Sunday, February 27, 2011

Seek First...

Jesus doesn't offer investment advice or self-help pop-psychology. He offers a hard choice. I can only hope I've done the text justice.

I am grateful for the work of John Petty of "Progressive Involvement," David Lose of "Working Preacher," and John van de Laar of "Sacresdise" for their work, which figures extensively in this sermon.

Though it is not included here, I am also adapting the "World in Prayer" for the Prayers of the People.

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Thus says the LORD:
In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.
And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

Matthew 6:24-34
“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.
“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? 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? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
”So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

There’s a bumper sticker I saw awhile back that reads, “If you aren’t completely appalled, you aren’t paying attention.”

I don’t really know how long it’s been going on, or where it started, but it seems like our society is bent on having something to be terrified about all the time, and if you aren’t sharing in the horror, you’re apparently misinformed, or, worse, part of “the problem.”

Politicians, TV commentators, and radio talk-show hosts make a very good living by pushing the panic button – health care, immigration, inflation, this crisis, that ideological attack, the other side’s lies about something or the other, it goes on and on.

Never mind that you and I live in one of the most affluent societies in the history of the planet. My friend the Reverend Barbara Vaughn says that we'd rather be scared and confused by those we think know better than trusting our own intelligence. As a result, if the politicians and pundits can get us to worry about taxes, shrinking incomes and rising prices, shortages and uncertainty, they can sway us to think and act and vote the way they want us to, and we go along with it.

But in our Gospel reading today, Jesus says, “Wait. You’re better than that.”

At its core, today’s reading is a question: what, or who, do we place our trust in? Is it God, or is it “stuff?” If this is no small question for you and I, it was an even greater challenge to the people who were listening to Jesus that day on the mountainside.

There were a few very rich people in ancient Israel. At the top were the aristocratic families, many of whom were of Greek or Roman background, who had received their property through military conquest. They made up about two or three percent of the population at most.

Under them were the four or five percent of people who were merely wealthy: the major tax collectors, and those who held high positions with the major landowners. The tax collectors and landowners were agents of political oppression. You can count the priests and scribes in Jerusalem among them. They were not necessarily rich in terms of assets (some were, though), but they lived in palatial splendor. If the tax collectors were political oppressors, the priests and scribes were religious oppressors, so the people caught it from both sides.

Everybody else was poor. A good seventy-five percent of the people were merchants, fishermen, artisans, and farmers. Today, these are respected, often well-paid professions, but back then these workers lived a hand-to-mouth existence, making barely enough to get by, if that.

At the very bottom rung were the fifteen percent who were beggars, cripples, prostitutes and criminals who lived off the land outside the cities. So, rather than feeling challenged when Jesus said “you cannot serve God and wealth,” the people would have been in full agreement. After all, with the various taxes they paid approaching fully half of their already meager income, they regarded their economic superiors as greedy, living high on the hog while so many were near starvation. These wealthy and super-rich rulers were obviously following money and power more than God.

But one doesn’t attempt to serve two masters simply by having an abundance of wealth. Jesus makes six statements in these verses against worrying, and while it’s true that the wealthy felt great anxiety over keeping and enhancing the things they’ve accumulated, it isn’t hard to imagine that the people listening to Jesus that day, the poor and the poorer, had plenty to worry about. Funny thing is, no matter where they were in the economic spectrum, they worried about the same things: security and acquisition.

Soren Kierkegaard once defined anxiety as "the next day." We don't know what will happen "the next day," which creates anxiety this day. If you accumulate enough stuff – food, clothing, money, things – you will be secure against that great unknown that is “tomorrow.” Of course, we soon find out, if we’re paying attention, that there is never “enough.”

So, you see, Jesus isn’t offering a spiritual or doctrinal directive when he says that we cannot serve two masters. He is stating a physical reality, a psychological truth. It isn’t that we shouldn’t serve two masters, or that it would be a really good idea not to serve two masters, or that we should strive to not serve two masters. It’s that we cannot serve two masters, period. We lack the ability.

What Jesus is offering is a chance to reject scarcity and embrace abundance, to leave behind the economics of the world for the economics of God. To serve God is to be in relationship with God, and to live in the Kingdom of God, and the currency of the Kingdom of God – the coin of the realm, if you will – is love.

Love – and especially God's love – cannot be counted, tracked or stockpiled. And when you live in this kind of relationship of love and trust, you've entered into the realm of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of contentment. Suddenly, in this world – Jesus calls it the "kingdom of God" – not worrying actually becomes an option. This world invites us to trust God's faithfulness in the same way that the lilies of the field trust in spring, or a bird trusts the currents of the air it sails upon.

This is the world Jesus invites us into: a world of abundance, generosity, and new life. But it is also a world of fragility, trust, and vulnerability. Lilies and birds, after all, can't defend themselves but must trust God's providence and love.

But let me ask you something: is this “don’t worry” philosophy realistic for everyone in our world today? Can we speak about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air to the people of Libya, to those still digging out of the rubble in Christchurch, New Zealand, or to Uganda’s Invisible Children, or to the millions living in refugee camps across the world? Can we tell a homeless man not to worry, or someone struggling with illness to set their anxiety aside?

I contend that this is why Jesus commands us to strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. I’ve seen the word “righteousness” also translated as “justice,” and for good reason. “Righteousness” sounds as if we are to be seeking personal purity. This is a good idea, and certainly part and parcel of a right relationship with God, but the context of the passage compels us to look beyond the personal.

To seek the Kingdom’s justice is to recognize this fact: There is no lack of wealth, food or resources in our world today. There is only the lack of sharing, connectedness and equitable distribution that would ensure that all people have enough.

Living as servants of God, as residents of the Kingdom of God, requires a shift in our loyalties – from ourselves, our resources, our accumulated treasure, to God, God’s resources and God’s interconnected community. To share, to connect, to distribute. To be the solution. To let the victims of violence and war discover that they can be free because they are surrounded by peacemakers who are protecting and shielding them. To allow the hungry and the homeless to find that they are free because they are welcomed into the hospitality of caring brothers and sisters. To truly care for those who are the least, the lost, the forgotten, the marginalized.

Will it work, this putting the Kingdom of God, and God’s justice for all creation first? Will all of our needs be met as well? I don’t know. Jesus certainly thinks so. And we’ll only find out by trying… so let it begin here.


  1. Hey John, me and my dad are looking at ur sermon. This is the first time he's ever seen a blog. So I thought I'd show him a good one..,but instead, I showed yours! LOL (just kidding!) Be blessed, bro...

  2. Wondered how this turned out. Actually I was reading a couple of Jeremy's and wanted to "follow" him. Don't spend any time on my own site, which other than links on FB & Twitter is where all this good stuff is streaming through. Anyway, glad I jumped on and read it You write pretty darn well when you aren't limited to 140 chars :)


  3. Holy wow. Sorry I was late reading this, but once again, you have given me my weekly rejuvenation. Your heart is beautiful and your sermons are God-filled. I love you. :)