"Fool$ Build on Flood Plain$"
Sept.18, 2005 Matt.6:1-4,19-24,7:24-27
Help in Life's Hurricanes
Life is precious. Partly because it's so fragile. Life is a wonderful gift from God, but we are so delicately made, so unmistakably mortal, that it may take surprisingly less than we realize to land us on our back or in the grave. The pressures against us make life precious. Ask anybody who's got a relative in hospital or needing medical treatment. Ask the hundreds of thousands of hurricane victims, and those mourning the mounting death toll. Life's storms can sweep so much away so quickly. It must be especially difficult for the people of Louisiana and New Orleans, many of whom didn't have much to start with, and now they have lost everything.
Jesus offers us reassurance that, although everything material can be swept away, we can find lasting security by trusting in God rather than the passing treasures of this life. Relating to our Lord, desiring Him, and being used by Him to bless others, provides real satisfaction and security that is really rewarding. Valuing God will help us through, though all else gets swept away.
The pressures that attack our precious life can come from a hostile environment or from hostile people. In the environment, nature itself can be formidable: hurricane Katrina has barely left when hurricane Ophelia starts pummelling the Atlantic coast. Jesus spoke in v25 of the adversity that can strike through the environment: "The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house..." Canadians are somewhat used to coping with a hostile environment; thankfully we've been blessed with resources to build strong houses that can stand snow-loads and keep warm in the winter. But we can't protect ourselves against everything: lightning strikes; ice storms come; power outages threaten our best technological tools. And we're constantly having to defend ourselves from disease and accidents.
As if that weren't bad enough, humans can become a threat too. Besides "moth and rust destroy[ing]" in v19, Jesus notes "thieves break in and steal". Whatever we may come to own, somebody else may try to take. It seems someone stole our credit card while we were on holiday; praise God no extra charges were made on our account. But it was a real nuisance notifying all the companies with whom we have pre-authorized agreements.
Then this week, I had left our car parked at the school while surveying the village for families that might be interested in our church's children's programs. I made the mistake of leaving it unlocked. We'd tucked away our cell phone in a cubbyhole under the radio, but someone must have gotten into the car and stolen it. It's not a huge financial loss, but an annoyance and nuisance - nothing compared to when my brother's house in Grimsby was broken into and systematically plundered when they were away on holiday one time. Thieves DO break in and steal; that leaves one feeling especially vulnerable.
People respond to life's fragility and storms in one of two ways: we guard against the threat by building our own fortress, focussing on protecting ourselves and mounting an impenetrable defence; OR instead we can learn to trust God, make HIM our fortress, and find refuge in the almighty.
Jesus points out this choice, this essential decision, in 6:24: "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." You've got to choose, Jesus insists: which will it be? One or the other, you can't have it both ways. Loyalty only works in one direction - God or Money. The word here in the text, "mammon", is a Chaldee or Syriac word meaning "wealth" or "riches"; also, by personification, the god of riches. It represents material wealth or security, and the driving force (within or outside us) that pulls us to acquire more. What gives people 'security' these days? Vehicles, houses, cottages (what we call in temporal terms 'real property' or 'real estate'), boats, bank accounts, stock portfolios, gems, works of art, RRSPs: society applauds those who acquire what they can of these things. But one day all these will be left behind. 1Tim 6(6f) defines for us what real 'gain' is: "But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it." Unlike the bumper sticker that states the wish, "He who dies with the most toys wins." Rather, "He who dies with the most toys - finds coffins don't work for toyboxes."
How transitory are this world's riches. Even before death, illness can render material wealth useless. I visit people in the hospital all the time for whom their earthly acquisitions are going to be no more help. Taxes are another reality which erode material wealth: there was discussion on this radio about changing the taxes on gasoline, but even if that were to happen, the government would still get its share some other way. The frailty of the stock market was apparent Wednesday when both the number 3 and 4 airlines in the US filed for bankruptcy protection, hurt as a result of the higher fuel prices following Hurricane Katrina; the share price of one dropped 50% in value. Investments can evaporate rapidly; the term 'real estate' is deceptive.
Other people become self-focussed in that they find their security in status rather than possessions. Jesus refers to these reputation-builders at the beginning of chapter 6(1) when he talks about those who do their ''acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them." He talks about hypocrites announcing their giving to the needy with trumpets in the synagogues and on the streets. As if they're saying, 'Hey, look at me! See how generous I'm being!' The Lord calls them hypocrites, and probably it was apparent to most people that these showmen were pretending, putting on an act of being generous. Their focus was still selfish, wanting not so much to help others as to bolster their reputation in public opinion.
What's the end result when we serve the god of mammon, striving for security through 'things', or for status through hypocrisy? We find the life spent on 'getting' is a waste, a trick, the Lord has to pry our fingers off everything eventually anyway. The grave leaves money-worshippers penniless every time. They've built their life on foolish goals. In 7:26f Jesus says those who disregard His warning are "like a foolish man who built his house on sand.The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."
Recently there has been some debate about whether New Orleans should be rebuilt in its existing location; it's shaped like a saucer, and the lowest points are 5' below sea level. The only thing that stops it from being flooded is a levee, much as the people of Holland use dikes to keep back the sea. It's obviously going to take a much stronger dike and better pumping system to protect the city in future from a hurricane like Katrina. Some people would say it's foolish to rebuild those lowest parts that have fallen 'with a great crash' like the house in Jesus' parable because they're in a bad location. Isn't it just common sense that you don't build on a flood plain?
In a previous pastorate, I served at Goulais River, just north of Sault Ste Marie. Most springs the ice would back up at the mouth of the river and much of the land that was dry throughout the year would be flooded. Everybody knew where the flood plain was; yet frequently through the years there were stories of people who'd lost property. It became hard to sympathize with those who went ahead and knowingly built on the flood plain: they were asking for trouble.
Fools build on flood plains. But Jesus isn't talking about geography: He's referring to whatever we base our life upon. It's common sense: if we build on mammon - whether earthly securities or social status - someday we're going to be all washed up. God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.(1Cor 1:20)
A reporter interviewed Lynette Fromme; she's the girl who took a shot at President Ford in Sacramento and was also a member of the infamous Manson family. She said the thing that attracted her to Charles Manson was his philosophy: "Get what you want whenever you want it.That is your God-inspired right." Such devilish drive destroys.
Founded on the Rock
The alternative to serving mammon or money is to choose God as our master instead. Here in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers three ways we can devote ourselves to God: through our mind, our eyes, and our hands.
With our mind, we can choose to consciously and constantly put Jesus' teaching into practice. At the end of chapter 7, what was the difference between the wise and foolish men? Did one hear Jesus' words but not the other? No, both people heard His words. The difference is that the foolish man "does not put them into practice" (7:26). So we need to remember Jesus' teaching AND consciously apply it every moment. As He said elsewhere, "Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." (Jn 13:17)
It's been 25 years since Terry Fox ran his "Marathon of Hope" against cancer. Many Canadians are familiar with his one-legged skip-step running pattern that took him across Canada. I understand that long-distance running has a lot to do with disciplining your mind. Terry Fox persisted despite pain and set-backs, he kept going one hop-step at a time. He may not have reached his goal in physical distance, but his name has become a household word because he passionately pursued one simple goal. Jesus' followers need that same persistence, being mentally focussed, memorizing scripture, step-by-step applying our Master's teaching. Paul wrote, "To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life." (Ro 2:7) Terry Fox's persistence brought honour in this life; how much better to gain God's honour and eternal life!
Besides mind, our eyes play an important role in loving and serving the right Master. Jesus says in 6:22f, "The eye is the lamp of the body.If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!"
Our eyes act like windows on our soul. What we look at and give attention to determines whether we have light or darkness inside. To what are our eyes directed? What are we taking in visually, that's going to impact our being? Flyers - catalogues - TVs - computer monitors - style of dress - our consumer culture competes to grab our attention and hook us. We remind ourselves "all that glisters is not gold" but it's hard to resist looking sometimes. The 'bad' or 'evil' eye Jesus refers to may be greedy or stingy. We may be 'cock-eyed', with one eye studying the things of this world while the other eye is rolled up toward heaven. That only gives blurred double vision, there's confusion.
Paul warned Timothy (1Tim 6:9f), "People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."
Many years ago a major American company had trouble keeping employees working in their assembly plant in Panama. The labourers lived in a generally agrarian, barter economy, but the company paid them in cash. Since the average employee had more cash after a week's work than he had ever seen, he would periodically quit working, satisfied with what he had made. What was the solution? Company executives gave all their employees a Sears catalogue. No one quit then, because they all wanted the previously undreamed-of things they saw in that book. Their 'eye-gate' had been taken over.
Incidentally, speaking of the transitoriness of this world's wealth and the airline company woes - just this past Thursday, Sears Canada was downgraded by financiers to "junk bond" status. Such a well-known, major retailer; another example of mammon's vulnerability.
Mind and eyes focussed; the third avenue Jesus refers to is our hands. More specifically, giving with our hands, loosening our grip on material goods so others can be supplied with essential needs. Corrie Ten Boom advised against holding onto any earthly thing too tightly because it only hurts more when the Lord has to eventually pry our fingers off of it!
In 6:2, Jesus says, "WHEN you give to the needy..." Note there's an expectation we WILL be giving to the needy, it's not "IF you give to the needy". Jesus gave to the poor; that's what some of the disciples supposed He'd told Judas to do the night he was betrayed (Jn 13:29). Giving generously may be the best antidote there is to greed. It can actually become fun to sacrificially support true need because you sense God's blessing in being part of the solution.
Our hands are to give in secret. Jesus says, "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Mt 6:3_4) Funny way to put it, as if our hands have separate awareness and can be kept from knowing what the other's doing! The point is, not making a big thing of it, announcing your generosity with trumpets like the show-offs. Give on the sly. Mail someone some anonymous cash. Don't always demand a charitable receipt. Freely you have received, freely give (Mt 10:8). Giving is the way to convert earthly wealth into heavenly blessing; "you can't take it with you" but you CAN 'send it on ahead'. Jesus calls it "storing up for yourselves treasure in heaven"; He knows our heart follows our treasure. Other people may never see our giving, but our heavenly Father sees the secret gift and will reward it.
Secure in the Storm, Loosening our Grip
John Kelsall worked in the railroad industry for 42 years. He rose to the position of Senior Vice-president of Operations for Canadian National. He'd been overseeing system operations on the largest rail network in Canada for 5 years when he was suddenly fired in January 1993. It was part of an executive house-cleaning that saw the removal of 21 senior officers.
Kelsall's faith in God gave him peace despite the sudden job loss. He says, "I have learned in times of darkness to be quiet, to trust God and to give Him time and room to speak to me as to what I ought to do." Isaiah 50:10 has become a hallmark Scripture in Kelsall's life: "Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God." It helped him through his dark time. Kelsall notes, "God has taught me, 'Don't panic.I am a God who can take darkness and difficult circumstances, and I can turn it into good for My glory.'"
Kelsall says God used the long months after he was fired to soften his heart and teach him that he needed to get his priorities straight and spend more time with his wife and family. He waited on God for direction, even turning down offers to go back into the railroad because he didn't sense they were from God.
In fall '93 he became a volunteer with Health Partners International Canada. His first assignment was to assemble and coordinate the shipment of several hundred thousand dollars' worth of paediatric oncology drugs to Croatia, where the Canadian army had discovered an entire hospital ward full of children dying of cancer for want of treatment. Kelsall recalls, "Within 24 hours of the arrival, those children were being treated, and dozens of lives were being saved.That whetted my appetite."
He continued as a volunteer for a year and a half with the Canadian not-for-profit organization that transports life-saving medical aid around the globe in the name of Christian love. The board asked him to become president in March '95. He's seen the agency through a period of phenomenal growth: the agency recently surpassed the mark of having shipped $170 million worth of donated medical aid to 110 countries around the world.
Kelsall notes "It's been a walk of faith and testing." God has used the loss of the CN job for good. Kelsall says, "I would never have left the railway if I hadn't been fired. God used [my firing] to loosen the grip of my fingers on my railway career. [God used it] to change my career to what it is today."
May the Lord help us to "loosen our grip" on mammon so we can devote our minds, eyes, and hands to give to the needy and treasure His heavenly reward. Let's pray.