Sermon for Second Sunday before Lent High Mass Sunday 19 February 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Genesis 1.1-2.3; Psalm 136.1-9; Romans 8.18-25; Matthew 6.25.34
“Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear.”
“Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”
I have been listening to this gospel and puzzling over it for as long as I can remember; having heard it read in both church and school in my childhood. It sat awkwardly and uncomfortably with what I heard of the experience of parents and grandparents and neighbours in a working class community in the North East of England. These were people who had lived through the depression and unemployment of the 1930’s, and then wartime and post-war austerity. While the establishment of the welfare state and increasing prosperity had made their lives more comfortable and secure, the narrow line between prosperity and poverty was not easily forgotten; even when Mr. Harold Macmillan told them they “had never had it so good.”
Those who belonged to what was known as the “respectable working class” certainly believed in taking “thought for the morrow.” They were hard-working and thrifty, prudent and temperate. Visits to the pub and the bookies were frowned upon. There were those in our world who did live as if there were no tomorrow; not because they believed in the providence of God. Perhaps in reaction to hard and sometimes dangerous work they chose to drown their sorrows or chance it all on a bet, or just blow the lot: “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” was their motto. All too often it was their wives and children who had to live with the consequences.
Even those who are too young to have had such an experience, even at second hand as I did, now find themselves in an age of financial insecurity. The effects of globalisation, new technology making old skills obsolete, and an economic crash brought on by the recklessness of financial institutions which instead of encouraging financial responsibility encouraged people to pile up debts they could not pay, have all left many feeling economically insecure. And if this is how we feel in a still affluent society, imagine what things must be like for those who live in real poverty.
Against this background Jesus’ teaching sounded then like something we just could not afford to take seriously; and it does not sound any more realistic now. So what are we to make of this beautiful yet apparently impractical passage?
It might have been better if our Gospel had started a verse earlier with: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
“Mammon” is an Aramaic word meaning “money” or “possessions.” It is left untranslated into the Greek of the New Testament so that it appears more clearly as a false god, as an idol, a rival to God’s claims to our allegiance.
In our materialistic civilization we should be well aware of the bewitching power of money and possessions. But the acquisitiveness, the dependence on possessions for status and self-satisfaction we are constantly schooled in by the advertising industry, so that it is part of the air we breathe, means that we lack the critical distance to see it clearly for what it is. We may say that we have chosen to serve God and not mammon, but in daily life it is often mammon which sets our priorities and determines our choices.
We would like to be more generous to the poor, but cannot because we need so much for ourselves. We would like to be more charitable in the future, but just now there are too many calls on our resources.
In reality, our attitude is often: “Render to mammon the things that are mammon’s and to God the things that are God’s.” So God gets an hour or so on Sunday. Mammon gets the rest of the week.
And we know that in reality not all birds are adequately fed and not all lilies reach their fullest beauty. Droughts and other catastrophes cut short their lives as well as those of human beings who trust in God. Those who seek first the kingdom of God do not always find that the necessities of life are added to them. How unwise it is to counsel, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow,” when with careful planning we might avoid the worst effects of drought and plague.
Our passage lodges in the mind not just because of its challenging message but also because it sounds more like poetry than prose. So we need to pay attention to the way poetry works. It does not give a once-and-for-all answer to questions. We need to hear and re-hear it over and again if we are to explore its meaning and if we are to hear its challenge to us.
So, when we read Jesus’ words as poetry rather than prose, “The birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field” are not models to be imitated but symbols of God’s providential care which draw our attention away from the frantic pursuit of the necessities of life to a clearer vision of God’s bountiful care in the natural world.
They direct us to the marvelous interdependence of the countless life forms in creation. They call us to reconsider the relationship which binds us to other living things. In our frenzy to provide ourselves with so much in excess of our basic needs, our economics and technology have got out of touch with the needs of our environment. God’s care for the birds and flowers is undone by our pesticides and pollution. An appreciation of divine providence reflected in the balance of nature can help us to amend our ways.
Jesus may have been addressing these words not only to disciples who had left everything to follow him, who made themselves poor for the sake of the kingdom of God, but also the involuntary poor. Like the birds, the poor did not sow or gather into barns but were dependent on uncertain wages as day labourers and on charity; or in our day, zero hours contracts and food banks. He assures the poor that in God’s sight they are of more value than birds and flowers, whose life exhibits God’s continuing care, Yet how is God’s care for the poor to be experienced? Not by manna from heaven but through human actions. The affluent who have no need to be concerned about daily needs, are summoned to identify with those who must and to seek the ways of making real God’s bias for the poor.
Jesus’ words lodge in our minds to challenge us again and again: “Which god do we serve? because, make no mistake, we will serve one god or the other. The idolatry of mammon can make us either spendthrift – as we waste money needlessly and recklessly to comfort ourselves, seeking to bolster our self-image or status with the latest must-have designer product or fashion item- a quest doomed to failure because it can never be satisfied – or grasping, hard-hearted and miserly as we desperately cling to our possessions as the only god in which we trust. The accumulation which we think is enriching our lives is in reality impoverishing them.
In a little while, bread and wine, symbols both of the gifts of God and the fruits of our labour, will be brought to the altar; bread the symbol of the food and resources we share or keep to ourselves; wine the symbol of joy but also of suffering. In thanksgiving, we offer back to God the gifts we have received from his bounty. We offer them to be blessed as the pledges of eternal life. We offer with them all of creation that it may truly be cared for, shared and enjoyed as God’s gift to all. We offer with them our money, not as just as a payment for religious services rendered, so that the Vicar will still be hear next week, the heat and light on, the organ playing and the choir singing, as we might pay for a night out at the cinema or theatre or for some service we need, but as a reminder and pledge that all that we have is first and last a gift from God and to be used in accordance with his kingdom and his righteousness.
The challenge to seek first that kingdom and his righteousness which, as saints down the ages have found, can free us both for a generosity and a responsibility with possessions which casts of the chains of mammon with its profligacy and greed.