Last Sunday I preached a sermon on Matthew 6:19-24. In working on the sermon I wrestled with the reality that American Christians seem to often struggle with divided hearts. We do claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior, but we also seem to find more meaning in the things of this world. Many Christians seem to put their hope not in God, but in the United States of America. But we are confronted in Matthew 6 with the words of Jesus Christ, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” The entire sermon follows below, if you are interested in reading it.
David Robinson was one of the best to ever put on a San Antonio Spurs basketball jersey. When he was playing at his best, he could take over a game. But he was not great just because of his basketball ability. He also had an amazing ability to keep things in perspective and avoid many of the traditional traps that NBA players often fall into. For instance, David Robinson was once interviewed and asked about the perception that he was sometimes rude to fans who were women. When asked why he was sometimes fairly blunt with other women his response was if a woman is going to offended by my behavior, it is not going to be my wife. So if I think that a woman is hitting on me, I will say so and make sure that she understands that I am not interested.
David Robinson’s heart was not divided, he loved his wife and he protected his relationship with her even when she wasn’t around. None of us may be an NBA All-Star or a celebrity, but nearly all of us will face the struggle to maintain a heart that is undivided. One of the primary reasons that many marriages are breaking up like never before is because people’s hearts are divided. We want to have companionship, we don’t want to be alone and so we get married. But we also want to be successful in our jobs, we want to have the right car, the right house, and so we are pulled in different directions. This causes many people to come to the conclusion that their lives are just going in different directions, as one Christian leader recently used as the explanation for why he and his wife were getting a divorce.
And our hearts are not just divided when it comes to relationships. It may be that more people in America are living divided lives than at any other place at any other time in history. This way of existing has not only become common, but it has become socially acceptable, even respected. Someone who is doing more than he or she can possibly do well, is often complimented because they are doing so much or they are such a hard worker. We are also constantly assaulted by the consumer culture that we live in with messages that we need this new gadget, or these new clothes, or that new car, or a better body, better (or more) hair, whatever it is we are constantly assaulted with the message that whatever we have, no matter how much it is, is not enough. So that if and when we drag our worn out, weary selves to the Scriptures, when we come to a chapter like this one, we can only sigh… and think about how great it would be if it were actually possible to live an undivided life. This Scripture passage seems to suggest not only that it is possible to live an undivided life, but that it is actually commanded in an important sense. The very first commandment of the Ten Commandments is, after all, “You shall have no other God’s before me.” But some will say, life is just different than it was in Jesus’ day, or in the time of Moses. Is it even possible to hope or expect to love and serve God with an undivided heart?
This past July Melissa and I went on vacation to New York City. A primary purpose of the trip was to watch a baseball game in Yankee Stadium before it is torn down at the end of next season. But one of the most lasting memories I have of the trip was a night that Melissa and I were exploring Times Square. Times Square is filled with neon lights, tv screens and building sized advertisements. There are people everywhere.
Melissa and I had dinner one evening in Times Square at a table that looked out on one of the busiest streets. There happened to be a hot dog vendor who set up his cart right outside of where we were eating. I was amazed when he deliberately pulled a rug out from somewhere in his cart, unrolled it, and kneeled down on the street next to his cart and began to go through what looked like a typical Muslim prayer ritual. Now, obviously this man was not a Christian, but he was actively practicing his faith in the midst of all the distraction and business around him. It seemed to serve as an important reminder to him of who he was. It made me wonder why more Christians don’t take practicing their faith as seriously as this man does.
As we walked back to our hotel this evening I wondered if the popular idea that this is a Christian nation might actually make it harder to be a faithful Christian, because there is this feeling that Christians aren’t different, they are just good Americans. And the more I have thought about it, the more concerned I have become that for many American Christians being a faithful Christian is the same thing as being a good American.
But you don’t have to look very far, or very hard, to realize that there are many many things that are happening in this country that are not consistent with the faith that Christians proclaim. And the worst part is that those same things are becoming more and more a part of the church. Ron Sider, for example, likes to point out that divorce has become more and more common in America over the last few decades, and at the same time it has become a more and more common practice among Christians at almost exactly the same rate that it has increased among the general population! Sider also points out that Christians tend to be just as racist as their non-Christian neighbors, they tend to give about the same amount of their money away as their non-Christian neighbors, and they even tend to abuse their spouses and children at the same rate as non-Christians. In far too many instances, when you look at the relationship between the Unites States and the Christian Church, it seems that it is American culture that is having an impact on the church, much more so than the church having an impact on the culture.
Even when we are in church and we pray, often times our prayer requests sound a lot more like America’s prayer list, than Jesus’ prayer list. We too often pray for the things that George Bush would have us pray for, instead of the things that Jesus tells us to pray for. For instance, I recently have noticed how often we lift up American soldiers for prayer. This is understandably on many of our minds, especially with so many Oklahomans recently being deployed. But do you know that I have never once heard an American Christian ask that we pray not for a certain nation’s success in war, but instead that we pray for peace? This should be deeply disturbing to us, because Jesus, after all, never told us to pray for US troops, but he did say “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And even more radically, he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
This is very clear and surprisingly straightforward, yet we don’t seem to take it all that seriously. It is much more natural for us to pray for our national loyalties, than it is to pray out of an expression of our loyalty to Christ. It is a scandal to the Body of Chris, when American Christians express more loyalty towards people who despise Christian faith and openly live lives that fundamentally opposed to the teaching of Christ, just because they happen to be American than they do people who are their brothers and sisters in Christ who happen to live in countries like Iraq or Iran. How can we justify this? How can we defend this in light of passages of Scripture like Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And yet, we express more kinship to our “fellow Americans” than we do to our fellow Christians.
It seems to me that one of the deepest struggles of Christians living in America is that our hearts are divided. We cannot decide if we love God or Lady Liberty. We cannot decide if our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, or the United States of America. We cannot decide which truth we hold to be more self evident that all have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, or that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” But the Scriptures suggest that we must decide, for “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
I yearn for the day when the church is filled with Christians who are willing to sell out for their faith, who are willing to turn away from anything that divides their loyalty and follow Jesus. It seems that there are many people in America today who have genuinely had an experience of God’s love in their life. In a recent study, depending on how the question was worded, 25-45 % of Americans reported that they see themselves as Born-Again Christians. That is 75 to 135 million people! Just think what that amount of people could do if they were deeply committed to their faith!
And so, we come back to a few key questions about the meaning and purpose of life. Is God real? Was Jesus incarnate as fully God and fully man? Did he die so that we might live? Was he resurrected on the third day? Does he continue to seek to draw us into relationship with him? As we think about these questions, can we continue to say that we have faith that Jesus is who the Scriptures say that he is? If we can, is seems that this faith has to change our lives, it should be the very foundation of all that we do, or don’t do. If God has entered fully into human life so that we can experience salvation and have relationship with him, this is something that must inform every decision that we make. It must become the lens through which we interpret everything else in life.
Now, we may not always succeed in doing this, I know that I have fallen on my face much more than I care to admit even to myself. But, it still must be the most basic part of any Christian’s identity. We are God’s children. In Christ, we have become God’s sons and daughters. And if Christianity is true, I don’t see how anything else could be more important than this. I don’t see how anything else could play a more important role in our lives. Frankly, being an American is meaningless compared to being a Christian! Now don’t get me wrong, I consider it a blessing to have been born in this country. I have been given so many opportunities because of the country that I have been born into. But I have found meaning in life not through my citizenship in the United States of America, but through my claim to be an heir of the kingdom that Christ has already inaugurated. And so, I can say with the Apostle Paul, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
And if it seems to you that I being overly melodramatic, we might want to remember that Paul was a citizen of an empire, very similar in his day to the United States. He was a Roman citizen. He was entitled to a great many privileges because of his Roman citizenship. So he probably had a pretty good idea of what is at stake for us when we consider placing our loyalty to Christ above all else. He is basically saying he considers his Roman citizenship garbage in order to gain Christ and be found in Christ. Paul ultimately laid down his life in order to gain Christ. This was the ultimate act of renouncing the Roman way of life. Are you willing to consider your US citizenship as garbage in order to gain Christ? Are you willing to pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of God and follow the way of living of this kingdom with out turning back?
For those who make such a commitment, they find that it is hard. In fact, living in this country where we are tempted and lured away from our faith commitments in so many subtle and not so subtle ways, it is impossible to do this on our own. So, like Jesus’ disciples said after Jesus talked about the rich and the kingdom of God, we might ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus still answers, “With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Normally when the passage I read at the beginning of this sermon is preached on, the message focuses primarily on our relationship to money. And that is certainly what this story is about. However, this morning I believe we can also see that there is more at stake in having a heart that is undivided than just money. Christians still hear their Lord preaching to them in the Sermon on the Mount “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
This morning, where is your treasure? Where is your heart? Committing your life fully to the Gospel of Jesus Christ may seem right now like only an impossible ideal. But the basic Christian message is one that reminds us that God is in the business of making the impossible possible. God raised Jesus from the dead after three days. If he can do that, how difficult can it be for him to enable you to follow him? To each of us who commit to live fully for the Lord, I believe that we will continue to hear Jesus Christ whisper in our ears, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
It is time to stop living a double life. We must decide where our ultimate loyalty is. No one can serve two masters. Ultimately, we will end up hating or despising one of them. We cannot serve both God and the ways of the world. Will you submit to the Lord and Creator of the universe? Will you let him be the one and only thing that has mastery over you? By God’s grace this is possible for me, and it is possible for you!
Reading this, I came up with two thoughts that I struggle to get to our young people in my church, and in our state.
the first is, we do claim that Jesus is Lord. We state that to God and to one another when we are at church. But the way we live, the statement “Jesus is Lord” really only applies to times that we are at church. Yes, Jesus is Lord, but only on Fridays and Sundays (when our youth meet for church). Monday to Thursdays and Saturday, Jesus is Lord statement is just an after thought.
We say such a powerful statement “Jesus is Lord” with such divided hearts, that it becomes watered down and less meaningful and the commitment is lessened.
we’re going to be serving someone, that’s just the truth. whether it’s money, power, sex, fame, we’re gonna be serving something/someone.
who better else to serve than the creator of our universe?
thanks for sharing!
Kevin Watson said:
Joseph – Thanks for reading the sermon, and thanks for your comments… I agree with the sentiments you express, especially that one way or another we are serving someone or something, and for most of us, most of the time, what we are serving isn’t God.
Frank Adams said:
I was offended by your inference we should not pray for our soldiers during our prayertimes in church. After all they are carrying out our government policies. And the subtle swipe at George Bush our President whom you infer is not a ‘peacemaker’is not well taken – I believe the President has some national understanding of peace and “loving” our enemy. It seems that previous administrations had a national goal of “peace” and during the interim the anti-christ of the world sensed an opportunity to gather power and to oppress the weak and defenseless. May we as Christians, working throught the means of our government, stand idly by and allow human suffering at the hands of tyrants, of those who would do evil in the name of some false, man-made god? Who is our neighbor, hmmm? Seems like the Gospel had something to say about that also. I am tired of hearing many, who should know better, fault a President, a fallible human being after all, who determined that not only was it in our own best interest, but also the right and just thing to free a nation from evil and to pay the cost to nurse it back to health (I do believe however that Iraq will eventually fall to the evil religion of islam regardless of any effort on our part – it is merely part of the end times drama unfolding before our eyes). Mr. Bush is from my observations a devout Methodist, if not particularly well informed. But his honesty is above reproach and I have no respect for those who take cheap shots at him as you have appeared to do.
I believe most Christians have the ability to place into proper biblical perspective their allegiences to God, family and country without the false dichotomy of juxtaposing them as between serving God or mammon. Perhaps I am a bit niave on the point. But peace is ever uppermost in my mind and at my house of worship – but so is justice.
Kevin Watson said:
Frank, I think you have misunderstood where I am coming from and what I was trying to say in this sermon. I am sorry that my intended message did not come across more clearly. Unfortunately, I do not currently have the time to pursue this conversation more in depth, but I will make every effort to be more clear about what I am and what I am not saying in future conversations about the difference between our allegiance to God and our allegiance to our country, as well as other issues you have raised.