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Sermon – August 8, 2008: Moth and Rust

 

Sermon for Sunday, August 8, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Moth and Rust

Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12: 32 – 40

When I was reading Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, especially the words “Fear not,

little flock, it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” I thought of all the little flocks

of Christians in the world today, who do in fact fear. In a changing world, when traditional

models of church life have been challenged by new approaches and fashions, lots of little

clusters of Jesus’ disciples are afraid they won’t be able to continue.

Since I have been in central Pennsylvania one of the Baptist churches which formerly

was part of the local association closed; a few others have gone to part-time lay leadership

because they no longer could afford the expense of a pastor. This is the outcome which

haunts loyal, long-term members of churches. They are afraid they’ve become irrelevant,

and that the world will ignore their efforts at ministry until they run out of healthy persons to

do the work, and run out of money.

It’s a funny thing about churches. You can have twenty people and a pastor, and in

one case it’s a startup church full of enthusiasm and hope and highly committed, and in

another case the same size group is a dwindling church full of anxiety, shame, and

desperation. It’s all how they see themselves, and in a sense, it comes down to how

deeply they believe what Jesus tells his very little, not particularly privileged or even

promising-seeming band of disciples. Is it possible not to fear, and to be confident that

God will give us the kingdom of heaven?

Another way to consider this is in terms of whether the people of God are afraid for

themselves or afraid for others. If people are concerned that their neighbors aren’t living in

as caring, fair, and helpful community as God would want them to, that’s a motive for a

church to keep trying. God is funny about this. God wants us to want to live for others, and

the record of scripture and the experience of the church is that fulfilling human life– life that is,

in the words of Jesus, “heaped up, full, and overflowing”–is life focused on other people.

God doesn’t seem to be too interested in us when we spend our time worrying

about ourselves. I’m not saying God’s not there in our fretful and selfish moments, just that

making a priority of ourselves doesn’t lend itself to God’s will getting done.

Christianity is counterintuitive. Lose-your-life-to-save-it is a counterintuitive rule of

thumb. What’s God’s got to say to little flocks who want to count on Christ? Does he say,

“Shepherd your resources wisely, because you are too few to take any chances?” No.

Instead Jesus tells them to sell their possessions, and use the money they make to give

alms–to give charitably–and throw themselves on the grace of God.

I’m going back into Baptist history, and a history connected to this particular church, for

an example about this. If you are a person who finds history tedious and you have a hard

 

time paying attention, I’ll tell you right now that I’m relating all this in order to point out the

 

 

 

power of persistence. This is all about not giving up because one is sure one is doing

one’s best for God. Having a goal, being in the business of religious life because one has

a mission to accomplish, that’s what secures individual believers, and that’s what secures

groups of believers–including little flocks.

The history has to do with the great impulse to spread the gospel to foreign nations

which flourished in the beginning of the nineteenth century. William Carey, a British Baptist,

decided to see if he could bring his brand of Christianity to India, then a British colony. He

feared for the well-being of the souls of the non Christians there. He felt a burden for them,

he was sure they’d lead happier lives if someone could show them the love of Christ. His

motto was “Dare great things for God, expect great things from God.”

One person who responded to that was Adoniram Judson, who set out from New

England to go and work overseas for the Congregationalist church. On his voyage his

study and devotions convinced him that believer’s baptism was the right approach, so he

abandoned his plans and returned to the States and began to muster support among

Baptist churches to send him as their missionary. This got all kinds of things going, including

a big meeting in Philadelphia which began the formal wealth-pooling and sponsorshipproviding

mechanisms which became the denomination. Up to then Baptist churches were

strictly local, and sometimes entirely independent.

In all this excitement–and it was a period of excitement, in practically a brand-new

country with expanding horizons and a vivid sense of God’s having begun something new

in the world–a young man named Eugenio Kincaid got convinced that God wanted him to

become a missionary. Well, there was a structure in place, to try to be good stewards of

the collective effort, and at first they turned Kincaid down. He had lots of enthusiasm, but

who was he? and what could he do? So Kincaid, until he had a chance to get overseas,

went to work as a pastor. He was a restless guy. He left his New York state church after

less than five years and came to this region, which was still in a formative stage, and he

founded the Baptist church in Milton.

Then he got a chance to go to Burma, and he joined in the work there which Judson

had begun. The reason this is a story about persistence–about really believing that God

wanted him to tell the Burmese about God’s kingdom–is that in the first ten years of

Judson’s missionary work in Burma he made eighteen converts. That’s almost two a year,

but two a year amounts to a pretty little flock.

The British went to war with the Burmese to expand their trading opportunities, and

Judson was suspected of being a spy, and arrested and jailed and tortured for almost a

year. His wife wore herself out getting him released, and in the following year she died.

Their children also perished, as he toiled on in the difficult climate.

Kincaid’s wife’s health got so bad they decided to come back for an extended visit

to this country. Kincaid went about sharing stories of the work in Burma and urging churches

 

to send help, and one of the places he came was Milton. He was known here. He came

 

 

 

back just in time to lend his encouragement and his stature to a project of some of the

Baptists from Milton–to get a Baptist church started in Lewisburg for the purpose of

beginning a Baptist college. See, that’s how the strenuous and slow-growing work of the

Burma missionaries intersects with our history. The school which eventually came to be

named Bucknell had Burma ties–and it still has ties. It educated the first Burmese national, a

Mr. Shaw Loo, who was sent to this country to college. He worshiped in this church. One

of the first female Baptist foreign missionaries came out of this congregation–she probably

was acquainted with Shaw Loo–and was inspired to go serve in his land.

This church itself became a mission. After the college had gotten established, and

the church was focusing its energy on work related to it, the church had a hard time meeting

its bills. Other Baptists from Pennsylvania shared their mission giving to help pay the

pastor’s salary for a number of years toward the end of the nineteenth century. That means

that this church began as a forward-looking and outward-looking enterprise, and it kept up its

mission of education and service because other Baptists were forward-looking and

outward-looking. It was a great era for hope about the world, hope that the changes which

were underway during people’s lifetimes–and there was a new kind of government on a

new continent and Europe’s politics were being remade and the world was expanding, so

the rate of change, even in those good old days, must have seemed astonishing–hope

that all the world’s changes could be steered toward good by seeking the will of God.

Growing up in the Baptist church and in my first ministry I heard representatives of

the denomination more than once declare that if a church didn’t have a significant part of its

budget devoted to missions, it was a dying church. I used to think that was just a way for

the denomination to scare people into donating to the missions program. After all, though

Jesus tells disciples to sell possessions and give alms, how many self-governing bodies

of ordinary, commonsense Americans are going to do that? Now I can see what the

fundraisers were saying–they weren’t saying there was some magic in giving money for

God’s purposes that would coerce God into preserving the life of the benefactor. They

were saying that sacrificial giving to serve God was a sign that a congregation believed in its

work and believed in itself, and that those traits tended toward persistence.

We all, before our time is over, have to give ourselves to something. We all have

no choice but to invest in something. When Jesus speaks of ordinary valuables as

susceptible to rust, moth, and theft, he’s reminding us that we have no control over the

future, for our goods or for ourselves. Jesus believes in casting his lot with the one who is in

control. Building up treasure in heaven, as an approach to life, seems quixotic at first, as

heaven, we hope, is remote–and heaven, we wonder, may or may not be…but whether

this world is more reliable is a question, and whether counting on what we can make of

ourselves makes sense is answered, in the long run, by our mortality. Every man who

gave his life to business instead of to Burma died just as surely as did Judson, but not

many of them did as much to bring love and hope into people’s lives.

 

 

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