Monday, February 28, 2011

Seek We First

Sermon for 2.27.11
Psalm 131; Isaiah 49:8-16a; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

Please pray with me: May my words and the responses of each of our hearts bring us closer to You, our God, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning's Epistle: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries.”

We are a consumer society, no doubt about it. Enough plastic water bottles last year, in the US alone, to go around the earth 190 times. To say nothing of all our discarded microwaves and refrigerators. We're running out of land fills. And then there are people who try very hard not to contribute to this. Take me. I always wanted a nice big house that would have room for anything I need to save: nice old hand knit sweaters that no longer fit, extra supplies for school and camp projects, pretty saucers that have lost their matching cups! An attic stuffed with things I'll probably just have to add to that landfill some day.

And then along comes Matthew's lesson for this morning. Last week we were being told to love our enemies. Not necessarily live with them, but forgive them. But this week we're being told to trust God. Full-time. Of course we love God and God loves us. Isaiah and Psalm 131promise that God loves us intimately, even more faithfully than a mother loves her newborn. But then—why do we worry so much? Why are we so anxious and why are we constantly making projections, financial and otherwise?

We may be a consumer society because we are an anxious society. I squirrel away all that stuff in part because I want to be sure it's there should I need it. It's my form of security. It's also my attempt at control. Control over any future emergency that might leave me in want. In bigger ways too, we feel that what we own—or are in the process of paying for or paying insurance or taxes for—provides security and freedom from anxiety. “I'll always have my house. I'll always have my land.” And yet these very things can be the source of anxiety, of the burden we carry. Hoping to use them as bulwarks against tomorrow, we try “to drive out care with care.”1 Keeping up with the standards of our community is even more burdensome.

Jesus is so smart. He understood our need—certainly mine—for comfort and pride and knowing what's ahead. He realized our need to believe in our own achievements. He also knew that so much of what we think we're building is a mirage. A mirage that looks like the real thing until we get closer—and then it shimmers into nothing. Jesus remembered that the manna found by the children of Israel spoiled if they tried to save it for the next day. And he understood that any number of things can turn our lives upside down.

And so he tells us in this passage not to idolize the rewards of this life, not to fuss “about what's on the table” or whether our clothes are the latest fashion. “There is far more to your life,” he says, “than the food you put into your stomach, more to your outer appearance then the clothes you hang on your body.... Don't worry about missing out” (The Message). More profoundly, Jesus tells us not to worry if we face real lack. Our heavenly father knows our needs and is far more powerful than we are. “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now,” Jesus says. “God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (The Message).

This is a pretty tall order for faith. For our basic well-being, do we trust what our Bibles call Mammon or the wealth of the world for which we labor, or do we trust God? This brings me back to our bottles encircling the globe, even if they can be reused and even though water is very good for us. Are we running our lives by what everyone else does, even if this endangers the planet? Or are we striving to live more simply so that others—including creatures unlike us and plants—can simply live? Are we trying not to turn wants into needs? I remember the reaction of a young teen, returning to her parents' home after a mission trip to a small village in Honduras. At 4 am, she was walking around the house saying, “Too much stuff. Too much stuff.”

The faith-based trust that is being called upon in Matthew is not irresponsible. Jesus is not preaching an easy prosperity gospel: Seek ye first the kingdom of God and everything will fall into your lap now. Nor is Jesus suggesting that if we can work, we should neglect it. We have a bounden duty to care for ourselves and our loved ones to the best of our abilities. But we need to remember that these are distinct and subordinate concerns to our real work.2 “Before we start taking thought for our life, our food and clothing, our work and families, we must seek the righteousness of Christ.” 3

Making a commitment, even to a job, is tricky. That job, together with its rewards and anxieties about doing even better, can become a trap for our hearts or our lives. It can also drive us into the Little Red Hen Syndrome: “Well,” said the little Red Hen, “I'll do it myself.” And she did.

But in truth, we are not in charge, and to think this way is to dethrone God. That is why service to God and service to the world are incompatible. Upstanding, reasonable, church-going people that we are, we would so like to honor both: the God whom we love and the good things of this life. We'd like to think that we are building the kingdom when we are working for our families and our bread and our houses. And those are important things. But as sources of real security, they can compete with God. Unless we know who the real big boss is; unless we are first focused on our Creator above all else; unless we are first seeking our Redeemer's and our Sustainer's righteousness with a single and focused vision, there's going to be a tug of war. That will raise a barrier between us and God.

The call “not to be anxious for tomorrow” is not just an upbeat saying decorated with bluebirds and blossoms. Nor is Jesus giving us directions that we cannot follow. He is not mocking those who literally are in danger of starving. He is reminding us that desire, even need, for food and clothing is not the same as desire, even need, for the Kingdom of God. He is asking us to consider seriously what the joys of a kingdom of peace and justice might be. And to consider how we might bring that kingdom closer. Jesus is telling us of God's hopes for God's people: “Desire first and foremost God's kingdom and God's righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Common English Bible translation).

Jesus is urging us towards such desire with our hearts and minds and deeds. This is what we must seek first. First thing in the morning. A cup of coffee or tea is allowed, but then a real time of prayer before the news or the weather or our emails. Before we are much distracted by many things. Before what we consider our “real” day starts. And this isn't an excuse to put off work. This is spiritual discipline and it is our real work: seeking first!

There is something more wonderful for us than anxiety about the world and its pulls. Paul tells the Corinthians to think of themselves as “stewards of God's mysteries.” Stewards are managers who watch over and have access to the wealth and resources of a community. They are subordinates who must be trustworthy and who will be judged if they are not.

As good stewards, we can together rejoice in the shared life of the body of Christ, shaped by our obedience to his gospel and to God. The hidden wisdom of God—God's mysteries—will not always be discernible and will not always be delivered quickly or on demand. But God's wisdom will guide our lives and our community as we understand ourselves, each one of us, as God's special creations, and as we place ourselves fully under God's cherishing care.

Let us pray: Dear Lord of our hearts, may you be the one with whom we start each day. May you be the one in whom we rest no matter what our other tasks. With the bread that we need for today, feed us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. Give us the grace to find You at the very center of our lives. Amen.

I would like to express gratitude for continuing conversations with Brother James Michael Dowd of Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY.