Rev. Dr. Scott Herr


“According to His Riches”                                                                Please read:
A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr                                                    Matthew 22:34-40
The American Church in Paris – October 23, 2011                      Philippians 4:15-23

In our gospel lesson Jesus is asked to tell the one thing that is most important in the whole of the Jewish law… Strangely, Jesus’ encounter with the religious elite of his day makes me think of the Top Chef programs on TV here and in the U.S. Have you ever watched those shows, where they have cook off competition to see who is the best chef? One of the tricks they use is the mystery ingredient. The challenge is for the cooks and their teams to use a special ingredient… Some of you have heard of Christian Constant’s restaurants down here on St. Dominique. He has everyday dishes, but always puts something very special into the recipe so that it is absolutely unique… and wonderful! Kim was out with a friend yesterday to visit the Salon de Chocolats… Only in Paris can you have the Porte de Versailles trade center absolutely filled with chocolate makers and connoisseurs. She brought home some chocolates (only 12!) that had special ingredients. Six had vegetables like beets, carrots and fennel, and the other six had spices like cumin, anise or pepper as the special ingredient. The trick was to see if you could taste the one thing that was crucial to make the chocolate special?

What is the one thing that is crucial to your life? A relationship? An education? A position you hold? Your possessions? I invite you today to think about what is the “one thing” in your life… It’s a more complex question than it seems, I know…

Fred Craddock tells the story about two missionaries in China. They were a married couple with two small children. When the communists came to power in the 1940’s, they were told, "You will have to leave the country. You can only take 150 pounds between you." They surveyed the beautiful treasures they had accumulated: the hand-carved furniture, ivory carvings, priceless ink sketches on rice paper. It was agonizing to have to choose only a few special items they could keep.

When they arrived at the dock with their carefully packed bundle, a man with a clipboard said, "Did you weigh your children?" Suddenly all of their possessions didn’t matter so much. The one thing that mattered most was their family.

Eugene Peterson writes in his latest book, The Pastor: A Memoir that his son told him, “Dad, preachers really only preach one sermon…” At first he was annoyed at his son’s statement, but in time, Peterson came to admit, and I would agree with him, there is truth in that statement.[1] Once we find our “voice,” we spend our lives trying to communicate one thing… I hope whenever anyone hears me trying to preach they hear about the riches of God’s grace. That’s the one thing at the heart of the gospel.

For Jesus, the one thing is love. That’s what he commanded, and that’s what he lived. God’s love is at the heart of his life, death and resurrection. And the good news is that God’s love is a pure gift for us and for others. We are called to receive God’s abundant love and be so filled that we can share God’s love with others.

Paul ends this great letter to the church in Philippi by saying thank you for their gift delivered to him by Epaphroditus. Paul doesn’t mention too many people from the church in Philippi, but he mentions Epaphroditus twice in this letter. You know, there are a lot of NT names that are really popular. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John… Epaphroditus didn’t seem to make the cut! I’m wondering if he was one of those guys who people made fun of his name in school? He wasn’t a theologian or preacher or teacher, necessarily. He was a delivery guy.  All we really know is that he was the messenger who delivered something, whether money, food and clothes to Paul while he was in prison in Rome. But seeing Epaphroditus boosted Paul’s spirits. That’s a sermon in and of itself. Each of you are a special gift, however strange or unique you may feel!

Paul wanted to affirm the Philippians and encourage them to remember how it works. He didn’t need their gifts. He had learned to be content in all circumstances, as Dan so eloquently reminded us last week. But Paul points us to an important clue to not only contentment but also generosity as we reflect more on what it means for us to be a loving church, a giving church that blesses others…

Paul writes this: And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.  While a good guide to learning how to love our neighbor involves reflecting on how we need to be loved, I don’t think we need to turn this passage into a love-ourselves fest. We are loved by the Creator of the Universe! God is crazy about us and wants so much for us to receive the blessing of his love simply through faith in what Christ has done for us that we could not do for ourselves. God has laid down his life for us in Jesus Christ. What a gift that is! Paul uses the language of a bank account. The word account here is actually logos, from where we get our word “log,” as in a ledger of account deposits and receipts. In other words, Paul is saying our love account is overflowing. We’re Bill and Melinda Gates billionaires, when it comes to receiving the riches of God’s love…

That means the one thing that is supposed to dominate the flavor of our lives is the love of God, a love that we can reflect back to God through our grateful worship and praise, and through loving the people around us, especially those with whom we live and work and study… It’s the fragrant offering that smells sweet to God!  The question was “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus actually gives two, but they are really flip sides of the same coin. As  John writes, anyone who says they love God and hates their brother is a liar.[2] Think about that. If you are loving your neighbors, you are showing love for God, and if you love God, then you will show love for your neighbors!

But here’s the best part: As you receive the riches of God in the glory of Jesus Christ, your love account will never be depleted. You can’t out-love God! People who have gone on mission trips regularly give testimony to the fact that they receive more than they give. Our Filipino brothers and sisters are celebrating 25 years of ministry here. I am constantly amazed at the love they so generously share in subtle and supportive ways. Some of them have modest means, but they are giant givers, an example to us all.

The Wall Street protestors, along with demonstrators around the world, have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the fact that a lot of peoples’ bank accounts, pension funds and savings have been devalued. People are right to join together to try and claim their power and their voice. Similar protests have now spread all around the globe. I think that such demonstration in the face of such massive moral failure of leadership in various sectors of government, banking and finance is legitimate… but, I also fear that such demonstrations can play to the worst of our natural greed and sense of entitlement… I pray that genuine love might guide and focus the energy that is overflowing in so many areas in the world.

Why is it that so many in the US civil rights marches were able to gently keep walking in the face of fire hoses and barking dogs? Because in their churches they focused on the great dream of God’s love and justice for all people. They knew they would overcome not through violence and hatred, but through love. Why did Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance succeed in India? Because Ghandi knew the self-giving love of Jesus was more powerful than the racist Christians of his time. How did Nelson Mandela survive prison to become the president of South Africa? Because he never stopped believing the truth that in God’s eyes he was loved and valued, and that “for freedom Christ has set us free!”[3]

I just received a letter from Dr. Chris Isichei in Nigeria. Chris and his wife are both surgeons who could have moved to the west for lucrative careers in medicine, but chose to stay in their home in Africa to start an AIDS clinic for those who are ostracized and oppressed because of this terrible disease, including many women and children. I had the chance to visit the clinic a number of years ago and was amazed to find that most of the health workers at the clinic had once been patients who received help and support from the clinic. They had first received, and then out of gratitude for their lives, they gave their lives to save others…

What is that one thing for you? For Paul, out of all of the rich gifts he teaches us in this letter to the Philippians, it is the good news, the gospel of God’s overflowing love. The riches of God’s grace and love that are ours in Jesus Christ is the one thing we need! May we be men and women, a church, who continue to receive and generously share the blessings of God’s grace and love for all people.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir, (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 297-298.

[2] I John 4:20.

[3] R.M. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, London, Abacus, 1995, p.620.