Lay Reader = Matthew 6:19-31
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’
We are still tracking the story of Nehemiah, who was able to envision a better future for his people and then rally the help he needed to make it happen. Last week we saw how Nehemiah prayed when he was overwhelmed, when life attacked him from every side and even from within. This week we fast forward a few years as the work on the wall continued.
Last year one of the hurricanes that battered the Texas coast pretty much wiped out the island where I used to live – Port Aransas. And my family did a number of trips down there to help the recovery effort as much as they could. And my dad reported that there were a number of people who had driven down to the island with their trucks full of water bottles. Not to give away, mind you, to sell at a substantially marked up rate. That’s called profiteering. Of course he said this laughing, because there was a whole parking lot filled with free bottles courtesy of the government just a few blocks away, so they went home with most of their water bottles unsold.
But isn’t that so human? Whenever there’s a disaster, there’s someone ready to make quick buck off it. Whenever there is suffering or trials or even just everyone is focused elsewhere – there’s always someone asking, “How can I profit off of this?” The same was true during the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem.
The people were spending so much time out working on the wall, they didn’t have time to make a living. And there were people ready to give them loans – at excessive interest rates. Pretty soon the work on the wall was grinding to a halt because of the financial situation of the workers. So Nehemiah had to step in, break up the racket, and get everything humming along again.
In contrast to the profiteering of these money lenders, here’s how Nehemiah used his personal power and influence.
14Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. 15The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. 16Indeed, I devoted myself to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work. 17Moreover there were at my table one hundred fifty people, Jews and officials, beside those who came to us from the nations around us. 18Now that which was prepared for one day was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and every ten days skins of wine in abundance; yet with all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because of the heavy burden of labor on the people. 19Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.
Do you remember a few years ago there were earthquakes in a Chinese province and schools collapsed? Children were trapped – and some killed – in the rubble of their very schools. It was tragic. In the midst of that tragedy, one pastor told his congregation that he felt God had called him to send a million dollars to help the families and the rebuilding. And the response was huge. He told a pastor I knew that he had raised more than three million.
So the pastor I knew asked him if he was going to send the extra two million to the families or to more rebuilding. And he replied, “Oh, no. God called me to send a million to China. The other two million are just God’s way of blessing me for my faithfulness.”
If you feel like you just threw up a little in the back of your mouth, you’re in good company.
That just feels icky, right?
But why does it feel so icky? In other contexts, getting more money than you need is called profit.
To me it feels wrong because it’s dishonest. If someone sends in money for China, that money should go to China.
To rewind to that Texas hurricane, one of the star players on the Houston Texans, JJ Watt, setup an online fundraiser to help out the city of Houston. He couldn’t get home due to the hurricane, so from a hotel room in Dallas he created a quick fundraiser with the goal of raising $200,000 for hurricane relief. Three weeks later, he had raised a shade north of $41 million. So God blessed him with $40,800,000 of personal blessing, right?
No, JJ Watt kept expanding the relief effort to match the scale of the donations. They have rebuilt more than 600 homes, 420 childcare centers, distributed 26 million meals, provided health services to those in need, rebuilt Boys and Girls Clubs, and setup a 12 month plan to continue food distribution and recovery efforts.
Reflecting back on it, JJ Watt recently said, “As I reflect on the events of Hurricane Harvey one year ago, the memories of destruction and devastation remain, but they are accompanied by memories of hope, selflessness and the beauty of the human spirit.”
That’s not icky, that’s inspiring!
So what’s different about those two approaches? They both sent a lot of money to help needy people. But the pastor seems to have been looking out for ways to bless himself, and JJ Watt seems to have been looking out for ways to bless his city.
Nehemiah says of his time as governor, “I devoted myself to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work…yet with all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because of the heavy burden of labor on the people.”
So which does that sound like? Does that sound more like the pastor keeping $2 million for himself? Or more like JJ Watt expanding the relief effort to match the generosity?
Does that sound like someone who’s in it for himself? Or does that sound like someone who’s in it for the cause?
Does that feel icky? Or does that feel inspiring?
Nehemiah gave up influence and power for the cause. Nehemiah invested his own money in the project rather than enriching himself.
I had lunch with a church member last week, and we were reflecting on some of the difficult times helping one of the very challenging people in our city. And our basic summary was, “Sometimes doing the Lord’s work can be very annoying!” Ever experienced that?
But if we do it anyway, because it’s the Lord’s work, God notices. If we only serve when we feel good afterwards, that’s like praying, “Dear God, I’ll do whatever you want me to do…as long as it’s fun and easy and rewarding.” Or maybe, “God, please give me the chance to prove that winning the lottery won’t spoil my heart.”
When you are thinking about serving somewhere, is it about you and your convenience and what you get out of it? Or is it about the cause and the work of the Lord? Think about that for real. Jesus tells his followers that if they do really amazing spiritual things, but then they tell everyone about it to gain admiration – they’ve already received their reward. But if they’re willing to serve without being noticed, God notices.
Is it about the cause? Or is it about me?
We had our first movie night this past Friday – the decorations are still up in Ficklin Hall for the Stewardship Potluck, and even if you aren’t staying for the potluck go take a look. It looks fabulous.
But the movie we watched was the Incredibles 2, and there’s this funny exchange between the superhero dad and the superhero mom. In the movie, superheroes have been made illegal, and either the mom or the dad have to go get a normal job instead of being superheroes. And the dad says, “We need to change that law so that I…I mean our kids have the choice to use their super powers!” He was trying to make it about their kids, but slipped and admitted he wanted to be able to use his own super powers. It was about him.
So when you do something nice for a friend or coworker or neighbor – is it about them or about you wanting to be thanked or recognized? If you serve at the Community Dinner or somewhere else in the church – is it about the cause or about getting recognized? When you donate to an organization or to this church – is it about getting what you want, a vote for every dollar donated, or is it about investing in the cause?
It has been said that the Christian church is one of the only organizations on earth that exists primarily for the benefit of the people who aren’t already its members. There are plenty of organizations designed to benefit their own members. But Jesus gives us a different task. A different mission. A different goal.
In our first text today, Jesus gave some pretty direct teaching. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” “No one can serve two masters.” “Do not worry about your life.” “Worry won’t add a single day to your life.” Very direct, very challenging teachings. And a little later, Jesus ends it with this summary: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
That’s the paradox of our faith. If you want to be respected, doing everything to gain respect won’t make you respected. Seeking God’s purposes and God’s causes and God’s ways makes you respected.
Doing everything in your power to gain recognition and affirmation won’t leave you recognized and affirmed and fulfilled. Seeking God’s purposes and God’s causes and God’s ways will do that.
Every church says they could use more members, right? But doing everything in our power to get more people won’t bring more people. Seeking God’s purposes and God’s causes and God’s ways will do that.
In one of the books I read recently, there’s this guy who really had his life transformed by a church. He visited one day, and he was so touched and moved by the personal and thoughtful followup that he joined the church and got involved. He was later asked to be a part of the evangelism committee. And that’s where they showed him the script they use – the same script that someone had used on him. Suddenly he didn’t feel like it was a personal and thoughtful followup. It felt like a trick to him instead. He felt like a statistic. It felt icky to him.
So the call of Nehemiah and the call of Jesus today are both the same – where is God calling you to be faithful? It might be affirming, it might not. It might gain you admiration and recognition, it might not. It might come with certain perks like Nehemiah’s job, but in faithfulness do you take those perks or like Nehemiah do you not? Faithfulness might be exciting. Or it might be annoying.
In our faith, what we do and how we do it both matter. The end does not justify the means. So what does faithfulness look like in your life this week? Whatever that is, make sure you don’t make it feel icky along the way. Amen.