Monday, February 28, 2011

Sermon for Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, "Enough for Today"

Sermon 2/27/11
Matthew 6:24-34

Enough for Today


            Like our text from a few weeks ago, about being the salt of the earth and light of the world, today’s gospel lesson comes from the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve skipped ahead a bit, but this passage, like that one, comes from a huge chunk of Jesus’ teaching; these three chapters of Matthew that contain the Sermon could alone consume our time as we interpret and are challenged to live in the way that Jesus sets out for us. This passage is probably familiar to you. It’s a passage we characterize as being about “worry,” although there’s certainly a lot packed into this text. In this chapter, Jesus has just talked about giving alms, praying, and fasting, followed up by saying that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And then Jesus starts with today’s passage. Let me read it to you again from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
24"You can't worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you'll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can't worship God and Money both.
25-26"If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.
27-29"Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.
30-33"If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. 34"Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes."
Every time I come back and study this passage, I first think: How can Jesus say not to worry? Not only do I find it difficult not to worry myself, but how can you tell people who are hungry – truly hungry – not to worry about what they will eat? And how can you tell people who are poor and without not to worry about clothing? Telling people who have experienced true hunger, true fear about shelter and clothing that God will take care of things when their day-to-day life says otherwise – that’s a pretty hard sell. But, but – we always have to take what Jesus says in the context he says it in to understand what he means – and I think Jesus means something different than easy platitudes. Jesus is tying his words back to his opening comments in this passage today about having more than one master. We can tell this because of how this section about not worrying starts. In our New Revised Standard Version bibles, we just get “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.” But the original Greek is even more specific. It says, “Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So the whole section reads: “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. Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So, in context, what does this passage mean for us?
            We’ve been talking about my goals for this year in ministry. One of my goals for us as a congregation this year is, as my covenant states, to “find ways to help [us] understand how stewardship relates to our relationship with God.” Our finance team has talked a lot about this, about what our hopes are for the congregation and how we can work together to educate about what stewardship is, what God calls us to do, about why and how we give and what our giving really does. One of my sincere hopes for us is that we can start talking about stewardship all year – and by this I don’t mean that I want us to feel strained all year by stress and worry about our finances. I mean quite the opposite, actually. What I mean is that I want stewardship, giving, to be such a core principle of who we are together, that we do it regularly all year, are stewards all year round. I find it distracting, in the midst of the season of Advent and Christmas at the end of the year, to be worrying deeply, to be stressed and absorbed with wondering whether or not we will be able to pay our own bills, when I would rather we be focused on, joyfully awaiting the birth of the Christ-child, and seeking out ways to offer gifts to others in need. I’m sure none of you would miss an end-of-the-year focus on paying bills. But to enable that to happen, we need a year-round deeper understanding of stewardship and giving.
            Sometimes we get ourselves all mixed up about giving, and then we’re confused by why our giving is always accompanied by stress and anxiety as a congregation. I think our text from Matthew suggests that we’re letting the wrong things drive us. For example – when we give out of worry or fear or stress – we’re probably on the wrong track. When we want to “get new members” in the congregation because we’re hoping they might contribute and help us meet the budget – well, that’s not exactly the good news that I think Jesus had in mind us sharing, the motivation which will really help us inspire other to be part of this body of Christ. When our mission and ministry has to be determined by our budget, instead of our budget being determined by where we see God calling us into mission and ministry, we’re in trouble. I know it isn’t just as easy as saying that our giving shouldn’t be laced with stress and worry. But we have to start somewhere, make a beginning. Just recently, we managed, in spite of the odds, to completely meet the budget we set out for ourselves last year. We didn’t think we could do it. But we did – and we did it with the gifts and graces that God has given to us – from our own resources, our own strength as a congregation. And we need to celebrate that. It’s hard for us to celebrate when we’re so used to being stressed and worried – I had to remind our finance team to take a moment to be proud of the hard work they’d done. But we should rejoice and give thanks for how God can work among us and with us and through us when we work together and open ourselves to God.
            I’ve been giving challenges to you, to me, each week, for our year ahead. Two weeks ago, I challenged you to invite and bring someone to worship with you in the year ahead, and to encourage that person to become involved in our congregation. Last week, I challenged us to become involved in a hands-on, face-to-face mission, or to go deeper in our efforts in a program we’re already involved in.
            This week’s challenge is harder or easier, depending on how you look at it. I thought about a lot of different challenges I could give related to stewardship. Members of my first church told me how one year, they were challenged to tithe for a month, and then, if they really found that they couldn’t or didn’t want to give that tithe, their money was refunded. A particular couple told me they tried it, and found it doable, and had been tithing ever since. That could be a challenge! But that’s not our challenge. Not now. That’s not what I think we need first. Here’s the challenge. Easy or hard. Every time you give to the church this year, or give to God through some mission or charity that serves in mission and ministry, I want you to stop and focus on giving from a place of thanksgiving and joy. Give because you give thanks to God. And give because of the joy that you get from giving. Maybe that seems like an easy challenge – it’s about a state of mind, an attitude. But, I think it’s harder, because it isn’t something you can just check off the list. You can’t just mark it as “done.” It’s ongoing – I want you to really think, every time you give, about giving from a place of thanksgiving and joy. I think, I suspect, I believe that if we truly start giving with joy in our hearts and thanksgiving on our lips, we will be on our way to transforming stewardship in this congregation.
             ‘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? But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Amen.  
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