Colossians 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21
I was here two weeks ago, and at that time I talked about how Christ is in each of us. I spoke from Colossians chapter 1 and said that one of the things that Paul was trying to do was to combat the Gnostic heresy. That’s a heresy that argued that the earthly body, the physical stuff of life is not important. What’s important, the Gnostics said, is the spiritual and that we can achieve a higher spiritual state and uncover the hidden meaning of scripture by achieving a secret wisdom.
Now, however, we are in chapter 3 and Paul is saying that we need to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated, at the right hand of God.” Hmmm. Which is it? Do we need to be aware of the Christ that is within us and made real in the world through us, or do we need to be aware of the Christ and things that are above, in heaven, at the right hand of God?
You already know what I’m going to say, right? Both. I could just say “Amen” and sit down now, but I will go on.
We have two extremes. I mentioned on Facebook last night the old saying about the person who is too heavenly minded to do any earthly good. Well in our Call to Giving, Luke 12:13-21, we have the exact opposite – someone who is too earthly minded to do any heavenly good. We have a parable about a man who is interested only in what he can store for himself, only in the wealth that he can build up and how he can get more of it.
What does this guy propose to do with all of his money, with all of his grain? I don’t know, and he probably doesn’t know either. The scripture says that he just wants to store it, that he just wants to build up more and more so that at some point he doesn’t have to worry about anything any more.
His plan to accomplish this has a flaw, though. I don’t just mean the lesson that Jesus draws, that storing up treasures for oneself is a fool’s bet. I mean his actual, physical plan.”I’ve got all this grain in some barns. But the barns are full, and I still have grain to store. What shall I do? I know – I’ll tear down the barns with the grain in them, and then build some bigger barns over here, and then move all the grain into those bigger barns and then have room for yet more grain!” Does anyone see the problem with that plan?
Yeah – I mean, why not just leave the grain in the barns where it is and build another barn or two? But no, the Bible says his plan was to pull down his barns and then build larger ones. In the meantime, while the larger barns were being built, the grain would just sit there on the ground where birds or animals could come eat it or where rain could get it moist and rot it or who knows what else could happen. Does that sound like a good plan?
The lesson that Jesus draws from this parable is that even when we are storing up treasures for ourselves, we must be rich towards God. We’ve probably heard this sentiment, or something like it, in hundreds of calls to giving or offertory sentences or the like. I want to state Jesus’ conclusion in a slightly different way: focusing too much on earthly things makes you stupid.
Think about the context of this parable in the Bible. This parable doesn’t stand alone; Jesus is using it to answer a question. “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus could be speaking in direct answer just to the person who asked that question. The brother could have been in the crowd, so Jesus could have been speaking to him as well. Either way, the answer is kind of the same. Know what is truly important. Is the money more important than the relationship? Is the material thing, the money, more important than the spiritual thing, the relationship? And then of course the broader application to those of us in other situations, is the money more important than God?
That guy, the guy tearing down his barns to build bigger barns, is too earthly minded to be any heavenly good. That’s not the kind of person that Paul was calling us to be two weeks ago. Paul was calling us to remember that Christ is in us, and that each person that we meet is made in the image of Christ. Paul was telling us to make God’s kingdom real, as real as we can anyway, here on earth. Paul was telling us that the earthly, the physical matters, the physical counts, that it isn’t all about secret wisdom and secret knowledge.
Today Paul is reminding us that the same thing is true in the other direction. It’s not all about the physical. It’s not all about our sensual desires, not all about our physical wants. Our physical wants are supposed to be grounded in our spiritual beliefs, in our faith.
I mentioned the phrase about someone being so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good. Steve Godfrey quotes Dick Gorski, and Gorski said that “It is only in becoming more heavenly minded that you will be any earthly good.” Godfrey goes on to say, “The (first) expression is grounded in a secularism that sees religious belief as separate and distinct from life in the real world. The second expression is grounded in a Christian worldview which (says) that only in bringing the kingdom of heaven into our secular experience will we find what we are looking for.”
Godfrey continues, “My own experience bears this out. When I set my mind on pursuing earthly things I’m never left satisfied. My personal favorites have been lust, sloth, and gluttony. Yet these earthly strivings have never come through for me. Which earthly things are your favorites and how have they worked out for you?”
Paul is not saying that when we set our minds on the things that are above and not on things that are on earth that things on the earth don’t matter. Paul is saying that when we set our minds on things that are above that it will inform how we respond to things on earth.
Take as an example the coming presidential election. I hate to focus on the presidential election because I really do think that the local elections are more important. I think that votes for Congress, for State legislatures, and for Governors matter more than who is President. But the presidential election is the one election where we all have a common frame of reference. I don’t know who’s running for State Representative wherever you live in Maryland, but I know who is likely to be on the presidential ballot there, and in DC, and in Virginia. In all three, it’s likely to be Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson.
If I think about the presidential election from an earthly perspective, I wonder who will cut my taxes more, because that’s money in my pocket. I wonder who will increase public safety expenditures more, because that could lead to money in my pocket. I wonder if they will be able to increase public safety expenditures and cut taxes, which is the best of all possible worlds for my pocket. I wonder about whatever issues are best for me, maybe pocketbook issues, maybe education policy and how it affects me, maybe defense policy and how it affects me. But from an earthly perspective it is all about how it affects me, or if I am a little more generous it is about how it affects me and people I care about.
If I think about the presidential election from a spiritual perspective, the issues change. I no longer ask how things affect me. I no longer even ask how policies affect us. Instead, I ask about how policy proposals will affect everyone, people I know and people I don’t know. I have to decide what it is that I value, what it is that my faith calls me to care the most about in the world, and I have to ask what my response is to the election that best advances those values.
I understand why people of faith may vote for Donald Trump. If traditional social values on issues like abortion are the most important thing to you, if defending what you perceive to be Christendom in the form of Western civilization and Western values from a religiously motivated enemy is the most important thing to you, I can understand why you might choose to vote for Donald Trump.
I can understand why people of faith may vote for Hillary Clinton. If your faith leads you to a different set of values than those I mentioned above, perhaps federal investment in education or in developing countries, or if you think that those values are most important but that there are different ways of achieving them than Trump proposes, then I can see voting for Hillary Clinton.
Some people of faith have a very, very strong stance in favor of social justice. Everyone will have a different definition of social justice and how to achieve it, but the 10 Key Values of the Green Party are a decent summary of what most people mean by social justice. If your faith leads you to value social justice in that way, as opposed to the way that people who are anti-abortion define it, then Jill Stein of the Green Party would be a good choice.
Some people have strong views on any or all of these issues, but believe that God gives us the choice of free will and that if you choose to sin it is neither God nor the government’s place to stop you unless it is a sin that damages someone else in some way and that the best way to achieve social justice is for government to get out of the way and let the market work. If that’s where you come out you might end up voting for the Libertarian, Gary Johnson.
Some folks think the whole system is corrupt. Some people think the whole thing is rigged, and that there are powerful and shadowy interests seeking to control us for their own benefit through sham elections. If your faith calls you to not participate at all in a corrupt system, or if it calls you to not support the lesser of the evils and there is no candidate that matches the key faith values that you bring to your decision then it’s reasonable to sit out the presidential election.
It’s not for me to tell who to vote for and I am not going to tell you who I am voting for from up here, first because it would endanger our tax exempt status, and second because that’s not the point. Paul doesn’t tell you who to vote for. Paul doesn’t tell you which candidate has the most Biblical values, or how to define what Biblical values are. Paul says that if we set aside our earthly passions like lust and greed and gluttony, if we avoid anger and wrath and malice from our mouths and if we set our mind on heavenly values, if we set our minds on Christ, then we will be clothed in righteousness. Then we will be closer to the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which there is neither Greek and Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free; but a kingdom where Christ is all and in all.
Focusing on the heavenly does not mean we ignore the earthly. Focusing on the heavenly helps us to pay greater attention to the earthly, and helps us to make better decisions – not just about our votes, but about our jobs, our hobbies, our spending, our families, and our very lives. When we seek the things above, we do better for ourselves and for others here below. Amen.