them both: what priorities will define our lives?

While Joel Osteen tweeted out his piety, very different stories of help and heroism unfolded in Houston.  Many received well deserved coverage, including the actions of “Mattress Mack.”  Jim McIngvale, who owns several furniture stores, opened his stores to people in need.  He didn’t wait for anyone to ask him for help.  Instead he tweeted out his offer: shelter and food.  He sent out furniture trucks to pick up the elderly and disabled.  He provided food; three meals a day.  And through his actions he directly helped 400 people.

McIngvale’s response demonstrated tremendous generosity.  But also foresight.  McIngvale, when he built his stores, constructed them on raised beds of concrete.  He built them to withstand floods; he built them knowing he could shelter his neighbors in need.

He’s wealthy, no doubt; but what will be said about Mattress Mack isn’t how much he made but how much he gave.  McIngvale showed what matters most in his life.  What matters in ours?

And as we wonder about that question, it helps to think about what matters most to God.  Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, leaves it implied instead of answered.  We each need to find our answer to that question of what matters most to God.

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I find my answer in Baptism.  Of course, the babies seem to me like the greatest treasure of heaven.  But also, because I think baptism reveals the priorities of God.

Samuel Wells, the chaplain at Duke University, once reflected on the Baptism of Jesus.  He called attention to three moments in that story: the heavens were torn open, the Spirit of God descended on Jesus as if it was a dove, and a voice proclaimed, “this is my beloved.”  Each of these speaks to who we need to be in relationship with these children we baptize (and indeed, who we need to be in relationship to all people).

The Heavens Opened: Wells points out that we often tell people, “the sky's the limit.”  But in baptism we celebrate the heavens opened.  We need say, “there’s no limit to who you can be.”  But those can’t just be words.  Because limits do exist in the world - inequality, broken institutions, patterns of prejudice, and systems of white supremacy.  So, to truly say “there are no limits” then we must work for justice.

The Spirit Descended: Jesus needed the spirit, not just around him but in him, because of the hostility he would face in his quest for justice and equity.  People would dismiss him, friends come to despise him, even to the point of deadly betrayal.  But God’s spirit descended on him and never left him.  Just as God showed solidarity, we’re meant to show solidarity with all those who are vulnerable.  That sense of urgency we felt in our hearts this week when Houston flooded was God’s spirit calling us to solidarity.

And a Voice Proclaimed, “You are my beloved.”  When we baptize our two Madelyns this morning, we’re giving voice to God’s proclamation of amazing love for these two girls.  Baptism doesn’t make God love them - we don’t believe that.  Instead for us, baptism makes clear what is always true: God adores them.  And God adores each of you.  And all people.  But God needs us to give voice to the love: by baptizing people, by proclaiming through our actions, and making clear even when people can’t believe it: you mean everything to God.

I think these are God’s priorities.  We’re meant to make clear there are no limits to your life, God’s spirit will always be with you, and most of all, God adores you.  These treasures of God can’t be held in a vault; the treasures of God only make sense as what we share with neighbors near and far.

We live in a culture obsessed with fame and fortune; a world of #hermesscarf.  But God calls us to another set of priorities.

This last week Taylor Swift released her new song, “Look What You Made Me Do.”  I’m not sure what I think about it.  But one scene in particular caught my attention.  At one point in the video, Swift sings bedazzled in diamonds and riches, literally bathing in a tub of jewels.


At first, I thought the image ridiculous.  And then I noticed the one dollar bill beside her in the tub.  One dollar; the amount in her lawsuit against the man who groped her.  Swift acted courageously in her testimony: she spoke vulnerably about the impact of the assault and remained resolute when lawyers tried to make her seem “unreliable, petty, and fake.”  Throughout the case she acknowled

ged how her own privilege allowed her to pursue justice.  And that awareness made her doubly clear about her need to be both a model and an advocate for other vulnerable women.

Swift’s lawyer described the meaning behind the $1 lawsuit, saying, “The single dollar I ask you to award her... is of immeasurable value. It means no means no. And it tells every woman that they will determine what is tolerated with their body.”

And so, in her new song Swift appears surrounded by all the trappings of tremendous wealth plus one single dollar.  It looked to me as if that one dollar meant more to her than all the diamonds, justice far more important than jewels.  Like Mattress Mack, Swift knew what mattered to her and what mattered to God.

This week I want you to ask yourself those questions.  What matters to you?  What matters to God?  Alleluia and Amen.