Empty the Vault--David Westerberg wrote this sermon and delivered it at our church in 2004.
John 10-7-10, Mark 11:1-11, November 10, 2013
After preaching two stewardship sermons last month, I was struck when I was on the Nordic trac in my basement a few weeks ago. The word "abundance" kept repeating in my head. Abundance. Abundance. Abundance. I remembered this passage from John's gospel, in which Jesus does not just promise life, but abundant life. I am sure most of you have heard me say, "The message of the gospel is abundance," usually I say this when I'm about to make a second trip through the dessert line. The coincidence of preaching about abundance the day after our Progressive Dinner is not lost on me. "Abundance" made me remember this sermon I am about to deliver. My roommate in seminary, David Westerberg delivered it here about 6 or seven years ago. He found it to his computer and permitted me to use it anyway I think might be helpful.
You have to be alive to win a Nobel Prize. The Nobel committee does not issue prizes to dead people. I know this because about 16 years ago I was working in a church on the South side of Chicago. I used to visit the Johnsons in their modest apartment. They were a lovely couple in their mid 80s. Ken was a retired professor at the Business School at the University of Chicago, and in 1987, he was on the short list of people being considered for the Nobel Prize in Economics. And Ken was very sick. Julia took care of Ken in their home until he died. After Ken died, Julia received a letter from the committee politely inquiring if Ken was still eligible to win a Noble Prize. She regretfully informed them that Ken no longer was. But other news was on the way. The Johnson's lawyer came and told Julia an astonishing thing: Ken had invested steadily and brilliantly for decades and she was rich—very very rich. Until that moment, she had no idea that she was rich—and she was very, very rich. She was also very, very furious, but that's not my point. My point is that she was rich beyond her imagining and yet she didn't have any idea of her vast wealth.
Second story: About a month ago, I was walking in downtown Fort Worth trying to figure out the bus system so that I could see the new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. I was about to board a bus when I was told by the driver that I was at the wrong stop to catch the bus I needed. As I trudged to the proper bus stop, I saw a man working in a parking lot. We were separated by a chain-link fence and razorwire. As I passed he asked, "How are you?"
"Gettin' there; How are you?" I said, not caring.
He said, "I am highly blessed and richly favored."
I said, "Oh right—I'm highly blessed and richly favored, too--I just forget all the time." And I do forget all the time. Oh, for the day when the Good News is no longer "news" to me!
My friends, if you never knew it, or have forgotten: The Kingdom of God is now. Right now. Not later. Now. What's more, God has sent Jesus Christ to be our King. And our King has busted open the Vault of the Kingdom, so that its riches are yours for the taking. A limitless Vault of God's Love and Forgiveness is wide open, and God wants desperately for you to know about it, and to take all you need, all you can hold, and then take some more. No
matter who you are, no matter where you are from, no matter what has happened to you, no matter what you think, no matter what you believe, no matter what you've done: God begs you to come to the Vault and fill your heart. Indeed, God commands us to spend our lives emptying the Vault of its riches. Christians have one mission, and it is this: "Empty the Vault of the Kingdom of God." We empty the vault this way: We come to the vault, warts and all, we fill our hearts with God's Love and Forgiveness and we go forth and pour those riches into every heart we find. Then, we run back to the Vault for more. My friends, this vault is so big and so full, that to empty it, we can ignore no one, leave no heart unfilled. We do have guidance here: Jesus tells us to Love our neighbors, love each other, love our enemies. Indeed, don't even think of your enemies as your "enemies" any more. Think of them as places to stash this stuff. If we're going to empty the Love from the Vault, we are going to need every heart we encounter.
How do we empty the vault of forgiveness? How many times should we forgive? Jesus says seventy-times-seven. And if we are going to empty God's forgiveness out of the Vault, it will take that. We can empty the Vault faster if we all increase our heart's capacity to hold God's riches. How can our hearts hold more? Well, we can make room by getting rid of old stuff that we don't need anymore. We can dump some shame, or bitterness, or hatred. Our hearts can hold more riches if we get rid of old anger, or jealousy, or self-condemnation. Let that stuff go. We don't need it, and we can carry more of God's Love and Forgiveness without it. We may need to let go of a failure, a loss, or a disappointment. Grieve your losses deeply and fully, then let them go, and open your heart again. You may have to drop a grudge that has long been important. Drop it. It's over. You have far more important stuff with which to fill the holes in your heart. And, frankly, we need the room. Invite everyone you know to the Vault. Tell them that no matter what they have heard, the Vault is open to all. They may not believe you.
Historically the Church has struggled with the radical fact of living in a Kingdom with an open Vault. It is difficult to grasp. And people have quite naturally argued about the idea and some have sought advantage from the confusion surrounding it. For example, much of Church history is riddled with petty arguments about whether, indeed, the Vault is open and for whom it is open. You know what this sounds like: "Well, NO, the Vault is NOT open, but I have a key." And, "Yes, the Vault is open—but just for me and mine." And, "Yes, the Vault is open, but only if you know what to say." And, "Yes, the Vault is open, but the admission tickets are expensive." And, "Yes, the Vault is open, but it's dangerous. I'll need to go in there with you." And, "Yes, the Vault is open, but only men can say so." Made-up rules abound, and very few of them help us empty the Vault, as God commands. But the history of the Church also shows that while some argue about rules, we are preceded by millions of people who spent their lives steadily emptying the Vault. Through even the darkest times of schism and war, innumerable creative, humble, strong people have made countless trips to the Vault, tirelessly emptying it. These people are among us still. The best of them inspire us to be like them, to take their risks, to create new ways of absorbing and spreading the Love and Forgiveness of God.
I think that we as a church struggle with the very idea that the Vault is open because we, as individuals, have such trouble imagining that God could love and forgive us. We would actually rather that God ignore us or even punish and all our missteps and faults. Imagine: it's easier for many of us to accept God's wrath than it is to believe we are that we are forgivable and forgiven, that we are lovable and loved. Without thinking, we compartmentalize our lives: family, work, God, recreation. We line God up next to other important responsibilities that we promise we will tend to in turn, that we will strive to improve for, that we will take care of soon. We are stuck on the strange idea of making ourselves good enough for God—God who already overlooks our shortcomings and insecurities, and who loves and forgives us as we are.
We continually live as though God will only love us when we are "better." And we play the mental trick of promising to love God more when we are "better," when we figure out how to do that "correctly." In short, we behave as though we need to straighten up our "spiritual house" before the company comes. But, my friends, God isn't the company. God is the House. And, God is already delighted that you are Home, where you belong. The Vault is open. The Kingdom is now. You are Loved and Forgiven. Empty the Vault. The only rule of the vault is that you cannot shove anyone into the Vault. We meet people all the time who, like us, need God's love and forgiveness. We can see it immediately. We meet people who are broken, and hurt, and hungry. We know that the treasures of the Vault will restore them. They may even know that God's love and forgiveness is what they need. These folks may even be standing outside the Vault looking in. They see love and forgiveness go to others, but never them. And, it is tempting to coerce, shove, or drag these people into the Vault. Anybody ever done that? I have. What happens? Well, they don't stay long, and, in fact, most people you shove in, run out. FAST. And they don't carry much when they go. Who can blame them? Instead of shoving, when you meet people who need God's love, bring God's love to them. Meet them where they are. Give them the Love that was given to you, but in a way they can understand, just as God's Love is given to you in a way you can understand. Fill up your heart in the Vault so that God's Love can color and flavor and scent your life. God loves everyone you know and meet, just as God loves you. Show everybody that. No act is more difficult than helping people know they are loved, when they are convinced that they are not loved. And, no act is more revolutionary than offering the treasure of God's love to people who hate you.
Likewise, when you meet people who need forgiveness, Say "You're forgiven. It's over. It's done. It's a new day." But also: live forgiveness to them, show them they are forgiven. Let God's forgiveness flow from you, just as freely as it flows to you.
Give it away. Give it ALL away. Be generous. In the Mark lesson today, notice the strange and wonderful generosity of the event. It is the Procession of a King—our King—created by an out-pouring of love by a ragtag band of folks like us, with a stray colt, some clothes, some branches, and a song. There is a beautiful dignity and joy to their simple procession. These people are full of love, and hope, and so love and hope flows out of them. Their King has come! And they are ready for a new day. And these strangers proclaim and affirm their hope and love as an act of gratitude to God and as a ministry to each other. It's beautiful. I believe that they ministered to Jesus as well. Just a few verses earlier he reminds the disciples: "For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Jesus knew that his time in Jerusalem would be rough. The people around him thought he would be a king as they knew kings. I believe he knew otherwise. But their joy and love must have moved him. Maybe they didn't understand what he was doing. But they were pouring forth the love that was poured into them. And Jesus must have found that heartening.
We don't always need to know what we are doing. In fact, I guarantee that you will never know fully how effectively you minister to those around you. Never. You have done things in your life that you have forgotten, that mattered enormously to total strangers, lifted them, changed them. And has a total stranger ever lifted you, zapped you back to some better place? I'm sure of it. That man told me I am highly blessed and richly favored. We empty the Vault by helping all people see they are Loved and Forgiven. Believe it. Know it. Say it with your words, and your eyes, and your tone of voice, and your actions. Empty the Vault. Take all the Love and Forgiveness you can hold—then take some more—and let it slosh from you like warm water from a full bucket. Let it radiate from you like heat and light from embers, like music from a violin.
No one will ever empty the Vault perfectly or constantly. Don't worry about it. We will have episodes of great success, and periods of indifference, struggle and failure. I can look back on my life and see some times of amazing vault-emptying. There are times I really get it, times when I have the strength of one of those moms you read about who can suddenly lift a car to save a kid. I can empty the vault with the best of them, on a good day. And there are times, heading to or from the Vault, I've been distracted, fallen off task; I forgot what I was supposed to be doing. I hope I did some good then, but if I did, it wasn't because I was trying. Still other times, I see myself stomping around like a big three-year old, certain I could do everything by my "big self". "What Vault??
Vault. It's rubbish. I'm in this for myself. You are, too. Leave me alone. I have work to do." Then, at those times, it happens: I'll be absorbed in some problem or other, and I see someone come running at me, saying "Dave, Dave....I know you're really busy—tediously wallowing in self-pity—and I'm sure that what you are doing is really important and fascinating—but since you're not using your heart—can I stash some of God's Love and Forgiveness there? We're trying to empty this Vault, and it's really full. . . Thanks!! Bye." And the next thing you know...I've got the strength of one of those moms who can lift a car off a kid. I understand again that my mission is to empty the Vault. And I'm off. I long for the day when the Good News is no longer news to me. But as I say, it's still news to me often. There may be other ways into the Vault besides the door Jesus opened. There may be other Vaults, for all we know. But our lives as Christians can be thought of in terms of our relationship to this open door and this amazing Vault. In Baptism, we thank God for more hearts to help empty it. At communion, we thank God for opening the Vault for the likes of us. Faith is the desire to go to the Vault at all.
And, all sermons have basically the same message. I know that you know this well, because you preach it well: "Welcome to the Vault of the Kingdom of God. Jesus Christ has fixed opened the door of the Vault forever. The Riches of God's Kingdom are yours. And nothing can ever keep you out. Fill your heart to bursting with God's Love and Forgiveness. Take all you need and then take some more, and then take some more. And then, take even more than that. Go forth, and let God's riches flow from you. Fill every heart you meet with the riches of this Kingdom, and hurry back to fill yourself again!! Let us empty the Vault together! May you have the strength of one of those moms who can lift a car off a kid!! 'Til the floor of the Vault is bare. 'Til the Good News is news no more!! Amen!"