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The Wedding Dress

Sermon
The Home Stretch
Matthew's Vision Of Servanthood In The End-Time
"Take my life, that I may be ..."

Laurie liked to play hymns on the piano and sing. She always started and finished with her favorite, "Take My Life That I May Be." And while she sang, she dreamed about the future. "Take my life that I may be consecrated, Lord, to thee...." What would she do with her life? She'd be lost in hopes as she continued, "Take my hands and let them move at the impulse of your love...."

But there was one line she never quite liked. "Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold...." It seemed a little out of touch with reality, that "not a mite" part. After all, you had to live in the world, didn't you? And it takes money. She wondered about her financial responsibilities as a Christian.

In the Bible the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus on this tough financial question, but Jesus gave a trick answer to their trick question! He said, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."

And what is the emperor's that is not already God's? Ah, the Jews knew their Psalms. "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it" (Psalm 24:1). "The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it -- you have founded them" (Psalm 89:11).

The rulers of the world claim a portion of our goods, but they do not own what is God's. Jesus could not be tricked into compartmentalizing God's reign into a separate, little box.

Yet, to the eavesdropping Roman ear, Jesus' answer was a perfectly equitable response: give what is due to each ruler.

It took Laurie a long time to understand what this means.

"Consecrated, Lord, to thee ..."

When Laurie graduated from college with an elementary education major, she took a one-year position as a teacher in a little village in Mexico. She had heard about poverty in Mexico -- but nothing could have prepared her for this. The teachers' apartments were right next to the school, if you could call them apartments. The other teachers called them "huts with plumbing," but they were mansions compared to where her students lived.

When Laurie first walked through the door of her own "hut," tears stung her eyes. What was she doing here? What was she thinking? Many of her friends had already "gotten settled" into comfortable American schools, with adequate incomes and nice apartments. They wouldn't think of going without a curling iron for a whole year, much less a coffee maker! How was she going to survive, hundreds of miles from everyone she loved and everything she knew?

"Take my moments and my days ..."

There was a timid knock at her door. Several school-age children crowded into the doorway to get a peek at the new teacher.

Within a few weeks, those knocks at the door became daily occurrences. Late afternoon and early evening, the children would come -- to visit, for help with schoolwork, and often just to be there. She didn't mind the extra time spent with them. She was already starting to love these kids, their families, and this little village.

Laurie's few possessions were like treasures to them. They held her unlit candles gently in their laps, memorized all the faces in her family portrait, and paged through her paperbacks as if they were able to read them. It was fun to see how her "stuff" delighted them.

Laurie surveyed her homey little apartment. She had packed light for the year, but now many of these "bare necessities" she had brought seemed unnecessary -- even extravagant. (And then there's that small mountain of boxes and bins stored in her parents' basement!).

"Take my silver and my gold ..."

She had given up a lot -- especially income -- to come here this year. (She began to wonder what on earth she would have done with all that income.) She asked God how to use her wealth in the middle of so much poverty. For the first time, it dawned on her that an understanding of "Take my silver and my gold ..." began with the heart.

There was one thing she never let the children see. At least once a week, late at night when she was all alone, she pulled it out of the back of her closet: her graduation dress, a gift from her parents. It was the nicest dress she'd ever owned, but it was so much more than that: it was the pride of graduation, and great college memories, and home, and her parents' love -- all in that one special dress. It somehow brought her family closer to her, and when she was lonely it reminded her how special she was to them.

"Not a mite would I withhold ..."

One day, in early spring, Maria knocked on her door. Maria had never before come to Laurie's, although her younger brothers and sisters were there often. Maria was in her teens and worked at the clothing factory in the nearby town. Her income fed the entire family.

Maria's eyes sparkled. She was getting married, in just two months. Laurie hugged her and congratulated her. Then Maria, head bowed, quietly asked Laurie for help. She had brought over a well-worn old dress and a white shawl, and wondered if Laurie could help her sew something special from them for the wedding.

Laurie held up the old garments, and tried to think of something they could design from them. Back home, she'd packed up clothes to Salvation Army that were far nicer than these. She told Maria they'd try, and Maria should come back Saturday to work on it.

That night she felt particularly lonely. Her college roommate had gotten married the day after graduation, and here she was in Mexico alone, unattached, and no one waiting back home for her. So, of course, she reached into the back of her closet for her dress. She hugged it to herself and cried softly, so aware of her emptiness in the middle of her little "Mexican adventure."

As she gently placed it back into the closet, those nagging words popped into her head. "Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold...." She pulled the dress back out and eyed it carefully. Yes, it was the right shade. Yes, it was close to the right size. Yes, it could be temporarily hemmed. Yes, it would be a perfect dress for Maria to use on her wedding day.

Laurie thought of the Psalm that says, "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it...." It started to make sense to her that, if everything is God's, then what we have is "on loan" from God, to be gratefully received and generously used. What was "on loan" to her from God could be "on loan" from her to Maria.

Letting Maria use her prized possession as a wedding dress suddenly felt like an honor to Laurie. She couldn't wait for Saturday, and the surprise she had for Maria. "Not a mite would I withhold...." It was a matter of the heart.

Money For Caesar ...

"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the em-peror's ..." (Matthew 22:21a).
We live simultaneously in God's realm and the human realm, and Jesus calls us to responsibility in both. Go ahead: pay your state sales tax, license your cars, and file an honest tax return. Give to the government whatever it takes to conduct its business. But remember: our things as well as ourselves belong to God, and are here for God's purposes to be accomplished.

This is good news for a culture tyrannized by acquisition and materialism. These "things" that consume so much of us are not what life is about at all. We are part of something larger than this life. We are part of the kingdom of God, where we matter for who we are and not for what we have accomplished or acquired.

Hearts For God

"... and (give) to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 25:21b).

Jesus invites us to be free of the tyranny of our possessions, "for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). When we take this truth to heart, we can begin to separate our needs from our greeds and become caretakers rather than consumers. Stewardship replaces accumulation, and our possessions become a means to an end rather than the end itself.

"Not a mite would I withhold...." Jesus Christ withheld nothing when "he emptied himself and took on the form of a servant ... (to) death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8). It is God's way, and now it becomes our way as well.

Laurie joined in the village celebration of Maria and Carlos' wedding two months later, and she was not nervous at all about her dress. From now on, every time she pulled it out from the back of her closet, it would carry even more memories than before. Now it tied together her two worlds, home and Mexico, and the love she felt in both.

We cannot really give to God what is already God's. But we can release ourselves and our possessions to God's purposes. It's a matter of the heart.

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