SJF • Epiphany 8a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
I’m not sure about you, but as far as I’m concerned that doesn’t have quite the ring of, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” But whatever the translation, old or new, authorized by King James or revised in the late 20th century, the sentiment is as clear as day, and what a sentiment it is! On this eighth Sunday after the Epiphany we come to the end of our readings in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. It really does end on an up-beat doesn’t it?
But let us not mistake the upbeat quality of this passage. It is not merely the cheery optimism of a Bobby McFaren sort of world where we can all just sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Let us not mistake it for the kind of blind optimism displayed in Voltaire’s book and Bernstein’s musical Candide — in which the principal characters keep on smiling through plague, kidnap, pirates, mayhem and murder because they believe themselves to inhabit the best of all possible worlds! It is not blind optimism we are called to, but a careful and perceptive seeking after what is of true worth, a careful and persistent seeking and striving for God — and God’s righteousness. It is in that holy quest that we will find all things added unto us.
There is much more to Jesus’ teaching in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount than looking on the sunny side of the street or letting a smile be your umbrella! No, my friends, this teaching is about a life based on what is important, focused on the right goal, and leading to the right end, under the grace of God: to strive, as we saw in last week’s gospel passage, after God’s perfection and holiness.
+ + +
So let’s follow that advice, and take a closer look, and start at the beginning. Jesus begins by warning us of the impossibility of serving God and wealth. Notice he says, “serve.” How many people who seek after wealth find themselves serving their wealth rather than enjoying it or benefitting from it. I have to say I feel a bit like that in relation to my computer: in principle it is supposed to work for me, to help me do my work, but there are times that I feel like I am serving it. I carefully protect it from viruses and spam, I patiently wait for it to install its never-ending stream of updates and patches letting it complete its work so that I can actually get to some of my work!
So when it comes to the things of this world, including money, the question, “Whom do you serve?” is a good one to ask — it is a good reminder that money exists to serve us as a medium of exchange, and we are to employ it, and not to be employed by it — or worse, be enslaved by it.
Jesus follows this up with a “therefore” — always an important word when looking to implications — since we are obviously called to serve God rather than wealth, therefore we are not to become worried — about our life or food or drink, or what we will wear. If we serve God, God will provide for his servants.
Think of what happens to people who spend their whole life thinking or talking about nothing but food or clothing — apart from the fact that it’s really boring! — are they any better off in the end than those who simply wear what is suitable and comfortable and eat what is set before them?
Jesus offers a startling pair of images: the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. The birds are not farmers, nor do they store up a supply of food. (It’s a good thing Jesus didn’t have squirrels on his mind, or Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ant!) Birds don’t store things up; they eat what they can find day by day, whether its an early bird catching the worm or a flock o pigeons pecking up birdseed on the sidewalk, or geese carefully trimming the grass on the Bronx River Parkway. Jesus reminds us that God provides for them — and don’t we mean more to God than birds do?
And look at the flowers in all their glory of their color and finery — I mean it: check out the Bronx Botanical Garden some time if you want to see some spectacular beauty — for none of which did the flowers do a lick of work. If God provides such beauty to clothe things that live for a few days or weeks, how much more will he clothe and adorn us — we of little faith!
And so, again, therefore: do not worry about what you are going to eat or what you are going to drink or what you are going to wear. These are the things the Gentiles spend all their time worrying about — and by “Gentiles” Jesus really means people who don’t know God. These are the people not just of little faith but of no faith at all because they worship idols and false gods that are no gods: the literal idols of stone or metal, or the more insidious idols of wealth and fame and glamour — the junk food of the soul. They are far from God and God’s righteousness because they do not seek God or God’s kingdom; they seek only to grab what they can and fill their bellies with what they can amass.
But you — that’s us — do not strive for, do not seek, these things, Jesus assures us. God knows well enough that we need food and clothing; and God will provide. Strive for and seek God and the righteousness of God and all the rest will be thrown in.
+ + +
C S Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, once made a sound observation. He said that if you study world history, that study will show “that Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought the most about the next.... It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they become ineffective in this one. Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
That last bit may be a little too strongly worded — Lewis wasn’t known to his friends as “Bluff Jack” for nothing! and he was known to be plain-spoken and direct — but this little saying does sit well with the teaching of Jesus concerning where we should focus our attention, and what we should strive for and seek. Remember that Jesus also said, What does it profit one to gain the whole world if he loses his soul? We are called to aim high — to aim for heaven, as Lewis said. Even in earthly things, doesn’t it make sense to aim high? To let your reach exceed your grasp? To aim beyond, and to seek the higher things?
+ + +
On this last Sunday in Black History Month I want to share a story that Jesse Jackson told some years ago. It was in an article in The New Yorker (2.10.92) as he reminisced about his first day in sixth grade. His teacher was Miss Shelton, and she began the class by turning to the blackboard and writing these long words on it, words the children in that class didn’t understand and had never even heard of before. The kids all looked around and started whispering to each other, “She got the wrong class. She thinks we the eighth grade class!” Soon enough somebody in the class got the courage to yell out, “Uh, Miss Shelton. Those are eighth-grade words. We only the sixth grade here.”
Miss Shelton stopped writing and turned around. She peered over the top of her eyeglasses and surveyed the room with a keen eye. “I know what grade you are,” she said. “I work here. And you will learn every one of these words, and a lot more like them, before this year is over. I will not teach down to you. One of you little brats just might be mayor or governor, or even president, one day, and I’m going to make sure you’ll be ready!” And she turned back to the blackboard and went right on writing those long scary words.
That moment, that wonderful moment, started something in Jesse Jackson’s heart. To think that one of the children in that classroom, one of his classmates, maybe even himself, might be mayor, or governor, or even president one day — when in that town at that time there wasn’t a single African-American even on the school board.
+ + +
God challenges us, he gives challenging words to us, through Christ. He will not teach down to us. All through the sermon on the mount he has taught and sought to bring us up to him, up to his standards and his vision and his call for each and every one of us. He will speak to us sometimes of words we do not understand, of things we do not know. But he knows us, beloved, he knows each and every one of us. He knows we are worth more than many sparrows, worth more than all the botanical gardens in the world. And he calls us, each and every one of us, to seek his kingdom and his righteousness, putting our trust in him. He knows that one of us little brats might be mayor, or governor, or even president one day. And more than that, he knows that one day we will be with him where he is and live with him for ever. Aim for that, my friends, aim for that.+