9.26.10 Sermon: “Manna or Mammon? Pt. 2″

Text: Luke 16:19-31

Last week we heard a story about a shrewd steward who moved from an economy of mammon to manna, where he shifted from the priority of money to the priority of relationships. Last week the story taught us that generosity and relationships are the currency of the kingdom of God. Today we will continue this theme of moving from an economy of mammon to manna as we look at the story about the interaction (or lack thereof) between a rich man and a poor man. This story is perhaps one of the most memorable parables of the New Testament, next to that of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. In today’s story, we find two main characters: Lazarus, and the rich man. Again, we face a sharp word from Jesus and a challenge to reconsider how we use the gifts (financial or otherwise) that God has given us.

Let’s begin by trying to re-imagine what this parable might look like if it were to take place in today’s world. Imagine a man and a woman. They are very wealthy, and they have a big beautiful house in South Hills overlooking Charleston. They wear designer clothes and host frequent dinner parties for their rich friends and drive BMW’s. One night, they decide to go out to celebrate their 30th anniversary at Tidewater Grill. They order multiple dishes of succulent lobster, crab meat, shrimp, blackened salmon. As they eat their scrumptious dinner, dipping the fresh lobster tail into warm melted butter, they think to themselves, oh, this is just so delicious! After an incredibly large amount of food and mouthwatering dessert of cheesecake, the woman says to her husband, “lets go on a walk honey. I am so full and bloated that I just need to walk off some of the calories!” So the couple walks out of Tidewater Grill and starts to walk east. They comment about what a pleasant evening it is, and before they realize it, they start to walk through the plaza. All of a sudden, they notice a homeless man lying on one of the benches just a few feet away from them. He is dirty and smelly and just appears to be all around skuzzy. The man mutters to his wife, “Don’t worry, we’re safe, it isn’t dark yet. He looks old and alone.” The wife replies, “Oh how pitiable. The poor man. Look at those rags, those worn shoes, that smell! Poor soul!” Averting their eyes, they try to walk right past him as if he isn’t even there. The ragged looking man says to them, “Got any spare change for someone like me?” The couple pause for a moment, and the husband says oh so magnanimously, “Sure, here you are,” as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out two quarters. He drops the change into the man’s hands, careful not to touch him, lest he catch some sort of infectious disease. Spontaneously, the rich man asks him, “and what is your name?” “Lazarus” the poor man replies. “My name is Lazarus. God bless you, sir!” “And God bless you too, Lazarus,” says the rich man as he walks away. He and his wife continue their walk feeling good about the meal, good about the encounter with the homeless man, and very good about their generosity.

Now for a dramatic scene change. We are now in hell. The rich man and his wife are trodding through an endless expanse of desert, sweating profusely in their designer clothing. They are absolutely miserable. There isn’t even a drop of water to quench their unbearable thirst. They continue to trudge along, almost faint with exhaustion and weakened by the extreme heat. Then the wife looks ahead, pointing, and says, “what’s that? Do you see trees? A lake?” “Yes, yes you’re right!” the man replies, suddenly perking up a bit. As they approach, they see that there is a big canyon between them and this oasis. So big, in fact, that they can’t even see the bottom of it. The rich man looks closely at the other side and shouts, “Hey, Father Abraham! I recognize that homeless man over there! I think his name is Lazarus! Yeah, I gave him 50 cents once. Can you have him dip his finger in the water and send him over here to touch my dried up tongue with a drip of cool water? I am absolutely parched!” Father Abraham shouts back, “Uhm, yeah, about that….I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but there is sort of this enormous chasm between us. We can’t get over there and you can’t get over here. You’re out of luck, buddy.” The rich man and his wife were so hot, so uncomfortable. He tries to wipe away the sweat that is dripping into his eyes. As he surveys the possible solutions, he realizes that there aren’t any. He starts to think about his brothers and sisters who are still alive, living back in Charleston, and Dunbar, St. Albans and Nitro. He shouts back to Father Abraham, “Well, can you at least send Lazarus back to my brothers and sisters to tell them to take better care of the poor and the oppressed so they don’t end up here, like me?” Father Abraham hollers back, “They have the Bible. They have the Old and New Testament. They know what they need to do. Even a man who was raised from the dead wouldn’t convince them into loving their neighbors the way that they should. Your brothers and sisters have already been given everything they need to know. It is all up to them whether or not they will listen.”

This parable is not about heaven and hell. It isn’t about the evil of money and the blessedness of poverty. Rather, it is a story that demands that we take a good hard look at ourselves and the world around us as we ask the question, “Are we truly living the way that God wants us to? What are we doing for Lazarus?”

God’s care for the poor is a consistent theme throughout the gospel of Luke. It is first established in Mary’s song while Jesus is still in the womb. She says, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their throne but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Ouch! Tough words! As we continue throughout Luke’s gospel, we witness this occurring in multiple places, but perhaps most prominently in today’s story. Here we see Lazarus, the poor man, being filled with good things and we see the rich man with nothing. Well, at least, we see that in the second half of the story.

What is the rich man’s fundamental problem? He is completely blinded to the world around him. Or rather, he chooses to remain blind. It isn’t as if Lazarus is some invisible, imaginary person halfway around the world. He is literally on the rich man’s door step. He is literally smack dab in front of him. And the rich man, who has so much wealth, so much excess, fails to even look twice at Lazarus. I’d say this rich man is definitely living in an economy of mammon. The rich man only considers himself and his wants and desires.

Maybe we aren’t as rich as this rich man. Maybe we don’t have everything that he has. But perhaps the only real difference between us and the rich man is quantitative, not qualitative. The difference lies in the amount of wealth, but not our attitude towards it. As Jesus speaks this parable then and now, he is speaking to an audience that is much more like the rich man than like Lazarus.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, preached many sermons on how Christians should approach money. His most famous sermon on the use of money offers a radical new paradigm for us to consider: it can be summed up in three simple statements: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. On first hearing those words, you might think, that doesn’t sound so radical to me.

But let’s look at each of these three statements in more detail. The first one is, gain all you can. You might be thinking, well, that sounds about right. Make as much money as you are able. Don’t we always enjoy a raise or getting a higher paying job? John Wesley says yes, gain all that you can, but then he puts a whole bunch of qualifiers around it. We are not to gain money at the expense of life or health. We shouldn’t take a job that does more harm to us than good. Life is always more valuable than money. We are to gain all we can without hurting our minds or our souls. In making money (among other things), the ends do not justify the means. If we are engaging in work that is detrimental to our moral character, then we, as Christians, need to reassess our priorities. Finally, the way in which we gain money cannot be at the expense of our neighbors. Here Wesley speaks of something that runs contrary to our capitalist society and the competitive nature of the free market: He says, “We cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below the market price. We cannot study to ruin our neighbor’s trade in order to advance our own.” Furthermore, our trade can’t be based on selling something that does harm to our neighbors. In short, Wesley says gain all you can by honest means that does not harm yourself or your neighbor in body, mind or soul. This first one isn’t so bad, and for the most part, we may already be doing a pretty good job with this. The rich man in today’s parable had not come into his wealth necessarily by dishonest means. The story doesn’t tell us, so we don’t know. The problem is not that he has gained money.

The next of Wesley’s principles is where it starts to get a little hairier. Save all you can. This doesn’t mean put all of your money into a trust fund and let it just sit there doing no good to anyone. Rather, what Wesley means here is don’t spend your money on excessive amounts of things. Don’t throw money away on stuff that isn’t really important or that you don’t really need. This is where I start to get a little uncomfortable. I have the problem of money tending to burn a hole in my pocket. If I have a little extra money, I have to do practically all I can to resist going out and spending it on something fun, just because I can and want to. This definitely goes against what Wesley means when he says, save all you can. Wesley advises against spoiling one another. He especially speaks against parents spoiling their children because this contributes to gratifying and further increasing, in his words, “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life.” The rich man who lived in his house, wearing the fine robes of purple and feasting every day did not exactly save his money. He spent it on rich living for himself and his friends to feed his own desires.

So we have gain all you can, and save all you can, but here’s the real clincher: give all you can. Gaining and saving all you can is nothing if we stop there. Unless we are being good stewards with the gifts entrusted to us by giving all that we are able to the care of others, then gaining and saving by themselves are pointless. We are to use our financial resources to help one another. Generosity is the defining characteristic of living by the economy of manna that last week’s Scripture lesson pointed to. Wesley himself lived what he preached about money, though it took him a while to get there. He had an experience one year at Oxford. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately, the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will thy Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward?” Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?” That experience may have been a turning point for him, and he began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds. Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.

That is pretty powerful testimony, and I know that I myself feel squarely put in my place. Wesley approached money in a radical way, in a way that was characterized by generosity and framed by his consideration of the other as greater than himself. Wesley is a foil to the character of the rich man in today’s parable. Throughout the Old Testament, we hear in the prophetic writings God’s command for Israel to hear the cry of the needy. He says over and over, do not let their cries fall on deaf ears, or I will not listen to you when you cry out. This is exactly what we are seeing in this story of Lazarus and the rich man. We really aren’t too different from the rich man. What are we doing for Lazarus? How are we using the gifts that God has given us to serve someone other than ourselves?

I, probably like many of you, still find myself stuck in the economy of mammon. I am still stuck in the way of thinking about me and mine. Ultimately this economy of mammon is not even about how much money we have; rather it is about how we think about what “belongs” to us. John Wesley’s motto on the use of money can be summed up as this: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. These three things are to be done with the purpose of serving others, rather than ourselves. These three things are to be done in order to build up the community, our family of faith, and to invite others into that family. If we truly could shift to that perspective on money, what would our life as a congregation look like? What would our witness to the rest of the world look like? I don’t pretend that this is an easy thing to do, or a change that we can make overnight. To move from the economy of mammon to the economy of manna may be difficult and a continual challenge; but this is what God calls us to. John Wesley said, “when I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find its way into my heart.” Maybe it is time for us to ask ourselves this question: what is governing our hearts today? Amen.

9.19.10 Sermon: “Manna or Mammon? Pt. 1”

Text: Luke 16:1-13

I have to admit, when I saw this text from Luke’s gospel pop up as one of today’s lectionary readings, I immediately thought, hmm… let’s see what the other passages are. I’ll pick one of them to preach on! After all, the story from Luke’s gospel is about a subject I would just rather not touch: it’s about money. And not only is it about money, it is also a confusing parable on top of that. So seriously, why not just avoid the trouble of trying to deal with it? The other passages I had to choose from I found to be much more preachable! But as much as I tried to avoid this story of Luke’s, God kept reminding me that it is these tricky and undesirable passages that probably need the most attention. So here I am, about to preach on the most uncomfortable topic and probably what many of us would consider to be the most personal and private: money. The gospel of Luke addresses the issue of wealth and poverty more frequently than any other issue. In fact, Next week, the gospel passage continues with this theme in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, so let’s consider today to be the first of a two part series on money. This isn’t just a call for you to put more money in the offering plate. It’s not just about tithing. These two gospel lessons we will explore actually call us to do something much more difficult and significant than that. So let’s begin with today’s story.

Today’s gospel lesson is one of the more difficult to understand of Jesus’ parables. It is a story that upon first glance, appears to advocate a dishonest use of money. The story begins with a rich man discovering that his steward has not been acting in a way that is financially responsible. We don’t know exactly what he has done. Maybe he has spent his master’s money too freely, maybe he has been stealing out of the petty cash, perhaps he made some book-keeping “errors”. Regardless, the story tells us that this steward has been accused of wasting his master’s goods. So naturally, the rich man fires the steward.

So now the steward is in a difficult position. He’s been accused of wrongdoing, and whether or not those accusations are true or false, he will have those rumors following him around, and now he also has no job, no stability. Like any person in his position, he is worried about his future, so he comes up with a plan. Before word can get out that the steward is no longer employed by the rich man, he goes to each of the people who owe the rich man some money and says, you owe 100? Pay 50 and we’ll call it even. You? 100? Pay 80 and that will do. That’s a smart move on the steward’s part! Those whose debts he lessened will see him as a generous man and will welcome him into their homes in the future. And of course, when the rich man discovers what this steward has done, he is probably not best pleased, but he does commend the steward for thinking on his feet and acting craftily.

So if that is the story, does that mean that Jesus is commending dishonesty? I mean, Jesus says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light! Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings!” At first read, that actually sounds like Jesus is saying, use your wealth to make friends! Is this what Jesus is actually saying? What does he mean?

Let’s take a closer look at the steward’s plan to ensure that he still has a future. Up until this point, the steward participates in an economy dictated by gaining and maintaining financial wealth. He is in charge of the rich man’s account. A good steward is one who not only keeps the wealth, but also multiplies it. We are reminded of this in Matthew’s gospel where the master entrusts money to each of his servants. While the master commends each servant who then goes and invests and multiplies the initial amount that was entrusted, the third servant goes and buries the money in the ground, doing nothing with it. This servant is then condemned. So that story reminds us that a good steward is one who multiplies financial wealth. The story today begins with the steward belonging to an economy that is dictated by gaining more and more material wealth. This is his initial priority. However, when he learns that he is about to be fired, his plan indicates a shift in priority. His new plan is not to go out and acquire money so he can live happily on retirement. Instead, he goes out and partially forgives his employer’s debtors of their debts. The steward is certainly not going to come out of this financially well. Instead of being driven by making more money, he offers instead generosity. Why? So that they may welcome him into their homes. What we see here is a shift from money as a priority to relationships.

I am going to rely now on one of my professors from Duke to help me make some more sense of this parable. Sam Wells is a professor of Christian ethics at the Divinity School, and he is also the Dean of Duke Chapel. He has a real knack for making sense out of tricky passages, and has some helpful insight for us today.

Sam Wells says that in this story, we find two different economies that are meeting head on: an economy of scarcity, and an economy of abundance. The rich man’s world is driven by this first economy: the economy where there is concern that there isn’t enough to go around, where one needs to multiply his individual wealth to make sure that he can stay on top. This is an economy motivated by fear, and consequently greed. I have to make sure, that in a world with a limited amount of cake, that I at least get what I deserve on my plate. The bible would probably call this economy the economy of mammon. Mammon is the word used in Luke 16:13 to describe material wealth and greed. The other economy is the one that the steward discovers after he has been fired: the economy of abundance. This is the economy of relationships, of community. When the steward finds his economy up a creek without a paddle, he realizes that it may be time to invest in someone else’s. It may be time to make a shift from thinking about personal financial gain to the wealth that comes through being in relationship with other people. The bible would probably call this economy the economy of manna. Manna was the food that God gave to the Hebrews in the wilderness, and there was always more than they needed. It only dried up when they tried to take more than they needed. The manna was for everyone, and it was freely given by God. Manna is characterized by grace.

In a sermon he preached on this text, Sam Wells sums up this passage in these words: “What happens in scene three of this story is that the manager gives up trying to squeeze people for a living and starts making friends instead. He realizes the friends are more important than the money—or even the job. He moves from mammon to manna, from an economy of scarcity and perpetual anxiety to an economy of abundance and limitless grace.”

So that might all sound good in theory, but what does that actually mean for how we live our lives? We live in a world where we have to make money in order to buy food, have shelter, and provide the appropriate care for our families. If we don’t get a paycheck, we will undoubtedly be facing all kinds of anxieties. Why is this? Because we primarily see ourselves as individuals and individual family units. We must be self-sufficient in taking care of ours and our own. But as Christians we now have a new definition of “ours and our own.” Being a Christian is not just about personal salvation. It’s not something that just happens between me as an individual and God. Being a Christian is about more: it is about being a part of a community called the Body of Christ. In this community, relationship is the priority. In this community, “ours and our own” takes on a new meaning. Or at least, it is supposed to. Unfortunately though, when we become Christians, that doesn’t automatically snap us out of living according to an economy of mammon.

Let me tell you a story about a particular Christian community that thrived not on the economy of mammon, but on the economy of manna. This was a poor community in Jerusalem. They didn’t have a whole lot of financial wealth and most would probably consider them to be living on the margins of society. Most of the people who joined the church did not necessarily have very much money to put in the offering plate, but they became one of the fastest growing churches that the world has seen. Why? Because the people in this community knew how to take care of each other. They weren’t out to gain as much money as they could for themselves and their family; rather, they considered their individual families to be a part of the larger faith family. They were not surrounded by people who just happened to be fellow-congregants, they were surrounded by new brothers and sisters in Christ, and they truly treated one another as such. This faith community shared everything with one another. They pooled their possessions and their wealth together and used it to help out anyone who was in need. They came together for frequent meals and extended generosity to one another. Individuals weren’t afraid of sharing their own resources with others. They weren’t driven by a fear of scarcity.

The community that I just described is the first community of Christian believers we find in Acts 2. Do we really look very similar? What economy is driving us as a Christian community? What today’s parable is suggesting to us is that we, as a community of faith, need to be shrewd. We need to be creative. We need to start thinking about not only our financial wealth in a new way, but one another in a new way as well. To be a Christian means to be a part of community that is characterized by generosity: that lives not by mammon but my manna; a community that lives by an economy not driven by scarcity, but by abundance. This means that we must truly begin to see our brothers and sisters in Christ as true brothers and sisters. It means we have to go beyond the lip service of these labels. Sometimes being a part of a community means we must give generously, forgoing the temptation of the sin of greed. Other times it means we must allow ourselves to receive the generosity of others without letting the sin of pride get in the way. We all face the temptation of self-sufficiency, and this can manifest itself through greed or pride. We may be in a more challenging economic time, this is true. Your own household may be struggling to make ends meet. But if we are to belong to the Body of Christ, then that means that we are no longer alone and we have to relinquish the damaging myth of self-sufficiency. We aren’t supposed to be left to fend for ourselves. Not only does our attitude in general need to be adjusted regarding our own wealth, but we also need to “put our money where our mouth is.” I myself am a chief offender when it comes to this. This is not a task that can or will happen overnight, but I will leave you today with two things: a question and a prayer. First the question: which economy are you living in? The economy of mammon or of manna? And second, a prayer for us all: Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us everything that we have: grant us the grace that we need so that we can honor you with everything that we are, and remember that you have called us to live lives reflecting grace and generosity rather than selfishness and greed. Teach us to be shrewd and faithful stewards who always value relationships above personal wealth. We cannot do this without you. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.

8.22.10 Sermon: “The Good Consumer”

Text: Hebrews 12:18-29

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This famous poem by Robert Frost characterizes today’s reading from Hebrews. The author of Hebrews is writing to a community of Jewish Christians that had been around for a couple of generations but was losing some of its zeal, some of its passion. It was a lackluster community of Christians who were not really exemplifying commitment to following Christ. Here, the author of Hebrews is pointing to where two roads are about to diverge, and is inviting them to choose the road less traveled, the one that will make all of the difference.

We, ourselves, are much like the original audience of Hebrews. We too, exist as a church at large where it is easy to have a lackluster approach to faith. It is easy for us to forgo commitment to following Jesus and the difficult task of living together in Christian community, as the Body of Christ. Why is this the case? Why do we so frequently lack not only passion, but cohesion as a community identifiable by conviction of faith and commitment to following Christ?

I want to suggest that one primary reason (though certainly not the only reason) for this revolves around a word found in the last verse of today’s text in Hebrews: consuming. The verse likens God to a consuming fire. The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word consume in several different ways: 1) to do away with completely, 2) to spend wastefully, 3) to eat or drink in great quantity, 4) to engage fully, 5) to utilize economic goods, and 6) to waste or burn away.

I will get to talking more specifically about the passage of Hebrews in a little bit, but first I want to focus on the word “consume.” When I first hear this word, I automatically think of the word “consumer.” We live in a consumer-driven society. I don’t need to look much further than my own wallet to see the many receipts that have accumulated there. Among some that I have collected this week: receipts for a new pair of shoes, for a meal from Los Agaves, for a couple of wedding-related purchases, for books, and more. Sometimes I am astonished when I look at the stack of receipts and am struck by how much I consume on a weekly basis. (And my bank account isn’t too fond of it either!) But it’s not just me.

There was a movie that came out a couple of years ago called “What Would Jesus Buy?” This movie is a documentary film that takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to critiquing the commercialization of Christmas in America. The documentary stars the Rev. Billy and his satirical “Church of Stop Shopping”, which challenges the consumer mind-set of our nation. The film opens with these words: “As fall turns to winter across this nation, many millions will converge upon centers of worship, large and small to celebrate and give thanks to a familiar god. He tells us to buy now, and pay later. He tempts us with endless credit as he leads us down the path to eternal debt.” Those opening lines really just say it all. I could go on an endless rant about the problems of our consumer culture, but I think that this fact is already evident. The economic crisis has highlighted our addiction to spending beyond our means. I don’t need to persuade you about how advertisements bombard us with images trying to convince us of things we think we need, or about the great variety of goods that the market provides us with. We can pick and choose from thousands of different things, all catered to our own tastes and desires. We all know that this is the reality of our society. That is not the point of this sermon. What I want to focus on is how our consumer culture affects our life as a community of faith in ways that we may not even be entirely conscious of.

So often, we come to the church as if it is just another thing on the market, competing for our time and investment. So often we ask the question, “what does the church have to offer me in the way of programs and services?” Is it worth my investment of time and money? Sometimes we may even do a subconscious benefit and risk analysis when it comes to participating in the life of the church. “What is the risk of getting involved or giving in this way?” “How will doing this ministry benefit me?” As Christians living in today’s world, we often fall into the temptation of engaging with the community of faith on an ad hoc basis based on individual ‘needs’, rather than as part of a community; we become interested in religious ‘products’ and ‘techniques’ rather than pursuing the deeper meaning and truth of Christianity. And we may not even do these things consciously.

As a youth pastor, this consumer mindset is something that I very much struggle with. My personal gifts are much more in line with leading spiritual formation and in depth Bible study, but more often than not, I feel a bit more like a cruise director or an event planner than a youth pastor (and not a very good event planner at that!). Why is this the case? In part, it is because I am competing for the attention of our youth. The church is treated like just another good on the market, competing for our time, for our investment. I feel the need to make things fun and entertaining, anything I can do to make coming to youth events appealing. It is easy for me to start acting a bit more like a marketer and a bit less like a pastor. How do I even begin to address this problem? It is faulty thinking to treat the church like just another commodity, where we can buy what we want, but leave other aspects sitting on the shelf. The church is not a business; it is not a part of the entertainment industry. The church isn’t ultimately about creating better programs or offering self-help services, even though these are things the church may do. The church is a community of faith, a place where people come together to go on a journey with the person of Jesus Christ.

So now we return to Hebrews. The Hebrews passage begins by reminding its original audience that they have not come to something that can be touched, held, or possessed. They have not come to something tangible. The author of Hebrews contrasts Mt. Sinai with Mt. Zion. Mt. Sinai is where the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. As Moses walked back down the mountain to the people, he offered them something that they could see and touch. He held the tablets containing God’s Law in his hands. Yet Mt. Zion is defined as a place, a kingdom, that cannot be shaken. Listen to v. 22: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering.” Mt. Zion is a place of feasting and celebration. In short, it is a place of community that knows the joy of relationship with God for its own sake, and not for the list of ways that it might meet personal wants or needs. It is about a relationship with the God who asks us to give our whole lives to him. It is about a relationship with the God who is a consuming fire.

So now we are back to this image of God being a consuming fire. This is a powerful image, one that I find to be a bit unsettling to contemplate, as the audience of the letter to the Hebrews found it. This is a scary image for a couple of reasons. First of all, fire burns. If you have ever burned yourself or even touched a hot stove top, you know how painful this can be. It is frightening to think of God in such a way. But perhaps an ever greater reason that the idea of God being a consuming fire is unsettling is because by definition, it infers that God will require our whole selves. There will be nothing that will be kept back or apart. I don’t know about you, but I grapple with that image. What would it mean for God to utterly consume my life, and my whole being? What would that mean for the things that I think I want or need? What will I have to miss out on or give up if I am going to be utterly consumed by God?

But the image of God as a consuming fire is also reassuring. A fire refines, a fire finishes. A few weeks ago when I was on vacation at a family camp with Darick’s family, I spent some time in the craft shop painting a couple of unfinished pieces of pottery. I spent a couple of days painting on the glaze, but when I finished painting, the piecers weren’t finished yet. They had to spend many hours in the kiln, in the fire, in order to finish it. When they came out, they were beautiful and glossy. The refining fire of the kiln was the only way of achieving this final result. Or consider a glass blower or metal worker: in order to do their craft, intense heat is needed to transform a lump of material into a beautiful and well-crafted object. Without a fire, the lump of material will never be able to reach the potential for which it was created.

We in the church, are affected by our surrounding consumer culture. We cannot entirely separate ourselves from it. Our approach to God, to worship, and to discipleship have all been colored by our social context, and in fact, they are not entirely distinguishable from it. We cannot avoid it entirely. Nonetheless, today we still have to ask ourselves whether we are coming to God, seeking him as a commodity to possess, and are we approaching faith as if it is a good to be consumed to fulfill our own wants, or are we recognizing that God is our consuming fire, meant to both purge and transform us wholly, not just in ways that we choose. As the church, we cannot allow ourselves to succumb to the temptation of depicting faith through gimmicks, through anything that is less than inviting and encouraging one another to know and be fully known by God. Christianity is about nothing less than a relationship with God, which is never a commodity. We can never simply pick God off of a sale rack to place on our own shelves, and yet we all face this tendency and temptation at times. Am I saying that capitalism and the free market are bad things? No. They are a part of our culture and through them, we have much. But when the dominant culture we live in begins to color, cloud, and dilute Christianity, we must continually re-evaluate where our own values currently lie.

The original audience of this letter to the Hebrews did not live in a social context all that similar to ours. The values of the surrounding culture do not exactly mirror our own today. Nonetheless, they too, were a community that needed to be challenged to live lives that were more wholly faithful to Jesus Christ. They needed to renew their commitment and passion towards following Jesus on the road of discipleship. In this way, the passage also speaks truth to us. It reminds us that the call to follow Christ is one that demands we give our whole selves to God. When Christianity becomes just another good on the market where we get to pick and choose what we want, we are missing out on the greater joy of following Christ, even when it is down a road we would not expect or choose for ourselves. We are at a place where two roads are diverging. Do we continue down the road of consumer Christianity, where we get to pick and choose what parts of faith we want to take, or do we move down the road less traveled, the one where we allow God to be our consuming fire, transforming and perfecting us as we journey with him? Let’s pick the one that will make all the difference.