A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Senior Minister, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on November 11, 2012.
Isaiah 58:9-11, Matthew 5:14-16
November is our stewardship emphasis month, and this year our stewardship theme is “Investing in God’s Kingdom, Mission and Future.” When we hear the word “investment,” we often think in terms of giving or spending something — our money, our energies, our time — to something or someone with the expectation of receiving something back in return. When it comes to our money, traditionally, we often think about investing in the stock market, but over the past few years, many are not so sure. With the stock market tied to the shaky global economy and with our country careening toward a “fiscal cliff,” many people these days are pessimistic about the rate of return on financial investments. To the question, “With the current market turmoil, what’s the easiest way to make a small fortune?”, many have answered, “Start off with a large fortune.”
All joking aside, the struggles of our nation’s economy have trickled down into our homes, our work places, and our churches. We see people being laid off from work. We see families struggling to make ends meet. We see churches and denominations cutting back their budgets and their ministries. In the midst of this turmoil, there is a tendency for us to respond on a human level in at least three ways.
First, we contract our hearts. Anxieties about our financial security and worries about our future can lead us to live in fear. If the weakened economy has impacted you personally, we can certainly understand that your family has likely contracted your spending or made cautious changes to your lives. This is totally understandable and prudent. But in the midst of this atmosphere, even those who have not been directly impacted can become fearful. We might harden our hearts and it can become harder for us to trust—trust in others, trust in ourselves, and most of all, trust in God. So the first temptation for all of us might be to contract our hearts.
Aside from our hearts, we are also tempted to contract our generosity. When we operate from fear and an attitude of scarcity, we can become miserly. Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, at best we respond by hoarding what we have; at worse, we respond by taking from others.
Finally, accompanying the contraction of our hearts and our generosity is the contraction of our vision. We might begin to obsess over the details of short-term losses; we might see only the worse-case scenarios. We can become myopic—near-sighted—so that we can’t see beyond the constraints of our fears and anxieties. In the midst of our country’s economic turmoil, it is tempting for the people of God to become a fearful, miserly and myopic people.
But that’s not the kind of people that God has called us to be! God did not create us to be fearful, miserly and myopic. So how can we become the people that God has intended?
I believe the first thing we can do is to allow God to expand our vision. Instead of a nearsighted myopia that constrains our vision like a lamp put under a bowl, we are invited to see anew who God is. Of course, there are a lot of things we can say about God, but one of the more recent developments in theology is the rediscovery that God is a missionary God: God is on mission. From the very beginning, ever since sin came into the world, God has been on mission to redeem the world. In the fullness of time, God the Father sent Jesus the Son on mission. 1 John 4:9 says “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” Jesus completed His mission on earth by accomplishing the one thing that only He could accomplish: He gave His life on the cross for the sake of humanity’s sin so that those who have faith in Jesus can have a restored and eternal relationship with God. At the end of the Gospel of John; Jesus said to his disciples, “as the Father has sent me [on mission], so I send you [on mission]” (John 20:21). With those words, Jesus sent His followers to be on mission to be His church that embodies the presence and the power of the Spirit of God.
Once we’re able to see God as a missionary God, then mission is seen as a movement from God to the world. Therefore, we can expand our vision from myopia to mission, and the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission. Churches don’t have a mission; God has a mission, and churches are invited to participate in that movement of God’s love toward people. We don’t “take Christ” to the ends of the world, we join in what Christ is already doing in the hearts and lives of all people. We’re invited to open our eyes and see what God is already doing and join in that work. The investment of our time, energies, talents and money in God’s mission is ultimately not for the maintenance of buildings and programs, or the salaries of ministers and staff. Our investment is nothing less than our participation in God’s mission, in God’s expanding work in saving and redeeming the world!
Once we’re able to expand our vision from myopia to mission, then we’re able to expand our generosity and move from being miserly to being magnanimous. In our Old Testament reading this morning, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah to distinguish between false and true worship. In the beginning of chapter 58, God indicts His people for claiming to worship and to fast, all the while exploiting the poor and quarreling with one another. God does not recognize such worship. However, all is not lost as God articulates the qualities of true worship. God says in verses 9 and 10: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.” True worship is marked by God’s people “spending themselves,” or literally, “drawing out their soul and passion” on behalf of the hungry, the homeless, the naked, and the oppressed. When we spend ourselves, all we’re doing is paying forward the gifts that God has given to us, all we’re doing is being a channel of God’s generosity. When we model God’s generosity, then our light will rise in the darkness, and our night will become like the noonday. If God’s people expand their generosity, and magnanimously invest in God’s mission, then they will shine!
How can we be magnanimous? When we allow God to expand our hearts, when we allow God to move us farther from fear and closer to faith. When we trust in God, we will spend ourselves, drawing out our passion, in the things that God cares about. When our hearts are on fire and beat with the rhythm of God’s heart, we can be a people transformed from fear to faith, from being miserly to magnanimous, and from myopia to mission. When we invest in God’s mission, we can’t help but be a light of the world, not to draw praise and attention to ourselves, but to lead others to give glory to our Father in heaven!
There once was a little church situated on a hill on the edge of a village. It was back during the days when they had Sunday night services. Each Sunday evening, the non-church goers in the village would see the lit church building and hear the faint echo of hymns. After the service was over, the church building would go dark and the worshippers would walk down the hill along a path lit by street lamps.
One winter night, a snow storm blew in toward the end of the Sunday evening church service. The storm knocked out the electricity, not just in the church, but throughout the whole village. The church members brought out the candles that were stored away, and they finished the service by candlelight. The villagers down in the valley then witnessed something they had not seen before. Coming out of the front doors of the church was a stream of flickering lights piercing the darkness and slowly flowing down the hill. As the luminous stream reached the village, the points of light scattered, and one-by-one, the cottages in the village became lit as the church-goers shared their candles with their neighbors without a light. Pretty soon, the whole village was flickering amidst the glow of candles that were providing light to all on a dark, snowy night. All the villagers agreed that that worship service was both “worship” and “service” in the truest sense of those words. And from then on, each member of that little church would go and find one way to serve a neighbor after every worship service.
The good news this morning is that Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” Let the flame of Christ ignite our hearts and our lives, so that we may radiate God’s warmth and light through the investment of our time, talents and tithes. Together, let us invest in God’s mission, by letting our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven. Amen.