Sunday, March 15, 2015
Text: Matthew 6:19 – 7:12 (The Message)
This week’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount is long and rich. Brian McLaren suggests three major themes from this text and I will follow his lead. The choir had the first word in this exploration, singing about that which we count as treasure and where we store it. The key words that come out of this part of the text hold the affirmation that “wherever your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” This is a simple and challenging statement. The things, ideas, feelings, beliefs, people you value also capture your attention, your energy, your commitment. As Eugene Peterson phrases it, “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” So it’s important to take the time to know and understand what you are storing in your heart. It will determine your heart health and your general well-being.
So Jesus teaches, “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.” There just is not room in a healthy heart for such disparate treasure. You can’t love God and stuff. God always trumps whatever it is you’ve accumulated. It may help to remember that whatever material goods you’ve stored in your treasure chest came from God in the first place. There isn’t anything we prize and collect that doesn’t come originally from the Creator of All.
Remember those first commandments Moses recorded? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:2-5). I think this is what Jesus is reframing in positive terms as he reminds us that we will find our hearts focused on what we treasure. What treasure could be more valuable than the God who made us and loves us with unimaginable love?
Then, “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.”
Isn’t that an arresting turn of phrase – “careless in the care of God”? What, me worry? Can you imagine living that freely? Without a care in the world? Do you hold some precious memories of childhood when we walked the earth carefree? Or perhaps you’ve watched children at play and longed for that degree of freedom. I know this is a pretty romantic notion. We understand that children have their own worries, often as challenging and intense as those of adults. But there are those moments in the lives of children (and maybe even grown-ups, occasionally,) when the wonder and joy of existence overcome every challenge and concern. It could be that this is what Jesus had in mind when he chided his adult disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
“Careless in the care of God.” As Ethel Waters used to sing with such conviction, “Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home, when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, for His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” This is the level of care God offers, if we would just accept it. We really don’t have to be in charge, controlling everything or anything.
I mean “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.”
“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.”
Relax. Chill. Take it easy. Don’t be so caught up in getting that you miss out on all that God is giving. And, friends, what God is giving is beyond amazing! Look at the cover of your bulletin. I started out with a lovely image of lilies since that’s the flower named in the most familiar versions of this text. But when I read Peterson’s paraphrase using wildflowers, my mind went immediately to fields of wildflowers blanketing our California landscape from mountain meadow to blooming deserts. I remember once driving to Los Angeles in the spring time, passing great expanses of poppies and lupine, shining, iridescent in the shimmering sunlight. Could anyone but God create such beauty?
Flowers growing in profligate abundance, running wild and free across the countryside. If God can do that, surely God can take care of our needs. No necessity to cram your closets and cabinets with the latest fashions and beauty aids. Don’t you know you’re surpassingly beautiful just the way God made you? Remember the poster that asserted, “I know I’m somebody special ‘cause God don’t make no junk”? “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions.” Surely that is a prescription for heart health. “Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”
“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.”
So following McLaren in our Words of Preparation, “try telling yourself: My own anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about.” All worry does is add an unnecessary dimension of stress to your life. There is nothing you can fix or change through worry. The price you pay for anxiety is that same heart stress we referenced earlier. If you fill your heart with anxiety, how can it be healthy?
Then there’s judgment. Jesus says, “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.”
It’s probably helpful here that Peterson shifts the image from specks and logs to smudges and sneers. I think the latter image speaks more clearly to you and me in our time and place. Still, I speculated at Bible study on Tuesday that this original image must have elicited a chuckle from the crowd if not an outright belly laugh. What a clever way to put us in our place, our rightful place. Get the log out of your own eye first. Well, who walks around with a log in his eye? Absurd – perhaps – but you get the point while laughing a little at yourself.
However, the notion of wiping the sneer off your face, of eliminating that superior air, of shedding that patronizing stare that withers the other, that’s a different story. That may hit too close to home. As people of privilege it can be a real challenge to take care of our own tendency to judgment before attending to the smudge on somebody else’s face. “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus says and how quickly and quietly they slink away (John 8:7).
For some reason, maybe because it’s a kind of tongue twister, I liked and memorized the King James Version of verses 1 and 2 of chapter 7. “Judge not that ye be not judged for with the judgment ye judge ye shall be judged.” “…with the judgment you judge you will be judged.” It seems to me there is a kind of grand, karmic truth here. “Your chickens will come home to roost.” “You will reap what you sow.” “Your actions will come back to haunt you.” “When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.” How many more clichés and familiar sayings can you think of that contain this truth? More often than not our judgment of another is something we wrestle with, consciously or unconsciously, in our own lives.
Again, with McLaren, “try telling yourself: My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others.” There is no treasure in harboring judgment in the heart (though it seems worthwhile for some.) Such an accumulation will inevitably lead to soul shrinkage and a kind of deadly heart sickness. For who can claim to love God, who is love, while judging, condemning, hating sister or brother? Self-righteous judgment is a terminal ailment. Let go and be healed.
“Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?”
“Here is a simple guideline for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”
How deeply do we believe in grace? How broadly do we trust in God’s care? How thoroughly do we give ourselves over to God’s steadfast love for us? And how does this shape our response to and compassion for others? I know we don’t always get what we want. We can’t always have it our way. There is suffering, pain and death. There are challenges, conflicts and detours as we walk our way through this world. People get in our way or disappoint us or hurt us or betray us. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. There is so much we do not understand and cannot control. Still, Jesus affirms that the God who conceived us in love will always care for us. As the writer of Deuteronomy says, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 37:10) – God’s great arms of love and grace for you and me and all the world.
With McLaren, can you “try telling yourself: My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved”? Truly three times may be extreme but perhaps it takes God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, all three, to convince us that we are indeed loved. If the treasure we store in our hearts is this very love of God, our hearts will be healed and whole. To love God with one’s whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself is treasure enough for this life and all life to come. Amen.