Harrowing Of Hell
July 29, 2012

Self Interest and the Pursuit of the Kingdom of God

Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn
Readings: 2 Samuel 11:1-15, Ephesians 3:14-21, and John 6:1-12

Here are some numbers on what it would cost to save the world’s environment:

Planting trees to reduce flooding and to capture carbon $ 23 b
Protecting topsoil on cropland $ 24 b
Restoring rangelands $ 9 b
Restoring fisheries  $ 13 b
Protecting biological diversity  $ 31 b
Stabilizing water tables $ 10 b

The total cost to save the world’s environment = $110 b

What do you think of that?

These numbers come from a book titled Plan B, 4.0 by Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute.  He is a leading thinker on issues of aid, food and the environment… depending on whom you ask.  Numbers and statistics always seem debatable.  Rarely, do they seem a force for creating a like mind or galvanizing a future direction.

And I wonder why?  Why doesn’t good research and good science serve to answer the world’s environmental problems?  In school we certainly learn that there are right answers and wrong answers. So why doesn’t that play out when dealing with the great issues of our day, particularly issues surrounding the environment.

What does it take to move the needle if statistics and numbers and science can’t?

It seems that even when we agree there is a problem, the devil is in the details and we are incapacitated in finding a common direction for moving forward.

We had this conversation at the Men’s Ministry gathering the other evening.

The program started with these numbers from Lester Brown; some thought they were credible and some weren’t so sure.

Then the conversation moved from the numbers, to questions about human motivation.  Why do some people believe some numbers, and other people believe other numbers?

The clear common consensus that immerged in our group was self-interest.  A person believes the numbers that are in their best interest.  One person (Bob Barnes) was even so bold as to suggest humanity is hardwired to pursue their own self-interest.

And with this I firmly agree.

But it is the question that follows this insight about hardwired self-interest that moves the needle… The question is – “self-interest toward what end?”  “What is the goal?”

Some say it is to collect the most toys.
Some say it is to propagate the most genes.
Some say it is to impact the most lives.
And so are property, progeny and power the goals?
Maybe… One moves the economy. One builds legacy. One inspires action

But is there enough property?
Does the world benefit from more people?
Who makes the decisions about what is best for whom?

Property, progeny and power are good, but as we drill down into the details we find that the self-interests very often collide…

And the floods continue, and the soil erodes, and the rangelands dry up and the fisheries die off, and biological diversity disappears, and the water table goes down.

In the pursuit of self-interest, it seems, no ones self-interest is served.

And so what was God thinking?
What was God thinking when God created us as self-interested beings? The answer may be found in the question- “toward what end?”  “toward what goal?“

King David wasn’t quite sure of his goal, He wasn’t really sure to what ends when he entered into the liaison with Bathsheba.  Bathsheba seemed like a goal worth pursuing, until the little whoopsy.  Bathsheba knew it was in her best interest to let King David know about the pregnancy right away. And so David set a new goal to retain his moral authority and the moral of the troops, by covering his footprints with the footprints of Uriah.  But Uriah saw that it was in his self-interest to stay with his men and honor his king.

And what we have here are colliding self-interests that end in death.  Uriah’s death, to be specific, but later the death of David and Bathsheba’s son.  And beyond that, the death of the house of David, as the pursuit of property, progeny and power lead to its demise.

And so if King David couldn’t move the needle; if the greatest king of Israel the most beloved by God couldn’t save himself then who can save the world?

Now you know how I’m going to answer this question “who can save the world?”

But here is what we often forget… the needle has already moved.  The victory is here, we live in a world conquered by Christ.

And here is the sublime, secret, secondary effect of this conquest: the big issues become smaller when our focus is first on the kingdom of God.  I am reminded of one of my favorite hymns, it goes like this: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, Hallelujah” p. 711 in our Hymnal

That is how John Wesley lived his life… seeking first the kingdom of God.  You know him as the great Anglican priest who became the founder of the Methodist movement.  When Wesley was a student at Oxford he decided that seeking God first was in his best interest.

So he took on the habits that oriented his life towards God.  He made a commitment to daily prayer.  He made a commitment to study scripture.  He developed a pattern for fasting and he honored the Sabbath.  And he set for himself a living stipend of 30 pounds a year which allowed him to comfortably seek first the kingdom of God.

Now the Christian habits of prayer, study, fasting, tithing and worship are habits when too carefully considered or too tightly prescribed can leave us divided and stagnant.  When we drill down into the details, we can stall out in our pursuit of the kingdom of God.  When we ask: What type of prayer should we say every day?  How often do we fast? How much is a tithe?  What is the best way to worship God?

And like with the statistics around environment degradation the devil works his way into the minutia, and gums us up from moving forward.

God doesn’t care how we pray each day… just pray.

God doesn’t care what we fast from or how many days we fast… just fast.

God doesn’t count our tithe, only our blessings… so we set our tithe appropriately.

God doesn’t care the manner by which we praise God on Sunday… just praise God on Sunday.

And if we don’t do all of these things, just do one of these things.  Then maybe try another of these things… and go from one to the next to the next because they have an accumulating effect that changes the world!

Imagine if a bunch of Christians honored the Sabbath every week, each in their own way.  Maybe some honored it with silence and solitude; Maybe others switched off their I-phones, and played chess instead of Nintendo with their children.  Maybe some took long walks and others invited the neighbors over for a BBQ.

Imagine the reduction in the world’s carbon footprint if Christians honored the Sabbath.

What if all Christians fasted occasionally? What if the food they saved or the money they saved on food they didn’t eat was given to the poor? Imagine the impact that would have.

What if Christians spent a bit of time each day in silent prayer?

What if Christians tithed their income?  Imagine what that could mean…There is a church in Southern California with 25,000 members who tithe their income, and their goal is to stamp out AIDS in Africa.

Imagine the secondary effect upon the world if we just lived the Christian lifestyle…It really would serve everyone’s best interest.

John Wesley’s tithe was anything over 30 pounds a year.  By the time he died he had given away 30,000 pounds and was considered one of the largest philanthropists in England.  But philanthropy wasn’t his goal, it was a by-product of a trajectory set toward God.  It was the by-product of a life that sought first the kingdom of God.

Because John Wesley knew what we know as well that God has already moved the needle and we are invited to sing along.