Matthew 6:19-21; 24
Dr. Anne M. Cameron
October 16, 2011
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
19 “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. 20 Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. 21 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Common English Bible (CEB)
When I got into the office Monday I had two emails AND a voice message from a Pastor Carl Rush in Richmond, Virginia. He wanted to use part of a sermon on tithing, which I gave almost exactly a year ago. It was called "Do We Dare?" Because of his inquiry, I read it again. I thought, "I could preach this same sermon Sunday and maybe fifteen people would remember I had preached it last year----but no!" Though Fred Craddock (a amazing preacher) did say, "If it was worth preachin' once, it's worth preachin' twice!" I did think it wouldn't hurt for all of us to look at it again. Copies have been prepared for you to take home and read.
Because for today our topic is not tithing. Today our topic is something near and dear to most of our 21st century hearts: "How to avoid identity theft."
Have you ever been burglarized? Pickpocketed? Robbed? Broken into? Have you ever lost a lot of things all at once in a house fire? A flood? A freak accident? Have you had your computer hacked into? Your electronic information stolen? I have been pickpocketed, hacked into, burglarized, and lived through a major house fire, not to mention more automobile accidents than I care to admit.
Even if you have not experienced these things, you probably know someone who has. They are traumatic events. You may fear them happening to you. We invest a great deal of time and even more money in trying to "insure" our stuff and prevent things like robberies, major losses, and identity theft.
The term "identity theft" is rather curious, when you think about it. When we speak of identity theft, what exactly is the identity we are talking about?
Most of the time we are talking about things like all the numbers associated with stuff: credit cards, insurance IDs, bank accounts.
The curious thing is, how do these numbers equate with our identity? What do they have to do with who we are and how we are to be? These numbers are mostly about the money we have been given to take care of. When people fear identity theft, they fear loss of money.
We can easily see how our identity is wrapped up in material things. You know how people are so into designer things. There are high school girls walking around wearing $500 Coach purses on their shoulders. And for guys, it can be worse, because the really cool things guys want are often big things like Porsches. The brand is important, because the brand reflects prestige and most importantly, money. When we spend inordinate amounts of money on things, it influences other people to do the same. Our spending habits can put enormous pressure on people with no money. Young people feel they must have similar kinds of things, just to "fit in." This is why we see poor kids wearing $200 athletic shoes, or kids whose families may be on food stamps, with iPhones. Where our treasure is, there our identity is.
Identity theft has to do with the money we have use of, not our identity. So the question is: Where does our identity center? If we are off balance, how can we shift away from an identity which says "I am what I own/wear/drive" to "I am God's child"? How can we move from valuing material treasure over spiritual treasure? I don't have an answer, but I do know one thing.
Here's how to avoid identity theft. It's simple. When WHO WE ARE is not the same as WHAT WE OWN, our identity cannot be stolen!
A story from another religious tradition adds to this concept:
One day a Buddhist teacher from the forest monasteries of Thailand was teaching. One of his students asked him, “How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect the things you love from loss, theft, or destruction?” He held up a glass and said, “Someone gave me this glass. I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off my shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. This glass is already broken. Even as I hold it in my hand I know it is already on the floor in pieces. . .(story adapted from one found on p. 166 in “How, Then, Shall We Live?” by Wayne Muller.)
“Do not store up treasures for yourselves here on earth, where moth and rust eat them and thieves break in and steal them.” Matthew might just have easily added, “They‘re already gone.” This glass, this house, this body, are already broken. They‘re already gone.
The key to peace about possessions is to realize this: They're already gone. Every possession, every bank account, every 401K, every piece of property is only ours to use for just a little while. They're already gone.
These things are not even ours anyway. They are God's. We are given use of them for a short number of years. Do we share them, or do we hoard?
Think for a moment about the things you collect, the objects you consider precious. Consider not only how much did they cost in terms of dollars, but how much do they continue to cost in terms of maintenance or worry. Consider how easily we find ourselves (and our identity) wrapped up in such things. Things which get broken, things which get stolen, things which simply wear out. A hundred years from now, most of the things we hold dear will not even exist.
Jesus challenges us to consider what we truly treasure.
When Jesus preached these words, it was toward the end of a long afternoon of preaching. It was his famous "Sermon on the Mount." Jesus would have been standing down near the Sea of Galilee, near the lakeshore. The people were seated up and down the steep hillside. This would create sort of a natural amphitheater, making it possible for Jesus to be heard by many.
Jesus first speaks of blessedness, and where we find it. He then talks about our identity: who we are as his followers. He uses the metaphors of salt and light. He then shifts into some very serious subjects: he admonishes us on what we are to avoid (murder, adultery, divorce, oaths). He raises the bar, actually. His standards are even higher than the ones set forth in the Hebrew Bible. Then he shifts into preaching about what we should DO: show mercy, love our enemies, pray, fast, and build up our treasure in heaven. Finally, he ends with words of comfort ("Do not worry about taking care of yourselves") and assurance ("Ask, seek, knock" and God will answer).
Jesus knew the power of money. Jesus understood the attraction. Jesus knew how easy it is for people to love money more than God. Money cannot be #1 in our lives, because if it is, then God is a distant second. Money cannot be #1 in our hearts, because if it is, we are doomed. How we handle property turns out to affect our whole being.
This, and not the church's budget, is the reason it is so important to give generously and even sacrificially. This, and not the bottom line, is why Jesus talks about money more than any other subject except the kingdom of God. Jesus never had a church budget to meet! He barely had enough to eat; he had no possessions. Jesus wants our identity to be wrapped up in HIM. Jesus wants us to be salt and light. Salt, which is crucial for life. And light which glorifies God and shines before people. Jesus wants us to break the cycle of greed which threatens to consume us. We know this to be true, deep down, and yet we resist because it is so easy to be attracted to material things.
Generous sharing of our resources breaks our human tendency to hoard. Giving generously says "Yes" to God and "no" to money! The power of greed is completely defused through giving.
One of the great blessings of our house fire many years ago was that it freed me from my tight grip on things. I had put too much time and energy into creating a beautiful home, into maintaining a lovely house. I was way out of balance. After losing virtually everything, I realized I did not need those things. I realized they were "just things." I realized my treasure wasn't in that house, in those things. So that fire was a great blessing. . .
Might Jesus' words light a fire under all of us. When we realize things do not matter, when we can give generously AND our identity will be where our treasure is---with God. Never ever again will we need fear identity theft.