Friday, May 23, 2008

2 Pentecost (Proper 3): 25 May 2008
(Isaiah 49:8-16a/Psalm 131/1 Corinthians 4:1-5/Matthew 6:24-34)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

By any measure, what we do when we take up this ancient text and gather around it each week is a bit odd, even radical. There is a rhythm to our actions, like the rhythm of the Eucharist. As the bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given, so too is the text. It is taken, blessed, opened, and read. If we are not careful, though, the text does the same to us: It takes us, blesses us, breaks us, and gives us away to one another and to the world. Taken and blessed is one thing; broken and given away is quite another.[1]

Before we take up the text, we start with prayer, as well we should, because what we hold in our hands is dangerous, a living thing that often wounds before it heals. So we pray,

Almighty God, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today, and, having heard, we may fully obey him who came and is to come, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We acknowledge before God and our neighbors that we are closed-hearted and dimwitted and deaf to God’s word unless the Holy Spirit breaks open our hearts and enlightens our minds. We seek God’s blessing on the act of reading the Scriptures – what you do – and on proclaiming the Word – what I do – both essential acts. And notice that it is the Scriptures that we read and proclaim: not the latest Christian self-help book, not modern psychology or sociology, not the Christian theme of some popular film or television series, and – God forbid – not the preacher’s ideas of how to live a happy, successful life. We are not free to deal with any of these until we first have read and proclaimed the hard, true word of Scripture. We say in our prayer that this Word is God’s Word to us and for us, and that our attitude toward it should be one of joy. And we commit ourselves to obey fully what we have read and proclaimed. We don’t read mainly to understand; we read to stand under the text in obedience to it.

As William Willimon points out, none of us is really worthy to take up this text, to read it and hear it, to proclaim it. This “good book” requires a good people, better than we are, better than any who gather around it. I know it requires a better preacher than me. My only consolation lies in the story of Balaam. God showed Balaam that he can speak through the mouth of an ass; each week I show that God still can if he so chooses. No, we’re not worthy of this ancient text: not really able to hear it and certainly not able to fully obey it. But here’s the mystery of the Word of God: God’s word has power to create what it speaks. The constant refrain of the creation story is “and God said, and it was so, and it was good.” God’s word calls worlds into being. And God’s written word – read by his people, proclaimed by his pastors – has the power to call into being a people worthy of the reading and the proclamation, a people who can obey, with joy, what God has to say. We read and proclaim not because we are worthy, but so that, through the reading and the proclamation, the living Word may make us worthy – worthy to hear it and able to live it.

God’s word to us today is – I started to say simple, but I’ll say direct instead: You must choose. There are two ways: one leads to life, one to death.[2] You must choose. There are two masters: God our Creator, the giver of all good and perfect gifts, or Mammon, the demonic spirit of greed and avarice. You must choose. You cannot travel both paths. You cannot serve both masters. You must choose.

19 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rustm consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Mt 6:19-21).

This is the part of the text that the lectionary leaves out today, the part that tells what our choices really are: treasures on earth or treasures in heaven. I can understand the desire to leave it out. It is a part I don’t want to hear and it is certainly a part I’m not worthy to preach. This text doesn’t say what I want it to. Here’s how I would re-write it.

Do not just store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where recession and inflation, rising food and gas prices, incompetent politicians and greedy corporations devour your hard earned savings; but be sure also to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, beyond the reach of those who would use you for their own gain. Keep your feet on the earth and your heart in heaven.

That’s much better. I’ve eliminated the need to choose; it is not either-or, but both-and: a little treasure on earth, a little treasure in heaven. But that is not the text. You remember a story Jesus told.

‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God’ (Luke 12:16b-21).

This story starts with the man already rich: The land of a certain rich man produced abundantly. The old saying is true in this parable: the rich get richer. His land produced abundantly and he faces the dilemma of what to do with all his goods and wealth. What do you think? What should he do? To make the right choice, what should he do? What would you do?

There is a reasonable – even virtuous – solution, isn’t there? Fill the existing barns – which will obviously supply all the rich man’s needs for another year – and give the surplus to the poor. Reasonable, yes; but, whatever made us think that Jesus is reasonable? Ours is a both-and solution: feet on earth, hearts in heaven. Jesus says choose. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, he says. You cannot serve God and Mammon, he says. Where your treasure is there will your heart be also, he says. Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me, he says. How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, he says. Choose, he says.

So, woe to you Donald Trump and Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, you captains of business and finance; you’ve made your choice. Woe to you Exxon-Mobile and British Petroleum and all you oil profiteers; you’ve made your choice. Woe to you generals of Myanmar who steal relief aid from your people. Woe to you World Bank and first world countries who keep the third world crushed with debt. Woe to you Disney, who squeezes every drop of profit out of child stars and then discards them on the garbage heap of sex, drugs, and ruined lives. Woe to you. Woe to all of you. You’ve made your choice.

Wrong. Just wrong. Who am I to judge these people and institutions? This text is God’s word to me and to you. Let God deal with them. It is not my place to stand outside this text and use it to judge others. It is my place to stand under it and let it judge me, to let it ask me the hard questions about my choices and my heart. Choose, this text tells me, and I don’t want to. I am not worthy of this text. It is not a comfortable word for those of us who waffle between earth and heaven. In our consumer society we fool ourselves into believing we want choice when what we really want is to keep all options open, and not to make a choice.

Choose, Jesus says again: God or Mammon. There are a couple of ways to choose Mammon over God. One is simply to take the route of acquisition like the rich man whose land produced abundantly. That is the conspicuous choice and we try to avoid that. The more subtle choice of Mammon is found in the second part of our text.

25 ‘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? 26Look 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? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But 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? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Mt 6:25-33).

If I sell everything I have, give it to the poor to follow Jesus, and then am consumed by worry over what I’ll eat or drink or wear, I’m still in the grips of Mammon; I’ve still chosen Mammon over God. While my hands may be free of the “stuff,” my heart isn’t. My treasure is still with Mammon, and my heart is there with my treasure. And this really cuts right to the heart of the matter. Wealth is all about trust. Surely, I’m not the only one who finds it ironic that our money says In God We Trust. Our society doesn’t trust in God. It trusts in money and the huge military that money funds. And when I tell you that I don’t worry about what I will eat or drink or wear, it’s not because I trust God so completely. It’s because I’ve used the money in which I trust to fill the refrigerator and cabinets, the closets and dressers. Even at that I begin to feel insecure when gas approaches $4.00 per gallon, when my utility bill increases by $100 each month, when the price of food has doubled in the last few months, when I think about car insurance and college expenses and wedding expenses and retirement. “O you of little faith,” Jesus said to his disciples in another context. He might as well have said it to me.

I’m not worthy of this text and certainly not worthy to proclaim it. I don’t know many people who are. But here’s the mystery of the Word of God: God’s word has power to create what it speaks. The constant refrain of the creation story is “and God said, and it was so, and it was good.” God’s word calls worlds into being. And God’s written word – read by his people, proclaimed by his pastors – has the power to call into being a people worthy of the reading and the proclamation, a people who can obey, with joy, what God has to say. We read and proclaim not because we are worthy, but so that, through the reading and the proclamation, the living Word may make us worthy – worthy to hear it and able to live it.

When Jesus calls us to choose God over Mammon and trust over false security, he is not speaking that word primarily to you or to me as individuals. Through the word, he is calling into being the kingdom of God, describing life in that kingdom, and inviting us to take our place there. Imagine a kingdom in which there are no poor because all God’s gifts are held in common. Imagine a kingdom in which no one need worry about food and clothing and shelter because all are family and all share from least to greatest. Jesus didn’t tell us to strive not to worry; You try hard now – don’t worry. He told us to strive first for the kingdom of God, for in that kingdom there is simply no need to hoard and no need to worry. Do that – first strive for the kingdom of God – and then all the rest will be added to you. The order is everything.

So here we have it, God’s word to us and for us today. I wish I were worthy of this text. I wish I could do more with it for you – either explain it away or say, “Look at me. Here’s what it means to live the text.” But I can’t. This is God’s word to us. “Choose,” Jesus says, “God or Mammon, trust or worry.” “I can’t; I’m not ready yet,” I reply. “Well then,” Jesus says, “take up the text, open it, read it, proclaim it. The word will yet have its way with you. I will yet create a people worthy to hear this word and able to live it.”


[1] Robert Benson. Living Prayer.
[2] Didache 1.

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