Wednesday, March 09, 2011

What We Need: Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34

This sermon was preached on February 27, and, for whatever reason, I failed to post it. This past Sunday we did a service of Lessons and Hymns on the Sermon on the Mount-- a nice change from T-Fig! And no sermon! A little breathing space before Lent.

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We don’t have work too hard to find examples of worry all around us. We don’t have to work hard at all to find worry nested right inside us! In last Thursday’s New York Times, columnist Gail Collins gave a great example of the kinds of thoughts that are swirling around many Americans’ minds:

Right now concerned citizens are probably asking themselves: What will happen if the federal government shuts down? Also, why is the federal government in danger of shutting down? Whom can I blame for this? Does it have anything to do with what’s going on in Wisconsin? Did Congress pass a budget last year at all? Why not? And does this relate in any way to the report that Christine O’Donnell, the former United States Senate candidate from Delaware, may be joining the next cast of “Dancing With the Stars?” [1]

We can all come up with our own lists… the things we’ve worried about within the past week.

We can start, as the columnist did, with our worries about the national and international scenes: The collective bargaining rights of union employees. Women’s rights, right here at home and around the world. The crisis in Libya, and exactly what our president means by “the full range of options we have to respond to this crisis.” The protesters in Bahrain, and all throughout the suddenly less-stable-than-ever Arab world. The nascent democratization process in Egypt. Global unrest generally. The earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. The growing inequality in the distribution of wealth. Our continuing presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Pakistan.

Then our worries might come closer to home: Our children. Our grandchildren. Our parents. Our grandparents. Our spouses or partners. Our health. Our weight. Our blood pressure. Our vision. The results of that test. How much we spend on groceries. How much sleep we get. Whether that windstorm will blow the attic windows right off the house. Whether we will slip and fall on all that ice out there. Whether we will find a job. Whether that job will pay enough. How long the unemployment benefits will last. The prospect of gas costing $5 a gallon. Whether we can absorb gas at $5 a gallon on a fixed income, or no income. Whether our pension will be there when we need it, or our Social Security check.

And then, there’s the thing churchgoers often find themselves worrying about: the church. Money, always money. Our budget shortfall. The growth of the church. Our responsibilities, as committee members, as volunteers. Our aging infrastructure. Fights, about this or that.

You get the idea. So many things that crowd into our minds. So many worries that can take us for what feels like a long forced march down the primrose path of anxiety. Of course, all worries are not necessarily created equal, though the worry about our own or our loved ones’ health may share equal status with our worry about the state of the nation.

Jesus seems to be worried about worry today. Perhaps “concerned” would be a better word. Our passage begins with a stark warning: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” [Matthew 6:24]. The old King James Version translates that word “Mammon,” and it’s an interesting word. It’s Aramaic, which is Jesus’ native tongue, and it carries a very negative connotation. To call “money” or “wealth” by the name “Mammon” is to do two things. First it is to use the word as a personification… almost as if the money, the wealth, has a personality. As if it were a god. And second, the word “Mammom” could be translated something like “filthy lucre.” You cannot serve both God and that other fake god, Mammom.

Now that Jesus has set the context, he moves on to the real matter at hand: worry. And not just any garden variety worry. Worry about survival. These are the basics he speaks of: Food. Clothing. Shelter. These worries were made very real to me this week as I sat with a dear friend of many years, whose financial situation has become so dire, she is facing the unthinkable. My friend said to me, “We’re going to be living in the car.”

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” ~Matthew 6:25

It’s good to remember who Jesus is talking to here. First, he’s talking to his friends and followers. Remember, these are the ones who have just left their nets and boats and income-producing work and families to follow him around, learning from him, being in the presence of his healing touch. And by now the crowds have gathered around. So Jesus is talking to them, too. And the crowds were made up of, for the most part, the poor. The ancient world was like our world in that the disparity between the richest and the poorest was chasm-like, and ever widening. One writer describes it this way:

75% of the people were merchants, fishermen, artisans, and farmers. Today, these are respected professions—lucrative, in some cases. Then, however, these workers operated at a bare subsistence level. We would call this "third world." The very bottom rung of the social ladder, the "fourth world," accounted for as much as 15% of the people. They were beggars, cripples, prostitutes and criminals who lived off the land outside the cities. [2]

This is Jesus’ audience. These are the people to whom Jesus is saying, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? ” [Matthew 6:26-27]

In some ways, this is an incredibly hard saying. It almost feels as if Jesus is saying “Don’t worry, be happy” to the most vulnerable, those most likely to fall into that chasm, never to emerge. It almost feels as if he is being cavalier about the truly perilous position this 75% finds themselves in, those who, today, are two paychecks away from living in their car, if they have one.

But at the heart of Jesus’ message is something that is truly life-changing, if those who are listening might be able to hear it. At the heart of his message is the love of God for each person, the inherent value and dignity of each individual. “Are you not of value to God?” goes Jesus’ rhetorical question. The answer is, must be, yes.

Church health guru Peter Steinke has made somewhat of a career by talking about anxiety, how it is born, how it grows, how it spreads, and how to manage and even transform it. He has a prescription for managing anxiety and worry. It includes suggestions such as,

“Know your limits.”
“Know your core convictions, values and beliefs.”
“Know where you stand.”
“Know what you would die for.”

But they all amount to one thing: Know who you are. Know who you are.

How does knowing who you are lessen or relieve your anxiety? It helps you to respond thoughtfully rather than react instinctively when frightening events occur. It helps you to take a deep breath when free-floating anxiety is the soup you are swimming in. It helps you to know the kind of person you want to be, even when you don’t know what to do.

For the people in Jesus’ audience “knowing who they were” was tricky. All around them were messages telling them that they were less than nothing, expendable. The Roman Empire had the power to take them as slaves at will. The religious leaders had set things up so that people had to continually fret about whether they were in a state of ritual purity—whether they were good enough, clean enough, human enough to even approach the holiest places. Jesus had life-transforming, anxiety-managing Good News for them: “In the eyes of God, you have value.” And its corollary, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Does this mean a magical replenishment of food supplies or hands filled with cash? No. It certainly doesn’t. But it does mean the ability to face the unacceptable, even the horrifying with the quiet confidence, not that we will be rescued, but that we won’t be alone. I read an article this week by a woman who lost her young daughter to cancer. She was writing about the love of God in the midst of suffering. She wrote, “I wanted Love to look like rescue. But it is Love, when you look at it from a certain angle—the love that is solidarity, understanding and union.” [3] What we need is the knowledge that we are loved, even in the midst of our trauma and desolation. What we need is to serve God, and not our fear.

And the circle is complete, as we return to the first words of Jesus in this passage: “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth.” I would like to suggest that perhaps it would be ok to make the following substitution: You cannot serve both God and fear. You cannot serve both God and worry. If we are serving God we will know that love that stands with us, even when we believe we are alone in the dark. If we are truly seeking God’s reign, we will know that love that has been there before, through the suffering and fear, that love that perfectly gets what we are going through. If we are a part of God’s healing community, we will know that love that tells us we are one of many, one member of the body of Christ. We have what we need: that love that isn’t rescue, but solidarity, understanding and union. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Gail Collins, “Revenge of the Pomeranians,” New York Times Opinions, February 24, 2011.

[2] John Petty, “Lectionary Blogging: Matthew 6:24-34,” Progressive Involvement, February 20, 2011.

[3] Karen Gerstenberger, “Random Thoughts on Religion and Faith,” Gberger, February 19, 2011.


Fran said...

Thanks for posting this - I loved reading it.

karen gerstenberger said...

I love your radically comforting sermon. I will come back to it again. Thank you for posting it.