Saturday, February 26, 2011

Epiphany 8A (Mtt 6.22-34)

Yesterday it was reported that Christchurch is a city under stress.  With anything up to one third of the buildings in the city centre facing demolition, over a quarter of the city still without power and up to a half of all households without water – with the death toll from last Tuesday’s earthquake at 145 and over 200 still unaccounted for – with residents forced to queue for basic necessities like food and gas for cooking – police have also reported an increase in domestic violence, drunk driving and petty theft.

I wonder if you’ve ever noticed how often, in the Gospels, Jesus says to his disciples, and to us – ‘don’t panic’?  Or ‘don’t be afraid’ ... ‘don’t worry’?  And today ... don’t worry about external things, focus on the things that matter.  God knows the things you need for your life, so don’t fuss.  Just be – just notice the beauty of God’s presence in your life, don’t wallow in the past or worry about the future, just notice the wonder of right now.

It seems St Matthew wrote his Gospel for a Christian community that was fairly comfortably off - like – let’s face it - us.  A community that of course had its share of anxiety and concerns, a community where maybe not everybody was particularly well off, but where – let’s say – everybody expects to eat today and has a bed to sleep in tonight, where everybody has access to clean water and power and medical care and education.  But I do wonder how today’s Gospel reading would be heard in a community that has been traumatised, for example, how are Christians in Christchurch this morning hearing Jesus’ advice to stop worrying and let God provide when they have lost loved ones and livelihoods and large parts of the city are still without water and power, and perhaps there are still human beings awaiting a rescue that might never come?  How would today’s Gospel be heard in Haiti where – more than a year after the earthquake that destroyed a quarter of a million lives, over 800,000 men, women and children are still living in refugee camps and dying from entirely preventable outbreaks of cholera?  Perhaps the message for those of us who – really – do have enough is to redirect our attention to the things that really matter, to be thankful for the ways our needs are provided for and to watch out that we don’t make a religion out of consumerism – getting what we want rather than being content with what we need.  But if that’s the message for us, then what is the message for those who truly don’t have enough – those for whom it seems chronic anxiety and worry is a constant companion?  If that is your situation, then Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel might not be easy to hear.  What does he mean, don’t worry? Life is nothing else except worry.

Actually, it seems to me that at a deeper level the message is exactly the same, for those of us who have enough, and for those who don’t.  Jesus, it seems to me, is saying something about the theory – a common assumption back in the first century and unfortunately not particularly uncommon even today – the theory that if you are doing well, that’s because God loves you, and if you aren’t doing so well, that’s because you’re a sinner, that’s because God isn’t too pleased with you.  And Jesus is saying, don’t make an idol out of externals.  If you have enough for your needs, be content.  If you are living through hard times, that’s not because God doesn’t love you – just look at the wildflowers that do nothing at all and yet are glorious.  Just look at the birds that land on the fence – they don’t fret or worry, they just tweet and carry on like birds and yet they are fed by the hand of God.  Actually the life of a common or garden sparrow is pretty hard, when you come to think of it.  They do keel over and die when there isn’t enough.  They do fall prey to cats and foxes.  But this is a variation on last week’s observation that all living creatures receive their sustenance from God.  The rain falls and the sun rises on sinner and righteous, on rich and poor, and on Kiwis and Aussies alike. 

So Jesus is encouraging his followers to avoid the sort of self-serving logic that equates virtue with success and vice with failure.  He is making a claim that God’s desire for human beings is that we all have enough, rather than using some complex calculus to work out how blessed or cursed we are.  ‘No one can serve two masters,’ he says. We’ve got to decide what our priorities and values are, and if we’re going to follow Jesus, then those priorities and values need to be focused wider than our own self-interest. Jesus is telling us to take a wider perspective than we’re used to.

When we look at it like this, the situation in Christchurch or in Haiti is – well – just as dire.  You can’t make human suffering go away magically by believing the right things.  And it still maybe doesn’t sound like really good news to the person who hasn’t got enough to feed their kids today.  But it does sound like encouragement not to be selfish.  If we have enough we should stop worrying about how to get everything we want and instead learn to think more about how to share with those who don’t have enough.  Clearly the message of today’s Gospel is to remind those of us who have enough that the care of the weakest and most vulnerable is the top priority for God.  And for those who truly don’t have enough – for whom it’s a daily anxiety to work out how to feed and clothe and house ourselves and those we love then – today’s Gospel reading is a reminder that God cares for the whole of creation, for lilies, for little birds and for you as well.

History tells us – doesn’t it? – that God doesn’t prevent disaster.  Not natural disaster, like floods and cyclones and earthquakes that tear through communities and destroy life and livelihoods and hopes.  Not human disaster, like economic meltdowns and unemployment or crime or political violence or war.  These things are a part of history, and part of the landscape of the world we live in, and if Jesus is telling us that God loves all of God’s creatures, even the weak and insignificant or oblivious – then the message for those of us who want to adopt Jesus’ values and priorities seems to be that we need to be part of the solution.  That the care of the weak and insignificant needs to be our priority, too.  And even further than that – Jesus’ message is that whatever happens in the world around us, or in our own lives, we are never alone.  That the God who created us, is with us and loves us.  The God whose love for all living things is revealed in the intricate design of our bodies, the DNA of tiny insignificant creatures like garden snails that is as intricate and as perfectly adapted as the complex structure of the human brain – the cycle of life and death, of rainfall and growth and reproduction that reveals - either, as the atheists claim, a stunning indifference and moral void at the heart of everything, or else God’s personal and loving care of all that God has made.

The Sermon on the Mount – of which today’s reading is a little chunk – is the most subversive document ever written.  It contradicts the values of Empire, and the values of individualism and capitalism and the State-centred values of communism.  It contradicts the self-serving ideologies of racism and sexism.  In different places and different circumstances, it has been banned.  And it’s a set of marching orders for anyone who wants to follow Jesus.  There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world; this was true in Jesus’ century, just as it’s true in ours. Jesus’ teaching in the face of all that is wrong with the world is consistent: have faith, and do something about the bad stuff by putting the priorities of God into practice.

Today’s gospel is part of a larger message, and part of Jesus’ challenge to his hearers and to us: life in the kingdom of God has different values from life in the empire, or life in a profit-based society. Life in the kingdom of God includes the poor, the merciful, those who mourn. Life in the kingdom of God includes our privilege and duty to bear light to the darkest parts of the world, to salt the world with mercy and justice. Today’s gospel, if we don’t hear it in this context, must sound unrealistic to someone who is suffering. In the larger context of this entire teaching, however, Jesus is reminding his followers – and us – of God’s profound love for everything and everyone God has created, and encouraging his followers – us! – to focus on the kingdom of God.

In the context of our everyday lives, it’s easy enough to reassure ourselves that this doesn’t actually apply to us.  We still feel we need to worry about the basics – ‘God knows I’m not doing it easy!’ And as a parish – Church councils worry about budgets and the care of buildings and meeting the Rector’s stipend.  But in the light of the Sermon on the Mount we can’t avoid asking ourselves, ‘how, today, am I serving the kingdom of God?  How am I demonstrating Jesus’ values and priorities that all human beings should know God’s mercy and grace?  Is it really up to me?’