March 1/2, 2014 — Readings
When I first looked at the readings for today, I couldn’t help but focus on that word “worry,” which we hear Matthew place on the lips of Jesus in this passage that comes in the middle of Matthew’s long Sermon on the Mount. Some scripture commentators refer to this as “The Great Sermon” because it includes so much of what is at the core of Jesus’ message and because it presents Jesus’ teachings in such a straightforward way. So it is in this “Great Sermon” that we hear Jesus tell us not to worry about our lives or any aspect of our lives. We are not to worry about food or drink or clothing, because worrying about these things will, as Jesus suggests, “add not a single moment” to our lives. I think this word, “worry,” grabbed my attention for two reasons. First, it reminded me of that little prayer which comes right after the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that includes the line, “… and protect us from all anxiety.” Worry, after all, is anxiety. It’s that experience in which we get all worked up about one thing or many things and we dwell on difficulties or problems that are either real or imagined. The second reason I was drawn to this word is because I spend much of my time as a therapist working with people who suffer not just from “ordinary worry” – if there can be such a thing – but who are so filled with worry and anxiety that it gets in the way of their ability to function fully in daily life. You may be surprised to know that Anxiety is so prevalent in our culture that in any given year, over 18% of American adults have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. That’s a lot of worry!
Although Matthew places this passage in the middle of The Great Sermon, it wouldn’t be out of place if it came at the Sermon’s beginning. It is in The Great Sermon that we hear Jesus’ teachings about who is truly blessed in the Beatitudes; we hear Jesus call upon his followers to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world”; and, it is in this Sermon that we are challenged by Jesus’ command – not suggestion, but command – to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I suggest, however, that before we can understand true blessedness, or begin to be light and salt for others, and especially before we can allow our hearts to be softened so that we do love our enemies and pray for those who despise us – before we can do any of this we must first ask and answer a basic question. For us and for every Christian that question is the one that Jesus suggests in today’s Gospel passage: Will I live for God or will I live for ‘mammon’?
‘Mammon’ is an Aramaic word and while it does mean money or property, it also more broadly means anything in which I put my trust and in which I find my security. For many ‘mammon’ might actually be money or tangible resources, for others it could mean professional success or accomplishments or reputation or another person or – as we are reminded this weekend as Oscar’s Red Carpet is rolled out in Hollywood – it could even mean my looks and outward appearance.
Now professional success, accomplishments, reputation, relationships and even caring for our physical bodies – these are certainly not bad things nor are they values to be disdained. They can, however – if we let them – distract us from what is most important in our lives – our lives as individuals and our lives as a community of believers. Only when God is valued above every other value will the subordinate but necessary values of food, shelter, livelihood, and human relationships fall into their proper place.
We must never forget that those first persons who heard Jesus preach this and other sermons were probably quite poor. As he taught them about genuine values and priorities in one’s life, they may have heard these in the midst of experiencing want. For some, their poverty may have predisposed them to seek God’s reign with pure, unencumbered hearts. For many more, I suspect, their poverty and desperate need for the essentials of life became obstacles from focusing on God, trying simply to survive in a world and culture that had little room for them and their needs. As I thought about this, I tried to place myself in the shoes of an individual or community who knows first-hand the pangs of hunger or the lack of adequate shelter. I wonder what it would be like today for such a person or community who is hearing these words just as we are, words of Jesus telling me not to worry about the things I don’t have yet sorely need, wondering when God will provide for me enough food to eat and clothes to wear, just as God provides for the birds of the sky and the flowers of the field?
While you and I are hopefully filled with gratitude for the food and drink and clothing and shelter and every other blessing that we do have, what are we to do when we know that others in our world are not so fortunate? In remembering that Jesus calls both poor and rich alike to trust in the love of God and not be consumed with fearful fretting and useless worrying, perhaps we should also remember that the God of Isaiah and the God of Paul and the God of Jesus promises to love us and all creation with a love that goes beyond even the greatest of human loves we can imagine. This God knows the needs of the hungry, the homeless, the addicted, the refugee, and those on the margins of society. This God knows the needs of the aging, the dying, and the victims of injustice, violence, and greed. And so the question, “Will I live for God or will I live for ‘mammon’? remains for us to answer each and every day. If I choose to live for God, what then does this mean not simply for what I believe, but what does it mean for what I do? How will I live for God today? If I do live for God, then how does God’s care for all creation inspire me to similar caring and compassion for others?