A Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Trinity, November 3, 2019
In the Octave of All Saints
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 5:15-21 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 22:1-14
- Sex, money, and the kingdom of God.
I have discovered over the years that the topics of sex and money get people’s attention. I remember a sermon I gave about chastity. The next week someone invited me to lunch to ask whether I really meant what I said! Money gets people’s attention because our culture worships it. People set life goals based on mainly on economic criteria, and major decisions in our culture are framed in terms of their monetary impact. There is a reason Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Money” (Matt. 6:24). Thus, sex and money comprise a discipleship litmus test Only those who are serious about following Jesus as Lord and Savior are willing to surrender these two areas of life to him.
However, I have come to realize that the real issue concerning sex, money, or whatever hot button topic is on the table or in the sermon is not the issue itself. The real issue is how our faith in Jesus relates to life in this world. What story are we living in? Who are we? Where do we think we are going? What is the goal and purpose of life?
- Two competing narratives.
There are two narratives or stories that compete for our devotion; the narrative of the world and the narrative of the kingdom. The narrative of the world can be summarized in this way. It begins at birth and ends at death. The goal is to achieve happiness between birth and death. This means minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure and profit. Religion serves three purposes in this story. First, its role is to help us become happier and experience less pain. We pray that God will give us good things and free us from painful things. Second, religion gives us a sense of purpose. We will do good works to make us feel better about ourselves. Third, religion provides consolation or comfort. When we must give up this life, religion will give us a “better place” called “heaven.”
This is the default narrative of our culture. Within this narrative, religion is like a consumer product. It gives us help, purpose, and comfort when we need it, but we can put it aside when it demands too much of us.
The biblical narrative of the kingdom of God is different. According to the Bible, life begins—not at birth—but with the new birth that takes place when we are born again through baptism and faith. As Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). According to the Bible, the end point of life is not death or even “heaven”; the end point, the goal or telos of life is “the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” In the biblical narrative, life begins in baptism and ends in the Resurrection. The goal is to appear before Christ and be found “blameless” (cf. 1 Thess. 3:13); to hear our Lord say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matt. 25:23).
In the narrative of the world, the focus is on life in the world. God comes in to “help” us. In the narrative of the kingdom, the focus in on life in Christ and how we are growing in faith and in the image of Christ. Life in the world is interpreted in terms of its impact on our life in Christ. In the language of today’s gospel, we will say no to anything that distracts us from saying yes to the invitation to the Wedding Feast. Our greatest fear is not pain or a lack of happiness in this world; our greatest fear is that we might be that guy to whom the king says, “How did you come in here without a wedding garment?” (Matt. 22:12).
Within the narrative of the kingdom, means of economic gain that conflict with the values of the kingdom are rejected. Money is viewed as a temptation as well as a blessing because the desire to have it and keep it tempts us to do things that are not faithful. Opportunities for pleasure that conflict with God’s will are rejected. We would rather be in need for season than be separated from God by sin. Things that seem like defeat or failure in the narrative of the world become ways God helps us to grow in the Spirit. In the narrative of the kingdom, this life is a time of testing and trial that prepares us for the fullness of life in the coming kingdom of God.
III. Money within the narrative of the kingdom
This is a sermon I give every year to remind people that the Bible calls us to practice tithing and generosity with our money. The disciplines of tithing and generosity can only be fully understood within the narrative of the kingdom. To be sure, it is possible to exhort people to give within the narrative of the world. The Bible says that things will go better for us in the world if we are generous. Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Lk. 6:38). Proverbs says, “Honor the Lord with your possessions, And with the firstfruits of all your increase; So your barns will be filled with plenty, And your vats will overflow with new wine” (Prov. 3:9-10). God said that he gave Israel his commandments, including the commandments to tithe and be generous, “for your good.” (Deut.10:13).
The problem arises when this is our main motivation for giving. For we will be tested. During some season, things will not turn out better because we do what God says. As God said in Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deut. 8:2). If we obey God only because of the good we get, we will murmur and disobey when God leads us into the wilderness.
There is well-known story about a man who tithed from the proceeds of his business. His business did so well that he increased his giving and ended up giving away 90% and keeping 10%. There is a less well-known story about a man who tithed from the proceeds of his business and his business failed. He was asked, “Did you lose everything?” He replied, “No, I still have all the money I gave away.”
- How and why we tithe
To tithe is to give the first tenth our income back to God through his church. This means it should be the first check we write or the first electronic transfer we make. The point of tithing is a transfer of ownership. By giving God the first part, we acknowledge that everything we have belongs to him. We bring our money into the kingdom. In response, God puts his blessing on it and promises to make it sufficient to meet our needs.
This is part of a pattern of firsts that characterize the narrative of the kingdom. We worship as a church on the first day of the week, as a means of dedicating all of our tine to God. We begin each day and each meal with prayer. As Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). This pattern is the antidote to the disordered pattern of life caused by sin, in which we start by doing the things we want to do and buying all the things we want, and then we give God some of the time and money we have left over.
For those who have never tithed, it seems like a daunting discipline—it seems like a lot of money. However, a costly offering is the only worthy response to our Lord’s sacrifice for us on the cross. As king David said, “I will not . . . offer burnt offerings [to the Lord] with that which costs me nothing.” (1 Chr. 21:24). Costly offerings yield profound rewards. There is no resurrection without the cross, and there is no great experience of the presence of Christ in our lives without costly sacrifices of faith. As Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
Faithfulness bring rewards in this life, but the primary reward we seek in the Resurrection and the life of the world to come. The Octave of All Saints reminds us, as Philippians says, that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). And, as Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”